Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Reykjavík, Iceland

It's currently 12:30 PM, Iceland time, on Monday, July 4th. I'm on an Air Iceland plane bound for Nuuk, Greenland, the next-to-last stop on my Scandinavian summer vacation (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, Greenland isn't technically part of Scandinavia, but it's close enough).

Back on Friday, I arrived in Iceland's capital, Reykjavík, to rainy weather. I hopped in a Flybus for about $20 US to take me into town -- a 45-minute/hour ride. The bus pulled into BSI Terminal. From there, I hopped on a smaller bus for a 5-to-10-minute ride to my lodgings. The bus dropped me off at the corner. I walked a half a block to Alf Guesthouse, whose theme is elves.

I saw no reception desk or anything, but a lodger told me on the second floor, room 5 had a Post It with "John". I threw my luggage in there and grabbed the skeleton key that was on the inside keyhole.

By this point, it was late afternoon. I wandered into town. As I had expected, Reykjavík is a sleepy city. It's about what you'd imagine a city with 120,000 residents; 200,000 if you include the surrounding six suburbs. The city centre has enough going on, but it definitely doesn't have the hustle and bustle of big Scandinavian cities I had already visited.

Since Reykjavík is a small city, the streets are easier to navigate. I found the main tourist office with little problem. I got a printout (the size of a receipt) of currency exchanges. One US dollar equals 114 Iceland Krona. And I asked an unsmiling girl behind the tourism desk where I could pick up some cold medicine, because on the flight I sensed a cold forming in my throat. She directed me to a pharmacy, but it was closing in 10 minutes at 6 PM.

I tried running to the pharmacy but I couldn't find out. I headed back towards the tourism office and cruised down one of Reykjavík's main commercial strips, Austurstraeti. I stopped at an ATM and got out 40,000 krona (about $350 US). I then got a little snack at a 24-hour convenience store.

Back at the guesthouse, or inn, I ran into the owner, Kristjan. I think he was expecting me to ring him when I arrived but I told I saw no reception desk or anything. On my last night there, I did see a black bell before the staircase. If that was how to contact him, it's interesting he didn't say anything.

Anyway, with my Lonely Planet travel book in hand, around 7 o'clock, I trekked in search of a recommended restaurant. I kinda took the long way. When I did find it, it was close to 8 PM, and there was at least a half-hour wait -- real small place.

I walked towards Austurstraeti and wound up on a touristy street called Skolavordustigur. Since I was staying in a city by the sea, I slid into a place that served seafood. As soon my feet crossed the threshold, I knew I was in the right place. ABBA played from the speakers.

I got a seat by the window and overheard that this restaurant just opened in April or May.

For an appetizer, the waitress brought over what looked like a two-ounce flower pot. Inside was some stuff that looked like soil (colored clay like the pot) with a small leafy thing jutting out. The waitress said to sink the spoon to the bottom. I did and there was some white, creamy stuff down there. It was good. Tasted like a dessert, but not too sweet.

For the main course, I got pasta and seafood. From the description on the menu, I thought it was going to be like linguine on a plate with some seafood. It turned out to be a salad served in a big brown bowl, which reminded me of something from Gilligan's Island. The salad didn't fill the whole bowl, just the bottom. The seafood was shrimp and, I think, lobster meat, covered by penne and lettuce. All of that sat in a sauce that looked like diluted Alfredo. Good stuff. And because the exchange rate is in America's favor, it only cost about $23 US or so.

Street I stayed on in Reykjavík. (Reykjavík, Iceland; July 1, 2011)

Saturday morning, I got up at 8 AM and headed down to the kitchen for the free breakfast, which lasted until 10 AM. I had cornflakes and a glass of orange juice. Afterwards, I paid my bill. The night before, Kristjan told me he preferred cash, so I gave him 33,00 krona (about $300 US for three nights) from my ATM withdrawal the night previous. I would have liked to charge it, but since I kinda got off on the wrong foot by not ringing him when I arrived, I figured I'd do cash. That left me with almost 700, so I'd have to count my kronas.

After breakfast, I finished doing my blog detailing my Oslo visit. And the inn had free wireless, which was nice.

Then, like on Friday night, I visited some souvenir shops. This time I did it on a new street, Laugavegur. My window-shopping had another purpose: I was killing time until the pharmacy opened at 11 AM.

After picking up some stuff at the pharmacy, I eventually found a store for the postcards to send home. Then it was off to another store where I got a football jersey and gift for my (now) six-year-old nephew. His birthday was on June 29. I got him a piece of cloth that you can use as a headband, scarf, cap, and a few other uses. Hopefully, he'll like it. The brand is Buff, which is his nickname.

Real quick: one thing I found interesting was how some of Reykjavík's one-way streets have no curbs. The sidewalks pretty much merge into the streets; you can see where they shift by the coloring and direction of the grey bricks, but it's easy to miss if you're not paying attention. Weird.

Anyway, for lunch, I picked up a sandwich and OJ at the 24-hour convenience store. I then bought a ticket from the tourism office for a Hop-On-Hop-Off bus ride.

Around 2:30, I stood under the blood-red Hop-On-Hop-Off bus shelter because it was drizzling. The tour, which goes in an 60-minute loop and departs at the top of the hour, passed me by at 3 PM because the stop was across the street. I thought the bus was going to U-turn and pick me wrong. My mistake. Kinda weird how they have a bus shelter but no buses stop at it. Guess it's just an advertisement.

So I took the 4 PM tour, last one for the day. It was nice. Took some pictures. Since Reykjavík isn't all that big, there were only about six stops or so.

For dinner, I stopped in the Laundromat Cafe on Austurstraeti. They have a sign out front that says something like: "Feel free to breastfeed here. We like boobs and babies!"

To take a break from the seafood scene, I got a veggie burger, which came with deep-fried steak fries. And since my cold was starting to kick in overdrive, I drank Camellia tea.

Afterwards, I hit a cafe about a half a kilometer away down by this lake. Oddly enough, there were a lot of Americans there. I didn't contribute much to the conversation because my cold deposited a deafening hum in my head. I hung out for about an hour, until 8 PM.

Back at the guesthouse, I heated up a small cup of water for the medicine I had picked up at the pharmacy. It was supposed to be good for the throat and was a sedative. I drank it and went to bed a little after 9 PM. I slept soundlessly for a solid five hours before it was time for a bladder break. The complete opposite of Friday night, when I tossed and turned. Maybe it was all the light spilling in the room thanks to the thin white curtains. The sun only sets from 11 PM to 3 AM in July, and from what I heard, it doesn't go completely dark during those four hours.

Me getting arty with a pic of the lake about a kilometer from my lodgings. (Reykjavík, Iceland; July 2, 2011)

On Sunday, after breakfast, I headed down to the dock where they have whale-watching tours. Unlike Saturday, when it was cloudy, Sunday it was raining. My umbrella wasn't much help, thanks to the 20-mph winds. Originally, I had wanted to do a volcano-viewing tour, but you need to take a bus that takes three hours to get there. Not my idea of fun, besides they left at 9 AM, and it was now 9:30.

Before I could go whale watching, I would at least need a wool hat (or as the McKenzie Brothers call it, a tuque). Had to buy one first, and maybe later it would warm a little.

Here's the thing about Reykjavík. It never gets warm. My whole time there, the temperature never went above 59 degrees. And it looks like in the winter it's usually no colder than 30 degrees. Not too bad, but it looks like it's frequently drizzling. The locals seem use to it, 'cause hardly any carry umbrellas. Rain slickers seem to be mandatory if you're gonna live there.

One more thing: for a city of 100,000, I didn't see a lot of locals on the streets. Tons of tourists, but not a lot of Reykjavík residents. I mean, there were some, but for their population size I thought there'd be more people out on the weekend. Maybe they spend a lot of time indoors. Then again, the city is pretty spread out.

Anyway, I had brought only about a week's worth of clothes, so it was time to do laundry. Reykjavík only has two laundromats. One is at the City Hostel, where it's drop-off service only. The other one is -- you saw it coming -- the Laundromat Cafe. I got there at 10 AM, when they supposedly opened, but the top floor, the cafe, was half-full. I headed downstairs to the laundromat, and that's when the fun began ;)

They only have three washers and three dyers. Only two washers and one dryer worked. Glad I got there early, because a good number of tourists had laundry to do. I had two loads to do, and didn't get out of there until 3 PM. On the plus side, I spoke with some cool blokes. One was an engineer, I think, who'd been in Reykjavík for eight weeks. He grew up in Rochester, New York, was now based in Atlanta, and his wife lived in the Middle East. He said he was applying for a permanent visa to live in Iceland. Once he hands in the paperwork, he has to leave the country, so he'll vacation with one of his two 20-something sons in France or Germany. He voiced his perplexity over having to leave while they review his application -- no other country he's lived in is like that. Later, I thought that it made sense. Having you leave is smart because if they reject your application, you can't go into hiding. Although, they'd probably find you in a country of 300,000, where about half lives in the capital region.

After dropping my laundry off in my room, I headed to Laugavegur, where I had seen a store on Saturday boasting that they were members of The Handknitting Association of Iceland. Funny stuff. What wasn't funny that now they were closed. Bummer. I wanted to buy a hat for a whale-watching tour.

By now, it was raining, so I wasn't in the mood to be on boat for three hours, so I chilled back at the guesthouse. Around seven I headed back to Laugavegur, where a restaurant had caught my eye, Hereford Steakhouse. They had two specials going on: one with whale, the other with puffin. Guess which one I went with? That's right, if you can't watch whales, you might as well eat 'em!

The place was really nice. Very spacious, dim lighting, plentiful servers, and it's on top of a boutique.

The starter was lobster soup with cognac. Main meal featured whale pepper steak -- colored violet on the inside, and very fatty in some parts, but good. Dessert was Icelandic Skyr Herefordstyle -- lots of creaming stuff with small strawberries and a blueberry, and a scoop of pink ice cream (sherbert?).

I spent the remainder of the evening back at the guesthouse, gearing up for my flight to Greenland on Monday. Oh, and Murphy's Law was in full effect for that trip. Details in the next blog post.

Trees need to keep warm too during those cool Iceland summers! (Reykjavík, Iceland; July 3, 2011)

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