Sunshine, the Blue Lagoon and home…

Dark mornings are a feature of a British winter of course, but in Iceland at this time of year it doesn’t really get light until after ten thirty and that takes some getting used to. You can wake up, have a lie in, then get breakfast, and its still dark! This morning though the milky blue dawn revealed a perfectly clear sky and the prospect that we might even see the sun for the first time here. We packed up and made off through Reykjavik’s silent grey streets, heading for the airport. Our day snowed-in at Hengill meant we didn’t see as much of the city as we would have liked – the Cathedral tower will have to remain unclimbed (by us anyway). As we drove out through the snow-covered lava fields, the sun hid behind the hills, casting a glow over the low clouds offshore before finally climbing above the horizon, impossibly bright. We pulled off the road before the airport to go to the Blue Lagoon, a small lake full of mineral rich water which was giving off clouds of steam ahead of us.

Its not quite the natural wonder that it appears to be. The water is pumped from a mile underground and then used at the nearby geothermal power station before being pumped into an artificial lava lake-bed which forms the Blue Lagoon. Not that there was any mention of that on the signs outside which talked a lot about the natural healing properties of the water, but you can forgive them for that. “Come and bathe in power station-outflow” isn’t perhaps the ideal way of pulling in the punters. It is though, a lovely experience.

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The water is warm and a cloudy blue. It was -6C when we were there and the clouds of steam made it impossible to see from one side top the other. P and I smothered ourselves in the white silicate mud and were instantly ten years younger. Tom, who hasn’t got ten years to lose gave the mud a wide berth. He liked the lava cave though and it was all slightly surreal. It was very relaxing too and we left feeling that we had warmed up our inner cores and taken a few lines off as well!

From the observation deck we enjoyed our last big views across icy Iceland before making for the airport.  Even at midday the sun was only just above the horizon so it never really feels like anything more than early morning, until the light slowly begins to fade and twilight settles over everything.

 

We never did see the Northern Lights in the end, although we had our fingers crossed right until the last minute at the airport where it was still cold crisp and clear – the perfect conditions apparently. But, not quite, according to the lady at the cafe at our gate who told a couple of disappointed English tourists that it wasn’t NEARLY cold enough to see the Northern Lights yet. Maybe we will have to come back again. It was a lovely few days and left us hankering for more.

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New Year’s Day in Iceland

IMG_1184We felt somewhat thwarted by the weather yesterday, having been forced to scuttle back to Reykjavik without really seeing anything of the countryside. Actually “countryside” doesn’t seem to be a word that you associate with Iceland. It suggests rural idyll with hedgerows and cows chewing the cud and butterflies. Iceland isnt really like that – at the moment anyway. I think a better word for Iceland’s interior is “terrain”. But what terrain it is. We emerged from the city into a perfectly iced landscape; vast open stretches of white rolling off to blunt-faced cliffs topped with a perfectly squared-off shelves of snow. The sky was duck-egg blue, streaked with misty clouds tinged rose from the sunrise. It was a breathtaking drive through a silent frozen world. The road had been ploughed but there had been a couple of inches of snow overnight making it all but invisible. We swished along over the smooth surface stopping occasionally to stand in the chill and take it all in. It couldn’t have been more beautiful.

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We stopped at Thingvellir National Park and found the famous chasm between the tectonic plates which opened up relatively recently.

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Normally you can walk through it but the snow was too deep, so we had to admire the view instead. Thingvellir was the site of the first Icelandic parliament – a meeting place really, where for a few weeks a year people would gather and laws would be made. One man would recite all the Icelandic laws from memory.

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We could have spent more time there, but with only a few more hours of daylight left we pushed on to Geysir, an hour or so further.

The first clue that we were getting close to Geysir was the sudden mist which smothered the road. Then we noticed that the ditch beside us was steaming and soon, that the whole field next to us seemed to be smouldering, We parked and went to look. All around us little vents were steaming away and boiling water was dribbling along beside the path.

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Geysir gave its name to the geyser of course and we walked within a few feet of one which erupts every few minutes. We saw it go several times, the boiling pool sucking in and out a few times before suddenly releasing a huge bubble of steam..

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Small birds, with fluffy brown breasts peeped and flitted around us through the steam. They are about the only wildlife we have seen. Thor, who took us to his community bonfire last night told us that a couple of polar bears have swum over from Greenland in the past few years only to be shot. Iceland does not really want enormous hungry bears on the loose. They would certainly frighten the horses, of which we have seen dozens; little Thelwell creatures with fat necks, bowed backs and shaggy mains.

After soup and hot chocolate we hit the road again, and had it more or less to ourselves on the way back. Occasionally we passed a clapboard farmhouse with a porchlight glowing as dusk flattened out the landscape. After a couple of hours we were back in Reykjavik’s slushy streets, the sky a bruise of blue. That was a New Year’s Day we won’t forget.

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Happy New Year!

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From a riotous Reykjavik which feels like its under bombardment. The fireworks have been going off across the city like one giant display for three quarters of an hour. It’s amazing. The sky is now thick with smoke. Happy 2012 to you all!

There was more to our day than that though – and indeed more to the New Year’s Eve celebrations. Our evening began at about the only restaurant we could find that was open. An Icelandic tapas place on the harbour that came highly recommended. There was a set course menu but the various – mostly fish – courses were wonderful and stuffing.

We staggered out into the icy car park and arranged to meet the parents of an Icelandic friend to see how Icelanders celebrate New Year. It turns out to involve rather a lot of setting fire to things with fireworks all over the place and the most enormous neighbourhood bonfires you have ever seen. Inga’s Dad met us and took us to a residential street with a large field behind the houses in which a small forest appeared to be at the centre of an inferno. The heat was tremendous and all around us people were pulling fireworks out of their pockets and setting them off, just like all those public information films in the Seventies said we shouldn’t do. Tom ran off to make a snow cave with  Inga’s kids who were staying with their grandparents, and for an hour or so we crisped our faces in the heat from the bonfire and looked out over the city where distant sparkles were flying into the air from all angles.

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At ten o’clock, everyone went inside. It is a tradition in Iceland, that everyone, but everyone watches a satirical New Year’s Eve program on TV called “Áramótaskaupið. Which almost certainly isn’t pronounced as it is spelled so don’t bother trying. Inside our host’s house a large crowd had gathered in the living room with booze and platefuls of food, while largely incomprehensible humour (to us anyway) was being played out on a screen in front of them. It was a lovely friendly atmosphere and the language barrier was largely overcome by much smiling and passing of drinks. We left before the end and made our way through an utterly deserted city back to the apartment.

We could tell when the program finished because that’s when the sky started exploding all over again and continued to do so until the small hours. That’s the way to see in a new year…

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I’m not tired, I am staying up to see the new yzzzzzz