Tuesday, June 7, 2011

IS - Golden Circle

June 7                   Tuesday               Iceland                 Reykjavik                                                           

Today was my day to finally hit the so-called Golden Circle: the main tourist track for those with but a day or two to see Iceland.  This began with Þingvellir National Park, the location of first parliament of Iceland (indeed, perhaps the first parliament in the world) many many centuries ago.  It’s just an undeveloped area today, but the signs do a good job at making the historical significant interesting.  The area is located right along a series of fissures between North America and Europe, enabling me to once again find myself switching back and forth between continents. While it had been sunny in Reykjavik, it was a bit more dreary here among the mountains… but fortunately it was just cool rather than cold & otherwise dry.  That likely contributed to my somewhat greater appreciation for the area than if I was in a more miserable condition, as there really isn’t much to see & one wouldn’t want to stand around reading signs as they get soaked & frozen.

Þingvellir largely consists of moss, which I’d really say should be Iceland’s official plant (if it isn’t already).  Given the historical significance of the area, there are plenty of signs telling people not to venture off the paths… first you may damage the moss and grasses which help prevent erosion, second you might damage the rockface if they’re loose, and third you might hurt yourself by falling into a fissure.  But really I’d say the first one is the only real thing they’re concerned about.  So I say this to preface the next paragraph…

Want to be overcome by Anti-Americanism?  Just watch an American family at a tourist site.  The more delicate a tourist site: the more they’ll tramp all over it.  Even worse is an American tour group: they’re full of American families, inevitably wearing dumb hats and t-shirts with cars on them.  At least the people who wear t-shirts with wolves on them don’t leave our country much.

As for other tour groups… British tour groups always stand around asking dumb questions that even other tourists could readily answer; Japanese tour groups are always in the way but will move instantly upon request; and then there’s German tour groups… now I love German backpackers; mostly because they’re awesome like every other backpacker but also because I have a bit of an affinity toward German stuff.  But German tour groups: they march in formation and won’t budge for anyone.  You can be walking all the way to the edge of a path & they’ll still occupy the entirety of it & plow right through you, with nary an “Entschuldigung” or “Verzeihen Sie mir” to follow.  Sure I’m stereotyping, but thanks to group mentality: such stereotypes often seem to be remarkably accurate.  For what it’s worth… awesome groups have always consisted of Norwegians & Swedes, partly driving much of my affinity toward giving them due respect in the coming weeks.

After Þingvellir was Geyser… that is, the geyser for which all other geysers are named.  I drove past it; it was seconds from the roadside and didn’t look as interesting as some others out there… and frankly I was short on time… and really, I’m just not much of a geyser person.  Unless it shoots high enough to reach another layer of the atmosphere: I’m not interested.  Not that I wouldn’t watch… but it’s like trainspotting: I absolutely love the moment the train is going by but loathe the 30-60 minutes (or more…) of nothingness.

So next was Guilfoss.  It was OK, but not worth my time coming all the way out here.  It’s pretty neat with its pair of cascades, but really I’d seen so many waterfalls by this point that it just wasn’t jumping out at me as something I needed to spent all day to visit.  However, this was one case where I’d say a sunny day may have significantly altered my opinion… the amount of mist getting kicked up would have surely fared wonderfully in direct sunlight, but alas the mountain clouds persisted.

By “not worth my time coming all the way out (t)here” I refer partly to the sheer distance from Reykjavik, but moreso to the speed at which I travelled to get there.  Tourist traffic.  I hadn’t had any tourist traffic at all up until this point.  On the rare occasion I needed to pass someone, I’d just do it… no problem; it’d be one car & there’d be no opposing traffic.  Heck, I’d go an hour and maybe see one car.   But the Golden Circle, despite being posted at 90 km/h, moved at about 50 km/h.  For the non-metric folks: I’ll convert for you and say that’s 30 MPH.  Odds are you go faster than that in your own neighborhood.  And I couldn’t pass because no one else would pass… while there was a steady stream of opposing traffic, there were enough gaps that if I was passing only 2 or 3 vehicles: I could totally do it.  But I had about 11 vehicles in front of me, eventually getting that to 7 as I passed a couple folk who were leaving big gaps ahead of them… but no gaps in opposing traffic were big enough to make that final sweep.

Also not helping: Iceland’s radio kind of sucks.  It’s geneally bad EuroPop; not that it matters since within five minutes you’ll lose the station.  Only two maybe-OK stations were Bylgjan & Ruv.  The former had immense variety (and I don’t say that as a good thing)… a mix of Europop (some good; some bad), American dance music from the 80s, and bad American pop from the last few years… I don’t mean bad as in stuff that’s popular but I dislike it; I mean bad in the sense that it maybe hit the airwaves a few times a week before it was pulled off for good reason.  Think the B-sides to any pop-punk band over the last 10 years.

In the absence of anything good on Icelandic radio (with the exception of occasional Quarashi), I've been belting out tunes by the Wallflowers, Nine Inch Nails, Green Day, Girl Talk, Depeche Mode, Guns N’ Roses, Blur, and pieces from Zelda games.  I’ll also add in “Live and Let Die”.  As for Guns N’ Roses: I especially find myself singing Patience when stuck behind a convoy of tourists doing half the speed limit.  Plus Sweet Child O' Mine is awesome to scream at the top of your lungs when the only other sound in the car is silence.  Speaking of which… that’s probably where Depeche Mode came from.

This was my last day with the rental car: from here on I became dependent on my own two feet & Reykjavik’s bus system… which to be fare is actually not half-bad.  Not half-good, either, but not half-bad.  It covers pretty much everywhere of interest, has reasonably direct routes, and headways of about 15-20 minutes… better than America but worse than most of Europe.  Anyways, I pulled into the Dollar / Thrifty place among the Reykjavik sprawl and delivered the keys to a bottle blonde, who then drove me back to my room.  Just like my waitress the night before: she seemed utterly disinterested in her work & desperate for something else; or at least to go home.  I tried to strike up conversation during the drive & learned that she’s from a small town in the northeast & apparently moved to Reykjavik pretty recently for this job.  It was tough to keep the conversation going… not so much for lack of interest in her continuing it, but it seemed her morale had been so-sapped already that I just couldn’t get any good leads to keep the chat going.

It was time for some chow.  Bæjarins Beztu is a hotdog stand just behind the restaurant I ate at last night.  It’s just a tiny cart on an otherwise empty lot, except for a picnic table and plastic trash bin keeping it company.  It’s also Iceland’s most popular eatery.  Basically I’d best compare it to Ben’s Chili Bowl in DC… except the prices here were actually pretty darn good, whereas Ben’s – while admittedly tasty – really isn’t worth the price except for special occasions or if you’re on U Street and really drunk.

You order with “eina með öllu”, which translates to “one with everything”.  I asked the guy – the first well-mannered attendant I’d yet come across in Reykjavik – if that’s just something the tourists say… tantamount to Geno’s in Philly, where only tourists visit & only tourists order their cheesesteak (and I use that term loosely) by saying “wit” if they want cheese.  Philadelphians just kind of laugh at the folks that do that… whilst simultaneously cringing that people would actually patronize Geno’s.  Anyways, the guy affirms that yes: locals even say that; it’s not just a tourist thing… actually most tourists don’t even know to say that, anyway.  So win for me.

“Everything” comes with mustard, rémoulade, fried onions, and a touch of ketchup.  First up: I looked upon the rémoulade with hesitation, but it was pretty darn good; and the fried onions were an amazing addition.  The ketchup was very faint, but it was actually quite good ketchup… amazing considering that other ketchups in Iceland (indeed: most of Europe) are downright horrendous; some countries actually bringing you marinara sauce if you request it.  Conversely, those same countries seem to put ketchup on pasta.  As John Kerry heads the Foreign Relations Committee and also has ties to the Heinz family, I personally feel he is best poised to give up on all the idealistic dreams the committee currently pursues & actually go for something realistic: shipping vast amounts of American ketchup to every country in Europe.  Except the German-speaking countries… they’re pretty good at ketchup even if at first they give you mayonnaise.

I made my way to the main house of my lodging and relaxed in the hottub for almost an hour.  As I made the scenic 5-minute stroll back to my room – enjoying the lengthy sunset – my camera, a 2-year old Canon T1i – decided to bite it.  I’d said in yesterday’s post that I knew its end was near; now its time had come.  It’s an easy fix back home, but less so here… tomorrow would be dedicated to getting myself to the mall & buying a new camera.

Moral of the day after doing the Golden Circle: if you come to Iceland and have only a couple days… hop a flight to Akuryeri.  You’ll enjoy yourself so much more.  Also: get yourself a hotdog.

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