17 July 2007

Iceland!

Day 1 - To Reykjavik

After attending the Concert for Diana at Wembley with Richard I dashed home to do some final packing, but I failed to get any sleep before my alarm dragged me off the inflatable mattress at 2.55am. Shouldering my trusty Fairydown pack, I hiked down Sanderstead Road in the inky darkness. A passing vixen was the only other inhabitant awake at that hour - she dashed, tail bobbing, into the undergrowth at the sound of my approaching footfalls. Down on the main road I caught the night bus - the insomniac's friend - to East Croydon, and from there a train out to Gatwick.

Fatigue set in straight away, mainly because I had to spend 37 minutes queueing to drop my bag at the British Airways desks. The queue was a mammoth snaking affair, mainly because at 4.30am (which is rush-hour for the early-morning departures) they only had two desks open. But at bang-on 5am seven more desks opened, and the queue shrank quickly.

Finally I was able to board the 7.30am flight to Keflavik airport - an older 737-400 with those ancient blue British Airways seats and no inflight entertainment, despite the flight being 3.5 hours long. The teenage guy next to me was a heavy metal fan who chose to snooze while blasting tunes through his tinny earphones, which naturally echoed across to me in the next seat. It sounded as if a thousand tiny machineguns in his head were busily annihilating his brain.

Eventually the coast of Iceland hove into view out the starboard windows. A rugged cliff-strewn coast ringing dark lava fields and sombre-hued moors, the Reykjanes peninsula where the airport is located is liberally adorned with cracked and broken lava covered with dark brown moss. Coming into Keflavik it truly feels like you're landing on the surface of the Moon.

The Flybus into the city treks for about an hour through blasted volcanic terrain flecked with stolid apartment-block suburbs - dwellings built for winter warmth. There are no trees in sight until we pass the city parks closer in. Eventually I'm dropped at the youth hostel, about 2km from the city centre. It's a modern, well-run place; the four-person dorms each have an en suite and thick curtains to block out the midnight sun. After an hour of welcome dozing on my bed I meet my room-mates for the night - a chatty Flemish nurse from Brussels and her teenage son.

It was warm (19 or 20 degrees) and blue-skied as I ambled along the waterfront into Reykjavik, which is home to about 40 percent of Iceland’s total population of just over 300,000. Most of the city turns its back on the harbour, fearing the winter lash of the churning seas, and the main streets are a few hundred metres inland. The main shopping boulevard is Laugavegur, a long straight and narrow (often single-laned) strip of low-rise buildings housing quirky boutiques and tourist shops. Courteous Icelanders driving slowly down Laugavegur always stop to let pedestrians cross in front of their cars.



I detoured to the south near the university to visit the National Museum, which provides an excellent overview of the thousand years of human inhabitation of Iceland. The outline on the floor showing the average size of the 9th-century ships that brought the Norse settlers to the island reminds you how dangerous their open-boat crossings of the North Sea would have been. Much of Iceland's history has been recycled or lost, but the precious artefacts that have survived illustrate the struggle it must have been to wring a meagre existence from the harsh Icelandic soil.

Afterwards I took my first tentative steps into the perilous world of Icelandic dining, which is renowned for its remarkable expensiveness. The shawarma I enjoyed (Kr890, or £7) in a dockside kebab joint was filling and tasted surprisingly good. Over dinner I leafed through the free English-language Reykjavik Grapevine, a newspaper for expats and tourists, full of interesting local adverts and fun tangential pieces contributed by students.

After walking all the way back to the hostel - the bus is expensive - I shopped at the 24-hour convenience store for supplies. On the way back I met a friendly black and white tomcat who was out patrolling the street by the hostel on Sundlaugavegur - he was roaming through the area, taking advantage of the summer evening sunshine. By the time I turned in at the hostel it was still bright outside at 10.30pm.

Day 2 - The Golden Circle

I was up bright and early for an 8am start for the Iceland Excursions coach tour on the Golden Circle route east of Reykjavik - the most popular way to see the countryside. It was another warm day - shirtsleeve weather - and started clear but later ebbed into overcast skies.

The first stop was half an hour east of town. We took in a panoramic view over the 7km gap between the European and American continental faults - two low ranges of jagged mountains with a highly active geothermal field in between. Another lunar landscape, but this time it's punctured by steam vents that send billowing plumes high into the blue Icelandic sky.



We visit the Nesjavellir geothermal station on the floor of the valley, which provides all of the Reykjavik area's hot water and 120 megawatts of electricity as well. Here they inject traces of sulphur into the hot water to de-oxidise it, which explains the sulphuric tang to the hot water when it emerges from the shower-head in the morning.

We pause for a photo alongside the stunning springwater-fed lake Thingvallavatn, which shows off its crystalline beauty to good effect. Then it's a short drive to historic Thingvellir, the site of the world's first national parliament, the Althing, which was founded by the Icelandic chieftains in 930AD. We walk down a sheer-walled ravine, which is where the Norse corralled their cattle during the annual gatherings, and then sat on the slope of the Law Stone, with its dramatic backdrop of a vertical cliff that acted as a stony amplifier for the voice of the wise Lawspeakers, who recited the legal codes of medieval Iceland so that all knew the boundaries of right and wrong. We pass the purest of calm streams in old volcanic rents in the earth, the floors of which are now seeded with thousands of silver coins from tourists who enjoy seeing them flutter their way slowly to the bottom. It must be particularly cold water, or some enterprising Icelandic youths would have dived in to score a life-time's supply of pocket-money.

Next stop is the impressive cataract and waterfall of Gulfoss, Iceland's own mini-Niagara. It tumbles 32m in a series of impressive leaps, jetting an enormous amount of water into the air and sending spray hundreds of metres.



I was certainly glad to see it in summer rather than winter, because the wind often comes from the mighty Langjokull glacier that looms above the shark-toothed mountains to the north like a vast frozen cloud on the horizon. (But even Langjokull’s massive 953 square kilometres is dwarfed by the leviathan-like sprawl of eastern Iceland’s Vatnajokull, which is eight times larger). Near the overpriced café, which I avoided, a corral of diminutive purebred Icelandic horses waited to take a party of riders on a trek. These sturdy creatures – only 14 hands but definitely not ponies, I was assured – can be guaranteed as purebreds because it is illegal to import horses into Iceland or to interbreed species. And once an Icelandic horse leaves the country (to wealthy buyers in America, Europe or the Middle East), it can never return, for fear of bringing unfamiliar equine diseases back into the country.

It’s a short drive from Gulfoss to the geothermal area made famous by Geysir, the explosive thermal vent that gave the world’s geysers their name. For those unused to the dangers of scalding water, our guide Ragna issues stern cautions to the tour participants, and once we disembark I can see why: the ropes cordoning off Geysir itself are only 30cm high, and several tourists are standing right next to its crater rim, looking down at the bubbling cauldron below. If Geysir erupted – and it still does, now and then – these tourists would be broiled alive. Geysir is pretty quiet these days, but its smaller brother Strokkur is much more reliable, erupting every eight minutes or so and showering harmless warm water and sulphurous steam up to 30 metres in the air, often soaking onlookers who forget which was the wind is blowing.



We fit in a brief stop at the bishopric of Skaholt, where the fugitive last Catholic bishop in Iceland was beheaded in the name of the Reformation in 1550, along with his two sons. Then it’s back to Reykjavik, and a quiet night with a salad and the superb ‘Northern Lights’ by Philip Pullman at the hostel.

Day 3 – To Stykkisholmur

In the morning I chatted to my two new roommates, a pair of Swedish lads just out of school, taking a week’s cycling holiday in Iceland. I was pleased to learn that despite their common linguistic heritage, the vagaries of Icelandic linguistics meant that they only understood as many phrases as I did, which is not very many at all.

I walked into town again, snapping a good picture of a mother tern hovering above the town’s civic lake, spying for minnows in the water below. She would flit in circular orbits some five or ten metres above the water, pausing every minute or so to observe, and occasionally spearing herself in a crash dive underwater to catch her prey. When she caught a fish she hurried across the lake to deposit the meal with her brood, before returning to the hunt.

Then I wandered up to the Culture House (the mouthfullish Thjothmenningarhusith) because it’s free on Wednesdays, and took in its exhibits on Iceland’s heritage. In the medieval manuscripts section there was ample proof of Iceland’s status as perhaps the most literary society in medieval Europe, including a darkened room displaying the ancient Icelandic saga in which historians discovered the tale of Leifur Eiriksson’s exploration of North America a thousand years ago, nearly five hundred years before Columbus. There was also an excellent floor devoted to the fiery birth of the Icelandic volcano island Surtsey in 1963, which featured floor-to-ceiling film projections of the close-up film recordings taken from the air as the island burst dramatically from the North Atlantic.

Afterwards I had a traditional Icelandic lunch: pylsur, or common-or-garden hotdog, from the same wharf-side stand where Bill Clinton ate when he visited for a summit. He looks a little guilty in the photo the owners have pinned up. Breaking the diet again, Bill? In any case, the hotdog was a much better prospect than the two traditional Icelandic delicacies I’d read about: svith, singed sheep’s head, don’t forget the eyes, and hakarl, cubes of Greenland shark that have putrefied underground for six months. And along with the still-current state monopoly on alcohol, until 1989 beer was actually illegal in Iceland. The mind boggles.

A few hours later my scheduled minibus took me and a handful of other passengers northwards towards my next destination, the small fishing port of Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsness Peninsula. As luck would have it, I managed to sit in front of an authentic Icelandic mental chap. He made strange hissing noises in a dark road tunnel underneath a fjord, and then persisted in chatting to an unaccompanied girl of about nine, who wasn’t fazed by the conversation, but would’ve much rather been listening to her iPod. Half an hour later he bade the driver to pull the minibus over in the middle of a wide plain of farmland and strode down the road, back the way we’d come. It was at least 10km to the nearest town. As the minibus drove off, the driver shook his head in puzzlement and the little girl burst out in fits of giggles.

After winding through some bleak mountain terrain to reach the north side of the peninsula, we arrived at Stykkisholmur, population about 1200 – none of whom were at large. As I walked the few hundred metres to the hostel, I saw no-one else aside from a few 4WDs heading out of town. The hostel was slightly mysterious too – unlocked, but no staff in sight. So I selected a bunk and eventually Old Magnus, who doesn’t speak much English, turned up and took my money.

As day turned to daylike night, I narrowly avoided sharing a dorm with a party of four French girls, one of whom was already asleep in her bunk and emitting the most astonishing snoring, as if a tribe of malevolent hippos were all simultaneously dying up her nose. I hurriedly found a bunk in another room, and wasn’t surprised when I saw the girl’s three non-snoring friends in the common room, waiting out the onslaught. They gave me sheepish grins and apologised for the noise, and explained that their poor friend had even tried having an operation on her sinuses to reduce the monstrous blast, but to no avail. I told them there was no need to apologise, and thought them impressive friends to be able to put up with such a racket every night without going mad. Perhaps she knew the man in the minibus.

Day 4 – The Isle of Flatey

A blissful snore-free night’s sleep in the bank, I awoke in the morning and had a quick chat with an American chap in the dorm who was complaining about having been issued an on-the-spot US$350 speeding ticket by the Icelandic traffic police for driving at 100mph (160km/h). The speed limit in Iceland is 90km/h, and I could just imagine the phlegmatic response to the Yank’s argument that “in the States I drive to work at 100mph every day!” Lucky that policecars carry wireless eft-pos terminals these days, I thought.

Keen to start a day’s exploring, I trotted down to the Seatours building near the docks to hire a cycle for the day, as my Lonely Planet outlined. But it swiftly turned out that the brand-new Lonely Planet was wrong: cycle hire was no longer available. Damn! Mulling over my options, I hiked up to the top of the rocky islet that shelters the Stykkisholmur harbour, to take in the sweeping views of the pristine beauty of the windswept Breithafjorthur bay.

As the morning’s overcast skies cleared up, I decided to take a ferry ride 30km north across the bay to the tiny islet of Flatey. Once inhabited by monastic Icelanders, now the island is home to a few wooden houses and about a million zillion birds. As there are no trees, the birds nest amongst the long grasses, and as it was nesting season the violently territorial arctic terns were out in force, threatening any human silly enough to walk down the island’s few footpaths away from the main road. (I wasn’t silly enough to go anywhere near their nests – they have a fairly expansive idea of their territorial possessions). Sensing strength in numbers, the terns gather in flocks of 10 or 20 and take turns making shrieking dive runs at intruders’ heads. Very Alfred Hitchcock. As there are no stray sticks on the island, it pays to wave a long switch of heather above your head to stave of a potentially scarring head-piercing encounter. This looks and feels remarkably silly, until you consider the alternative: one Icelandic gent I photographed being dive-bombed later showed me the cruel peck-marks in his scalp. I emerged unscathed though.



The scene on the north side of Flatey was much more sedate, and as the calm sea lapped the rocky shore I was able to photograph dozens of pretty puffins floating near the shore, returning from their day’s hunting for fish in deeper waters.



As I waited for the ferry back to Stykkisholmur, along with a dozen German birdwatchers carrying their special Swarovski telescopes over their shoulders, I pondered the reasoning of one retired Icelander on the island who had driven his car down the bumpy track to the jetty. Why had he brought a 2-litre Toyota Avensis capable of 180km/h to an island with barely a kilometre of road, none of which would support a speed higher than 30km/h? Nice airconditioning, perhaps.

Incidentally, I looked up Flatey’s latitude when I returned to London. So I can now lay claim to having travelled as far as 66 degrees 22 minutes North. To do the same in the southern hemisphere, I’d have to visit Antarctica.

Day 5 – Borgarnes

Awoken by a clan of elderly Icelandic hostel-stayers who crashed around in the kitchen and violated the early morning peace and quiet with their jabbering, I set off for the petrol station for my bus back south. Locals were awaiting the 8am opening of the station, leaving their engines running with their doors open when they popped inside for their cigarettes and newspapers. Re-tracing my route south to the town of Borgarnes, the minibus driver adopted the policy of keeping the white line beneath his steering wheel (there’s not much traffic in the Icelandic back-blocks), and the radio played Penny Lane as the volcanic mountains fled past the drizzle-smeared windows.

On first and second impressions, Borgarnes seemed even quieter than Stykkisholmur. I walked from the bus depot at a service centre of four petrol stations out to the converted farm known as Hotel Bjarg to dump my pack and admire my room for the night. Walking into the centre of town, again there was virtually no sign of life, although a sign in a playground took my fancy: ‘no headless dogs allowed here’, obviously:



The town’s one main attraction is the splendid and modern Settlement Centre, which tells the story of Iceland’s early exploration and colonisation, and the local drama attached to Egil’s Saga, the pleasingly amoral and often murderous tale of the fierce and Viking poet Egill Skallagrimsson, and his wars with King Eirik Bloodaxe of Norway and his own father, Skallagrimur Kvelddulfur, who was equally formidable. The centre’s multimedia approach to story-telling is quite special, and now I know what a Viking scorn-pole looks like. Who’d’ve thought you could mock-up a completely realistic decayed horse’s head on a spear?

After a quick shopping expedition to a small mall on the outskirts of town – the only mall I’ve ever seen with a shop selling horse-shoes – I came back to the service stations and selected the least cram-packed one to dine in: it seems the locals all head to one of the burger joints attached to the petrol stations on a Friday night. It was standing room only. Then I retired to Bjarg to watch a bit of TV, including an episode of Sharpe (Sean Bean) set in India in 1817.

As I had napped earlier, I was awake at midnight – so I was able to take a photograph of myself outside in the midnight sun. It was strangely peaceful, with all the animals asleep and not a breath of wind to stir the quiet waters of the Borgarfjorthur.



Day 6 - Back to the capital

In the morning I saw a bit of Live Earth from Sydney on my little TV at Bjarg. I like Toni Collette, but after seeing her sing Children Of The Revolution I think she should probably stick to the acting. And she definitely shouldn’t shout ‘Peace!’ at the end of her performances, either.

I arrived back in Reykjavik in mid-morning, with plenty of time to check out the weekend flea-market. There were dozens of stalls selling second-hand clothes and old records (I bought a CD of remixes of songs by Wendy and Lisa from 1991 for about 70 pence; it will likely be dreadful but it was worth a go). There was also a stand selling cheap beanie hats adorned with heavy metal slogans: Slipknot, Korn, Metallica… and Harry Potter.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around town, checking out the shops and rather pseud-y art galleries. In the end I decided to buy myself a super-warm hand-knitted woolly hat for the English winter. I stayed at the Salvation Army hostel in the middle of town, which was a bit decrepit in comparison to the youth hostel in the suburbs, but it did afford me the opportunity to check out a rumour I’d heard: Icelandic phone-books are organised by first name only, because Icelanders adopt their father’s (or sometime their mother’s) given name as their surname in the form –son or –dottir. But I wonder how Icelanders know if they’re related or not?

Given the brevity of Day 6’s report, it might be worth mentioning that the Icelandic language has two extra letters that used to exist in Old English, but have long since been abandoned. There’s eth, which is pronounced with a hard ‘th’ sound, and resembles a curving letter ‘d’ with a crossed upstroke, more or less like this: đ. And there’s its sibling, the letter thorn, which is pronounced as a soft ‘th’ sound, which resembles a double-handled letter ‘p’ with both up- and down-strokes, like this: Þ.

Day 7 – Back south

Getting up early for the bus to the airport, I only had time for a couple of brief conversations with fellow travellers – a girl from Taiwan who was bowled over by the frightening cost of visiting Iceland on a tight budget, and a retired Danish gent whose grandson is studying at Victoria University in Wellington. It was a long but pretty flight back south to the rest of the world, bisecting Scotland and skirting the coast of Cumbria on the way back to Gatwick.

Having seen only a small corner of Iceland, I know there’s plenty more waiting to be explored… but I think if I come back I’ll definitely wait until next summer, rather than trying to visit in the bleak depths of the never-ending Icelandic winter!

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