Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Iceman Cometh

And now for something completely different. It was time again to step out of my comfort zone and see what another part of the world held for me. Plus, I was really tired of all that damn 100-degree heat in Budapest and I needed to cool down. So, what better place to cool down than…..Iceland!

And they don’t call it Iceland for nothing! Brrr! When I left Budapest it was around 90 degrees F (30 C); the temperature when I arrived in Reykjavík was 50 F (10 C), but with that nasty, stinging wind coming off the Arctic Ocean, it must have been down below 5 C (40 F). Brrr!

So, my jaunts to the so-called “second-tier” tourist destination cities would now include a visit to Reykjavík, Iceland, touted in the tourist websites as the tenth-friendliest place to visit in the world. I just hoped the people were warmer than the wind!

My Air Berlin flights from Budapest were easy and fairly quick. Just 90 minutes to Berlin, then 3 ½ hours to Iceland, arriving at the Keflavík airport at midnight on Thursday, August 27, 2015. I had signed up online for a pickup by the Grayline bus company, and they were there and waiting for me. As I spotted my suitcase on the carousel, I once again felt a little frisson of excitement and relief; I never really know if my checked bag will actually arrive at my destination with me, so I’m always happy and just a touch surprised to see it.

Anyway, I found the Grayline booth just across from the baggage claim exit, traded in my voucher for a bus ticket and went outside to find my bus. The wind blew me across the parking lot and a uniformed gentleman shouted, “Grayline?” at me. He loaded my suitcase into the baggage compartment and I climbed aboard the warm bus. Just a short while later we headed out for the 50 kilometer (33 miles) drive to Reykjavík; it was now around 1:30 in the morning of Friday, August 28.

The 45-minute trip was uneventful and I even managed to nod off for a short nap. When we pulled in to the Grayline bus terminal, we then had to transfer our bags to a minibus for final transport to our hotels. It was still cold and windy and there was even a light rain to help me re-acclimate from 90 degrees down to 40 degrees. So, I finally got to my hotel closing in on 3 AM,

I had received the following email response from my hotel when I inquired about my late/early arrival:

“Hi. When you arrive at the hotel, just press the code "9040" and the door will open for you. On the front desk there will be an envelope with your name on it and including the key to your room.

Best regards, Siggi.
Hotel Metropolitan”

Needless to say, I was a touch apprehensive about finding everything as described, but I figured the worst that could happen was I’d have to spend the remainder of the night huddled on the front stoop of the hotel. As it turned out, all was in order. Grayline dropped me off right in front of my hotel’s rather basic façade; I punched in the code and, before I could say “Open, Sesame,” the front door buzzed open. There on the reception desk was an envelope with my name on it and containing the key to my room on the fourth floor (the quiet floor, I had been advised on Trip Advisor). I took the lift (thank Bog there was one!) to my floor, opened the door to my rather basic but obviously snug room, unpacked quickly and fell into bed to get whatever sleep I could before having to be up and about later that morning.

After an intense and deep four hours sleep, I rolled out of bed at 7 AM on Friday morning, still August 28, eager to start my exploration of yet another interesting city. My room was, as noted, very basic, but it was clean and neat and warm and there was no mold in the tiny bathroom and the TV worked and that’s all I’ve ever asked of a hotel room in my travels (and which I haven’t always found). I showered and strode out to face the day. A sign above my hotel’s reception desk said they were able to make reservations for all of the tours around Iceland. I therefore saved myself some exploration time by making an immediate reservation for the Golden Circle Tour, one of the recommended highlights of any visit to Iceland.

I also asked about a reservation for a tour to The Blue Lagoon, but, of course, that was the only tour my hotel couldn’t do. I’d have to visit the Tourist Information Office for that. And on to Reykjavik! I walked the three minutes down to the main town square, picked up a bagel at one of the convenience stores and sauntered over to the Tourist Office. It was now about 8:45 AM. I was able to make my Blue Lagoon reservation and found out I could change money at the local banks, which opened at 9 AM, which I did. It turned out pretty much everybody uses their credit and debit cards for just about all purchases, but I always like to have some cash on hand, just in case, so I changed 200 euro at the bank; little did I know how fast that would go.

Armed with cash and plastic cards, and dressed in my winter ski shell, jeans, warm socks, hiking boots and a long-sleeved pullover, I began my initial walkabout of Reykjavík. The main part of Reykjavík is not very big and can easily be walked in a day or so, including exploration of most of the interesting side streets. My first stop was at the Grayline office on Hafnarstraeti, on the way to the main shopping street, to arrange for my pickup and transfer to the airport upon leaving. No problem. Just around the corner I passed one of the most-recommended hot dog stands in town, to which I’d return later (and I did, several times) and there was also a nice view of the harbor. As I walked across the small square in front of the Grayline office, I noticed a column covered with posters, one of which was an advertisement for The Penis Museum. Ooo, I’d have to add that to my list of things to see.

A quick left turn onto Bankstraeti and up a short hill to where the street turned into Laugavegur street. (Ed Note: Please don’t ask me to pronounce any of these street names; even when the locals said them I was confused). Anyway, this is the main shopping street in Reykjavík and I wandered its length for a good hour or two, checking the shops, restaurants and pubs I’d like to return to later. I found the Prikid, oldest café in the city (opened in 1951 – WOW!), the Kiki Queer Bar (Icelanders tell it like it is), the Chuck Norris Bar and the Lebowski bar. On one side street was the Ob La Di Ob La Da karaoke bar, to which I hoped I could find my way back. I walked back along Tryggvagata street next to the waterfront and found the Icelandic Fish and Chips restaurant, whose specialty was – you guessed it – fish and chips. Always go with the house favorite, so I did; it was good and tasty, washed down with a Gull beer (pronounced ‘Goot’), but, although fresh-caught that day, not the best I’ve ever had; that is still reserved for a small chippy stand in Dublin, near Christchurch cathedral.

The afternoon was more exploring and sightseeing and just wandering the town and soaking up the ambiance, including the Hallskrimkirkja (huge local church).
The weather was still somewhat cold, 50 degrees F, but it was also nicely bracing and a pleasant change from Budapest’s 90-degree heat. And soon enough the sun was over the yardarm (I just knew it was) and I headed to the Micro Bar near the start of Austurstraeti, just off the main town square, beating against the wind in the now-40-degree evening. This was one of the places recommended by Trip Advisor contributors as having really good craft beers, and it is located in one of the downtown hotels as their bar.

I chose the five-beer taster set for 20 euro (they had a 10-beer set, but I didn’t think I was ready for that), which is something every craft beer bar should have. The beers were all tasty and interesting and went down nicely after a hard day of walking the streets. I had an IPA and a stout and something called “Lava” beer (which was as thick as non-Guinness drinkers always think Guinness is), plus one other light beer. But my favorite of all of them was the Noröan Kaldi, a very nice amber-colored beer, of which I had to have a couple more regular-size glasses before leaving. It should be noted here that all of these wonderful microbrewery beers were at least 5.5% alcohol, so I staggered away feeling no pain. Onward and Upward!
Happy hour was still in full swing as I turned into The English Pub, just 30 meters down the street. They also have their very own craft beer called Boli, which was almost as good as my previous pint. An order of chicken wings helped absorb some of the alcohol and, since it was still pretty early for the regular Friday night crowd, I had a chance to talk to one of the friendly bartendresses, Gudrun (hope that’s spelled correctly). She was a real sweetheart and made this and my return visits to her pub special occasions.

At one point in the evening another young lady joined me at the bar. She was traveling with her husband and a group of friends and as we exchanged life stories it turned out Diana was from Creve Coeur (St. Louis), Missouri – where I lived long ago. Amazing. I stayed until the band cranked up around 9:30 and they were so buttock-clenchingly bad I just couldn’t stay too much longer, no matter the draw of pretty bartendresses or American tourists. Besides, I had a morning pickup for my first tour of the country and didn’t want to oversleep.

On my way back to the hotel around 11 PM I figured it was time to try one of the famous hot dogs for which Reykjavík is so well-known. There was a stand on my way and it was the perfect nighttime finisher to an evening at the pub. Icelandic hot dogs also contain lamb, which does make a difference, and of course one must order one with everything: mustard, chopped onions, crunchy roasted onions, ketchup and remoulade. Mmmm – yummy.

Up for an early breakfast at the hotel and I was picked up on time by Grayline Tours for the Golden Circle Tour. This bus tour would last 7-8 hours and take in many of the fascinating geological sights of the country. Our first stop in the countryside was unscheduled, due to a road rally taking place on our route, about which Grayline had not been informed. The 45-minute delay gave us the opportunity to stretch our not-yet-cramped bus legs and to take some photos of a vast wasteland bisected by one of the geothermal water pipes cutting across the land. Reprints available upon request.

Onward and upward. Our next scheduled stop, after passing by one of the geothermal plants (Iceland is heated by very hot water pumped up from way beneath the surface, at the magma level, and piped across country to the cities), was in the Pingavallan National Park, which, in addition to its natural volcanic beauty, also contains the rifts where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and are pulled apart by a few centimeters each year. We went on a brief nature hike in this area and actually stood at the edge of the American tectonic plate, shadowed by tall cliffs formed by the drop in the surrounding landscape. Eerie.

This park was also the gathering place for many years of the Icelandic people and their Parliament, way back when. It also included a fresh-water pool formed by small waterfalls where witches were drowned; since the pool was so shallow, the convicted witches had to be encased in a bag and held underwater. Nice people, the Vikings. The Icelanders love this place and bestow upon it a special loyalty and reverence.
Next stop was the Gullfoss (pronounced: Goot-fawss), meaning Golden Falls; a truly magnificent 70-meter waterfall, complete with rainbow in the mist. We had to walk down a series of steps to get to the falls, where it was windy and cold and the spray from the falls actually formed small icicles on my jacket. Brrr! Going back up was tougher, but at least we got to have a quick lunch in the Visitors Center. And by the way, off in the distance we could see one of the Icelandic glaciers, a sight of awe for even the most jaded eyes.
Off again through the Haukadalur Valley to see the geyser Strokkur and its surrounding smaller openings in the earth that vent steam year-round. Another amazing landscape, and I did get a shot of a geyser erupting, which it does about every eight minutes or so. As a point of interest, this eruption is called a geysir and is the geyser from which all others on the planet are named. Our final stop was at the Skaholt church, the very first church in the country and one which was used as another gathering place for many centuries. The last stop was supposed to be a tour of the largest geothermal plant in Iceland, but, due to our unscheduled stop early in the tour, the plant was closed when we arrived, so we had to miss it.

So the big tour bus dropped most of us off near the downtown main square. I walked back to my hotel, cleaned up a bit and headed out for the nearby Krua Thai restaurant, a very small family-run Thai-food place at the harbor. Well, it was just wonderful, some of the best Thai food ever. I went with the lamb and veggies (Pad Ped), rice and a local beer, only 21 euros. After dinner, a short walk brought me once again to The English Pub, where Gudrun was waiting for me with another Boli beer (no charge! What do I do to deserve such kindnesses?). Saturday night in Reykjavík is, as in most other cities and towns in the world, a major night out for most locals and, of course, tourists. A group of (I think) Spaniards next to me at the bar were taking multiple turns with the drinks Spinning Wheel (at 2000 kroner a pop, about 15 euros for each spin). They lost more than they won, but when they did win it was either “8 beers” or a “meter of beer” so they were happy. At one point they had so many beers in front of them that they were giving them away, unable to drink them all; and yes, I was the pleased and humble recipient of one of those beers. Always pays to sit at the bar.

And so, after my 21-euro dinner I spent no more money on beer, which I figured was a successful evening. The live music this night was much better, a duo of brother and sister, guitar-player and singer, so I stayed to hear them. However, I also had another early pickup the following morning for my next tour, so decided to call it a night around 11 again. A by-now-mandatory hot dog on the way to the hotel and I was set for the night.

Sunday was my trip to The Blue Lagoon, another of the highly-recommended sights of Iceland. In fact, it is touted as one of the 25 wonders of the modern world. Hmmm. Once again I was picked up at my hotel by a minibus and then transferred to a Big Bus for the actual trip of about 45 minutes. Now, The Blue Lagoon appears on most of the travel posters for Iceland and is highly praised as a not-to-be-missed attraction. First of all, it costs 50 euros (about $45 US) entry fee, not counting the bus ride, a costly sum for any attraction. Then, if you haven’t brought your own towel, bathing suit, flip-flops, etc., there is an extra charge to rent all of these things. I had booked my entry ticket through the tour company, as I was advised it is the only way to go, since tickets might be sold out when I arrived.

I showed my ticket to the ticket-taker and got my bracelet for the day (which includes a built-in microchip), which allowed me into the main locker room area, allowed me to obtain and lock a locker and even order food and drink at the outdoor bar in the lagoon (to be paid for upon departure). After a complete shower (sans bathing suit, which I had brought), I wrapped my towel (which I had brought) around my neck, slipped on my flip-flops (which I had brought) and walked outside to the main lagoon area. Keep in mind that just 20 minutes previously I was dressed in jeans, hiking boots with wool socks, long-sleeved pullover and winter jacket. Now I was dressed in virtually nothing.

I hung up my towel and scurried my way as quickly as possible to the Lagoon steps, grabbed the support bars and slipped my way down into the milky-colored warm/hot water. The Blue Lagoon is a lava-rock-lined gigantic hot springs, a geothermal spa, fed by water heated at the magma level and cooled until it is bearable at the surface. Temperatures in this swimming and bathing area average around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (say 38 degrees Celsius).
In addition to just standing around in the water, there are few things to keep visitors minimally busy. First of all, The Blue Lagoon is immense; it’s huge; it could accommodate a whole lot of people. During my visit, the locker room areas seemed very crowded, but the Lagoon itself was sparsely populated. There are little nooks and crannies that you can explore or sit in, carved out shallow pools surrounded by a waterfall, steam room, sauna and a quiet sitting area with a pool bar in the center of it all. In short, a well-done tourist trap. My entry fee didn’t allow me a free drink and I passed on applying the white mud mask (I’d done the black mud at the Dead Sea, and that was plenty for me), so I only stayed in the water for about 90 minutes, more than sufficient time to get nicely wrinkled and covered with all those healthy minerals. And that was enough. (BTW – There is an extra charge for the white mud, but if you wander over to an isolated spot in the lagoon, you can find deposits of this stuff and apply it for free; yet another tourist ripoff).

I guess my expectations were high, and when they fell short of what I expected I ended up somewhat disappointed. For families or groups, it’s probably a lot of fun, but for a single wader, there’s not much to do except stand around. To quote another traveler in another situation, “The (Blue Lagoon) is worth going to see, but it’s not worth seeing.” Aside from its setting, you’d do better to swim in one of the many other thermal pools around Reykjavík. But, it’s like the Eiffel Tower: you should see it once and then don’t have to bother with it ever after.

Once again I was dropped off near the downtown area, as the large tourist buses cannot navigate the small streets of Reykjavík, and the minibuses only pick you up at your hotel, they don’t drop you off there. So I walked the short distance back to my hotel, took a long soapy shower with plenty of hair conditioner (those Blue Lagoon minerals are tough on hair) and walked over to the harbor again to have a late lunch at Saegrifinn, a seafood restaurant. Wonderful lobster soup and fresh bread, just right for an after-Lagoon experience. A brief nap and I was ready for Sunday night in Reykjavík.

I decided to splurge on a typical tasting dinner at the Tapas Barinn restaurant, which offered a seven-course meal of medium-sized tapas dishes for an exorbitant price. But what the heck, I probably wouldn’t ever be back to Iceland, so why not? (I use this justification a lot for spending large amounts of money when I travel). Turned out it was well worth the money. We started with a shot of the infamous Icelandic spirit Brennivin, sort of like schnapps. Then came the following dishes:

Smoked puffin with blueberry “Brennivin” sauce (the puffin bird is a species of Auk that lives in the North Atlantic area);
Minkie whale with cranberry sauce (tasted sort of like steak);
Icelandic sea-trout with peppers/salsa (Mmmm);
Lobster tails baked in garlic (Double-Mmmm);
Pan-fried blue Ling with lobster sauce (don’t know what a Ling is, but it sure was tasty);
Grilled Icelandic lamb Samfaina (OMG!);
Dessert – white chocolate Skyr mousse with passion coulis (whatever it was, it was delicious!).

The food was amazing and the service was fast and pleasant; one tapas after another was brought, perfectly prepared and presented. With a glass or two of white wine, it was a wonderful meal; I could easily choose this place to dine as my last meal before I die. It was one of my supreme dining experiences.

It was still fairly early (by Icelandic standards, anyway), so I took a brief stroll around the harbor and main town square areas. No need for a night time hot dog this time, so I turned in early.

Monday was another more detailed exploration day, hitting some of the sights I’d missed on Friday and looking at things a little closer than my initial inspections. I decided on a local breakfast at “Reykjavík’s oldest café,” Prikid, founded in 1951. Damn! I’m older than that! It’s at the start of Laugavegur street, gateway to shopper’s paradise. Anyway, the service was speedy and the food was tasty, consisting of two fried eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, fried tomato and, with a glass of orange juice, only set me back 21 euros. Not quite as expensive as Rome, but pretty damn close.

As it was now after 9:30, and the shops usually didn’t open until 10, I started my long walk down Laugavegur street to the very end, where it crosses Snorrabraut street. There, just across the intersection, was my destination for the morning: The Icelandic Phallological Museum, referred to locally as The Penis Museum. This one-of-a-kind museum contains a collection of more than 200 penises and penile parts (!) belonging to all of the land and sea mammals found in Iceland. There are no human specimens yet, but gift tokens have been received for three future specimens, presumably after their owners expire (Ed. Note: Google Jonah Falcon, but be prepared for a pretty scary sight – or possibly a really exciting sight, for my female readers). At first I thought the museum would be open to Members Only, but was pleased to note that, for a reasonable fee, the general public was also admitted. After my tour of the often-astonishing exhibits, I thought long and hard about buying my son-in-law a gift of a multi-colored penis and scrotum sheath, but common sense prevailed and I settled for a refrigerator magnet. I’m sure my daughter will be pleased at the substitution.

My legs were already so sore from all the walking on cement and asphalt, I thought one more extended stroll wouldn’t matter, so I hiked through the middle of Reykjavík, around one of the central lakes, and found the University of Iceland. You know, gotta look for those university t-shirts for Morgan. She won’t know if I found one until the next CARE package arrives, so no fair giving anything away. Then it was back to town and the premier hot dog stand in the city, down by the harbor. The dogs were so good there I even had two of them. Yummy.

After an afternoon cleanup and rest, I checked out The Dubliner Pub for Happy Hour. They had Bori beer, a glass of 0.4 L, for 550 kroner, or about 4 euro ($5 US). Still awfully pricey. It was too quiet there for me that early, so I returned to the Micro Bar for another of their great craft beers, only 900 kroner for a pint. Argh! And then it was just down the street to The English Pub and an early-evening conversation with my friend Gudrun. I had planned yet another spectacular dinner for this evening, so I soon headed out to the Restaurant Reykjavík, just next to the Tourist Office off the main town square.

My choice for the evening was some of that amazing Icelandic free-range lamb, which has to be one of the best lamb offerings anywhere. I was in the mood for dessert that night, and, at the recommendation of my friendly waitress (they were all so friendly in Iceland!), I ordered the Chocolate Tart. Well, it was yet another fantabulous dish I encountered during my five-days in Iceland. A chocolate tart with flowing warm chocolate inside, garnished with blueberries and some patties of lime mousse covered with little sweet bits. I would have licked the plate if I hadn’t thought it gauche. I did make a point of filling out the restaurant’s Customer Feedback card and told them their Chocolate Tart was way too good to serve to the hoi polloi.
Monday night was supposed to be a good night at the Hurra Jazz Club, so I went over to see what was happening. A nice crowd in this small place, but the jazz on offer wasn’t my cup of tea, so I traced my by-now memorized path back to The English Pub to see what was on there. Another duo, not too bad. I got to see Gudrun one last time, as she was off the following day, so I got my goodbye hug and a promise to stay in touch; we shall see. Once again, I didn’t need a hot dog on my way home, which was both good and bad.

Tuesday, September 1 – my final day in Reykjavík. Again, no specific plans for the day, just some final shopping and probably more of that great food. Breakfast this time was at the Laundromat Café, where, if I had wished, I could have done a load of clothes while eating. Fortunately for the other customers, I didn’t so wish. With some time to kill, I decided to try the Hop On Hop Off bus tour around and outside of the city. Why not? It was an OK tour. I got to see Perlan, a mirror-facaded restaurant built on top of several hot water storage tanks overlooking the city. I checked out one of Reykjavík’s shopping malls (not much to see there) and ended my hour-long tour at the hot dog stand again. Addictive.

A touch more wandering and shopping, then back to Restaurant Reykjavík for another chocolate tart – I just couldn’t resist. Since I was to be picked up by Grayline tours around 8:30 PM for my transfer back to the airport, I had an early dinner of langoustine tails baked in garlic at Icelandic Fish and Chips. I knew I wouldn’t be getting any fresh seafood for a while, so thought I’d better stock up on my taste memories.

Everything else went as scheduled. Grayline showed up 15 minutes late, but they did show up, and I caught their big bus to Keflavík Airport. I was on the redeye back to Berlin, arriving at 6:30 AM on September 3, then another 90 minutes to Budapest, landing at 10 AM. Home – these days, home to thousands of illegal immigrants storming Keleti train station on their hopeful way to Germany. At least the weather was warm again; my wool socks started to itch something awful.

Iceland is a definite must-see destination for all of you travelers seeking something a touch different. Lots of backpackers and nature people on the island, along with a surprising number of tourists and travelers. Extremely friendly people, food to die for, and spectacular vistas, volcanoes, rifts, geysers, glaciers, et al. It seems these “second tier cities” are often quite a bit friendlier than the big impersonal metropolises like London, Rome, Athens, etc., resulting in a much more relaxed, comfortable, welcoming atmosphere.

Try it ----- you’ll like it.