Part 5: Iceland in Full Circle

…continued from Part 4: The Golden Circle

It was two days after Christmas. I sat on an overnight flight anticipating another Icelandic adventure, this time in the darkness of the Nordic winter. I didn’t know it yet, but in the next five days my trip would unravel into an insane emotional whirlwind of amazing places. I was coming back to Iceland, already, in this dark hour – this time to explore, eat local food, go to museums, celebrate the New Year, and perhaps most importantly, revisit a country that I had quickly learned to enjoy the first time.

The Blue Lagoon

At the time the average high in Chicago was in the single digits, and in Iceland it was twenty degrees higher with mostly clear skies. As far as the climate was concerned, I was getting a break. The trip there, not so much, though I had already planned a reward for the shitty overnight flight. When I got to Keflavik that morning, I got on a shuttle bus for the Blue Lagoon. I relaxed as the light of daybreak illuminated the lake and surrounding hills in ambient blue. I put on a mud mask and got a can of Gull from the island bar. The stress of my 6hr flight evaporated as I drank and swam about the lake among other travelers, watching gales of cold morning air blow fog across the hot water. When in Iceland, so they say.

The shuttle bus left for the city, and the sunrise took forever. Being only a few days after the Winter Solstice, it would slowly arc above the horizon in the south for a few hours each day before leaving us in darkness again. I tried to stay awake as the shuttle passed a huge snow-dusted lava field, glowing in the softest pastel blue I had ever seen. I was back. I couldn’t believe it.

The Northern Lights

I arrived in the city and slept my jetlag off in a hostel dorm. It took me 3 hours to feel like a functional person again. At 7:00 a shuttle from Reykjavik Excursions picked me up for a Northern Lights tour outside of the city. They brought us to Þingvellir National Park, an area with good mountain vistas an hour away from town. We drove through the dark country, passing many snowcapped mountains and farmlands, lit up by a waxing gibbous moon. Though the weather forecast was clear, the solar forecast on my aurora app called for 2%, a low percentage on the front of solar storms.

It didn’t matter. The guide pointed out a thin band of aurora over the north mountains close to the park entrance. To the untrained eye, it looked like a breath of cloud. Only in a few moments could I make out the green tones, dancing like a ribbon over the mountains. We got out. The air was in the low twenties with biting wind. But I got my damn Northern Lights, finally, after all this trouble. There they were, looking back at me as indifferently as an iconic mountain like Denali would – appearing, or not, when she feels like it. But this light show could vanish any second. I had to fucking do this.

I took off for the edge of the lot with my gear, frantically set up my tripod, took out my camera, lost the lens cover, focused on the shuttle headlights behind me, pointed back at the mountains, set to manual, plugged in the remote shutter, and started shooting. After a few underexposed shots, I found a good setting at f/2.8 ISO200 13s. Holy shit! There it is!! I was amazed at how much more color my camera was able to get from a 13 second exposure. To the naked eye, I only saw a fraction of it by comparison. But the picture was interesting enough that a few people started watching the preview screen as I stood there taking pictures. Here are a couple of my successes.

We lucked out. We were there for an hour, watching the aurora dance above the ridgelines. After a while, I was too cold to stay out any longer. The wind was picking up, and I felt like I had seen enough. I packed up and waited in the shuttle.

The Museums of Reykjavik

I didn’t have much time or budget to explore the city last summer, so this time I came back with more of both. I Googled something like “the best museums in Reykjavik” and it returned a great list of places to go – only half of which I ended up seeing. But first, I needed to eat. I left for downtown in the morning, hungry for a good, authentic, local Icelandic breakfast. According to the guy at the cafeteria, the sheep’s head, or Svid, was an Icelandic Viking tradition of thousands of years.

The cheek had the most meat, and was quite tender and flavorful. The tongue tasted about the same, and had a rubbery texture. But my favorite part was the eye. It tasted like cooked fatty tissue with a juicy middle, full of protein and flavor. It didn’t look appealing, but taste buds don’t discriminate.

Satisfied for now, I walked up to the Hallgrímskirkja Church to see the city at sunrise.

In other news, they have a Dick Museum in Iceland.

Just down the street from the cathedral, the Iceland Phallological Museum celebrates all dicks great and small. Whether you’re somebody to prefer a specific type of shaft, or perhaps you just want to see all the dicks, I believe there is a penis here for you. Take for example the taxidermied elephant dick hanging in the back room (pictured above). Feel free to take dick pics and buy your partner a souvenir.

Informative, like the Icelandic Punk Museum, a tiny exhibit close to the Harpa venue nearby. This was a rad little hole in the ground showcasing the rise of Icelandic Punk Rock.

I went to the Whale Museum early the next day. It offers a self-guided audio tour with an mp3 player and headphones, where an Icelandic fellow explains many interesting facts about these great sea creatures. Rumor has it that in ideal weather conditions they can be seen flying above the city.

The South Coast

The city was great, but I needed to see the countryside. I drove around Iceland for a week last summer, and remember being impressed with the south coast. I came to find out later that I missed most of the important places in that area due to time. On this trip, I signed up for a south coast tour on New Years Eve to see everything that I had missed. The shuttle picked me up at 7am and we left at 8 from the BSI terminal an hour before dawn.

In the summer you can hike behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and see the landscape in front of it. Now, however, you would slide underneath the water. I enjoyed that as well as the iconic Skogafoss, another beauty created by the steep, cascading rivers of the high country. After a 40 minute visit there, we continued east and went on a short hike to the Sólheimajökull Glacier. It was an easy hike over moraine to the glacier and frozen lake below.

We reached the tiny oceanside town of Vik in the afternoon. I had dinner at the cafeteria and went out to the beach to take in the ragged shoreline. We made one last stop at Reynisfjara just in time for the 3:30 sunset. The sun slowly appeared beneath the clouds, casting red light onto the beach. Highland volcanoes lit up in alpenglow above us. Waves crashed on the black sand beach as the spires of Reynisdrangar darkened against a backdrop of pale blue.

The line of overcast met with the sea. There, the sun appeared, lighting the clouds ablaze in tones of red and orange. As we drove west, I made friends with Val, a teacher from Sao Paulo who was visiting Iceland for a few days. To her, that sunset was the best one of her life. I watched it slowly change the colors of the landscape and agreed, thinking it was certainly in my top five. It just so happened that a full moon rose above the white mountains to the north.

As the night darkened we passed farms and little towns, often seeing huge bonfires and fireworks from locals already celebrating the New Year. We reached outskirts of Reykjavik, where even more fireworks exploded above the city lights. The magic of their holiday was unmistakable – yet I couldn’t deny in that early hour that they were holding back. It was New Years Eve in Reykjavik, and the city was coming alive in celebration.

This story concludes at the Sigur Ros concert at the Harpa Concert Hall.