The Iceland Viking Festival and Reykjavik Wanderings

Icelandic kids battle it out at the Viking Festival

This would so never happen in America, I thought. Nope, I just can’t see anywhere in my country where pre-adolescent boys would be allowed to gleefully flail at each other with wooden swords and shields – all while parents smiled and took videos.

That’s the Viking Festival in Iceland for you, though. Every summer, the festival runs just south of Reykjavik in Hafnarfjordur. There, you can eat a freshly roasted sheep. Try your hand at throwing axes. Watch Viking battle re-enactments. Stay at the Viking Hotel (one of the funkiest hotels in Iceland)

Believe it or not, all the kids emerged unscathed from the Viking Festival. They all wore huge grins after their designated mock combat. I had as much fun watching them as they did swinging wooden swords and axes.

Volcanic ash hangs in the air.

Our day started in Vik, several hours southeast (read about the previous day in Vik).

 

Volcanoes and Viking Kitsch

Wandering Justin hurls an axe at a target

During the bus ride to Reykjavik, we passed the volcano that put Iceland in the news – and hemmed in air travel to and from Europe. Unfortunately, we could see little of Eyjafjallajökull. Mostly, we could see the lower slopes of a mountain and dingy air. The bus driver didn’t even stop, though we saw other people snapping photos.

A few hours later, we were in Reykjavik. Our first stop was checking into a room at the Guesthouse Isafold. We liked it so much we made it our base for every night we’d me in Reykjavik.

From there, we navigated the bus system to Hafnarfjordur – and the Viking Festival. It was our first major experience with greater Reykjavik’s bus system. Impressions? Clean and punctual.

Tending a roasting sheep.

Once we’d gotten our fill of Viking kitsch, we wandered the streets a bit. That’s how we discovered Kaffihus Suffistin and probably the best chocolate-coconut cake you’ll ever eat. We also spent some time wandering the nearby neighborhoods – one city park was built on a an ancient lava flow, with giant volcanic cinders forming a mazelike system of nooks and crannies.

Iceland’s Fish is For-Real

By the time we finishes walking and headed back downtown, we were hungry. We found Icelandic Fish & Chips in all the guidebooks. And for good reason. The restaurant gets fresh fish daily. You can get it prepared a few different ways, with a number of different sides and toppings. The toppings are made from skyr, the Icelandic dairy product most people think is yogurt. But really, it’s closer to cheese. It’s nearly fat-free and full of protein

Sarah meets the modern-day Vikings

If you go looking for skyr at a grocery store in the U.S., I hate to inform you – it doesn’t taste like the stuff in Iceland, and it’s about triple the price. The Icelandic variety has no trace of sourness. Anyway, this is not only a popular snack, but the base for the sauces that come with the fish.

Here’s how it works: You come in, select a table and get a menu. When you’re ready, you go to the counter and order. The staff brings your food out a bit later, and you chow down on some wonderfully fresh, non-greasy fish. The batter is made from spelt and barley, and the chips are oven-roasted potatoes.

Watching the World Cup in a Soccer Nation

A lava flow/park near the Viking Festival

After a nice feed, we walked more. Though we’d passed Cafe Rot during our first day, we never dropped in. This time we did, seeking refuge from the rain along with a hot drink. I soon discovered a passage to a basement where the World Cup match was about to start. Sarah and I enjoyed the match, along with the company of people from England and various Middle Eastern countries. Germany’s Mesut Ozil was having his breakout performance. And the other guys were determined to make me a believer in Iceland’s popular malt soda, Maltextrakt. It might not be bad with some hops added to it and a few months of fermentation time!

That was pretty much it, except for a bit of souvenir shopping.

Coming tomorrow: A flight over the Iceland’s interior to Akureyri and Myvatn.

A few of more than 50 kids slugging it out. And peep that mullet on the far right!

Kaffitar Stands Out as Reykavik’s Best Espresso

I’m in Iceland.But I feel more like it’s high noon on Main Street in a dusty Old West outpost. The barista looks friendly, but I know I’m being sized up.

"What can I get you?" she asks – the shot-puller’s equivalent of "your move, pardner."

"A cappuccino, please," I reply – the espresso lover’s equivalent of "draw"

Ah, the cappuccino. It will quickly reveal with this Kaffitar place on the Laugavegur in Reykjavik is all about. There’s no sugar or syrup or fancy ingredients to hide behind. This is no double-mocha-latte-pumpkin-spiced frappe with sprinkles and extra whipped cream. Just espresso shots, milk and a bit of steam. And every smart barista knows it.

It took a few minutes for my cappuccino to emerge. Between the crowd and the care, that’s a good sign. Then I took a look: It was a wet cappuccino, which I prefer to the "dry" variety capped by about two inches of airy foam. Here, I saw a nice, dense microfoam.

I took a careful sip. The temperature? Perfect. Hot, but ready to drink right then and there. No trace of bitterness from over-roasted beans or nuclear-hot water.

There’s more to a cafe than just even the espresso drink, though. Kaffitar was filled to the gills, locals, travelers and tourists alike. Some pecked on laptops. Some  read. Some talked to a friend. Others struck up conversations they didn’t know a few minutes ago.

Perfect.

We spent several days in Reykjavik, and we had to explore the other cafes. There’s no excuse for marching back to the same place. But Kaffitar set the standard. Some espresso drinks came close – but they couldn’t quite match the barista skills on display at Kaffitar. Some actually bested it in atmosphere: Cafe Rot is about as friendly as it gets, especially when the World Cup is being shown on a big-screen TV in the basement. The desserts at Sufistinn were spectacular.

But overall, Kaffitar is the one I’d bring home with me if I could magically transplant it walking distance from my house.

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suffistinn
Sufistinn Kaffihus - tasty coffee, amazing desserts near Reykjavik, Iceland.

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Reykjavik, the capitol of Iceland, is absolutely bristling with inviting coffeehouses. Kaffitar, Cafe Rot and Sufistinn Kaffihus are three of its best.
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