Seattle to Keflavik
With four months of planning behind us, we board our flight with a fair amount of somewhat existential/spiritual dread, a bunch of travel anxiety, and... well, mostly a shit-ton of excitement. This trip represents for us a pilgrimage of sorts, contains a number of items from both of our bucket-lists, and would see us return, in some ways, different people than the two who boarded this flight bound for Keflavik and beyond...
Flying up through the northern Canadian wilderness and across Greenland (see all that ice down there?) to get to Iceland is the most direct route. On a red eye in the summer, it also means that the sun actually never goes down. So this was about 7 hours of perpetual sunset.
The planning for this vacation started by buying ticket to Midgardsblot, a folk & metal music festival in Borre, Norway. There we would get to see Einar Selvik and Wardruna play live on the last night of our long journey. After buying some early-bird passes one night at the completely-normal-hour of 4 am, all of our other plans just sort of fell into place in the weeks that followed. And so it was very fitting that on our departing flight, we watched a fantastic, hilarious, and dark Icelandic movie called Rams.
I'd seen the trailer many months before and had always wanted to see it. Even on the tiny airplane screen, it was great. When then the credits began to scroll-- Wait, what was that? Pause. Rewind. Play. "Taglharpa music by Einar Selvik"... Of course. How very fitting that our trip should start and end with his music. Too fitting. Like someone out there is having a laugh, and they probably lost an eye once. (Editor's Note: He didn't lose it, per se. He know exactly where it is.)
The Blue Lagoon
Jan: Our first stop after arriving was the popular and picturesque hot spring. Rynn's wanted to go there since she was a child, and it was a damn fine way to relax after a long flight. It can get pretty crowded – and the degree to which that's an understatement varies depending on the time of day (and dumb luck) – but it's well worth going to at least once for the experience.
The Lava Restaurant at the Blue Lagoon
The food in the Blue Lagoon's restaurant is fantastic. (Admittedly, we didn't have a single disappointing meal in Iceland.) On the left, that's Skyr butter, which has ruined all other butter for me forever. We celebrated the start to our vacation with some incredible lamb and a few glasses of Asti. While in bathrobes.
Yes, bathrobes. In a fine dining establishment. Please pause to envision a fine dining establishment. See swanky people in fancy-schmancy attire. And many others attired in fluffy bathrobes and Blue Lagoon flip-flops. So fancy.
Enjoy this very dignified photo of Rynn which she LOVES. Regardless about what she may say about it, she is definitely very, very glad that I took this photo.
Our little basecamp in Garðabær. Nice, quiet neighborhood in a suburb about 10 minutes from downtown Reykjavik and right around the corner from major roads.
Asatru Fellowship Temple Site
Knowing that we wouldn't be in Iceland on a Saturday, we were sad that we would miss the weekly Ásatrúarfélagið open house. So instead, we paid a visit to the site of their new soon-to-be northern temple – the first public temple of its kind in a long time. We made some offerings of mead and tears, and silently agreed that we will definitely be returning to it (hopefully many times).
Getting hungry again, we headed downtown. Walked past some amazingly colorful corrugated iron-sided Scandinavian homes and eventually arrived at Lækjarbrekka, where we sampled their "Taste of Iceland" menu. It's exactly as the name says; meant to give visitors a taste of local cuisine – all of which was delicious.
Sólfarið - The Sun Voyager
This is as dark as it gets in Iceland in at the end of July. Constantly just-past-sundown at 11:00pm at night.
Þingvellir National Park
This ancient seat of Iceland's government is both gorgeous and haunting. It was hard not to feel like we were being watched by less corporeal eyes and sized up (not in a bad way).
It may not seem like it from the photos (because I waited for the very brief openings where there was less traffic for just a moment), but this place was packed to the brim with tourists. Sometimes it seemed like the ground was shaking from their collective footfalls. We will definitely be going back (preferably before 9am or after 9pm, when there are far less people).
Driving South along the Ring Road
An hour or two south, along the coast, are some of the world's most gorgeous waterfalls. (Correction: an hour or two in ANY direction are 'some gorgeous waterfalls'.) We stopped for lunch at Restaurant Varma (in Hveragerði's Frost and Fire Hotel). Hveragerði is a small town next to a geothermic stream that is littered in hot springs (some of which are far too hot to enter). The stream itself seemed to be giving off steam, and there were steam vents everywhere.
The locals use these vents for cooking (boiling eggs, baking bread)... and if you ever get the chance to visit Iceland, you owe it to yourself to try their geothermally-cooked Rye bread. You've never tasted anything quite like it. We took a loaf of it with us and I spent the next week eating it as slowly as possible. (Translation: hoarding it and the skyr butter like it was gold and only indulging in small amounts so we had some the next day, and the day after that, and... you get the picture.)
The Reconstructed Farm is based on the excavated farmhouse Stöng from the Commonwealth Era in Iceland. Stöng is believed to have been destroyed in the Hekla eruption in the year 1104.
A lot of the excitement for this trip was for the opportunity to see large old buildings; feasting halls, mead halls, chieftain's halls. Some modern, some reconstructions... This is an iconic reconstructed turf house in the mountains east of Reykjavik. The smaller building is a chapel.
Having only four days in Iceland, and getting about 4 hours of sleep each night because SOMEONE (me) over-planned this leg of the trip, there was a LOT to do today. Museums, two live performances at the Harpa Concert Hall, a photography session, eating... let's just start with the museums.
Reykjavík 871±2 - The Settlement Exhibition
Archaeological remains from the first settlement in Reykjavik, dating to before 871AD. The photo above does it no justice, but most of the exhibition is taken up by the well-preserved actual foundation of a large viking hall, still in its original location.
The National Museum of Iceland
Quite a bit of beauty preserved in this place. I wish we'd had more time to spend there. I'll shut up and let the photos do the talking...
Oh, I forgot the most important part. The drinking horns!
We ate lunch at the Apotek Restaurant downtown. It is a very fancy place, but lunch is affordable and delicious. While Rynn and I live in an area famous for its salmon, the best salmon I've ever had in my life was at this restaurant. I fully intended to take a photo of it to share, but something happened, fish melted in my mouth, I blacked out, I don't know... sorry, no photo. We're definitely going back there.
Mink Viking Portraits
Guðmann of Mink Viking Portraits is a treasure, and I wish I could get to know him a bit better. His photos are fantastic, he is highly professional, and incredibly friendly. Our only regret is that we were so excited/exhausted in the morning that we left our own Viking clothes in the apartment. Oops! I guess it means we'll have to visit Mr. Mink again. (Oh no.)
We ate dinner at Kopar Restaurant in the harbor. Again, stunning food (such that I forgot to take any photos of it). Rynn managed to snap one shot of me just before devouring far too much salted skyr butter. (Editor's Note: There is no such thing as "far too much" salted skyr butter.) Next stop, some live shows at Harpa.
Harpa Concert Hall
While we didn't ride around the island on a bus full of other tourists, occasionally we went in for the tourist-fodder. Rynn and I went to see How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes followed by Icelandic Sagas - The Greatest Hits in 75 minutes. Both were damn funny.
The latter is a two-person show, but when you're summarizing 40 Icelandic sagas, not every scene is going to have both genders represented, so if there's not a lady in the scene, the actress has a fun prop to help.
Leaving the capitol region early in the morning, we drove north. We stopped at the Geirabakari Kaffihus outside Borgarnes. Though the signs were changed, you might recognize the exterior from a short scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There are no actual Papa Johns franchises in Iceland, so they took over this little bakery to film it. Awesome bread and pastries, and a nice quiet pit stop along the way.
Slight diversion. From the road, we spotted a beautiful rainbow cutting its way through the overcast sky. It looked close, so we chased it to a small lake called Baulárvallavatn.
Not far from the lake and the rainbow is our first stop; a lava field called Berserkjahraun. It is described in an Icelandic saga as a place where a farmer tricked and slew two large berserkers from Sweden. In more recent history, two skeletons were discovered in the lava field, giving a great deal of credibility to the old saga.
Helgafel, Thor's Sacred Mountain
The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft
This is a place I've wanted to visit for years, and not just because of the Necropants. It's worth the day-long trip to get up to the Westfjords, but there was a lot about the experience that was surprising...
After a long day, we turn south again. On our way back to Reykjavik, we stopped by Snorralaug and the The Settlement Center museum, which as several exhibits on early Icelandic life.
Snorralaug is the hot spring of the chieftain and storyteller Snorri Sturluson. Without his work, there are many Norse myths we would not have, so I had a mind to stop and give thanks.
The Lofoten Islands
The Lofoten Islands are dramatic in their beauty, power and majesty. And still, to try and describe them is to understand the limits on language. Better to let the photos do the talking here instead.
The Lofotr Vikingfestival
A place that we've wanted to visit for years and the inspiration for traveling so far north, the Lofotr Viking Museum has a replica of the world's largest longhouse. Longest largehouse. Meadest longhall. Whatever. I want one.
(Vang Burial Mounds)
The burial site at Vang in Oppdal is the second largest known iron age burial site in Norway (possibly the largest). It is also one of the largest known in Scandinavia, containing 750-800 known burial mounds and countless other flat unmarked burials. It is almost impossible to walk more than 3 meters without almost stepping on someone's grave. Another site we'll be returning to, as we weren't able to spend near enough time there.
In the morning, I learned from our host that this illuminated rock face was a Troll door called Jutulporten (or "the troll gate"), and that if one were to stand before it and throw a rock up to the top, and that rock lands in just the right spot, the door to the mountain would open up. There are other legends about it, including one about the battles between the trolls and those building the town's stave church, which explain the large boulders in the flat valley between the church and the mountain. Trolls have good throwing arms. And something about how 'troll' was a name for the local pagans. We listened and nodded and said little.
Urnes Stave Church
Kaupanger Stave Church
Borgund Stave Church
Just through the world's longest tunnel is the little town of Flåm. There lies a microbrewery with architecture inspired by old traditional Norwegian buildings.
This place is great. I want one. They were just out of their most recent batch of Heidrun mead, so we'll need to go back for that. Darn.
Home of the Viking Chieftain of Norway
We fell unexpectedly in love with this little valley town. Here we met Georg and Angela, two well-known viking reenactors who know everyone who is anyone and are two of the most gracious and hospitable people I've ever met. While meeting Georg for the first time over drinks, he (wisely) brought some muscle (as we viking enthusiasts from the States are not always the most savory folk) – an American named Reiter, who just happened to live about 15 minutes from our home in Washington. We've become good friends since meeting in a tiny remote town in Norway. Georg has also been quite busy and has since built a very large viking village (Njardarheimr) in the center of town!
We stayed in Bergen for two days. It poured down rain the whole time, and we spent most of it relaxing in bed, catching out breath after two weeks of nonstop travel. We did get to visit the iconic piers and shops, including the Bryggens Museum (a must-see if you are interested in Norse runes).
Nordvegen History Centre
Sun Rock, Stavanger
A little known megalithic site with ancient carvings, similar to many other across Scandinavia. This site was delightful. Also directly next to someone's house, which was odd (see below). Lucky people, having this natural ampitheater and ritual site in their backyard.
The Iron Age farm. We missed their summer festival by one day! Damn. Beautiful site, though a little surreal to see turf-roofed longhouses in the foreground and high-rise hotels in the background (not pictured).
Sverd i fjell
Rollag Stave Church
Rollag is a bit out of the way. The reason for our visit is that a dear friend's ancestors come from this region, and many of the more recent ones were laid to rest in this graveyard. A local caretaker showed us around the interior of the church, where you can still see her family's names on several of the pews inside. It really hit home for us how small this town is when the caretaker greeted us by saying, "Oh, you're the two Americans staying up on X's homestead. Welcome!" News travels fast in small towns.
Heddal Stave Church
Okay, this is the last one, I promise. It was (kind of) on the way over to Oslo from the Numedal Valley, and as the "biggest" stave church in Norway, it was worth a look.
When I was planning this trip, I knew I didn't just want to see reconstructed mead halls, homesteads, and stave churches - I wanted to find a place that married the old traditional architecture style with something more modern. I'm sure there are a number of things that fit that description, but I have no regrets about the Scandic Holmenkollen. This is the exterior of De Fem Stuer, the hotel's Michelin-recommended restaurant. And also, the best meal I think I've ever had in my life. No joke.
The Viking Ship Museum
Borre Burial Mounds, the Gildehall, & the Midgardsblot Music Festival
On the third day of Midgardsblot, Wardruna took the stage. I've never seen a performance quite like it, but if I never have the pleasure again, it's a show I'll never forget. At one point, I looked behind me (from the front row, just to the side) to see a sea of badass vikings and metal-heads all but weeping through the epic performance. We did the same.
It poured down rain for most of the concert. The weather seemed to clear up for a few moments until they began to play Laukr - a song about water. The trees moved in the wind as though they were underwater during a storm, and as soon as Einar began to sing, a wall of water dumped from the clouds and did not stop until after the concert was over.
It was 1:30 in the morning by the time we made it back to the hotel (the Scandic Holmenkollen again). We must have looked like we had just strolled through a hurricane, because the young man at the front desk upgraded us to a Master Suite. Who am I to say no? Look at this thing. The bathroom alone was the size of my office at home.