Monday, 27 March 2017

ice in the sun

Looking for constellations above the horizon,
West wind cutting sharper than our blades;
smiling forever into an endless sunrise,
we're flying on the waves.

After our quiet night in at the hotel in Reykjavik, we had a good wholesome Icelandic breakfast - fairly continental in style - and got ready to join our fellow travellers on a three-day tour of the east coast and southern areas of this stark land.

Anybody having recently seen the Rick Stein series Long Weekends will be aware of the tour we had chosen. We pretty much followed that but without a BBC camera crew to take us into people's homes to eat their roast lamb and fermented shark. We'd chosen the tour because I had no inclination to drive around Iceland myself at this time of year (the weather was occasionally awful). Maybe in the summer months.

The first day took in the iconic geysers and Thingvellir National Park where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly pulling away from each other. We also went to Gullfoss waterfalls which were very impressive. Tours like this always leave me a bit overwhelmed with how much they can pack in to each day, but with some sights, how long do you really need to stay there. The geysers, compared to some other parts of the tour, were not quite as thrilling as I thought they'd be. Still, the waterfalls were huge and the sense of scale of the landscape was quite stunning. That afternoon we were taken to the Secret Lagoon. As everyone seems to go there, it doesn't really seem so secret but it was Iceland's first public swimming pool which has only been re-opened for a few years.

I was feeling that it seemed a bit foolhardy to take my clothes off and wander around in the freezing cold - I'm not a natural lover of swimming, truth be told. However, one doesn't hang around but get straight into the hot spring. The experience was wonderful. Certainly one of the highlights of the week. To be floating about in  38 - 40 degree water with the ice cold air around was thrilling. Iceland, of course, has cheap geothermal heating all year round which they even heat the pavements with! We then showered and grabbed a refreshing beer before heading off to the hotel we were going to be using for a couple of nights. The lava fields were vast and the moss that grows on them can take a hundred years to grow. Once again one tends to wonder why they plunder such a delicate resource to sell across the World but Iceland needs an income. They can't survive on Skyr alone.

The hotel was eye-wateringly expensive for food and quite disappointing too. When you paying in the region of £30 - £50 for a meal that you feel you could cook better yourself it can deflate you a bit. But we were a captive audience. It was a long walk to another restaurant although a young couple did try the following night and got caught in a blizzard for their sins. After the dissapointing meal (smoked lamb if you're interested) we headed out to search for the Northern Lights. Now, it seems that this is what most people go to Iceland for. However, most people don't see them due to poor weather and heavy cloud cover. It was a bright fairly clear night with a full moon. We weren't expecting to actually see anything as we haven't met many people who have seen them in Iceland. There's a big industry growing around people's determination to see them nowadays.

We stood around in the freezing cold with a few fellow travellers with decent digital camera on tripods. As I was beginning to shiver and feel that this was a wild goose chase, our guide told us that we were in luck. Now, we all expected Hollywood-style CGI but it wasn't to be quite so spectacular. Sure enough there were smudges and streaks and tinges of green but the moon was so bright it probably didn't help our view. So we did see them. If this was one of those Norwegian ferry trips that promise that if you don't see them, they'd give you another free trip the following year, they'd be able to say that, well yes, you did see them. One of the photographers allowed us a look at what his camera was making of it and it really was stunning. Shame our eyes aren't up to the same standard! The picture here is one of the photos taken that night. Obviously not by my iPhone, though. Eventually we had to get back to the hotel before frostbite took out too many of us. A glass of Luton red wine and a good night's sleep were required.

The following day was a shorter one and the weather report suggested that the evening sky would be cloudy with poor visibility, so we had been out the right night. We travelled to Jörulsarlon where various blockbuster movies had been filmed (late-period Bond films and the suchlike). This was probably my very favourite part of the trip. It's a massive glacier lagoon where huge parts of icebergs float down the river towards the sea. Some of them collect onto the beach. It genuinely was awe-inspiring. The beautiful colours and the feel of the power of Nature took hold here. Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajökull is here. The vastness of these humbles you.

On the third day as we started our return to Reykjavik, we went to a black sand beach with massive
stacks, Reynisfjara and then headed west to Skogafoss and Seljalandfoss waterfalls. Here, at the latter,  we were able to walk behind the massive falling water and keep relatively dry. We stopped by the Eyafjallajökull volcano to watch a film about the eruption in 2010. You know, the one that stopped international flights and was mentioned in the XPTs' remake of Parachute*. This is truly the land of ice and fire. The last thing we did before the long journey back to Reykjavik was to visit a second lagoon. This one, the Blue Lagoon, is much better known internationally. It's the one from all the holiday advert pictures. Whilst we knew pretty well what to expect, the opportunity to stand around socialising drinking local beer (Viking, believe it or not) was a great way to bring the proceedings to a close.

The Secret Lagoon was much more natural and relaxing, whereas at the Blue Lagoon they've worked out how to fleece as much money as possible out of everyone. The landscape around it certainly wasn't very picturesque as it was a working geothermal site full of diggers and overground pipeworks. A more industrial and functional side to the country than we'd experienced in the National Park. Still, refreshed and relaxed, we headed off to the last leg of the trip.

Returning to the Reykjavik Lights hotel tired and hungry, we decided not to bother doing much other than nipping to a next door restaurant for a very pleasant meal. it was Icelandic in style. I chose halibut and Mrs Dave went for the lamb shank. An early night finishing off the cheap Luton plonk and we were having to face up to coming home the next day.

After breakfast we used the (very) expensive bus service as we weren't going to get ourselves into the same situation we'd had on Monday. Whilst I would have liked to get into some of the museums, the day was so sunny and pleasant (still cold though) so instead we explored the city on foot. If you're ever there and feel hungry, go down to the Old Harbour and find the Icelandic Fish and Chip restaurant. I kid you not, it was our favourite meal whilst we were there. We had the catch of the day, which was Ling. Not a fish I'd knowingly eaten before but I would certainly have it again. The shops are too expensive to contemplate and one we did go into was playing a row Björk, so I quickly got out again. And then we had to get back to the hotel to get the bus to the airport. One last beer (ironically enough, the cheapest of the holiday!) and the flight home. Delayed, of course.

A short visit to a country I'd wanted to visit for some forty years over and we have plenty of memories to keep us enthralled for many years to come. In all truth, we would love to go back there, perhaps in the summer months and then we could drive around. When you only go on a short break to a very unfamiliar country it seems sensible to me to see and experience as much as you can in the time you have. We wouldn't have seen anywhere near as much as we did. And, as we were visiting outside of school holidays, it meant it didn't cost anywhere near as much as the trip we planned but abandoned last year for our sixtieths.

* The XPTs are the Parachute era Pretty Things without Phil May and they re-recorded a modern take on the album. Still one of my all-time favourites for some unfathomable reason.


Zouk Delors said...

What is Skirr?

Mike C. said...

"Skyr" (sp.) is lemming yoghurt (difficult critter to milk, yer lemming).

Very disappointed with your spelling all round, boy. See me. Doubt if you'll find "Vatnajörull" on any map, either. Check your work before handing it in!

An old skool teecher.

Dave Leeke said...

Yep, guilty as charged. Sorry sir! Age is making me lazy. In fact trying to edit on a bloody iPad is causing problems all round. I'll fire up the laptop tomorrow to make relevant changes!

Dave Leeke said...

By the way, chaps, Skyr isn't really yoghurt although it's marketed as such. It is closer to a soft cheese - you know, the kind you can make at home. Although most of it is made in Germany, a farmer in Yorkshire has been licensed to make it here.

Mike C. said...

Definitely made from lemming, though. You can get strawberry, too (p-ting!).

Like the ice-flow picture, though -- is that from your phone? My kids use nothing else -- can't *give* cameras away!


Mike C. said...

Ice-floe, you mean, Mike? Yep, tick someone off about spelling, an error will surely follow...


Dave Leeke said...


Alterations duly made. I think we've discussed this before but I do actually find writing, proofreading and editing difficult on a screen. Still, it's nice to be kept on one's toes!

As for the photos, yes they are mostly taken on my iPhone 6S which is fine for snaps but lacks any real depth for detail. Trying to focus in on something is almost a waste of time. We sometimes use an old Lumix but Mrs Dave wants to get a decent SLR. She's thinking of a Nikon. This will become important later on in the year if we head off to Middle Earth. Maybe you have some advice?


Mike C. said...


My advice would be avoid DSLRs, as such, and go "mirrorless" i.e. get either a micro 4/3rds camera (Olympus or Panasonic -- all good) or a Fuji X series (I use a Fuji X-T1, an X-E1, and an X-100... Oh, and an X-M1... Did I say I like Fuji X cameras?). These use interchangeable lenses like a DSLR but save considerably on size and weight for no discernable loss in image quality.