In Iceland? Don’t Take the Train!

The Only Locomotive in Iceland

Although there has been talk about building a railroad connecting the international airport at Keflavík with the capital at Reykjavík, no one has laid any rails yet. The funny thing is that there have been Icelandic/English phrasebooks with entire sections on how to catch a train in Iceland. Too bad that there has never been a railroad with passenger service in the island nation.

The locomotive in the photo above was used to help load and unload ships in the Old Harbor area of Reykjavík. It rests on some narrow-gauge rails not exceeding some twenty feet in length.

If you want to get around Iceland, you just may have to take the bus.

 

Midnight in Reykjavík

The Guesthouse Óðinn in Reykjavík—At Midnight Around the Summer Solstice

The first time I visited Iceland, in 2001, I went in June. In 2013, I went again—this time in June so that I could see “The Land of the Midnight Sun” for myself. My first day back in Reykjavík, I deliberately stayed up late. I believe it turned out to be a 32-hour day, as the whole country is on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). It turned out to be a day and evening crowded with sights:

  • I took a harbor tour to see the puffins
  • Twice, I stopped in at Bæjarins Bestu for their famous pylsur (that’s hot dogs in Icelandic)
  • I discovered pear-flavored skyr (like yogurt) at a market on Austurvöllur
  • I had a delicious and leisurely fish dinner at the Fish Company on Vesturgata
  • As a lover of Icelandic Sagas, I visited the Culture House on Hverfisgata to see the original manuscripts
  • I toured the Settlement Exhibition, which is an archeological dig of one of the first settlements in the city dated around AD 871
  • Finally, I took a ghost walking tour of Reykjavík, including the cemetery on Suðurgata

After the walking tour, I was good and tired, but I knew that I didn’t want to hit the sack until after midnight local time to minimize the jet lag. (That actually worked.) Secondly, I wanted to see when it started to get dark. I wasn’t about to stay up until 3 am local time, but I did snap a picture of my bed & breakfast right around midnight. Fortunately, the guesthouse had good blackout curtains, so I was able to drift off within minutes of hitting the pillow.

 

Like Nowhere Else on Earth

Fumaroles on the Road to Þingvellir

It isn’t long after you leave the airport at Keflavík that you see with your own eyes that Iceland is like nowhere else on earth. You are now in Volcanoland, on an island where there is an almost total lack of trees. There is an old joke: What do you do when you’re lost in an Icelandic forest? The answer: Stand up. Nowhere in Iceland are there trees in any number that tower above the human form. There are black sand beaches, steam venting from fumaroles visible between Keflavík and Reykjavík, hotel showers that smell of sulphur, strange ice floes tinged with a light blue shade, seemingly hundreds of waterfalls, numerous active volcanoes—and that is only the beginning.

I have been to Iceland twice, in 2001 and 2013. And I want to go again. It’s not exactly a budget destination. Yet the country is teeming with European tourists, mostly of the backpacker persuasion.

Duck-Shaped Ice Floe in the Lagoon at Jökulsárlón

On both of my trips, I visited Jökulsárlón, the lagoon full of blue-tinged ice floes from the giant Vatnajökull Glacier that is the largest in Europe. I took an amphibious boat tour of the lagoon and even tasted the ancient ice from the glacier. The lagoon is so striking that all scheduled buses passing it stop over for around an hour so that the tourists can get their fill of the sights.

Strange Rock Formations at Dimmuborgir by Lake Mývatn

The strange rock formations at Dimmuborgir by the southeast shore of Lake Mývatn are said to be the homes of elves who suddenly pop up through a hidden door and drag unsuspecting Icelanders to their subterranean halls.

Even in Reykjavík, there are strange unexplained things. To avoid jet lag, I took a ghost walk from the old harbor to the cemetery of Hólavallagarður. Although I slept well that night, I had the strangest dreams.

 

Letter from Iceland

View Around Mývatn in Northeast Iceland

In the Thirties, two English poets, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, took a trip to Iceland. Auden wrote a book, published in 1936, called Letters from Iceland, which consisted of mixed prose, poetry, and photographs. The following is from a longer poem in Chapter III entitled “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard”:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth.
The tourist sites have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge,
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.
Yet further, if you can stand it, I will set forth
The obscure but powerful ethics of Going North.
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *
In England one forgets—in each performing troupe
Forgets what one has lost, there is no room to stoop
And look along the ground, one cannot see the ground
For the feet of the crowd, and the lost is never found.
I dropped something, I think, but I am not sure what
And cannot say if it mattered much or not,
So let us get on or we shall be late, for soon
The shops will close and the rush hour be on.

The reference to a “lack of wealth” refers to the relative poverty of Iceland until it became an independent country in 1946. Under the Danes,  the Icelanders were one of the poorest peoples in Europe. No longer.

In Dubious Terrain

Volcanic Steam Vents Near Þingvellir Iceland

It is almost five years since I last set foot in Iceland. Curiously, most of the vacations I have had since then have been in earthquake and volcanic zones. It is almost as if being in highly dubious terrain has become a metaphor for my life. All those Icelandic steam vents, all those fumaroles—they are a handy symbol for the curve balls that life can throw at you. I am reminded of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Pilgrim must walk a straight and narrow path from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is Heaven.

My first memory of Iceland, going back to my first visit in 2001, was of all the steam vents on the Reykjanes Peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík. Then, too, there were those fields of geysers where one had to stay on the path if one didn’t want to fall through the crust and end up boiled to death within seconds.

The Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption Near Arequipa, Peru

In my seventy-third year on this earth, I find I must walk on the straight and narrow path lest I fall by the wayside. Living with Martine was a pleasant distraction—one I would gladly suffer again—but on my own, there are more things that can happen to me. I am determined to take good care of myself, insomuch as that is possible.

As you read these little squibs of mine, I should not be surprised if you could tell that something is wrong before I can inform you of the details.

In the meantime, I continue to plan for my vacation later this year in Guatemala, another land of earthquakes and volcanoes.

 

Mad About Travel

Crescent Lake Oasis Near Dunhuang, China

Immanuel Kant was a great philosopher, but I have no desire to emulate him. According to an editorial in Philosophy Now:

A curious case, this Kant. They say that travel broadens the mind, but Kant never in his whole life travelled more than ten miles from his home city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He scraped a living for years as a private tutor before eventually becoming a hardworking professor at the university. He lived a life of disciplined regularity, taking the same walk around Königsberg at the same time each day, with such regularity that it was said that the inhabitants set their watches by him.

Living in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, I desired more than anything else to travel. Even when I came out to California and got a job, it was a full seven years before I could afford to go anywhere but Cleveland. And when I did, my parents were appalled. “Why don’t you come to Cleveland?” Mom wheedled. “I’ll cook my favorite dishes for you.” That’s all I needed—to get even fatter.

I started out with baby steps, going to Mexico and traveling all around the country by bus and train (back when there were trains). I went to England and Scotland, too, and even joined my parents in 1977 to visit Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

In 2001, I went to Iceland; and, in 2006, I discovered South America. Now my desire for travel is insatiable. On the left corner of my kitchen table is a collection of travel guides from Lonely Planet and moon. While waiting for my morning paper to be delivered, I can read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad (2 guides), Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, and New Mexico while sipping a cup of hot tea.

December 29 is the last day of my working career, so I may not be able to afford some more distant locations; but Mexico and Guatemala continue to beckon. If I should win the lottery (hah!) I will try for the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Moscow and Vladivostok, though maybe diverting through Mongolia to Beijing. I can always dream, can’t I?

 

 

 

 

Midnight in Iceland

My Room on the Top Floor of the Guesthouse Óðinn at Midnight in June 2013

Now that we are fast approaching the darkest time of the year, my mind turns to my visit to Iceland in June 2013. In that Land of the Midnight Sun, I stayed out until midnight. When I returned to the Guesthouse Óðinn in Reykjavík around midnight, I snapped this picture. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep with all the light, but fortunately the guesthouse had good blackout curtains (which you can see on the upper left of the third floor in the above photo).

My first day in Reykjavík was a long one. My Icelandair flight from Toronto arrived early in the morning. I had to busy myself for eighteen straight hours before turning in. Otherwise, I would have awakened in the middle of the night—rarin’ to go. That way I managed to minimize the jet lag which otherwise would have bedeviled me. It was a good thing, too, because the next day I had an all day tour of the Golden Circle (Þingvellir, Gullfoss, Geyser, and the geothermal power plant at Hellisheiði on the return to Reykjavík.).