Iceland, Reykjavik

Iceland – The Beginning

Iceland – the land of Bjork and Sigur Ros, Puffins and Minke whales, never-ending sunlight in the summers, and only 2 hours of light total in the dead of winter. Many people asked me “Why go to Iceland?” I thought, why not?? An island that sits in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, directly between New York City and Moscow is bound to have a culture different to any I’ve experienced before, and one I hoped would posses parts that have remained untouched and unspoiled by western influence.

So, I order Lonely Planet Iceland and began planning. After looking up a few places online and checking out some photos, I am sold. I visit IcelandAirlines webiste and see very reasonably priced tickets from Boston and NYC to Reykjavik. Unfortunately, I wait too long to book my ticket and those fares go up, but as part of a “stopover promotion,” I manage to get an Economy Comfort ticket from NYC to Reykjavik and then a ticket onto London at the end of my stay in Iceland.

Ok- I have to spend a bit more than I want, but the ticket enables me use of the BA lounge at JFK and a seat in the first row behind First Class with extra leg room, an empty middle seat, a meal and free wine. Oh and did I mention I sit next to the lead guitarist from Anthrax, who I must say might be one of the nicest guys ever! I’d say the trip is off to a good start.

After a bite to eat and a few hours kip, I land in Reykjavik, a bit bleary-eyed and in need of more sleep. I take an airport express bus to town and arrive at REX hostel, the nicest and cleanest hostel I’ve ever stayed in. Unfortunately I can’t get into the room until 2, so I get my camera out and venture out to see Reykjavik.

First impressions- it’s 8am and the sun is just rising, but the city is clean, colorful and beautifully set, surrounded by snowcapped fjords in the background. The city is orderly too, typical of the surrounding Scandinavian countries. This makes it easy for me to get my bearings. I walk close to the harbor, passing a steel statue of a viking ship and then head into the center of the city to make my way to Hallgrimskirkja, one of Reykjavik’s most recognizable structures. Completed in 1984, this structure looks more like something out of Star Wars than a church, but the inside is plainly beautiful and an elevator up the tower affords panoramic views of all of Reykjavik. Thankfully, the unpredictable weather is on my side today. It’s a clear morning, but it IS cold, and the sun still hasn’t risen.

A few steps from the church, we stumble upon a sculpture garden. I find out that these bizarrely beautiful works of art were created by Einar Jonsson , and his work can be found randomly placed throughout downtown Reykjavik.

In need of a coffee, I head to Te & Kaffi, a chain of coffee shops throughout Reykjavik. The caffeine powers me through Reykjavik 871 +/- 2, a museum built on historic remains from 930 AD that were just discovered in 2001. I learn about the development of Iceland, from the Nordic settlers who farmed the land, to how Reykjavik became the capital it is today.

Then, I head to the National Gallery, which is a bit disappointing to say the least. Either the art is sub-par, or the caffeine is wearing off. Sadly, I think it’s the first. I head back to REX for a well-needed nap.

I wake up hungry and decide to venture out for something that has had me nervous since the idea of this trip came about… Food! From what I’ve heard, I’m not sure I’m going to be a fan of Iceland’s cuisine. Rumors of smelly fermented shark, herring and puffin have me sure I’m going to lose weight while here. But as a true believer in the fact that food is one of the most important parts of a country’s culture, I decide to throw caution to the wind and get adventurous. I head with a friend to The Icelandic Bar, a place we’re told serves ¬†very “authentic” food “just like your mother would cook.” After stomaching the fact that meals on average are going to cost about $20, I look more closely at the menu choices. Minke whale and puffin soup, herring, fermented shark, reindeer burgers…it’s all there.

I settle on a sampler basket, which is full of various delicacies, some I know are safe and others I decide I should try while here. The basket consists of smoked salmon on a scone (safe), lamb terrine (pate = safe), mustard marinated herring (not sure), smoked lamb (not sure), fish jerky (really not sure) and fermented shark (totally not sure)

Fish jerky (left) and fermented shark (right)
Smoked salmon, smoked lamb, herring and lamb terrine.

The fact that the fish jerky and fermented shark come out in sealed jars leads me to believe that the rumors are true- these things are pungent. And after a quick whif, which causes a gag-like reaction, I’m not even sure I will be able to taste either of them. I seal the jars and venture back to the basket. I start with what I know I will like because I am indeed hungry. The smoked salmon is delicious and the lamb terrine with red onion and blackcurrant jam is a treat, a really nice combination of flavors. The herring is fishy, but is covered in enough mustard and mayonnaise that the taste is somewhat covered. It is indeed a meaty fish though. The smoked lamb is ok, but at this point in time, I am thankfully getting quite full.

I do have to try the two sealed delicacies. It wouldn’t be right not to. So I remove the lids again and try to convince myself that they may taste differently to how they smell. The fish jerky doesn’t smell that bad, but it doesn’t smell good either. On the other hand, the shark smells like the stinkiest brie cheese has been dipped in formaldehyde. I take my fork and tear off the tiniest of pieces… and I bite down into a gelatinous substance that does indeed taste as bad as it smells. It leaves an almost spicy aftertaste in my mouth. I decide I can not sample the fish jerky. My Icelandic food journey has finished. I wash down the last of my water, pay my bill and head to a local cafe for a hot chocolate. I need to get this taste out of my mouth.

The hot chocolate is delicious, maybe one of the best I’ve ever had, and slowly Iceland is redeeming itself in the food and beverage department. I decide to try not to be such a tough critic. I have plenty of other opportunities to sample some less eccentric dishes while here. And after all, the country is known for pizza and hot dogs, funnily enough. At least I know there is a solid backup plan in place. TBC…

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