Thursday, June 14, 2007

Iceland: Day Four (the Golden Circle)

There is nothing either golden or circular about the Golden Circle, which consists of three attractions in the Southwest and is therefore more likely triangular, but it is a marketing ploy four tourists and I'm a tourist, so I will abide. For anyone coming to Iceland for a short time and staying only in and around Reykjavík, this will be the only thing they see (it's a day trip from the capitol, and flybus hits all the spots). It would be a shame though, because it's not the coolest stuff we've seen so far.

We ate our breakfast as usual, prepared to say goodbye to Reykjavík, and found the proprietors of our guesthouse (they were preparing breakfast at their other guesthouse, which is where they'd been all this time) in order to pay. They were very kind about their absenteeism and gave us a substantial discount, making it the cheapest (and best) guesthouse so far. Then we hit the road.

The first stop on the route is the Þingvellir ("Þ" is an Icelandic letter called the "thorn;" it's pronounced "th," so that this word is (poorly) pronounced "thing-vellir." Now, the "v" sound is sort of "f"ey, and the double "l" seems to be pronounced "tl" if that's possible, but you get the idea. The Þingvellir is only so exciting. It's the site where Parliament used to convey in the Eleventh Century, and there are supposedly ruins, which actually can't be seen. There is a small church (bigger than yesterday's, but still tiny), a graveyard with markers dating as early as 1863, a pretty stream, some tiny houses, a giant hotel, and supposedly more of those "cracks" where the tectonic plates are shifting (we didn't find them). There are five Icelandic flags on the site (less than a mile square). There are walking paths. We climbed some rocks and found a sun-filled grassy knoll and sat around awhile until the bugs started freaking me out. The weather was pretty, and I even got to take off my sweatshirt. The area has some interesting rock formations, but ultimately, that's just rocks. There are a few small waterfalls that were very exciting at the time, though I've seen better ones here since.

The next attraction is Geysir, which is actually a spot featuring a handful of geysers. The giant geyser, the pride of Iceland pictured on so many postcards, hasn't erupted in a long time; our Lonely Planet guide says it's been "bunged up with rocks," and since then, I have used the phrase "bunged up" at least thrice daily to mean "fucked up" (e.g. our car is bunged up, this road is bunged up, etc.), although it seems to technically mean "filled with." Anyway, Icelanders used to fill the geyser with soap to make it explode, and they killed it. There is another one that is still quite impressive, ringed by tourists taking photos; it seems to explode every two or three minutes, and does some heavy heaving when it's about to blow as a good warning. The blast is high but very short, particularly if you are accustomed to the Old Faithful Geyser in the Calistoga area of California, like I am, which blows and blows and blows. This makes photographs tricky, but I managed a few, and even did a short movie of the blast. The water that comes out is in exces of boiling, and there are some other neat holes in the ground that gurgle and steam and bubble, not unlike the Matmos in Barbarella. This was a pretty cool spot, even though it was all bunged up with tour buses and the same tourists we'd seen at the Þingvellir.

The last stop is the Gullfoss, Iceland's most famous waterfall. It's extremely powerful and fast, but it's wider than it is tall (or it seems), which makes it less appealing to my taste than other falls we've since seen around the Southern coast. Also, it was all bunged up with the same tourists we'd been seeing all day. Nevertheless, it's a must-see, and it was worth it. We got we on the passage to and from the falls (unavoidable), saw a rainbow in the mist (necessary for the complete experience), and Michael climbed out to the edge to touch the water, pronouncing it very cold. The smell of sulfur clings to the area, as it does to the Geysir area as well.

We bought snacks at the gift shop (I won't tell you the price because it's embarrassing): water, a tuna sandwich, and two little tubs of Skyr, which is that national yogurt product (it's extremely thick and creamy, and very tasty; I like the blueberry best. It's the only affordable food product I've encountered thus far, and we are eating quite a bit of it.) My sandwich contained tuna, hard boiled eggs, and creme fraische. I guess tuna salad and egg salad are one and the same here, although Icelanders do not raise chickens, and eggs are therefore very expensive, so this was odd. The sandwich had no lettuce or tomato because these things are even more expensive than eggs on this island. I also had a banana I'd stolen from breakfast, and had been munching on trail mix all day.

We then made our way to the small town of Selfoss ("foss" means "falls," if you've noticed it reappearing and wondered), where we had reserved accommodations at a farm-style guesthouse, which didn't have an address. Most country houses around here, it seems, have their own name, and there are so few of them that there are blue signs with these names on the main highway, pointing out the turnoffs. It was still quite early, though, so we decided to hit the pool in Selfoss and go to the guesthouse later. We found it with a little difficulty, parked, paid our Kr250, and went to our separate locker rooms for the shower drill. This being a local pool rather than the tourist-filled Blue Lagoon, it was filled with Icelandic children, and in the showers I saw more naked children than is kosher to post on the internet about. Anyway, the weather was quite windy and cold, so we found the hot tub, plunked down inside, and stayed put for an hour and a half. The water stung our sunburns, which, partially unbeknownst to us, were getting worse in gray late-afternoon sunlight. We abandoned the waters when three little girls came to join us, silently staring (they probably don't get many English-speaking tourists in their pool). Michael tried to be friendly and asked if they spoke English, but they silently shook their big eyes "no." Probably they did—I do believe it's taught at school, and all adults speak it—but they were very shy.

We separated again to tidy up and piled back into the car to find our guesthouse. The proprietress was a blinky Dane with a penchant for shoe horns (she required shoes off indoors, even in one's own room—apparently typical of Iceland—and placed giant shoe horns everywhere in order to better accommodate this requirement). We sat on our beds and immediately both fell into a deep sleep, even though it was only just after six. We woke up around 8:30, starving, but couldn't find any food. The only open eateries were Subway (neither of us will eat that) and a hot dog stand (Michael is vegetarian). I still had a banana and half of my tuna, but he needed to eat, so we went looking for the Pizza 67, the Icelandic chain akin to Domino's. We found it after some hard searching, but it was closed. We found another pizza restaurant, but it too had closed, two minutes before we got there, at nine o'clock. We would have been self-catering, but our guesthouse offered no cooking facilities, and the grocery store, which we had checked out earlier, had no deli or prepared food on offer. After a good amount of fussing, I decided to drive us back to Reykjavík, less than an hour West, where we knew there were plenty of restaurants, and, at worse, the 10/11. I joked that we had time to make it home before dark. Well, when we arrived, it was a few minutes after ten, and out of ten or so restaurants we checked, five had nothing Michael would eat (and were probably no longer serving anyway), four had something he would eat, but were not serving after ten, and one had something he could eat, but charged roughly $40-50 per entree (this being Salt, a very trendy restaurant in the Radisson 1919 hotel, whose menu and decor was closest to anything in New York I've seen thus far. It was vaguely Ian Schragery). Being awesome, I found a pizza restaurant that was still serving, and we split a four cheese 12 inch with very thin crust. I drank water; Michael had a coke. It was $40ish. Yup yup yup.

Before heading home, I wanted to stop back at the internet cafe to check email for some addresses I'd requested from friends for postcards. The email facility seems to be the most booming business in town, with three stories of 20-30 stations each, filled with kids playing Warcraft on giant screens and wearing giant headphones. I paid my Kr200 for 15 minutes, checked my mail, and hightailed it out. White people scare me. We got lost on the way back home because we were both so tired, but finally found the right road and our guesthouse, and fell fast asleep.

More pictures from day four.

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