Fire, Ice and Trolls, Part 3

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Map from Pirate and Traveler

Decades ago, when my brother and I were kids, there was a board game we played called “Pirate and Traveler“.  The fact I still remember it today says something, that it stimulated a desire to travel the world, and a curiosity about foreign lands.  One of the destinations one could travel to in this game, was the city of Reykjavik, on a tiny island between Greenland and the British Isles.  We, my brother and I, always got a kick out of trying to get to Reykjavik, and figure out how to pronounce it.  No one we knew seemed to know, nor had they been there.

Today, Reykjavik is a hot destination.  Tourism has become the number one industry in Iceland, outpacing fishing and manufacturing since 2010.  As documented in this report from 2015:  “Iceland and the Trials of 21st Century Tourism” the concern is now that the numbers of tourists visiting Iceland today is having enormous and perhaps negative societal and ecological impacts.  Mentioned in the report is that Airbnb has been a major part of Iceland’s ability to accommodate so many tourists.  While the whole country has 350,000 people, most of whom live in Reykjavik, the annual tourist visits today are three times that, and growing.  The hotel industry is growing, but without Airbnb, Iceland could never house all those people.

This has been good for Iceland.  In the great crash of 2008, Iceland suffered as if a volcano had blown and destroyed the nation.  Due to extremely poor, and in many cases criminal, mismanagement of the private banks and their debt, the country fell into an economic crisis from which they are slowly but steadily crawling out.

What is Reykjavik like today?  It is an incredibly modern, forward thinking and ecologically conscious city.  While we flew into the airport at Keflavik, the main international airport for Iceland and near Reykjavik, we spent no time in the city until the last two days of our trip.  We drove back from Vík í Mýrdal through Selfoss, and then up a long steady climb through a mountain pass.  The scenery changed from grasses and moss-covered lava, to snow, very white and glistening snow in all directions.  We were on our way to visit the Hellisheiði Power Station, a geothermal power and hot water generator situated over an active volcanic ridge.  Thirty wells, 2000-3000 meters deep, extract steam from fissures in the rock, which provides steam to generate electricity and also hot water which is used to heat homes and businesses, and even some sidewalks in Reykjavik.  The superheated water is carried by high-tech pipes to the city and distributed by smaller pipes.  This and one other similar plant provide all of Reykjavik’s needs.  They are justifiably proud of their facility, and provide self-guided tours of the plant, with large diagrams and explanations of the complex operation.

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Entrance to Hellisheði Geothermal Power Station

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steam separators at the power station

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Steam driven turbines producing electricity.

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Display of minerals found around the power station.

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Icelanders have a sense of fun.

Moving on.  We drove on to Reykjavik and found our way to our hotel.  We stayed at the Fosshotel Reykjavik.  Here’s the address:  Þórunnartún 1 – Höfðatorg, Reykjavik.  I added that just so you can see how challenging Icelandic can be.  The hotel was wonderful.  The room was very comfortable, and we had a view of the bay.  The bathroom had a heated floor, due to the piped in hot water from the power station we just visited.  A feast of a breakfast was included, and it was beautifully presented.  There was a very good automatic coffee machine so one could get one’s choice of coffee style.  There was also an excellent beer bar with a happy hour which served many local craft brews, which turned out to be delicious.  We were within walking distance of the main shopping and dining street, Laugavegur.  For our brief stay in the city, we chose to visit the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition, and the Reykjavik Maritime Museum.  The National Museum had many items to explore, particularly from the geological and anthropological perspective.  This includes bones of an ancient Viking skeleton and  a rather complex loom demonstrating how early settlers made cloth.  One very interesting exhibit from my perspective, was an analysis of the DNA of Icelanders.  A company called deCODE Genetics in Iceland, once independent but now owned by Amgen, has taken DNA samples from 160,000 Icelanders.  What makes this study unique, and very valuable, is that most Icelanders can date their ancestry to settlers from the earliest groups to populate Iceland, from 870 to about 1100 AD.  Not only that, but genealogical records in Iceland are very complete.  So, with a large database of DNA, and ways to compare with family and medical histories, there is an ideal combination of family information needed to understand the DNA results.  One fascinating finding in one of the studies shows the origin of Icelanders, with about 80% of the men having Norse genes, and about 63% of Icelandic women of Celtic origin.  One may interpret that as one chooses, but those are the numbers.  The museum had much else to offer, of Viking artifacts, furniture, and explanations of the geology of this singular island, and one could spend hours there.   We also visited the Settlement Exhibition, which is a museum housed around the ruins of an ancient Viking longhouse, discovered in Reykjavik in 2001, and inhabited from about 930-1000 AD.  The exhibit is part of the Reykjavik City Museum, but housed separately.  The theme of this museum is 871+/- 2.  One of the peculiarities of Iceland is that dates of settlements and major changes over the centuries can be related to tephra, which is ash layer that falls from volcanic eruptions.  Around 871, with a 2 year plus or minus range, a large eruption produced enough tephra to cover much of Iceland, and part of the wall of this exhibit was covered with tephra from 871.  It was very interesting to walk around the longhouse, examining the old walls and artifacts.

Restaurants in Reykjavik tend to be expensive.  A mid-price restaurant will run 3,000 to 6,000 Krónur, or about $30-$60 per person, not including drinks.  We chose a nice place called Apotek, a very forward thinking, creative restaurant with an Argentine chef.  Our dinner was excellent, and I can highly recommend this place.

On our second day in Reykjavik, we headed to the Maritime Museum.  While not on the top lists of museums in this city, and a bit on the edge of town, it turned out we learned a great deal here and considered the effort to find it very worthwhile.  It is all about the fishing industry in Iceland, from the early days of fishing for cod from simple rowed boats, with hand lines, to modern techniques of enormous fishing vessels which process fish as it is hauled aboard by giant trawler nets pulled in by diesel engines.  We learned of the Cod Wars, which took place over the late 1950’s to 1976.  These were confrontations between the United Kingdom and Iceland over fishing rights, involving warships in addition to fishing vessels, and resulted in the expansion of Iceland’s fishing rights to a 200 mile zone.  They are very complicated struggles, which involved NATO, African Nations, Russia and Europe, and even led to political science studies, as well as a report by Henry Kissinger.  Follow the link if you are curious.

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A stately house in Reykjavik.

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Wandering about Reykjavik on a chilly but sunny day in March.

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Fishing is still very important in Iceland, and from the looks of it, it hasn’t gotten easy.

This is supposed to be stories about running, given the name of my blog.  After strolling about, admiring the structural integrity of the houses and other buildings in this city, meant to stand up to vicious weather, grabbing a bite in a public park at a fast food kiosk, watching young children running about, we realized we needed to get back to our car to feed the meter.  Hence, the first of my runs in Iceland.  My friend and co-traveler Michael and I had worked this out.  Should we need to get back to the car before the meter expired, I would hand off my backpack to Michael and run to where we had parked, so to feed the meter.  Well, the moment came, and I did exactly that,  I think it was about 1.5 km, but it was a run.  I made it to the car in time, no meter maids were in the area, and I was able to get my credit card out, work the machine, get the slip to put on the dash, and protect us from what would surely have been a hassle from our car rental company.  I met up with my wife and friends, and we headed back to the hotel for a nice beer at the beer bar.  Later, we went out for another restaurant experience.  This was not quite as nice as the first night, in a place with loud music and tight seating.  I’ll not warn you away from this restaurant, but there are many excellent restaurants in Reykjavik from which to choose.

Our last morning before leaving, it was snowing lightly and a bit windy.  We took a walk along the bay, on a path built for strolling, running, cycling or whatever.  The walk was dotted with statues and tributes, to Vikings, to USA-Iceland friendship, and just to art.

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Michael and Lynne, dressed for the weather.

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Kathleen, with the bay of Reykjavik looking very frigid behind her.

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Frank, pretending he’s a Viking.

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An homage to the Viking past of Iceland. The ground was extraordinarily slick with ice, and this photo was a risk.

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Back when diplomats were diplomatic, and reason prevailed, this sentiment carved in stone makes a beautiful statement

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Art for art’s sake, along Reykjavik bay.

We wound up our stroll and headed back toward the hotel.  On the way, we stumbled upon the one place in Iceland where we met people who spoke only Icelandic.  It was a bakery, the oldest in Iceland by the sign, and it served absolutely delicious pastries and sandwiches.  We had a couple of croissants, and some sandwiches for the plane.

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While the sign may be in English, the bakery personnel don’t speak English. Not a problem, though, pointing works very well.

There was one other run.  We got to the airport in plenty of time.  We were on Wow Airlines, a budget carrier, but very efficient at moving people through their system.  We made it through security, passport control, the enormous duty free shop, and to the waiting area at the gate.  I had a hunch, though, that something was missing.  Looking in my backpack, I realized that my iPad was missing.  I figured I must have left it at the security area, since I had gotten waylaid by the agents who selected me for a random search of everything.  I bolted back, through the duty free shop, up an empty stairway, found a locked door, back down the stairs, finally found my way to the passport control, ran through there, then back the long haul to the security area.  I went to the aisle I had gone through, and spoke to the agents.  I, somewhat short of breath, explained my plight, that I thought I left my iPad when passing through.  At first they looked at my as if to say, sorry man, that’s not our problem.  Then, one of them spoke up, and said he thought he knew where it was.  It had been taken to the manager’s office.  He retrieved it for me.  Thanking him profusely, I started my run back to the gate, through passport, getting my passport stamped twice for leaving Iceland, and made it back to the gate with a few minutes to spare before boarding.  We had a very nice flight back to the USA.  We fortunately were sat in emergency exit seats, with plenty of stretch room in front of us.  I bought a $7 Heineken, and enjoyed the time in the air, and the sandwich I had bought at the bakery.  I would go back to Iceland in a flash.  There is so much more there to explore, and it is a fascinating and adventuresome place.  We’ve seen the major attractions of the southern part, but we didn’t get to see the northern lights, and there’s plenty to do in the northern reaches of the country.  Also, I’m sure there are some excellent microbrews I have not tried yet.

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4 Comments

  1. What a great trip! Thanks for writing about it.

    Reply
  2. I had never heard abput this place so this was definitely a fascinating read! How cool to go to the place you imagined and dreamed of as a kid! Nice photos.

    Peta

    Reply

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