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.
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.
We 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.
We stopped at Thingvellir National Park and found the famous chasm between the tectonic plates which opened up relatively recently.
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.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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…
We’re in a really lovely apartment in Reykjavik looking over snowy roofs to the cathedral. The Hallgrímskirkja Is a splendid building that looks like it was built by the Vikings but was actually constructed between 1945 and 1986. It’s made from stepped concrete pillars rising to a sharp point.
We were there an hour or so ago, listening to the chimes at 3.30 and watching black clouds assemble offshore.
We walked back through a sharp hailstorm to our cosy pad for cups of tea and Heather’s Christmas cake which we brought with us.
Waking at Hengill this morning we weren’t entirely sure that we were going to be able to leave. We were the only guests, the corridors were silent and empty though a tinny Icelandic rendition of “silent night” was drifting down the stairs from reception. Invisible hands had set breakfast out for us and we sat lookng out into the darkness wondering if the snowplough had been. It had. The driveway had been cleared at some point in the night but our car was still marooned on a hillock of snow with its wheels dangling in the air. I went out and fought with the gearbox a bit, rocking the car backwards and forwards in snow that was rapidly turning into slush. Eventually I won and the car skittered out with snow flying from the spinning wheels.
We loaded and left. But now we had a conundrum, the roads had been cleared but some time ago and they were filling it’s snow again. Our somewhat diffident reception girl had advised taking the direct route to Reykjavik on the small road but didn’t recommend it without studded tyres. We decided to head north toward Thingvellir over the hills and join the main road which was more likely to have regular snow ploughs. The road was less full of snow than the day before but we were still making deep tracks in it and it was very slippery. As we started to climb and the snow got thicker I began to wonder whether we were going to get through.
Without saying anything P and I both started making mental checklists of anywhere that we passed that looked like it had signs of life. There was a large farmstead and a cabin off in the distance and that was about it.
Once we had climbed over the first pass we were pretty much committed to going on – trying to turn around would have meant getting bogged down in the deep snow almost immediately. We descended to Thingvellir Lake and skirted its icy edge, gunmetal waves raking the surface. Then we started climbing again with ragged lumps of snow flapping against the windscreen. At the next rise I stopped. If we’re we we’re going to do this we might as well make the most of it. Out we got and felt the cold air against our faces and the wet snow trickling through our hair. Tom danced around and P and I looked up at the snowy rock walls around us. It felt like the ends of the earth.
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Galvanized into action by the sight of the snow plough clearing the main road I thought I would head off down the drive and see if we might be able to get to our restaurant. No, is the answer. I went 20 feet and eased gently into a snow bank where the car stuck fast. Great. The plough may get up here tonight and if it does it will pull us out. Sigh…
Hotel Hengill Dec 30th I suppose when you come to Iceland, in the depth of winter, you should probably expect the weather to be less than balmy. The clue is in the name really. Iceland. It’s not called Hotland, or even Warmishland. Nevertheless I hadn’t expected so much snow that we can’t actually leave the hotel. To be fair neither had the Icelanders who tell us this is the most December snow they have had in twenty five years.
Flying in to Keflavik in the premature darkness of the late afternoon yesterday, the view had been serene; tiny twinkling lights each casting a pastel glow in the fresh snow. Judging from the black tyre tracks in the road there had been more than a dusting of snow but less than a dump, and it had stopped. The empty airport, brightly lit, felt like somewhere in North Dakota or Montana in winter. Ruddy people with big boots and thick rustling coats; granules of blowing snow hissing against the window.
Our first night was to be in Hengill, at a hotel in the middle of nowhere perhaps an hour or so from Reykjavik where we hoped to see the Northern lights. Picking up the rental car though, I had the first inkling that maybe Iceland was not to be taken lightly. The big blond guy behind the desk whisked through the paperwork, and casually, with an air of someone who drives through remote and snowy places as a matter of course I said “So would you recommend taking route 1 to Hengill when it’s as snowy as this?”. He froze, stared at me with concern and went pale. “Well…” he began and I could see him wondering how to say “you must be nuts”. There followed a rapid conversation in Icelandic between him and his colleague, an older woman who shot several concerned glances my way. She brought up a road map on her computer screen which showed the travelling conditions on the major roads all over the country. Most said “wet snow” some said “impassable” a couple said “cleared”. Our route was on either snowy roads, or on roads not even on the screen because they were too small. Both of the desk staff were now looking at me rather severely. We bought the extra insurance, picked up the keys and bade our farewells. “Be very very careful” they said “Iceland has never had snow like this in December. Never!”
For most of the way the road was snowy but it had been ploughed and everyone drove carefully. We took the long route along the biggest roads, turning off only for the last fourteen KM on a small road which had been ploughed hours before and now had low drifts sweeping across it. It was thrilling to be out in the wilds of Iceland – Iceland! As we rose, the thermometer in the car fell to -4.5C and that was as cold as it ever got outside. Two hours after we left the airport we saw the glow of the hotel up a hillside and found the access road, swept with bigger drifts. We slithered up it and took our place alongside the only other car in the car park.
There was no one at the front desk and apart from a single group of Japanese people having dinner the place seemed utterly deserted. Eventually a tall skinny woman in her twenties appeared and said she had not expected to see us as the direct road from Reykjavik was closed. But she got the chef to stay on and cook for us, trout for P and succulent lamb for me and Tigger. Afterwards we curled up under fat, snowy duvets and slept
We had set the alarm for this morning as it doesn’t get light here until well after ten and we didn’t want to waste the day. There were two tables of Japanese people at breakfast looking uncertainly at the smooth snowfields in the darkness outside. We ate in the gloom before pulling on long johns, snow boots, big coats and hats and gloves and feeling adventurous.
Thingvellir National Park is a short drive away in theory, but nosing back down the drive in the car it was immediately clear that quite a bit more snow had fallen overnight. Turning left to re-trace our steps it was also clear that no one had driven that way this morning. But for the markers on either side of the road it would have been impossible to see the route. The car brushed through the drifts which stretched like giant fingers across the road. We could feel the snow banks forming under the car as we drove. We were climbing back towards the pass we had crossed last night and a mile or so from the hotel we knew it would be foolish to go any further.
I put the car in reverse and drove back in our tracks until I found a stretch where the wind had blown most of the snow off the road surface, where I turned around. I just missed the turning to the hotel, taking the wrong fork n the road, and this time when I tried to turn around, we got stuck. A guy in a 4×4 on balloon tyres rolled up and watched us struggling for a bit (those stupid English people) before coming out to see if he could hook on a tow rope, but after digging out in front of the tyres a bit, we got going again and soon we were back where we had started half an hour before. We weren’t going anywhere.
Tom was quite happy as he wanted to get not the big drifts all around us and soon we were all buried up to our waists and throwing snowballs.
We climbed up to the half buried footpath sign a couple of hundred meters up the hill behind the hotel, panting in the dry air, our faces stinging from the blowing snow. Enough. We slithered and fell back down the hill and shook the snow off our clothes. The Japanese who had looked as if they were waiting for a lift had disappeared somehow and the hotel seemed completely empty.
We went out to the hot tub, leaping through the snow in our swimming gear and feeling the flakes build up on our heads as we soaked.
Occasionally you catch a whiff of sulphur from the geothermal power station half a mile away and the hot water reeks of it, but it’s rather exciting to think of all that heat coming directly from deep below the earth. So here we are, at Hotel Hengill, with absolutely no way of getting out. They think the road may be ploughed tomorrow. Maybe. The hotel feels empty in a Marie Celeste knd of way. The lights are on and the breakfast buffet is still out at noon, but there are no people. The two staff have retreated somewhere. I went down to the end of our corridor where there is a small area to sit and discovered that someone had left the outside door open and a snow drift was gently making its way inside as the wind howled through. I cleared the snow but couldn’t quite close the door as the hinge was packed tight with ice. I had bought some Cuppa Soups from Tesco on impulse as we walked to the tube yesterday (yesterday!) and they are now looking like lunch. We will miss the wonderful lobster place on the south coast we had booked for tonight. This afternoon will involve books, a movie (hurray for the iPad) and perhaps another session in the hot tub and we will have to read about the natural wonders all around us which are blanketed in snow and cloud.