Today’s post is brought to you by Miss Kitt, another friend of ours. You can read about her at the end of her post.
Most people’s pre-trip planning list includes items like “See chapel south of the capital.” Mine has “learn how to use a camera” and “shape up to avoid public shaming in thermal pools.” I recently decided that my first overseas trip should happen soon, and it’s going to be Iceland! Why Iceland, you ask? Because I’m currently hip-deep in Norse history and mythology, and Iceland is the place where the old language and customs persisted the longest. In fact, Icelandic is a close and direct descendant of Old Norse.
So I have been diligently reading up on travel options, customs, Things To See and such in Iceland. My traveling companion, Spring (not her real name for obvious reasons—who wants to admit they’d do this with me?) and I are looking at a week or so centered on Reykjavik in mid-to-late May, but that may change. This is May of next year, of course: Accommodations in Iceland can be very hard to get and must be booked well in advance. You have to make sure you don’t accidentally plan your trip for the week that an avant garde Art Festival or a music event is going on; and while there is much less crowding in the non-summer months, there are also many fewer places you can actually get to.
I was fascinated to discover that Iceland has no railroads.
I always think of taking trains in Europe, but that Eurail pass is no good at all in Iceland. Instead, they have two flavors of buses: The long-haul buses that go around the ‘ring road’ that wraps the country and connects the far reaches to the city, and the regular buses that operate in and around Reykjavik and other large towns. I’m still trying to grasp that the entire country has a population (320,000) half the size of Seattle’s (608,000), and that about two-thirds of that are in Reykjavik and its suburbs. Somewhat like Australia, Iceland has population heavily in the south, lightly around the island’s perimeter, and only a small scatter of people in the interior.
Iceland is a perplexing blend of the very modern and the very ancient—some pre-Medieval sites are still in decent condition, and the majority of the population believes in elves. Really! They route their roads to not disturb the rocks the Hidden Folk live in. Yet Spring is going in part so she can attend the annual conference of EVE Online, a cutting-edge, space-based multi-player video game that was developed in, and is based in, Iceland. (Undoubtedly in Reykjavik, which is the capital and where most of the businesses, like most of the people, are located. (I can now type ‘Reykjavik’ without having to think how it’s spelled!))
While she’s doing the EVE Fanfest I will hit the high points of Reykjavik including the Phallological Museum, which has mounted samples of penises and penis parts from every mammal species found in and around Iceland –whales, foxes, even a polar bear. I just don’t see how that can be missed if I’m going to be in town! I will also descend upon as many of the nearby archaeological sites and museums as I have time for. A day-trip to Erik the Red’s old farm – yes! that Erik, Leif Eriksson’s Dad—where they have recreated the sod-and-wood hall and have docents in period costume to guide you to the actual ruins of the original structure and explain things to you—is mandatory.
Iceland is famous for its volcanoes, so we’re taking a trip to the island of Heimaey, which got bigger by about a third in a volcanic eruption in the 70’s. A third of the town (there’s only one) got buried by lava, but the residents managed to use fire hoses and pumps to spray seawater on the lava flow and divert it from filling in the harbor, so it was a win overall. We may also do the semi-mandatory Riding On Icelandic Horses while on the island.
Icelandic horses are completely genetically isolated from the rest of European stock for, oh call it the last 900 years; they are compact, sure-footed, hardy and I think quite lovely. They are also naturally 5-gaited, that is, in addition to doing the normal walk, trot, and canter they do something called the “tölt”, where each foot strikes the ground separately but at speed. It’s somewhat like what saddle-bred show horses do, but it’s inborn: they do it playing around in the pasture as babies. Some Icelandic horses also do a ‘flying pace’ where they move the feet on the same side of their body together while traveling at a goodly clip. Icelanders love their horses: There are roughly 80,000 in the country, and if you remember the population number, that’s about one for every four people. Until quite recently—and still today in some areas—horses were superior to automobiles for transportation in rugged country, since building and maintaining roads in Iceland’s weather (cold and rainy, with a chance of eruptions) is difficult.
No trip to Iceland is complete without bathing in one of the many geothermal pools. (Did you know the spewing hot spring Geysir is where we get our word ‘geyser’ from?) These warm pools range from natural gouges in rock that have a nice temperature to the elaborate Blue Lagoon spa complex, about 24 miles out of Reykjavik. This is an artificial basin carved out of volcanic rock which is filled with the somewhat-cooled outflow from a geothermal power plant; the mineral-rich water and its silt are believed to be good for skin conditions. And here is where fitness comes into play: It is, both my guidebooks and online sources say, offensive in the extreme to wear a swimsuit. Further, you are expected to shower and visibly scrub with soap both before and after entering the pools—where everyone else is naked.
I hate to disappoint those who have known me online and visualize me as Catherine Zeta-Jones with a bigger brain, but I’m more typically middle-aged American in my build. So part of my plan is to hit the gym and lose a few pounds—not too many, like in all cold regions the Icelanders like their women to have some curves and padding—just so that I don’t look like I’d get out of breath reaching for my towel. Come to think of it, that might help with the riding and hiking, too.
And some hiking is mandatory, because Iceland is just lousy with breath-taking vistas—every single one of which requires you do a bit of a walk or climb (usually both) to get to them. We’re not talking mountaineering here, I just mean that the ability to walk for 20 minutes and gain a couple of hundred feet in altitude is needful to see the geysers, waterfalls, puffin nesting colonies, and such that are half the reason I want to go there. Hence the need to learn how to operate a camera: I am the only person I know who cannot take a ‘selfie’ in which anyone (including my family) can tell who is in it. I can take out-of-focus pictures with an auto-focus turned on. I started handing the camera to my daughter at family events when she was 8 years old because her pictures were much better than mine.
Geologically, Iceland is both lovely and fascinating. The valley where the Althing—Europe’s first parliament—started meeting a thousand years ago is also the place where you see the European and North American tectonic plates meeting. Iceland sits on a ‘spreading center’ meaning there is an up-flow of magma from deep inside the Earth rising there. This results in active volcanoes, a lot of hot springs and geysers, and wonderfully bleak cold volcanic deserts. (If you saw the movie Thor: Dark World, the shots of the Dark Elf homeworld were done in Iceland’s interior.) I’m not averse to a minor eruption happening while we’re there. Not only will it fulfill my lifelong wish to see new land being created: It will excuse all the out-of-focus and poorly lit pictures!
Miss Kitt is known in skeptic circles as a woman of varied interests with a passion for discussing ideas, and for her amazing daughter BG. A writer and editor by choice and a pharmacy technician by training, she brings a background in economics, hard science, psychology, pharmacy, and archaeology to bear on whatever happens to be in her current focus. Amazingly, she has never been diagnosed with ADD or OCD (which, she points out, should actually be ‘OCO — since DISorder is the very last thing we Detail-Oriented people want). She hopes to become a regular contributor to Two* Different Girls. *
*Shouldn’t this be something like, Two (or more) Different Girls by now? 😉