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Lost and found in Iceland, DIY-style

03/12/2012 at 11:08 am

Posted In Guides, Iceland

by Roy Chung

Roy Chung is a photographer we recently met in New York City just before his trip to Iceland. Here he shares his tips on how to DIY Iceland by car.  Just 5 hours from NYC and with all sort of crazy deals on Icelandair, isn’t it time you had a look?  

It’s actually a lot more convenient than you think.
Turns out, you can book the car last minute. And they even pick you up from your hotel. There is no tour guide rushing you on to a shuttle, herding you and a dozen other not entirely awake guests to a bus terminal where you’ll board the real bus, already packed tighter than a domestic flight’s overhead bins. No, just a friendly rental agent that drives you and your friends to the car lot, followed by a painless sign this, swipe here, and have fun.

The GPS, while advisable, is not entirely necessary, provided you have some combination of a) a decent store of moxie, b) general comfort in being lost, or c) detailed knowledge of the Icelandic road system.

There is always room to improvise.
Sometimes, the best plan is to not have one. Or at most, just the vaguest idea of an itinerary, the faintest outline of one. You wake up with the intention to visit the Blue Lagoon, but a hearty breakfast over a shared table with strangers may convince you that, yes, the preferred thermal pools of locals just off the beaten tourist path may in fact be a better option. You don’t even have to go looking for the adventure. All you have to do is say yes when it finds you.

Skogafoss

Traveling is always better with a soundtrack, especially a shared one.
Everyone wins, whether you’re watching the breathless scenery whip by while jamming out to Of Monsters and Men (they’re Icelandic, so it’s appropriate, see?), or being forced to listen to (or forcing someone else to listen to) Taylor Swift’s debut album while debating the finer points of her growth as a songwriter. Plus, Bon Iver’s Holocene was made to be listened to while quietly contemplating Icelandic glaciers, because the video told you so.
Note: auxiliary audio cable not included. Thankfully, you packed your own.

Skaftafellsjokull

You choose where, when, and how often to stop.
The bus tours get you to the Golden Circle, but now you want to program your own tour (maybe even slide by some churches you read about). Also, snapping the occasional photo out of the albeit large bus windows doesn’t quite compare to pulling over on the side of the road, getting out of the car, and taking it in. The first thing that hits you is how quiet it is, the engine off, the soundtrack paused, in the middle of the Icelandic highway. You notice things you would’ve otherwise missed – the vividness of the mountains in the distance, the particular colors of the landscape. This, it turns out, is a great idea. Stop as often as you like, and stay as long as you want. The day is yours.

Also, horses. They dot the numerous farms that you inevitably pass while traversing the Ring Road, so you stop by and say hello. It’s the polite thing to do.

Getting lost, and the hijinks that ensue.
You may have come to Iceland with the sole intention of seeing the Northern Lights. Or you may have read about a  hidden nirvana for coffee aficionados tucked into a quiet corner of the city. Doesn’t matter. Inclement weather, or uncharacteristically unreliable Internet-sourced directions will derail your plans. You force the issue; you travel an hour farther than the tour groups would’ve gone, or you circle the same four square blocks endlessly in dogged pursuit. You get desperate. You keep driving into the night, aimless now, or you keep walking down the street you can’t pronounce, casting out right turns and sudden lefts with reckless abandon.

Sometimes, you never find that break in the clouds. But you end up huddled and shivering in the darkness with a couple of friends, closer now than when you started, celebrating the tenacious twinkle of a faraway star that still manages to penetrate the featureless gray. Or fist-pumping to the small victory that is hey-I-think-that-was-a-shooting-star-unless-maybe-it-was-just-a-satellite-oh-fuck-it-it’s-a-shooting-star-in-my-book.

And sometimes, you get lucky. A day later, coffee hopes long abandoned, after indulging the disappointment-fueled impulse to get your first tattoo at a local parlor, you stumble upon an unassuming cafe. Walking in, the smell somehow richer, the menu more thoughtfully curated, the decor less manicured than what you were expecting, you stop.
What’s this place called? you ask.
Oh hell.
You found your way  after all.

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It seems that any city, town or village you visit in Europe, whether great or small, has a church within its limits that you “just have to see.”  In my travels, I’ve seen a lot of them in a lot of places, and I’ve always been generally disappointed by what I’ve found. Talked up to be “grand cathedrals”  “like nothing you’ve ever seen,”  they begin to blur together after you see enough of them.

Their insides are more often than not constantly under construction or filled with tourists who, for the life of them, cannot figure out how to take a decent picture of the stained glass windows they’re pouring over. There’s the guy sitting in the pew in the last row, not because he’s religious, but because he feels like he has to”¦ just for a minute. There’s the family of small children who have blown out all of the candles on the big table in the back, effectively silencing the prayers of the people who call these churches home. Yes, European churches can be tiring places to visit. Iceland, however, is different.

The Hallgrà­mskirkja, Reykjavik’s Epic Church

The Hallgrà­mskirkja, the  main church in Reykjavik, is not suprisingly one of the main attractions in the small city. Unlike other similarly iconic structures, however, it doesn’t take a single page from the book of European church building. Effectively encapsulating the rugged nature and mood of the country, it fits in very well with the young Nordic-inspired town. It’s also unique because it’s pretty much the only church in the country bigger than a one room schoolhouse.

After building the church in Reykjavik, the people of Iceland must have decided to make the future of church building a relatively painless and simple task, as literally every other church in Iceland is shaped exactly the same. Whether all other church blue prints were stolen and burned by angry western European conquerors or the people of Iceland were just not bothered enough to build a different kind of church is beyond me. However, each church still manages to do a great job of being very unique. While the framework of these churches might be the same, everything else is markedly different.

Church watches over the sleepy town of Vik

The churches of Iceland are consistently built on the tops of hills, assuring that any volcanic destruction that befalls the island will merely kill every citizen on the island, leaving the church unharmed for future settlers. The church above lies at the highest point of the town of Vik, a small village on the south coast known for its incredibly breathtaking black sand beaches (more on those another day).

Church in the heart of perpetually evolving à­Æ’à… ¾ingvellir

Other churches mark important historical sites. This one above lies in  à­Æ’à… ¾ingvellir, or “thing fields”  in the only valley on earth above sea level created by the spreading apart of tectonic plates. It’s also the site of the very first parliament in the history of the world.

Modern church just off the Golden Circle

Still, other churches manage to capture the young, artistic side of Iceland. Trapped on an island in the middle of the Atlantic with no darkness in the summer and no light in the winter, it seems the youth of Iceland have nothing else to do but  create, and they do it better than anyone. It also seems that the churches lend a great deal of their success to the amazing landscapes of the country.

Churches like these seem to outnumber any other building in the country. Most large farms have built one on their property so their residents don’t have to travel miles and miles on gravel-laden, curvy roads every Sunday to worship.

Church rises above the small port town of Borgarnes

When you’re in Iceland (because you’ve all no doubt bought a ticket by now), don’t overlook these small churches that are often too easy to ignore. Park the car and go explore them. Though shaped the same, each is extremely unique and effects the mood of the particular part of the country you’re in. They’re also pretty photogenic, and will surely end up decorating the walls of your mother’s living room for decades to come. Thanks, mom.