Sunday 24 February 2013

Iceland - Spring 2013

Like licking a urinal cake
Thursday, 21 February

Iceland! Why have i not thought of this place before!? Not long ago a holiday that did not involve the sun, sea and sand would have seemed as pointless as the g in Lasagna.  Had it not been for my overwhelming curiosity over the "worst tasting national dish in the world" than i probably would not have come.  Iceland, so far, is frickin awesome! 

We arrived on Tuesday night and checked in to my favourite ever hostel so far; Kex hostel which has everything any traveller would want.  You know that they have thought it through properly when they give out free ear plugs (we were booked into a 16 bed dorm for £12 night).  I love this place.  Whether i am chilling with a book in the quirky seating areas or drinking a viking beer at the lively bar; it is an ideal stay. 
Though we originally planned to hire a car; the thought of driving on the wrong (or right!) side of the road for the first time in bad weather conditions and on gravel, in a place called ICE-land scared the brown out of me.  So instead we booked ourselves onto a different tour every day of our stay.  Wednesday; quad biking on volcanoes followed by cave exploring!!  Both things that i have never done before.  The quad biking was full on off-road. Through muddy streams, over rocks and up volcanoes and throughout the entire two hours i was harbouring an entire turd in my pants.  It was scary, but my god it was fun.  We got some stunning views of the landscapes and Reykjavik and finished feeling that we had way more than our moneys worth.  The caving was fascinating as we drove out through the lava landscape and put on our hat lights.  These caves were the tunnels in which lava freely flowed through once upon a time and you could see the flow lines and stroke the smooth melted rock.  If you are uncomfortable in tight spaces, whether it is through fear or simply that you can't fit in them, it is a complete no go area.  There were times where I had to shuffle along like a sea lion pup.

"its like eating the gangrenous, blackened toes of a long-dead polar explorer which have been defrosted and left behind a radiator for a few days"

Between quad biking and caving i ate a couple of "famous Icelandic hotdogs" but i didn't want to count them as my first Icelandic meal.  For that we went out to eat in the evening.  Scouring the menus for Hakarl, the national dish of Iceland, we ended up at a "Geysir Bistro".  The Hakarl, my reason of being here, came  as small cubes in a closed jar which might as well have said "open if you dare" on it.  I have heard a lot about it and how it tasted like rotting fish and stinks of ammonia etc etc but none of these descriptions did it justice. As i opened the jar my first whiff of it felt like something grabbed on to my nose from the inside and yanked on my brain. It doesn't smell anything like fish! The only thing i could compare it to is industrial extra strong bleach!? If there was a chemical that could take out a heard of elephants with a single drop, it would smell like this. The waitress said that it "smells strong but tastes good". And then quickly retracted her words and said "well not good but...". I have learnt from experience that things taste very much like they smell. And Hakarl was not about to change that. It tasted exactly like is smelt. It tingled my nose like wasabi paste as i chewed it, it burnt like tequila as i swallowed it and i could feel it fumigating my insides  like an asprin as i attempted to digest it.   Its actual taste?  Well it tasted like what it is... poisonous shark meat that has been buried for a couple of months and then hung for a few more.  A taste of chemicals and pee.  Like licking an old urinal cake from a train station toilet.  Officially the worst tasting national dish i have ever had. 
Hakarl was part of an "Iceland sampler" starter  which came with different pickled herrings, home made rai bread and some tissue paper like dried fish that you eat with butter.  The tour guide told us about the dried fish earlier as being his favourite food and eating it like candy and i have seen it in shops being sold as crisp style snacks.  It tastes nothing like candy.  But less fishy than i expected.  The pickled herrings were lovely and went perfectly with the rai bread.  For main course i had a mink whale burger.  This was more like a whale steak sandwhich and the steak was prepared extremely rare.  I would question whether it even touched the pan.  It looked and tasted a lot like raw beef, however, much chewier and not as tasty.  The chewiness is probably down to it being too rare as this can be true for cow steaks too.  Next time i will ask for a medium and go to a proper steak house for it.  We visited a few bars and finished with a shot of Brennivin back at our hostel bar.  It is a tough call between Brennivin and Hakarl at which burnt the most as it went down.
This morning we were up and ready for "The Golden Circle" tour which was a trip to all the main hot spots (no pun intended) in and around Reykjavik in a day.  It sounds like it would be rushed but it didn't feel like it at all.  We started at Pingvillar which is claimed to be the place where the first parliament was created.  Or something like that.  Our guide, Ragna, was a lovely old lady but had the same wit and voice as my Stats lecturer at uni.  I failed stats.  It also had a great view of the no-mans land between the European and North American tectonic plates (above).  From here we went on to Gulfoss which was a partially frozen waterfall.  It's a great view but due to poor weather conditions we weren't allowed to get right up close to it.  Ragna told us another enthralling story about soup.  We got to eat this soup later and the story didn't do it justice; it was a good soup!  A few more stories later we were at The Great Geysir of Iceland of which all Geysers around the world are named after.  The whole of Iceland's landscape is present here with the backdrop of snow capped black mountains, jaggered lava rocks covered in moss and steam just seeping from the ground (the banner at the top).  On the way back to Reykjavik we visited the geothermal power plant that uses the natural heat from the volcanoes to power and heat the entire city.  It all makes sense now, my shower definitely had a mild pong of eggy sulphur and i was adamant that it wasn't me. 

Through Ice and Fire
Sunday, 24 February

Bitafiskur is why Icelandic men are all massive and have enormous hands.  I myself like to dabble in a bit of body building and a natural source of protein with low fat is a highly sort after product.  And it is in Iceland that i find this product.  Our big handed cave tour guides first told us about Bitafiskur as being their favourite childhood food.  I can only describe it as fish jerky and it is 80% protein! That is pretty much double that of a protein shake.  I have been carrying this bag, and it's smell, around with me for a while now.  I am sure i can buy this in bulk and sell it at my local gym. 

Fridays tour was glacier hiking in the pouring rain.  We were kitted out head to toe in thermals and waterproofs but still ended up soaked to the bone.  Wet, cold and outdoor trekking is a recipe for major drizz.  But i was on a glacier!! Scenery i have only ever seen on TV.  I was too awe struck to feel miserable.  Well that and my mind was too busy concentrating hard on not slipping and sliding into the many deep blue crevices to never return.  We were walking on solid ice!?  No grass, rock or snow.  Just acres of smooth, clear ice.  We had a brief introduction to our crampons and were told to walk like John Wayne; feet shoulders width apart, forward pointing and stamping down.  But most importantly, trust your crampons.  I don't care what you say, it's not easy trusting anything to keep you up when walking down hill on ice!  The whole experience was amazing.  Our guide, with his large gloveless hands, was fantastic at explaining it all.  I understand a lot about global warming but nothing really hits home until you are on a glacier.  It was a bit of a walk from the car park to the glacier and i wondered why you would build the car park so far away.  Turns out that they built the car park just 5 years ago, right next to the glacier.  Sad times.

After a long hot eggy shower we treated ourselves to a real slap up meal at a restaurant called "The Fish Market".  We both ordered the "tour around Iceland" taster menu.  It cost us about £45 each but i am sure, for such a well thought out meal, so intricately put together, you would expect to pay a lot more in England.  We started with fresh bread and 3 different types of butter.  Followed by a tiny appetiser, the size of a tea spoon, of raw salmon.  I say well thought out, because the first course was roast plaice and artichoke with birch tree tea foam.  At what point as a chef do you realise that the tea made from a birch tree will go well with fish and artichoke?!  Second course was called Artic Charr Roll which was a roll of prawns and scallops with an apple puree, sheep sorrel mayonnaise and lobster sauce on the side.  Mains was fried lamb with veal sweet bread and dessert was a variety of Icelandic ice creams and yogurts (Skyrr).  My main reason for eating here was the hope to taste puffin and give mink whale another go.  In the end i was extremely satisfied though neither of those were on the menu.  I 100% recommend this restaurant.

Our hostel runs Northern Lights tours in the evenings but so far every one of them have been cancelled due to cloud cover.  Our last night in Iceland was, unfortunately, forecast to be no different.  Yesterday was our ice climbing tour, however due to some confusion along the line, they forgot to pick us up from our hostel.  We were not overly bummed, as we didn't realise when booking that the ice climb was on the same tour as our glacier walk and so we would have been seeing a lot of the same stuff.  Kex sorted it all out for us and apologies and full refunds were happily accepted.  Now what to do on our last full day in Iceland?  All potential tours had left by now and so we were growingly worried about wasting our final day.  We contemplated hiring a car and driving up to the north eastern part of Iceland on the hunt for the northern lights as this was the only cloudless part of Iceland.  However, after putting this suggestion across to the man behind the Kex desk it was summed up as an 8 hour drive one way with a "northern light activity rating" of 2/10 and hence really not worth it.  He recommended, instead, for us to hire a car and have a mini road trip up north to a small fishing village called Olafsvik. 

After speaking to a few hostel friends that we had made the night before, it turned out that they were planning something similar and one of the girls was happy to drive the whole thing.  Perfect! This is almost better than ice climbing!  It was amazing.  It was all about the journey rather than the destination.  There was just so much to see, every ten minutes we were stopping the car and getting out to take in the scenery.  After a while we had to refrain ourselves from stopping as we definitely would not have arrived at our destination if we carried on as we were.  We stopped at an old farm and petted Icelandic ponies, then stopped at a frozen lake and then again at a waterfall.  None of these were planned, just noticed from the car window.  I have said it before and i will say it again, the Icelandic scenery is simply breathtaking.  After a toe curling ride up and over a mountain range, we arrived in ere Olafsvik; a quiet, seemingly empty village in the middle of nowhere.  A couple of a shops and a few houses perched on the edge of acres of baron landscape of lava rock and moss.  With two thirds of Iceland's entire population living in Reykjavik (i did listen to Ragna!) i can imagine most of Iceland being like this.  We would drive for ages without seeing a thing and then a single house would pop up and then nothing again. 

Back to Reykjavic and out for our last Icelandic meal and my final chance to eat puffin.  We found a steak house that had a "Puffin menu" and a "Whale menu" of which we ordered one of each.  Puffin came smoked as a starter and pan fried for mains.  It tastes a lot like liver.  In fact, other than texture, it is almost identical to a rare pan fried calf's liver.  The whale, second time round, was still chewy and lacking flavour.  We ate half and sent it back asking for it to be cooked to a medium but it only made it tougher.  I think it is safe to say that whale meat just isn't that great.     

Today was the perfect end to our trip.  Possibly the best thing you could ever do on the day before you are back trying to entertain 30 hormonal year 9's with Maths.  Our final tour picked us up from our hostel, took us to the Blue Lagoon and then dropped us off at the airport.  There is no better way to end a holiday!  This place is awesome.  I couldn't care that it cost 50 euros.  Hell i didn't have a care in the world after a 3 hour soak in the steaming milky blue water.  Sauna's, steam rooms, free face masks.  Other than the brief ice blast between taking your robe off and getting in to the lagoon, it was 3 hours of complete unadulterated bliss.  We arrive home at around 1am and then need to be up and ready for work by 7am.  It's totally worth it.  We have done a lot in a week and it feels as though we have only scratched the surface of Iceland.  I can imagine it being like a whole different country in the summer! It is a shame that we didn't see the northern lights but it only adds to the reasons to visit this extraordinary place again.  Iceland is cool.  :o) 


  1. Disappointed not to get a mention! And think you undersell the whale slightly. I quite enjoyed it. Reykjavik definitely gets my vote as the best food city I've been too, and as someone who's been to 43 countries (I counted them yesterday when updating my CS profile!) that's quite a claim! Pete

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.