Journal of a 23-day Icelandic road trip

Sunday August 2

TERMINAL 3, PARIS CHARLES DE GAULLE AIRPORT, FRANCE

We took an ICELAND EXPRESS flight from Terminal 3, Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, leaving at 1.10 pm on a Sunday. This airline only flies in summer, and then only once a week, so it’s treated like a charter flight, which means that departure is from Terminal 3, a chilly, unappealing hangar, as vast as it is crowded; noisy too, with nothing to occupy passengers but a ramshackle coffee/sandwich bar crammed in one corner.

We weren‘t able to weigh our four 90-liter duffle bags at home, nor our two pieces of hand luggage stuffed with photographic gear. The limit was 20 kg per person for checked baggage, and 10 kg per person for carry-on bags.

Our concerns were justified, since our checked baggage came to a total of 53 kg, 13 kg more than our allowance! At €11 per extra kilo, this was looking like an expensive start to our trip. Fortunately, they only charged us for five kilos, but that still came to €55!

After check-in, we moved into the departure lounge. It was funny to see everyone in walking boots, with their backpacks, ready to go.

“Not such a bad idea”, I thought to myself. Less weight in their luggage meant less excess to pay!

They took us out in a bus to the plane, which was all-white, not even a single logo on the fuselage. How beautiful! I wanted to take a photograph, but was soon told that this was forbidden.

It was a very peaceful flight, and we flew along Iceland’s south coast before landing. Anticipating this, I’d reserved a window seat on the right-hand side of the plane. Luckily for me, the skies were fairly clear, providing a great view of two glaciers. You might recognize the one on the left: it started erupting again in April 2010!

I also spied this little island. It looked like Bjarnarey, one of the Westman Islands – more about our attempt to visit them later.

Then came the English pilot’s phlegmatic announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we will soon be landing at Reykjavik, the temperature is 14 °C (57 °F), with beautiful sunshine.”

REYKJAVIK

Keflavik is a small airport and there were many of us, which meant long queues to change money. I managed to change €1,000 for around 175,000 ISK (I’d have only got 60,000 ISK for that amount just two years ago).

Then we took the bus, which drove slowly along the narrow 50 km (30 mile) road, through lava fields, to the capital.

The weather was really beautiful, without a single cloud in the sky, and the taxi driver taking us from the central bus station to our guesthouse told us that July had been exceptionally dry, so much so that the grass had turned yellow in the gardens. I was aware of this, since my friends Lucie and Fabien had just returned from their ten-day trip here, and only had one day of rain. But far from feeling reassured, I prayed that we didn’t pay the price of this statistical disequilibrium!

The taxi dropped us at Chez Monique, a guesthouse slap bang in the center of Reykjavik, opposite the town hall, run by a French lady. A friend recommended it to us for its sensible prices and prime location. We were greeted by Monique herself, who proved to be wonderfully kind and welcoming.

Having seen our huge bags, she straight away gave us her largest room (three beds) for the price of a normal room. We had a lovely view over the town hall, its fountain, and the cathedral, which unfortunately was encased in scaffolding.

We headed out for a wander round town. People strolled leisurely about, or sat drinking outside cafes, but it was very quiet, which wasn’t surprising, since it wasn’t only a Sunday, but also Iceland’s own ‘Labor Day Weekend’ (first weekend in August). So we found ourselves in Reykjavik on the quietest day of the year!

It was only 6 pm, but we were starving and thirsty, so we headed straight to Fish Market restaurant, located very close to our guesthouse, and whose exceptional tasting menu I’d already taken note of for us to try.
Sure it was a bit expensive, but gourmet food is one essential way of exploring a country and its culture. And anyway, the next 20 days would consist mainly of sandwiches, with skyr*for dessert, so we were happy to make the most of an opportunity for rich and varied dining while we could!
I was a little reticent about eating so early, but we stopped to look at the menu and were quickly invited inside. I was surprised to see that some of the other tables were already occupied, but I shouldn’t have been; after all it was already 8 pm in France!

* traditional Icelandic very soft cheese

Fish Market is a fabulous restaurant, I’ll tell you that now. It’s beautifully decorated, and has an impressive number of serving staff, yet is not at all pretentious. There’s a warm, noisy atmosphere, and you feel that people are used to coming here to share a good meal with friends and to catch up. As a first experience of the Icelanders themselves, it was hard to beat.

The 7,900 ISK tasting menu (around €50) was simply wonderful, comprising an apparently seamless series of eight meat and fish dishes, with no less than four desserts as its apotheosis! We accompanied our feast with a fine bottle of white wine, and left feeling happy, satiated, and a little tipsy.

What better than a stroll by the harbor to digest and relax?

There’s nothing I like more than wandering about a port. It’s a feast for the eyes, with thousands of details to observe; an array of quite particular textures, colors, reflections, smells, and sounds.

Above, you can see two rusty retired whalers.

Others sat in the dry dock of the shipyard next to the harbor. To my great surprise, there wasn’t a single sign prohibiting entry, nor any barrier preventing access. We were free to explore the deserted shipyard, and these enormous ships, as high as buildings, awaiting a second lease of life.

We soon discovered that the center of Reykjavik is tiny, snuggled against the port. I decided to return to Chez Monique and get my tripod. Coming back downstairs, I found Emilie chatting to a couple. She told them our plans, and the man revealed that he was none other than the former mayor of Reykjavik! They invited us for a drink in a bar, but we politely refused, explaining our intention to go and see the famous cathedral.

Here it is, covered with scaffolding, which was such a pity because the light is quite beautiful. We couldn’t visit the inside either, because it was too late and was already closed, but no matter, we would return at the end of our trip.

It was 10.30 pm by now, and we were tired, so back we headed to our guesthouse (next to which was this very pretty lake). The next day would be a long one, starting with our 9 am appointment to pick up our vehicle, a Hummer H2 – a huge and quite exceptional three-ton, 400 horsepower beast of a 4x4.

No, I’m not a millionaire! I was only able to get this vehicle thanks to the independent Geysir car-rental firm. Having been attracted by their website (simple, beautifully designed, with lovely photographs), I presented my idea for this ICELANDIC PHOTOGRAPHIC ROADTRIP to them, showed them my photographs from the American Southwest (which they loved!), and they offered to help me out. Thanks Gardar!

This support from Geysir meant that we were able to drive everywhere, and above all sleep inside the Hummer, so saving on hotel costs – assuming I’d be able to drive the beast of course.

Let’s see how I get on tomorrow. For now: goodnight!

Foreword         Day 2            Index