Reach for the Skyr: The Tastes and Sights of Iceland

Iceland's waterfalls are just one draw.
Gulfoss waterfall drops in two tiers into a canyon.

 

So much of the traditional food in Iceland sounds like it was invented for an episode of Fear Factor. Fried sheep hearts and kidneys are the least of it. Fermented shark. (Recipe: bury shark in a hole and come back in a few weeks or a few months.) Singed sheep heads (Recipe: use a flaming torch to burn the wool off, then boil in water.) Soured ram testicles. (Recipe: I didn’t ask.)

So deciding what to have for dinner my last night in Reykjavik was not easy. I wanted to have a genuine Viking meal, not the innocuous “international cuisine” I’d had the previous nights. But not even the thought of a shot of brennivín, Icelandic schnapps, could make those entrees appealing.

Despite its Viking past, Reykjavik, located on a bay in southwest Iceland, is a friendly city. The largest city in a small country, nearly two-thirds of all Icelanders live there, but it retains a small-town feel, with the church steeple of Hallgrímskirkja dominating the view. Reykjavik City Hall rises from a duck pond, and a grassy plaza faces the Parliament Building. But unlike most small towns, Reykjavik also has many art and history museums.

I visited three museums, each of them focusing on a different aspect of Iceland’s Viking past. I walked past corrugated metal houses with brightly colored roofs in energetic contrast to the gray sky, past the duck pond and city hall, and past grassy lawns with enigmatic sculptures on my way to The Culture House, with its fragile copies of the epic Icelandic sagas.

Dimly lit rooms tell the story behind those stories blending myth and history, from rock paintings to treasured medieval manuscripts to modern Thorcomic books. The Icelandic language is unchanged enough that people today can still read the sagas easily. Some people can even use them to trace their family history.

The Saga Museum, housed on a hill overlooking the city in a silvery building that also houses the city’s water towers, presents life-size figures re-enacting dramatic moments from Iceland’s history, including witch burnings, beheadings and a bare-breasted warrior woman. The building’s observation deck offers views of the “smoky bay” that gave the city its name.

The National Museum provides a more thoughtful look at Icelandic history, with artifacts from the earliest days of settlement to modern times. Those modern times in Iceland came recently; television first aired in the 1960s.

That was all the time I spent indoors in Iceland, except for sleeping. Despite the country’s changeable weather, it’s a place that calls for outdoor exploration, and I spent the next few days roaming the surrounding countryside.

Iceland used to be forested, but a combination of harsh weather, overgrazing by sheep and human settlement removed almost all the trees. Most drives take you through fields of lumpy black lava covered with bright-green moss where steam rises, occasionally smelling of sulfur (“Icelandic perfume,” our guide called it). Many of the lava fields date to historic times, such as the “lava of Christianity,” so-called because it dates to the year Icelanders converted en masse by decree of parliament.

Where the lava fields end, green meadows appear, full of non-native purple lupine, planted to try to hold onto the soil. Simple white churches with red roofs stand out against the rolling green hills. Horses and sheep are everywhere, the only large mammals on the continent except for the occasional polar bear drifting over on an ice floe from Greenland.

The dramatic power of nature to remake the land is visible everywhere. At the shore, the pounding ocean created black-sand beaches where tiny white flowers struggle against the wind to stay rooted. Waterfalls are everywhere, including Skógafoss, a popular site for camping and hiking on the southern coast, and raging Gullfoss, a dramatic two-tiered drop into a canyon east of Reykjavik.

Geysir, the namesake of geysers worldwide, no longer explodes regularly, but its neighbor Strokkur does, swelling slowly to a cap amid clouds of steam, then bursting into the air. At the site’s museum, an earthquake simulator lets you experience a different kind of natural explosion.

And of course, Iceland has a large quantity of ice, including Sólheimajökull glacier. It is shocking to see this immense mass of ice, more black than white because of the dirt it picks up during its slow movement forward. When the wind blows over the glacier it’s very cold, even in July.

The natural setting most significant to the Viking experience is Thingvellir. At this place the Mid-Atlantic and European plates pull apart, increasing Iceland’s size by a few inches each year. The faults and fissures here have created a rugged, rumpled landscape. More significantly to history, it’s the place where the Vikings formed the world’s first parliament, in A.D. 930.

On my last day, we drove to a farm about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik. In the muddy paddock we were assigned to our Icelandic horses. The small, shaggy, rugged horses are the same breed the Vikings brought with them and these horses have never interbred with other types of horses. Their disheveled appearance seems a good match for a Viking, but the image of a burly Viking on one of these small horses is somewhat comical.

We rode for about two hours through farmland and lava fields, and splashed across streams. On the sandy paths we let our horses pick up speed and experienced the “tolt,” a gait unique to the Icelandic horse. It felt like a faster, smoother trot.

After the ride, we drove back to Reykjavik’s harbor for the whale-watching cruise. On board, I snuggled into the warm coveralls they provided and sat outside on the main deck, basking in the sun. Every now and then our spotter would shout “There’s one at 2 o’clock! One-hundred meters!” And I’d look over and see the black curve of a minke whale surfacing to breathe and then disappearing beneath the water.

After several hours and spotting nearly a dozen whales, the boat turned and headed back to shore. We stopped at Puffin Island first, watching thousands of the colorful birds swoop, dive and dart about. Puffins are another traditional Icelandic food, and I began thinking about having puffin for dinner. If most exotic food tastes like chicken anyway, how bad could another bird be?

Shopping is one activity in Iceland.
Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street, has a good selection of boutiques and fashionable clothing shops.

Puffin was easy to find, too. Laekjarbrekka Restaurant, a fine-dining establishment only a few blocks from the dock, offered a three-course puffin feast, with a smoked and marinated puffin salad followed by puffin with blue cheese sauce as the entree. But I don’t care for blue cheese, and the price, at nearly $80, was outside my budget. So I kept walking.

Up the block I stopped in a 1011 supermarket to get a snack to hold me over until I decided on a real meal. And I finally found a traditional Icelandic food I could enjoy! Back in the dairy case, next to the yogurt, was skyr. It’s a dairy product, part of the Icelandic diet for almost 1,000 years.

It is sort of a yogurt, but a little thicker, sort of a cheese, but a little softer. It came conveniently packaged, plastic spoon included. I didn’t really think I’d like it — I only like yogurt in its frozen chocolate form — but I bought a container, blueberry-flavored. This genuinely sweet taste of Iceland was just what I needed — before having pizza for dinner.

If You Go

Icelandic Tourist Board

www.icetourist.is

Reykjavik Excursions provides bus tours to popular sights such as the Golden Circle — natural wonders and historical sites situated in southern Iceland. Renting a car is another option; most attractions are reached via the Ring Road that circles the island.

Reykjavik Excursions

www.re.is

The Culture House

www.thjodmenning.is/index_english.htm

The Saga Museum

www.sagamuseum.is/enska/english.html

Horseback riding is available from Íshestar and Eldhestar, among other companies. Eldhestar offers the “Sea Horse” combination package I booked, which includes a fish-soup lunch.

www.ishestar.is

www.eldhestar.is

Whale-watching:

Hvalstödin Whale Watching Centre

www.whalewatching.is

Food in Iceland is expensive, and Laekjarbrekka Restaurant (www.laekjarbrekka.is/en/index.htm) is not out of line with other restaurants of its caliber. There are 1011 supermarkets all over.

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