Sunday, November 27, 2011


It’s 10 a.m. and still dark outside. Pitch black. Of course, in November I should expect this at 64 degrees latitude in the northernmost capital of the world. Iceland is old, yet everything feels and smells new. The crisp, cold air invigorates the lungs. As my luck would have it, the first snow of the season started the day I arrived and kept delivering throughout my trip. It did add to the surreal scenery, though. Imagine jet black volcanic rocks sprinkled with dusty snow complementing the thick billowing slate-grey snowladen clouds floating in an ethereal twilight blue sky.

Reykjavik comes from the old Norse meaning smokey bay. Technically, it should be steamy bay, but who wants to argue with a Viking captain’s assessment over a thousand years ago? The smoke that the Viking captain saw was actually steam coming from the ground.  These steamy plumes evidence an undercurrent of geothermal activity throughout the geography and history of Iceland.

Roughly 65% of Iceland’s 300,000 people lives in the capital.  Once you leave the city, you see absolutely nothing but pristine land.  The city itself does not even look that overpopulated [relative to New York, anyway].  The mild temperatures [only freezing] remain consistent throughout the winter here because it is on the water and benefits from the Gulf Stream.  Many Icelanders said the winters used to be much worse thirty years ago. They are much colder inland, though, with some arctic circle windchill and winds across the glaciers that comprise 11% of the 103,000 square kilometers of this island. Global warming or not, it is just a cycle and Iceland is certainly not overly contributing to its carbon footprint: Geothermal heating provides heats to over 85% of the homes; hydroelectric power provides the electricity.  Geothermal energy also heats the greenhouses used to grow some of their vegetables, and also makes some phenomenal spas [see below].  Reykjavikers get around by car, bus, foot, and bicycle, even in the snow, along the plentiful and wide trails throughout the city and along the shoreline.  

I walked along one of these trails into the downtown area. The huge Tjornin pond and park are a nice backdrop to the National Gallery, a church, and some other city buildings.  The somewhat gloomy looking Hallgrimskirkja Church was an easy orientation landmark as I walked around because of its stark grey tall steeple. (I chose not to go up to the top because it is open-air and that day was particularly windy).  The other landmark for my walk was the Perlan (the Pearl) perched upon a hilltop; this glass domed restaurant, café, and museum definitely puts lipstick on some otherwise ugly hot-water storage tanks.

The main shopping street, Laugavegur, is a cross between Rodeo Drive and any town’s main street. With cute European style coffee shops every other block [no Starbucks] and plenty of Icelandic designer boutiques and restaurants, you could very easily stock up on warm outerwear made in Iceland and spend a small fortune.  Every side street along here had picture perfect views of mountains.  

So, too, did the newly constructed Harpa concert hall and convention center. To add to the beauty, this area smelled good: clean air with a hint of salt mixed with the aroma of baking bread, roasting coffee, and cooking.  Maybe I have been living in New York too long, but this was a nice bonus.  

Prior to this trip, if you had told me that I would ever go running in the snow in 20-degree weather, I would have laughed. However, the beautiful tree-lined trails to the shore were irresistible to me and about five other runners.  The trail passes by a geothermal beach called Nautholsvik. In the summer this is a sunbather's paradise where the sea water is heated, albeit artificially, from the energy plant. Although it is touted as the only sandy beach in Iceland, the research revealed the golden sand is actually imported from Morocco. It is still beautiful at sunrise, though, with rosy pink tufts of clouds in the steel blue sky. 

Iceland & Geology
There is no doubt this is a volcanic island.  Once you leave the city limits, you can see ample evidence in the mountains, craters, and steam releasing from the ground.  This island actually straddles two tectonic plates: the North American and the Eurasian. Thus, a little movement here and there, and you have some pretty interesting grumbling below, and then above, the surface.  This shifting does create extraordinary rock formations and natural wonders, along with a handy natural water filtration system. 

Prior to my visit I had visions of the scenery from pictures and from some novels I was reading by the Icelandic author, Halldor Laxness [the only Icelandic Nobel Prize in Literature recipient]. I expected to see a cross between mossy heaths and something out of a J.R.R. Tolkien story.  My expectations were not too far afield.  On one bus trip outside of the city limits, I groggily awoke from a quick doze, and thought I had landed on the moon.  The contrast of the stark white snow with the jet black lava rock in the midst of nothing but sky and clouds astounds the senses. As the sun was setting [early of course], an eerie twilight glow in the sky makes it easy to see why so much of Icelandic myth and lore includes trolls, goblins and elves; long cold periods of darkness could certainly make the sane hallucinate.

The Geyser

This is THE Geyser. The Geysir in Icelandic is the one after which all others are named. In the midst of a snow laden field lies this breathtaking geyser park that may be difficult to fully describe without doing it an injustice. This area is termed a high temperature geothermal zone because the systems exist in a zone of active rifting and volcanic activity with temperatures in the subsurface higher than 200 degrees Celsius at less than 1 kilometer of depth. Unfortunately the actual Geysir doesn't blow any more because in the 1950s some tourists put too many rocks in it and plugged it up; however, the nearby Strokkur [the churn] geyser did not disappoint. Every 7-8 minutes, sometimes with a double expulsion, it erupted.  The rest of the trail winds around several smaller geysers, and colorful little pools of mud and steam, with the not-so-subtle aroma of sulfur.


The Golden Waterfall

Gulfoss is stunning to the ears and eyes. Unfortunately, the snow drifts and cold wind made the viewing and my photos difficult. On a sunny day, though, the sunlight through the falls is supposed to give a golden glow. The pounding rush of the falls feels like a drum through my body; after descending a long staircase, I made a duck walk [it is pretty icy] to the viewing points. The falls cascade over a type of staircase and then bend around to another point and rush into a  100+ foot crevice.  The cascade churns up quite a frothy mist and viewed through the snow drifts, it appears as though it is rushing into the clouds.  This was actually the only point  on the trip I felt unbearably shivering cold. [I am grateful, though, for my new heat-generating thermals!]

Pingvellir/Thingvellir [the Icelandic letter looks like a Olde English P and has a slight th sound]

This National Park is a must-visit place for any geology fan. Because we were racing against daylight at this point of the tour, the pictures were taken in the final hours of twilight.  The photographs also have the added hindrance of large snowflakes.  Despite all of this, this magnificent place instills such a feeling of awe. Thingvellir is a UNESCO site not only because it has one of the few clearly visible fault lines and rift valleys [between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates], but because it also has the landmark of the world’s first democratic government. 

The Vikings picked this location as the meeting place for their law making body in the year 930. They continued to meet every three years here at the designated Law Rock to discuss the laws and any issues of the day.  This spot remains a sacred site for Iceland; this was the site where, on June 17, 1944, Iceland declared its independence from Denmark and became a republic. 

Additionally, though, this park has rock formations, fissures, and valleys you could spend an entire day hiking. It is also possible to say that you more-or-less traveled from Europe to North America in less than half an hour.  The park has places to view the Almanna Gorge [Everyman’s Gorge], the rift valley [separation between the plates] and also Raven’s Gorge.  Looking out over the rift valley during the last moments of light with the falling snow, I felt this incredible stillness. I have never been to space, but if I were to imagine what it felt like, it would be this. 

The Hot Springs
The Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon Spa is like the Disney World tourist attraction of Iceland. Like Disney, it does not disappoint at all.  Although Iceland has many hot spring spas and swimming pools, the lagoon has many unique characteristics.  First of all, the drive out to the spa has scenery that reminded me of a lunar landscape.  There is nothing around except white mountains and dark lava rock sprinkled with snow.  Then, out of nowhere, there is a road leading to the spa, which is built into the lava rock, and the entrance to the milky blue lagoon.

After a shower, you put on your swimsuit, walk outside and immerse yourself into water that looks like it belongs in a witch’s cauldron. The milky blue water has steam coming off it; against the gray clouds, the experience feels quite ethereal.  The water is warm and cozy. You can crab walk your way around the lagoon to stay immersed. Find one of the buckets with the white silica mud and slather it over your face, neck and shoulders. Continue your crab-cruise around the lagoon and feel your toes either squishing into soft sediment or resting on the hard lava rock.  At several places in the lagoon you can feel burst of geothermal currents, too. 

moss at Geysir to give you the idea
The lava around the area was created in 1266 [not a typo] and was called evil lava because it was so darn hard. In the summer it is covered by beautiful moss.  Although it was covered by cold snow on this visit, the scenery was still beautiful, especially as the sun set.  The lagoon actually sits between the two tectonic plates, so the water that is churned up from the center of the earth, a primordial algae, mineral, and silica soup, is pretty old, and apparently good for your skin. The water recycles every 40 hours and no bacteria can live in it, so nothing else is added to it. I never learned exactly why the water was blue, but it was definitely relaxing.

They do offer in-water massages at the lagoon. You can also indulge in some algae  masks and a volcanic pumice scrub from the 'bar" on the edge of the pool that also serves beer and wine. Outside the lagoon pool you can take in in a sauna and a steam bath.  The entrance to the steam bath room looks like Bilbo Baggins’s front door. You enter the room built into the lava rock and immediately notice the sulfur smell. After a few seconds of relaxing into the caressing heat, you are jolted alive by a burst of steam from the belly of the earth; to say it is hot would be an understatement. After a few hours at the lagoon I felt like every pore and every layer of my skin had been detoxed. I also slept like a rock that night.

My second steam bath experience was at the newly opened Fontana hot spring wellness center in a town called Laugurvatn. The town is named after the spring-fed lake and the hot springs and geothermal steam for the spa are right on the lakeshore.  The outdoor pools, one at 32 degrees Celsius and one at 40 degrees Celsius, both have ample views of the lake. The sauna also has a huge glass wall for bathers to view the lake. The day I visited, it was snowing and gray, so the view may be more stunning on a clear day. The steam baths here were definitely hotter with more frequent heat bursts.  They also had a stronger sulfur smell. The entire experience felt relaxing, though, and it kept me warm for the rest of the day. 

Hotel Natura at high noon!
My hotel also had a spa with a little sauna, a steam bath that smelled like lavender [nice!] , and a geothermal heated pool and hot tub. With simple design [think IKEA meets ScanDesign], natural artwork, and mellow music piped in [neither Bjork nor Enya], the whole experience fulfilled its promise to relax.  

The Norwegians, Dutch, and Danish brought all kinds of animals to Iceland.  They have sheep, cows, pigs, dogs, and cats. (The cats, by the way, genetically link to Ireland, which is where many of the Vikings picked up their women en route to Iceland).  There are more sheep than people on this island, and quite a few cows and horses. The horses are quite cute and stout, and apparently hardy enough to stay outside all winter. They allegedly have their own special gait pattern, too.

In addition to the livestock and obvious abundance of seafood, Iceland has its greenhouses for some of its produce.  The breakfast buffet had a certain European flair to it: 4-minute and 6-minute boiled eggs; ingredients for open-faced sandwiches, including sliced cheese, pate, processed meat, and cheese spread with shrimp or mushrooms; pickled fish; a shot of fish oil; muesli; fruit; skyr (absolutely delicious whipped yogurt); waffles; and beans and franks.  A lunch buffet one day was a good way to taste, without committing, to some unusual pickled salads and overcooked meats.  I will not say my body appreciated some of my commitments, but this is part of the travel fun. I was unable to try the famous lamb hotdogs at the Harbor, or the items on the menu board pictured at left.  I will say, though, that the arctic char, smoked lake trout, and bread are delicious. 

I do have only a reserved thumbs up for the bread baked in the ground that a local art gallery owner in Laugurvatn shared [see pic at right].  If you want to try it yourself, make your bread, put it in a cardboard container, wrap it in a plastic bag and bury it for 24 hours. Icelanders obviously enjoy pastries and sweets; I saw no shortage of bakeries or confectioners here.  They do have these healthy pumpkin sunflower seed cookies I could not get enough of...

Language & Lore
The Vikings settled Iceland in the year 871 plus-or-minus two years. (This is the name of a current exhibit in Reykjavik). The Icelandic language is a separate and distinct language with 32 letters and similar to the language spoken by those early Vikings. It is said that Icelanders could actually understand some of the ancient texts; Norwegians today would not be able to understand them.  Much of the history of the Iceland was written down early on in books known as the sagas, which resemble the tales told in epics like The Odyssey.  Iceland also has great fairy tales of legends and lore, recounting tales of trolls and giants.  One evening the hotel where I stayed hosted a pajama party with hot chocolate and an actor came in and read bedtime stories to us. He read a little from the sagas, and told us about the Icelandic Christmas stories, which have 13 “Christmas Lads” that bring presents in the 13 days prior to Christmas, like Santa Clauses, if the children are good. The storyteller also read a cute children's book about giants, which had a similar thread of animism and a moral, like any good fairy tale should. 

My trip to Iceland felt like a fairy tale.  On the bus ride back to the airport, I watched the sun setting low on the horizon behind the most evocative clouds.  In the opposite direction beneath the slate-grey sky I saw a few boats on the water; then, as if on cue, the clouds parted slightly and a giant rainbow appeared. Fairy tale indeed.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Brooklyn 'Hoods Continued: Carroll Gardens

Gratuitous fall foliage picture
On any given Saturday take a stroll down Court Street in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn and follow your nose inside D'Amicos Coffee Shop. Jockey your way through the customers waiting to buy some of the freshly roasting coffee in the front and head to the back café. Here you can order a cappuccino and espresso and sit at little metallic tables and chairs as if you were in a piazza. Dry goods and Italian cooking staples used to line these store walls; now, framed photos of several generations of the D’Amico family and friends adorn the exposed brick walls. This place, like the neighborhood, has quite a history. If you don't believe me, just ask one of the regulars sharing conversation over coffee at the tables.

These regulars are indeed regular. They visit this neighborhood every weekend, even if they don’t live here anymore. They come to their home neighborhood to pick up bread, pastries, meats, pasta, and produce, and while the wife is getting her hair done, the men come to D’Amico’s to drink coffee and talk. These regulars can name the people in the photos–they were actually there when most of the photos were taken. In the middle of a debate over which war was the Great War [it was World War I], one of the regulars did offer to share his perspective of the neighborhood’s history.

The neighborhood now known as Carroll Gardens was named after Charles Carroll, a Revolutionary War veteran and the only Roman-Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Many years passed before Mr. Carroll had the honor of a neighborhood being named after him, though. Back in the day, the area was known as Gowanus and Red Hook. Along with Irish and Norwegian immigrants, Italian immigrants from Calabria and Bari worked the docks at Red Hook or the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The strong Italian influence can be seen even today in the business and street names. In fact, Court Street between Third and Fourth places was recently given a second name--Citizens of Mola Way–in a tribute to the industrious 5,000+ residents of Mola di Bari [a region in Apulia, the heel of the "boot"]. Similarly, in 2009, the neighborhood co-named a section of Henry Street between Sackett and Union Streets--Citizens of Pozzallo Way–in a tribute to the contributions of immigrants from that Sicilian seaside town.

Prior to the Italians, the Native Americans, Dutch, Norwegians, and Irish all had a presence in this area. The Gowanus Creek was dredged and the surrounding swamps were drained to form a navigable inland waterway. This waterway, believe it or not, facilitated the transportation of bodies [we’re assuming corpses here] from Manhattan to Greenwood Cemetery, which forms one of the boundary lines of Carroll Gardens today. Part of the current waterway, the Gowanus canal, has many interesting nicknames due to its unfortunate highly polluted state.

The regular quickly dismissed the blemish of "lavender lake" on an otherwise beautiful palette of a neighborhood. He spoke of an era when children were all born at home, and family and respect were a given. He gave me a list of places to visit, too, along Court Street and Smith Street: Where to go for the best pignolia cookies and cannolis; where to get the best "lard bread;" and where to get a good slice of pie [pizza pie, of course]. The homes in Carroll Gardens are also reputed to have some splendid holiday decorations. So, it looks like another stroll through Carroll Gardens is on the horizon.