I am currently traveling in Scandinavia with my 17 year-old son, Little Man. My husband was headed to Bolivia for a climbing trip with my 22 year-old, Middle Man, and I realized we’d have a lot more fun on an adventure of our own, than sitting at home waiting for them to get back. My son is a huge history buff, and Vikings are high on the list; we have close friends in Denmark, and our exchange student from 2 years ago, and her family, lives in Copenhagen. Denmark seemed a great option; the rest has been icing. There’s far too much to share in one post. This is part one of our grand adventure. When my son and I put together our “Viking Tour–” a trip to Denmark with stops in Iceland and Sweden or Norway (we were free-falling; we left some of it open), Iceland was something that interested me, but mainly to see the “Blue Lagoon–” Iceland’s Disney-like geothermal pools. I’d flown through Reykjavik a couple of times, on previous trips to Denmark or Europe, and the ads in the airport had long seduced me. Figuring there might be a few other things to see in Iceland, we added a four-day stop over, for free, via Icelandair. Big mistake. Big. Mistake! Little did I know that we would fall madly in love with this volcanic iceland, and wish desperately that we had much more time to explore. Upon arriving in Reykjavik, in what was late evening by our biological clocks, but 6am local time, we wearily got our rental car, plugged in the navigation (there was NO way I was going to try and navigate the vowel-laden locations on the map, without the reassurance of a dash board map), and headed to our hotel. It was 8am when we found the adorable OK Hotel, on the primo Laugavegur street, in downtown Reykjavik. We were starving; it was raining; we wanted desperately to eat and then nap, and I was worried about not impressing my 17 year-old son with my travel prowess. No doubt, I wanted to look solid and cool in his eyes. However, I felt like doo-doo, and entirely unsure of what we should do next. I was just beginning to question my free-fall itinerary. The dining room in the OK Hotel was such a welcome site, and the lovely Icelandic young woman who waited on us, made us instantly feel at ease. She showed us how to feed the meters (harder than you’d think when not one word resembles anything you know), how to check in (there was no desk, but a number to call to register our arrival), and brought me the most delicious Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, wild mushrooms and spinach. Hello! At least I was well-fed doo-doo. After eating, we dragged our heavy bags up to the room– a quirky, cool room, with a lovely view of the city streets and harbor beyond– and fell into a deep sleep. What was suppose to be a one hour nap, quickly became 2.5, and I had to force us both up… and out into the gray, drizzly day.
And then, Iceland began to come alive. We got a little lost at first, but quickly found Hallgrímskirkja, the 244 ft church steeple and cathedral that dominates the city skyline. The enormous statue of Leif Ericson outside was a giant bonus to start our Viking trip. We wandered the streets, following our Lonely Planet map, to find the National Museum of Iceland next. Score again! What a gorgeous and very approachable museum. We spent about two hours exploring all of the displays, and soaking up the history and feel of Iceland. From there, were raced to the Saga Museum, hoping to find it before closing. The incredibly life-like silicon characters from Icelandic sagas are brought to life in this compelling museum. The stories were fascinating, but admittedly, I found myself staring at some of the characters, sure that they might move. At the end, my son got to try on real chain metal mail, and learned that it was in fact “very heavy!” We ended our first very full day at a local restaurant that features a truly Icelandic buffet… including 3 varieties of whale. We were told that Minke is far from endangered, but it was entirely unappealing none-the-less.
Before going to bed, I began to piece together the rest of our time… beginning to realize that we couldn’t possibly do all the things we were beginning to want to do (should have done a lot more research ahead of the trip… but that’s a definite glitch in free falling), and that we’d need to get up early to get on top of our next day. However, we hadn’t really understood just how much the “midnight sun” would impact our inability to sleep. During parts of the summer, the sun literally does not set in Iceland; it is as bright at 5pm as it is a 2am. It makes sleeping very challenging, despite having been up for about 40 hours. Our second day we found a quirky restaurant that Little Man found in Lonely Planet and then got on the road to explore the “Golden Circle.” First stop was Geyser (pronounces Geeser there). If you’ve been to Yellowstone, this is a disappointment, but it’s good to know that the largest geyser here is in fact higher than Old Faithful, and the drive there was astoundingly beautiful! The guide books warn that stopping to take pictures is ill-advised… clear to understand when you start to see that most roads in Iceland, IF they are paved, are two lanes. This is very challenging when you start to realize that every bend in the road is another “must have” photo op! We were blown away… dumb struck… amazed at the sites! Sheep abound, greener than anything I’ve ever seen (and I live in a land of green), the iconic Icelandic horses taking your breath away as they stand majestically in these stunning settings, endless fields of wild lupine, and landscapes that just take your breath away… it was all just incredible!
At Geyser, I became determined to get a ride on the Icelandic horses I kept seeing advertised and a young guy working in the shop told us to stop 7 km down the road. Thirty minutes later we were mounting our beautiful horses to ride to Gullfloss (Gull Falls)– waterfalls that are much bigger than Niagara and beyond description. I had almost skipped them, figuring we live around a lot of waterfalls at home– what was the point. When I told our guide that I was an experiences rider, I could see the skepticism cross her face. However, I have never ridden a horse like this! The Icelandic horses have an extra step in their gate, making it a 3 beat gate… and the most amazingly smooth ride of my life! My horse (whose name I could not pronounce) was spirited and determined to run… the entire ride. Little Man had only ridden a couple of times, and only on typical trail horses… neither of us was prepared for the joy of that 3 hour ride! At the falls, we dismounted, corralled our horses and walked down to see the falls… and then road back to the barn, passed one of the largest glaciers in the world– it covers 1/8 of the country! Having watched me post, and manage my very eager horse, and nearing the barn, our charming guide (Erin, in Icelandic), looked at me and said: “Wow, you can ride! Go for it!” We ran the entire way back, and I had to stop myself from whooping! Three hours were gone in a flash… until we got down and had to walk. Note to self: when you haven’t ridden in say… a few years, a three hour ride will hurt later!
Our final stop of the day was Þingvellir (roughly: then-gla-vear), the ancient Democratic seat of Iceland, a very historical and spiritual place, and the site of yet another thrill for Little Man and I. Deep gorges, a walk along tectonic plates (an eery experience, when you really see how the earth has moved!), fantastic waterfalls and clear pools, and Game of Thrones… yes, as we walked along, I began to feel like I’d seen this place before– (Warning: spoiler for anyone who hasn’t seen all the seasons)and like we might be watched. A few minutes later, we heard a guide explaining how the scenes from GoT, when the Hound approaches the Aery with Arya Stark. Yes! It was so clear… and suddenly we were giddy, and had an additional focus to our Viking Trip: the Game of Thrones trip. It would not be our first GoT site…
Beyond the incredible history of Þingvellir (a site where Democratic and legal decisions were made, officially, from 900-1798, and unofficially into the 1970s and mass gatherings were held), the geological landscape and the beautiful valley and lake were hauntingly special, almost eery, as the day got later and the sky a bit darker. Many of the tectonic rifts have filled with water, and there are areas where divers explore, and other places where you can wander and take in this other-worldly beauty. Our plan had been to head home on the early side, and visit the Blue Lagoon, but we were swept away, all day, and kept finding ourselves stopping at “one more site,” before heading back to Reykjavik– too late for Blue Lagoon. When we finally made it back to our hotel, exhausted and humbled by this place we’d planned to see in four days, we had already begun realized that we had grossly underestimated how much Iceland would capture our curiosity and breath. I went to sleep at 1:00 am, the alarm set for 4am… to drive 4.5 hours to Skaftafell glacier, and the one big adventure we’d scheduled before arrival. We had no idea that we were about to be rocked completely! (To be continued)
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