Don't forget the people cheerfully barbecuing in the cold ass rain in the park|
I forgot to take
notes for the first half of our second day in Iceland, so there are none to remind me of the high points of our trip to Þingvellir National Park to go snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure.
Þingvellir is a lush rift valley with lakes and streams fed by melt from the nearby Langjökull glacier to the northwest. The stone here is older than the lava fields around Reykjavik 30 miles to the south, its edges softened by lichen, stubborn Icelandic grass, arctic flowers, and low brush. The Silfra Fissure is a deep crack that runs across the heart of the park.
Standing on the edge of the fissure and looking west, you can see a cliff rising about a quarter of a mile away. It juts out of the tumbled earth below it like a special effect in a disaster movie. Waterfalls spring suddenly from its rough face. It is the edge of the North American continental plate. Turning around and looking southeast, you can see the low, jagged hills that mark the edge of the Eurasian continental plate. The cliff and hills are moving away from each other at a rate of about 8cm per year. The fissure, full of pure, freezing glacial meltwater, is the scar the retreating continents have left behind.
Þingvellir is also as the founding location of the world's first or second oldest parliamentary body - the Althing, which, with the exception of a 45-year gap back in the 18th century, has served continuously as Iceland's governing body since 930 AD. It's not surprising that bunch of scattered ancient lords chose this place as their seat of power. It's a sheltered rift valley that must have seemed like a place of calm in a forbidding and frequently violent landscape. The fact that, over the course of a long enough life, the landscape would visibly change without any apparent activity (there are a lot of earthquakes there, but most of them are too faint to be felt) might have given it an aura of mystery and magic.
A wonderful factoid we learned later about the historic Althing: New laws could not take effect until a lord shouted them from the top of a nearby hill.
We arrived just before 8 in the morning on another shuttle from the Bus Hostel. It was drizzling, gray, and cold - about 45 degrees. Our guide - a friendly, quietly funny young woman - gave us a quick tour of the area, told us all the facts I related above, and walked us through the route we would be taking through the fissure. The water, which we would soon be swimming in, was about 1 or 2 degrees above freezing.
A full dry suit kit consists of your normal base layer - for me: UnderArmour compression top and tights and wool socks - a sort of onesie made of sleeping bag material that I would like to have for just lounging around in; and a thick neoprene suit with integrated boots, and a rigid collar and wrists with tight latex gaskets. There are valves on the chest and one arm that allow you to inflate or deflate the suit for diving. Once the dry suit is on and the gaskets are properly sealed, you pull on a 6mm wetsuit hood and similar lobster gloves. Properly worn and sealed, the dry suit keeps you completely dry. The hood and gloves allow water to circulate, but if you don't move your hands around too much the thick wetsuit keeps them relatively dry.
Wearing this outfit and carrying our masks, snorkels, and flippers, we walked over to a steel staircase set into the side of the fissure and descending down into the water. There, we hocked loogies into our masks, which is a vile practice I had forgotten was de rigueur for snorkeling. The rain continued to spit down, spotting our masks and rendering all of us moderately blind while another guide helped us put our flippers on.
From above, the water in the Silfra fissure is slate gray and flat. From below, it's sapphire and clear as glass. The fissure descends below you through progressive shades of deeper and deeper blue until it disappears in a jumble of rocks and impenetrable caves hung with an algae called troll's hair.
The mask restricts your peripheral vision substantially, so even surrounded by people (and occasionally accidentally kicking/being kicked by them) in the narrow crack there is a sense of solitude. You drift silently through this nearly sterile blue corridor, propelled by the slightest movement of your foot, buoyed by the air in the suit. It's a weirdly effortless thing, swimming through this freezing water.
Most of the people on our tour retreated quickly to the stairwell leading out of the water at the end of the tour, but I paddled around for as long as I could. The dry suit kept me perfectly comfortable (others were not so lucky), and I felt very content in my quiet little zero-G world. But I also felt like a jerk making people stand around in the freezing rain while I swam in circles, so as soon as everyone else was out I headed for the landing.
When we arrived back at our Air BnB, we decided to brave the rain again in the name of exploring Reykjavik, and this is where we first began to understand the true character of the Iceland native. We found a lovely park near our lodgings that led directly into the old town, where we hoped to find some of the famous Icelandic hot dogs, and walked through it photographing memorials to 19th century poets and chasing greylag geese through puddles.
It was still in the low to mid 40's and raining, but as we walked past one of the playgrounds we saw a group of about 20 people ranging in age from young children to folks who might have been their grandparents, standing around a smoking grill, chatting happily with drinks in their hands. Children swarmed over the playground equipment. The weather, which, honestly would have kept cayetana and I inside at home, was immaterial to this group's enjoyment of their cookout. I found this inexplicably delightful and chased another goose in celebration of Icelandic hardiness.
It was in this same park that we discovered one of the truly wonderful quirks of Icelandic civic infrastructure: poets are the heroes of this country. There are statues of them everywhere, little plaques with poetry hidden among flowers, it's wonderful.
Jonas Hallgrimsson is the first poet we came across. Here is one of his poems, a wonderful singsong ditty called Hell:
I find it all a foolish joke,
falling to hell's abyss of smoke
to sit there, braised and baking,
among the howling fiends of fire,
so far from God's sunshiny choir --
it sets my soul to quaking!
There squads of skate-winged demons lurk,
skirling through everlasting murk
where ruddy flames hold revel.
All is fire and ice by turns,
everything freezes or it burns,
the dead souls -- and the Devil.
We wandered through old town Reykjavik marveling at the mediocre architecture and stellar street art. We toyed with the idea of going to the Icelandic Phallological Museum, but I think I shouted the words "dick museum!" too many times, because eventually Cayetana decided it was too far to walk.
Icelandic hot dogs are nbd, but the bread and butter are off the hook
One of the things that everyone we talked to mentioned about Iceland was the hot dogs. People were very insistent that we go immediately upon arrival to one of the many hot dog stands in the country and consume as many tube steaks as possible. Icelandic hot dogs are famously world class.
So I did a little research and settled on Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
. This tiny hot dog stand in old town has a picture of goddamn Bill Clinton standing in the rain and eating hot dogs. It is a legit wiener place. And I am here to tell you: Icelandic hot dogs are still pretty much just hot dogs. The fried onions are a nice touch, but they don't fundamentally transform what is otherwise a mediocre piece of meat in every respect. If you like hot dogs, they're good. But they're not going to change your life.
That said, you should consume as much bread and butter as is humanly possible if you ever find yourself in Iceland. Normally when you sit down at a restaurant and they give you bread and butter it's bullshit, even at the nicest place. But in Iceland, holy shit. I don't know what it is. They must sing to the cows or something, because Icelandic butter is the Platonic ideal of butter.
In fact, all of the food we ate was excellent, and if you can afford it I highly recommend sampling as much Icelandic cuisine as possible (it's also ridiculously expensive to eat out there - we never spent less than $50 on a meal in a restaurant). Try the fish. It turns out that the island nation populated entirely by Vikings has figured out how to very successfully cook a fish.