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Western Iceland

IcelandAir brought me from JFK to Keflavik (the American-built International airport in southwestern Iceland) on Monday morning, without my luggage. After clearing immigration and having only my roll-on bag, I had nothing to declare to customs. Out the door with a ticket for the bus to the capitol of Reykjavik, about an hour north. I'd been told that I was within walking distance, so, following Google Maps, I headed to my lodgings.

Two nights in what was labeled a Student Hostel, with the toilets and showers down the hall. Nice space, and (probably as it is summer) rather quiet. After dumping my small roller, I headed into the downtown area, deciding that I should find and visit the two cathedrals. Perhaps 10 minutes away, after passing a pretty lake (several church towers on the far shore) and the modern City Hall building, I came to Reykjavik Cathedral, the national church and Evangelical Lutheran see. A simple structure, the side stalls above the floor pews were notable, the flat vault, the organist practicing at the console in front of ranks of pipes, it is a lovely church.

Reykjavik Cathedral

Following the street which separates the Lutheran cathedral from a splendid public park up a slight hill about 4 blocks, I came to the Cathedral Basilica of Christ the King.

Cathedral Basilica of Christ the King

At the top of a rise (but not the highest point in downtown,) it occupies an expanse of grass with a series of white buildings as the hill slopes away. The interior is fairly dark, but there is some impressive art on the walls.

From my hostel room, as well as most everywhere in the city, the Hallgrímskirkja can been seen, its impressive, sleek modern tower soaring nearly 75 meters above the highest point. Along with a pair of churches I'd seen from across the lake, I had my next goal set.

An Orthodox church "onion dome" captured my attention, as well as the single-spire white house of prayer on the water. As I would learn, that latter church's design existed throughout the country - it seems there was only one design and was repeated frequently. The orthodox church was closed and wrapped in scaffolding, getting exterior maintenance and paint.


Hallgrímur Pétursson was a seventeenth century Icelandic poet and minister who wrote a book of Hymns of Passion, the most published work by an Icelandic author. The church bearing his name honors him. I found it magnificent (even if it wasn't a cathedral!) and spent more time there than in the other two in Reykjavik. While there is an organ near the altar, a larger console sits on the nave floor below a huge display of chrome pipes.

For a thousand kroners, I took the lift to the top of the tower - there is no stair access to prove how tough I am. The views from the openings are awesome, especially when looking out to the harbor and the ocean. It was 3pm while I was up top, so I got to experience the stiking of the larger bell. Plus I was able to capture a bird's-eye view of Christ the King Cathedral.

The plaza in front of Hallsgrimkirkja borders on the main toursits streets, including numerous restaurants, and then slips down into the main shopping district. Hungry, having not really eaten since Orlando, I dithered as to cuisine, finally picking Selva, which featured Central American food, particularly Salvadoran. Run by a Iceland-France owner-maitre (who is married to a Columbia-Peru wife - must have lovely children), I had parsecon de pollo truto with an Einstein Artic pale ale. (Slow cooked chicken, deep fried in corn chickarron tempura, accompanied with plantian tostones, fried rice, pinto bean salad, curtido Salvadoran salad and Havana mayo. Great flavors, a bit picante; good beer.

After window shopping a bit, mainly to kill time, I walked down to in front of the Hard Rock Cafe and hailed a taxi. I'd booked a tour and tasting at Eimverk Distillery, which is about 10km outside town. I arrived a bit early, so was treated to a yummy gin and tonic, awaiting two other couples. The pair from Seattle arrived 2-3 minutes in front fo the couple from Australia, but our host kept us entertained with our G&Ts while getting to know us a bit.

The "flight" was broken into two parts - 4 tastings of gin-like products, a break and then 7 whiskeys. The gin is basically ethanol with added flavors. In order to remain pure Icelandic, the barley is distilled and herbals and essences from natively grown plants and vegetables are used in flavoring the gin. My favorite was the gin that had been aged in a barrel, having a slight golden shade. The "navy strength" (aqua vitae) didn't impress me, but the blueberry version of "sloe gin" could be a winner.

Here we took a break to tour the distillery facility. Tuns, tanks, distillers and a bottling line. All housed in an industrial warehouse behind a robotics factory. Eimverk is owned by the same family that runs the factory. Did you know that Iceland is a leader in robotics?

Whiskey by definition must be aged 3 years, typically in barrels. To create different profiles, one can tweak the grain (barley) by smoking it (the peat flavor in Scottish whiskys) or by varying the barrels - first use, from beer or sherry, or using "interstaves" with native birch. All of their whiskey bears the name Floki, an original settler on Iceland. A "young malt", only 2 years in barrel, is not a whiskey by definition, but does bring a product to market sooner. Since peat doesn't occur on Iceland, the barley is sometimes smoked with dried sheep dung. All in all, I preferred the classic unsmoked single malt.

Iceland controls the sale of alcohol, so the gins and whiskeys are not available except at "state stores" and at duty free on the way out of country. T-shirts, glasses, coasters, sweats with their logo (a magical Viking emblem) however, are available.

Calling for a taxi to return, I spent time at the hostel reception trying to determine the status of my luggage. I was promised it for Tuesday, so then opted to head back into town for a late dinner. The streets are rolled up as far as restaurants by 9, with only fast food-like places, so I wound up just folding my tent and crashing for the night.

Day 2

Setting out

Skogafoss Waterfall

En route - glacier

Reynisfjara Beach


Solheimajokull Glacier

Seljalandsfoss waterfall (which I walked under/behind it)

Hermann, our driver, then returned us to Reykjavik, dropping off in some order which had me off last. I spent some time with the reception desk trying to locate my luggage (it was already at my next lodgings, but IcelandAir didn't know it) and then went out for easy food (all restaurants seem to close their kitchens at 8.) Into Dirty Burgers and RIbs for a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a Gull beer.

Since I was out with the camera, I decided to get night shots of the cathedrals, and then the waterfront.

Day 3

True to the weather predictions, yellow flag warnings were out as I packed up and called for a taxi to take me to the in-city airport to pick up my rental car. Just the roll on bag, so it was easy dodging the rain and wind to get into the car from Budget. Little beast, automatic, with 3 gears - reverse, neutral and drive. I'd planned on picking up some clean clothing on my way out, but the weather was miserable and I just pushed on to drive up the west coast.

About 3 hours into the trip, the car said I should take a break, and there was a restaurant handy! Into the B&S Restaurant in Blönduós, where I had the daily special, wolffish with steamed veggies and a Gull draft. There was a very interesting modern church on the hill outside the restaurant.

Continuing to the north on route #1 before turning east and then south, I soon arrived in Hólar. The cathedral there was active from 1106 until 1801, although about 1550 it ceased being Catholic and became Lutheran. Now a Church of Iceland cathedral, Hólar Cathedral - Hóladómkirkja is a lovely little building in the northwest corner of Iceland.

Hólar Cathedral - Hóladómkirkja

Inside the altar sanctuary was impressive. Old carved gravestones were along the wall, in the floor, and then I saw more when I climbed the neighboring belltower.

Also on the grounds are a reproduction of the bishop's log house, and several turf houses - turf has been added over the wooden and tar-papered roof for warmth.

Leaving Hólar and winding along narrow backroads, including a pair of one-laned bridges wheich made it seem I'd been on islands, I followed Google Maps to my lodgings. A separate building, the family has farm animals (horse, chicken, sheep) as well as a two-story long building with apartments for midsized groups as well as bedrooms for singles and pairs. Communal bathrooms and a large dining hall with a large TV monitor (the news showed the volcano eruption) were on the ground floor.

As I entered I found my roller bag tucked under a counter, so I hefted it up a flight of narrow and steep stairs and got squared away. I repacked the roller and took it out to the car, as I was unsure I could get it in the trunk (it fit), and it would mean one less climb in the morning.

No dining options, other than bringing your own and cooking in the shared kitchen, I opted to head into the nearest town. My first choice from Google wasn't open, so I entered the Hard Wok Cafe and had a salad with garlic sauce, a meat lover's pizza (pepperoni, ground beef, ham), and a Viking Rokker (beer.)

Returning to the Karuna Guesthouse, I discovered that the USB port in the car wasn't charging my phone. I had also used up a camera battery, so I had to juggle what got charged and how, as there was a single unused plug.

Day 4

WIth nothing to eat (skipping the light cold buffet,) I was out and on the road before half past eight, and followed the advice I'd received and began my route retracing the #1 highway (although I did use a differnet route to join up to it.) By the time I reached where I'd had lunch the day before, I stopped for a pastry and to fill the gas tank. Continuing south, at one point Google Maps took me away from the ocean (I'd selected this route) and onto what started out as good roads. Then I travelled about 20km on gravel, through scenic and beautiful countryside. Narrow, with lots of twists and turns, I wasn't about to risk stopping for pictures too frequently. One bridge stood out, so it, along with a few more shots are here.

With intermittent rain, I discovered another feature of the car - it needed new wiper blades. Fortunately, it was much milder than the yellow flag travel on Wednesday. Eventually I got to the very small town of Skálholt. Seemingly just the cathedral and some academic building, the church was surrounded by scaffolding, as painting and repairs were underway.

Skálholt Cathedral - Skálholtsdómkirkja

Skálholt Cathedral - Skálholtsdómkirkja is a more modern building that its sister to the north, with excavations alongside that are traces of the original cathedral building. The white walls highlighted the beautiful use of wood, the mosaic in back of the altar, and the high vault.

I found the stained glass, all very modern in design and seemingly star-like, to be awesome, especially with the predominate color being blue.

Another turf house, a recent construction, stood off to the side with an awesome view. I spoke with two Icelandic men who were on a retreat nearby, while they took a break from meditation and prayer.

My plan was to return to Keflavik to turn in the car and check into my hotel. The route took me first on the southern part of the #1 road, until I made a turn to follow the coast along the southwest corner of Iceland. This took me by the active volcano, where I had to pay particular attention while driving: hikers, drivers and staff were seeming gaga about being 2 hours by foot from seeing (and photographing) the lava flow. Parking was packed, and spots were coveted. I just was careful and continued on my way, wanting to get through the area in one piece.

Once I got to the Eldey Airport Hotel, I dropped my gear in the room and headed out to eat. No restaurants off in Reykjanesbaer (airforce base housing?), I went into Keflavik and opted for Olson Olson, a family restaurant. My small casaer salad turned out to be dinner sized and included chicken breast, plus an order of fish and chips with a can of Tuborg. Too much food, but my only meal for the day, really.

Off to the gas station to fill the tank again, and then Budget, where I left the car unattended and put the keys in a drop box. I walked to the terminal, and took a cab back to the hotel. While sitting with folks in the lobby with a beer, I heard that the Aurora Borealis would appear near midnight, so set my alarm to get up and see. I got about 3 hours in bed, stood outside for 15 minutes to see the barest minimum of Northern Lights, and returned to bed.

Then my alarm decided not to wake me, and at 5am, the front desk rapped on the door to ask why I wasn't out front for the shared taxi. Five minutes later, I was dressed, rolling the luggage to the door, and setting off with a young Italian couple. I paid for the cab so they could just run to their plane (they had about 70 minutes) and proceeded to go through passport control, drop the big bag, then security, walk what seemed like a kilometer. Then passport control again, and security again, only to sit and wait to board. I pulled the senior, infirmed card and boarded early. Off to Scotland.

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