Beards, big wheels and bun day ...
17.02.2012 - 24.02.2012 0 °C
As we made the descent into Keflavic airport, Iceland resembled a winter moonscape. There was a notable absence of trees and the landscape was a series of random changes in ground level, blanketted in snow. Reykjavic airport is very well designed, having won best European airport 2009, and the transfer from plane to arrivals was quick and easy. In no time at all we were through customs and collecting our tickets for an Iceland Excursions/Gray lines bus for our accommodation. It was blowing a gale and we were relieved to escape the face lacerating snow and take our seats in the warmth of the bus. The relief was short lived though, as a strong fragrance of vomit dominated the rear half of the bus. We shallow breathed all the way to the centre of Reykjavic. The bus was too large to enter the narrow city streets so, thankfully, we transferred to a minibus which delivered us safely to Vitastigur 11.
We arrived at Alfred's apartments and were met by a very polite and attentive, somewhat Mr Burns like, gentleman, we assume to be Alfred himself. He showed us to our apartment and gave us a quick run down of the surrounding area. The place was just what we had wanted, a reasonably sized, recently built, apartment with a well set up kitchen (cook top, fridge, microwave, even a coffee machine) and a nice modern bathroom. The water pressure was great and there was an endless supply of super hot water, courtesy of the geothermal hot water which services Reykjavic. We can only imagine the sheer bliss of a world without boilers, lime scale, and the issues which accompany them. We unpacked before taking a walk around the immediate area.
The shopping district boasts some really lovely retail shops and some very hip coffee bars and eateries. The bus station, supermarket and harbour are within easy walking distance from Alfreds. That evening we cooked ourselves some dinner and set to the task of planning our activities for the week.
We rose just before sunrise (about 08:40) and took a morning walk, along saebraut, to the harbour area.
You quickly notice a couple of things in Reykjavic. The guys sport some of the most impressive beards you will ever see, there are some seriously big wheels on vehicles, and lots of locals like to wear those Christmas style jumpers with snowflake motifs. We also became big fans of 66° North, one of Iceland's oldest design and manufacturing companys (1926).
For a couple of weeks we had been tracking the strength of the Northern lights online and that night's forecast was for strong activity. We had looked at many of the reviws on trip advisor and found one company which had received outstanding feedback. We were doubtful about getting a place on a trip for that evening, as generally you need to call at least 24 hours in advance, but we were thrilled when we were able to book our places for the evening. We double checked our cold weather gear, photographic kit, and charged up our batteries ahead of the trek into the dark snow covered hills. We filled the rest of the day with a wander around central Reykjavic. The apartment is only a couple of blocks from Hallgrímskirkja Church.
It has a tower, which stands 6 stories high, and offers a stunning 360 degree view of Reykjavic.
In front of the church stands a statue of Leif Erriksonn, the son of Eric the Red, and regarded as the first European to reach North America.
We paid our respects before heading into town for a coffee. Concerned about the impending evening cold, and keen to make a purchase, we bought face warmers at a shop called Cintamani on the main street. At dusk we returned to our apartment and cooked a hot dinner. At around 6pm we received word that the clouds had closed in, and that poor visibilitiy had caused the Northern lights tour to be postponed. We decided to self medicate with snacks so went to the local Bonus supermarket. There was no shortage of options and we left with chocolate covered bananas, half a kilo of Californiu choc raisins, and a packet of, somewhat politically incorrect, Sambo brand choc fudge licorice. First we felt so much better... then we felt so much worse.
We spent out anniversary at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa . We had managed to get the entry fee and bus there combined for a great price booking online through Netbus, saving us about £15. When we arrived it was cold, windy and wet - hardly the sort of day you would normally be considering popping on the old bathers and going for an outdoor swim. We checked in and hired our robes and towels, proceeding to our respective changing rooms for a mandatory shower (they do not chlorinate so, rightly, tend to be a bit particular about people being clean before they bathe). We met up again the other side of the bathrooms and stood discussing whether to enter the lagoon via the small portion that is undercover or to brave the cold in our bathers in a dash for the water. There were no hooks left for our robes inside so we hung them outside, and sprinted for the water.
Its a wierd sensation swimming outside in a bright blue lagoon which at parts has water around 39 degrees, when your head knows exactly how cold it is outside above the water line. Before we arrived we were not sure how long we would be able to spend in the water before getting bored or turning into prunes. We managed to rack up a few hours in the water, moving from hot pocket to hot pocket around the lagoon. It is a very sizeable lagoon with ample space to allow a degree of solitude.
Upon entering the spa guests receive a wristband, which allows you to swim up to the bar and grab a drink. You simply swipe your wristband, take your drink, or icecream, and it goes on your account for payment on exit. We chose to have a Skyr Smoothie (like frozen yoghurt and a local favourite) and plastered on a Lagoon Silica Facial mask, before deciding it was time to take a break from the water. We leapt out of the warm water up the, somewhat slippery, steps and quickly grabbed out towels and raced inside. Once you hit the cold air your swimwear quickly becomes an ice pack, so we towelled off, wrapped up in our robes, and got something to eat and drink. There are reclining sun loungers on the upper section overlooking the lagoon. We spent about 30 mins just taking in the experience before deciding it was time to head back into town. The Blue Lagoon was a genuinely unique experience and we left feeling very relaxed and pampered. It wasn't too expensive and was a perfect way to spend an otherwise rainy/snowy day.
We thought it only appropriate to celebrate our anniversary with dinner at a nice restaurant and, after reading excellent reviews online, decided to try out the new GrillMarket which, although initially impossible to find, was worth the hassle! We inadvertantly walked past it, numerous times, before discovering it was set in off the street and very easy to miss (ithe entrance faces a different street altogether). We were seated and after much deliberation, and indecision, made our choices from the impressive menu. Though we do try our best to sample the local foods when travelling, we struggled with the thought of trying some of the Icelandic specialities which included Puffin and Minke Whale, in this establishment (Rotting Shark and Horsemeat elsewhere). We did, however, try the seafood, duck, lamb and beef, which were accompanied by perfectly matching salads and followed up by extremely delicious desserts.
The GrillMarket is not a cheap eat, but well worth trying if you have a special occasion whilst in Reykjavik, the food was great and the service without fault. Coffee lovers will appreciate the perfect espresso to finish also.
We made a late night stop at the 24 hour supermarket to get some supplies. We had read about a couple of local traditions that were to take place over the coming days. Firstly Bun Day (the Monday before Shrove Tuesday), a 19th century Danish tradition, where children wake their parents up with shouts of “Bolla, bolla, bolla,” and whack them with homemade paddles. Their kids decorate their Bun Day paddles at school. The tradition is that they get one cream-filled bun for every time they manage to whack their parents before they leap out of bed. We decided to skip the paddle making and just eat the buns until we were full. Shrove Tuesday in Iceland is called Sprengidagur. It means “Bursting Day” and the aim is to eat traditional stew until you burst. Then comes Öskudagur, on Ash Wednesday, when the kids wear fancy dress costumes and sing for candy in shops. On Öskudagur we saw an abundance of witches, ghosts and even a teenage mutant ninja turtle... old school, baby.
When we woke up, the snow outside had mostly melted and the town looked entirely different. We had some difficulty recognising streets and things around us without it! It was a drizzly day so we made regular pit stops to cafes as we ambled around Reykjavic. We found a warm, cosy and very stylish place, with perfect coffee, called Hemmi & Valdi.
It had lots of seating, with comfy sofas in one window section, and live music several evenings. We refuelled and recharged there before hitting the pavement again. Immediately adjacent to the cafe is an area which boasts some great street art. Jen spent some time adding to her collection of street art photos from around the world.
After a talk about the reality of expectation and dissappointment, we finally gave up the daily anguish of hoping the Northern lights tour would go ahead. We got back to the apartment that afternoon resigned to the fact that the weather was not going to allow us to experience the Northern lights, and decided we would concentrate on some of the other amazing sights. Early that evening we received a phone call from Amazing Tours, as expected, only this time it was to tell us that, although the sky was still quite cloudy, they were going to head out and hunt for areas of clear sky. We were told there was no guarantee, but that the clouds were going east, and they thought they knew a couple of potential viewing spots. We leapt about the place with excitement and got our kit together.
At about 8.30pm a big wheel 4x4 pulled up at our apartment and we climbed the steps up into the vehicle. Our guide, Palli, introduced himself and told us he was hopeful we would enjoy some success. We collected our companions for the evening - Cathy, Nadia, Helena & Marcella - we were all excited about the impending hunt for the lights, and were staggered by the size of the vehicle. We were about 25 minutes out of Reykjavic when Palli suddenly announced that he could see the lights, changed plan and took a left turn off the road and down a snow covered path. Away from the light of vehicles he pointed out the white haze in the distance. As he explained what we were looking for, a curtain of translucent white light draped above the horizon, and slowly moved towards us. We quickly deployed our cameras and tripods.
We had read as much as we could about the best settings for photographing the lights, but were still holding our breath until we viewed the first image. The tell tale green haze was clear in the shot and we were thrilled. We spent a short time in that spot but the clouds moved in so we jumped back into the 4x4 and sped to our second veiwing spot. On our approach we saw several buses, with loads of people stretched out in a line taking photos, and we very happy when we drove past them, off the road, and up the hill across the fresh snow. Palli found a great spot with no light pollution and we spent about an hour and a half in awe of this amazing natural phenomenon. When we finally got home we immediately loaded our photos onto the iPad in the hope that we had got some decent results. We were very happy... and relieved.
The following morning we were collected by a 15 seater Iceland Horizons tour bus for our trip around the golden circle. Our driver/guide was a very nice and very knowledgeable guy named David. He had an incredible knowledge of the many aspects of Icelandic life and landscape. He has been living and working in Iceland for many years, having married a local girl and started a family there. We felt especially lucky as In addition to the fabulous sights we received a free lesson in the history, culture, economics and aspirations of Iceland. The roads were quite difficult in parts, particularly icy on higher ground, so we slowly made our way to the major sights on the golden circle. First stop was to see Kerid crater, a volcanic crater lake located in the Grímsnes area.
Next was a visit to the geysers in the geothermal area southeast of Reykjavik. The most widely known geyser, called... Geysir, obviously gave its name to this phenomenon. However, it only jumps into action about once every two weeks. Luckily Geysir has a neighbour, a smaller geyser called Strokkur, It erupts about every 4-6 minutes and the fountain shoots 15 - 20 m high, sometimes even up to 40 m high. We saw Strokkur spouting several times, and like the rest of the crowd, particularly enjoyed the hot shower it gave one selfish tourist who set himself up right in the middle of everyone else's photos.
Next stop was the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall. We rugged up and braced ourselves against the strong, freezing wind as we carefully negotiated the icy steps down to view the falls. There is little to say about these beautiful falls. The photos speak for themselves.
We retreated into the visitor centre and had a piping hot lamb & veg soup for lunch. At Thingvellir National Park, we saw the home of the Viking parliament. Iceland's parliament (Althingi in Icelandic) is the oldest parliamentary institution in the world. It was originally established as an outdoor assembly which was held in Thingvellir in about 930 AD. The clan leaders met to decide on laws and dispense justice. There is an elevated area, the Lögberg, or Law Rock. It has a cliff face running along behind, creating a natural ampitheatre. The Lawspeaker (lögsögumaður) presided over the assembly. He would read aloud the laws, which had been agreed for the coming year, to the assembled crowd. The scenery is breathtaking.
The following morning was spent at Islenski Hesturinn (The Icelandic Horse) on a riding tour. It was a drizzly day and others had cancelled, which left just the two of us for the morning ride. We were collected by Sveinn and within around 25 minutes we arrived at the stables. We met Begga (pronounced Becca) she got us coffee and asked us about our experience levels. We (like most Aussies I expect) are very comfortable on horses but we were, very rightly, taken through all the safety issues first. Begga told us what we could expect from the horses and more importantly, what the horses would expect from us. She explained that the Icelandic horses have five gaits. They have an additional natural gait, present from birth, called the tölt. In technical terms it is a four-beat lateral ambling gait. The footfall pattern is the same as the walk - left hind, left front, right hind, right front. It is incredibly comfortable and can be maintained at the speed of a normal trot up to that of a canter. Begga was very keen for us to experience the tolt, as were we.
We were supplied with wet weather gear, helmets and gloves before heading outside to meet the horses. Icelandic horses only average 13 and 14 hands (52 and 56 inches, 132 and 142 cm) in height, and would normally be classed as a pony. I, at 6 feet tall, felt almost cruel asking one of them to carry me around. These are a really stocky, muscular, sturdy types though and it posed no problem for them. Jen was introduced to her mount a horse named Vafi (roughly translates as Braid or Weave). I was introduced to Ljosbrau (Bright Eyes).
Along with Begga and Sveinn, we saddled up and headed out. The horses have a gentle, friendly nature and were very responsive to us. They are easy to ride and switched between gaits with simple voice commands and posture changes. We ambled through the red volcanic landscape. It's dotted with what resembled self raising puddings which stood 20 - 30 feet tall. There were sunken areas of land, with frozen pools of water and snowy patches. It was like nothing we could ever have imagined seeing, let alone riding through on horseback. The rider is required to do a couple of specific things which send a clear message to the horse that you want it to tolt. Sveinn and Begga helped us get the technique down in order to successfully achieve the gait. It is quite different to anything we had previously experienced. Very quick acceleration, a very comfortable, quiet gait (as only one foot is on the ground at any time) and a perfectly steady lateral movement with almost no vertical movement. We were out for about 90 minutes and Begga happily took photographs which she later emailed to us.
Our guides were incredibly energetic, attentive and helpful. This is a fairly new family business. Begga, Sveinn, and thier two children have only been operating for just over a year. I think they will be very very busy going forward. They gave us a wonderful experience for our last morning in Iceland.
We spent the afternoon in town. That evening we stopped in at Reykjavic's world famous hotdog stand, Bæjarins beztu pylsur (best hot dog in town).
It's a small stand on Pósthússtræti, close to the harbour. To put it in perspective, it was a rainy Thursday night, without any shelter, and we had to join a queue. People were stopping cars and darting out for a dog, so were knew we were onto something special. We had been told that the dogs in Iceland were made from lamb, but when we ordered the guy told us they also contained pork. We ordered two with everything - mayo, mustard and crispy fried diced onions - washed down with a coke. They were very tasty, and affordable. I don't know whether they are the world's best (we still find a Berlin currywurst unbeatable) bet we'll leave that judgement to others. Hell... we were eating them on the last night of our anniversary trip in Iceland, so they tasted pretty damn good to us!
We had a great time in Iceland and can't wait to visit again. The people are genuinely friendly and helpful. The landscape is unique and strikingly beautiful. The Northern lights unforgetable. The food is lovely and, despite all you read, the prices were not extortionate. An amazing country and it's only a 3 hour flight from London. See you in summer Reykjavic!