Saturday, September 15, 2018

Island at the Top of the World VI: The Capital



 This is the first time I've explored a country's capital city at the end of the trip.  But in hindsight it proved to be an interesting approach.  Historically, city's have always come late, the form they'd take a by-product of centuries of cultural growth in the countryside.

Nowhere was this more evident than in my initial stop at the Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum.  Ducked in and out of the twenty or so buildings on the grounds was a refamiliarization with cultural elements already familiar from the ten day drive around the perimeter of the country.  A common theme was the compact yet cozy nature to the homes, ideal for the creative person looking for a little isolation in which to work.

The city proper was not so quiet.  Unknown to us, the annual Reykjavík Culture Night would be happening the following day, and already the city was beginning to fill.  We moved up the hill for a quick look at Hallgrimskirkja, the church that is Reykjavík's most recognizable icon.  It is an odd shaped structure, almost like a space shuttle, but hey, whatever it takes to closer to God.  In the tidy grounds out front is a towering statue of Leif Erickson, which was a cultural homecoming of sorts for me, as the man's name is generally found on page one of the history books of every American schoolkid.

We descended the hill to Þrír Frakkar, a restaurant that came highly recommended, apparently a favorite of Jamie Oliver when he is in town.  I decided to start my meal with the dreaded hákarl, or Grennland shark that has been fermenting underground for six months.  Every bite was a sudden rush of ammonia, little wonder since sharks have no anuses and secrete waste through their pores.  Thus every bite was quickly followed by a sip of brennivín schnapps to both neutralize any remaining toxins and to wash the flavor of uric acid from the palate.  Even more efficient at the latter was the dessert later, creamy yogurt-like skyr highlighted with a variety of fruits. 

Our plan for the day was to wander downtown.  We detoured first to the Icelandic Phallological Museum, whose premise proved far more interesting than the mere 10 minutes it took to see the displays.  The usually busy Laugavegur was pretty quiet, and within minutes we realized that it was because everyone was downtown, watching road races of different lengths and categories. I was intrigued by the subterranean punk museum along the way, the elfin face of Björk staring up from the stairwell, but alas it was closed for the festival. We detoured around the police barricades to the very trendy restaurant of Apotek, where we sat awhile with French coffees and watched the runners go past.  

The waterfront wasn't far off, busy with people setting off on whale watching excursions.  One old warehouse had been converted into a Fish and chips place, where we settled in, the stragglers in the 10K still serving as entertainment value.  We meander from here through the afternoon, visiting the Viking exhibits at Landnámssýningin Settlement Exhibition, then the more panoramic look at history at the Þjóðminjasafnið Museum near the university.  

We rounded the lake toward the open squares of old town, as small bursts of flame signified the start of the children's road race, followed by the rush of hundreds of little legs. Performance and artists did their thing in the open courtyards of city buildings.  Old town itself was also in full festival mode, all the benches and table occupied by patrons of the dozens of food stalls around the central square.  We regretted immediately our lunch earlier. 


Seeing a city for the first during its busiest festival brings with it mixed emotions.  It is of course all quite fun, and gives a quick look into the character of the people and their love for the place.  But it is like trying to find a date at a Halloween party, you just aren't sure what is under all that makeup.  I wish I'd had a look around the day before, then returned to party.  

As such, neither LYL are big fans of crowds, so we escaped to the relative quiet of our hotel.  As Iceland has one of the wrold's best music scenes, I had a quick look at the festival website to see who might be performing later, but there were no recognizable names.  What had immediate appeal was the first Icelandic Craft Beer festival over at the waterfront.  I headed back out there at an appropriate happy hour, though this time of year the sun barely makes it past the yardarm.  I was sensible in only taking half-glasses as I sampled, but it was still quite a stumble back (past a poet's corner where four people sat behind typewriters to craft verse on themes provided by those in the chair opposite), to regroup with LYL and our awaiting dinner at Apotek.  

Music was already playing from the large stage in the grassy park around the corner, with fireworks to follow at 11pm.  But the crowds were too dense, and maybe we'd grown too accustomed to the quiet of the remote countryside.  We laughingly picked out oncoming faces that we thought looked like Vikings, many just a drink or two shy of berserker stage.  

As I drifting off in my hotel bed, my attention was immediately grabbed by some great ska sounds of Todmobile coming from downtown, their energetic singer no doubt whipping up the crowd.  I argued with myself whether to go back out, but the laws of inertia were against me.   It somehow seemed better that way, to leave a place with some mystery, as a point from which to launch further explorations.  

For as I think back on this particular journey, I feel that I had missed the point somehow,  in covering ground more too quickly, in missing that which exists within the folds of all that verdant green.

On the turntable: J.J. Cale, "Shades"
 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Island at the Top of the World V: The South



 After our own slumber in Kirkjubæjarklaustur (if sleep had been a problem, I would have counted the letters in the town's name), we climbed a path that paralleled the Systrafoss waterfall, fed by Systravatn,  a lake of modest size where supposedly the nuns from the nearby convent.  The views on this clear morning were stunning, our eyes moving along the jagged glacial edge of Vatnajokull which we'd edged yesterday, then taking in the massive moss field which carpeted everything to the west. 

While the lava that defined this landscape was most often in its usual craggy form, they'd taken on a more uniform geometric pattern at Kirkjugólf, to resemble ornate tilework. Legend has it that this was the floor of an ancient church, but geologists would rebut and tell you that it is merely basalt columns that have eroded over time. Sheer perfection either way, as sheep grazed the shorn hillsides above.

A travel video that LYL had watched on the flight over mentioned that tourists loved to lay on the ubiquitous moss, though over a week of driving I'd not seen a single person doing so.  But the time was right to give it a try ourselves. Leaving the car at a pullout, we walked across the green expanse, to a nice patch ringed by a bedframe of black lava.  I closed my eyes awhile, laying atop a soft sponging surface surprisingly deep.  Had we been a little further from the road, I'd have allowed myself a good long snooze.

Although the day's journey was short, the road called.  A large number of cars were parked at a lot in the middle of nowhere, and along a dirt path leading across the volcanic wasteland, figures somnambulically headed toward the black beach at Sólheimasandur beyond.  I figured that this must be the near intact wreckage of an old US military plane that had crashed here in 1973.  I was tempted to go out there myself, but the 90 minute return out and back, not to mention that all these cars had been driven by somebody, and that all these somebodies would be clamboring all over the place.  A look at Google later provided a better, and more artistic, look.    

 
We did stop outside Vik, and strolled the black beach there to get a look at the almost pipe organ formations rising from the sand.  In a pleasant surprise, we also got a puffin colony, the little beasties flapping madly toward the sea and back, agitated by a tourist who had climbed a little too close in order to take photographs.  As we zoomed in with our own lenses, a rogue wave rushed from behind, and LYL impressed me (yet again) by racing up the beach without a glance when I calmly said "run."  Others hadn't been so lucky, as one Chinese tourist had been swept away the previous year, and another served as a model in a photographic warning that these waves are a common occurrence here.  Still, a group of cosplayers wandered the sands in their medieval gear, walking as a timeless vision framed by the island of Heimaey just offshore.  

A pair of waterfalls rounded out the morning: first the steep climb up beside Skógafoss, itself nestled within its own bowl;  then Seljalandsfoss, where a path leads you to the back of the waterfall, the waters spilling like a rainbow-laden curtain before you. Above us, Eyjafjallajökull rested, was thankfully quiet after its 2010 activity had wrought havoc with not only international flights but also newscasters worldwide who stumbled over her name.  

Eyjafjallajökull shares a body with the neighboring volcano of Katla, which historically had proven more temperamental.  We kept her on our right as we left the Ring Road to follow some smaller, unsurfaced routes north.  A nice patch of meadow with a view provided a quiet picnic spot, where nearby sheep grazed on the remnants of oil leaked from passing cars.  What followed was lovely drive through a rough landscape formed from one of yet another volcano's tantrums, that of Hekla, one of Iceland's most active,with another eruption expected any day .  We returned to tarmac eventually, but one section had suddenly and without warning fallen away due to a works project.  I hit the edge of a surface at the other side dead-on and at speed, and within seconds, I sensed that our 4x4 was pulling slightly right.  One of the best things about BMW is their integrated computer systems, and my fears were confirmed when a warning came on to tell me that we indeed have a leak.  

But thankfully a slow-one.  The 4x4 drive system did its work in moderating the pressure in the damaged tire, while letting the other three take up the slack.  I assessed this over the following 30 minutes, and felt confident in the day's final detour, out a somewhat bad road to Stöng, a Viking era longhouse that is so well-preserved that it has become a Rosetta stone for Viking research.  Nearby was Gjáin, a remote an scenic stretch of river that has also been a location for Game of Thrones.  We admired both from afar, as concerns about the tire returned us quickly to the car, which did an admirable job in returning us to remote Hótel Lækur, where a quiet night awaited, with a hot tub and ample dinner enjoyed while nestled amongst the expanses outside.    


 Our tire was dead flat in the morning, but the friendly hotel owner had a pump, which enabled us to get to the fun named town of Hella and auto shop.  These shops must do quite well in this country of bad roads, and during the 30 minute patch job, two other vehicles turned up, including one in a horse trailer.  

Iceland weather seems to promise rain every other day, a strong point I suppose in creating that fantastic hue of green.  The forecast hinted that the morning would be dry, so we moved quickly through the Golden Circuit, a name I image was created by the tourist industry.  While the highlights were worth the effort, they paled somewhat after a week out in the truly remote parts of the country. For those with limited time, they were an easy day trip from Reykjavík, and a nice sampler of the beauty of Iceland's natural scenery.  

First up was Gullfoss, a unique double waterfall that proved impressive in how it dominated an otherwise empty landscape.  Geysir was not far away, an eponymous burst of thermal water from a broad fumerole (and of course providing the English language with the word geyser). The eruption occurs every ten minutes of so, and we were lucky to get two spouts in that time, the second catching the photographers unaware, forcing them to actually observe the thing with naked eyes for a change.  

The sights were certainly more spread out at Thingvellir National Park, wrapped as it is along the large lake Þingvallavatn.  Upon appoarch, one of the first things we noticed were the dry-suited divers about to undergo a very cold exploration.  We opted for a walk instead, through the valley extending along the base of a long stretch of basalt cliffs (which were CG enhanced and used as The Wall in Game of Thrones).  A stream babbled through the valley, with a picturesque church on one side, and a stele on the other, which commemorated Thingvellir's importance in history as the site where 48 Viking chiefs would assemble as one of the world's first courts of law.  

But as ever, nature would overrule man, no matter his decisions.  Rain began to fall, as we returned to our car, building into a tempestuous squall within minutes.  But no matter, as were reluctantly leaving all the beauty behind, to return for a closer look at Iceland's capital city.

On the turntable:  Jeff Beck & Eric Clapton, "Exhaust Note"
On the nighttable:  Alice Albinia, "Empires of the Indus"         

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Island at the Top of the World IV: The East





The morning was clear, and full extent of the town's beautiful surroundings quickly became evident.  We strolled along the fjord's edge toward breakfast, as the mountains rose upward like cupped hands, a dozen waterfalls spilling through their fingers.  Later, during the walk back, we noted that the weekly ferry from Norway had pulled in, and thankfully on the streets only a few dozen figures ambled along, a bend in their sea legs. 

The drive over the hills to Egilsstaðir, is supposed to be one of Iceland's best, one we'd missed in the fog on the drive in.  As the car switchbacked upward, each curve brought a new perspective upon the beauty of the cozy little fjord, and at the top was a delightful alpen lake, which in the mists of last night we'd mistaken for the sea.  A larger lake on the other side came with its own monster legend, but we turned east again before further research could be attempted.

Back out by the sea the weather was truly horrible, and I fretted internally over what we might be missing. This was easily squelched with a cappucino at Café Sumarlína in Fáskrúðsfjörður, introduced no doubt by the French fishermen who settled the place in 1880.  There were few traces of French culture left here, merely the name of a few hotels and the trois couleurs which drooped listlessly in the rain.  Today the town sells itself as a good place to view the northern lights, a fine idea as in looking upward, you'd hardly notcie that it is one of the least attractive towns in the country.

The mists carried on through the morning.  Planned stops in Breiðdalsvík and Djúpivogur were kept brief, as both villages were beautiful due to their surroundings, today well obscured.  A longer visit was planned for Stokksnes, and miraculously, we exited the tunnel above the town to clouds lifting their shroud to the abracadabra of blue.  

Though not terribly interested in haikyo,  I am a sucker for visiting the ruins of old film sets, but this one was unique in that the film never actually got made.  It was wonderful to stretch our legs after hours in the car, toward an old Viking village that looked like was about to be engulfed by the clouds breaking over the peaks above like a massive wave.  The village looked authentic and was well detailed, though in the previous nine years was beginning to crumble and fall into decay, which made it easy to believe that it actually was authentic.        

The easy to pronounce Höfn was just across the bay, famed for its langoustines.  I attacked a large pile on my plate, fortified by local craft beer.  It was leisurely drive from there, a multitude of glaciers beginning to appear to our right.  They all seem to interconnect higher up, making it easy to believe that the entire Vatnajökull National Park is one massive icecap.   


A neighboring table at lunch was raving about the ice flows at Jökulsárlón, and even before stopping the car I immediately concurred.  Iceburgs had carved from the far off glacial wall, little dignified mountains drifting silently toward the seas below.  The landscape was awash with a pale blue, broken by the dark grey heads of a pair of seals bobbing between photographs and fish. I longed to join the kayakers getting a closer look at the glacier itself, gliding through water that must be unbelievably cold.

The scenery was repeated not far off at Fjallsárlón, though on a smaller, more intimate scale.  You could walk nearly up to the glacier itself, and there were few people around, just one man who was pushing an iceberg around in a little skiff.

I rewarded myself with a little walk toward evening, up a steep forest trail to the famous Svartifoss waterfall in the Skaftafell National Park.  I had the trail to myself, up through low scrub and pines that would be at home on the Alaskan panhandle.  After Dettifoss raised the bar for me, this particular one fell a little short, but there was a magnificence in the striated stone pillars that framed it from behind.  LYL chose to stay below so I didn't linger, arriving back at the car just as the rain began once again to fall.  

But there was one last stop.  I walked the short distance from the car to the Svínafellsjökull Glacier with my hood up as the rain beat down.  I moved past a gate and scrambled a little higher up the mountainside, taking good care of my footing as I went.   A sign midway commemorated a pair of hikers who'd gone missing here a decade or so ago.  At the visitor center in Skaftafell earlier I'd seen the remnants of the gear by two researchers who had gone missing in 1953, a collection of battered items that had turned up again after glacier recession.  This set the mood here as one of awe, as I faced a simply colossal form.  Back in university, we'd pondered whether fire was alive, as we describe in terms we also use while discussing animate objects.  And now I thought that we do this too with water, and by extension, must consider it to be a living form.  And this mass before seemed alive somehow, its movements so slow that they were just shy of slumber.  


On the turntable:  Johnny Winter, "Second Winter"
On the nighttable:  Norman Lewis, "A Goddess in the Stones"

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Island at the Top of the World III: The North




 Through the fog of sleep, I heard the horn.  It was a cruise ship coming in, navigating the narrow fjord toward the docks of Akureyri.

Breakfast was beautiful affair, spread upon a multi-level table, and in the soft light, resembled a still life.  We were happy to enjoy it by oursleves for a while, before a handful of Chinese tourists filled the space with their noise, followed by a French tour group who filled it with their bodies.  Their guide tried to get the Chinese to all sit together so that he could consolidate his own group, but the latter ignored him, munching away as they eyeballed their smartphones.

We drove out of the fog as the road rose with us.  It climbed into some high alpen lakes that reminded me of Tibet, before leveling out on a high plateau that was more Hokkaido. Our first stop on the day was at Goðafoss Waterfall, and approaching its carpark I gasped at the number of tour buses.  I'd forgotten that cruise ship passengers not only fill their port towns, but they also radiate outward on excursions.  
Iceland, with a population of 300,000, hosted 2 million tourists last year.  And they were all trying to get into my photographs.  A solution was found in walking further toward the falls than they did, and with the masses at my back, and the roar of the waters filling my ears, I had the illusion that the place was all mine.

We detoured north to Húsavík.  Iceland shares with Japan the infamy of its whaling culture, but at least here they seemed to be shifting toward admiring the whales from a distance greater than a lunch plate. The fjord here is supposed to be a veritable aquarium of the great beasts, so it was with some wishful thinking that LYL sat with cups of take-away coffee and sat atop a cliff, watching for any breaks in the blue spreading before us.  (I had actually seen a whale spout from the car while driving along one of the fjords of the previous day, a burst of white that dispersed in the gusts of the day.)        
 
A lonely unsurfaced road led us south again, to the visually rich Mývatn area, and we spent the rest of the day playing connect the dots with the highlights.  Skútustaðagígar came up first, but there were just a few too many people up on the hills, so we drove on, admiring the same view of small islets from below.  Here and there, turnouts provided different points of view.  
  Further on, Dimmuborgir was maze of paths through the crusted formations of an old lave flow, which brought to memory similar places in New Mexico, where the local tribes would play peek-a-boo with the US Cavalry.  Here too it served a similar purpose, including a cave for the Yule Lads, who appear at Christmas and act a bit like naughty Santa Clauses. (David Sedaris has a hilarious bit about the Dutch equivalent.) 

As we walked, Hverfjall maintained a steady presence in the distance.  It seemed the logical next choice, so we bounced along a very rough road to get to her feet.  There were a surprising number of cars in the carpark, most surprising being the camper vans.  A trail ran diagonally up the side of the volcano, reminding me again of Hokkaido and the path up Mt Tarumae.  Though much lower, the summit was much like Fuji's, a near perfect crater with a rollercoaster-like path around the rim.  I chose instead to admire things from where I was, gazing out over the lake and the far off peaks, until the growing gusts encouraged me down.  


After a quick detour to Grjótagjá Cave (featured prominently in Game of Thrones), we broke the journey for a dip in the blue-water of the Mývatn Nature Baths. An idyllic choice, with the lake spread out before us, and the hot water rejuvenating after the cold wind. We returned to those winds all too soon, to stroll the labyrinth of mud pits and hissing fumaroles at Hverir, then a more massive steam flow at the bigger Mt. Krafla not far away.   


 While Krafla is a newer volcano, older eruptions have defined the landscape of the whole area.  A road had been laid upon them, cutting through formations that were pastry-like, shaping cookies, or brownies.  Black had returned to the landscape, and the sky again grew dark.  Where the road ended we began a short hike out toward Dettifoss, over and around a jumble of stones that recalled the cover of Houses of the Holy.  Over the next rise I was confronted with one of the most awesome sights I've ever seen, of millions of gallons of water spilling over the abyss.  The grey of water matched that of the stone banks, which made it look as it the flow was in fact earth, a feeling that was horrific in its own way, making me feel how insignificant I am as a human being on a powerful planet undergoing near constant change. 

 The next stop made for a more peaceful respite.   Modhrudalurr was a peaceful little farm of a church and handful of buildings, including little turf cottages to rent.  It would have been the perfect place to stay, but we had already arranged something further on.  Instead, we huddled over cups of coffee, and the sky grew darker and darker outside.  

The map showed that this unsurfaced spur road would rejoin the main Ring Road further on, so I continued south.  The rain that had been threatening finally began, making me hope we'd rejoin asphalt before too long.  A nagging thought rang in my brain, worried whether this was indeed the right way.  Accustomed to the uncertainties of similar roads in New Mexico, I hated the idea of our driving directly into the hills with a storm coming on.  Luckliy, wheels grabbed tarmac once again.       

But conditions continued to deteriorate.  The low long valleys has much fewer traffic as we moved further and further east, and the skies lowered even more.  Our road out to Borgarfjörður Eystri rose until we were in those clouds themselves, and visibility was simply gone.  I couldn't teel whether the drops at the side were sheer, and construction machines loomed up suddenly like dragons.  The weather too washed out any chance of seeing the colony of puffins out at Hafnarhólmi, though a few did burst away from the hillside, wings frantically as it flew (poorly) toward the water, and dinner. 

Through the fog over the mountains again, then later, again.  The road finally ended at Seydisfjordur and the Hotel Aldan, a converted bank this time.  A late dinner was a had short walk away at the center of town, as the candles did their job, burning away the darkness now growing just beyond the glass. 


On the turntable:  Jimi Hendrix, "Axis: Bold as Love" 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Island at the Top of the World II: The West




 The lighthouse atop Súgandisey Island was squat, like an old Victorian era postbox.  The previous evening it had kept constant company with the silhouettes of those taking selfies, but this morning we had it to ourselves.  The sky had cleared, and so apparently had my fever, and I felt myself for the first time in days.  The coastline we'd traced the previous day was revealed in the clear light, and the sea below washed the rocks below us in undulating blue.

Another short hike was to follow, up nearby Helgafell, Iceland's most sacred peak.  At one time it had been remote and quiet, but the tourist boom has caused the family living on this private land to insall a small ticket office, funded with new admission fees.  The hands of the wife of the family only left her knitting to accept our "user fees," as her small daughter playing at the desk beside her.  It was lovely scene of pastoral Iceland, with the sleepy dog at the door, and one of the country's famous lopapeysa sweaters coming slowly into being. 

The hike up was short, the day pleasantly cool. Legend says that if you make a wish and ascend in silence, that wish will come true.  The views from the top were magnificent with the weather, and the marchlands to the north fragmenting to become small islands spilling out into the bay.  There was a small set of ruins at the top, once a prayer chapel dating to not long after Iceland adopted Christianity in the year 1000.  A newer church at the base sweetened the view, and in the churchyard was a burial stone for Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, who appears in the Laxdæla Saga.  The landscape here probably looks little different than it did in the year written on the stone, 1008.

We headed due east along a set of unsealed but good roads, along a highland that had little but sheep and wildflowers.  Now and then a small pond would appear, the water impossibly clear.  I stopped at one, for feel the coolness upon my fingers, my face.  I could have spent the entire day here, amongst the sheep, and the clouds above that mimicked them, their fluffy shapes drifting silently above.

Lunch beckoned eventually, and we stopped at Hvammstangi, enjoying lunch over the water and keeping a lookout for the resident seals.  We were beginning to note that most meals consisted of lamb or fish of some kind, and we quickly developed a system where we'd share one of each.  This led to copious amounts of food of course, which we walked off this day with a stroll among the turf houses of Glaumbær.  Houses like this were once ubiquitous in older times, and this one now quite the tourist draw, to judge from the coaches in the carpark.  Angling yourself away from the other tourists brought the illusion of how things must have been, quaint and probably quite cozy in the winter.  A theory I don't personally plan to test. 


Our accommodation for the night was not far off in Sauðárkróksvöllur, which we called Sauerkraut.  (LYL and I are pretty good at languages, but got nowhere with Icelandic.) We surprised to find that we were staying in what had once been the town post office.  In hindsight, we should have utilized the kitchen, for dinner up the street was pretty uninspired after a fine lunch, and we merely pushed our food around awhile until asking for terms of surrender.

It was quiet evening, the light lingering long in the sky.  I'd been reading a digital version of the old Icelandic Sagas, and was pleased to find a print version in our room.  I read out on the porch until the growing chill suggested I move inside to the sofa. Looking up from time to time, I noticed a trail cutting diagonally to a bluff at the back of town.  In the morning I climbed up, to find a bench overlooking the fjord below.  In front of the bench was a pair of footprints cut from metal, one for an adult, another a small child.  A story developed in my mind, of a boy who often walked up here with his grandfather, enjoying the view, and listening to sagas of a more recent vintage.  The grandfather has passed, the boy now a man, and he decides to honor those memories with this bench, this pair of feet.  And as I sat I was awash in sadness, as my work out on the road eroded away these kind of moments with my own daughter, and the ticking of the clock taking away even more as I faced the possibility of her moving halfway across the world.  This bench was a reminder that in most cases, it is better just to sit, and look, and love. 

On the far side of the fjord was Hofsós.  There was a well-known heated swimming pool here, built right up to the side of the cliffs.  I was tempted, but the day was overcast again, the hour a little too early.  Up the road LYL and I bought a couple of lopapeysa, a continued to trace the shoreline. There were a couple of tunnels that were little more than single lane holes bore out of rock.  It was a little nerve wracking at first, until I noticed that escape lanes had been cut every fifty meters or so, allowing traffic to pull aside and let those with right of way pass.   But who exactly had right of way? 

One long tunnel led out to a broad bay and valley, giving the illusion of completely isolation.  We pulled into its heart, Siglufjörður, a picturesque town where people milled around, or drank at sidewalk cafes.  It was near lunchtime, so we settled in awhile at Sigló Hótel, in a a cozy little nook with the quiet harbor just out the open windows.  We lingered a long while over books and coffee, but the solitude here, the beauty of the towering mountains dropping down directly into the deep waters of fjord made me long to stay for days.  It was a pleasant afternoon, watching the fishermen bring in their catch, or gazing at even older fishing boats from the side of the foot bath out front.  

Inertia eventually overcome, we moved south again, passing through Akureyri at the base of the fjord, then up the other side for a quick visit to a small collection of turf houses at Laufás.  We had the place nearly to ourselves, but the gathering clouds and accompanying cold drive us back to town.  Akureyi is Iceland's second city, though a small one of only 18,000 residents.  As such, downtown is  just a handful of streets, like an American college town.  We disposed of these after an hour, so went to an early dinner at Rub 23, which is quickly becoming well known for its unique approach to Japanese cuisine.  I rarely eat Japanese while away from home, but this meal was truly special, with ingredients pulled from the cold waters not far from our feet. 
I suppose all island nations share certain commonalities, and although I couldn't get my tongue around the language, the food culture was a warmly familiar lexicon.


On the turntable:  John Coltrane:  "Both Directions at Once”
On the nighttable:  Robyn , "Desert Places" 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Island at the Top of the World: The Peninusula




The landscape outside the car window was as beautiful as I'd ever seen it, but somehow it was all tinted with a touch of the forlorn.  All was black and green, the green the darkest hue I could imagine.  The blacks too were dull and unaccentuated, long ridges of rock that bisected the grassy plains in long jagged cuts.  Above all was dull grey, the clouds low and near omnipresent.  I recalled as I drove beneath them that most of the photos I'd seen of Iceland seemed to share a similar grey.  What one didn't get from these 2D images was just how low the sky hung, as if threatening to press you down into that rich green soil.

It is little wonder that Jules Verne opened his Journey to the Center of the Earth here, where a foreboding rocky portal serves as the entrance for that journey.  In fact I was driving to that very feature, Mount Snæfellsjökull, at the end of the long peninsula which bears the same name.  I recalled the film version of Verne's book well, recognized the bleak and harsh landscape from childhood memory.  It also reminded me of another film I'd seen when I was young, "Island at the Top of the World,"  which Iceland most certainly was.

Part of my dark mood was the fact that I'd had had a low-grade rumbling fever for the past few days.  The previous night hadn't gone so well.  Being the height of the summer tourist season, it was tough to drop into a restaurant for dinner, and in the end we'd settled on a somewhat renowned hamburger place, a nice bit of irony considering beef was one thing that had been hard to find on any Icelandic menu, prior to the current tourist boom that is.  The meat had the usual effect on me, raising my already high body temperature as I attempted to sleep.  This being Iceland, the room has no air-con, and sleep was very hard to find.

Heat was the theme of the summer, with Kyoto having flirted with record highs day after miserable day.  Even the UK where I'd spent the previous week was well above the norm.  What a delight then to land earlier that day in temps in the mid-teens.  As if under the influence of Stockholm Syndrome, my thoughts immediately turned to heat, the Blue Lagoon in particular.  I read on the flight that being one of Iceland's top tourist attractions, reservations were an absolute must.  So while I dealt with the luggage and rental car, LYL used her phone to make a booking.  Or so we thought.  Apparently it never went through, and despite my turning on the charm, I was unable to talk the manager into just squeezing into just two more.  I found some consolation in the fact that the pools were only heated to 38 degrees C, tepid for me who sets my own bath to 45. (The admission price on the other hand was set far too high.)   Before we drove up to Reykjavik, I went out to look at all those bodies bobbing outside, in water tinted like antifreeze.  Still, it was the only color on the landscape, a blue so vivid it looked supernatural.    



 On the way to Snæfellsjökull, we had stopped at The Settlement Center in Bogarnes.  My fever had sapped my enthusiasm, so we merely climbed the hill to the sculpture dedicated to Egil, the Viking/poet who was star of Iceland's best loved saga. I missed his rune-covered gravestone, but found another set of runes in the quiet churchyard of Borg á Mýrum nearby, the handful of graves facing out toward the marsh and the sea beyond, waters which had led some of these early residents from the lands where they'd been born.

The sea was a constant presence to our left, its color betraying waters dark and cold.  The mountains and hills on our right strained upward as if to get a better glimpse.  The clouds forced their heads down in places, though here and there bizarre features could still be seen.  The most spectacular of course was the basalt cliffs at Gerðuberg, like a fistful of pencils rammed in the ground by a massive irate hero from the Sagas.  

I've mention how I love the approach to geographic extremes, the rest of the world steadily dropping away like a pencil being shaved down to its nub.  Mt.Snæfellsjökull and the entrance to Verne's underworld hovered just above us, out of sight due to the clouds.  We rounded its flank and in doing so turned back upon ourselves, moving along the northern edge of the peninsula, the land building up once again.  Beyond the sea out my window was little but a world of ice -- Greenland, and the North Pole.  I imagined that if I squinted my eyes I could almost see the dotted line of the Arctic Circle.

The land here was jagged rock, covered in moss.  It's beauty was hypnotic, though here and there highlights appeared.  The 412 meter Hellissandur longwave radio mast, Europe's highest, was tethered by cables that spread nearly its height again.   Not far beyond was the fishing village of Rif whose name was somehow un-Islandic.  Berserkjahraun corrected that, its jagged lavascape as wild as the legends behind it.  And of course the majestic Kirkjufell Mountain, it shape almost a towering pastry against the sea.   

Maybe be it was the fever, maybe it was the weather, but I was somehow uninspired to stop and take photos.  On the other hand, it could have been the consistancy of the beauty around me.  Each and every kilometer was simply breathtaking, so how to choose?  Far more preferable to just roll through and be lost in it.  I've been attempting a change in how I engage place, in not arriving at a destination and immediately blotting it out by placing the lend to my eye. Better to engage it first, before trying to subdue it.

And ironically as we were pulling into Stykkishólmur, the sky began to clear and all that beauty became even more vivid.  By then little but my hotel bed interested me, and I allowed myself a few hours sleep before setting out again for dinner.  Our hotel Franciskus (which unknown to us was a converted Franciscan nunnery, the chapel and resident sisters still in evidence) had booked a table for us at Sjávarpakkhúsið, a hundred year old bait shop converted into a restaurant (which I'd see again on the flight home, as a central location in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).  Being Saturday night, the place was busy, the service slow.  But the clientele helped pass the time.  I eavesdropped at the older couple at an adjacent table, straining to place their accent.  From Scando-wherever, the husband had an interesting habit of toasting his wife after every third or fourth sentence.  And as the summer light faded, he began more and more resemble Max Von Sydow, and in my fevered mind, I began to find myself an extra in a Bergman film.       


On the turntable: Josh Rouse, "The Smooth Sounds"
On the nighttable:  Alan Booth, "A Journey through Japan"
 

Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Bridge of Sighs





 And what had been truncated by a bolt of lightning was finally allowed a conclusion.  Rain was expected for afternoon, so we got an early start, returning to the old temple and shrine combo and the kusunoki tree that had sheltered us all.  The temple was small, with the odd name of Hachiyorengeji, and renowned for a 12th century Buddha, locked out of sight within. The were a few nice statues on the narrow grounds, but the granddaddy of them all was further up the hillside, near hidden by bamboo.  Its face was barely visible, worn by a thousand years of weather.  

It was a good start to the day, through a lovely stretch of mixed-growth forest, and around a pond whose lily-pads lingered from the glory days of August.  More treasures came soon enough, at Mimuro Aragami Jinja, and the towering stones above.  A few hikers were enjoying the sunshine, others the view.  We climbed up to the highest stone, stacked near vertical, and played name that peak.  The day being clear, we had plenty to admire.  Wes noted that the view had been opened up by the felling of trees in the forest below, which had also revealed a few niches in the rock face itself, where stone Buddhas had once been displayed.   They, like the trees, were now long gone.    

Dropping back again, we came across some firemen having a drill of some kind, their hoses arcing water high and into a large reservoir.  There was a nature center on the other side of the water where Wes's neighbor worked, so we popped in for a chat, talking mainly of the copious display of birds:  the kingfisher and its rich blue;  the osprey and its proud wingspan. 

It wasn't far to the peak of Kunimi and its views up the Kyoto basin.  Descending now, we came to the ruins of an old feudal watchtower bedecked with flags, and the Fufu-iwa stones which tempted but whose heights placed them just out of reach.  

Then the forest was gone, the timber now taking the form of crossbeams and roof lines. These suburban houses were quiet on a sunny Sunday, the humidity gone with the last of August.  And the train platform marked the true end to our six -year, fifty kilometer traverse of the Ikoma range, a trek broken and fragmented by changes in weather, changes in residences, and changes brought on by child raising.  Little surprise I suppose as the kanji for Ikoma, 生駒, can be loosely translated as the "To bring to life."   


On the turntable: John Fahey,  "The Legend of Blind Joe Death"