Saturday, July 20, 2013

Iceland, Scandinavia and St. Petersburg, Part 1. July 1-4: Iceland

For some time now, Sue has longed to visit the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, while I have hoped to tour Scandinavia.  This year we determined to do both, booking a nine days cruise on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Star that took us from Copenhagen (Denmark) and back again, touching down along the way in Warnemunde (Germany), Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg (Russia), Helsinki (Finland), and Stockholm (Sweden).  The cruise included two days in St. Petersburg and one day in each of the other ports, which was just what we were looking for.

Since were planning to embark from Copenhagen, however, we decided to spend another four days in that city before sailing off to Germany, Estonia, Russia, Finland, and Sweden, reserving a room at the Maritime Hotel in the Nyhavn waterfront district.  And since we’d be flying to Copenhagen from New York via Icelandair, which permits a free stopover in Iceland along the way, we opted to spend another four days in Iceland before continuing on to Copenhagen, reserving a room at Room With a View Hotel in Reykjavik for the duration of our stay in that country.

So what we initially planned as a short getaway to a few Scandinavian capitals and the Hermitage Museum suddenly had turned into an 18 days journey on land and sea in which we’d ultimately visit seven different countries.

The first leg of our trip took us from JFK to Keflavik International Airport, located some 40 miles outside Reykjavik.  Our flight was scheduled to leave New York at 2:05 PM on Monday, July 1 and arrive in Keflavik at 11:40 PM the same day (flight time is only five hours 40 minutes but there is a four hours time difference between NY and Reykjavik) but, not unexpectedly, our flight was delayed before takeoff for nearly an hour.  But, equally unsurprisingly, we arrived in Keflavik almost exactly on time, since all of the airlines seem to have built just enough extra time into their schedules to allow for such seemingly inevitable delays.

Iceland suffered a major banking crisis in 2008 and the country was virtually bankrupt so it is astonishing to me that prices in that country remain as high as they are.  But the fact is that they are and it begins right at the airport: a taxi from the airport to Reykjavik costs about $120 but, fortunately, we’d been alerted to that and arranged for a private car to pick us up at the airport for less than half that amount.  (There are somewhat cheaper alternatives available through public buses but our baggage was heavy, we were arriving at close to midnight, and we’re not quite as young as we used to be.  So, at least for us, this was clearly the right choice.)

We arrived at close to midnight but, it being July in Iceland, it was still so bright out that it might well have been mid-afternoon.  Our driver was right on time, brought his lovely daughter along with him for company (and to assist us with our luggage), and delivered us promptly and safely to our hotel, Room With a View.  We’d alerted the hotel that we’d be making a late arrival but we probably needn’t have bothered: it was still light out, people were about, the small hotel’s concierge was only temporarily detained assisting other guests who were checking out to find public transportation, and we were quickly settled into our room.

Our room (or, rather, our two-room suite) was well-appointed with a pleasant living and dining area and a separate bedroom.  It was clean, the queen size bed was quite comfortable, the hotel itself was very well located on Reykjavik’s main street, and the staff was friendly and helpful.  A little pricey, to be sure, but after all, this is Iceland.

We spent the next day (Tuesday, July 2) exploring the city, lunching on excellent fish and fish soup at Caruso, a charming Mediterranean restaurant located just a few blocks from our hotel.

Caruso Restaurant in Reykjavik, Iceland
In the evening, we strolled down to the Old Harbor and dined there at Saegreifinn – The Sea Baron, a simple, traditional spot,  justifiably known both for its outstanding lobster soup and for the variety of grilled seafood that it serves on skewers.  I opted for the grilled whale meat, which may hve been politically incorrect but was delicious (much like beef).  Somewhat less adventurous than I am, Sue chose grilled cod.  We both enjoyed the lobster soup.  We’d heartily recommend both restaurants: Caruso and Saegreifinn.

On Wednesday, July 3, we decided to explore a bit outside of Reykjavik and booked a half-day tour that took us to the Gullfoss (Golden) Waterfall, the Geysir hot springs, and Pingvellir national park.  The Golden Waterfall was a bit disappointing: the falls are massive and I understand that when the sun is shining, magnificent rainbows often form above them; unfortunately, the sun wasn’t shining much on the day we were there and we had to make do with just the falls themselves.

Gullfoss (Golden) Waterfall

The Geysir geothermal area was, however, terrific.  Today the original “Geysir” (which gave its name to the very phenomenon) seldom erupts but at regular intervals the nearby “Strokkur” spews a column of water and steam up to 30 meters high.  It’s a most impressive performance.

Stokkur erupting in the Geysir geothermal area.
We lunched at the Geysir restaurant located on the grounds (I tried the traditional Icelandic meat soup which was quite good) before continuing on to Pingvellir national park.  The park is the birthplace of Iceland’s first parliament, Alpingi (believed to be one the world’s first parliaments, if not the first) and is also home to some extraordinary geological formations tracing back to the collisions between the tectonic plates.  The remnants of Alpingi didn’t do much for me but I found the geological evidence of the collisions between the tectonic plates to be absolutely awe-inspiring.

Geological evidence of the collision of the tectonic plates in Pingvellir.
Thursday, July 4 (Independence Day) was to be our last full day in Iceland and we picked two things to do not normally associated with the birthday of the United States: we swam in one of Reykjavik’s many thermal pools and followed that with a visit to The Icelandic Phallological Museum.  What pubs are to the Brits and Irish, pools and spas are to Icelanders who visit them regularly not merely to swim, but to meet and gossip and generally enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of their neighbors and friends.  We found a facility within walking distance of our hotel that included a lap pool, a steam room, and a couple of hot tubs; it was just what we needed.

Just a few blocks from the pool, The Icelandic Phallological Museum, reputedly the only museum of its kind in the world, gives testament to the notion that there really is no limit to what man will do (or at least collect).  Exhibiting a collection of more than 200 penises and penile parts (including all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland) as well as about 300 penis-related artistic objects and practical utensils, the museum sees itself as making it “finally possible for individuals to undertake serious study into the field of phallology in an organized scientific fashion.”  Serious or not, the museum was fun and I’m glad we got to see it.

Preserved specimen of an elephant penis in The Icelandic Phallological Museum
Early in the morning of Friday, July 5 we flew from Reykjavik to Copenhagen.  I’ll be telling you all about that next leg of our trip, the time we spent in Copenhagen, in my next post. 

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