23 March 2010

Amazing day

This is far too short a trip for self-indulgent jetlag woes, so we requested a 7AM wake-up call and scheduled an all-day tour of Iceland's famous Golden Circle.

We hate tours. We hate tour buses, tourists, and smarmy tour guides. We prefer to do our own research and explore on our own. With only three days in Iceland however, we compromised: we signed up with a smallish tour group for the eight hour trek through some of Iceland's most dramatic natural wonders. Andre from Iceland Horizons proved to be an excellent tour guide-- genuinely enthusiastic, and with extensive knowledge of history, geology, mythology, and comparative languages. There were only nine other people in our group, and they were very good company.

We left Reykjavik at 9 AM on a rain-free but very windy morning, and our first stop was the Nwsjavellir power plant. Icelanders get their power and hot water from super-hot volcanic steam under the Earth's crust. The plant is located in the middle of a thousand year old lava field, and except for a sparse carpet of arctic moss, it looks like Mars - utterly inhospitable and decidedly un-Earthly.

From there we drove into a peaceful agricultural valley lined with greenhouses and field after field of wind-blown Icelandic horses. These stocky little creatures were developed as a distinct breed and are protected by law in Iceland - no other horses are allowed on the island. In their heavy winter coats and long manes, they're a picturesque feature on the landscape.

Our next major stop was Kerið, a beautiful volcanic crater lake. It looks like an ampitheater-- so much so that a few musicians, including Björk, have played concerts on the lake.

One of the highlights of our trip was a stop at Geysir, the eponymous body that gives all geysers their name. Geysir itself is now extinct, but we followed signs a mere two hundred or so meters up hill to Strokkur, a large, active, and frequent belcher. You could see Strokkur's spray from the road, yet this short walk felt sort of like an ascent of K2. The wind was like a solid wall that made it hard to move forward. It left us gasping for air, but it whipped our faces with such force that it was hard to breathe. It felt like an endless pool or a hamster wheel. Once we made it there, It was literally difficult to stand still for pictures of Strokkur; we had to brace ourselves against the wind with our legs slightly apart to get these shots. We looked absolutely ridiculous, which is why there are no pictures of us in front of Strokkur. It probably sounds miserable, but it wasn't-- it was thrilling! The geyser's spray is less impressive than the flash-boil that precedes it when the gray, spritzy flat surface of the water rises into a breathtakingly vivid blue dome.

Like all the larger sites along the Golden Circle, Geysir has a comfortable, modern cafeteria/gift shop. Our group stayed for lunch to give our extremities a chance to thaw. The bathroom stalls are painted flat white, and visitors are encouraged to leave an autograph. Based on an unscientific sampling around one particular potty, the majority of tourists here are from Norway and Sweden. I may never be in the Olympics, but now at least I can say that I represented my country on a bathroom wall somewhere in Iceland.

After lunch, we got back in the van and left for Gullfoss,a waterfall along the Hvitá river. We thought we'd be jaded after spending a day at Iguazu Falls in '08, but Gullfoss was beautiful. The falls descend in two stages, cutting through the landscape and forming a deep, steep-sided gorge. Gulfoss doesn't approach Iguazu's scale or magnificence, but it's impressive and exciting and not at all the sort of falls you'd see on a hike back home. The wind picked up speed (you can hear it in the video below) but thankfully, it didn't come straight at us as we worked our way to the top of the park high above Gullfoss.

Final stop, Þingvellir national park, which straddles the rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. You can see right at the surface just how the Earth's pulling apart here. It's scenic in a spooky way, but it's also very beautiful. I've never seen such fundamental geologic processes so plainly displayed - the Þingvellir valley is scored with hundreds of fissures, clear evidence that this is the youngest land on the planet.

We got back to the hotel at about 5:30, wind-whipped, sore, and exhausted. The cumulative effect of several hour-long stops in the freezing breeze was a deep-down core-level chill that permeated our bodies. The perfect antidote: steamy-hot sulfurous water pounding on our muscles. Fortunately, Reykjavik hotels suffer no shortage of hot water.

We had low expectations for Reykjavik's dining scene even after our wonderful Indian meal last night, so we didn't put a whole lot of effort into finding a restaurant for dinner. We walked to Argentína Steikhús, which looked and sounded like an expensive tourist trap, but had the virtue of being half a block from our hotel. Steve ordered the chef's menu; I ordered a plain old steak. Hey, it's a steakhouse. We knew our meals would be slightly out of synch, but I wasn't hungry enough to care.

Within minutes we had a bottle of 2001 Gruaud Larose and an amuse bouche. I wish I'd paid more attention to the waiter's description, because whatever it was, the amuse was delicious. Bresaola, perhaps? Rolled and stuffed with something nutty, bright, herbal, and yummy. Our jaded palates perked up, and for good reason: what followed was an utterly delightful, lovingly prepared, perfectly paced meal.

The four-course special menu started with a ravioli filled with spinach and an egg yolk, drizzled with an oxtail ragout. The waiter brought out two servings: we waved off the second plate, explaining that only Steve had ordered the multi-course meal. The waiter shrugged and offered the extra ravioli to Melissa as an offering on the house. We both agreed the ravioli was delicious: unctuous yolk melding with the sharp spinach and tender pasta, the entire dish punctuated with the deep, earthy richness of the oxtail ragout.

The second course was a small portion of Icelandic salmon, cold-cured in salt and lemon zest. Two small squares of salmon were topped with arctic char roe and a drizzle of creme fraiche. Once again, our waiter brought two plates and offered the second to Melissa, explaining that "it didn't make sense to wait without eating" for the steak she'd ordered. What a gracious way to insure that we both enjoyed a harmonious dining experience. The fish was buttery tender, wonderfully delicate. The roe and sauce added an extra dimension of texture and flavor, but the fish itself was the standout: utterly fresh, faintly briny, just perfect fresh salmon.

And Melissa ate it. Melissa ate fish. As she explained, the presentation made her decision fairly easy: the dish was beautiful, a jewel-like presentation that was as much art as food. In any case, delicious as the food was, the big celebratory moment was when Melissa voluntarily tried it!

Our main courses were a couple of nice steaks accompanied by stir fried veggies. Melissa had a baked potato, Steve was served some complimentary french fries with garlic and rosemary. Probably the most pedestrian part of the meal - a steak is, after all, just a steak.

For dessert, Steve's meal included three mini-servings: a creme brulee, tiramisu, and a lemon sorbet. Melissa ordered a pavlova meringue served with mango and passionfruit reductions.

By the time we finished our desserts, we'd polished off the Bordeaux as well, and things got a little silly. We decided we had to try brennevin, the local Icelandic liqueur: a caraway-flavored brandy that's traditionally used to wash down local delicacies like sour sheep testicles. After we downed our shots of brennevin, our waiter (perhaps sensing an opportunity to laugh at impulsive tourists) suggested we next try "Opal", an herb-infused vodka that ranks among the worst alcoholic concoctions I've ever tried. Melissa claims to enjoy it, and backed up her claim a day later by purchasing a bottle of the stuff at the airport duty-free store.

We rolled out of the Argentina Steikhús several hours after entering - satiated, a little buzzed, and utterly charmed that we'd stumbled into such a pleasant and enjoyable meal in this quirky northern capital. The frigid wind that had howled all day during our tour had finally subsided, and we walked through the chilly night air back to our hotel. A very full, very fun day.

Gullfoss

So windy here at Gulfoss that it's hard to hold on to the cameras. And c-c-cold, but breathtakingly beautiful. We have some good geyser pictures to add from home.

video

22 March 2010

P.U.

Iceland and India make strange bedfellows, but the two nations share a friendly trade relationship and strong diplomatic ties. Our hotel sits across the street from the Indian embassy, which looks more like a strip mall Quizno's than the domestic seat of a foreign government. Two of the ten best restaurants on this tiny Viking island are Indian, and tonight we decided to try one of them. We had good Indian food in Amsterdam and in Buenos Aires, but our dinner tonight at Austur India Fjelagid was... different. Better. It was a well executed synthesis of traditional Indian presentations with local herbs, fish, and wild berries. Good wine list, too.

And speaking of liquid refreshment, Iceland has the best tap water on the planet-- exceptionally cold and pure. Turn the faucet a few degrees to the left however, and you're in for a surprise: just as the cold water is completely unadulterated, so is the hot water. Only the hot water comes from deep geothermally heated sulfurous pools. At its best the hot water smells like a gently poached egg; at its worst it smells like Nair. The smell's growing on us. It's a very cool reminder that Iceland's water heater is the Mid Atlantic Ridge.

Fusion

What's a cantina without grilled whale enchiladas?

Reykjavik

Eyjafjallajokull volcano slept peacefully for 190 years, and woke up, quite inconvenently, while we were four hours into our flight. Somewhere over Hudson Bay, our pilot took a three hour detour to Boston. Nobody knew when it would be safe to reopen Keflavik, so we all waited. And waited. We waited fifteen hours, and learned that Icelanders are a cheerful, patient bunch. They form orderly lines without supervision, they smile a lot, they lovingly scratch each other's scalps, and they're exceptionally enthusiastic to hear that their home is your destination and not your layover. If you have to be stranded at an airport with hundreds of strangers, Icelanders are the lot you want.

Mother Nature and the Fosshotel Baron took pity on us: the former gave us perfect weather, and the latter gave us an upgrade. We got in at 4AM Monday morning, and slept like babies for six hours. We stared out our window at the picture-perfect landscape for a few minutes, and then set out on foot to explore the city. Our first stop was the Sun Voyager-- a modernist steel sculpture in the shape of an ancient Viking ship. From there we explored the length of Laugavegur, Reykjavik's main shopping street, lined with boutiques, quirky restaurants, and galleries. Laugavegur leads toward the historic center of town, where we stopped for croissants and coffee. The old town is composed almost entirely of two story wooden framed buildings, often sheathed in corrugated iron and painted bright primary colors - it's a rustic contrast to the formal architecture of more traditional European capitals and reminds us that although this is culturally part of Europe, it's a very different place indeed. On our way back to the hotel, we took a different route and wandered up a small hill to the site of Hallgrimskirkja, a striking Church with a steeple so tall that we could see it from almost everywhere in the city.

At street level, Reykjavik has generic Scandinavian charm: stark buildings, clean sidewalks, and unprounouncable street names laden with diacritical marks. Look up, and there's nothing generic about Reykjavik. Each of the city's brightly colored roofs forms a pointilist blob on a technicolor skyline framed on all sides by blue water and icy volcanic mountains. Unless you peek through an alley, the low rise buildings on a typical street are high enough to camouflage the fact that this city, so tidy and civilized, is surrounded on all sides by wilderness.

Tomorrow, wilderness.

20 March 2010

Seismic Setback




We were 37,000 feet above Northern Canada in a region as white, scarred, and barren as the surface of the moon when our Captain gave us the bad news: a volcano erupted in Iceland. Not that we're eager to fly into a cloud of burning soot or anything, but we were totally bummed to see the animated airplane on our flight map change its course.

Dang.

Noted.