April 12, 2016 – Toronto

Dear world,

I am writing from our little apartment on the Danforth, with a cat fast asleep on (yes, on top of) my right arm and Dario curled up on my other side.

We flew home last night after two final days of once-in-a-lifetime moments and take-your-breath-away views, and enough fresh air to leave my cheeks a little sun burnt and wind swept.

We woke up early Sunday morning and had breakfast together before Dario headed off to pick up our rental car. I stayed back at the apartment to pack lunches for the day and write a little bit.

After about an hour, Dario burst through the door and we set out in a little red Suzuki, which I dubbed “Bjorn.”

IMG_2202_2

We drove out of the city and onto Route 1, also known in Iceland as the “Ring Road” because it circles around the island.

The road takes you out of the city and up through a mountain pass, which is still snowy at this time of year, then down towards the ocean.

We turned off at a roundabout in the little town of Hveragerdi, the same place where we’d stopped for coffee on our Golden Circle tour, and Dario turned up towards the mountains.

A few minutes later we hit a short stretch of gravel road and pulled over into a parking lot at the base of the peaks.

Reykjadalur Hike

From there, we hiked for just over an hour up into the mountains. The first stretch took us upwards past bubbling geothermal pools and streams with steam rising off of them.

IMG_2194_2

It’s still early spring in Iceland and most of the grasses are yellow after spending the winter smothered by snow. But on the edges of the volcano-warmed creeks, the grass was green and healthy.

Large patches of snow and ice lingered near the top of the mountain, slowly melting away in the sunshine. This left much of the trail muddy and wet and we slipped and squelched our way to our destination.

IMG_0744

Near the end of the hike there was a series of steaming hot springs, creating such thick, sulphuric clouds that we couldn’t see more than a metre or two ahead of us.

But once we cleared that section we were greeted with a warm little stream, ringed by a simple wooden boardwalk where hikers could eat their lunch before dipping into the water.

Hot springs

There was a tour group just packing up when we arrived, so we decided to venture further upstream where it was quieter and more secluded.

We picked a relatively dry patch of grass near a picturesque bend in the stream and ate our sandwiches and bananas, and then stripped down to our bathing suits, shivering in the mountain air.

IMG_2199

I hopped down to the water, eager to soak off the goosebumps rippling along my limbs, and dipped a foot in, then immediately pulled it back. It was scalding hot!

Dario took the plunge and sat down in the water, grimacing as his skin adjusted to the burning hot stream, and then yelling an optimistic “Well…it’s not that bad if you keep your feet above the surface.”

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

I took my time and eased into the stream, and once I was sitting shoulder-deep it did feel sort of relaxing.

We spent a few minutes sitting like that, then stood up to feel the deliciously cold breeze against our heated skin.

After a couple times going through that routine, however, we’d just about had enough and headed back towards our stuff, feeling a little disappointed that we hadn’t been able to enjoy the hot water long enough to bathe in it the way the hikers down by the boardwalk had.

We grabbed our bags and clothing and walked back towards the dock, which was quieter now that the tour group had left, and decided to give the water one more try.

I eased my foot in, hesitantly, and then realized just how stupid we’d been. It wasn’t until that moment that I noticed a small creek of cold water running intersecting with the large hot stream, making the designated swimming water the perfect warm-bath temperature.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

I called Dario over and he hopped in and we spent a blissful stretch of time floating in the warm current, the sun on our closed eyelids.

So, lesson of the day: stick to the marked swimming areas.

I could have stayed in the water all afternoon, but we had more adventuring to do so we pulled ourselves out into the chilly air and hastily got dressed and hiked back down to where Bjorn was parked.

IMG_2200

The ocean at Thorlakshofn

We drove back through Hveragerdi and when we hit the main roundabout we decided to take the road towards the ocean.

This led us down a long, empty stretch of highway flanked by farm fields leading out to the water on one side and dark cliffs on the other.

We had no set destination, only the vague idea that we’d like to get closer to the water, so we made a couple more turns in that direction and ended up in a small town called Thorlakshofn.

We drove out past some farms, then pulled Bjorn over onto a little patch of gravel and hopped out and walked towards the water. We scrambled over some black volcanic rock and then, suddenly, the view gave way to a large stretch of black sand and rock and the ocean waves pounding at its base.

And we were the only two souls in sight.

IMG_2203_2

We stood for a moment, spellbound by the view and the crashing waves and the feeling of the salt air and sunshine stinging our cheeks, and I thought, “This is one of those moments…”

One of those moments when you realize why you travel. Because the world is so huge and beautiful and we are so small. And because there’s something about the fact that I will never see or feel or know it all that makes me want to explore and experience everything I can.

We hopped over tide pools and I scooped up a handful of black sand just to feel this place in my fingers, and then we walked back to the car and drove back to Reykjavik and made dinner and drank a couple beers and lay down in bed, feeling exhausted in that satisfying way you feel after a day of fresh air and exercise and happiness.

IMG_2214

What was supposed to be a half-hour nap turned into a three-hour slumber and we woke up just after midnight. I rolled over and whispered, “Oh no…”

We’d planned to head out at 9:30 to try and spot the Northern Lights while we still had the car. Despite the late hour, we got up, rubbed our eyes, and decided to give it a go.

Night drive

We drove through the empty streets, trying to get away from the city lights in the hope of spotting the Aurora. First we drove south, towards the airport, but the road was bordered by bright street lights so we turned around and drove back to Route 1.

We could make out clouds overhead and didn’t see any stars, but we hoped for a lucky break in the cover.

As we left the city behind us, however, there were no Northern Lights to be seen.

We drove in the direction of the mountains, into the blackest night I’ve ever experienced. I knew that, somewhere not too far ahead of us, there were towering, snow-capped peaks, but I couldn’t see anything beyond Bjorn’s high beams.

Eventually we turned around, sleepy and satisfied that at least we’d tried instead of just going back to sleep. Back at the apartment we packed our bags and went back to bed for four hours, before our alarms went off and we rose for our final day away.

April 11, 2016 – Blue Lagoon

We ate some breakfast and then Dario dropped me and our luggage off at the bus station while he went to return the car.

I sat and read an interesting magazine article about Syrian refugees arriving in Iceland (After public pressure the country has agreed to raise its refugee quota and welcomed a family of eight in February.) We actually flew in with a family that we believed were refugees. The mother and father had a new baby and a young son, and an Icelandic woman was travelling with them and kept asking if they were okay and if they knew where to go on the plane, etc.

Dario soon arrived at the bus station and we bought a sandwich for later and then boarded our bus to the Blue Lagoon, which is in a lava field between Reykjavik and the airport.

The Blue Lagoon is possibly Iceland’s most famous attraction, and for good reason. The lagoon is filled with milky-blue salt water that filters up through hot volcanic rock to create large, steaming pools in the middle of the moss-covered lava fields.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

Bacteria doesn’t grow in the unique mineral content of the water, and the pools naturally regenerate every 40 hours, so chlorine isn’t necessary to keep the swimming areas clean. What is present in the water is large quantities of ashy-silicone, which is gathered into large tubs so that guests can use it for natural face masks.

The facility also has steam rooms and saunas heated by  geothermal activity.

We spent more than two hours bathing in the steaming water, sauna-hopping, and slathering silicone on each others’ laughing faces.

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO

By the end our muscles and limbs were loose and we both felt fresh and content (and about ready for a long nap.)

Instead, we dried off and ate our sandwich and then boarded our bus to the airport, where we breezed through security and then killed time finding out exactly how much food we could buy with our leftover Icelandic kronas (two sandwiches, one water, a Fanta, and a small can of Pringles).

And now, we are home. Back to reality, but also not quite.

I have only three days here in Toronto to pack my suitcases and get ready for the next big adventure: moving to Vancouver.

For today, however, Dario and I are taking it easy and enjoying the feeling of being home.

We spent the morning lazing around, sleeping off our jet lag, eating oatmeal in bed, and talking about the incredible trip we’ve had and all the new experiences and information we’ve gained…and about how lucky we are to be able to look forward to more exploring and adventures in the future.

Lots of love,

Emily

Advertisements

April 10, 2016 – Reykjavik

Dear world,

We had such an amazing day yesterday.

We woke up to beautiful sunshine and packed our bags for our Golden Circle day trip. The Golden Circle is a sort of standard first-time-in-Iceland tour that takes you away from the coast to the country’s interior, through landscapes that show off some of the best that Iceland has to offer: waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes and valleys cracked in two by shifting tectonic plates.

Our route took us through snowy mountain passes, across the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and then through farmland to the thundering Gullfoss waterfall. We stopped for lunch near Geysir, the grandfather of all geysers, and then we drove through the incredible Thingvellir National Park, a historic site with spectacular views.

Along the way we stopped periodically to snap photos of volcanic mountains and extra waterfalls, and to pet shaggy Icelandic ponies by the side of the road.

Our group was small and our guide was extremely knowledgeable, both about the natural and geological phenomena around us and the history of the country.

One of the most striking things about Iceland for me is the lack of large trees. Since the mid-century, our guide explained, locals have been planting millions of trees, hoping to grow enough to eventually produce their own lumber.

But much of the landscape we travelled through yesterday was only recently (as in, since the last ice age) covered in lava, and doesn’t have enough top soil to support large plant growth. For now, moss is the only plant that can take hold there, since it doesn’t have to grow deep roots like trees.

Over time, the moss will decompose and sand and dirt will blow into the area and it will become fertile for small, scrubby Icelandic birch trees, and, potentially, other plants, our guide said. But that won’t happen within any of our lifetimes.

It’s because of this slow, fragile growth, our guide said, that locals are so protective of moss. It could take 50 or more years for a rock to become covered in moss, and if a tourist steps on it and kills it in one go, it sets the natural process back dramatically.

“Icelanders, in general, are mild mannered people,” he told us. “But if you want to see one get really angry really quick, step on a moss-covered rock.”

The result of all this is a series of stunning, almost alien landscapes completely void of big trees. And at the edge of these moss-covered stretches: mountains.

Iceland is actually an extension of an underwater mountain range formed at the edge of two tectonic plates, and everything here has been formed by volcanoes and earthquakes.

The geysers spout 100 degree Celsius water heated by underground lava (Strokkur, the most active geyser we saw, shoots this sulphuric water up to ten metres into the air every five to ten minutes).

Lava also heats the hot springs that provide electricity and heating for most Icelanders. The hot water in the taps smells of sulphur and is heated by volcanoes, while the cold water comes from glaciers.

The very word Reykjavik comes from the volcano-powered steam. The name translates to “smoky bay,” our guide said, a reference to the vapour rising off the plentiful hot springs in the area.

Perhaps the most striking part of our tour was Thingvellir park.

Ringed by volcanoes and home to the largest natural lake in Iceland, the park straddles the line between the tectonic plates. In the heart is a deep rift valley, filled with black pumice covered in moss.

The tectonic plates move apart at an average of two centimetres a year, our guide told us, but this doesn’t mean they gently separate. Rather, they tend to violently pull apart in an earthquake every few decades or even centuries, moving metres at a time.

This has left jagged cliffs on either side of the valley, and rocks striped with waving horizontal lines, revealing the tides of lava that poured out to form the ground beneath your feet.

We had about an hour to wander the park and walk up to the rock where historians believe Iceland’s first parliament of chieftains used to meet every summer to set laws for the regions around the island.

To get there, we crossed a bridge over some of the clearest, purest water I’ve ever seen. In fact, our guide said, the location is popular with scuba divers who enjoy views of up to 100 metres through the water.

To demonstrate, our guide dropped a coin over the edge of a bridge (after clarifying that it was, indeed, legal to do so) and we watched it spin down to the bottom for nearly 30 seconds.

Both Dario and I dozed on the bus trip back to the city, exhausted by the fresh air and wealth of information we’d inhaled over the course of the eight-hour tour.

We came back to freshen up and then headed out for dinner.

Because the prices are so crazy here we agreed to splurge on one nice dinner out and cook for ourselves the other nights, and last night we made good on our promise. We ate at a cosy gastropub near the centre of the city, indulging in some local beer and a really delicious meal of lobster soup and duck salad, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and slices of blood orange.

Today is our last full day of this trip and we’ve rented a car for some adventuring outside the city. It is sunny and gorgeous outside. The kind of day that makes you feel so happy to be alive.

Love,

Emily

 

April 8, 2016 – Reykjavik

Dear world,

It is a cold and drizzly day in Reykjavik and we are taking it easy before our final few days of outdoor adventuring.

Dario is fast asleep beside me, tucked in for an afternoon nap, and I am lying in bed listening to the wind whipping outside.

We had a lazy morning, sleeping in and fixing breakfast and then crawling under the covers again to watch Silver Linings Playbook. Outside it was damp and chilly, hovering around zero degrees, and we felt happy to hide out for a few hours.

Eventually we gathered the courage to venture outside and walked through town to the Loki Café, a little yellow restaurant right across from the church we visited yesterday.

Dario ordered the “Iceland Braveheart” meal, which featured samples of dried fish and butter, thick home-made rye bread and butter, flat bread, the infamous fermented shark meat and a shot of Brennivin, a liquorice liquor that is popular here.

I had the traditional meat stew and a slice of rye bread thickly spread with butter and lamb pate, and tea on the side.

I liked both my dishes — the soup was hearty and the bread moist and sweet — but the verdicts were mixed on Dario’s adventurous lunch. The fish didn’t taste like much and the texture was chewy and leathery, meanwhile the shark smelled overwhelmingly of fermentation, had the texture of sashimi, and tasted…well, about how you’d imagine rotten shark would taste.

Still, Dario says the shark is popular here, where locals enjoy it between shots of Brennivin, and we were happy that we tried the dish, even if our taste buds weren’t Icelandic enough to properly appreciate it.

After lunch we wandered back through the rain, making a stop at the grocery store to buy some fresh local salmon for dinner tonight and some chocolate just because.

I called home and chatted for a while with Mum, finding it hard to believe that in just one week I’ll be moving to Vancouver and enjoying a very different set of mountains and ocean.

How did I get so lucky?

Emily

April 7, 2016 – Reykjavik

Dear world,

The wind is literally whistling outside, rushing down our quiet street and whipping against the white picket fence.

Luckily, we are inside, engulfed in our clean, white duvet covers and tucked in for a quiet night. In a way, the gales blowing off the North Atlantic just make our little shelter here feel even cosier.

I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. this morning and peeked out our window to find a perfectly cloudless blue sky.

Lured by the sunshine and nearby ocean, I slipped out for a walk while Dario slept in, bringing his camera along as I set out for the sea.

I walked the short half a block to the coast, where a barrier of black volcanic rock protects a winding seawall from the spray of waves. From there, I strolled aimlessly through the old harbour and up a series of side streets.

The sun was low and pale in the sky and the mountains still had a bit of a haze in front of them, obscuring their peaks. But it wasn’t too cold and I soon found myself peeling off my Canadian-winter coat and heavy scarf.

By the time I got back to the apartment Dario was awake and we fixed coffee and tea, toast, jam, and thick Icelandic yogurt for breakfast.

There is something so civilized about having the time to sit down and enjoy breakfast. After a year of leaving the house at 6 a.m. in order to make it to work for early morning shifts, it felt luxurious to sit and chat and plan out our day.

After breakfast we made our way into town. It’s only about a ten minute walk from here to downtown and maybe another twenty minutes from one end of downtown to the other.

We stretched out the experience, however, popping into souvenir shops and admiring little “kaffi and te” shops.

We walked to the towering Lutheran church that overlooks the city and bought some tickets to go up the tower and get a view of the city.

As we rode the elevator up the eight stories to the top of the iconic tower, Dario commented on just how different the Church of Hallgrimur is from a place like Notre Dame.

Construction on the Icelandic church started in the mid-1900s but it wasn’t opened until the 1980s.

Hallgrimer is stark and white, its architecture striking in its simplicity. Nothing is ornamented or adorned in any way.

IMG_2167

At the top of the tower we looked out at the city: little streets of colourful houses, hemmed in by a grey-blue ocean and mountains. There were a few panels with information on the poet and preacher for whom the church is named, and the history of Christianity in Iceland.

According to one of the blurbs of information, some of Iceland’s earliest inhabitants were Christians brought over by the Vikings as captives or slaves or wives. So from the country’s very beginning there was a combination of Christianity and Paganism.

Eventually, however, the divided faiths began to split the population, and the country’s leaders met in the year 1,000 discuss whether the country should break up into separate nations. Instead, the leaders decided to unite the country under Christianity and Icelanders officially adopted the faith.

Today, the church said, the vast majority of Icelanders identify as Christian.

After admiring the view, Dario and I descended and walked back to our apartment, making a stop at a local music store to pick up a souvenir for his cousin.

Iceland has a very distinct and strong musical culture and has exported a number of now-famous musicians, including Sigur Ros and Of Monsters and Men. There is also a very popular annual music festival here called Iceland Airwaves.

Back at our apartment we had a little snack and read a little bit and Dario got on the computer to do some research. After seeing just how small Reykjavik really is we’ve decided to book a car on Sunday so we can get out of the city and do some exploring.

We lounged for the rest of the afternoon, reading and napping, and then Dario dashed out to pick up some groceries and we roasted a big casserole dish full of potato and cauliflower and onion and sausage, all drizzled with olive oil and salt and a spoonful of dijon.

We spent the evening curled up on the couch, watching YouTube videos and eating our hearty dinner as, outside, the wind picked up pace.

Tomorrow it is supposed to rain and we plan to seek shelter in a café recommended by the Icelandair staff for serving authentic local dishes, including fermented shark and traditional meat stew.

Good night,
Emily

April 6, 2016 – Reykjavik

Dear world,

We left Paris this morning and our cramped little apartment there already seems like something out of another lifetime.

After I last wrote we headed out to meet with Madi and her partner for an evening drink in the 6th arrondissement. We had planned to split a couple large hot chocolates at a swanky location where Hemmingway used to spend time, but when the manager turned his nose up and insisted it was a one-drink-per-person establishment we opted to move onto a small bar down the street and drink wine instead.

We had a lovely evening chatting about life and travel and even journalism, until Madi had to head to bed before her morning class. Dario and I walked back to our side of the Seine, stopping for a couple Nutella and banana crepes at a nearby stand.

In sharp contrast to the snooty manager at the earlier café, the friendly crepe-maker here chatted us up, asking where we were from and teaming up with Dario to laugh at my poor attempts at French. He invited me behind the counter and let me try my hand at flipping a crepe, and then insisted Dario join me back there for a photo.

IMG_2148

We left him a tip and walked away laughing and cradling our warm crepes in our hands, happy for the reminder that most people we’ve met on this trip have been warm and kind and welcoming.

On our last day in Paris we took the metro to the Père Lachaise cemetery, where Oscar Wilde is buried alongside a number of other famous names, including Jim Morrison and Eugene Delacroix.

It was surprisingly beautiful there. After our initial days of rain, spring seemed to have truly arrived in Paris by our final day there, and the sun was warm and gentle.

We strolled along cobblestone streets through a maze of crumbling headstones and sepulchres. Birds sang. Buds hung from the trees, looking ready to flower or burst into leaves at any moment. It was all much more picturesque than it was morbid.

We found Oscar Wilde’s tomb, which was once decorated in red-lipstick prints from his many admirers, but is now surrounded by plexi glass and a notice from the City of Paris asking visitors not to mark or damage the tomb.

From the cemetery we took the metro back to Montmatre for another walk around one of our favourite neighbourhoods in the city. We were tired when we first visited the area, but this time we took our time seeking out scenes to photograph and ducking into little shops.

We stumbled across the Moulin Rouge in Pigalle, then doubled back and allowed ourselves to be lured into a boulangerie with a sign on the window claiming it had won an award for baking Paris’ best baguette in 2016.

We stood on a street corner and each ate half a baguette topped with cheese and tomato and herbs before continuing our wandering.

Eventually we headed back to the area around the Assemblée Nationale. From there we walked along the river, taking more photos and browsing the outdoor stalls selling a combination of vintage books, prints, and cheesy souvenirs.

We took a short rest at the apartment before gathering the strength and appetite to head back out to L’Oie qui Fume, the little restaurant Mum and Dad had recommended.

On our way we stopped into Shakespeare and Company, a famous English language bookshop near the river. Realizing we hadn’t gotten ourselves any Paris souvenirs, we decided to pick up one of the bookshop’s mystery boxes.

For a 7 euro donation to charity, the store offers sealed boxes containing one book, a postcard and a bookmark. We purchased one and then sat on a bench to open it up and pour over the aged red volume inside: Mill on the Floss by George Eliot.

From there, we walked to the restaurant feeling a little giddy over our spontaneous purchase, the romantic Seine and the perfect golden-hour lighting. I grabbed Dario’s hand and said “Something about this evening feels kind of…magical.”

At the restaurant I enjoyed one last bowl of French onion soup, a decadent baked tartiflette — basically potatoes, cream sauce, onion and bacon — and chocolate mousse for dessert. And a one more glass of red wine.

We took the long way back, overshooting our apartment and doubling back by the river. Then it was upstairs to pack and clean up the apartment, feeling a little nostalgic about it all.

This morning we woke up at about 9 a.m. and went out in search of breakfast before heading to the airport. We grabbed quiche and a pain au chocolat and sat out in the sun to eat our final Paris meal.

Then it was back to the apartment and underground to catch a train out to the airport.

After about a three-hour flight, we landed in Iceland.

We picked up our bags and walked out into the fresh, crisp air. When we passed through here a week and a half ago there was snow on the tarmac, but by today the ground was clear and the temperature about 7 degrees Celsius.

It was about an hour-long shuttle bus ride to get from the airport to Reykjavik, and we pressed our noses to the windows the entire way, taking in the lava fields dotted with ash-green moss clinging to black volcanic rock, the grey North Atlantic and the glacier-topped mountains.

By the time we pulled into the bus terminal in the city, Dario had figured out that it would only be a two kilometre walk to get to our Airbnb, so we headed out into the drizzle in search of our accommodations.

A few impossible-to-pronounce Icelandic streets later, we turned up a side street and I patted Dario’s arm and said “Oh, look how adorable that little green house with the white fence is!” And then, to my delight, he said “I think this is it!”

IMG_2159

We were told that our keys would be waiting in a green mailbox, but since we didn’t see one of those, Dario tried the door. It was unlocked — a sure sign of just how friendly and trusting Icelanders are. He backed out when he realized he’d walked into somebody’s kitchen, but we soon located the mailbox around the back of the house and easily entered our charming Reykjavik apartment.

We are so in love with this little city and our temporary home here. Despite being partially underground, our apartment is big and bright with white walls and simple, tasteful furniture. Our host, Bjorn, is a local radio journalist who lives with his family upstairs. The ocean is half a block away and downtown is only a ten minute walk.

We went into the city briefly to find an ATM and wonder at the stunning views from the old harbour, the adorable coloured homes and winding cobblestone roads, and to gasp in slight dismay at just how much everything costs. Even simple restaurants here seem to charge the equivalent of at least $30 for a meal here, and we saw a number advertising what worked out to be $80 specials.

Luckily there is a grocery store nearby and our kitchen here is well equipped, so we picked up some supplies and headed back for a cozy night in. Dario cooked up some pasta and we split a couple of beers and talked about how much we love this place already.

IMG_2155

It is just so different from Paris in every way – climate, culture, architecture, landscape, language and people, and I feel so lucky to be able to experience both amazing places, and to have Dario here with me.

He is fast asleep beside me though and I think it’s just about time for me to follow suit.

Good night,

Emily