It rained incessantly and the wind was fierce but our time in Iceland was rewarding. The light, the landscape, the relaxed ambience and the people were all worth a journey to what is probably the furthest point one can travel from our home in Kiama. It felt well ‘North of the Wall’.
There is a clear pattern that has emerged during the last five or six years we have travelled overseas with our children. We usually book apartments in central locations and rarely stay in hotels. Mostly we stay for a while rather just visiting for a couple of days. Walking is always central to the experience and driving in a car a relative rarity. We try to meet and talk with local people and this is more possible without a car and living away from hotels. Eating in the places locals frequent is good too but often we prepare our own food to reduce costs. Doing regular things, like shopping at the local markets or grocery stores, is usually fun as one attempts to decode the language on packets and buy the correct milk. It gives us all a sense of the similarities and differences of life in another country. The secret is about exploring the ordinary as closely as the spectacular.
Historical sites, museums and galleries are rarely a disappointment to us and we get to talk and spend time together outside the routines of our regular busy lives. Everything is interesting when travelling with a camera. Often the smaller details found walking around city streets are as interesting as the big tourist destinations. As our children grow older, 8 and almost 11, it is clear that these trips are memories that we share and at some stage, in the not so distant future, travel will again be ‘without children’. It is important to remember how quickly these experiences will no longer be possible and to savour them now.
The streets of Reykjavik
We had great accommodation, for ten days, near the architecturally impressive Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland, in the ’Neighbourhood of the Gods’. Wandering the streets of Reykjavik, all the way down to the Old Harbour, was easily done from such a centrally located apartment. It soon became evident why only tourists had umbrellas. The locals knew brollies would be inverted, twisted into broken birdcages within seconds.
The wind was often unbelievably wicked and we noted that Icelandic park benches and signs, cleverly mounted with springs, were well-designed to survive the extreme conditions. Everything was very heavy. I made purchasing warmer head-ware and covering my neck a priority and didn’t worry too much about the rain (or how silly I looked). As always, we walked many, many miles exploring everything from the flea markets to the national parliament. Occasionally, especially in the wilder weather, everyone just had had enough for the day and it showed (see below). 😉
It is certainly noticeable that people have time for casual conversation and are very personable. One of the shots below, of posters with spray paint over them, was a real mystery to me; what was it all about? I asked a local shopkeeper who did not know what I meant so he got me to take him to the posters (which look like they are of missing women). It turns out they are advertising to encourage Icelandic women to have cervical cancer screening. This is a minor anecdote but many times it was clear that people have more time to chat than what one may expect. I also notice plenty of jokes and cartoons about Icelanders having a poor sense of punctuality.
I guess everything has a price.
Museums, Galleries & deCODE
We had a great experience, mostly because of the knowledgable and friendly guide, at the Árbær Open Air Museum which is like a town square or village on what was once a working farm. Most of the buildings have been relocated from central Reykjavik. It is interesting that similar projects in Australia, like Old Sydney Town or Timbertown, always fail commercially. This museum is funded by the taxpayer. Our guide told us the story of Jorgen Jorgenson (1780-1841) who in 1809 arrested the Danish governor and proclaimed himself the leader of an Iceland that would be independent of Denmark. His reign lasted for two months before he was out-manoeuvred. By the mid1820s Jorgenson’s other indiscretions led him to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land where he ended up exploring much of Tasmania. It was skilful of the guide (whose nickname was ‘Silly’ – he joked this does no translate well into English) to integrate this story into his patter. Indeed, Jorgenson is an interesting connection indeed between Iceland and Australia.
When the weather made walking around or driving less than safe or fun we visited museums and galleries within walking distance. Reykjavik’s Museum of Photography had a challenging exhibition Lauren Greenfield’s, ‘Girl Culture’ that was probably a little too much for an 8 & 10 year old but it certainly led to some insightful conversation about popular and consumer culture as well as the pressure on girls to conform to stereotypes. We also thought the Settlement Exhibition, built around the oldest known ruins in the capital, to be a unique and quality museum. The curators emphasise +/- 2 years when dating the site based on volcanic layers. The fundamental importance and primacy of using authoritative evidence seems to be a source of ethical pride. I would not recommend the Saga Museum which seemed ahistorical and tacky. NB The kids loved it!
The National Museum of Iceland is excellent and taught me a great deal. The digital and audio information provided was extensive and genuinely complemented the displays and artefacts very well. For example, I learnt that genetic testing had recently revealed 80% of males have Norse ancestry but females are much more likely to originate from the British Isles (62%). The company deCODE genetics provided the data and analysis found at the museum. The information I discovered on this first day of our stay led to many subsequent conversations with Icelanders re: their opinions about DNA testing. Most emphasised that the Norse brought women as ‘slaves’ with them but it was also pointed out that immigration to the British Isles by the Norse may have meant that some of the men also left directly for Iceland from what we may consider to be Northern Ireland or The Republic.
The company is particularly controversial with Icelanders and people expressed a variety of opinions in discussions with me about the data being collected. It came up several times, as mentioned in this article, that it felt like blackmail that NOT donating ‘a swab’ meant an important search and find rescue organisation would NOT receive a donation from deCODE. Currently, approximately 1/3 of the population has had DNA swabs. Many of these people can now calculate risks posed by their dispositions to a variety of diseases, as well as ancestry. One local Reykjavik man told me he had originally invested in deCODE shares, such was his enthusiasm for the project, only to make a largish loss when the Icelandic economy collapsed in 2008. The company was refinanced in 2010. Coincidentally, my barber, when I asked his opinion excitedly mentioned, as he trimmed my beard, that was his client was the CEO.
Icelanders have always been interested in genealogy and have always had both an oral and literary culture that allowed them to trace family lineages very accurately indeed. However, several people I spoke to at length about this said that historical NPEs (Non-paternity events) were coming to light more and more via the DNA testing as written lineages were examined for a range of reasons. For example, Iceland is one of the most racially homogenous nations in the world and the small population is conscious of avoiding incestuous relationships. Last year, you may have seen in the news, a new app that allowed Icelanders to make sure the person they were dating was not too closely related. One of deCODE’s projects is the database Íslendingabók which contains genealogical information dating more than 1,200 years back. An Icelander can type their name and search the database.
NB The original Íslendingabók or The Book of Icelanders, is an important work about early Icelandic history.
“Dried fish is a staple food in Iceland.This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.”
Mostly we shopped locally and ate at the apartment but really enjoyed our meals at Cafe Loki which included some very flavoursome shark, traditional dried fish with butter, flat cake with smoked lamb, egg and herring along with rúgbrauðsís and cream. I think Auden a little rough on the dried fish. It is an acquired taste but certainly adding the butter improves the experience.
The traditional Icelandic fish or meat soup were my favourite dish, especially considering the weather conditions. The soup is relatively inexpensive and comes with bread, sometimes it even is in the bread. We had an incredibly salubrious wild mushroom soup at a monastery we visited in East Iceland before catching the ferry to the Faroe Islands and Denmark. It made me remember picking mushrooms as a kid with my family and cooking them in variety of ways.
The Golden Circle and The Blue Lagoon
My friend and colleague, Mark O’Sullivan, gave us sage travel advice after his trip to Iceland last year. He convinced us a car was needed and that the roads were fine. We hired a car at a ridiculously good off-season rate and Kate soon acclimatised to driving on the ‘wrong-side of the road’. The weather for our day trip around the Golden Circle was pretty ordinary but we had fun anyway. The landscape and light were extraordinary but the rain made it challenging to take photographs. When we arrived at Geysir and later, Gullfoss, it was so bad that we just laughed and laughed with the wind. My silly hat (see way below) certainly helped on multiple fronts).
We had better luck for our day at The Blue Lagoon. I had read comments about how expensive this thermal pool was, and how ‘touristy’ but the truth of the matter was it was a certified ‘wonder’ and I would recommend you visit. We had a thoroughly relaxing and fun time. We also visited a local ‘hot pot’ in Reykjavik which we loved too.
Volcanoes, Waterfalls, Reindeers & Horses
The drive to Vik was excellent. The weather was good (although we did have a hail storm and ice to contend with) and we saw volcanoes, horses and more waterfalls. The girls enjoyed visiting a horse farm and talking with a horse-trainer. It was too cloudy, on the day we took an internal flight, to see the currently active volcano but we did see Eyjafjallajökull and the farm that lays below it (owned by the same family since 1906).
We also had another good day exploring in East Iceland, near the absolutely stunning ferry port of Seydisfjordur. We checked out an interesting monastery, excavated earlier this century, where locals showed me where to photograph reindeers in the nearby woods. There were many friendly Icelandic horses along the drive too. My favourite shot of our time in Iceland was this one of horses and reindeer below.
It interests me to take everyday photographs and digitally manipulate them to create more abstract pictures. A few experimental shots follow. I really like the photo of my daughter in the Blue Lagoon and the chair. My self-portrait was made in the Icelandic opera house, Harpa. I love the shapes.
The Icelandic Yule Lads
We enjoyed spending time in book stores and I certainly learnt a little more about the Icelandic Sagas and some authors previously unknown to me. My daughters bought a great little book, a novel about our planet and also learnt all about the cheeky Icelandic Yule Lads in local Christmas tradition. My favourites are ‘Meat-hook’ and ‘Pot-licker’. You can read more about them here.
- Source: http://www.iceland.is/the-big-picture/news/celebrating-christmas-with-13-trolls/7916/
…and last but not least…
Very silly but incredibly warm hats have given us all a laugh during the last 10 days ‘North of the Wall’ where it has been what you would expect from a place named, Iceland. I am sure they will get some use on the ferry to the Faroe Islands, Denmark and our week in Bergen, Norway.
Visit Iceland! Even though we had some pretty ordinary weather it did not dampen our spirits!
Featured image: creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Darcy Moore: http://flickr.com/photos/darcymoore/15455404491