The day of errands

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After the drive north got cancelled, we found ourselves a little too lost with more time on our hands than we’re normally used to on our typical mad-rush vacations. The only things left to do were to rediscover the city centre and try out weird and wonderful food – there was whale meat, horse steak and reindeer salami from the Grillmarkadurinn in Reykjavik – and window shop on a day that was miserably bleak and rainy once more.

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When the next (and last) day dawned in Reykjavik, TC and I decided that trying to climb Mt. Esja would be our workout of the day. Going halfway up through moss, melting snow and mushy earth was quite a challenge, although finding the parking lot leading to Esja proved to be the bigger challenge after vague instructions given to us by the Tourist Office.

On the bright side of things, laundry went as planned without either the machine or the dryer malfunctioning for once.

 

 

When the weather forces its hand

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Breakfast in Egilsstaðir Guesthouse is a curious affair. Waking up too early has no merits here (at least on the day we were there) because the cook who was supposed to prepare the first meal of the day was still asleep by the time we got to the breakfast room. Instead, the owner of the property, an elderly farmer by the name of Jónas Gunnlaugsson, regaled us with tales of driving through thick snow in Mjóafjörður, his theories of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane and his efforts to learn about money and currency after Iceland economic crisis while we waited for breakfast.

The worsening weather threw a spanner into our well-laid plans when the roads to Mývatn stayed closed for the whole day. The next 2 days we’d planned to stay up north in Mývatn and Varmahlíð would have had to be redesigned around South Coast driving. A few desperate calls later, we had a night booked in Volcano Hotel (the same place we stayed in 3 nights ago) and another in the Blue Lagoon (and hopefully throwing in some time around the Reykjanes peninsula as well) before heading back to Reykjavik.

Getting a refund from our pre-paid accommodation up north was another story altogether.

Daniel, the very helpful receptionist in Egilsstaðir Guesthouse, commiserated with us in a repetitive outpouring of sympathy.

“Something more should be done about this,” he said emphatically. “Many tourists come at this time of the year and are frustrated when their plans don’t work out because the roads are closed with no warning. All you hear is ‘Come visit Iceland, come anytime’ but no one is told that these things will happen. And when they come, this is what they get.”

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To say that I’m terribly disappointed is quite the understatement, even though it’s probably yet another excuse to return and visit the northern part of this fascinating country. 

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We headed out into the heavy rain at around 10.45 am and spent the entire day covering 3 days’ worth of driving distance in awful weather conditions. There was heavy fog in many parts and ice in others and after several near-collisions and losing traction on slippery surfaces, we finally stumbled gratefully into Vík after 8 hours on the road, happy to be alive. Vatnajökull’s many glacier tongues had disappeared completely from sight and the landscape that had been breathtaking in the sunlight now came straight out of the Norse myths of old. 

Eastwards in snow

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The second day on the road brought sunny skies, high winds and impossible views of the many glacier tongues that stick out of the southern end of Vatnajökull national park. We stopped at Skaftafell for a 3-km walk, then carried on towards Suðurland and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, finally bunking overnight in a country (farm) hotel that could have easily been the set of Dagvaktin.

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Weather and road checking became our latest obsession. The road leading eastwards had been closed because of heavy snowfall, forcing us to think about contingency plans at every stop on this ring road tour. It’s no casual undertaking, even at this time of the year: don’t pass up any opportunity to eat, stock up at a provision store or refuel because the next town could be too many kilometres away. On Sunday as we finally headed into the fjords towards Egilsstaðir, the chances of doing all the above decrease dramatically. Consequently, a huge plastic bag full of biscuits, skyr, chocolates and crisps took up permanent residence in the back seat, picked from supermarkets and stores found all over various stops in the South and the Southeast. TC depleted the storehouse quickly as he foraged for lunch.

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The weather turned from grey and bleak to blue and sunny again in a matter of an hour. Still, route 1 was closed for the final stretch into Egilsstaðir and the detour took us around the coast for a while on route 96 before going into town on route 92. On the grit-filled road, the sprightly Ford Titanium that had once looked like a hulking vehicle in the Thrifty showroom now resembled a tiny, beaten-down farm tractor that a horde of cute Icelandic horses have trampled on.

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I always looked forward to dinner after checking into the accommodation – as a celebration of having completed each day’s mileage. Simple fare at Salt last evening – burgers, pizza and hot chocolate – made my night.

Sandblasted on the sunny south Coast

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The Iceland adventure in a four-wheel drive began on a sullen Friday morning in Reykjavik as spring brought unpredictable winds and a very changeable sky.

After quick stop at the Thrifty office somewhere in town and a warning not to drive the new Ford rental SUV into a river, we took off for the 832-mile ring road. Finding the Miklabraut was tricky thanks to a GPS that led us to a dead end of a suburban neighbourhood instead of where we needed to go. Getting lost really (as well as driving on a different side of the road), should have been the least of our worries. I’ve been told to expect sunny blue skies replaced by bleak storm clouds at any minute and up the mountains in Hveragerði, the winds did indeed pick up – so much, that counter steering became a norm.

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Several panic attacks later after truly believing that TC would drive us off into a lava field or off a cliff, the landscape flattened out and we floored it, overtaking where we weren’t supposed to and accelerating straight the face of a speed camera. Our traffic sins continued in that fashion as we tried to get to Mýrdalsjökull in time for a Skidoo ride and a glacier walk with Arcanum tours. TC managed to meet that magical deadline with many minutes to spare, only to find out that the winds up in the glacier made both activities impossible. The only other option was to go in a super Jeep tour which we agreed to. Ólafur was our guide – and the first person who tried to speak Icelandic with me and failed when I gave the wrong answer to his question – up there and suffered the travails of a broken rim when we were halfway up. While waiting for rescue, he cheerfully regaled us with tales of the worst tours he’d given and assured us that this was a lucky break.

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I left the tour disappointed that I hadn’t been on yet another snowmobile but grateful that I hadn’t done it in this weather.

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The ring road is everything Iceland has to offer outside of Reykjavik and I’ve not even seen half of it (let’s not even talk about the inner roads that are off the beaten track). At every turn is a powerful contrast of black lava sand and snow-capped vertiginous cliffs as the roaring winds add to the tortured, brutal feel that you’ve come to a place on Earth that is closer to an alien (or lunar) landscape. The Dyrhólaey (hill-island with the doorhole) peninsula at Vík í Mýrdal is such an example of it: behind us is Mýrdalsjökull and to the east, Reynisdrangar’s black lava columns rise out of the sea, fronted by the menacing sentinels of Reynisfjall’s basalt sea stacks that look as though they rise to the heavens.

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That there is a surprising lack of cars the further along we went is a baffling question I’ve been constantly asking myself. Where are all the people that had piled out of Keflavik airport and into the buses that headed for the capital city? It turns out that March is obviously not quite a popular month, even though visitor numbers are slowly creeping up every year. And that’s something to be grateful for really, when I’m able to stand, solitary, in open-mouthed wonder without needing to apologise for being in someone else’s picture.

Groove in the Food

Back when I was last in Copenhagen, I had only vague—and likely erroneous—ideas about Scandinavia. Those included Michael Learns to Rock, herring, The Little Mermaid and minimalist but expensive furniture. None of them included the cuisine at all.

This is not to say I didn’t do the usual wandering around old town, venturing further into Vesterbro, Nørrebro and even around Ørestad to do the usual touristy things, with the usual transportation mishaps (mostly to do with malfunctioning ticket machines and several ways of paying for a fare) along the way.

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But how things have changed, at least on the culinary front.

Danish cuisine has since then, developed a reputation for solely using produce that is regionally available. The result is a dish that’s modern, environmentally respectful and sumptuous and brilliant on the palate.

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What had happened in the time the world wasn’t looking?

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Nearly 10 years ago, Claus Meyer finally decided to put his foot down where Danish food was concerned. Tired of the low quality and tasteless yet clinically perfect food that had come to pass for Danish food, Meyer sought answers by studying the history of agricultural production. And learned that that the international success of Danish butter and pork had a disastrous effect on local cuisines as it muscled out most other areas of production and forced small unproductive farms to shut. Seeking redress to this imbalance, Meyer and others looked long and hard at the natural Nordic environment, studied old recipes and talked with those old enough to remember when food wasn’t shrink wrapped and flown in from the other side of the world.

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The New Nordic Food movement was born from this undertaking, a new culinary trend that had a dozen prominent chefs from around the region committing to a Kitchen Manifesto that emphasises age-old techniques of food preparation (drying, smoking, pickling, curing, smoking) with a larger goal of returning balance to the earth itself.

Meyer’s 2-Michelin starred Noma is widely seen as the epitome of this movement – with a huge dose of molecular gastronomy that’s not unlike the techniques adopted in the now-defunct Ferran Adriá’s El Bulli. Noma now has a 3-month wait list and a hefty price tag that will set its visitors back by and arm and a leg, but many other restaurants have jumped on this speeding freight train of local produce and extreme innovation to boost Copenhagen’s culinary status on the world map.

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The many cafes and restaurants in the gentrified, trendy Nørrebro district exemplify this growing trend, capped off nicely with the opening of a glitzy gourmet food-hall-cum-market Torvehallerne. Höst (part of the Cofoco restaurants group), is one of such places and came highly recommended by Tommy Pedersen, the host in my AirBnb apartment in Ørestad. Online reservation just had to be made on the same day and then off we went for the first seating, in a beautifully austere and sparse interior, softened by wooden floorboards and soft candlelight. Like Noma, tons of food enthusiasts flock here to sample the New Nordic kitchen—and got something wonderfully bizarre, mad but so brilliant.

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These were just some of the dishes we had:

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Bread made with Manitoba flour and soured, whipped butter

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Smoked lumpfish and lumpfish roe with broccoli and foamy sauce from beer and sunflower seeds 

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Norwegian lobster, seabuckthorn, juniper cream, roasted hazelnuts and browned butter

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Birch bark ice cream with chestnut and vanilla caramel, herb chocolate, chervil and hazelnut sponge cake

If that doesn’t give Scandinavia a new, authoritative voice when it comes to food, I  would probably never know what would. Buy me a habit dusted with Onion ash, Reindeer blood and lobster shells. Call me a convert.

Around the ring road

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Barely five months after last year’s adventures in the north, I find myself packing my bags again and heading towards Copenhagen and then onto Iceland to conquer the deep-seated fear of driving on the other side of the road. Apart from wanting to savour the elemental beauty of Iceland, of course, this time armed with a smattering of Icelandic vocabulary and grammar and an unsatiated hunger for seafood (and Icelandic Fish and Chips). 

With the memories of Svalbard and the arctic still in technicolor, it’s hard not to be gripped with the sheer excitement of returning to snow and ice and well, extreme living – except that I’m looking at more civilisation this time around. The trip isn’t a solo one this time and with a travel companion (TC), mental adjustments are always needed. Navigating through the dynamics of travelling with someone else can, after all, be nearly as tricky as going through the cobbled streets of any quaint European old town. 

Still, I want to feel the cold that insists on getting past all the thick layers of thermal wear and the delicious coziness that settles in front of a fireplace after a day out in the open. I want it to become my only thought, my only obsession. I want to stand as an insignificant speck on an outcropping of rock as the landscape harshly whispers its secrets into my frozen ears. 

Here I come again.