Saturday, October 02, 2010

Ring Road Trip Day 1: Snæfellsness

And we're off! Nicole, Devon, and I are travelling Iceland's Ring Road for a week. The Ring Road, aka Route 1 aka Hringinn, is the main highway that encircles the entire country of Iceland, which makes for convenient stops to many of the country's most beautiful places. Route 1 is a multiple-lane highway in Reykjavík, but soon after leaving the city, it is basically a two-way road with singe-lane bridges, and some of it is still gravel. We leave Reykjavík and head for Snæfellsness peninsula, with a few recommendations of things to see, places to visit, and places to stay, but we have only a basic itinerary and leave much of the day's schedules up to chance. Nicole has a fancy camera, I have a digital recorder and a new guidebook, and Devon is our trusty driver, being the only one of us able to drive a 4x4 stick shift. Thank goodness he didn't break his leg on the trip or we'd have been stranded, learning to drive a manual over some lava formations or crashing into some glacier.

I think the best way to narrate the trip is to go day by day, so you'll get a new post for each day of the excursion. Here is Day 1.

We stopped along the way at Bjarnafoss, the first of innumerable immensely beautiful waterfalls. I took a recording of the runoff and began a small obsession with water sounds during the whole week's trip.

We passed through much of the nearby sights to get to the town of Olafsvík. Not much to see here, really. Hate to break it to you, but Olafsvík smells a lot like fish, there isn't much to see or do, especially in the winter season when tourism dies down (and we are travelling alone on the highway much of the time, not seeing a soul), one bakery, one pizza place and one place called the 'Hobbitinn'. There is a nice modern church there, though. Sadly it was locked, no peeping inside to be had.

Thanking the four-wheel-drive every kilometer, we drove through Snæfellsjökull National Park and I saw some of the first jaw-dropping landscapes of the week. I should also say that I was also impressed by what we couldn't see–the fog near the glacier was so intense that much of the drive felt like driving on another planet.

We did stop to take a few pictures in a mossy-covered area, and we looked for the glacier but it remained elusive. Not surprising either, seeing how it is small to begin with and is shrinking at an alarming rate, and may be totally gone within 10 years.

We drove down the mountain and stopped at a parking area with a picnic bench. Little did I realize that this spot would be one of the best places I visited on my trip-Sönghellir, or 'Singing Cave'! You can crawl under this overhangy rock and stick your head in the pitch-black darkness, and once you get over being in a dark cave and peeing your pants a little bit you realize that the acoustics in the space have a beautiful 3-second or so resonance. I could sing and make chords with my own voice! Naturally we recorded a little improvisation of singing tones inside, so we'll see if I can make some use of it. The info board by the side of the road was priceless, it read something like: "Legend has it that some old Saga character lived in the cave, when at the time many people were afraid of the cave because you could hear 'dwarf-speak' (also known as 'echoes'.) But so-and-so Viking guy didn't mind the dwarf-speak, because he was raised by dwarves." Good for him, combating racism in the tenth century.

Continuing on, we stopped at a small town called Arnarstappi as I saw a cool-looking monument made by the artist Ragnar Kjartansson.

But surprise, the town had something up its sleeve: a walkway out to stunningly dramatic cliffs and rock formations on the coast!

Arnarstappi has a short walking path (or an even shorter drive) to the neighboring village, where the coasts were even more up close and personal. The rocks here on the shore get worn down smaller and smaller, but don't turn to sand- they stay like pebbles and crackle and clack together as the tide goes in and out. What a surprising sound to hear. And another surprise was waiting for us when a small café appeared out of nowhere, sheltered on the mountainside. And it was open! It was probably an old fishing house at one point, but the interior was now charming and intimate. The hot cocoa was amazing.

Back in the car, we drove along the south of Snæfells peninsula to arrive at our dinner location extraordinaire- Hotel Buðir. I was told by a couple colleagues that if there was one time to splurge on a meal during my trip this would be it. And coincidentally, it was my birthday, so I had extra excuses to celebrate. The meal did not disappoint. The restaurant is tucked in an old Hotel, and is probably one of the most elegant and fancy meals in the whole country. The hotel is also next to an old church, which had a brief role in the film 101 Reykjavík.

I had puffin as an appetizer! Twas my first crazy Icelandic specialty food, which tasted like a smoky, chewy steak. It was definitely not what I was expecting, but I can check that off the list (next up: whale meat). The main course was a trout entreé featuring potatoes, greens, and 'cilantro ash'- a literal experiment on volcanic food. It was incredible, probably the best fish I've ever eaten, as it was the ultimate in Local food (caught outside, about 100 yards away in a boat in the sea) and Fresh (caught about a couple hours before it's in my stomach). The restaurant even made a very fancy vegetarian entreé for D.

There was no one else in the whole place until we were ready to leave, so we had our waiter all to ourselves. Such is the off-season in Iceland, I suppose; the tourists fade away and I can eat my cute wild birds in peace.

Ending our meal, we drove to Stykkishólmur to spend the night in a hostel, and wait patiently until our appointment tomorrow at Vatnasafn, artist Roni Horn's installation/building 'Library of Water'. More to come!

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