Jul 11 2019

Farewell, Westfjords

Published by under Travel

Friday, July 5, 2019

What the Icelandic woman said to me turned out to be true: all you have to do to board Air Iceland Direct from Ísafjörður to Reykjavík is say your name so they can check you off a list. No ticket, no ID, no showing up much in advance. The prop jet (about ten rows long) got us into Reykjavík in only half an hour. Fortunately we flew into the little airport right near downtown, as opposed to the international one 45 minutes away in Keflavík.

Someone I Don’t Know Getting off Our De Havilland Bombardier Dash 8

On landing, Molly spent twenty minutes researching things to do nearby, to pass time till we could check into our AirBnB at 1:00, a few hours hence. We stowed our luggage (Molly hoisting my seemingly rock-filled suitcase to shoulder level to reach the locker) so that we didn’t have to, uh, lug it.

The minute I stepped out of the little airport and onto the street, I had a sinking feeling. I had neglected to prepare mentally for the shift from remote, wild beauty to crowded city. If I knew magic, I would have transported myself back to the Westfjords in a nanosecond.

We ended up walking 1.2 kilometers to the Nordic House, a public library designed by reportedly “acclaimed Finnish modernist architect” Alvar Aalto, born in 1898, died in 1976. There were two aspects that I thought were particularly cool:

  • A children’s reading “grotto” with Moomintrolls painted on the walls and small wooden structures (such as a miniature Viking ship) that kids can clamber onto for reading. There’s shelf upon shelf of colorful children’s books in a bunch of Nordic languages (seven, according to Nordic House website)—but for some reason, not in Icelandic!
  • The artotek, a lending library of framed artwork: big and little prints, mostly modern, abstract interpretations of scenery, faces and other things, often in black-and-white (which I guess goes with everything.) A member can check out up to three works for up three months. What a fabulous idea.

Adjacent to the library areas and a concert hall, there’s a highly rated restaurant, AALTO Bistro, where we had American-sized servings of plaice and yellow roasted beet root (the latter were not my friends).

This is what the Nordic House website has to say about the restaurant:

For years, the renowned chef Sveinn Kjartansson has been showing viewers of Icelandic television how to make the most of the country’s natural food sources, especially its impressive range of seafood. Now, visitors to AALTO Bistro in the Nordic House can sample for themselves the work of this creative chef, in the form of delicious and delightful fresh lunch specials and during the day.

Speaking of Sveinn Kjartansson, I learned something interesting about Icelandic given names. There is a registry of approved first names, and, should you have a baby in want of label, you have to choose from this list of established monikers. (Monikers, because I didn’t want to use the word name three times in one paragraph, you see.) That, or you have to petition the Icelandic Naming Committee (established in 1991) for approval. According to Wikipedia:

A new name is considered for its compatibility with Icelandic tradition and for the likelihood that it might cause the bearer embarrassment. Under Article 5 of the Personal Names Act, names must be compatible with Icelandic grammar (in which all nouns, including proper names, have grammatical gender and change their forms in an orderly fashion according to the language’s case system). Names must also contain only letters occurring in the Icelandic alphabet, and with only occasional exceptions, a name’s grammatical gender previously had to match the sex of the person bearing the name.


And also, did you know that in the Icelandic phone book, everyone is listed by first name, and that it’s the accepted practice to call people by their first names: students talking to teachers, patients to doctors, employees to bosses?

So anyway, we walked back to the airport, apparently looking like locals, because an Icelander stopped his car to ask us for directions. Even in the U.S. a sane person doesn’t ask the likes of me for directions. Molly smiled, shook her head apologetically, and said two words: Sorry, English.

We caught a cab from the airport to our lodging with a driver who was only the second person I’ve encountered who doesn’t speak English. People here typically speak at least three or so languages. In addition to Icelandic and English, they learn another Nordic language in school.

Our silent, surly driver took two one-way streets the wrong way to get us to our destination. We arrived half an hour early so we hauled our suitcases across the street to a park in front of the only Catholic church in town (Landakotskirkja, also known as Kristskirkja) where we wrote in our travel journals for a bit.

We’re staying in the district of Reykjavík called City Center 101, near several embassies. It’s a ten-minute walk to the heart of the town. After figuring out how to open the complicated door lock to our AirBnB and dumping our burdens inside, we headed there. Molly led the way along the scenic route without benefit of Google Maps, remembering something about where she was, having visited two years ago. We got to the main drag, an experience that underscored my unhappiness at being in an urban environment: shoving crowds of people that we had to weave assertively through. Rudeness, aggression, impatience. The marked friendliness of the west is not in evidence on the streets of Reykjavík, whose name, by the way, means Bay of Smoke.

There were two places Molly wanted me to see, and we made it to both of them, she feeling her way along mostly by instinct, with the occasional glance at the iPhone.

There was the gy-matic Lutheran church, Hallgrímskirkja, in the center of the city, the iconic landmark that dominates the landscape. (The majority of Icelanders are Lutheran.)

For eight dollars each (1000 króna), we had the privilege of riding a small elevator up about eight floors and climb one more flight for panoramic 360° views of Reykjavík.

I saw these words on a building and was impressed: Mennta-og menningarmálaráduneytid. Oh, lookee here. It looks to be Iceland’s Ministry of Education, Science and Culture.

The other place Molly wanted me to see was Harpa, a modern, glassy concert hall toward the center of town.

We returned to our studio to recuperate from the seething masses of humanity. We have dinner reservations for the next two nights, which we’ll need because of the local crowds. On Molly’s iPhone we perused dozens—nay, scores—of restaurant options. Some places served things like minke whale, puffin… and horse. I sipped the beer I bought yesterday and realized with horror that I’d accidentally gotten a porter. The only good thing was its name: Myrkvi, which means Darkness caused by a fog, storm, or the like.

We left myrkvi behind us in Ísafjörður, and here encountered sun and higher temperatures. It must be in the 50s today. And while it never seemed to get dark while we were in the northwest, tonight the sun is supposed to set in Reykjavík at 11:50, and then to rise at 3:16.

Off to dinner at Gott, which advertises fresh ingredients and all-homemade sauces. For the second time today, I had catch-of-the-day. This time, it was salmon.

Back home at around 9:30 p.m., I posed a question to Molly: is there anything we can do that gets us out of Reykjavík for the day tomorrow? Because I’m sure ready to be someplace else, especially involving nature. I looked into a couple things online but got overwhelmed. Molly took over the research, fingers flying across her cellphone’s tiny keyboard. She considered the “Inside the Volcano” tour, a hike up to a dormant crater at whose top you get lowered 400 feet down into the bowels via metal platform. We opted instead to do the most touristy thing in Iceland: The Golden Circle. We refused to ride on one of those huge tourists buses, so we looked for the smaller van tours. All the smallest ones were booked, and in the end we grabbed the last two seats on a van holding nineteen, run by a well-reviewed company with the unfortunate name of NiceTravel.

To bed at 11:00 to be ready for an early-ish start.

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Jul 11 2019

The Birds

Published by under Travel

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Did you know that “Iceland” in Icelandic is “Ísland”?

At 8:00 sharp this morning when they opened, Molly was in communication with Wild Westfjords, the leader of our canceled trip, hoping to find an alternative activity for the day. They offered another hike, this one with less elevation gain but double the distance. Since Molly had been seeking cliffs, and I, something easy, we opted instead for a three-hour trip to the small island of Vigur half an hour from the Ísafjörður harbor.

Our Café, Name of “Heimabyggð”

Coffee and muesli in the café beneath our apartment (and the use of their functioning potty).

Wandered around town, first to the three-story Maritime Museum down by the water.

It featured all kinds of life-in-Iceland exhibits: a stuffed polar bear, squid and fish hooks, an old diving suit, stacks of salted dry cod (it lasts forever) and explanations of flora and fauna in the region.

Then we walked back down the main street to the Museum of Everyday Life, with several oral history themes, including the stories of immigrants to Iceland and life in the Westfjords over the past 50 or so years. One display was of various shoes on a wall, each with an audio track that explained where the boots and high heels and sneakers and sandals had been. On another wall were mounted a number of old books in Icelandic. On the inside cover of each was pasted a photograph, and on the following page, a story associated with the picture, first in Icelandic and then English.

We also watched a 20-minute documentary that included a section about the commercialization and marketing of the northern lights in Iceland, something I’d never thought about.

On our walk, we bumped into Gunnar, the host of our AirBnB, who had a toilet update for us: a part was being brought in from Reykjavík on the evening flight. So maybe we’d have a working toilet before we check out tomorrow.

At 1:30 we made our way to the pier to board the boat for Vigur (meaning spear, for its long, narrow shape). The only thing on the privately owned island is a single farm inhabited by just two people (the farmer and his wife) where until recently they raised sheep. Now their livelihood is gathering and processing eiderdown (and of course, these tourist visits also help), which is lucrative but time-intensive. In springtime after their eggs have hatched, the eider duck plucks down from its own chest and lines the nest with it, to keep the babies warm. Once a week the farmer gathers a small amount of down, leaving enough to keep the chicks safe and cozy. Then, once the young’uns are big enough, the birds abandon the nest forever, leaving the farmer free to grab the rest of the down. And then the preparation is arduous, involving many steps of cleaning and refining, and is done in small batches.

View of the Farm

We met our group, about twenty of us, at the dock and crammed into a motorboat that just barely fit us all, cozily. Though it was windy and rainy (and cold and heavily misty), the ride across the Ísafjarðardjúp Bay was only a little bumpy. We sat next to a couple from Melbourne who had had better luck than we at Hornstrandir, having just done a three-day trek through there. The Westfjords receives only ten percent of Iceland’s visitors because of its remoteness and wildness, and thus seems to attract people who are far more adventuresome and agreeable than on the main tourist circuits.

We first looked at a quaint little windmill that I didn’t get a picture of, because I was struggling to put a rain cover on my backpack (it started to rain heavily as soon as we stepped off the boat) and the group had moved on by the time I succeeded. Also, I was being dive-bombed by Arctic terns. You see, we were passing through their nesting grounds (where we could see a few of their tiny, fluffy mottled brown chicks staggering their tiny way through the tall grass). They’re aggressive birds to begin with, but in this place during the season for rearing their young, they’re downright pugnacious. Or is bellicose the better word? Our guide, Lisa, advised us each to pick up a red-tipped wooden stick, to carry as a decoy above our heads so that the birds would peck it and not us. It worked for most people. Me? Twice I got nailed by a sharp beak to my bean. It was creepy to see scores of angry birds circling and diving and squawking, reminiscent of course of Hitchcock.

That reminds me: on our drive through the west, we kept encountering this orange road sign:

I interpreted it as Watch out! You’re about to be dive-bombed. In fact, it translates to Warning: low-flying birds.

Anyway… around the corner, lo and behold, we saw a bunch of puffins!! I had wanted to put on my close-up lens, but again, the other travelers didn’t stop long enough for me to do so. I do get frustrated on tours because I’m not able to manage my own time.

Wait: I’ll zoom in on this. Here ya go:

Puffins don’t have hollow bones like other birds. They’re such fat, heavy little things that they have to beat their wings extra-fast to stay aloft. They nest in holes in the ground, creating a separate one as their potty. If you look carefully at this next picture, you can see the nesting holes in the grassy hillside. Puffins mate for life, and always return to their same nests year after year during their twenty-year lifespan.

At the end of our circumnavigation of the island, we stopped at a big dining room near the farmhouse for cheese, bread, sweets and coffee. We sat next to a friendly couple from Reykjavík who told us that if we wanted to see what Icelanders were really like, we should soak at one of the geothermally heated swimming pools in the capitol: a popular activity for natives.

On the return boat ride, we were joined by yet another fun couple, the woman a political science professor from Queens who was a riot. Half an hour later, at about 5:15, we came ashore and walked over to the Dokkan microbrewery near the docks, but it was too crowded. So we went to the nearby Vínbúðin to buy a couple beers, this time the third microbrew I’ve tried: Einstök Icelandic Arctic Pale Ale. Perfectly acceptable.

For our last act, we got to Tjöruhúsið in time for our 7:00 reservation. It’s a popular restaurant (we couldn’t get in last night) by the water that serves a set menu of half a dozen kinds of daily-caught fish. It’s family-style seating so, as earlier in the day, we hung with some fun people, three of whom had been on the boat with us. There was another guy from Melbourne, a German, a Norwegian-Icelander, a couple of Americans who lived in Scotland, and us.

The restaurant served fish soup to start, and then fish stew (cream sauce), halibut, trout, plaice, cod, char, and salad and potatoes. By the way, I won’t eat halibut, ever since I saw a parasite wiggle its white-wormy way out of a piece that I was cubing several years back. When I took the hunk of fish back to the butcher, he assured me that this wasn’t an anomaly; halibut’s often like that. I’ve heard it’s because they’re bottom-feeders but that could be oh-so-wrong.

Returned to our apartment at 10:00 p.m. to find the toilet working, though I didn’t quite trust it. Packed up for tomorrow morning’s flight. Our taxi is due here at 8:15 for a 9:00 flight. I’ve been assured that’s ample time.

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Jul 10 2019

Fjörður and Foss

Published by under Travel

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Before we bade farewell to the Hotel Látrabjarg’s Joél and Karl at 10:00, we struggled to decide whether or not we were going to make the trip to the bird cliffs after all, before veering north for Ísafjörður (“ice fjord”). The weather was foul, with rain, fog and powerful winds. The famous puffins would probably not be visible. We began to drive along the gravel road, Molly again at the wheel. It wasn’t until we reached the junction for Látrabjarg that we opted to give it a miss. We had gone way out of our way to get to that region—and spent a ton on an extra-expensive car with enough clearance for that road. Strange how things unfold. I didn’t mind, and a little part of me must have been relieved as well. Molly took the disappointment completely in stride, as is her wont.

She drove through steady rain and what must have been gale-force winds up and down mountains—nearly treeless, past patches of snow, lakes, streams, falls, sheep, and lupines—and alongside misty fjords.

I’d hoped for clearer weather for the sake of my photographs, but there was also a certain subdued beauty to what we got. We followed steep, narrow, slick-muddy, curvy roads with precipitous drop-offs. No problems, though.

Today we didn’t do our recent ritual of visiting scattered villages and exploring scenic places, but instead passed right by interesting fishing towns like Þingeyri and Flateyri. The weather was bad enough, and our upcoming drive long enough, that we pushed on. We stopped only when we encountered a rare pullout spot along the road, so we could take pictures. There’s a yellow sticker on the passenger-side door that warns one to hold on tight to the handle when getting in or out, because otherwise the door might snap right off in a gust.

I said we made no stops, but there was one exception. We took the short detour to the Dynjandi waterfall, the biggest in the Westfjords. It actually consists of seven distinct falls, each named things like Hríðsvaðsfoss, Hæstahjallafoss, and Strompgljúfrafoss. My pictures came out awful and flat because the light was terrible (and I’m not a clever enough photographer to know how to overcome that). But, as my mother might say, The pictures give an effect.

When I saw Molly on the edge of this precipice (maybe higher than it looks), I controlled myself and didn’t say any of the words of warning that tried desperately to escape my lips. Instead, I turned and walked away. When she caught up with me, I suggested she give me the car keys. You know, just in case.

[Photo by Molly]

We continued over the mountain on Road 60.

And then Road 60 reached the dramatic fjord called Dýrafjörður.

Forget the road to Látrabjarg; far and away the scariest part of the drive has been the Vestfirðir Tunnel, which we entered about 15 kilometers before we got to Ísafjörður. It came up on us suddenly. The road just vanished into a hole in the cliff. Well and good, until I realized that a) it was six kilometers long, b) it was very very dark, with glare off the windshield so I kept getting disoriented (luckily as just a passenger), and c) it was one lane for two-way traffic. We were charging along at 50 or so kilometers per hour and, up ahead in the darkness, we’d see a set of headlights coming toward us. I couldn’t tell if they were tucked into the side of the tunnel in a pullover, or if they were charging right at us as though in a game of chicken. Molly had asked me to take a video of it, so I, white-knuckled, obliged. Without realizing it, afterward I didn’t turn my camera off, so you can hear the whole thing: my running commentary as I entered this chamber of horror. Luckily, people pulled into ill-lit, car-sized recesses to let us pass.

The experience put to the test my promise not to be a back-seat-driving butthead. I succeeded. In a a calm voice that belied my true emotion, my commentary ran thus:

  • This is creepy.
  • Glad I’m not doing it.
  • This is really awful.
  • Whoops.
  • I’m glad I’m not driving.
  • It’s so hard to see.
  • Uh oh… you’re a little close to the wall. Excuse me.
  • Good job.

Molly, fortunately, was unconcerned and competent as she navigated through the bowels of the earth. At one point, there was an underground T-junction leading off to a place called Sudereyri.

We arrived at 3:20 at our slightly funky, very homey little apartment above a café in the central part of little Ísafjörður, where we each got to have our own separate rooms, enabling Molly to be free of my snoring and early morning wakings. Our quarters weren’t quite ready for us when we arrived, so the owners comped us a coffee as we waited till 4:00.

We attempted to return our big old mud-encrusted car to the little airport, but there was a distinct lack of Avis attendant. So, on their instruction, we left the car parked by the tourist information office and deposited the key with the woman at the desk.

Our apartment was right in the center of the small town, on the main street at Aðalstræti 22.

View from AirBnB Window

The first thing I did on arrival was to use to the loo. The toilet immediately broke. It wouldn’t flush, and it ran steadily. It was still misbehaving when we walked along the harbor toward our dinner restaurant, Húsið, where we both had a delicious, creamy fish soup (with cod and shrimp, and allegedly lobster not in evidence).

Let me tell you about tomorrow’s plan. For seven months we’ve had a reservation for a hike that the guides call “moderate” but I call “brutal”: a climb of 537 meters (1,762 feet) from the boat to the top of what may be the highest cliff in Iceland, where Arctic foxes roam, and back down the other side. Once you get going, there’s no turning back. The adventure begins with a boat ride out the fjord and into the ocean (Greenland Sea?), and around a point called “Hornstrandir.” For six months I’ve been preparing for it: hiking with Molly and with friends, and making weekly treks up Marin Avenue, the steep street by my house that climbs 922 feet in 1.8 miles. Eventually I bumped up my walks to twice a week. Thirty-one times since the first of the year have I trudged up the boring, tiring route, plugged into audio books, most recently Jane Eyre. All in preparation for this one hike.

So guess what? While we were eating our soup, Molly got a text from the tour operator: trip canceled. Weather. The seas were too rough for us to cross without severe nausea. Not to mention the wailing winds and steady drizzle and omnipresent fog while ascending and descending the cliffs.

When we got back to our lodging around 10:00, we found the toilet still broken, pouring with water at an apparent rate of several gallons a minute. The woman in the café said something about people being too rough on the flusher, but I’d barely touched the thing. The latest word from our proprietor: the plumber was confounded by the problem and needs a part that can’t be procured in the Westfjords. Instead they’ll bring up a bucket, presumably (I hope) to use for sloshing water into the toilet for a manual flush. And we can use the bathroom of the café downstairs until 11:30 tonight and after 8:00 tomorrow. But what about my usual nocturnal visits to the loo?

To compensate for our WC deficiency, our AirBnB host offered us a free drink at the café. It was, of course, bright and sunny out, so I didn’t realize it was 11:00 p.m., with only half an hour of bathroom access left. Oh well. I tried an Ísafjörður microbrew called Dokkan Brugghús IPA, and Molly sampled an apple cider, as we enjoyed listening to Icelandic conversation all around us. Molly has taken to answering questions in the affirmative with a “Já!” (pronounced “yow”), so that one can barely distinguish her from a local.

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