Dateline: Reykjavik

After the winter we just had, I’m not entirely sure why Iceland in June seemed like a good idea, but something about a land of volcanoes, ice, and elves appealed, so a couple weeks ago, I unearthed my ski socks, down jacket, and mittens, and packed a bag for Reykjavik, where the average June temperature hovers below 50.

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My plan for this trip was to do some serious hiking in southern Iceland (more on that later), but before getting out of town, I spent a day exploring Reykjavik. Europe’s northernmost capital was smaller than I expected, more akin to a seaport like Gloucester or Annapolis than a bustling European capital. Which is appropriate: Reykjavik was founded in 870 A.D. by seafaring Vikings, and for centuries operated as a seaport. Until the 20th century, there were few roads linking communities on the island. Instead, people travelled by boat.

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Though Reykjavik is relatively small, I managed to walk 15 miles in the city on the first day. I couldn’t help it: the small streets and picturesque houses make it a very walkable city. The city was hosting a color run the morning I arrived, which made for a pretty hilarious spectacle with hundreds of fair-haired people running through clouds of neon dust. I spent the rest of the day passing people with rock-star quality hair and crossing blue and pink tinged streets.

Rather than give you a play by play of the day, here are a few highlights:

Hallgrimskirkja
My first stop was at Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik’s iconic church. It was about 8 a.m. when I arrived, and the city was just waking up, so the church wasn’t open. I walked around and snapped some photos and then headed into town in search of coffee.

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Reykjavik has a great cafe scene, I don’t think I had a bad cup of coffee the entire time I was there, regardless of whether I was at a quaint cafe, a mountain hut, or a gas station.

Harpa Concert Hall
After breakfast, I headed to the coast and found myself near the Harpa Concert Hall, another of the city’s iconic structures. Of course I had to go in for a gander. Built of steel and glass, the structure reminded me of a giant honeycomb, overlooking the harbor.

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Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
I never would have sought out hot dogs in Iceland has I not read this story in Conde Nast Traveller. Iceland’s culinary history is colorful (to be generous). With a short growing season and long winters, food preservation was important: smoking, drying, and brining meat and fish is pervasive. But while whey brined shark (hakarl) is an acquired taste, hot dogs hold more universal appeal. So, I headed to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (translation: the best hog dog in town) to try one of the famous Icelandic hot dogs, made mostly from free-range organic lamb wrapped in a natural casing (with a bit of pork and beef thrown in for good measure).

There was a line when I arrived, but it moved quickly. At 400 krona (about $3), they were a steal, so I got two, with everything. Everything was raw onions, fried onions, sweet mustard, and “remoulade” a mayonnaise-based sauce. The hotdogs were served in a perfect, soft, white bun, with the onions underneath and the sauce in two neat lines over the top. The casing crunched satisfyingly, and the actual sausages weren’t as salty as their American counterparts. All in all, it was a pretty great lunch.

The harbor
The day I arrived was also the start of the Festival of the Sea. Every Icelandic ship was in the harbor, and all the sailors had a day off. I walked from the Harpa Concert Hall along the water, reading displays about Iceland’s maritime disasters (there are many), admiring boats, and looking confusedly at an exhibit of Icelandic seafood that featured real, slightly decaying specimens.

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It was a great way to learn more about the history of Iceland, and if you’re hankering for a fishing or whale watching excursion, this is the place to go. There are also a host of seafood restaurants overlooking the water, as well as a maritime museum.

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Laugardalslaug
When your homeland has a lot of volcanic activity like Iceland does, you also have some pretty awesome geothermal resources. Icelandic communities have capitalized on this by building a host of outdoor, heated, community swimming pools, and making swim lessons compulsory for all school children.

In Reykjavik, the biggest of these pools is the Laugardalslaug, located slightly east of downtown Reykjavik. It was about a half hour walk from my hotel downtown, but the pool is also accessible by public bus (routes and schedules here).

Icelanders use minimal chemicals in their pools, so a cleansing shower (with soap, no bathing suit) is required before you get in. The wet walk from the locker room to the outdoor pool was something of a shock (it was 45 degrees the day I went), but the warmth of the hot tubs made it all worth it.

Iceland17Fortunately, the pool didn’t look like this on the day I visited. In addition to several hot tubs of various temperatures, the facility features a lap pool, a huge children’s play area, floating chess and waterslides. With admission about $5 (plus another $5 to rent a towel), it’s a steal. For the best people watching, go when work gets out and Icelanders are enjoying time with their families.

Reykjavik is also the culinary and shopping hub of the country, so if you’re looking for a good meal or neat souvenirs, this is your spot. I had a traditional tasting menu one night featuring smoked puffin, seared mike whale, reindeer, arctic char, and skyr… it was a different, but delicious experience.

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Chive blossom vinegar

Memorial Day has passed, I’ve switched from red wine to gin, and started getting pedicures again. Technically, I suppose, it’s summer, though the rain and chilly temps this week have me feeling otherwise.

We did have a brief glimpse of what summer is supposed to look like, a few fleeting days where I could wear sundresses and sandals and revel in the feeling of the sun on my skin. After work Friday, a few colleagues and I gathered on my office terrace to celebrate the end of the academic year, and soak in the feeling of summer. While I generally don’t say much about work, I will say this: we have one of the best views in Harvard Square.

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A few of my craftier colleagues banded together this year and started a garden on the office terrace, hauling pots of herbs and vegetables up to the 10th floor of my building. I’ve contributed nothing but smiles to their efforts (my thumbs tend toward brown), but they’ve still let me partake in the fruits of their labor- lovely bunches of kale, mint, and thyme. When I went out to harvest them last week, I noticed that the scallion plant was also blossoming, and I knew at once how I could repay my colleagues’ kindness: with chive blossom vinegar.

chiveChives blossoms often get overlooked for their sturdier, flavorful stems. But these seemingly dainty flowers impart a lovely flavor to cheese spreads and salads, and a bottle of infused vinegar makes a pretty and delicious gift.

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It’s also dead simple. Snip the flowers just below the bud. Wash, put in a mason jar, and cover with vinegar (I used apple cider, but white will do just fine). Shake to combine, wait about a week, and voila… chive blossom vinegar.

chive3The vinegar is great in salad dressings or marinades. Add a few teaspoons (or Tablespoons) to sautéed greens like kale or collards. A touch in an aioli would be superb. Mix with soy sauce and sesame oil to make a dip for dumplings. Drizzle with olive oil on an avocado toast. Get it?

Chive2Ok, then. Go make some!

Hiking the Blue Hills

When you live in Boston, hiking is often a multi-day affair. At the very least, it usually involves a 2-hour drive, and lord knows the last thing I want to do after climbing a mountain is hop in the car for a few hours. Generally, I want to hop into bed for a few hours after a hike like that. Or a hammock.

I’m planning to do some multi-day trips this summer though, and so I’ve been training to carry everything I need on my back. Last month, I started bringing my pack to Harvard Stadium, filled with water bottles and the heaviest cook books I own.

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While it was hard and helped build strength, climbing stairs with a 40 lb pack is a bit different from being on the trail- there’s more vertical, and fewer variations in terrain. So last week I packed my bag with all the stuff I thought I’d need for a multi-day trip and headed to the Blue Hills.

It’s less than a 20-minute drive from my house to this 7,000 acre reservation. Crisscrossed by trails (and a few roads), the terrain at the Blue Hills is varied. I’ve trail run and biked there, but I had never really hiked. For being just a few miles from home, I was surprised at how easy it was to get way from the bustle of the city.

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I decided to cross the whole reservation via the Skyline trail, a 9-mile point to point trail that boasts 2,500 feet of altitude gain. My trek started just after 7:30 a.m. in Quincy. It was cool, overcast, and threatening to rain. I took off and saw two other souls over the next two hours.

While it’s not the most challenging trail in the world, I was surprised at how tough it actually was. Between stone staircases and large rock scrambles, this was not a leisurely weekend stroll.

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Though I could occasionally hear cars and planes (Blue Hills lies in the flight path to Logan Airport), it was easy to forget that I was still in the city. I climbed to the top of rocks and saw nothing but trees for miles.

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Things started to pick up during the second half of my hike. I passed families and groups of college students out for weekend jaunts. I met up with some mountain bikers at the top of a hill and took a photo for them, and then chatted with a middle aged man with a pack bigger than mine about his upcoming trek across New Mexico.

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I didn’t stop. My water bladder meant I could drink on the go, and handily packed snacks (some dried apricots and a Picky Bar) kept my energy up. I hoped to see a deer, but only saw turkeys and chipmunks (though I ran into a deer the following day when I biked through the Blue Hills).

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I arrived at Eliot Tower on the top of Great Blue Hill just after 11. From there, I lost the blue hash marks of the skyline trail and ended up on another trail that brought me to the base of the Blue Hills Ski Area. I was home less than an hour later, with plenty of time to tackle laundry and make dinner for a group of friends.

Overall, I was super pleased with the length and challenge of this hike. While it got more crowded the closer I got to the ski area, it was really fun to be in the woods, to chat with like-minded folks about outdoor adventures, and to be home just after lunch. I even bought a trail map at the visitors center ($3) so I can do some more exploring.