Favorite Places and Spaces: Iceland

I’m switching up my blogging schedule – normally on Wednesdays I do my Writing about Reading bit, but right now I’m sitting on a plane on the way to Newark from Reykjavik, Iceland, and I want to tell you about the past three days. It’s my blog, so I can switch up the schedule like that.
wpid-20150811_132257.jpgI’m on my way back to Pennsylvania for tests on my shoulder. I am not looking forward to these tests. I broke my shoulder (the humerus bone) in February in Chicago slipping on a step at my hotel. I had surgery for it, and then had a subsequent fracture during surgery when my bone fragmented as they were putting the pins in. When I had a CT scan in May it showed very little healing, and my surgeon in California wanted to do another surgery immediately. Lucky for me, I was scheduled to leave California for Pennsylvania and Spain the next week, so he told me to go to a shoulder specialist in Pennsylvania to have the surgery done, so that I could recover at home. The specialist in Pennsylvania didn’t want to operate right away, and let me spend the summer in Spain, and then do more tests at the end of the summer and see where things are. So we’re now at those “end of the summer” tests, and I’m dreading them, mostly because I don’t feel much healing going on. But who knows, I might be wrong.

So that’s the backstory on why I’m flying back to PA. I wanted to fly out of Malaga because the idea of a 6 hour trip to Madrid didn’t sound very appealing, and so I wound up getting a cheap flight to Copenhagen, then Iceland for 3 nights. Now I’m on my way back to Newark from Iceland, and tomorrow morning is my first CT scan.

wpid-20150810_093556.jpgI first went to Iceland in 2012. I’d been hearing amazing things about this special place for years, and I just never made it. My mom went before I did. Other friends went. But I never did. Finally in 2012 we went for 2 days. Long enough to fall in love with it.

This time I was by myself, and I’ve been craving solitude. I spent four months single parenting with a broken shoulder this past spring (though my mom was out to help) when hubby was already in Spain. I’ve been longing for quiet. For large expanses of being alone with my thoughts. Iceland is the perfect place. One thing Iceland excels at is quiet, raw, earthy solitude.

I arrived late – around midnight – and my first disappointment came in the form of passport control. There wasn’t any. Because I was on a flight from the EU, I didn’t get a second magical Iceland passport stamp. Though since I’m flying to the US, I did get one leaving, so that’s fun. I caught the flybus, which is the shuttle to main hotels and the bus station. It costs about 1900kr (about $15) and takes about 45 minutes. Even though it’s August, it was chilly – in the mid-50’s. I shivered waiting for the bus to load, but then had a quiet journey into the city.

I had arranged a room on airbnb and the host also let me rent his car for $50/day, which is much cheaper than using a car rental company. He had dropped it off at the bus station, with the key under my name at reception. There were so many pieces to this series of transactions – it was like a puzzle with each piece fitting in as the night wore on.

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My dad is older than the oldest restaurant in Iceland

So we get to the bus station at around 1:30am. I get the key easily enough, but figuring out where he parked was a challenge. I wandered around dragging my suitcases behind me, in the gravel (much of Iceland is gravel – I don’t know whether maybe the extreme weather would make it difficult to keep paving fresh or what, but for whatever the reason, Iceland seems to like gravel). Finally found the car, set the gps for his address, and off I went.

It’s about 2am now. I found the building easily enough, but couldn’t figure out which apartment was his. There was nothing in the airbnb instructions about an apartment. I wandered around in the cold, peeking in windows and engaging in burglar-like activities, trying to locate the apartment, or his mailbox where the key would be. Thought I might wind up sleeping in the car at one point. But we got there eventually. Got in, unloaded some stuff, put the bare minimum of sheets and pillow cases on the bed, and passed out at 3am.

wpid-20150810_083119.jpgThe next morning I woke up at about 9:30, and planned my day out. I was going to go into the center of Reykjavik, where I’d never been. The last time we came we stayed in Selfoss, an hour outside, and explored the countryside from there. I figured out how to get in, found parking on the street (you pay in little pay stations and then put your printed ticket in your car on the dashboard – I had to watch someone do it before me because the machine was only in Icelandic and I didn’t know what buttons to push).

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Grocery shopping at Bonus

Reykjavik itself reminds me of a small fishing village (which it is) like Mystic Seaport or something. There’s a main shopping area with cafes, several bookstores (I hit three of them on my walk) the library, museums (a settlement one on how Iceland was settled, a photography and art museum) and lots of restaurants. It makes for a pleasant afternoon, but really, if you’re in Iceland, you’re not there to see museums – you’re there to see nature, right? I mean, unless museums are your thing. In which case, you can easily occupy yourself in Reykjavik for several days. Me, I wanted to get out into the countryside.

I stopped at Bonus on the way home – it’s a grocery chain with a pig logo. Eating out in Iceland is ridiculously expensive. Even “cheap” food is expensive. Like $10 for a value meal at KFC, which isn’t very good for you anyway. So I bought some whole wheat pasta, veggies, eggs, yogurt, butter, bread, jelly, cheese, and bananas, nectarines, hot chocolate, and some chocolate. Stuff I could make at home, and also take along with me.

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“The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five goddamn minutes. It’s totally exhausting.”
Stephen Markley, Tales of Iceland or “Running with the Huldufólk in the Permanent Daylight”

wpid-20150810_135218.jpgAfter bringing my food back and making a simple meal, I went out to see Þingvellir, which is a national park where the European and North American plates come together. It’s about half an hour from Reykjavik, an easy drive. There’s no place specifically to go to see the plates – it looks like canyons in the ground, so you can just park at the visitor center, and then wander around towards the canyons. There are plenty of side roads you can drive down, and the whole park isn’t particularly crowded.

wpid-20150810_135328.jpgReally, nothing in Iceland is crowded. These places would be huge national parks with entrance fees and long queues. In Iceland they’re just…there.  Iceland is like Disneyland for Nature Lovers, only it’s better because there are no queues, and most everything is free.   You drive around this pristine untouched country, and you’re so close to it; it’s so fresh and new, like it’s just waiting to be properly discovered.  Iceland is actually the newest landmass on the planet, only poking up out of the water something like 6 million years ago.  It’s a baby.  It’s bursting with aliveness.  It’s the way toddlers like Hannah are – just full of life and energy and excitement.  That’s how the nature in Iceland is.  It’s just buzzing.

So I wandered around and looked at the plates, and the beautiful tundra wildflowers and foliage.  I was getting cold though – I had to buy an overpriced wool sweater earlier in the day from an outdoors store.  I weighed the pros and cons and basically I deduced that if I didn’t get something, I might catch pneumonia, and either way, I wasn’t going to be happy on my trip.  So I walked around with my lovely woolen pullover, and still i was cold.  I’m glad I had it.

Then I drove home the long way around a lake that was shimmering as the clouds broke and the sun came out.  The road took me to Selfoss, and then it was an hour drive back through a valley that is loaded with thermal hot springs, so you see this steam rising up everywhere.  Very surreal.

That night I slept for ten hours.

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Tuesday, yesterday, I got an early start on a hunt to seek out thermal springs.  The first time we came here I insisted on going wpid-20150811_091908.jpgto the Blue Lagoon.  It is pretty much the only thing I knew about Iceland at the time, and so we went.  Now I know there are thermal springs all over the country, and falling asleep the night before I read an article on my phone listing some of the best ones.  There were two that appealed to me the most.  First, Seljavallalaug, a thermal pool that was built in the 20’s, and still exists, though it’s not maintained with any modern conveniences, and they clean the water once a year.  The second one was the Secret Lagoon, near Flúðir, which is the oldest pool in Iceland, having been built in the 1890’s.  It fell into oblivion when a modern pool was built in the 50’s, but it’s recently been renovated.

wpid-20150811_091718.jpgSo, I was a little bit nervous about the first one.  Most of the comments on the blogs were positive, but there were a few saying that it was tough to find, and I’m not the most outdoorsy person. So I parked on the gravel road with screenshots of all the instructions saved on my phone.  I asked some Germans, having lunch on the tailgate of their jeep, if they knew where the pool was.  They hadn’t even heard of it, which wasn’t a good sign.  I started walking, and met some French people who told me that it was an easy walk, and pointed the direction.  You walk through a valley with these lush green hills on either side of you.  You can make out snow on the top of the hills, and there is a stream rushing down the hillside that you have to cross.  You walk like this for 20 minutes through this pristine beauty, and then you are rewarded as you come around a rock with this magical pool in this amazing setting.  The water is pretty warm, and there are changing rooms.

wpid-20150811_102733.jpgWalking back to my car I saw the Germans again hiking in my direction.  They had confirmed with others that there was, indeed, a very cool pool up ahead, and so they were going to check it out.

I got back in the car and started driving back, pulling over to look at waterfalls as I went, and wpid-20150811_132754.jpgturned on Route 30 before Selfoss, and headed up to find the Secret Lagoon.  Along the way I stopped to take some pictures of horses basking in the sunlight.  There are these amazing long-haired horses all over Iceland – you can rent them for riding tours as well, and they are just stunning in the fields.  I took their pictures easily enough, but then as I tried to get closer, the dark one came over and seemed to be a little miffed at me, and so, with fears of being trampled by horses, I skedaddled back to the safety of the car.

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The Secret Lagoon

The Secret Lagoon is indeed a secret.  There don’t seem to be signs for it, except when you’re right on top of it.  I drove down two directions unsuccessfully before trying a third, where I saw a wooden sign that said it was 800 meters down a gravel path.  So I found it eventually.  With a towel rental it cost me 2500kr to go in.  The water felt like a hot wpid-20150811_123129.jpgbath, and from the pool itself you can see the hot springs all around, one of which bubbles and erupts every few minutes.  They have a wooden path around so you can walk and see the different streams and geysers boiling up, and the steam feels amazing on your skin, especially after you’ve just come out of the water into the chilly air.  I went in and out a few times.  I found a comfortable rock and sat, watching people.  Eventually I wanted to keep on my schedule, so I tore myself away and changed back into my clothes.

From there I drove to Gullfoss, the famous waterfall with several tiers.  I bought an overpriced wpid-20150811_150249.jpgsandwich and hot chocolate in their cafe so I could use their free wifi, and said goodnight to my daughter in Spain.  Then I walked around taking pictures.  We came here three years ago, before Hannah, the summer we started fertility treatments.  It felt so odd to be back, and to be happy for the solitude.  The last time we were there they didn’t have any kind of guide ropes up and you could wpid-20150811_151445.jpgliterally walk to the edge of the rock in the middle of the waterfall and dangle your feet.  It freaked me out, and I could hardly believe that someone hadn’t died yet.  The idea of a toddler like Hannah, for example, longing to break away and do it quickly – it makes me nauseous.  Now they do have a little rope up, but it still wouldn’t do anything to deter a curious toddler who could so easily slip.  So don’t take toddlers to Gullfoss.  I repeat: do not take your toddler to Gullfoss.  Or at least out on to the rock.  Even up top there aren’t fences, though, and it would be really easy to fall in.  I think about these things now that I’m a mom.  Seriously, don’t take a toddler to Gullfoss.  Stick to the waterfalls on the south coast that are beautiful and you’re firmly on the ground so there’s no potential falling involved.

On the way back I stopped at Geysir and saw it erupt several times.  Then, I was finally getting tired, and drove back to Reykjavik, stopping for petrol along the way.  The whole trip took me nearly twelve hours of driving, but it was worth it.

This morning I slept in – it was pissing with rain, and I was knackered.  And anyway, how many times do I get to completely sleep in and stay in bed under the duvet on a rainy day?  Like, zero.  So I did that.  Then drove to the bus station, parked the car and gave the key back, took the bus to the airport, and here we are.  34,000 feet above Greenland.  Tomorrow is my CT Scan.  Wish me luck.

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