Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Iceland: Day Three (Bláa Lónið, Avis, and the Reykjanes Peninsula)

We woke up less early than we would have liked, but saved the showering time because we were headed to the bathing destination of the century. We wolfed our breaky, suited up, and trudged off to the bus terminal. I packed up all my toiletries, knowing I'd be bathing, but skipped the sunscreen, laughing at myself for even bringing it to Iceland, so very far from the equator, where the nicest weather we'd seen so far had been a windy 55˚F. Bus tickets included the flybus transport to the Bláa Lónið (Blue Lagoon), admission to the baths, and bus transport back to Keflavík, where we would pick up our rental car, no longer slaves to the flybus and its fares (this trip: Kr3600, or $60ish).

Iceland is known for its bathing opportunities; every major town has a pool open to the public for a nominal admission fee (usually under $10), and there are also geothermal hot springs dotting the still-active volcanic island. The Blue Lagoon is the largest and fanciest, but it is an artificial, man-made, engineered hot springs (featuring actual geothermally heated all natural water and all natural volcanic silica mud, but in a pool constructed by (mediocre) landscape architects (if you want better specimen of artificial lagoons, I recommend the fancier hotels of Maui, although those are cold water). It's still, though, worth the trip. When checking in, each guest is given a plastic bracelet that contains a computer chip. This bracelet both locks and opens your locker and works as a tab so that you can buy food and drinks at the cafe or massages at the spa area, paying one single tab on the way out the door. Towels are for rent at Kr600 ($10ish) each (!) Inside the locker rooms, before entering the lagoon area, showering, nude, with soap, in front of a lot of other same sex people doing the same, is very much required, here and at all other Icelandic pools. The lagoon is big, steamy, and lightly sulfurous. The water is bright and light, greenish blue, and stains the rocky bottom and sides white, reflecting what that day was a bright, cold sky dotted with cheery clouds. The color comes from supposed blue-green algae.

We puttered about in the water for an hour or two, pummelling our shoulders under the (fake) waterfall, and rubbing the silica mud on our bodies and faces; before we realized that there were stations at the lagoon's edges where the mud could be scooped up with a ladle, we used our feet to scoop it up off the floor. It was, well, fun, but, um, yeah, sort of gross if you think about it for too long. When I got bored, I sat in a very nice steam room for awhile, which has a glass wall that allows you to look out at the lagoon and the bathers while you're sweating and a waterfall that makes a soothing sound. There was also a dry sauna that I avoided. I wanted to have a massage, which would have been conducted in a special area of the pool, on a floating mat, but there weren't any free slots in the time we had allotted to stay. Instead, I spent a good deal of time enjoying the Finnish Sauna, which was built into an (artificial) cave with a low door one must duck down into. With very low light, it seats at most eight people, and is round, with one level of wood plank benches and a wood plank floor up through which hot steam spews. This was my favorite part of the experience and I wish there was a Finnish Sauna in every town, rather than just a swimming pool and hot tub.

We showered, scrubbed, and caught our bus (as it was about to pull away) to the airport. I had booked our (very expensive; surprise!) rental car through my company's travel agency (the cheapest way, believe it or not). Because I only drive automatic, I required a mid-size vehicle (all compact and economy cars here, and apparently throughout much of Europe, are manual); the car was therefore costing $680 for seven days. When we got up to the counter, the attendant announced that he was giving us a free upgrade and I thought that was lovely; I was to get a Vitara. "I don't know what that is," I said to him. "It's a Jeep," he said, and I said, "awesome," thinking of the off-roading possibilities now opened up to us—many good things here, like glaciers, etc., require four wheel drive in order to drive through streams, over turf, etc. I was a tiny bit skittish because I've never driven a truck—just sedans and sports cars—but he said it handled easily. Michael and I trudged through the parking lot, found the car, and saw that it was a giant white Suzuki SUV. I hate SUVs, I hate white cars, and I had no idea how I was going to park the massive thing anywhere in Reykjavík. I asked Michael if he thought we should try taking it for a spin around the lot, or just go back and request to be downgraded back to a sedan. We got downgraded back to a sedan (Nissan Altima; gold (gold is bad, but better than white, and I like the way Nissans handle; my car back in San Francisco is a Nissan)) and drove off on the long way back to Reykjavík, after signing up for $200 worth of extra insurance, just in case.

Major attractions along the way began with the Miðlína (the "Bridge Between Two Continents), where the continental plates are shifting such that on one side of a ten meter gap is Europe, and the other side is America (I am very bad at geography, so don't ask me how this is possible; just believe). Enough gravel and sand has slipped down in between that if you fell of the edge of one side, you wouldn't get too hurt landing (10 feet below? 15?) It was so, so, so windy and I ran laughing back to the safety of the car while Michael continued to photograph (this would become a pattern.) On the way there, and from there to the next stop, all the terrain looked like the moon (rocks rocks rocks and some dirt, no plants, and then more rocks, all flat, as far as the eye could see); it was rather boring and sad at best, dreadful at worst, because many parts of the roads (many parts of many roads around here, it turns out) are unpaved gravel. Before I accepted that this was "perfectly normal; perfectly healthy," I took these roads at 10 mph. Imagine. Now I take them at between 20-40, depending on the coarseness of the grind, which changes radically depending on how important the road is. All roads near cities and businesses and most (!) major highways are paved. Non-major sections of major highways are fine gravel. Roads turning off the major highway into small hamlets are medium gravel. Roads turning of these roads into individual homes or farms' "private drives" are coarse (think Courbet's Stone Cutters). The most exciting aspect of the landscape is the preponderance of cairns: who is out there stacking up all these rocks in this hideous weather?

The next attraction on the road was the Krýsuvikurkirja, the tiniest church I have ever seen. Perched atop a windy little hill, covered in grass happily being munched by six or seven untended sheep (common out here in Iceland's countryside, particularly in the South), it had a tiny door with a giant key sitting in the lock, and though the area seemed desolate, the guestbook had 24 signatures for that day already. The construction was nearly the barest minimum: brown planks for walls, red roof, four windows, and a door. It could probably seat 16 people comfortably, 24 people uncomfortably. I am telling you it is tiny, and you have no idea just how tiny I mean. I banged my head on the door on the way out, okay?

The next attraction was, to make up for the falsehood of the Bláa Lónið, a real geothermal hot spring: the Krýsuvík-Seltún. A big yellow sign reads, in Icelandic and English, "DANGER! Steam eruptions Hot springs" because the water that comes up is boiling. You believe the sign because there is steam everywhere, the powerful smell of sulfur, and the water on the ground is literally boiling: big bubbles are burping up at the rapid pace your pasta longs for. Minerals in the water stain the earth and the resultant patterns of blue, white, and orangey-brown and black are quite attractive. I took a lot of "arty" pictures here, and did a 10 second video of a boiling puddle so that you would believe me.

Our last attraction before heading back to our guesthouse and self-catered dinner (I made a tasty pesto/chicken/pasta/zucchini thing in a frying pan that looked ultra green and gross but tasted nice) was Kleifarvatn, a big, deep blue lake with black sand banks. Again, it was terribly cold and windy, but I parked the car off the side of the road (had some trouble getting it back up onto the road afterward. . .) and we ran down to the water's edge for pictures. This was the first night that we didn't need a long walk to get us ready for bed. I had driven five hours. Of course, undressing, we found that we both had serious sunburns. Only we could get sunburns in Iceland in 50˚F weather. Sleeping wasn't as easy as it ought to have been.

More pictures of day three.

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