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Reykjavik, My First Visit

15 May

Solar Voyager

I’ve had two weeks to reflect on my trip to Iceland. It seems such a long time ago now and I already miss the place! Luckily BBC Four has had Iceland Season this week. For example there was an excellent programme on Monday about the Sagas and their importance in Icelandic culture, but also their impact at literature and world at large. There has also been a programme about the changing environment at the North and people’s struggle to survive documented by photographer Ragnar Axelsson. I missed one with Julia Bradbury walking, but will definitely catch it on BBC iPlayer. All the programmes are filled with mysterious, scenic, spellbinding and wild images of the Icelandic landscape. I don’t seem to be able to shake the country’s impression off me. Nor do I want to. I want to go back there and let the terrain take me. I’m bewitched!

It all started with a long wait at the bus stop in Withington on Friday 29th or otherwise known as the Royal Wedding Day. Normally the airport busses run every ten minutes or so, but I’ve completely forgotten that since that Friday was a bank holiday, Sunday timetables were applicable and number 43 comes only once every half an hour. Great. I ended up standing for at least 25 minutes on the bus stop. At least it wasn’t raining.

When I finally got the airport it felt, well it was, empty. I was expecting long queues at check-in and security. The few people who were there were all huddled around TV-screens watching the wedding. I was more interested on my fellow passengers though and tried to guess who were the tourists and was there any Icelanders on their way home. Unfortunately the flight was delayed by an hour and we ended up sitting on the tarmac for a while. I was eager to get going and instead I spent most my Friday afternoon at Manchester Airport! I wasn’t impressed. Furthermore the flight was due to make a stop at Glasgow, which added an extra hour or so to the total travelling time. On Icelandair, with whom I fly with, only soft-drinks, tea and coffee are complementary. The rest including food you have to pay for by card preferably. Another unfortunate thing was that I got an aisle seat. I was hoping to sit by the window and weather condition and cloud cover pending snap some photos from the air before we land. Instead I was sitting next to a middle-aged couple on their way to Toronto. They didn’t seem half as excited about flying to Iceland and glimpsing a bird’s-eye view of the landscape as I was. In contrast they pretty much snored they way to the country and only woke up when the plane bounced on the tarmac.

So we landed an hour late at Keflavik Airport and as I walked through to the arrivals what’s the first thing I saw? Iron-Maiden’s world-tour jumbo jet! I thought, what a country! I had bought my airport bus ticket in advance through Reykjavik Excursions. I recommend buying a return ticket straight away, because the return ticket is valid for a year and the drivers don’t sell any, so you have to buy it from their ticket office. I had to first register on their website (strange) and then printed out a confirmation, which I had to then exchange to the actual ticket at the ticket office. The ticket office was easy to find. It’s located just next to the main entrance and busses are right outside. The system seemed to be such that when the bus filled up it left and next one took its place. I had bought a Flybus Plus ticket, which meant that I got dropped off at my hotel, Hotel Björk, which I told to the driver when embarking. The bus journey from the airport took about 45 minutes and at the Reykjavik Excursions bus depot (which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere) the driver shouted out names of hotels and told passengers staying at those to get their bags and change to a another bus next to ours. Some confusion and chaos inevitably followed. After about 20 minutes the few of us who didn’t have to change finally got on our way. And what do you know, Hotel Björk was the first stop! Excellent!

After a quick check-in and look around the room I headed out to the town. It took me about fifteen minutes to reach the main shopping street Laugavegur and another fifteen minutes to reach the other end. I was in hurry to get to a tourist information before it closed for the day. I got there in time and came out with couple of postcards, map of Reykjavik and ten stamps. From there I wondered to the seaside and the Solar Voyager. Ironically enough as I took my first photographs of the artwork the raindrops started and surely enough it looked to continue for the rest of the evening. So I headed back to the hotel and eyed out possible contenders for evening-meal. When I got to my hotel I noticed a restaurant on the other side of the building. I walked passed but it looked empty. Never a good sign. But by this time the rain was getting heavier and I decided to give the hotel’s restaurant a go. It was the right decision for that night! And as it turned out the restaurant was the same that I walked pass and thought nothing of!

Called Potturinn og Pannan they served me a mushroom soup for a starter and Icelandic lamb steak for the main. The lamb was d-e-l-i-c-o-u-s! It simply melted in my mouth! A funny thing I noticed was that on the plate the massive steak was the main story. The jacket-potato and few strips of carrot and cucumber where all miniature in size. A carnivore’s heaven! But it was good and I was full and happy chappy. The meal with glass of red wine cost me 4290Kr, but as a guest at the hotel I got 15% discount. Good deal! I had an early start the next morning so headed back to my room and got ready for next day’s adventures.

I had pre-booked a combination tour with Iceland Excursions: whale watching in the morning and Golden Tour in the afternoon. I got picked up from the hotel at eight in the morning. We were driven to the excursions’ sales office where we had to again exchange our printed vouchers to the actual tour tickets. After a little wait we climbed on another mini-bus and were driven to the harbour that actually was a walking distance away! At the harbour we had to show our tour ticket in the whale watching company’s sales office and were given yet another ticket! With pockets full of tickets I finally got to embark the ship.

Weather was chilly and miserable. The rain had turned into sleet and it continued to sleet through the morning. However, the sea looked calm so I was expecting a good sailing. On the ship there were spear blankets and warm overalls. I got my self a seat on the lower deck under cover and got a blanket to sit on. I had thermal underwear, fleece and weatherproof jacket and trousers. Compared to some of the fellow tourist, some of who looked more like ready for a night-out than trip out on icy sea, I felt like an Arctic explorer with my wooly hat, mittens and thick gloves underneath. And then we where off! At first I though it might be a long three hours out at sea if there was little wildlife activity. Also the low clouds and grey weather made sure we didn’t see much of scenery. I was proven wrong though! After about twenty minutes leaving the harbour our guide spotted the first of many harbour porpoises! She also said that there definitely was something bigger out there as well and sure enough we soon saw a glimpse of the top fin of minke whale! But it wasn’t to appear again so we continued further out. We didn’t have to sail much longer before we spotted another couple of minkes. They were busy eating and weren’t bothered about our presence, so we were treated with glimpses of their backs and tails before they dived. The minke whales shared the feeding ground with some porpoises and sea birds like puffins and gannets that made a fantastic splash when they dived liked bullets for fish. It was a great morning! Wet and happy we returned to the harbour around midday. I was getting again picked up, but apparently the pick-up wasn’t until 12:30, so I had coffee and chips at a cool little burger-joint near by.

So another short hop on the mini-bus back to the sales office and another short wait before our Golden Tour mini-bus arrived. All this while sleet was still falling. Our Golden Tour started with a climb on a mountain road over snow-covered uneven lava formations. All of a sudden the snow just disappeared and I could spot faint spring green colours among the rocks. Our first stop was Thingvellir were we had a unique opportunity to see two tectonic plates departing. It’s a strange view. First you see it just as a long valley with high rocky walls, but then you remind yourself what is it that you are actually looking at. Tectonic plates that have the power to create new land, like Iceland, or swallow it up as is happening to Southern Europe that is slowly disappearing under the African plate.

Our next stop was Gullfoss. A massive waterfall. This was the furthest point inland in our tour and the landscape had changed again and the weather! By now the clouds where breaking and sun was shining through. The river rolled through what looked like a pretty flat grassy valley, which was flanked by these massive mountains. Very dramatic. But Golden Tours is a very touristy tour, so you weren’t there on your own but surrounded by many others. And true to the spirit of ripping as much money of us as possible there was a restaurant and a gift shop. Guaranteed the stop was long enough for us to get bored looking at the waterfall and head indoors to spend our way through dullness. I bought couple more postcards and a keyring. Toilets were good.

Last but definitely not the least was Geysir or actually Strokkur. Geysir has long since gone to sleep, but the new pretender, Strokkur, still puts up an impressive show. Every 4-5 minutes it spurts a ten meter tall column of water. It’s like looking at somebody struggling to get a sneeze going. You almost adjust your own breathing to the rhythm of the hot spring as it inhales and outhales water with growing intensity. Eventually, if you are lucky, you see this clear blue half-globe and second after that GAWHOOSH! I missed my change to photograph the globe and before the next explosion there wasn’t one and we got two water columns instead of one. It is by these hot water pools that you can really smell Iceland. Slightly rotten eggs. In contrast to my expectation my shower water didn’t stink. Maybe there was a slight smell, but not anything overpowering. Occasionally while on the tour you had the odd whiffs of sulphur or maybe that was the guy next to me farting. Who knows, but Iceland is the one of the few places on Earth where you can get away with it!

Thingvellir

I decided to treat myself with a nice meal after a long day out at sea and on the road. Since I was in Iceland I had promised myself to try some of their excellent fish restaurants. I chose Fiskfelagid (or the Fish Company) on Vesturgata. A little bit up market, but the waiter didn’t even blink twice when I showed up without reservation and dressed up still in my explorer outfit. I got a table and ordered their three course offer. And guess what was my starter? Yes, that’s right minke whale! It felt slightly wrong, since only that morning I had spotted few of the wonderful creatures, but the meat itself of wonderful as well. Catfish for my main and blueberry mousse for the dessert. Otherwise a lovely meal, but the blueberry mousse was completely ruined by some milk-chocolate chips in it. There was more chocolate than blueberries! I didn’t like at all, but they sure know how to cook their fish…and well mammals.

I couldn’t believe I only had one day left in Reykjavik! I wanted to see more of the city, so I planned a route around it with few visits to museums and other places of interest. First I headed off towards Hallgrimskirkja. It’s build on top of a hill and where ever you are in Reykjavik you can always see the tall bell-tower of the church. It was nearing 10 a.m. as I walked through the ten centimetres deep slush of snow. It hadn’t stop snowing until early hours of Sunday morning and all of Reykjavik was covered in white blanket. Pretty but it was the sort of wet sleet that gets a bit annoying to walk in after a while. At least I was wearing my walking boots so my feet stayed dry. To my surprise there was no service when I got to Hallgrimskirkja. Only an organist practicing. It’s a strange building. It has almost a stripped Gothic feel to it, but the building material is modern concrete. Or the walls inside and out are plastered to give it a concrete look. Odd. But the best thing about the church is its bell-tower. For a small fee (500Kr) you can take the lift up to the viewing platform from where you get panoramic views of Reykjavik and beyond, weather permitting. From the bird’s-eye view I mapped my route to the National Museum and the Nordic House, which by the way is designed by Alvar Aalto and I believe it is the only public building in Iceland created by a foreigner. My next stop after the Nordic House was the Culture House on the other side of the city, but it took me only about twenty minutes to get there. After seeing the medieval manuscript exhibition I was all cultured and worn out. In addition my stomach was protesting loudly and my feet felt like mashed potatoes.

So I headed towards Cafe Loki opposite the Hallgrimskirkja for my last Icelandic meal.I had salad and a massive slice of trout tart, which turned out to be a what we Finns call a sandwich cake or voileipäkakku. It had slices of rye bread layered with smoked trout and mayonnaise filling. Washed down with a bottle of Viking beer, this was a nice ending to my short visit in Iceland. Dessert was rye bread ice-cream. Sounds odd, but it tastes great! Icelandic rye bread is slightly sweeter than Finnish so it worked well. The taste, well it reminded me about the Finnish Easter dessert mämmi, which is also based on rye and mixed with vanilla ice-cream is also really nice. All this cost a mere 2520Kr and the place has that small cafe charm.

Strokkur

The whole country, or the little bit that I saw of it has charmed me. I felt sorry having to pack my rucksack and get ready for the early morning wake-up. My flight back to Manchester was due at 8 a.m. and the Flybus pick-up was at 5 a.m. The hotel kindly offers early breakfasts for us unfortunate ones who need to be up before the dawn. So at least I didn’t have to leave with empty stomach. I will definitely go back to Iceland and explore the country and its landscape further. For example I didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon or walking on one of the glaciers. The little that I saw of the Icelandic nature I can easily understand why people there believed in trolls and other magical beings. The open terrain is protruded with oddly shaped lava-rock forms, small and big. It is easy with little bit of imagination to begin to see faces and bodies frozen in time in them. The varying light and cloud cover gives the place a magical feel and that magic reaches out at touches its visitors. Once you are touched by this enchantment you will want to go back and experience it all over again!

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Posted by on 15/05/2011 in Culture, Environment, Postaweek2011, Travel, Weather

 

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