21 April 2009

southern climes

I've spent the last week visiting my friend T in Toulouse, a grand vacation from the turbulence of Iceland. We've done all the right girls-in-France things- shopping in the street market near her house for seasonal produce to make dinner, eating plenty of cheese in plenty of varieties, and drinking plenty of local wine that never seems to cost more than 4 euros for something extra delicious. We've sat in cafés, had ice cream and marons in crazy flavors (the violet ones seemed like a better idea than they are in practice), taken day trips, and pored over French fashion magazines.

And now it's time for lunch and then train to Paris to return to what by all reports is a rather soggy Iceland. More on the grandiosity of this area later!

11 April 2009

domestic bliss

So here we are in the middle of this particularly un-American holiday, the Easter break, which is a five-day stretch off work for almost the whole country.  It's a big deal for pretty much everyone all over Europe, and an excuse for much traveling in search of adventure.  Because I have to sing in the middle of the holiday, I'm usually sticking around town, but that doesn't mean a lack of interesting things to do.

When the forecast yesterday called for uninterrupted sun, S and I had to take advantage of it.  First stop, Keilir, the  perfectly shaped child's-drawing of a mountain that punctuates the landscape between Reykjavík and the airport.  I knew where to exit the main road to find it, but after one sign pointing the way, the road descended into the chaos of construction, with spurs heading off towards the power lines, into piles of rubble.  Two other carfuls of people wandered the area, also looking for the road to the mountain. We finally found it and followed the bumpy track to near the mountain's base where a host of other families were suiting up to head across the lava.

This mountain must be approached in a majestic fashion, via a track that winds through a rugged lava field, occasionally hiding the mountain from view.  In some places, the lava tubes snaking below the surface have collapsed, revealing shapes like hump-backed bridges, and cracks from which steam gently issues.  On a sunny spring day, the protected spaces gave off that fresh Icelandic earth scent, moist and rich with the promise of growing things.

And then the mountain.. just before the base, the lava hummocks stopped, leaving just bare loose rubble and gravel in dozens of colors- the pale yellow of sulphur, the richer reds and purples, the deepest black.  There are two approaches to the peak here, both equally steep, both equally exciting since the footing is nothing but this same material- loose and shifty underfoot.

We went up the side that promised maximum sun exposure, and were at the top very soon with only one stop for cake and a few photos.  The view reward was tremendous- to the north, Reykjavík and the suburbs sprawled beneath a cloud-pinned Esja, and the mountains ringing the horizon were dusted in snow.  Facing south- and eastward was an open and empty landscape, devoid of human traces, punctuated only by the steam clouds that rose off the nearby blue lagoon, and then off to the west, an expanse of richly blue ocean, shimmering in the haze of bright, fresh air.

Climbing down we took the more windy approach that went past some excellent sedimentary layers and through yet more loose gravel, and then we quickly were at the car again for phase 2 of the day, the Blue Lagoon.  We stumbled on an Easter special there, a two-for-one deal, and soon were soaking in the mysteriously milky water.

I've only been to the Blue Lagoon twice and previously have been less than enthralled, but somehow yesterday, after the easy hike and in the brilliant sun, the place worked its magic.  With a beer in hand, white silica mud on our faces, and a protected spot (by then the wind had started to rise), it was easy to spend some hours there.  The place was packed- tons of Icelandic families, gaggles of Brits and Russians on Easter break, and in our corner we also met the band Sister Sledge, enchanted by the scenery and enjoying a particularly dangerous-looking blue drink.

When the sun began to descend behind the building, it was time to go.  For the last phase of this explore-locally day, we went to Keflavík the town, a place I've never actually visited.  Most of the place was eerily barren of people, the only signs of life the occasional towel flapping wildly in the strong winds, but we did find one restaurant open.  The spot was called Olsen-Olsen (a connection with the Sigur Rós song of the same name perhaps?) and had a distinctly American feel, with padded-back booths and a collection of American license plates on the wall near the bathrooms.

Hungry from the day's activities, we both chose steaks (one lamb, one beef) which came with salad, corn, fries and sauce for under 2000isk, a fantastic bargain.  Much to my delight, the food was also excellent- the steak cooked perfectly and topped with pepper and mushrooms, the sauces richly laced with herbs, the fries crisp and generously sized.

And then home through the evening sun, following the road that's always been whizzed along with an entirely different intention than yesterday.  This road's the way home or the way to the airport, but with the few Blue Lagoon exceptions, I'd never explored what was on either side of this stretch.  Turns out it's more than enough for a really excellent day of activity.