Layover: Reykjavik, Iceland

Finally, an update.

Having finished my graduate diploma in Montreal and sourced a visa for Germany, I am back on the road (or in the air in this case).

Can you truly discover a whole country in less than 5 days? I seriously doubt so. However, nothing stops us from trying.
Iceland always had this mystical appeal. Here I was, on the bus from the Keflavik international airport, headed for a capital 100,000 souls strong: Reykjavik.

Cleaning (broad term) my room, packing pretty much all my belongings for storage and putting the necessary in my bags, I was on my way back. I landed and was awake for roughly 36 hours at this point. Too bad I can’t, for the life of me, fall asleep on a plane. Guess that’s what happens when you pack all your crap two days before leaving for a year.

I Quickly jumped on the first bus to Reykjavik, which is about 40 minutes away from the national airport.

Bus ride
Sun was rising slowly.
Paul, doin’ stuff

I made my way, not without difficulties, to where I would crash for the five days and some change I was spending in Iceland. Paul accepted to host me at the last minute, through Couchsurfing, when my other host could no longer. This was a game changer. I went to Iceland without looking it up before. When people say it is expensive, they are downplaying it. Finding a place to stay in, at the last minute, for under 200 USD per night, is impossible. Hostels in the capital are also pretty much all booked in the summer.

Summer, speaking of it. The temperatures peak at a whopping’ 10 degrees Celsius in Reykjavik and dip around 4-5. Apparently, winter is much colder at like -5 or -7ish. I don’t know about you but my native Montreal reaches in the 30’s and higher during hot summer flashes and sees dips below -30 Celsius in the coldest winter weeks. But that was not important. It just meant that the fact I was ill prepared and had no winter jacket would not be a trip-killer. 10 Celsius is okay hoodie temperature for a Montrealer.  A quick nap in the common room of Paul, who lived in student residences, and I was out and about.

Reykjavik was a gorgeous mix of Viking and European culture

After a quick day around town, I went to bed fairly early. The following day, on Paul’s recommendation, I intended to visit a museum. Not a surprising suggestion, first, I obviously knew nothing about Iceland. Zero. Null. Nada. But also, Paul was an American doing his M.A in Iceland. His topic was the Viking Sagas Icelanders are so proud of.

At the last minute, however, I had some important last minute emergency to deal with back in Canada. It took quite a bit of time and after the stress of it, I wouldn’t have enjoyed a museum.

So I went around the city, did a bit of sightseeing…

Went back home, to the University of Iceland’s residences. There Paul and I met up with David, who had already surfed at Paul’s place and was just back from a complete circle around Iceland, sleeping in a tent and hitchhiking.

The following day I did hit the museum. It was quite close to the university and the campus residences. The museum itself, Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, or National Museum of Iceland, recounted the tumultuous history of the country. Founded on the youngest piece of land, a volcanic island. Colonized in the beginning by Norwegian Vikings and later under Danish rule, it was quite the experience to go through the whole history of the country, its politics, religion and more modern issues.

After spending a few hours visiting all of the exhibits, even leaving a note of my own on the one about Iceland’s place in the European project, it was time to leave. I had a coffee at the museum’s café, spoke with the Polish and Romanian working there and had been in Iceland for many years. They gave me a few pointers on what to do next to enjoy the capital. I then left, and following Paul’s advice, had an Icelandic hotdog at the original Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur! They put some crunchy bits in there and some sort of home-made Icelandic sweet mayo-mustard mix. It’s heavenly. Probably the only thing under 6$ one can get in Iceland.

After this, I treated myself to some beers. Even at the liquor store, one beer is nearly 5-6 USD$ in Iceland at roughly 500ISK a pop. But it was well worth it as both were some of the best IPAs I had ever tasted. Glacier water? Maybe. Icelandic Ingredients and Volcano filtration? Ok.

After enjoying the first one at a plaza where kids were skateboarding, I had the second one while chatting up a local Icelander that sat at my table with her 2-year-old. We shared a few stories, she told me what it really felt like for her to be an Icelander, living in the middle of the ocean, speaking a living medieval language that barely has 300,000 speakers. When all was said and my beer bottle empty, I went to meed David and Paul at the bar where we had organized a Couchsurfing meetup: Boston.

There we met up with some other Couchsurfers, namely Sam and Tristen but then were joined by Hannah, Kevin, and Mitch. We played pool, drank 15$ pints (yay, Iceland!) and I talked about photography a lot with Tristen who turns out was studying it at a private college in Vancouver.

We all left happy with our evening, but the price of the beer and the lateness made Paul, I and David call it quits before 1 am.

Early the next morning, with like 2 or 3 hours of sleep in him, David left to go back to England. I spent the day doing the touristy things in the city. Walking around some more and taking pictures.

I went to the famed Hallgrímskirkja! A church that is probably your best landmark when it comes to orienting yourself in the city center. Below is a composite picture of about 20 pictures of it, so that you can enjoy it without tourists. The reality was that at any given time there were at least five to ten of them taking pictures of it.

By taking the same picture about 20 times and using a Photoshop script to only save the recurring patterns, we end up with no tourists! Magic. Not the prettiest church, but on top of a hill, in the middle of the city, it was literally throning over Iceland’s capital. Going up the church, I met some elderly Ontarian ladies and we had a good laugh. However, we enjoyed the view from the top of the church’s tower in silent awe.

We were on top of a rock made out of ashes and lava, in the middle of the Atlantic that was colonized some 800 years ago by Vikings and their stolen wives from the British Isles.

While heading down, hunger struck me and I remembered the Polish lady at the museum’s cafe telling me I needed to have some Brennivín before leaving. Apparently a staple spirit of Iceland, it was to drink as a shot after having some dried fish or…fermented shark. Called  Hakarl, the shark is poisonous, so it is basically left to ferment for 6 months so that the toxins seep out, flavoring the meat with a strong taste of ammonia. The type of food they make people eat on “fear factor” or people mention in their blogs. Oh – I am so original.

When I sat down at Kaffe Loki, a place specializing in traditional Icelandic food that is right across from the church, and asked about the shot and the shark, the only other patron’s face dropped. The German girl who was just back from scuba diving was eating a pastry and wanted to take a picture of me with my plate. She kept saying I was going to be sick, puke or something. The waiter found it funny. He felt compelled, however, when I pointed out that since he made fun of us, he needed to sit down and have some shark and a shot of Brennivín with us. He obliged.

Jenny was eventually convinced to try some of my plate’s dried fish, and later, shark. I ate my whole portion, Jenny spat out her piece saying she was going to be sick or something, and our Icelandic waiter was amused he spent the end of his shift shooting the breeze with us. He had to leave, and so did Jenny not long after I finished my plate and we added each other on Couchsurfing. And if you wonder, no I wasn’t sick, the shark was okay. Really odd taste. I wouldn’t mind having it again, but I wouldn’t exactly flavor ice cream with it either.

I headed back through a different way, using the little park that is before the campus. I was just in time to catch a rare glimpse of something else than grey skies, a rarity in Reykjavik.

After some more food with some of the residents of Paul’s floor, a poor attempt at barbecue, we called it a night. The following day was a road trip with the girl that was initially supposed to host me and some people she met through university.

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