Our trip starts in Iceland for two reasons. First, it's cheaper to fly through Iceland. Second, it's Iceland! I've flown over it often and I've always wanted to stop and see what's down there! It's culture is so out of my experience. What is Icelandic food? What does Icelandic music sound like? It's entirely unknown to me and that makes it a great place for a pilgrimage to get started.
Reykjavík is believed to be the location of the first permanent settlement in Iceland, established in AD 874. Until the 19th century, there was no meaningful urban development there. Nowadays, the city is fully modernized and is a model of the modern European project. It's also the northerly-most capital of any nation. The town was named by a viking named Ingólfur Arnarson who called the place "Smokey Bay" after seeing the hot springs.
The Golden Circle The Golden Circle (Icelandic: Gullni hringurinn) is a popular tourist route in southern Iceland, covering about 300 kilometres (190 mi) looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. It is the area that contains most tours and travel-related activities in Iceland. As with so much of Iceland, the name and program are not historical but modern.
Christ the King Cathedral Landakotskirkja (Landakot's Church), formally Basilika Krists konungs (The Basilica of Christ the King), is the cathedral of the Catholic Church in Iceland. The first Catholic priests to arrive in Iceland after the Reformation were the Frenchmen Bernard Bernard and Jean-Baptiste Baudoin. They bought the Landakot farmstead in Reykjavík and settled there in the early 19th century. They built a small chapel in 1864.
Puffins These birds are so not what I'm used to. I hate that they were given the extra-cute treatment in the last and most-awful Star Wars movie (yes, it was worse than Ep I). While they are adorable, they are also a very common part of the menu here which does lead to a few mixed feelings.
Fermented Shark Kæstur hákarl is the national dish of Iceland consisting of a Greenland shark or other sleeper shark which has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months. It is not OK. It smells like my mom cleaning the kitchen with Ammonia. So, so not appetizing. I'm told that even the locals don't eat it - they just play a game of trying to get tourists to try it. Count me out.
The Blue Lagoon & "Icelandic Bathing Culture" The Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap which was dug less than fifty years ago. I'm sure the water is nice and all, but it's pricey, lacks real history and just strikes both Fr. Chris and myself as a little creepy. We opted out. That doesn't mean there aren't other, more natural hot springs. I guess the turn-off here is American prudishness - I'm just not a big fan of the whole public swimming pool thing to begin with. I grew up with a pool in the back yard and I love to swim. I just don't love to stand surrounded by lots and lots of people crowding into my personal space. Add the idea of hot - rather than tepid - water and the lack of pool games and I just find myself standing around half-dressed in warm water with a bunch of people I don't know. Sounds a little like Mardi Gras now that I think about it. In the end, other people are having WAY more fun than I would be.
My thoughts - Am I a "tourist" or a "traveler"
Much of central Reykjavik has become so Disney-fied that it doesn't feel like I've left the States. But there are cultural nuances everywhere that remind me where I am.
Yesterday evening, Fr Chris and I stood in the Central square - which has several skate park trick rigs installed. We watched teenagers skate. The kids threw tricks and their friends recorded them for YouTube. The big difference was that the kids weren't in competition - not with one another and not with themselves. They weren't doing these tricks just to show off, there was a distinctly different vibe. These kids were recreating - playing - in a public place and it was so wonderfully normal. It reminded me of the sandlot. American kids used to play. They took it seriously. They didn’t do it for likes or hearts or stars, they did it because they loved what they were doing... I think we’ve lost a lot of that in the US. It still seems to exist here - at least in some small way.
Today, I'm on a bus tour of the countryside around the city. It's a tundra. It's beautiful in its own way, but it’s not breathtaking. The bus gives me time to think about what I'm here to do. I'm NOT here to get good photos for Instagram. I'm not really here to see this or that. (I walked an hour in the rain this morning to see a sculpture which was very underwhelming...) I'm not here to tour, even if touring is one of the activities on my schedule. I'm here as a traveler - to experience the cultural reality of another people who live in another place. I’ve read a dozen articles in which professional travel writers have tried to explain this sentiment. Rick Steves does a great job with the topic as does Andrew Zimmer. I have more to say on this later - I have a whole post I’m working on dedicated to the question of “Tourism v. Traveling.”
For now, I can only say that by Sunday, I may be able to say "Islanders are this or Icelanders think that" or I may not. Either way, the experience itself will have been valuable.