(Editor’s note: This post first appeared on Dan Canon’s Conflicts Check website.)
Travel Log: Iceland (possibly NSFW in America.)
What happens when you combine one too many drinks with a compulsive desire to travel as much as possible before your mate pops out a baby?
Apparently, you buy tickets to Iceland.
Think about it. Where are you never going to go? Iceland.
Where are you never likely to end up accidentally? Iceland.
Where can you never, ever drive to from anywhere no matter how hard you try?
That’s right: Iceland. So we went there.
This is what it looks like:
It looks like another planet. It’s desolate and beautiful. The island is one of the newest in the world, having been created by (mostly still active) volcanoes a mere 16 million years ago.
As a result, there’s a lot of flat, black earth flanked by a lot of mountains with brightly colored (almost neon green) flora. In fact, there’s a lot more of that than there is civilization.
There are only 313,183 people in Iceland. To put things in perspective, that’s less than half the number of people in Louisville, Kentucky, and less than 4 percent of the people in New York City.
The biggest city is the capital, Reykjavik, with only 198,000 residents, and, by all appearances, a couple million tourists.
The bottom line: We did Iceland in a long weekend, and I don’t feel like we missed anything important. If you’re into breathtaking natural beauty, go.
If you’re into witnessing great cultural and historical achievements of mankind, or you’re looking to consume first-rate food and/or alcohol, or just trying to get laid, don’t go.
Renting a car is painfully expensive here, but it’s worth it. Luckily, you probably won’t know how expensive it really is because everything is priced in Icelandic Krona.
The Icelandic currency kinda seems like monopoly money because everything costs in the thousands or tens of thousands, which can be disorienting if you didn’t do your research up front and you were expecting everything to be in Euros. But make no mistake, most things are expensive in Reykjavik.
Another unfortunate thing about Iceland is that it’s still struggling to figure out how to run a tourist economy. They’ve got the whole “charge too much” thing mastered (seriously, I saw a bell pepper for about $8 in a grocery store), but the whole “hospitality” thing is lacking.
It’s just that Icelanders don’t seem particularly enthusiastic about you seeing their country. Even the in-flight movie, which was supposed to be about tourist attractions of Iceland, recommended hopping a plane to Greenland.
And when we asked for directions to some of the out of town stuff, and were gruffly told “drive and you’ll find it.”
To be fair, in most cases we did eventually find it. But not without some cursing of our GPS and Iceland’s road signs, both of which featured place names that were exclusively in Icelandic, despite the fact that everyone in Iceland calls them by their English names.
In fact, everyone in stores and restaurants speaks English by default, but I guess that’s to be expected when you’re dealing with an almost 1:1 native-tourist ratio. And when I tried to speak what little Icelandic I managed to learn, the natives were not having it. YOU try learning functional Icelandic on the internet. IT CAN’T BE DONE.
So anyway, we drove in circles a little bit. But as it turns out, that wasn’t a bad thing because the countryside is just so friggin’ beautiful. On one accidental excursion down one of Iceland’s horrible gravel roads, praying our tiny car was not going to fly apart, we were stopped by this:
That’s a parade of horses. I had always heard they just sort of roam the island. It’s true. Sheep and goats, too. No farmhouses in sight. Just livestock, hanging out and doing their thing.
We also saw lots of this:
Back in the day, Vikings supposedly stacked these rocks into what are called cairns to show they had been there, or to mark a trail. Nowadays, tourists stack them everywhere. And if there’s one thing in plentiful supply in Iceland, it’s rocks.
Once we finally got the GPS tamed, we visited sites along the Golden Circle, which is like a “best-of” of the otherworldly nature Iceland has to offer. Like the geysers, which are pretty amazing (despite smelling kinda like poop).
That water, which is just hanging out on the ground, is really hot. Occasionally, it explodes into the air, scalding tourists and feral horses.
Gullfoss is not to be missed. You could live your whole life without seeing it, but you shouldn’t. As the website says, to “wallow in the beauty” of the falls is “an uplifting experience.” (Icelanders have a gift for awkward understatement.)
This part was so beautiful that no people were allowed there at all.
No translation provided, despite the fact that none of the hundreds of tourists at Gullfoss speak a word of Icelandic. I believe it means “please enjoy Iceland’s most famous plummet.” In Europe, I’ve found that there’s really no love lost between the state and jackass tourists who wander off the beaten path.
Reykjavik itself is less exciting. I wouldn’t rank it as one of my favorite cities based on the short time we were there, but it ain’t bad.
This is a pretty fair representation of what the entire city looks like. Just about everything was built in the 20th century. The buildings are square, flat, and boring. The entire city looks like a block of Soviet government office buildings, with some notable exceptions. The Harpa Opera House is one:
Another is Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland’s largest church:
Everything else is unremarkable. However, the graffiti keeps things interesting. I’ve never seen a city in Europe with so much graffiti. It’s everywhere.
But that’s not always bad.
Not even the cars were safe.
And I know that the Reykjavik nightlife is supposed to be this awesome thing, but I just found it kind of annoying.
Maybe because I’m old. The only locally brewed beers appear to be lagers, which is weird because we tend to think of lagers as light, summery beers.
There is nothing light or summery about Iceland. I appreciate the names of the beers, though.
“Viking” is a no-brainer. But how about POLAR BEER? Eh? Get it?
The little guy in the middle is a shot of Brennivin, which is supposedly Iceland’s signature drink. It is a subtle blend of caraway seeds, fermented potato mash, Jagermeister, mouthwash and lighter fluid.
One thing Reykjavik deserves props for (other than convincing tourists it’s reasonable to pay $100 USD for a knitted hat) is its museums. Mind you, there’s not much to put in them, but they are all organized well and very informative.
The tiny Saga Museum, for example, condenses the entire thousand-year history of Iceland into a 30-minute tour featuring some of the most realistic wax figures I’ve ever seen.
It took us forever to figure out this guy wasn’t real. Incidentally, it’s not always a great idea to do whatever the guided tour says.
The National Museum of Iceland also had a lot of good historical info, and would be a good first stop for tourists. For instance, if you’re a fan of the Golden Girls, you may recognize this as Saint Olav:
But beware; the museum is full of tourist traps.
See? Inexperienced travelers would miss that trap door and likely end up being made into feral horse feed.
But the highlight of the several museums we visited is surely this:
Think about that for a minute, and consider if you want to continue reading this post.
This museum, also known as the Icelandic Penis Museum, was found (not founded) by my ever-observant companion despite the fact that it appears on almost no map, brochure, website or other tourist material. The collection consists mostly of severed penises in formaldehyde. I’m not kidding.
See? And what better place to bring your 10-year-old daughter, right? Of course, the whole place isn’t just severed penises.
That would be silly.
There are also tasteful table lamps made of bull scrota.
And the pride of Iceland: the bronzed members of the members of the Icelandic National Handball Team.
Really, I was having a difficult time figuring out if this was supposed to be serious or just a goof. This question was resolved when I attempted to use the bathroom.
This was also the only museum at which I did not see/hear a single American tourist. Maybe it’s that good ol’ American puritanical sexual repression that keeps us out of wiener museums and focused on the task of killing one another with firearms.
The food in Reykjavik is nothing to write home about either, unless you are way into seafood or pastries. As it turns out, I am way into the latter.
Don’t be fooled; the thing on the bottom isn’t a severed penis of any kind. It’s a Kleina. Y
ou may have heard it referred to as a “donut.” Turns out, fried sugary dough is delicious everywhere in the world. Surprise! But this next thing truly is amazing:
I don’t know what the name means, or what is in this pastry, but I don’t care. Do not leave Iceland without eating one. It will change your life.
You also must not leave Iceland without a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Everyone will tell you this, even if they refuse to be helpful in any other way. If you can figure out how to get there, it’s amazing.
A geothermal spa doesn’t sound like anything I would ever want to go to, But I would visit this place every weekend if I could.
I don’t know how it works, and I don’t care. The pictures just don’t do it justice. It’s beautiful, and floating around in that water is the most relaxing thing ever.
You don’t even care that people from hundreds of countries have peed in it.