Wednesday 21st March 2012

Heathrow to Reykjavik

It's unusual for us not to have to get up well before dawn when setting off on holiday, but since we didn't have to arrive at Heathrow until 11am we had a lie-in until 7am.

The flight to Keflavik took a little under three hours, which nowadays is a short hop for us. Gill had already arranged a transfer from the airport to the hotel, and we boarded the bus immediately. The distance to Reykjavik didn't seem that great, but the trip still took over 40 minutes - everyone seems to drive very slowly,

Our hotel, the Leifur Eriksson, named after the discoverer of America, is a fairly basic place with very few frills at all. It has no restaurant, and only provides a basic cold buffet breakfast. However, we have a double aspect bedroom that overlooks the remarkable Hallgrimskirja church. This was built in the 70s and looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. The view from its tower over Reykjavik is said to be stunning, so we'll aim to experience that while we're here.

Having checked in, and turned on the heating in the room!, we set off by foot into town. Gill had chosen our hotel at least partly because of its proximity to the old town and the harbour. It's a very modern, very clean place and on a very small scale - no high rise buildings here. We were looking for a nice restaurant near the harbour, but in the end our hunger and the cold weather drove us back to one that we'd seen earlier.

'Lækjarbrekka' looked a bit pricier than we'd planned for, but the menu was incredibly tempting. For starters Gill had Langoustine soup and I couldn't resist Puffin - yes, really. It was sort of a Puffin Terrine with a gorgeous fresh salad. After that I went a bit conventional with Pan-Fried Cod, but Gill had Arctic Char - we shared them half and half. The restaurant was a classy but cosy refuge from the bitter weather, and if we ever returned to Reykjavik we'd certainly head back there in fact, we re-visited for lunck on our final day.

Then it was back to the hotel and an early night ready for our long excursion the next day.

Thursday 22nd March 2012

The Golden Circle

This was the title of the tour that Gill had booked and described the route into the interior of Iceland and back to the capital. It took an hour to reach the first stop, which was an isolated church at Skalholt in the middle of the bleakest, coldest landscape that either of us had ever seen. Its significance seemed to be that it had been built on the site of one of the first churches ever built in Iceland in commemoration of 1000 years of Christianity there. It was nice enough, architecturally, but in the category, 'Worth seeing, but not worth going to see'. Alongside it was a more traditional-looking, small turf-roofed chapel, but the coach didn't stop long enough for us to take a look.

Then it was off to the amazing waterfalls at Gullfoss. A huge amount of fast-flowing water pours down rapids and then over a couple of waterfalls before, apparently, simply vanishing. It was much more imprssive than the American falls at Niagara, although nothing really matches the Canadian falls. The walk from the coach was a little treacherous, with the path often covered with ice. Also, the wind was getting up and icy rain had started to fall - welcome to Iceland!

The third stop was to see an area of hot springs. It really is disconcerting to see steam just pouring out of the ground. There was one large active geyser that erupts about once every five minutes. Our tour guide had warned us to stay away from the downwind side of it if we didn't want to get soaked. As we walked towards it it went off with a thump, with steam and water thrown high into the air. We checked the wind direction ready for the next eruption and I got my camera ready to take photos continuously as soon as it all started. The trouble was that without me noticing the wind had changed, so when the next eruption happened it was like standing in a warm shower - somehow it all missed Gill who was standing only fifteen feet away! But at least I got some good photos.

We had lunch at the nearby cafe and then set off again, this time for the Thingvellir National Park. It was here, on a rocky outcrop overlooking a bleak, marshy terrain, that the Althing, the Icelandic National Parliament, was established in 930AD – it's still the oldest parliamentary institution in the world, although nowadays it sits in Reykjavik. Close nearby is the 'Drowning Pool' where 'sinful women' were tied up in sacks and executed by drowning. The weather was utterly dismal, with leaden skies and pouring, icy rain, and it was a joy to get back to the warmth of our hotel.

Earlier in the day we were told that the cloud cover was so dense that the planned Northern Lights coach trip for the coming night had already been cancelled, so in the evening we walked into Reykjavik again, looking for a nice restaurant and found what we were looking for, with local food and a nice, rustic ambiance.

Friday 23rd March 2012

The day dawned sunny and bright, with good prospects for clear skies at the end of the day.

We started by visiting the fabulous Hallgrimskirja church that stands directly opposite our hotel. It was constructed between 1948 and 1986, and as already mentioned, it's dramatically beautiful from the outside. Its delta shape makes it look a bit like the Space Shuttle standing on end ready for take-off. Inside, it's no less stunning, with soaring 'modern-meets-Gothic lines' that are reminiscent of ice formations. The smooth vault reminds one of an ice cave or even the upturned interior of an enormous longboat.

There's an observation floor high in the tower, accessible by lift, with breathtaking views all over Reykjavik. Visiting the city and not viewing it from the tower of Hallgrimskirja would be madness!

We then went to 'Perlan'. This is a unique piece of architecture, built in 1988. On top of the large tanks in which natural hot water is stored for heating the city, a glass dome has been constructed, with a restaurant, a cafe and, best of all, the Saga Museum. Its tableau-style exhibition 'recreates key moments in Icelandic history, moments that have determined the fate of its people and gives a compelling view into how Icelanders have lived for more than a millennium.' The waxworks were incredibly realistic, which made the bloodier scenes a bit of a challenge!

In the afternoon we took an excursion to the 'Blue Lagoon', which was definitely not my cup of tea. It's outdoor thermal spa whose warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur – predictably, health benefits are claimed for those who bathe there! The water’s temperature is 37-39°C / 98-102°F. The lagoon holds six million litres of geothermal seawater, which is renewed every 40 hours. I really wasn't up for this, but Gill soldiered on, going out into the warm water and cold, biting wind. The place was hectic, with loads of people packed into the steam-shrouded outdoor pools. I can well imagine it being ideal for a 'girly weekend', though.

Before setting out at around 9pm for our Northern Lights excursion we got a takeaway pizza to eat in our cosy bedroom. Our coach was packed and took us back to the Thingvellir National Park. This was to ensure an observation area that had absolutely no light pollution. Our destination was a large coach park that seemed to have no other purpose than to accommodate tourists wishing to watch the dark night sky in the middle of nowhere.

We all piled out of our coach and stood around waiting – just waiting. Just when our eyes had adapted to the darkness another coach would arrive, headlights blazing. In the end there must have been a dozen coaches there, with hundreds of eager passengers waiting for something to happen. It was a little like that scene from 'Close Encounters' where people do the same waiting for spaceships to appear.

We'd been warned that sighting of the Northern Lights wasn't guaranteed and that sometimes these trips proved fruitless, and that was the way things seemed to be heading. At one point our guide told us with, it seemed, slightly forced optimism, that a sort of smear of light in one part of the dsky was the start of a display, but to me it looked more like the Milky Way. Eventually, after almost two hours of hanging around, the guide and the driver decided that this was it for the night. By this point we we cold and weary, and the warmth and comfort of the coach ride back to our various hotels seemed to appeal to everyone.

Our coach was in a convoy of five from the same company. Not long after setting off, and while we were still in the blackness to the National Park, the driver and guide started to get extremely excited, and the driver rang ahead to the first coach in the convoy, bringing it to a halt. They'd spotted the start of the Northern Lights dancing in the sky, and we all bundled off the coach and stood by the side of the road in utter darkness to gawp at the sky.

It was indeed unmistakeably the Northern Lights that we could see, although it wasn't nearly as stunning and sky-filling as the best displays that we'd seen on TV. Nevertheless, it did feel like a very special event and a happy, light-hearted mood settled on everyone watching. Sadly, taking photos was pretty pointless, because the human eye and brain was making the skies look far better than a camera could capture, so we concentrated on just looking and enjoying. But it did make us want to have another go in the future!

Saturday 24th March 2012

Gill took a trip to a local hairdresser in the morning and I wandered around Reykjavik in steadily improving weather, taking photos. Then it was back to the hotel to take the transfer bus to the airport and the flight home.

We both agreed that it had been a lovely trip, that Reykjavik was an endearing place to visit, that the local food was exceptional, that the bleakness of Iceland beyond its towns and cities was striking and that we'd love to visit again one day, perhaps in better weather!