This past weekend I had the pleasure of journeying to Iceland to cover the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. Check out my coverage of the festival here. Whenever we had free time, we made it a priority to get out and see some local sights. Here are a few of the random and beautiful things Iceland had to offer.
An Obsession with Elves:
Iceland has a rich history of folklore and sagas, and many of their stories focus on elves. This has lead to the assumption that Icelanders believe these creatures actually exist. The rumor goes that even highway construction jobs are re-routed to avoid endangering areas where elves live. I read more about their origins in a book of Icelandic folk tales in my hostel.
A Bus Ride into Keflavík:
On Friday we took a bus into the nearby town of Keflavík. We wandered the beachside town and found children jumping on a giant rubber play structure. We couldn’t tell whether it was intended for some other purpose, but the kids were having fun, so we hopped on ourselves. We only noticed afterward that the thing was imprinted with symbols of shoes with a cross through them. No jumping, or just no shoes? Either way, it was a blast.
We browsed the local supermarked, Netto, and found some delicious baked goods. I was fixated on these Icelandic doughnuts called Kleina, and I also found what looked like pre-packaged pancakes. I couldn’t trust the pancakes, but I took home the Kleina. We ran into some fellow festival-goers from England and talked about which direction to walk to get to downtown Keflavík.
Downtown Keflavík turned out to be a quaint stretch of road with a few bars, a barbershop, and some retail storefronts. The town was extremely quiet, but friendly. Everyone gave us directions in meters, and when they asked if we knew the nearby main street, we had to politely decline. Every street name sounded like it was forty letters long and full of vowels, and it was hard speaking in terms of potential landmarks rather than street names. We didn’t get lost, however, and made it back to the bus in time for day two of the festival. The clouds parted and a few sun rays peeked out. After Thursday’s rainy festival day, we were glad to stretch our legs and warm up.
Press Bus Tour of Southwestern Iceland:
On Saturday, we were invited by ATP Iceland Press Coordinator John Rogers to join a bus tour around the southwestern tip of the island, along with the director of the Atlantic Studios venue, Gestír Guðlaugsson, and a few other members of the press. We stopped by the Krýsuvík geothermal pools, the Reykjanes Power Station, the Gunnuhver geothermal pools, Leif the Lucky’s Bridge, and an old NATO airplane hangar! The latter required us to submit our passports and go through a security checkpoint, and was a rare treat indeed!
The bus trip also had a great surprise: the original bus driver had cancelled, so the Icelandic event director for ATP, Tómas Young, enlisted his dad to drive us! He was a charmer, but requested that I not share his photo in my coverage. You’ll just have to settle for hearing his quotes rather than seeing his smile.
We hopped in the van at the festival site and headed towards Krýsuvík. We passed vast fields of lava rocks along the northern coast of the Reykjanes peninsula, moving east, and could see mountains in the distance to our right. Someone remarked how beautiful the landscape was, and we had our first taste of our driver’s gruff humor. He blurted out, “This is the shittiest part of Iceland. You need to see some mountains. This is the flattest part of the country, that’s why they built the airport here.” It was harsh, but like an endearing dad trying to teach his kids the right way to do something, he said it with a cheeky smile.
A few minutes later, as we passed some low shrubs, we had another taste of Icelandic humor. Gestír asked us, “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” We were stumped, and I assumed he’d say something bizarre and amazing about a certain type of moss or something. Instead he said, “Stand up.” The island used to have trees, but was extensively forested when it was first settled, and now suffers from deforestation and erosion from farming over the centuries.
We chatted about the rainy weather of the first day of the festival, and our driver chimed in, “What, the weather was great on Thursday! Everyone was inside drinking!” He was totally right.
Krýsuvík Geothermal Pools
Krýsuvík is a geothermal area on the Reykjanes peninsula. It lies between the town of Keflavík to the west and the capitol city Reykjavík to the east, behind some small mountains to the south of the main highway. We left the highway and drove on a dirt road for awhile, up and down over small hills and past a huge and beautiful lake, and down into some abandoned farmland. Most of the farms from over the centuries have been abandoned due to extreme erosion and degradation of the topsoil. We passed a field of Icelandic horses, and in the distance could see a hillside with a huge plume of steam.
We arrived at the sulphuric steam pools, and immediately saw the warning signs. The water bubbling at the surface, seemingly harmless, was actually over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. One wrong step and you could be boiled alive. The most striking aspect of the geological phenomenon was how the Icelandic government seems pretty hands-off when it comes to safety precautions. There were plenty of warning signs, but as far guard rails or fences, there was only a basic wooden platform to walk on, with no railings whatsoever. I saw a few random footprints off the path and wondered what the fate of my predecessors had been . . .
Reykjanes Power Station
We then drove along the southern edge of the peninsula and past the seaside fishing town of Grindavík. The popular Blue Lagoon hot springs spa is only a few miles from this town, but we passed on and made our way towards the Gunnuhver geothermal area. We passed the Reykjanes Power Station, one of five largest power plants in Iceland. About one third of Iceland’s power comes from completely clean, renewable energy in the form of natural geothermal energy. Steam erupting from the earth is used to generate electricity and heat water. The rest comes from hydro power, with less than one-tenth of one percent from fossil fuels. Iceland might just be the “cleanest” country in terms of it’s energy production, and it was an honor to see one of these power stations in real life.
Gunnuhver Geothermal Pools
Gunnuhver is a much larger and more spread out geothermal area than Krýsuvík, and is much more unpredictable due to the nearby Reykjanes power plant. The creation of artificial holes in the earth’s surface in order to direct the flow of steam has re-routed much of the activity in the area, causing unforeseen changes in the location and strength of the geothermal eruptions. Our Icelandic friends pointed out a place in the steaming earth where you could clearly see a former platform. One year, the steam suddenly erupted from a new origin underneath the existing walkway. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the area was closed for awhile to be sure it was safe. Even so, I felt a bit uneasy walking above the tumultuous earth. It was fantastic to witness the raw energy of our planet.
Reykjanes Lighthouse, Valahnúkur Point, and Surprise Whale Watching:
Across the road from Gunnuhver was Reykjanes Lighthouse and Valahnúkur Point. We walked along the sea cliffs for awhile, and someone spotted orcas swimming around out in the distance. It looked like there were two of them circling an area where there were a ton of birds hovering. Chances are, the orcas were on the hunt, and the birds were hanging around to get a chance at the spoils. We watched as their fins breached the surface, and even spotted a tail or two. We laughed that people come from all over and pay big money to go on whale-spotting boat rides, and we saw them randomly from the shore! It only added to the magic of Iceland.
Leif the Lucky’s Bridge Between Two Continents
Iceland lies along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is the divide between the Eurasian and North American continental plates. As these plates move farther apart over thousands of years, new earth rises up to fill the space. In essence, over millions of years, Iceland will become a new continent, just as our current continents were formed through millions of years of shifting to reach their current state. There are multiple places throughout Iceland where this phenomenon is acknowledged, most famously at Þingvellir National Park, where valleys and fissures clearly outline the path of the rift. Our group visited Leif the Lucky’s Bridge, where a walkway has been built across a small fissure, and you can stand (symbolically) between the two plates. This provides a great physical representation of a mind-boggling fact about the earth’s movement.
NATO Airplane Hangar
We had one more stop on our press tour. Anticipation grew as we returned to the festival site, Ásbrú, once the site of a NATO base, where United States military presence remained until evacuation in 2006. During the Cold War, the United States made a peaceful invasion of Iceland, in order to use the flat lava fields near Keflavík as a military base in their efforts against the Soviet Union. This strategic position allowed them to house fighter jets for various interception missions, emergency planes for use in the event of war, and surveillance facilities to monitor the activity of Russian submarines. The base’s activities were highly classified at the time, and Icelanders had little involvement in the administrative aspect of the base, though they were instrumental in providing the man power needed to run the operation. Our chaperone of the base gave us an example of the difference in the American and Icelandic approach to the space. Signs declaring the top secret nature of the area read in Icelandic, “Please do not enter here. This area very very off limits,” while the American version read, “NATO Facility: Deadly Force Authorized.”
After decommission, the area was repurposed as a residential and educational facility, and now is home to the largest university campus in Iceland. In addition, many of the military housing buildings were converted into hostels to support Iceland’s burgeoning tourism sector. The country’s population is only about 300,000, but they receive one million tourists annually, three-times their population. Gestír explained to us how Iceland wants to move away from the military history between them and the U.S., and return to it’s peaceful roots as a country with no military of its own. They are building a data center in Ásbrú in the hopes of harnessing Iceland’s clean energy to reduce the carbon footprint traditionally associated with large-scale data centers. As Gestír put it, the country wants to turn its “swords into plows.” If the U.S. ever wants to return to continue surveillance of Russia, in light of recent rumors about submarine development, Iceland will most likely decline.
We drove along a small road amidst the runways of Keflavík Airport and the former NATO airfield, and passed old buildings which used to be control centers and a terminal for the former civilian airport. We moved further and further away from the airspace, into the middle of lava fields, and passed four huge hangars. These used to house four fighter jets who were “on call” at any moment to attack Russia in the event of war. Pilots were kept available around the clock, and at a single command from the base, could leap into their planes and be off to bring deadly force to our opponents. It was humbling to see the remnants of such potentially violent history.
As we moved further out along the road, we began to see concrete bunkers in the distance. Our driver, who used to work for the fire department on the air base, explained that these bunkers house the shells of former F4 fighter jets, used to intercept unauthorized Soviet aircraft throughout the Cold War. These H.A.S. (or Hardened Aircraft Shelters) are built to preserve and protect these aircraft in the event of a nuclear war. With walls of concrete one meter thick, and 50 ton steel doors, these were a sight to see. Our driver joked that even though they’re built like tanks to withstand a bomb, he “sure as hell wouldn’t want to be in one.”
We arrived at bunker number two and stood in awe as the base personnel lowered the massive door. At first all we saw was black, and an eerie silence fell over the group. Then, as our eyes adjusted, we saw the pointed nose of an F4 fighter jet staring back at us from the darkness. We could see the shell and smell the cool, sterile air of the dormant bunker.
We circled the plane for awhile, taking photos and touching its sides. I stood for a moment under its center and imagined the terror it must have brought at first sight of it in the sky. Even though it was never used for military combat, it was chilling to see it in the flesh.
We watched from inside as our guide raised the mammoth door again. It raised up and up, until it was at a 90 degree angle, then it raised even higher into a gap in the ceiling, making an impenetrable seal. We stood a moment more in the bunker, just us and the fighter plane, and quickly returned to the outside world. Let’s hope those doors stay shut.
We drove back to the checkpoint and said goodbye to our guide. Then the ATP Iceland Press Tour Posse 2014 enjoyed a fantastic meal together (the profiteroles, oh my lord) and everyone was given a tote bag of Icelandic music from the people who run the Kraumur Music Fund (a non-profit office and fund which supports Icelandic artists). It was a fantastic way to see some Icelandic sights and get to hear more about the culture and politics of Iceland, especially as they relate to the United States. We had the unique chance to see the ever-changing nature of Iceland’s geological phenomena, and were reminded of how active and raw our earth really is, physically and politically. I’m fully in love with Iceland now, and hope to return soon for a more extensive tour of the country.
Journey to Reykjavík, Iceland’s Capitol
After ATP Iceland was over, my family and I traveled to Reykjavík, the Icelandic capitol 40 minutes from Keflavík. We stayed for one night before flying home the next day, and were able to see some last minute sights. The famous Hallgrímskirkja church stands at the top of the main street in downtown Reykjavík, and is a sight to behold, let alone a name to pronounce. My mom and I sat inside and listened to the organ being tuned before we headed to our last Icelandic dinner.
Café Loki is a world-famous cafe and restaurant directly opposite Hallgrímskirkja church. I was craving more of that meat soup, so we ordered one each which came with Icelandic rye bread with lamb paté (on the right in the photo), and flatbread with smoked lamb. The latter was a bit fragrant for me, but I loved the paté. The rye bread is naturally sweet, and the combination was great with the salty, brothy soup. I didn’t think the soup was a good as the bowl I had at the festival, but part of that may have been the cold and rain working in its favor.
That night, my brother and I discovered “Lebowskibar,” a fully-fledged fan bar of the Coen Brothers masterpiece. We watched the final World Cup game and Germany’s victory, and hung around after for some “Caucasians.”
The bar had a 50s themed back room serving burgers and milkshakes, and a front room with a full length bowling lane mounted on the wall, complete with shoes, ball, and pins. A jukebox cranked out 50s songs, until a DJ got up and actually started spinning songs from the soundtrack.
We were in heaven, cracking up every five minutes at the next spot-on homage. Barstools were emblazoned with names of different characters, including a bright purple one that read “Jesus Was Here.” There was a wall-mounted bowling shoe rack with a photo of Saddam Hussein in the center.
Even the bathrooms were painted with the sexy bowling Viking characters from Lebowski’s drug-trip dream. The real treat though, was the sign on the door, reading, “This is not ‘Nam, There are Rules.”
Sometimes, there’s a man. And in Iceland, that man inspires a bar.
The next morning, we had breakfast at Bernhöftsbakarí, the oldest bakery and company in Iceland. We agreed it was the best doughnut we’d ever had, which is really saying something.
Then we made our way down to KEX Hostel, where KEXP hosts its live broadcasting during Iceland Airwaves. As we were ready to leave, we saw Rob Laakso from Kurt Vile‘s backup band The Violators arriving. Iceland is such a small world, especially when you’re in the capitol after a huge local event. It was a great way to end the weekend before flying home, spotting yet another awesome musician.