Getting to Reykjavik – and learning how to spell it!
We took a taxi to the station since the girls had lots of luggage and then changed trains in Manchester. The first four trains to the airport were cancelled and we were just about to get a taxi when a train showed up. There are big problems with Northern Rail at the
moment. I hadn’t done any planning for this trip – and I know next to nothing about Iceland such as the island’s size, its currency, let alone how bloody expensive the place is! The idea had come from Rachel and I’d jumped at the opportunity of spending 5 days with her in Reykjavik on her way back to the US. Sarah flew with us, changing planes in Iceland in the amazingly crowded Keflavik airport. Not knowing anything about Iceland I’d presumed it would be a small airport with few travellers, instead of which it was packed with people from all over the world, totally overcrowded with people sitting on the floor waiting at the gates to board their flights. My attempt at procuring some Icelandic Kroner from an ATM machine failed miserably but I just presumed that we’d be able to rectify that problem in the centre of town. Sarah’s gate was just setting up a table of drinks under a big banner celebrating the first flight – of the season? She was to discover that during her flight to SFO she was served free champagne and beverages. Unfortunately there was no free food on the flight and she had to make do with the one bag of crisps she had in her bag – for a nine hour flight!
Travelling with Rachel made me feel as if I had my own private tour guide and she shepherded me to a stand where we purchased buy tix into town at some astronomical price – thousands of Kroner each! The airport building itself looked ultra new and sported coloured glass panels – all very chic. Since 2015 the number of passengers traveling through Keflvik airport has doubled. That’s an amazing statistic. Sarah even took a photo of the bathroom commenting that it looked more like a hospital corridor than a highly used public restroom. This was true of all the toilets we encountered, and they often had an honesty box outside for payment. I didn’t catch a glimpse of one piece of litter in the street in our five days either.
We said our tearful farewells to Sarah and then boarded the bus into the town. Every building that we passed in the hour’s drive looked new, yet the buildings didn’t look permanent. All the road looked new too and it was not until we reached the centre that we saw any traffic to speak of, despite it being rush hour. We changed buses and alighted at Bus stop #5, Harpa. There was a huge glass building perched right on the water’s edge which I mistakenly though was the Harbour building, when it was, in fact, the Harpa concert hall! It was only a 10 minute walk to our Airbnb, passed some spiffy new apartment high rises and some older crumbling ones – like ours. Scattered amidst these tall buildings are single storey family homes with garden, trees and bushes, often brightly coloured. One right across the street from us is dated 1898. This really is a new country: not just volcanically but socially. The English occupied Iceland during the war and then the country took off from there. From what I could see in Reykjavik the entire economy is based on tourism: Vikings, puffins, Icelandic knitwear, volcanoes and glaciers. Our hosts are a Vietnamese couple with a toddler. I wondered what brought them to Iceland. She’s been here 15 years, and he 4 years. It felt off to think that we had had breakfast in Hebden Bridge, and now, just a few hours later, we were drinking tea in a Vietnamese household in Iceland!
We headed out to find a drink before dinner. I was delighted to find that our apartment was only one small block from Reykjavik’s main street – perfect planning by Rachel. We found a small bar and I had to try half a Viking, of course, while Rachel sampled the raspberry cider. Finding somewhere affordable to eat dinner – now that WAS difficult. Eventually we found a small bar/cafe with a board in the street advertising the ‘street food’ menu. We reckoned that a fish stew with flat bread might not break the bank. However, having sat down inside we were handed a completely different menu – which was definitely not affordable. It would have racked up $100 for the two of us – without drinks. We contemplated leaving, but when I asked the waitress she produced the menu we had seen outside. We ordered, then waited. And waited, And waited. eventually our fish stew and flatbread arrived. Our drink and a meal had taken 3 hours.
We called in at the only grocery store we could find. There were long lines of tourists doing exactly what we were doing – buying snacks and breakfasts. Rachel had booked us on an all day bus tour of the South coast of the island but the brochure hadn’t mentioned food stops.
It was after 10 by the time we got back to our place. It was freezing cold but just as light as when we’d arrived in the afternoon. Outdoor cafes provided heavy duty blankets, even sheepskins, to help people enjoy this land of the midnight sun. Now the sky was white with clouds but occasionally a stray ray of golden sunlight would penetrate the white blanket and I was able to get a few good shots of the street art and ubiquitous murals which graced every nook and cranny – including the entrance to our apartment. Pham told me that the huge kitten and ball of wool had cost the residents $700! The whole town seemed to be under a state of construction with huge cranes on most streets. I got into bed at midnight with a myriad of questions in my head: why are there so many tourists? Why does everything look new? How would I deal with the total darkness in the winter? Can I go to sleep in the daylight? Why are Icelandic folk so tall?
Cranes, black sand and humbug icebergs
I set the alarm for 7:10 since we had to be on our way by 8 a.m. to catch our tour bus. The sky was overcast and there was dampness in the air. It was a ha;f hour walk to the bus station through residential areas where the daffodils and tulips were in full bloom. I’ve never seen a city with so many single family homes interspersed between shops, offices, high rise apartments, embassies. It was a big coach with less than 20 people on board so we were able to spread out. Our guide gave us a running commentary through the day until we retraced our route back into the city. There are very few roads and though technically it is possible to travel around the island by public bus the services only operate in July and August. We had considered renting a car, but we were glad that we’d made the decision not to. Rachel was taken aback by the quietness of the people on board the bus. On the tours with her travel company everyone gets to know each other because they are going to be travelling together for a couple of weeks, but on this bus no-one spoke to each other. even the people travelling together didn’t seem to speak to each other. A middle age couple in front of us never spoke. Their teenage son was glued to his laptop the entire time, and I never once caught him looking out of the window.
Another question. Why are the buildings so brightly coloured? We’d first seen this in Burano, a small island off Venice where the main industry is fishing. It’s the same in Ireland and the Shetlands. Anyone any thought on this? At ‘Lavaland’ we stopped to see a live display of all the earthquakes on the island that were happening at that moment – about a dozen, but all small.
We passed snow capped mountains, hanging waterfalls and the beautifully termed ‘braided’ snow-melt rivers. It felt a bit like Alaska to me. I asked Rachel if this is what Patagonia looks like – but the mountains are much much higher there. Scattered farms dotted the landscape. But there were no villages, no shops, no towns. Where do children go to school? Perhaps they board in Reykjavik like they do in the Outer Hebrides. Where do people buy their food?
We stopped at a huge waterfall – Rangarping eystra. Trying say that fast! Next stop was the mouth of a glacier where global warming can be seen. The glacial lagoon has retreated up the valley dramatically over the past ten year requiring an extension of the road to it and the construction of a new parking lot. At every tourist stop for glaciers and volcanoes huge cranes are evidence of new or enlarged tourist centres and hotels under construction. Much to Rachel’s dismay I headed down to the lagoon, away from the trail, so that I could get a close up shifty at the newly formed icebergs. Their striped reminded my of the humbugs I’d bought at Blackburn market last week! We watched people set off on crampon tours. Pity we didn’t have time for that.
Just before reaching ‘so called’ Black Sands beach we stopped at a quieter beach and rather than eat in we picked up something to go and sat on the beach, amidst the prickly grass, to eat our lunch. It was so like being back on St. Kilda with its sea stacks just off the coast. Just as we were relishing the empty beach along came one of the jeep tours, running as close as possible to the water, and that was followed by a pony trek. Our tour guide said that all the Icelandic ponies have Mongolian ancestry. (?!?)
Then onto Black Sands beach, rated one of the world’s top 10 beaches. Black volcanic sand, basalt columns, a sea caves, sea stacks, strange rocks with natural white scratchings, and one human one saying SARAH. The wind was amazing. I could lean into it and almost double over without falling over. People were climbing the basalt columns and exploring the cave.
A stop at another magnificent waterfall allowed us to follow the rock strewn path behind the falls. At that moment the sun came out and so we could see the sun shining through the falls.
This was our furthest East and we retraced our route back into the city. We stopped at Hallgrimskirk, the really tall church that dominates the whole city. Fresh from the basalt columns of the south coast it was easy to see where the architect of the church had got his inspiration from. Inside the church is stark apart from a huge organ that completely covers the West wall. We picked up a flier and saw that there’s a choral and organ concert during our stay. We made a note also that you can get an elevator to the top of the tower too.
Dinner was a Loki, (a figure in Norse mythology) a famous Icelandic food restaurant right across the street from the church. We were lucky enough to get a table right by the window. We had cod, salad and lamb pate – all traditional Icelandic faire – and I was excited to drink an Icelandic Einstok white ale, which I used to buy in Cost Plus in Santa Cruz, little thinking I’d get to drink a bottle in Iceland itself! I was in bed by 11 pm after a very full, exciting day.
Of Vikings, hot dogs and the Northern Lights
We had to devise our own activities for the day. We’d picked up lots of fliers and newspapers. We noticed a lot of humour even in serious articles. We left just before noon and the sky was overcast and it was ‘trying to rain.’ We headed for City Hall and passed a church where the service was just finishing. Today is the celebration of Seaman’s Day and several people in military uniform were exiting the church and greeting each other. Then I spotted a Lexus drive up. It’s registration plate was ‘1.’ I presumed the president must be there and the Lexus quickly whisked him away. I noticed that there wasn’t a single policeman in sight. We’d come to the City hall, the first building made of stone that we’d seen in the country, to see an exhibit – Demoncrazy – that is part of the feminist movement here. It’s paintings of topless women positioned in front of portraits of clothed male politicians. I didn’t realise the exhibition was to be outdoors and so I caught a quick glimpse of one of the paintings and said, “Oh, look. That looks like you and your sisters!” Then we got close and I saw they were all topless – whoops!
Next we saw what Rachel named the ‘blockhead statue’ close to what is now called The Pond but was originally a lake on the shores of which a Viking Hall dating from 1000A.D was discovered in 2011. The Museum of Settlement had lots of interactive opportunities and helped to answer several of my questions about when the island had been settled, by whom and why? We even got to write our names in Icelandic runes. Tolkein was very interested in the culture of Iceland, drawing upon its mythology and landscape, and he even taught himself Icelandic – an amazingly difficult language for English speaking peoples. The roof was held up by timbers and the walls and the roof were made from sod. The Vikings expanded their territory to the Shetland Isles and the Hebrides, both of which I’ve travelled to in the past 2 years.Oh, yes, and Ireland too!
We stopped for lunch at a Hot Dog stand and both commented that we could easily have consumed three of them. There was a lovely little drawing of Trump sticking out of a cup on the counter: ” Huge tips. ”
Then down to the waterfront where the skyline was again dominated by huge cranes. There was an interesting exhibit of famous ships of the harbour and then we took a peek into Harpa. This is the only serious contender I’ve seen for the best location of a performing arts center to rival Sydney Opera House. It opened in 2011 and the original plans were for a performing arts centre, a shopping mall and a hotel. I think it’s the hotel that’s currently under construction. Harpa’s exterior is made from glass panels that look like fish scales and if anything the decor inside is even more spectacular. There was a cafe and a restaurant, but the bill for two would probably come to a six figure number so we elected to have lunch part two, chicken nuggets, in the flea market across the road.
We headed back to the apartment where, after a quick cat nap, I headed out by myself to go to the concert in the big church, Hallgrimskirkja. I had booked online, relieved that I’d been able to purchase a ticket at such short notice but the place was only half full- if that. The pew backs had all been swivelled so that the seats were now facing the organ. The audience appeared to be made up of mainly locals with a few tourists. The title of the program – Northern lights, referred to the composers who were primarily Icelandic. The second half was a rendering of Durufle’s Requiem. In a couple of days the choir are taking this program to the church in Paris where Durufle was organist and choir master for several decades. The acoustics were wonderful for the choir’s performance and the director knew just how to handle the reverb.
Of fish, chips and puffins
It was just before 11 by the time we left the apartment, having had a lazy morning discussing possible changes in Rachel’s job. The streets were much quieter this Monday mornings and there wasn’t a single car parked on our street when i opened the blinds. First stop was a Crepe place that Rachel had spotted on her shopping trip last night while I’d been at the concert. Freshly made crepes to order within view of our table was just the ticket to get us up and rolling for the day.
The sky looked less heavy as we crossed town heading in the direction of a church with twin spires that I’d glimpsed before. I loved walking around these quiet neighbourhoods which had much more the ambience of a small town than a capital city. But them the total population of Iceland is only 3500,000. There was a funeral taking place in the church so we weren’t able to go in. Close by was a large imposing building with a tall clock tower but we couldn’t figure out what it was – a university perhaps?
By the time we got down to the waterfront the clouds were clearing and we could see the snow capped hills across the harbour – the first time we’d been able to see their existence. By 12:30 the sky was totally clear. This was my first venture outdoors without my beanie since we’d arrived. A major road hugs the coast her, just like the old Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, but the one here has a cute sign saying No tractors between certain hours! Very quaint.
Back home for a cat nap before setting off on our boating adventure at 4 p.m. Rachel had booked us on a 90 minute boat tour – Reykjavik by boat. I was very surprised that we were the only ones on board beside a brother and sister from Washington DC. Rachel was on the lookout for puffins and I wanted to see the city from the sea and we both had our wishes fulfilled. Though we didn’t see any nesting puffins we saw many flying around, beating their wings at 300 flaps to the minute. We were a bit disappointed that our tour only lasted 60 out of the proposed 90 minutes but . . .
Back on shore we headed for a coffee house in one of the former fisherman’s huts where they used to repair their nets. We had the best coffee and a perfect view from our window seat overlooking the harbour. Tonight was going to be Rachel’s last opportunity to go up the Hallsgrimkirkja Tower so we headed back into town. There was quite a queue for the elevator but the view from the top was spectacular. We were ‘inside’ the
clock and we watched the minute hand approach 7:30 from the inside! It was a perfectly clear evening and the light was fantastic. The tiny houses with their steeply pitch, brightly coloured rooves did not look real. They looked more like something from a cartoon or a model of a village.
We’d had our eye on a fish and chip shop that we’d passed a few times and we were lucky enough, yet again, to get a window seat. Even the counter was decorated in dried fish skins and a light had been made from a whole dried fish carcass. I just loved the ambience and creativity at every nook and turn. We had perfectly fried cod, of course, with not a hint of grease on our napkins.
On the way back home we stopped in to buy snacks for Rachel’s 9 hour flight home tomorrow. I decided to book a 6 hour tour for the following day knowing that I’d have a hard time being by myself after being with my daughters every moment of the previous 19 days. Thoughts of future trips to Iceland began to form in my head. Christmas with the Northern Lights perhaps?
Alone in Iceland
I woke up at 4 a.m. no doubt with apprehension. Rachel had finished her packing last night so there wasn’t a lot for her to do this morning in preparation for her flight home. She was concened that the shuttle bus to the airport wouldn’t give her enough time but despite repeated attempts to phone the bus company she couldn’t gt through. Eventually an email I had sent them did elicit a response so I left her trying to sort out an earlier ride.
Meanwhile my first few miutes on my own resulted infailure: I was unable to get my key to turn the lock on the outside gate to our apartment so I rushed back upstairs to ask for Rachel’s help. So much for my first few minutes alone! However, the rest of the day went smoother. I walked down to the Harpa and waited at bus stop #5 for my shuttle bus to the bus station to meet my tour for the day – an express version of The Golden Circle, though in fact the three stops during the course of the tour, for one hour, 45 minutes and 30 minutes didn’t feel rushed. I boarded the bus and 12:30 and got dropped off back at bus stop at 7p.m. Just as on the previous bus tour no-one spoke to each other. Our guided, Lily, was excellent and she gave us a more informed account of th geology and settlement of the island. Our first stop was an hour and a half’s drive to the Geyser area. Having been to see Old Faithful in Yellowstone erupt, and being very familiar with
Bumpass Hell in Lassen this geyser wasn’t high on my ‘must see’ list . However, once we had headed off our previous bus tour’s route the settlemts on the landscape were quite different. A few scattered villages with 150 or so people, each village with its oen communal swimming pool we were informed. We passed a boarding school for childen from the surrounding farms but it’s no longer needed. I had fun taking photos of the people standing there waiting for the geyser to erupt which it does every 7-10 minutes and has been doing so with regularity for the past 40 year. Its name is Blaskogabyggo. By this time the cloud cover of the morning had dissipated and we had beautiful blue sky for the rest of the day. In fact, it was too hot on the bus even though the air conditioning was cranked up to its limit.
Next stop was an amazing waterfall that I immediately recognized from Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man show. The watsunlight through the waterfall was producing rainbows of such intensity that people walking through them looked multicloured. Ayoade went here by helicopter and pointed with fun at the crowds of tourists on ‘my’ side. Only a thin rope stopped people from fall – or jumping- into the raging water.
Next stop was Pinguellir National Park, scene of Iceland’s first parliament which met in this remote place every June for two weeks beginning in the year 900 where the tectonic plates of Asia and North America meet. It was quite thrilling to walk through the cravass caused by the plates pulling apart. Even at this remote site cranes were present enlarging the visitors’ centre. Also at the site was a Iceland’s largest lake where the rich and famous
spend $15,000 per day salmon fishing. Eric Clapton and Prince Charles have been known to fish here. The whole site is a UNESCO heritage site and it’s here where Christianity was adopted in the year 1000AD and where, in 1944, Iceland signed its independence from Denmark. Our guided pointed out the bathrooms – 200 Icelandic Kroner – and yes, you can pay by credit card.
I returned to the apartment for the first time without Rachel being there. She’s excited to get back home to see her boyfriend who was scheduled to get his first tattoo as she was on her flight back to SFO. It’s also the first time I’ve been alone for 19 days – a very unusual situation for me and one that I’d been dreading ever since the girls first planned their trip to Hebden Bridge.
I’d bought a salad for dinner to eat in and it was comforting to listen to BBC Radio 4 as I tried to get to sleep nice and early. I’d set my alarm for 3:10 a.m. – an ungodly hour for me. But I had little to do besides put my pjs into my suitcase and set off into a deserted city. I only passed on other person on foot as I walked down to the Harpa to catch a green bus. The bus company ask you to be there half an hour early to give them a pick up window of time. It was totally light but overcast and I was happy to see the light display on the ‘scales’ of Harpa still in their evening mode. I’d had visions of having to wait the full half hour in pouring rain amidst a gale, exposed on the waterfront but that wasn’t to be. The bus arrived just two minutes into the window and then I had to swap buses to catch the one to the airport but it all went smoothly and I arrived at the airport at 5:45. It was already busy with people having breakfast, and the bar, too, was doing a roaring trade. With a couple of hours to kill I hit the souvenir shops, eventually adding a shot glass celebrating Iceland’s World Cup qualifying to my souvenir T shirt of Pingvellir National Park.
Slept for most of the short journey back to Manchester, though from my window seat I did get to see some of Scotland’s hills and dales. I was back in Hebden Bridge mid afternoon. I always used to finish a travel journey diary with Milo or Tilly was there to greet our arrival home. This time I was met with 4 stuffed clowns and a family of knitted hedgehogs – different, yes?