Saturday, November 22, 2008

Meeting Fríða and ghosts of Iceland past

As promised (a month ago!), here is another Iceland trip posting - my second to last. It seemed that as our trip wound into its final days we tried to pack more than ever into each one! After a week together, climbing rocky mountain roads and crawling through cloud-cover and fog, we bade farewell to our trusty Škoda Octavia at the airport drop-off before being picked up by a shuttle bus which took us to the Íshestar riding stables on the outskirts of the city.

We had booked a half-day of horseback riding to experience beautiful Icelandic horses up close and personal. They are an internationally recognized breed known for their smaller stature, stamina, friendly nature, and their unique tölt gait. To protect the health of the breed, no other horses can be imported into Iceland – although Icelandic horses can be exported and are bred around the world.

The stable staff got us each properly seated and stirrups adjusted before we set off single-file, heading out beyond the suburban edges of the city. Soon we were looking out across a rocky, scrubby landscape surrounded by hills – the weather was alternately sunny, drizzly, and breezy (pretty typical!). After about an hour we stopped in a grassy clearing to stretch our legs and let the horses graze. On our way back to the stables, we got in some cantering which was exhilarating and surprising for a beginner tour!

Back at the stables, we had lunch with the staff and then wandered out to the corral with some carrots and apples we had brought for the horses. We were immediately surrounded by dozens of velvety, inquisitive faces – supple, muscular lips quickly lapping up juicy treats and greedily pushing their noses into pockets and hands searching for more. We also met Fríða, the lovely but shy Springer Spaniel who lives at the stables – she seemed quite smitten with Mark!

To pamper our now sore buttocks and stiff legs, we spent the afternoon soaking up the decadent and soothing mineral waters of the world famous Blue Lagoon. The spa is a hidden other-worldly gem surrounded by an angry, blackened volcanic landscape. It’s a naturally occurring lagoon which has been developed into a state-of-the-art geothermal spa and power plant! The milky blue mineral-rich waters are high in sulphur and silica and are considered very therapeutic.

Before getting to the main spa building, guests walk down a craggy corridor cut through the volcanic rock. We hadn’t seen a glimpse of anything but black, jagged rock and then suddenly – this beautiful building suddenly rose up in front of us and through the windows the wondrous vision of steaming blue water. We ignored the shops and restaurants, heading directly for the check-in where we received our blue snap-on bracelets which served as our locker keys and tokens of admission – very cool system.

Boys and Girls went their separate ways here and entered the worlds of unabashed European nudity! I’m no prude but when you grow up in North America, your sensibilities are in for a shock when you hit the Blue Lagoon locker rooms! BTW the locker rooms are very nice – forget your memories of high school phys-ed, this is a world-class spa. We had been forewarned about the strict hygiene standards enforced at Icelandic pools and spas – they don’t use chemicals to purify the water and expect everyone to scrub down thoroughly before using the facilities. I wasn’t going to be the one to catch the attention of the stern-looking older woman patrolling the shower area ensuring that everyone upheld these standards.

When you step out onto the wooden deck surrounding the Lagoon, you realize how bloody chilly you are and then you step into the steaming milky blue water… mmmm, ahhhhh. The water is quite hot (40 °C / 104 °F) and it feels sooo good, like a wonderful hot bath. We wandered about in the shoulder-deep water with white silica mud slathered on our faces, peering through the sun-streaked steam to the bizarre landscape of volcanic rock and geothermal power plant towers. The waterfall feature gives a fantastic shoulder massage but make sure those shoulder straps don’t slip ladies! We heard languages from all over – I met a couple and their daughter from Paris who had been to the Saguenay region – the world really is strangely small!

After three superbly relaxing hours lolling in the spa waters we showered and hopped the shuttle bus back to Reykjavik. A surprise awaited us in town – unbeknownst to us, a huge celebration rally had been organized to welcome home the silver Olympic medal winning Icelandic handball team. (To give a sense of the importance of this event, Iceland has won a grand total of four Olympic medals – summer and winter – in its entire history. This was a BIG deal.) Tens of thousands of Icelanders had gathered downtown where a stage had been set up with giant screens. There was music and dignitaries – including the Prime Minister – the entire handball team was on stage, the crowd was euphoric, cheering and clapping. We celebrated by lining up with hundreds of Icelanders to indulge in the national favourite: pylsur and Coke!

As if the day hadn’t been full enough, we then went on the Reykjavík Haunted Walk tour which led us through the city centre telling tales of murder and ghosts and mysterious events. Coincidentally, the tour route passed directly in front of our apartment building leaving us to wonder if there was some gruesome history our landlords had omitted from the listing! The tour ended after dark, deep in the heart of the old cemetery where we saw mystifying and strange sites… you’ll have to take the tour to see for yourself.

To cap off the day we dropped by a nearby club which was one of the sites for the Reykjavík Jazz Festival taking place in the city that week. I quite enjoyed the music of Tepokinn (Teabag) – a young, up-an-coming Icelandic jazz band. The boys were very patient – they lasted a good hour or so before they couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to leave! Although I could have stayed for several more hours to enjoy the music, I was bone tired after a very full day and it was a good thing they dragged me home!


Amanda said...

What an unbelievably awesome day! Horseback riding, Blue Lagoon, parade, Haunted Walk Tour AND jazz. Wow.

Tell the truth, now. Were you guys giggling with glee at the thought of the rest of us sitting at desks whilst you were in Heaven?

AnneW said...

After hearing about the famed blue lagoon and seeing your photo, I am thinking of moving to if not somewhere near Reykjavic.

Tara said...

Oh Sandra;
It looks wonderful!!!