Great Amwell, United Kingdom

Great Amwell, United Kingdom

An early morning start, up at 3.30, leaving roommate Scott to sleep off the pint over which we’d shared stories last night and on to the shuttle bus to the depot. There were people up in the hotel bar, but not waiting for the bus – they were still finishing off the night before.

Reykjavik airport has big queues, Icelandair had warned, but their refurbishments seem to be sufficiently far along to mitigate the problem, so I was checked in, had dropped my bag off before 5.30 and was through security before passport control was even open. I could have taken an extra half hour or more in bed, but no matter.

Just under three hours and the plane landed at Heathrow. Mixed feelings – looking down over Thames Ditton and Bushy park was cool, realising where I was, less so. But that’s one trip ended, on to the next thing.


Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

City lake, Reykjavik
City lake.

One more day in town, and a final shot at the Northern Lights tour. Which wasn’t to come off, so my day was entirely mine. I spent some time walking round the city, statue spotting, then visited the settlement exhibition. Plenty of displays and videos of shadowy figures to colour in the picture of an old longhouse excavated from 871 ad – hence the title of the exhibition, 871+2, which is the margin of error. Small, but perfectly formed.

I booked my bus ride to the airport for the morning and found out the lights tour was cancelled, which decided my next move for me. There’s a little cinema in the old harbour, which shows documentaries on Iceland. Two showings, the first on Skaftafell national park and then the Northern lights, the second on volcanoes and how they formed the island and then a repeat of the northern lights film. Stunning, the whole thing, with maybe the size of the glaciers and colours of the lights my highlights.

An indoor exhibition of archaeological investigation into early settlements
Settlement exhibit.

I found a pub with cheap booze, too, which I couldn’t resist and then shared another pint with Scott, still my only roommate in our big dorm, back at the hotel. Relaxed and fabulous.

Reading: Lee Child, Nothing to Lose.

Low Icelandic houses, with a longboat silhouette on top
Spot the longboat.

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle
Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

Big open greenish range, with excavation marks and a mountain behind
Archaeology front, mountain back.

Today’s tour was a long bus ride round the Golden Circle. I knew little other than that this was a big draw, and that was only confirmed as first one and then two coaches filled up.

I’ve not been on many tours, and have generally been lucky – more young than old, and a reasonably cosmopolitan crowd. Less so today, there are too many Brits in Iceland, so I could at most points of the day hear someone misunderstanding something – “12 degrees outside, it says, and this their summer” – or reflexively complaining about something they couldn’t change, in an attempt to make it someone else’s problem.

For all that, it was a good tour, if an experience that enhanced my perspective from outside, that England is populated by depressives without a sense of perspective, particularly about the weather – which is far more varied and far more extreme in all corners of the world.

Golden Waterfall
Golden Waterfall.

Our guide was talkative, and Icelanders seem generally to have a voice that is very easy on the ear when they switch to English, so he was good to listen to. He was also not into folk taxonomy and the like – no easy ‘and that’s where we get the phrase ‘worth his salt’ from!’ style nonsense here. In fact, he was slightly confused by the question of where the edge of the two plates was while we were a tour first stop, but we tourists are all told there’s a spot where you can stand on each side of the North American and Eurasian plates, so I knew where the question was coming from. Our guide waved us across and said well, here, all here in this Rift Valley is the gap, it is about 7 kilometres wide.

That stop was at historic, if bleak and remote seeming, Pingvellir (that first character should be an Icelandic one, a p with the bubble in the middle) where their parliament used to be, though it is hard to pick the exact spot on which bits stood as the scenery ‘is on the move’ between those two plates. There weren’t any permanent buildings, either, as this is where all occupants would meet for the two weekly parliament settings, outside and in summer.

A stream runs through the arid landscape. Snow-capped mountains behind.

As we moved on he pointed out the woodland, making the point that they have very scarce flora; the joke is “you know what to do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up.”

By lunch we were at the Golden waterfall, named either for the effect caused by the sun late in the day, or a farmer of old who was so keen that no one else have his gold once he died that he poured it all into the waterfall. A quote from the early twentieth century reckons they outdo Niagara in ferocity, but as I was there more recently than they can possibly have been I’m going to pull rank and suggest that isn’t so. It is stunning, though-and also the coldest and most exposed part of our tour, with a gusty wind blowing us all over the place. There are a few viewpoints an easy walk apart and I made it to them all before heading for sanctuary in the cafe.

We stopped to see the original Geysir, which gave the world the name. He doesn’t go up much, but they do have a relatively natural spurter, which goes up every 5-8 minutes. I say ‘relatively’ because although it isn’t induced with a soapy mixture as the one in New Zealand was, it was drilled into in 1963, to reawaken it. Still, impressive, with a good range of screams and instinctive running away from those gathered. Seemed odd to me-I’m startled by all sorts of things, but a geyser with rope stretched round at what must have been marked out as a safe distance isn’t one of them.

A bubble forms on the surface as the geyser is about to pop
It’s going!
A wide spread of spray as water explodes upwards

Next was the Bishopric of Sk√°lholt, a major site for education and religion from 1100-1800, when church and school were moved to Reykjavik. As our guide talked of old and new gods on the way there, I faded off to sleep. After the church he let us know the nation isn’t very religious, then spoiled this modernity by telling us a few stories about the elves, or hidden people – apparently 40-50% of the population really believe in them. I liked the origin story, though, for its simplicity in building on the Adam and Eve myth. Eve was asked by “almighty god” to show him her children, she only brought some, declared that was all, so god said ‘if these are all you can see, then so shall it be’ and turned the others into the hidden people.

As we moved up into the hills towards our last stop, the geothermal power plant of Hellisheidarvirkjun ‘headlessadie’ (sounds a bit like Headless lady), it grew foggy. From behind me I could hear clearly the American family to whom the back third had been listening all day, but they now used their secret weapon, as they were equipped with Laser Range-finding kid; “I can only see like 17 metres away now”. It grew thicker still and the bus went quiet, all of us willing the driver to be able to see safely through. “Okay, now I can only see like 3 metres” said the LRF kid.

I figured this would be the dull point of the tour, but actually it was the high point of what is, with hindsight, a great and varied trip. At the power plant is an exhibition on geothermal power, and that’s why the tour goes there. Fascinating. 99.5% of Reykjavik’s heating and water comes from there, 90% of the country is heated by one of the six geothermal plants (the other 10% use hydro power for electricity). The cost is around 60 euros a month and so water and energy are plentiful here, and all power is provided sustainably. Iceland is somewhere you can have a long shower without guilt, and the profligacy explains why the youngster next to me last night switched the tap on and left it running while brushing his teeth. The staff member did roll his eyes as he suggested that Icelanders go elsewhere in the world and behave the same, but at least they have licence here. There are several boreholes drilled 3km into the active volcano behind the plant to tap into water which is 340 degrees, under pressure, to release energy. A quarter of iceland is an active volcanic zone, so they have plenty of energy to tap into. Pity you can’t bottle it, though a short film ends on the hopeful note that there are lots of areas in the world where tectonic plates meet which might be able to tap into something similar.

Machinery at the geothermal power station
Geothermal Power-extreme.

We were back as promised at 5, and with the Northern lights tour cancelled I went for my back up option of wandering round town and then heading for the second semi final of the Icelandic Music Experiment at Harpa. Musicians and bands aged 13-25, and a real variety. First up a soloist playing wistful ballads, next a metal or rock group with a shrieking lead singer who got everyone laughing, and a trumpeter dressed as a wood spirit (I think). “Was that Klingon at the beginning?” I heard someone ask at the interval, so maybe it wasn’t just me who didn’t follow-but then, I only understood the few words sing in English anyway. Following a band with a trumpet was one with a saxophone, one of two groups to have a lone female, this one singing and playing bass, before on came a more boy-band looking group with a preening but gorgeous-so-he-got-away-with-it lead singer. They were followed by a mad metal group. The picture on screen-large man with ‘I kill children’ written behind him-made it clear they weren’t complete when they started, the music stopped and on he stomped in mask before banging into both numbers, distributing confetti and his cost around the audience.

He went back for the coat. Last up were two rappers. No idea what they said, but I liked it, and they held the stage despite the lead looking young and nervous beforehand. I quit while I was ahead at halftime, lest someone ask me my opinion, and scooted off for some more supermarket beer. I see why it’s described as expensive now – the price isn’t bad, but it is all ‘light beer’ and only 2.25%. If I find some heavy beer I expect to pay double UK prices or more.

Reading: Philip K Dick, Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

New country is last country

New country is last country
Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland

Lots of people bathing in the Blue Lagoon. Mountains behind.
Busy blue lagoon.

And with that, I was back in Europe. ‘That’ being a simple 5 hour flight from Toronto, off at 9 in the evening, landing in Reykjavik’s (‘Smoky bay’-geothermal energy) cloudy early morning skies at 6 the next morning. It looked like a long flight from the times, but there’s nearly as much time difference as flight time in there.

The bus ride from the airport is in itself scenic, let alone any tours you book. It is mostly coastal, with a stark landscape between road and sea. It included a billboard with “Nei takk!” My Icelandic is non existent, but that imprecations on a billboard, with an EU flag liked to the Icelandic one is simple enough to understand. Once we reached the city we were separated onto smaller shuttle buses, mine driven by a local hewn from granite just that morning. In before 9, time to chill out before my Blue Lagoon trip at 11, pick up half an hour before.

“Oooooh” said the lady on reception. “Ooooh, they haff bin to pick you up”. A phone call later and it turned out my 11.00 lagoon trip was a 9.00 one. I made it, but it meant my journey was bus, change to shuttle, drop bags, back on a different shuttle to the bus stop, another bus. We were at the lagoon and queuing before they opened at 10. I’ve no idea what happened there, but it meant I could pay my 35 Euros – maybe the 25th person to do that – change, work out the locker, coded to the chip in the wristband they’d given me, shower, get downstairs, and be in the lagoon – the 6th person to do that. Seriously, what do people do with their time?

Me, with the lagoon behind
Me, post lagoon.

It felt like a privilege, though, with hindsight-by the time an English school party had drawn attention to themselves by noisily pointing out that standing outside was cold, and then that getting in the water was warm, all flat vowels and self consciousness, it was pretty busy. There was another big group arriving as I left, too. Room for them all, but nice to see it empty. The lifeguard patrols in high vis and fully clothed-I reasoned it out. It was 2 degrees outside early on, so he needed clothes or to get in, but once in he would shrivel, ending the week raisin-sized. More importantly, from in the lagoon you can’t see everywhere because of the clouds of gas. Only a small one of which was thanks to me. I made myself giggle, imagining that he would have some kind of full Monty style Velcro outfit on, but the more I considered it, the more likely it seemed.

Sun Voyager, a viking ship-sculpture on the Reykjavik waterfront
Sun Voyager.

Nothing happened to prove it, but then, nothing to disprove it-“hang on, coming, just pull these trousers off, oops, stuck on my shoes! Continue drowning.” The lagoon is a warm delight, perfect for a tired man off a plane. Or woman. Or children-fewer English teens, though, please. But I did think there was a slight sense of ‘what now?’ We moved slowly through the water, which starts shallow and gets to about 5ft deep, people heading for the silica mud buckets to paste themselves for a few minutes, walking around thereafter like living dead, but, well, you just enjoy the pool. Everywhere I looked there was someone moving one way, then trying a different direction, slowly changing direction, looking hard in that direction only to find that that, too, held people, water, rocks. Lovely, if aimless. That can be the point, but make sure you’re up for it.

And do take a towel. The next price up includes a towel and drink, but whether that’s worth another 25 euros to you may vary. Above that are packages with more treatments and the like, but I was happy with a couple of hours in pool and surrounds, then on the bus back to the city.

Checking in properly I had my thrown together lunch and then an extra one. My company in the kitchen, the girl cooking, was leaving for Chicago after spring break, and trying to get rid of food, so I lucked out. She was lovely, and not just because of the free food, though that and “your vest makes you look adventurous…” [think gilet rather than string] – for her the break was partly a chance to sneak off (she hasn’t told her parents about any of her seven European trips) and see a new country, partly a working and networking trip to fashion and design conferences. Energetic! From her I learned that the Northern Lights are coming to the end of an eleven year cycle. I had no idea, but my trip is booked for tonight. One last bit of travelling serendipity.

Much more my speed, this hostel, after some busy city ones. Scott from Peterborough, “had a walk down to the front, took some pictures – something to do” is the only other in my room so far, we’ve chatted, and Felix from Germany was next into the kitchen, and is also ending a several month trip here. People are talkative, and the place not full. For me, those go together, and I’ve even had three actual conversations. As opposed to meeting travellers set to ‘transmit’ only. The owners seem to not be lumping us all into one room and filling it, either, but spreading us out. Which is nice, but might account for the grumpiness of the cleaners.

Sadly, my Northern lights tour for the evening was cancelled, but I get two more stabs at it. I explored some of the city in the afternoon, learning that there’s an ‘Icelandic music experiment’ on at the Harpa. 13-25 year olds putting together bands, and tonight and tomorrow are the semi-finals. Even if they’re terrible, it’s cheap and reasonably short, so that’s my backup if there isn’t a lights tour tomorrow.

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