Monday, 12 January 2015

Icelandic Encounter

I had long wanted to visit Iceland. Finally it was my wife who brought it about.

Wife: "Flights to Iceland are quite cheap after Christmas and there's an inexpensive B&B here on-line... if we were to book it quickly..."

Me: "Hmm." Continues reading the day's tweets.

Wife later: "About Iceland. I could see you weren't going to make your mind up in time, so I've booked it. I'm paying. You'd better put the dates in your diary."

I was grumpy about it at the time but as the departure day approached I felt increasingly positive. I'd taken the trouble to do some research. It sounded interesting - rather unusual even.

Landing at Keflavik airport the sun seemed to be going down already at 10am. The quality of light told me it was dusk. I knew about short days in winter but wasn't expecting this. And yet it didn't get dark. For another four and a half hours it stayed like dusk and then it got dark. Very dark by around 15:30. It was not only the time / daylight thing that threw me. The landscape of the place - we seemed to be on an alien planet. No trees to speak of. Very little normal grass. Moss and slime over black rubble seemed to be the main topography from the bus window. I felt excited - a little strange but certainly a positive experience and an unusual one for a man so used to world travel off the beaten track. But there was no sign of any ice, nor any snow. I had made this observation too soon, however. The weather here changes in an instant. Within twenty minutes driving snow had covered everything in a white blanket. We slithered about as we walked to our bargain B&B in outer-central Reykjavik.

Askot B&B was a private house with a modern kitchen and bathroom. All other rooms had been converted to bedrooms. Perfectly comfortable but 12+ people queueing for the bathroom next morning was no fun.

Getting up at 9am next morning it felt like the middle of the night. Looking out into the dark I saw that more now had fallen. It was to stay like this for 3 days, followed by sudden heavy rain on day 4 which washed all the snow away. On day 5 the snow had fallen again in the night and remained until the rain on the 7th day when we left. Quite a surprise. The Icelanders say, if you don't like the weather here, just wait 5 minutes and it will change.

Our days in Iceland were spent as follows:

Day 1: Walking around Reykjavik. Booked some trips at the beautiful Harpa Building (concert and conference hall / restaurants / bars etc). Relaxed at homely 'Stofan Cafe' near the centre. New Year's Eve dinner opposite the nearby harbour at top rated restaurant Forretta Barrin (excellent & reasonably priced). Drinks in a cool but friendly basement bar (Tiu Droppar), before walking up to the cathedral to watch the incredible fireworks and midnight bells chiming, along with most of Reykjavik. Everyone was so pleasant. Heavy snow was falling as we walked home. A pretty perfect day.

The Harpa Concert Hall Building

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral gathering on New Year's Eve

Day 2: Coach tour (The Golden Circle + Geothermal energy plant visit) leaving at 08:50 (very dark) from Harpa Building. Interesting to learn about geothermal energy in Iceland. This one little (clean) plant about the size of a basketball stadium produces all the hot water and electricity for Reykjavik and more. Incredible! They have become world experts on the technology which has transformed their economy. The tourism (recent) has done the rest. Life here seems affluent in a country that was once dirt-poor. The rest of the day was mind-blowing. Various stops at stunning natural locations in the white-out of snow (they filmed Game of Thrones here), then a big waterfall that the guide called a 'small waterfall'. Then an area named Geysir, with (unsurprisingly) geysers exploding left right and centre, and then... the BIG waterfall. Gullfoss is absolutely astounding. A huge quantity of water flowing into an enormous cavern. Giant icicles. A dazzling, enormous, thundering panorama that takes your breath away (and I've seen a lot of big waterfalls). This full-on day ended with a visit at dusk to the Pingvellir National Park, where the ancient parliament (the world's first) was regularly held and where the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate of the Earth's crust meet (or rather separate), regularly spewing out magma and boiling water. They are moving apart by 2cm per year. Iceland is sinking every year yet strangely each year it grows due to the magma eruptions. I willingly take back all I've said in the past about organised coach tours. The tour was run by Sterna, whose office is in the Harpa Building next to reception. 10/10.

Gullfoss Waterfall - Gigantic, raging, unbridled and a real feast for the senses

The ridge / chasm running through the island where two continental plates meet

Day 3: My wife visited museums and galleries while I preferred to wander around the docklands and absorb the culture in traditional cafes and bars. More snow was provided.

Reykjavik Harbour is picturesque in a kind of brutalist way

The Viking Sun Sculpture on Reykjavik Waterfront

Day 4: My wife's birthday. Coach trip to the Blue Lagoon, Grindavik and the Viking Ship Museum. I was sceptical about the Blue Lagoon spa experience. It is technically man made - utilising natural rock pools in the larva-fields and excess hot water from a nearby geothermal power-plant. There is a hotel, restaurant, shop etc. The kind of thing I detest. But this was different. Subtle, sustainable, low-key, chic, tranquil and not too obviously commercial. A really relaxing experience actually, especially in the snow. But be warned - it's big, but I hear it is so packed in summer they have to let people enter in shifts. I shudder to think. Dinner at Reykjavik's renowned Grillmarka Restaurant.

The tranquility that is The Blue Lagoon (in winter anyway)

Icelandic Horses - Free of all disease therefore no import of horses is allowed

Days 5 & 6: Hanging out in some of Reykjavik's many cafes, bars and a few restaurants. Wandering around the seedy dock area - great old cafes but still expensive. Try The Coocoos Nest. The only cheap place to eat we discovered in Reykjavik was (Thai) Nudluhusid at Laugavegur 59. Almost everywhere else is an arm and a leg except hot-dog stalls and the two fish & chip cafes (Reykjavik Fish at Tryggvagata 8, is good) opposite the harbour. Good local beer (stout especially good) but no atmosphere in the well stocked Micro-Bar within the City Centre Hotel, Austurst Street. Cafes like Stofan serving alcohol, tend to have a better atmosphere and happy-hours after 5pm. Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) coach trip at night was interesting but didn't see much. Under these circumstances they give you a free repeat trip or a voucher valid for 3 years, so best to do this trip first we realised. We did see the northern lights properly for free, walking back to our B&B after the New Year's Eve celebrations but light pollution in the city meant the colours were a little pale.

The chic Smurstodin Cafe within the Harpa Building

Aurora-watching. We did catch a small tantalising flash here in centre of picture.

All in all a memorable and out of the ordinary experience, and one which I highly recommend. Summer is completely different in terms of landscape, with bright green colours. The Icelanders are most hospitable and very easy going. Two interesting cultural pointers about them:

1. Their police are never armed and they post more video on instagram (of their day to day working lives) than anyone else in Iceland by far.

2. They are not immune to the modern trend of seeking celebrity-status. In their phone book (national population is only 325,000) they are allowed to give themselves a descriptive title rather like on social media, perhaps related to their job or their interests. I am told you find things like 'fisherman', 'stamp collector', or 'cake decorator', but also titles like 'inspirational speaker', 'devoted father' and 'big lover'. Our young and rather hyperactive tour guide told us she knows a guy who's entry says 'funny man', and that he is in fact anything but funny.

Prices in shops and restaurants is the only downside, therefore I'd say it favours shorter stays. Be prepared to be offered local fauna to eat (all very sustainable). Puffin, Whale and Horse are on most traditional restaurant menus along with the more familiar European meats and fish. My favourite local culinary discovery, however, was their 'Jar Cake'.

The incredible Icelandic Jar Cake (Smurstodin Cafe - Harpa Building).
Once tried, never forgotten. The special Icelandic cream is called Skyr.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

1 comment:

  1. Beyond jealous, somewhere I've always wanted to visit!