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!

Iceland Diaries – Day 6 (Skaftafell, Vik)

Kristínartindar
This is one of the coolest mountains I've ever seen.

There’s a magnificent mountain in the distance. I can see spires and steep slopes. It looks like the ruined castle of an evil wizard.

It’s mezmerizing. I want to go to it. It’s called Kristínartindar. It’s spectacular. But it’s too far away – soon, a bus will pull up in Skaftafell to haul us off to Vik. We’re a bit low on food and water. If we were fully loaded, I’d head straight there.

When we return to Iceland, this will be a major point of the trip. We’ll come back with our camp stove and enough food for a few more days hanging out in Skaftafell. And we’ll go to Kristínartindar. Oh, yes. But as it was, we just finished a loop of about six miles.

Skaftafell Campground
The cheery Skaftafell campground.

Before Kristinartindar came into view, we stopped at the famous Svartifoss waterfall (foss = waterfall). Its basalt columns inspired the architecture of the Hallgrimskirkja (kirkja = church, and klaustur = convent) that’s such a landmark in Reykjavik. It’s pretty and picturesque, and relatively empty for a place that’s in every guidebook.

We folded the tent, repacked and boarded the bus to Vik (which means bay).

Us!
Us at Svartifoss.

It’s a fairly quick shot to Vik, which is home to about 300 people. We have a room at the Hotel Lundi (lundi = puffin). It’s here that I accomplished another major goal of my trip: eating hákarl! This word means "shark," and it’s pronounced "howker." I have an entire post dedicated just to the next five minutes of my trip, and you should read about it and watch it.

Vik
The cliffs and church near Vik.

We walk the town a bit, and have a fairly greasy roadside meal. Vik is a small town, after all! The black sand beach is a site to see, along with rocky spires in the ocean a few miles away. The sun often pokes out of the clouds, but it’s very windy. And the mountains are ridiculously beautiful.

We return to the hotel. I fall asleep while reading, and Sarah slips out to poke around a bit.

She rousts me at about 9 p.m. with the sun shining brightly, promising puffins and some sort of hobbit house.

We gamely trudge up the side of a mountain. It’s steep, and it’s about to get windy. But first, the hobbit house. You could easily miss it. It looks like a mound of grass-covered dirt with a door lying on it. And a smokestack popping out. Unfortunately, it’s locked and nobody’s home. I’d love to see inside!

Hobbit House
It's a hobbit house!

We get to the top of the mountain, which is completely flat. There are trails everywhere, including one to the other side. The wind was absolutely howling up there, effortlessly blowing us around and making it hard to even walk like a normal human.

The daylight would last, but our energy was on the wane. So we headed back down for a good stretch of sleep (my watch said it was night, but I wasn’t buying a word of it).

Tomorrow -- back to Reykjavik.

Cliffs near Vik
10 p.m. in Vik. No, that's not a typo.
Three Sisters
Three sisters in Vik.

Iceland Travel Tip – Is the Winter Fare Sale Worth It?

Check out a chunk of Iceland this winter with IcelandAir's special fares.

November 4 is the last day to book an IcelandAir flight from the United States to Keflavik for as little as $379 for a round trip (check out the complete list of deals). Here’s the deal: The price is for flights from Jan. 10 – March 31, depending on your point of origin.

That means you’re flying straight into Iceland when it is – how should I put this? – really freakin’ cold.

That means you can’t stay outdoors as much. Glacier Guides, one of the better-known tour companies, doesn’t run tours to the glaciers near Skaftafell National Park during that time. You certainly can’t get to Landmannalaugar for a few days of backpacking among some of the most mind-boggling terrain on the planet. So should you bother?

Heck, yes.

There’s still plenty to do in Iceland. Reykjavik is extremely lively. There’s a thriving cafe scene. If you’re a fashionista, you’ll have no problem finding some shopping. And let’s not forget – hotels in Iceland can be expensive … especially in Reykjavik. So there’s no better time to score a deal than late winter.

If you have an adventurous streak and don’t want to be confined to knocking back espresso in the morning and brennivin (the infamous Icelandic schnapps) at night, there’s still hope. Arctic Adventures runs some winter tours to Sólheimajökull, a glacier near the small town of Vik. You can also dig into some ice climbing.

IcelandAir is a pleasant surprise for fliers use to the brutal grind of domestic air travel.Â

Oh, and remember that it’s a good time to catch the Northern Lights. If you can schedule a few nights somewhere remote like Vik, you’ll have no light pollution and some really awesome skies.

So for a $379 flight on an excellent airline, I say check it out. Then come back in the summer to hike Landmannalaugar, hike the glaciers near Skaftafell and explore the crazy terrain of Myvtan.