Category Archives: Iceland

Random musings on Iceland

Gulfoss Falls with rainbow

In no particular order, here are some fun facts we learned during our week in Iceland. Isolation and constant freezing lead to some interesting cultural adaptations…

  • Dating Challenges: Iceland was first settled in the 800’s. Given the remoteness of the island there has historically been very little migration. As a result of 1300 years of isolation most of the 330,000 people who live here are related in some way.  Needless to say, that creates some awkward possibilities when selecting a possible life partner.

Leave it to the cell phone to find a solution – The Iceland incest prevention app. Users bump their phones together and the app tells them just how related they are.  It’s up to the user to decide if shagging their 3rd cousin twice removed is acceptable or not.

  • Names: Icelandic is not an easy language to understand. Think Elvish from Lord of the Rings. Complicating matters is that Icelanders don’t follow the normal rules when naming their children. Rather than passing down a surname from generation to generation, instead the surname is either the Mother or Father’s first name, followed with “son” or “dottir”. For example, the singer Bjork, probably Iceland’s most famous musician, is named “Bjork Guimandsdottir” because her Mother’s first name is Guimand. Just to complicate things further, the phone book lists people by their first name,
  • Icelanders believe in Elves and Trolls: Oh, they will deny it if asked, but they are unlikely to do anything to anger the hidden creatures. On the way back from one of our excursions the road inexplicably  made a small bend around a rock outcropping. It turns out that this rock formation is an Elf Church. The road crews were going to demolish this outcropping, but equipment kept breaking down and workers were routinely getting injured. Eventually they decided to appease the Elves and bend the road around this 10 meter section of rock.
  • No Santa Claus: Icelandic children don’t hear stories about Santa Claus. Instead, they hear about the Yule Lads. The 13 Yule Lads are basically mischievous little assholes who torment bad children in small ways. A new one comes out each day starting on December 12, and hangs around for two weeks. Each one has a particular fetish. For instance, Stufur likes to steal pans so he can eat the crust from them. Huroaskellir slams doors in the middle of the night. Kertasnikir steals candles from children. Oh the stories we tell our kids to make them behave…
  • Par-boiling the dead: The town of Selfoss, about 30 minutes from Reykjavik, has no cemeteries. Geothermal activity is everywhere in Iceland, and this town has a particularly high water table.  Buried corpses were essentially being cooked in their graves. A private church was built on a hilltop outside of town just so townspeople would have a place to bury the dead.
  • Viking form of government: The original Viking settlers were looking to escape the control of the King. They decided that there would be no ruler and invented a really unique form of government. Over their 1300 year history Iceland has never had a Monarch. Here’s what they did.

Once a year they held a gathering of clan elders. A giant party ensued in what became essentially the world’s first parliament. People would come to the council with grievances. Let’s say two neighboring clans had a dispute. Things escalated, and a blood feud was about to erupt. The leaders of the two clans would state their cases and the elders would make a decision.

Neither side was obligated to abide by the results. There was no national police force or army, so that meant there was no enforcement mechanism. So what compelled people to abide by the decisions? If a clan decided not to accept the decision that was their right. However, for the next seven years they were forbidden from bringing another case to the elders. For seven years all other tribes could act with impunity against this tribe.  Being outside of the protective umbrella for seven years was incentive enough for most tribes to comply.

  • Reykjavik is a small city: About 250,000 people live here (out of the total population of 330,000). The city wasn’t designed with tour buses in mind so the city has rules about where they can go. There are designated bus stops all over the place. Google “Reykjavik  bus stops” for a map. Ours is at the church two blocks away. When you book a tour or transport to/from the airport you will likely be dropped off at one of these spots. Be aware, Icelanders are PROMPT. If your excursion starts at 9:00 then you will be picked up between 8:30 and 9:00 at the bus stop. If you’re not there on time then it’s your loss.





How to not go broke in Iceland

As our public service for the day we’d like to pass on some hard-earned (i.e. expensive) knowledge for any potential visitors to Iceland.

Iceland is expensive. Really expensive. Stupidly, insanely expensive. Did I mention that it’s expensive here?  As a general rule you can assume that pretty much everything you do or buy costs about twice as much as you would expect.  So here are a few ways to ease the pain.

  • AirBnB rooms are about half the price of hotels. We have a lovely private apartment all to ourselves with its own kitchen . The Hallgrimskirkja church in the center of town is two blocks away so we’re close to everything. This is one of the more expensive AirBnb’s and it is $140 a night. The Fleabag Inn motel is about $300 a night.
  • Do NOT take a taxi from the airport into town. It’s about a 40 minute ride and cost us $170. Ouch. There are airport shuttles you can book in advance that cost about $30 per person.  They won’t probably drop you at your residence , but it’ll be close enough. Check out the bus stop locations. You’ll specify which one when you make the reservation. We have one 2 blocks from our place. The stops are all over the town and one will undoubtedly be close to your rental.
  • Food is CRAZY expensive. If you don’t mind doing a little cooking while on vacation then go to one of the local grocery stores and pick up some supplies.  Avoid the green 10 11 stores. Instead try Bonus, with the piggy as an emblem, or Krambuo, which is kind of like a 7-11. You can get eggs, milk, soup, and all sorts of supplies.
  • This goes for your tours as well. Most of the excursions include a lunch stop at one of the sites. A simple lunch for two can easily cost $70, so pack a sandwich and a soda.
  • Alcohol is also wickedly expensive. A cocktail at a local pub can easily be $22. A draft beer is usually at least $10. If you want alcohol in your room you’ll have to visit the state-owned liquor stores called Vinbuoin. They close at 7, and there are only a couple of them, but this should be much cheaper than restaurants and pubs.
  • Most every visitor takes tours. They’re terrific. However, with a rental car you can visit many of the locations for free, or for much reduced costs. In particular, Blue Lagoon has a big parking lot. You still have to pay to enter, but you control your schedule. Gulfoss Falls, Thingvillir National Park,  the Geysers, and many others are free to visit. You just have to be willing to drive in Iceland.
  • Book your tours well in advance (Thanks Amy!) . They sell out well before you get here.
  • A 3-4 day stay is probably long enough unless you  have specific goals in mind. Reykjavik is a little town and there’s not a ton to do outside of sightseeing






All growth comes from outside your comfort zone…

I checked another item off my bucket list, and Amy got reacquainted with an old passion. We rode Icelandic horses today on a delightful tour. And only one potential disaster, narrowly avoided.

To be honest, I’ve been hesitant about horseback riding. Never having been around horses as a kid, and knowing nothing about it, getting on the back of a large animal and hoping it doesn’t throw you to the ground is pretty intimidating.

Our host was an engaging, funny woman who has been running her  company, Islenski Hesturinn (easy for me to say!) for about 7 years. She caters to first-timers, and the Icelandic horse is probably an ideal first-timers ride. They are remarkably mellow, and short, squat beasts. As our tour guide for the Games of Thrones put it, mostly tongue in cheek, “Don’t call them ponies, they’re not fuckin’ ponies”! Icelanders take their horses very seriously.

We had a quite-detailed training presentation where she went through the ways of controlling our horses: How to turn, where to hold the bridal, how to get on and off, plan B if something goes wrong, etc. It all made sense at the time, and mostly worked other than one episode which I’ll get to later.

We went out and met our horses. Mine was named Gauwk II. Amy’s was Gymir. See the photos above. By the way, more are coming. Taking photos while riding is not a good idea, so our host took them for us. It takes awhile for her to upload them though, so we’ll have to wait.

She was very careful about assigning horses to riders. Since Amy was an experienced rider she got a former show horse that was highly receptive to her commands. Mine was pretty mellow, acting basically how a horse would act after drinking a glass of wine. Which suited me just fine. When she asked about my riding experience I said I was going to tell her something that she’d probably never heard before. I’ve ridden an Elephant and a Camel, but I’ve never been on a horse . I’m so special. Not so much as it turns out. She’s heard that before, including a guy who had also ridden a pig but hadn’t been on a horse. I guess I’m not so special.

I was helped up onto the saddle and immediately thought “oh shit, what have I done!” I’m on the back of a large animal and basically have no idea what I’m doing. Fortunately Gauwk was used to moronic newbies and pretty much just followed along after his friends.

Our instructor told us that there are 5 possible gaits a horse can take, and one called the Tolt that is unique to this breed of horse. If we lean back in the saddle and spread our feet wide in the stirrups the horse trots in a way that has almost no bounce.  Only one leg at a time touches the ground. I could definitely tell the difference between a Tolt and a Trot since the Trot involves lots of bouncing and related spinal-cord and testicle injuries.

After a few minutes in the saddle I started getting comfortable. Gauwk mostly just followed the horse in front. Making him turn right and left seemed to work fine. Accelerating and stopping were a bit more of a challenge, but he only occasionally bumped into another horse or banged my leg on a fence or rock.

The course we followed was geologically stunning, carved out by boiling pits of water after a volcanic eruption. Large red oxidized lava formations, moss-covered rocks, winding trails, geothermal vents, and expansive views made for a scenic wonderland.

We stopped so our guide could take individual photos of each of us. When my turn came I easily maneuvered Gauwk up to the photo spot, and afterwards returned him to the group. “I got this” I thought. Well, maybe, or maybe not so much…

Shortly thereafter we all regrouped again and our guide asked us to ride single-file and stay to the left side of the trail as there was a narrow section up ahead. I was bunched up with some other riders, and on the far right side of the trail. I tried to pull Gauwk to the left, but something went wrong. I don’t exactly know what. My right foot slipped out of the stirrup, the horse jerked his head from side to side, we went straight right, and stopped on the edge of a steep drop-off that would have resulted in a 30 foot tumbling descent on lava rock. Not fun.

There were several audible gasps as everyone immediately stopped. One of the guides turned around, and I could tell from the look on her face that we “had a situation”. I completely froze. I tried to get my foot back in the stirrup but couldn’t find it, and each attempt only seemed to make things dicier. After a couple of anxious moments I said “I’m about to get off this horse”. Fortunately Gauwk had no interest in tumbling off a cliff either. We stood there on the edge of the drop-off until one of the assistants told me to pull the reins to the left. Once away from the abyss we were able to get situated again and the ride continued. My heart came down out of my throat, but any excess confidence I might have had was now tempered by the reality that I don’t actually know what the heck I’m doing.

We continued on and finished the rest of the ride without incident. Even with my scary episode it was really enjoyable. Amy absolutely loved her horse, and was able to gallop ahead a few times. Once we got the horses back to the pen, and the saddles and bits were removed, the horses put on a final show for us. It was play time for them, rolling around in  the mud and grooming each other.  Really fun stuff. We’re a little sore after using muscles that aren’t used to this kind of activity, but all-in-all I think I’d try it again.