On Wed. June 18, 2003, I flew from JFK at 6 p.m. and arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland, at 7:30 a.m. local time. Besides wishing to escape from the oppressive summer heat and humidity of Manhattan and Brooklyn, my major interests in traveling to Iceland were to learn more about Viking settlements and migrations in their time, and I had seen runestones and other Viking artifacts on my 1999 trip to Sweden. I was also interested in camping out in rural areas of Iceland, and also somewhat interested in learning some of the language there and comparing it to Swedish, which I’ve been studying for a couple of years.
For the first three nights, I had chosen an inexpensive hotel in the city center of Reykjavik. I did manage to get out that night and see a bit of Reykjavik’s old city center. I didn’t like the social climate there. To explain, first of all, the standard of living in Iceland is very high, and that of course is a good thing. However, it seems that the Icelanders are a bit smug about it, or let’s just say that their pert, upturned noses are not entirely due to their Nordic heritage. To top it off, Reykjavik is disappointingly “Westernized” in many ways. Posters of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Charlie’s Angels everywhere. There is no “working class” feel, no humble markets or pubs. A very, very “Hugo Boss”, “Gucci” culture. Entirely. I was surprised. It was, apparently once a charming fishing village, but not any more.
The hotel was clean but right by a busy street, if there is such a thing in Reykjavik, which is not a large city; and it was noisy. I resolved to move the next morning to the second place I’d booked, a bed & breakfast type “guest house” about 2 miles outside of the city center.
On Friday morning I checked out and called the guest house, and they were more than happy to come and pick me up. I explained to Sigga, the manager and mother of two young Icelanders, (her husband worked for some type of municipal company – I didn’t understand what it was) that I’d made a mistake and should have come straight to her place. She smiled knowingly and took me to the wonderful “bb44 gisting” Guest house — http://www.bb44.is — in Kopavagur, a suburb of Reykjavik.
While waiting for Sigga to pick me up, I had sat in a travel service, and there, a man who spoke Danish and Icelandic and English asked me where I was from. We had a nice conversation and I enjoyed meeting him. He seemed like a mad scientist of some sort. This fellow’s name was Villi Knudsen, and I later learned that in some circles, he is quite famous. More later.
At the guest house, I had a very nice small room with darker shades, and spent a better night there. The next morning, Saturday, I visited the famous Blue Lagoon, a large geothermal rock pool with a sort of silica silt in the water. Supposed to be good for your skin. It was very relaxing. There were many tourists there. One British lady kept chirping at her husband, “It’s too hot. It’s too hot.” , as if she really thought that the administration ought to immediately address the problem.
That night, upon Sigga’s advice, I went to a nearby hill where stood a famous modern church, and I took pictures of the “midnight sun”, or the almost-setting sun in the Northwest that in Summer never really goes down. Other people, mostly locals, were taking it in as well.
I bought groceries and prepared my own meals at the guest house. There were a few other tourists there from Belgium and Sweden, and a very quiet older couple from Pennsylvania. I began to learn the language as quickly as I could, and it wasn’t very hard.
On Sunday, I attended a church service at that church, which was just 3 blocks from the guest house. It was some sort of evangelical denomination. There were 4 hymns, a baptism of a baby, a brief sermon (all these in Icelandic), and it was over in 35 minutes. (As a Baptist preacher’s kid, this brevity was found refreshing.)
I also rode on the city bus, which costs $3 for 2 hours, to a nearby mall, and bought an inexpensive sleeping pad because I had brought a tent and a sleeping bag, but no pad. I also had my only American food item there, because I hadn’t been eating a lot; a McDonalds Big Mac and a coke. $9.00 U.S.
On Monday I decided it was time to go camping, and arranged to rent a car. In Reykjavik they bring the rental car to you, which they ought to for $95 per day. It was a small 5 speed Suzuki. Before leaving Reykjavik, I stopped by the travel center for some advice, and ran into Mr. Villi Knudsen again. He gave me advice on where to go car camping. I appreciated this because I had only limited information about campgrounds. As it turns out, you don’t really need to go to an official campground, because it’s easy to access remote areas where no one will really care if you are camping. I offered to buy Mr. Knudsen a cup of coffee for his help, and he then asked me for a ride home. I dropped him off at a small house on the hill in Reykjavik, and he insisted that I stop by upon my return to tell him how it had gone.
Upon Villi’s suggestion, I headed for the Southeastern coast of the island, and stopped to see a large waterfall named “Godafoss” (root of the word “faucet”, I believe), and then I saw natural geysers, like Old Faithful, at a place aptly named “Geysir”. Not a spectacular sight, but quirky, and significant due to the fact that the homes in Iceland are heated and provided with hot water from the geothermally heated water that exists underground.
I visited the Thingvellir, which isn’t really spelled with a “th” but with another Icelandic consonant that does not live on our keyboards. The Thingvellir is supposed to be the first known meeting site of a Parliament in the Western world, or something. Apparently different Norse tribes met in this area as far back as the year 900 A.D. There is a large lake there too, and it was appealing to try fishing there but the cost of licenses and my lack of equipment put me off. I was warned by some locals that trout fishing in Iceland is something that “only rich people and rock stars” fly in to do.
I headed further eastward, maybe 150 miles and saw more waterfalls. More than enough waterfalls, due to Villi’s advice. Since they all had odd Icelandic names, I didn’t know until finding each one that they were all spectacular waterfalls. I drove inland toward a famous glacier, and just off of the still paved roads, I found a park where I thought I might camp. There used to be an artist named Roger Dean who is familiar to anyone who grew up in the ’70’s as the artist who did the Bag-end like foggy landscapes which served as cover art for album covers by the rock band “Yes”. I finally figured out that standing in the middle of a national park in Iceland is much like being in your own private “Yes” album cover. It’s a trip.
When I got about a mile into the park on gravel roads, I was surprised to find an enormous double barrelled waterfall named “Hjalpersfoss”. It falls into a pool that was clear but just a little too cold for swimming. I stood there and scratched my head about what to do because there were no other people in this large park, nor were there any signs about policies, and so I decided to camp there. I placed my tent on the first hill about 25 yards uphill from the pool and about 50 yards across from the waterfall, then climbed around bit, to the top of the waterfall, and decided to try to sleep. But it was all an odd proposition considering I didn’t really know what time it was for “me”, and it never gets dark there in the Summer. But I did fall asleep, and the waterfall provided a very loud, comforting, and obviously constant sound.
I woke up about 1:30 a.m. and took a picture of the odd light, and fell back asleep. About 2:30 a.m., I was awakened by a faint noise that sounded like music. I vacillated between concluding that it was an auditory effect of the waterfall, which, unless there are elves, it must have been; but I also needed to get out of the tent to prove to myself that some other campers hadn’t pulled up at the dirt parking lot above with a car stereo.
I went outside, and finding no other human beings, ran around barefoot in the grass looking for elves playing music. I found none, and went back to sleep, enjoying the music. About 3:30 a.m., strong winds gradually came up. I had been warned about this. I made the best of it for about 45 minutes but eventually it seemed that I was the only thing holding the tent down. By this time, it was basically sunrise, so, although only fishing and water skiing normally roust me so early, I rose, packed up in the wind, had some yogurt and bread, and took off in the Suzuki.
I went further Eastward and saw many cute horses (I would eventually lose my head and propose to one), and 2 more waterfalls, one above a very old village with a great history of battles between farmers for land rights. Men with names like “Erik the Stupid”. (really). It began to rain a bit; I drove out onto a park area at the coast and climbed a small but safe cliff that was supposed to offer, according to Villi, some good bird watching, but it began to rain pretty hard so I went to a cafe in a town called Vik. It was a small town and kind of boring. I read some Shakespeare and decided that I had seen enough waterfalls. So, I headed back Northwest, past Reykjavik, through a very modern 3 mile auto tunnel beneath a large bay, until I reached the foot of some mountains.
The road over the mountains was being worked on, and a crew was putting lots of gravel on it. I felt adventurous, and there were both general traffic and municipal vehicles, though few; so I went up the mountain, but it was a bit frustrating because the general pace was less than 20 m.p.h. The thick gravel was just being dumped on the road, and it was more like off-road motorcycling. But other people drove as though this was normal.
At the crest, the construction area halted, and the roads were paved again. I don’t know how high it was, but certainly not more than 4,000 feet; not Rocky Mountain high. But it was mossy and pretty, and it occurred to me that it would be a nice place to camp if I could find a turnoff.
I did find one, a couple of miles on the down side of the mountains, heading toward the coast, and I found a place where I could park the car within sight of the road but I where I could also place the tent in a sort of ravine, so that the tent wouldn’t be seen. It was about 7 p.m. and in the 60’s Fahrenheit, and after pitching the tent, I had a great time walking around the streams and taking pictures of plants and flowers.
A family of wild Icelandic sheep were my neighbors, and they regarded me suspiciously but let me get pretty close, maybe 150 feet. There is no shortage of grazing land in Iceland, and one finds many of these presumably wild Icelandic sheep in the rural areas. Though they are quite homely, or downright ugly, these animals are well behaved and quite good about keeping pointless plaintive bleating to a minimum.
This rocky, mountainous terrain was completely covered by very thick green and yellow moss. Not moldy moss, but a sort of squeaky clean, fresh seeming moss so thick that I could tear out a piece and hold it like a huge piece of cake. It was between 6 and 8 inches deep or thick. There had been light rain earlier and I felt the moss, but it seemed it had somehow absorbed all of the rain, and it felt dry and waxy, though pregnant with moisture. I lay down on this very thick, soft moss, and looked at the sky. I was like a sheep in that respect. This continued to be fun for about 5 minutes. However, it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for much of anything so far. So isolated and unique a landscape, so different from anywhere I have ever been. It struck me how I can’t imagine a more photogenic country to travel in. It’s really stunning in all respects. My pictures are fantastic.
During the night, it got a little cool, and rained for a while. My tent was completely dry. I had decided to experiment with hiding my watch to see what my body clock would think of all of this jet lag and night time sunlight. Much later, I awakened to a very strange call of some sort of animal. Yes, obviously, it was light out, and I lay there for a long while. wondering what this animal might be. The call sounded like someone waving a piece of flexible plastic or a wood saw in the air, and it kind of went “wup-wup-wup-wup-wup”.
I figured it was either some kind of bird or goat or sheep. I was really intrigued. I got out of the tent and looked up in the sky, and found that this noise was the call of a type of bird that looks like what we call a “coot” in America. Different ones would quickly whir overhead every minute or so. There was some dew on the grass, but it was so very, very natural – a bit different from Brooklyn. My watch said 9:30 a.m. so I knew I’d had a more normal night’s sleep than at the waterfall.
The weather was nicer and I drove the Suzuki downhill, somewhat proud that I’d found a place where I’d not been discovered or approached, while having still camped close enough to the road to have access in case of some emergency. I went up a couple of gravel roads that passed very small private horse farms with chalet type buildings that looked more like Summer homes than permanent residences. My guess was that these were indeed the weekend homes of more well-to-do people from cities in Iceland, sort of horse farm getaways like our lake cabin getaways. I don’t know, though.
I drove about 10 miles down the mountain and the coastline was very pleasant and idyllic. This was the area around a town called Budardalur, and it is here that Erik the Red, father of Leif Ericsson, once lived. Apparently there is a recreated mud house there at the same spot where they think Erik lived, but I didn’t find out soon enough to know that. It was the only major flaw in my research that I regret, but it’s something to see next time.
I took pictures of that very charming village, including views out toward the mouth of the bay there. Some children in the yard at one home chanted something at me that I pretty much gathered to mean, “tourist, go away”. At least I thought I caught that general tone. I had some soda water and coffee at a nice place there and read a bit more. The weather was clear. I had decided that the 3rd night camping might be near the coast, since I’d now stayed in the glacial interior and in the mountains. At $5 per gallon for gas, one plans the itinerary rather carefully. But I chose to drive first around the perimeter of a peninsula which is surrounds a glacier called “Snaefellesnes” (you are expected to follow on a map), and these were pretty rough dirt roads. There were some areas that were literally very big fields of hardened magma, sharp volcanic rock which I photographed in black and white. Really scary and lunar looking. One would not tent there.
There were fewer cars on the peninsula, I saw only 5 or 6, but it wasn’t really too isolated. Just kind of sparse country. Some waterfalls, and very impressive bluffs, both rocky and moss covered. I listened to the car radio and could pick up quite a few words of Icelandic now, drawing also on my familiarity with German and Swedish.
Toward the end of my circling this peninsula, which I think took about 2 1/2 hours, it began to look like rain. I had a hard time choosing and finding a less publicly viewed camping spot this time; though no one probably would have objected, but some areas were clearly fenced off as private grazing land. Few homes. Road signs with very long names. I did find a sort of brushy area near the coastline, not a really nice campsite but hidden, and pitched the tent there, with the car hidden from the road y as well. It rained a bit through the night, but my tent was again quite dry. I had purchased a very cheap shower curtain to place below the tent, and that smart move. I later discarded it.
Nevertheless, I slept very well there, and packed in very light rain the next morning, Thursday the 24th. I then drove back through that long tunnel and headed back to the guest house in Reykjavik. I had driven about 500 miles in the 3 days, I think ‘ll have to check that. 700 kilometers or so. The sun came out, the rental car people came and got their car, free of dents or scratches, and I dried the tent in the backyard at the guest house. I had a shower and walked out for groceries, and decided that the whole camping trip had been just about right. Maybe one more day. But I had no urge to right back out again.
“Volcanoes are the earth breathing.” – – Villi Knudsen.
Plus, Sigga had a thicker pad for me to place below, my camping pad, and I pitched the tent, as planned, in their back yard at the guest house. I was the only camper, and for $8 a day I found it a superior deal. I could still of course use the kitchen, laundry, Internet, Icelandic books, bathroom, shower, tub, and hot tub. So it was fine. The next 8 or 9 nights I slept there in the back yard.
On Friday, June 27 — I went by city bus to a large mall and looked at products, prices, people; had cappuccino, read a lot of Shakespeare, bought postcards there. I attended screenings of the famous volcanic filmmaker Villi Knudsen’s volcano films. He and I went out for some coffee afterward. He is hilarious, and his film studio is an attraction no visitor to Iceland should pass up. We talked about earthquakes and volcanoes. I shared with him my ideas about Marshall amps and early Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin music; that the public were somewhat scared and affiliated this music with “Satanic” influences not just due to the Halloween – like aesthetic of the accompanying artwork, but that those amps produced such earth-thudding low frequencies, not heard before in music, that people subconsciously assumed it was devilish/underground/evil. I still believe that.
One night in Iceland I went to a restaurant to have a salad. When it came I had trouble with a pepper grinder thing and a woman next to me said ‘ turn the handle” and she and her friend were very attractive, about my age. It was an ice-breaking comment, and she asked if I were British (maybe my grammar is good — I was reading so much Shakespeare). So I said, no, I’m from NY- and she said “Ohhh…..American.”
That was kind of the spirit with a lot of Europeans, but we talked a little more. Anyway, it turns out I’d misread the menu in Dutch – I wanted chicken salad and they had brought some sort of fish with the salad. Not understanding that, I was going to send it back.
The woman asked, why I wasn’t eating, I told her that the meat on it looked like lamb, and that I didn’t care for lamb.
She looked at me and then quietly said, “I don’t think they make Lamb Salad.” – as if I were a total idiot.
I guess they don’t. It was funny.
Saturday 6/28 – Went to the library in Kopavagur and researched Icelandic music and poetry. Very helpful nice people at library. Listened to CD’s of traditional Icelandic music.
Sunday 6/29 Slept in. Went to a smaller shopping mall to compare things and lifestyles. Read and took care of personal things at the guest house. Had an excellent Icelandic fish buffet; best fish I’ve ever had; it was about $20 with water.
Monday 6/30 — took the bus to a nice park in Reykjavik and saw a small “zoo”. Other than foxes and sheep and birds and horses, there are not a lot of interesting animals in Iceland. And turtles are quite illegal, so don’t even think about it. (Found THAT out the hard way…..) No snakes. Few insects, so they leave their doors and windows open on the 10 days a year that the weather is nice. But this day was nice, in the high 60’s, and I took a boat ride to see Puffins on an island. On the boat trip, I saw an Arctic Tern – the bird that migrates further than any animal in the world.
“Hvar er salernith?” Where is the restroom?
Also read “2 gentlemen of Verona”. That evening, I enjoyed the hot tub at the guest house, speaking to music educators from Norway, Finland, and Sweden.
Tuesday 7/1 I visited a Viking museum in Reykjavik and learned about many sagas and writers from the Viking Age (800 – 1150) about which and whom I must do research. I wish I had known about this museum sooner. Both the Roman and Runic alphabet flourished side by side from about 1000 to 1400 A.D. This is striking. In the evening, Sigga’s son, Atta, whose name means “Wind-Eagle”, helped me to translate an old Icelandic poem so that I could use the lyrics for one of my songs. He said that the poem was so old that the language was stilted and hard for even him to understand; he laughed uproariously while translating it.
Wed 7/2 Packed things paid Sigga and found flowers. Did laundry at Guest house. Took pictures, went to the swimming pool in Kopavagur. Relaxed.
On one night in Iceland I pulled out a page of phrases I’d gotten off the Internet, and by accident it had some very funny translations like how to say “Do you have any sisters?” or “Could your brother beat me up?” Funny ones. I was going to try to use a phrase to entertain the very pretty waitress. Anyway, there was a low candle on the table, not a “dinner” candle, but you know, a short one. I was reading the phrases intently to myself and someone gasped, and I looked up and the page of phrases had caught fire and everyone (including the waitress) watched as I had to try to put it out, with ashes flying all around. I felt like Woody Allen. The 2 women at the table next to me, who also seemed like they were interested in who I was, a single guy traveling; saw it and when I left I said, “Ladies, if you’ll excuse me, I have other fires to set.”
In hindsight, I have concluded that if there is one special thing a traveler needs to bring to Iceland, it’s money. Nothing is inexpensive, regardless of the exchange rate. The island holds many natural treasures and brilliant landscapes that can only be accessed by special vehicles, boats, snowmobiles, and all-terrain vans and busses, and these guided tours all cost from $80 to $500 per day per person. They are probably worth it, but car camping is the economical alternative. Although car camping is fun and will allow one to see some beautiful country, one can’t help but wonder what is being missed.