Sunday, August 2, 2015

Iceland - an undiscovered continent

We've just got back from our 11-day travel from Iceland in July 2015. The reason why I call it a continent is that it's quite far from any other place (we flew 3,5 hours from Gdansk, Poland while the closest destination is London with 3 hours flight) and it's culture seemed completely different from the travels we took before.

I. What have I learnt from the trip in Iceland?

1. There's a country between US and Europe, not only geographically but in many ways culturally too.
2. Iceland has completely different issues than what we usually hear in the news. Instead of overpopulation there are 300.000 people in a territory like Hungary or Kentucky. There are practically no people outside of the capital. A "city" of 2500 is a regional center. Heating seems to be solved 100% by geothermal energy just as warm water in houses is 100% thermal water. Unemployment, stealing, crime (not even petty crime like stealing!), military and police does not seem to exist.
3. Beautiful nature comes with harsh conditions: heavy wind, heavy rain, cold.
4. A four-hour long sunset does exist!
5. If you let your sheep go in spring you'll find them before winter.
6. Everyone speaks English.
7. Iceland has NO army. Three-hundred thousand is as tiny of a nation as you can imagine. With its own language, currency, culture and national pride and people striving to make it better one has to wonder how come other nations hasn't conquered it. It's independence is young though: since 1944.
8. There are NO other colours than white, grey and black when it comes to houses and cars.
9. There are very few buildings, churches, villages, etc. Instead of looking for nature you have to look for man-made things...
10. People really do believe in elves. You think it's impossible? Talk to locals. Amazing stories!
11. There's a place on Earth where you are always sleepy no matter that you sleep twelve hours daily...

II. Highlights of Iceland

1, Nature
- we can compare the nature in Iceland to the very best we've seen before (Andes, Bolivia)
Westfjords (we drove one day from Laugarbakki through Isafjordur to Olafsvik, about 800 kms)
Vestmannaeyjar / Westman Island (spent the night, climbed a vulcano, drove around, saw some puffins, enjoyed all the natural beauties), Leirhnjúkur lava field by Lake Myvatn and countless waterfalls and sights by the Ring Road.

2, People
- it's become a cliche to write that the best thing in whatever-country is the friendly and warm people. Usually I skip this part. I don't think people are that nice, friendly and warm usually. In Iceland with our 5 Couchhosts and the occasional interactions we had with locals did make us feel unusually welcome and gave such an insight to life in Iceland we couldn't have gathered otherwise.
From about 45 couchrequest that I sent after reading profiles (couple of hours of work, not the usual copy+paste technique) we had 5 hosts for 5 nights. Great people who spoke immediate-fluent English and were willing to share a lot from their culture. No host in Reykjavik.

3, Pools
I read in Reykjavik that every 2000 people in Iceland has a (geothermal) swimming pool. This means 150 pools: I'm not sure the "natural" ones are counted. I went to pools 5 times in Iceland: more times than I did in Budapest that is also famous for its thermal pools in 2 years. The reason is: warm, clean, social, relaxing, cheap and fun. Prices: locals might show you free ones, the usual swimming pool costs 2-4 euro while the "high end" ones cost 25 euro (next to Myvatn lake) and 45 euro (Blue Lagoon).

4, Driving
- as we did not book a 4WD car we drove mostly on the main "ring" road and we took some shortcuts (no F roads). Still, driving on gravel and mountain roads was a great joy for me. Not all the time for our passengers though. We managed not to hit any sheep. I'm definitely proud of this.

III. Lowlights of Iceland

1, Prices
This was our most expensive travel daily so far.
Getting there was okay: 90 euro / person for a flight from Gdansk/Danzing, Poland without luggage. We had to get to Gdansk though. We flew Wizz Air. Other destinations are connected by WOW Air, the low cost Icelandic airline.
Renting a car seemed the only option that would allow us to visit the majority of the sites for sure. Choosing from the cheapest options and renting an old Nissan Micra cost us about 67 euro / day. Bus passes didn't seem cheaper but more circumstantial. Hitch-hiking could work but be aware of wind and rain. Bringing your own car (ferry from Denmark) costs way more and takes longer.
Accommodation cost for 2 people between 60-95 euro that often meant dormitory / shared rooms. The other option is tent. Do bring however professional equipment as it does get very windy, rainy and cold in July too.
Food - if you wanted to eat no matter whether it was from the supermarket or from a restaurant was very expensive. The only meal that seemed cheap compared to others was hot dog that cost between 2-3,5 euros. A main course in a restaurant would be around 20 euro per person.

2, Reykjavik
I was born and raised in a town that is similar in size in Reykjavik. While my hometown is considered a city in Hungary I learnt soon enough that it is a small town. Reykjavik with its population of 120.000 is really small and after we counted a little we came to the conclusion that at a time during the summer high season there are more tourists on the streets at least of the city center than locals. This shows.
Reykjavik is a hip, chic, stylish city. If you like this aspect of Berlin or Amsterdam and you don't worry about prices (the very cheapest beer during a happy hour is about 2 euro and otherwise it can easily be 4-6 euro) you'll love the place. Stylish cafes, hip people, fashion, design and modern art shops. There was a kind of pattern repeating itself on the main street of the capital: hotel/hostel, souvenir shop with plush puffins, design/art shop, restaurant, fashion shop, travel agency and a hotel again...
The best things we did in Reykjavik was going to the cinema watching a new Icelandic movie (Hrútrar/Rams) and going to the main swimming pool (Laugardalur).

IV. My tips for Iceland

1, If you want to drink any alcohol buy enough at the airport. I read even locals go there. Prices are averagely double than the not-so-cheap duty-free at the airport.
2, Try to meet locals. A completely different culture, points of views, issues, solutions.
3, Don't do the ring road in 5-6 days. Leave at least 9 days for it as there are (marked) places to visit every couple kilometer next to the road.
4, Coffee is either for free or if you pay for it you can refill as many times as you'd like.

V. Pictures

Sunset seen from the ferry to Westman Island

Top of the vulcano on Westman Island because of which the whole population of 5000 had to be evacuated in 1973

Max's restaurant by Blue Lagoon: the best one we found in Iceland

Blue Lagoon

Westman Island

Driving on the Ring Road

Sheep crossing the main road of Iceland

Lazy seals - seen at Westfjords

Leirhnjúkur lava field by Lake Myvatn

The four hour long sunset on the way to Olafsvik

The four hour long sunset on the way to Olafsvik (2nd)

Being blown away by a fumarole

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