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Iceland Heats Up
Rugged Vistas, Rowdy Night Life? Deal Me In.

By Christina Talcott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

"We were left alone in the middle of the ocean for 1,000 years and nobody paid notice to us."

So said artist Hallgrimur Helgason in a short video about Icelandic creativity that I watched on the flight to Reykjavik. He was talking about the so-called Dark Ages, when the Danish conquered Iceland, then essentially abandoned it to plague, pirates, famine and volcanoes.

Now, Iceland can't get out of the spotlight. It rocketed to global prominence during its remarkable economic boom in the 1990s and recently grabbed headlines for exactly the opposite reason: This fall, the country went into an economic meltdown, with the government buying the banks and thousands of Icelanders losing their jobs thanks to risky bets by Icelandic financiers and, some claim, bungled oversight by the government.

One result of Iceland's crisis: the krona's incredible devaluation, from 65 to the dollar a year ago to about 135 at press time. A wiener from the famed Baejarins Beztu hot dog stand used to cost $4.50; it's now $2.

I wanted to visit Iceland to see the rugged landscape, experience Reykjavik's night life and sample the local food -- and do it at a time when I had a shot at affording it.

* * *

Reykjavik's Keflavik International Airport was quiet when I landed. No music playing, no beeping luggage trolleys, no announcements. At 6:30 a.m., more than three hours before sunrise, I was in a pack of bleary-eyed travelers following corridors of blond wood and vague signage, past duty-free shops already selling mini bottles of local schnapps, CDs by local bands and sweet rolls as big as dinner plates.

The Flybus coach pulled into Reykjavik's main bus terminal about 45 minutes after leaving the airport; I then climbed aboard a waiting minivan that took me to the Metropolitan Hotel, on a side street just minutes from bustling Old Town Reykjavik.

The sun was peeking over the mountains as I set out to explore Reykjavik. Getting oriented was simple: the harbor to the north, the stunning Hallgrimskirkja church to the southeast, duck- and swan-filled Tjorn Lake to the southwest. I was disappointed to see the elaborate 244-foot steeple of Hallgrimskirkja (built between 1940 and 1974) obscured by scaffolding and to find the inside of the church reverberating with the clanging of construction. Out front of the church stands a statue of Leif Eriksson, the Icelandic-born explorer who became the first European to set foot on North American shores. The statue, which faces west, was given to the city by the United States in 1930 to commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of Iceland's parliament.

Across the street, out of curiosity, I wandered into Sunna Guesthouse, where the gracious receptionist gave me a rate card that listed prices, from single-bed rooms to furnished apartments, through 2008. I asked if prices would go up in 2009, and she said yes, a little. Then she paused and added with a sad smile, "But we have no idea what will happen to us by then."

* * *

As a meat eater, I find there's an inverse relationship between how good something tastes and how guilty I feel about eating it. Whale tastes so good, I can forget that I'm eating such a majestic creature. On the other hand, puffin is too underwhelming to cancel out visions of the chubby black-and-white birds with bright orange beaks.

I tried both at 3 Frakkar, a small seafood restaurant on a quiet street just steps from the Hallgrimskirkja. I went there with my neighbor from the airplane, a middle-aged lawyer from New York whose only planning for his Iceland trip was printing out news stories about the economy. When I mentioned I was planning to eat whale and puffin for lunch, he decided to join me for a bite before heading off on his own.

Whale sashimi came piled, purple and glistening, next to slices of buttery-fresh salmon, wasabi and ginger. The whale in question was minke, one of the most abundant in Iceland's waters, and my lunch companion likened it to beefy tuna. The puffin, smoked and served in strips, had a saltiness that paired nicely with its scallion vinaigrette dressing. Still, all I could think of was little orange beaks.

I ordered more whale, this time a steak swimming in creamy pepper sauce alongside tubers and carrots. I cleaned my plate with my bread.

The bill came out to about $26 apiece, a pretty penny for lunch, but worth it nonetheless.

Then the lawyer did some quick mental math and blurted out, "Can you believe that meal would have cost $56 apiece a year ago?"

* * *

The National Museum of Iceland houses an exhibit with artifacts, artwork and even human remains from the 800s through the 1200s. DNA testing has shown that settlers on the previously uninhabited island were, by and large, Norwegian men and Celtic women. I pictured Viking raids on Orkney Island villages, plundering wives for settlers on a faraway shore. As a result of the cultural commingling, the museum displays Norse saddles and Viking swords next to Celtic jewelry and British coins.

The greatest name for a museum, in my opinion, is this: 871 +/- 2. Built around an ancient longhouse discovered in 2001 during the construction of the Hotel Reykjavik Centrum, the underground exhibition is a tiny oval wonder, with flat-screen panels that, when you stand at a certain angle, show ghostly figures chasing and clubbing a bird, carrying a corpse from a small hut into the fields, milking a ewe. The museum's name refers to the date of a volcanic eruption on whose deposits the house was erected.

Among the interactive exhibits was one that analyzed the Icelandic language. Years of isolation meant the language changed so little between settlement and today that modern Icelanders can read 12th- and 13th-century Icelandic sagas with no problem.

And, just maybe, the residents of the longhouse at 871 +/- 2, among the first settlers of Iceland, could chat with their descendants walking around aboveground.

* * *

Or stumbling around. My first night in town, I participated in a cherished Icelandic ritual, the runtur. Roughly translating to "tour around," runtur refers to two activities: bar-hopping and driving around downtown, people-watching from inside a warm car. Reykjavik's main commercial strip, packed with coffeehouses, restaurants, pubs and shops, stretches about a mile, east from Ingolfstorg square till Laugavegur Street runs into Snorrabraut Street. On Friday and Saturday nights, the street turns into a raucous all-night party, with locals and tourists mingling in clubs ranging from swanky (Rex, Oliver) to homey (22, Belly's).

Alcohol has long been exorbitantly priced in Iceland, so the economic downturn makes drinking only slightly more affordable: about $5 for a Guinness at a hip club. Still, the night life in Reykjavik is legendary, and for a reason: The dancing, drinking, laughing and flirting last all night, with the dance floors getting so crowded that the only way to move is to shove. (Don't worry about being rude; everyone does it.) Add Iceland's inventive DJs, candy-flavored vodkas and friendly locals, and it's no wonder winter visitors welcome a midday sunrise on Saturday and Sunday.

On the second floor of 22, a young bearded blond guy who looked barely 20 started chatting me up -- in Icelandic. Eventually he tried his English, which he probably had spoken better 10 beers earlier.

"How are you?" I half-shouted.

He looked at me for a second. "I want my wife back. I want my money back," he slurred as the music cranked up.

It took me a second to process that. "You what?" I asked him, but by then he'd turned back to his friends, veered toward the bar for another drink and vanished into the crowd.

* * *

My second day in town, I went in search of fermented shark. I'd heard the delicacy, called hakarl, tastes like shoe polish, so I had to try it myself. At the weekend Kolaportid Flea Market near the harbor, a dour-looking woman selling dried fish and hakarl in tubs speared a piece of the whitish-pink meat with a toothpick and handed it to me. It smelled like ammonia, was tender and flaky and tasted more like fish than shoe polish. It did, however, have a bitter aftertaste that stuck to the roof of my mouth as I browsed the used shoes, African masks, wool mittens, horse meat and whole octopuses wrapped in cellophane, their giant eyes peering out.

I heard later that while I was poking around the market, thousands of protesters had massed in the square outside the parliament building in what has become a regular Saturday protest. Angry Icelanders denounced their government, the International Monetary Fund (which finally granted Iceland a loan in late November) and, especially, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who used an anti-terrorism law in late October to freeze Icelandic bank accounts in the United Kingdom.

The protest wasn't the only evidence of the people's anti-Brown sentiment: In the window of a chic housewares shop was a sign reading, "Gordon, Darling, You Are Not Welcome Here." Less genteel was a T-shirt in the window of clothing store Dogma, with a picture of the PM's face and the words, "Brown is the color of poo."

* * *

Plates pull apart at Thingvellir National Park in southwestern Iceland. On a day-long bus trip (called the Golden Circle Tour) to sites outside Reykjavik, Thingvellir was our first stop.

The world's first parliament was established there in A.D. 930, on a site overlooking vast, rippling lava fields cut by the crystal-clear Oxara River. A gorge at one end is filled with water so clear I saw coins, tossed in for good luck, resting on the bottom seven feet down. ("Don't throw coins in the gorge," our guide, Christine Steinthorsdottir, warned. "It's not good luck. It's just wasting money.") With my fellow tourists, I inched my way down an icy path between rock walls in a canyon where the earth split as the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates drifted apart.

Well, drift isn't quite the right word: Though the rift widens, on average, by two or three centimeters a year, those splits happen suddenly, with violent earthquakes shifting the landscape.

All that underground action benefits life aboveground: Iceland's geothermal power plants heat more than 80 percent of homes and buildings and generate a quarter of the nation's power. (Hydropower supplies much of the remainder.)

On the way to the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, the bus passed fields studded with snow-covered hay bales, where stocky, shaggy horses grazed. As I hiked up a steep hill to the edge of the waterfall, the path was so icy I wondered if I'd signed a release form with the tour company. (I hadn't.)

Near Gullfoss was a field full of geysers. These wonders lay in a plain of red mud and were overlooked by snowy mountains, the gray sky above them tinged pink from the reflection of a nearby glacier.

After stops at a historic church and a greenhouse, we visited a new geothermal power plant, where proud tour guides led us through English- and Icelandic-language exhibits about the process of creating energy from steam and hot water.

As the tour bus pulled away from the plant, Steinthorsdottir got on the microphone and said, "Someone asked me to talk about the elves."

As we drove past a snow-covered moonscape in the afternoon half-light, Steinthorsdottir explained that some Icelanders believe in elves, "hidden people" who live in rocks and caves in the mountains, and that disturbing an elf's home could mean cancer or blindness or worse. Steinthorsdottir said this with the same solemnity she used to describe the beautiful mosaic of Jesus at Skalholt church and to stress the importance of staying on the path by the geysers ("It takes emergency vehicles 1 1/2 hours to get here," she informed us).

Only about 10 percent of Icelanders believe in elves; most are ambivalent about their existence. In general, Steinthorsdottir said, "it's a good thing we believe in elves, because then we respect nature."

* * *

A handful of companies organize bus trips to the Blue Lagoon, about 45 minutes south of Reykjavik and 20 minutes from the international airport, where visitors can float around a large pool of milky-blue, 100-degree geothermal seawater. Although the Blue Lagoon is wildly popular with tourists, Icelanders have lots of outdoor swimming pools, filled with geothermal hot water, which they use year-round.

My second night in Reykjavik, I had visited one of those pools, at the Laugardalslaug sports complex near the Reykjavik City Hostel, the zoo and the botanical gardens. It was a few hours after sunset, and the air felt freezing. Sitting in my swimsuit in the "hot pot" (hot tub), surrounded by strangers, the sulfur-scented steam rising off the water, I wondered if hot pots alone are why Iceland routinely ranks as one of the world's happiest places.

Then, on my last day in Iceland, I visited the Blue Lagoon. Riding past fields filled with nothing but moss-covered, holey black lava rocks, I saw the steam first, a long plume of white in the still-dark sky at 9 a.m. I'd booked a package that included a trip to the lagoon followed by drop-off at the airport. Entrance alone is about $22; I paid about $34 for the bus trip and entrance, plus $4 to rent a plush turquoise towel, which matched the plastic bracelet that gave me access to a locker in the spotless changing room.

And no wonder it's popular: The Blue Lagoon is like nothing else I'd ever seen, nearly two square miles of meandering, landscaped pool with rocky coves, wooden bridges crossing inlets and benches for sitting and soaking. People float around blissfully with their faces covered in white silica mud ladled from pots around the pool. (It's supposed to work wonders on the complexion.) My favorite moment was standing under the artificial waterfall, which rained hot water on my neck and shoulders for a thoroughly relaxing massage.

* * *

On the bus to the airport, I watched the sun bathe the eerie landscape in soft shafts of light. With all its geological oddities, from piping-hot groundwater and live volcanoes to lava fields and shooting geysers, Iceland is a country whose people have grown accustomed to changing landscapes. Perhaps this current economic crisis might be like just another earthquake, one more change to the ecosystem, one more chapter in the country's saga.

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