Touring Reykjavik and the Aurora Borealis

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January 31st 2019
Published: February 2nd 2019
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Our Apartment Door A big surprise inside

Day One

We arrived at the airport a little late, about 7AM rather than 5:30 AM as scheduled. For us, it was no problem as we were not traveling onward, to those, however, with connections it was near tragic.

WOW Airlines is a budget airline, so there are no frills and no quick solutions to problems. There are some major advantages to a budget airline, COST; and some major disadvantages, if something goes wrong you are screwed.

The folks going to Dublin from Detroit, made their flight, barely. Folks going to London and points further on in Europe, did not. Unfortunately for them, the next scheduled flight is tomorrow! The airline was responsible for overnight accommodations and feeding these folks so that was not bad, but what do you do while you are waiting for the day to pass? The other question I had was how can an airline that is minutes from bankruptcy afford to pay the costs of well over 50 stranded passengers and still make any money. Maybe that is part of the reason they are bankrupt!

Anyway, we left the plane behind and headed to
Modern ReykjavikModern ReykjavikModern Reykjavik

Many tall apartment buildings serve as collectives for the young
customs. Now that was an experience. There are no signs anywhere directing you to customs. Only a sign that says exit. Since the corridor only went in one direction, we followed it. I have been this route before with other foreign travel. The airport is designed to keep passengers that are arriving from foreign soil separate from everyone else. They send you down blind corridors that lead directly to customs and passport verification. Not in Iceland.

We followed the corridors and exited one final door into the airport proper! We never went through customs. I did see a que form in front of me, so I assumed that is where we had to line up. So, I pulled Bob into the line and we waited.

The line moved very quickly, a little too quickly from past experience. I got to the head of the line and showed the man my passport and he asked for my boarding pass. Strange, I thought, but I fished it out and handed it to him.

“This is the wrong boarding pass.”

“Can’t be. This is the only one I have, and I

Expensive but Hearty
used it to get on the flight into Iceland,” I replied.

“Well you can’t use it to board this plane.”

Okay, now I was confused. I told him we were trying to leave the airport, not board another plane. Back and forth, we finally come to the realization this was not the customs line, but a boarding gate for a flight to who knows where.

Confused as to where the hell customs was, we left the line and started walking. We just followed signs that said exit figuring if they do not want to see our passports, that’s their problem.

We headed toward the latest exit sign and left through the door, and POOF, there was passport control. So, we checked into Iceland and headed toward the rental car lot, still confused as to how poor the directions were for arriving passengers.

Next, we headed out into the bitter cold. It was still dark, and the temperature was well below freezing with the wind screaming in our faces. Yup it was cold. We had to walk in these trying conditions for at least 100 yards

Our main street
to find the rental car bus to take us to Reykjavik Car Rental. The bus was loaded for so early in the morning, but it was warm, so we settled in and were soon on our way to the rental desk.

Bob took care of making the car rental reservations. He based his decision on cost and cost alone, so I was truly concerned as to what we would be driving around with in Iceland, but I held my thoughts to myself. I did however say a prayer or two along the way.

We arrived at the bus stop and I jumped off to get back inside as fast as possible and to get ahead of the que I knew was behind me. First in line, we only waited a very few minutes for our turn at the rental counter.

They tried to upsell us on everything. Dent insurance, dust storm insurance, gravel ding and dent insurance, the list went on and on. Since Bob used his AMEX card for the rental this was all covered by AMEX insurance, so we denied extra coverage and were soon handed the keys to
Local BArLocal BArLocal BAr

They love everything American
a 2017 Duster!

Now some of you older folks remember a car by Plymouth called the Duster. This was not a Plymouth but a Romanian vehicle. Our car was a four-wheeled SUV about the size of a Ford Escape but a little lower to the ground. It was a diesel, good for gas mileage, since gas approached $8 per gallon here. It also had 0ver 100,000 kilometers on the odometer

We dropped our bags in the back seat and Bob took the wheel. We soon learned our Duster sported a six-speed manual transmission. It was a bit of a shock, but, fortunately, both Bob and I know how to drive a stick and we soon were on our way to Reykjavik.

The ride was only a half hour. Traffic was light and we soon found our way to the dead center of town and our apartment at 60 Laugavegur, the main street in the downtown area. We could not be in a better place.

Our apartment, which Bob secured on an AIRBNB website, was not exactly “our” apartment. It seems that the owner, Rose, who calls the place the “Rose
Main streetMain streetMain street

Can't pronounce it for beans
Garden” was not quite truthful as to the exact accommodations.

We pulled into the free parking space behind the building. So far so good. We found the lock box outside the door as instructed and pulled out our key and opened the door.

You first enter a small hall or mud room equipped with automatic lights. Then you must unlock a second door to get into the apartment proper. Here there is a sign that asks you to remove your wet shoes and put them on the rack.

As we took off our shoes, we noticed four pair of additional shoes on the rack as well as various coats, hats and gloves. To add to the confusion, someone was in the shower! A little confused we went into the apartment proper and entered a kitchen/living room set with a table with six chairs, a rather beat up couch and five bedroom doors each neatly numbered.

Our key said “5” on the label and so we assumed that the door labeled such was our room, but what about rooms 1 – 4?

As we started to open the door to number 5, a person came out of door 4 and another person came out of the bathroom, obviously freshly showered. They said “Ola” we said “Hi” obviously confused as to what was happening here.

After a few confusing minutes, “our” apartment turns out to be a bedroom with a shared common area for kitchen and bathing privileges. Most people would have called this set up a Hostel, not an apartment, but for $79 a night what exactly did you expect? Since we were not exactly expecting the Ritz, we settled in and unpacked.

Our two apartment mates turned out to be four in total, so far. They were a family of three brothers and their mother. They lived in southern Mexico and owned a shoe business. Their father suffered from COPD and could not travel with the family. They would be with us through Saturday night.

Bob and I were anxious to get going, so, we bid our apartment mates good bye and headed out to explore Reykjavik. It was now a little after 9AM and I was hungry. I set out to find breakfast, Bob ate a meal he had brought with him, so I was dining solo.

We left the apartment and headed out to the main street. It was cold, twilight and busy as can be. The road is very narrow. It is one way and for some reason the lane is not straight even though the street itself is straight.

The city had erected barriers and narrow twists in the road I assume to slow traffic to a crawl. They were successful in their endeavors, traffic crawled as people walked among the cars. Surprisingly there were no horns, no words of harassment, just a peaceful ballet of cars and people. It was a sight to behold.

Since we were right downtown, the choices for food, bars and shopping were endless. We started walking and came to the first corner and looked right and saw we were a block away from the main harbor. It was beautiful, so we decided to drop by for a look see and move on to breakfast in a bit.

Down the narrow side street, we walked past a variety of food options and shops until we came to a very busy boulevard. We waited for the light and crossed the four-lane road and came to a stylish representation of a Viking ship. The art work was a tribute to the Viking heritage of Icelanders who came from Daneland or Denmark as it is known today.

I took some photos, my stomach growled, and I decided it was time for food. Heading back up the street, I left Bob at the harbor and told him to meet me at the restaurant we passed at the top of the street. He said Ok. That was my first mistake.

The restaurant was a cute little home cooking locale with only four tables and a nice young lady behind the counter. She asked where I was from, (that obvious I am not a local?) and I told her I just got here from Ohio and I was hungry, what did she suggest.

“Well you want the complete breakfast,” she offered.

“Bring it on,” I replied.

She set out to prepare a veritable feast. She served two thick hand cut pieces of grain bread toasted. To
Those LutheransThose LutheransThose Lutherans

They teach you how to apologize
this was added two fried eggs, sausage, bacon, baked beans, slices of orange all topped off with blueberries. I added a cup of hot local brew and I dined in complete satisfaction, till I got the bill!

My complete breakfast feast cost a whopping 2975 ISK or $24.79. Yup folk’s, food is EXPENSIVE in Iceland and you don’t even get free refills on pop or coffee. Youch.

Bob was supposed to meet me, but of course, when I was done, he was nowhere to be found. I bundled up and headed out to find him.

I always say, “if you get lost go back to the last place you were seen and wait there.” No one ever listens. I of course, went back to the Viking boat, the last place I saw Bob, and, nada. No Bob anywhere. I walk up and down and can’t find him anywhere, so I head back toward the restaurant hoping he would meet me there.

About half way back to the restaurant, here comes Bob out some side street. “I got lost,” he tells me! Of course you did I think shaking my head.

Oh well, back together we head off to explore. Suffice it to say there is much to see and do in town and we spent the next seven hours walking up and down every street in every direction.

Our first stop was the main shopping district filled with clothes, souvenirs and everything one who lives in town needs to survive. We headed in and out of an unknown number of shops and such. Now it was time for culture.

Our first stop was a Viking gift shop with items from Viking culture. I really love the Viking Saga and as such a cool item caught my eye. It was a Viking beer stein made entirely out of animal horn, just like you see on every Viking show on TV. I flip it over and see the price tag, 9900 ISK or nearly $100. Sadly, I put it back.

Then we stopped into a museum/store that made glassware out of lava. The proprietor explained the process, shared photos of the 2010 eruption in Iceland and was genuinely friendly. Leaving there, we headed to the largest building in Reykjavik, the Lutheran Church, simply named Hallgrimskirkja. It is simple, elegant and beautiful. Entry was free, right in our price range. They have the largest organ in Iceland and their organist was playing in preparation for a concert later this week, so we were treated to sights and sounds of Iceland.

We noticed there was an option to go up to the top of the tower, 265 feet, so I bought two tickets and we queued up for the elevator.

The tiny elevator held six people max, so we jammed in seven, and off we went to the best views of the city. Indeed, the view was spectacular through open windows that gave a 360-degree view of the city as well as allowed the wind to whistle through the tower. It was cold, with the wind whipped through the open railing, but the photos were worth it.

Next, we headed off to the National Museum to see the local Art. Now I am not an art aficionado, but Bob is, so I had planned to find a quiet place to sit and plan our next stop while Bob toured the museum.

We entered the front door to the museum and were greeted by two docents, both of whom were bored and very chatty. After the obligatory “where are you from”, we spent the next two hours just chatting at the front desk as people came and went! They introduced us to various dignitaries as well as the Marketing Director, who, from time to time, joined in on the festivities.

We talked about everything. America, Iceland, politics, books (my books especially) and many other subjects. We learned all about the pair, one from Iceland and the other from Greece. Both to be wed in the future, one to an Icelandic photographer thirty years her senior, the other to a young man whom her father does not approve! It was a blast.

From there we went to a few other museums, stopped for a brew at the Sweet Pig, and headed home for a much-needed nap. It was after 6PM and the plan tonight was to go out of the city and catch the Aurora Borealis.

We must have been more tired than expected, as we did not get up till nearly 9PM. The plan was to find a dark spot outside the city to avoid crowds and light pollution. The two docents recommended the Grotto Lighthouse a short drive out of town. I looked it up on Google Maps and found it only thirty minutes away, so we hopped in the car and were off.

The drive was less than predicted and the place was fairly quiet. We quickly found an ideal spot only to see the entire lot and the road behind us fill to capacity within in minutes. We got there literally just in time. I opened the car door and was immediately shoved back into the car by the frigid arctic blast. The wind was so hard I struggled to get the door open!

I put on two pair of gloves, wrapped the scarf around by face, and steeling myself against the bitter cold, opened the door once again. It was a fight, but I won and soon found myself in complete darkness, waiting for the lights.

The sky was clear and within minutes the light show began. It did not disappoint. The Aurora came and went in wave after wave. The ionized air glowed an earie green and waved in the sky as flag fluttering in the icy wind. The Aurora lasted over an hour. I am told there was more to come, but after an hour fighting the bitter cold and winds, we were done in. Unfortunately, we were also blocked in.

We retired to the car to stay warm and wait for the opportunity to depart. Cars began to move. Many people were leaving but some were coming for the continuation of the show. There was a space between our car and the next one and some dim wit tried to get his car in the space that a subcompact would have difficulty negotiating. You guessed it, he hit the driver side rear bumper and left a nice deep black mark.

Bob jumped out and told the guy he hit our car. Suddenly, English was a foreign language to him, and he denied the deed. Bob got a photo of him, his car, his license plate and the damage. Now we were thinking that outrageous charge for insurance might have been a bargain after all!

Oh well, all’s well that ends well and today ended well. Mission accomplished. We toured Reykjavik, saw the northern lights and didn’t freeze to death.

Some More Fun Facts about Iceland:

They lied about the amount of darkness in the winter. It gets light here at 8 AM and stays so until nearly 6 PM. We expected to be in the twilight or down right dark for much of the day. Not so. It is absolutely fine here in January

They also lied about not accepting AMEX cards. If you buy something and do not hand them the card, but just put it into the card reader, it goes through just fine. They just do not want to pay the AMEX fee!

It is cold, really really cold. The temperature is above freezing, but the wind is a killer. PREPARE well and you have nothing to worry about.

EVERYTHING and I mean EVERYTHING is expensive. A hamburger in the Sweet Pig Bar with a beer costs over $30. A deli premade sandwich is $10. Alcohol is out of sight, $7 -10 for a beer, $15 for a cocktail. Just remember you are on vacation. Enjoy yourself, you only go around once.

There are NO STOP SIGNS on the local roads. We have no idea who has the right of way, so Bob has been inching the car into intersections and praying we don’t get hit.

They do not use cash for anything. In fact, it is hard to find cash. They are almost completely a cashless society.

To survive, many young people work two or three jobs and live in collectives. A collective may consist of 7 – 10 people, of both sexes, sharing an apartment of maybe 1000 sq. feet. You have your own room (10 X 12 is average) and you share the rest. Rent: the equivalent of $750/person. OUTRAGEOUS. No wonder the young people want to leave!


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