Have Bag, Will Travel
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Tag Archives: Reykjavik
“The Þingvellir National Park is a haven of peace. Drunkenness is inappropriate here and disturbs other visitors. The National Park reserves the right to expel inebriated visitors.” Þingvellir National Park visitor guide
As we approached the National Park, one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland, the road clung like velcro to the side of the picturesque lake Þingvallavatn, the largest freshwater lake in the country, that looked mean and moody under the heavy grey skies and whilst we would have preferred blue sky and sunshine this greyness seemed strangely appropriate to the location as we stopped at a lay-by and disposed of our empty beer cans.
It was mid afternoon when we arrived at Þingvellir and although the sun was poking through now and again the light was beginning to fade on the site of the historic Icelandic National Assembly. This was called the Althing and was an open-air assembly that represented the whole of Iceland that was established in the year 930 and continued to meet for eight hundred and fifty years or so after that. Over two weeks every year, the Assembly met at this site and set laws, handed down punishments to law breakers, dealt with nagging wives and bad husbands and settled neighbour disputes.
It continues to have deep historical and symbolic associations for Icelanders and the site includes what are said to be the remains of the Althing itself – fragments of around fifty meeting rooms built from turf and stone. There is Icelandic pride in the association of the Althing to the tradition of medieval Germanic/Norse governance, known through the twelfth century Icelandic sagas and resurrected and reinforced during the fight for independence in the nineteenth century.
Interestingly the Parliament of the Isle of Man, which claims to be the oldest continuous Parliament in the World is called the Tynwald which is a word that originates from the Old Norse Þingvǫllr.
This history and the powerful natural setting of the assembly grounds has given the site iconic status as a national shrine and on 17th June 1944 thousands of Icelanders flocked to this place for the historic foundation of the modern independent republic of Iceland.
We walked past great fissures in the landscape where the land is literally tearing itself apart in a sort of messy divorce settlement. The famous Almannagjá is the biggest of them and is evidence that here the tectonic plates of Europe and America meet and are in continual conflict with each other as they are drifting slowly apart at a rate of 3mm per year, which may not sound a lot but in geological terms is almost as fast as Usain Bolt!
There were few visitors and the site had an eerie beauty, ringed by black mountains with deep lava chasms, delicately balancing rocks looked set to topple over at any moment if anyone should so much as whisper, cold satanic lakes with deep secrets, sharp cobalt rocks and impatient waterfalls with exploding water cascading down the graphite walls and shattering into a thousand droplets of fine mist as it collided with the next stage of the river bed and continued its surging journey.
The National Park was founded in 1930, twenty-one years before the first UK National Park (the Peak District in Derbyshire), to protect the remains of the parliament site and was later expanded to protect natural phenomena in the surrounding area. It was the first national park in Iceland and was decreed “a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged”.
After we had walked along the ridge and to the waterfalls we returned to the car and debated the route home. The shortest route was by another gravel road but even though we were appropriately insured we didn’t really have the stomach for that again so we choose the longer tarmac route which took us about an hour to get back to Reykjavik.
It was still relatively early when we returned to the hotel and with the sun now making a belated afternoon appearance Mike and I went back onto the streets and walked for a while through the residential areas of the city before making our way back to the cathedral and the Leif Ericson statue and then through the city where we found a bar with ‘happy hour’ prices followed by a stroll to the seafront and the Sólfar Suncraft statue and then back to the hotel where Kim and Margaret were ready already for evening meal.
We didn’t have a great deal of debate about this and all quickly agreed to go back to ‘Harry’s Bar’ but there was a problem when we arrived because there were no available tables because all of the people that had pinched our rooms at the Best Western Hotel next door had been recommended the place for their evening meal. So we booked a table for a little later and walked back to the ‘happy hour’ pub which was a bit further away than we actually remembered and then we had to rush our drinks to be sure of getting back in time for our table.
We needn’t really have worried because the place was beginning to empty as people made their way to waiting coaches to go off on a search for the northern lights and the tables were not refilling at the same rate as they were being vacated so we had a nice second leisurely meal and even though there was a mix up over the orders and the final bill we resolved to come back a third time tomorrow evening.
“This is a land where the wind can knock you off your feet, where the smell of sulphur from your taps tells you there is invisible fire not far below your feet….Everyone is aware that the land is alive, and one can say that the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them reflects an understanding that the land demands respect”. Terry Gunnell, a folklore professor at the University of Iceland
As we drove towards Þingvellir we crossed a ghostly, mystical landscape of mountain passes with peaks lost in the clouds and windswept valleys with remote coloured houses of the hardy residents and maybe also the tiny hidden homes of the secretive Huldufólk, the “hidden folk” of Icelandic folklore because Icelandic gardens often feature tiny wooden álfhól or elf houses for hidden people to live in.
In a land of fire and ice, a wild and magical place, where the fog-shrouded lava fields offer a spooky landscape it is possible that anything out of the ordinary is possible and stories abound about the “hidden folk”.
Hidden people are special here and it is said often appear in the dreams of Icelanders but if you ask me that could just be the result of too much home-brew. They are usually described as wearing nineteenth century Icelandic clothing, and are often portrayed as traditionally wearing green. One of Iceland’s most famous people, the singer Björk was asked in an interview on US TV if people in her country believed in elves; she explained. “We do….It’s sort of a relationship with nature, like with the rocks. (The elves) all live in the rocks, so you have to. It’s all about respect, you know.”
We stopped now and then to photograph the real people houses and I reminded everyone to be careful where they walked in case they stepped on one of these tiny alternative inhabitants because Icelanders prefer big people to be careful and even frown upon the throwing of stones in case you inadvertently hit one of these small invisible people.
These are the thousands of elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness and coexist alongside the 320,000 or so Icelandic people. Iceland is not alone in this and Scandinavian folklore in general is full of elves, trolls and other mythological characters. Most people in Norway, Denmark and Sweden haven’t taken them seriously for several years but elves are no joke to many in Iceland and in a survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 it found that sixty-two percent of the respondents thought it was at least possible that they exist.
Even President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson seems taken in by this and has explained the existence of huldufólk tales by saying: “Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies.”
Huldufólk are believed to live close to humans and are often blamed when things go missing rather like the plot of the 1952 book ‘The Borrowers’ by the English author Mary Norton.
“…Borrower’s don’t steal.”
“Except from human beings,” said the boy.
Arrietty burst out laughing; she laughed so much that she had to hide her face …. “Oh dear,” she gasped with tears in her eyes, “you are funny!” She stared upward at his puzzled face. “Human beans are for Borrowers – like bread’s for butter!”
To illustrate how seriously Icelanders take the issue of elves in 1982 a delegation of Icelanders went to the NATO base in Keflavík to look for “elves who might be endangered by American Phantom jets” and in 2004, Alcoa (the World’s third largest producer of aluminium) had to have a government expert certify that their chosen building site was free of archaeological sites, including ones related to Huldufólk folklore, before they could build an aluminium smelter in Iceland.
More recently Elf protectors have joined forces with environmentalists to urge the Icelandic Road and Coastal Commission and local authorities to abandon a highway project because it might disturb them and their homes. The proposed highway would offer a direct route from the Alftanes peninsula where we had been earlier this morning to the capital Reykjavik but the project has been halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland rules on the case. The activists cite a cultural and environmental impact – including the plight of the elves – as a reason for regularly gathering hundreds of people to block workers from bulldozing the area.
And it’s not the first time issues about the Huldufolk have affected planning decisions. They occur so often that the road and coastal administration has come up with a stock media response for elf inquiries, which states that “issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point while the elves living there have supposedly moved on.” Apparently there have been quite a few noticeable instances of construction projects being postponed for fear of building on land occupied by hidden people and a medium is often called in to negotiate with the elves to ask their permission to build.
As we drove the final few kilometres I kept a careful eye out for any signs of the elves but of course this was pointless because you can’t see them unless they feel like showing themselves to you so all I could imagine was – where they watching us as we approached the spiritual heartland of Iceland at Þingvellir?
“…collecting penises is like collecting anything. You can never stop, you can never catch up, you can always get a new one, a better one a bigger size or better shape…” Museum owner, Sigurður Hjartarson
In the hotel lobby there was a selection of attractions leaflets and one was advertising a rather odd museum so we thought we might take a look. It wasn’t hard to find and and immediately grabbed our attention and it seemed just too bizarre to miss so we approached the door, turned the knob and went inside.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum contains a collection of more than two hundred and fifteen penises and adjacent body parts from almost all of the land and sea mammals in Iceland including fifty six specimens belonging to seventeen different kinds of whale and thirty-six belonging to seven different kinds of seal and walrus. In addition it has a collection of non-Icelandic specimens including a giraffe, an elephant and a polar bear!
It was getting close to closing time and there were only a few visitors inside hanging around the exhibition cases. Two young girls were constantly giggling and not taking it at all seriously, there was a man with a limp, an elderly couple looked thoroughly bemused by it all and half a dozen people from a tour group were wandering around rather self-consciously. For my part I had not seen so many male reproductive organs since I inadvertently strayed onto a naturist beach on the Spanish island of Fuerteventura!
The exhibits ranged from some of the largest to some of the smallest in the animal kingdom. The largest is a portion of a blue whale’s penis measuring one hundred and seventy centimetres long and weighing seventy kilograms but is in fact only the end bit as the entire organ which in its full glory would have been about five metres long would take up most of the room in the small museum! At the other end of the scale the penis of a hamster at only two millimetres is the smallest item in the collection and needs a magnifying glass to see it – and, before anyone else mentions it – rather like the magnifying glass that I keep in the bathroom at home!
The bit I liked best was the amusing “folklore section” exhibiting mythological penises with specimens allegedly taken from elves, trolls and kelpies. The Elf penis is supposed to be impressively huge but you can’t see it of course because in Icelandic folklore elves and trolls are invisible so it sits mockingly in an empty glass jar. It’s a good joke!
For many years, the museum apparently tried to get a human penis but was only able to obtain testicles and a foreskin from two separate donors and only recently has it acquired the full article. I’m afraid that I don’t have any more details on exactly why this is so difficult to accomplish. The Icelandic donor was a ninety-five year-old man who was said to have been a bit of a gigolo in his youth and wanted to donate his penis to the museum to ensure his “eternal fame”.
As he got older he apparently began to worry that his penis was shrinking and he became concerned that his pickled prize would not do him full justice and remember him at his best as it were (a bit like each new Cliff Richard album). He was right to be concerned because after he died in 2011 his penis was surgically removed so that it could be added to the museum’s collection but the procedure was not entirely successful and the contents of the jar were completely unrecognisable (see picture above).
The Icelandic Phallological Museum claims that it exists for the pupose of genuinely serious study into the field of phallology in an organized, scientific fashion but you might not be inclined to agree with that when reaching the end of the tour and ending up in the inevitable souvenir shop where rather tasteless and inappropriate items for sale included key rings and bottle openers each moulded in the shape of a penis that were drawing more uncontrolled laughter from the two young girls.
I don’t regularly buy souvenirs but if I was going to buy a mug from Reykjavik I think I would be more inclined to go for one with a picture of the Sólfar Suncraft or Leif Ericson in preference to one with an image of a male private part.
So we left the museum that I am confident to declare the oddest in the World, even more bizarre (although I haven’t been there) than the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum in the USA, the Dog Collar Museum in the UK or the Toilet Museum in New Delhi, India. If anyone has any alternative suggestions by-the-way then I am happy to consider them for inclusion in this list!
Near to the museum there was a small supermarket and when in a foreign country I always like to drop in and see what unusual items I can find on the shelves. Disappointingly on this occasion everything seemed to be rather familiar with a range of items that I might expect to find in any UK supermarket including rather oddly a freezer cabinet full of Iceland (the UK supermarket Iceland) frozen pizzas.
Eventually we came across the chilled section and here were the sort of items that I was hoping to find and which soon had me giggling like the two girls in the penis museum. Here were some frighteningly unappetising sounding salad spreads with names that sounded as though they should be more appropriately being exhibited next door and if you have ever wondered why sometimes products change their name to be more universally acceptable then here is an example why…
Later we returned to the Best Western Hotel to claim our complimentary drinks in compensation for the inconvenience and although I suspect that they hoped that we wouldn’t turn up they were true to their word and showed great hospitality and served us our wine and beer.
We might have stayed longer but our plan was to walk into the city for evening meal but as we left the hotel Kim spotted somewhere close by and once again demonstrated her uncanny knack of finding a good restaurant and on the edge of town her instinct led us to a small bistro with a short menu called ‘Harry’s Bar’ and we were glad of that because none of us really felt like walking any more today and the food turned out to be just wonderful and hopefully not served up from these tins of processed meat.
My first trip to Iceland was in 2007 when the country appeared to be riding the crest of an economic wave, top of the United Nations index on human development and according to a study at Leicester University the fourth happiest place to live in the world.
Iceland had one of the richest economies in Europe, but it had a problem nagging away below the surface of the wave because its three main private sector banks had become so large that their assets amounted to more than ten times the gross domestic product of the country and eventually things went spectacularly wrong.
The economy bombed, the krona has lost more than half its value. GDP dropped by 10% (I am not an economist but apparently that is quite a lot) in under a year and unemployment hit a forty year high. Following negotiations with the International Monetary Fund a massive rescue package of $4.6bn was agreed by a combination of loans and currency swaps from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. In addition, Poland offered to lend $200m and the little Faroe Islands offered 300m Danish kroner, which was roughly the equivalent of the United Kingdom lending 300 billion Danish krona or 35 billion pounds! How generous was that.
Six years previously I had found the country horrendously expensive but that turned out to be a bit of bad timing because immediately after the crash and only a year later the krona lost fifty percent of its value against the Euro. Even taking into account six years of relatively high inflation, which even now remains stubbornly high at over 5%, I was rather hoping for cheaper prices this time because it has now dropped to only the nineteenth most expensive country in the World to live in.
You would think that this would make people happy but evidently not because from fourth happiest in 2007 it has plummeted to eighty-eighth in 2013 and from the top of the human development index it has dropped to only fourteenth but remains in a top twenty which interestingly includes all of the other Scandinavian countries, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland.
On the positive side and despite losing its happiness crown in 2013 the World Economic Forum named Iceland as the World’s most visitor friendly country just ahead of New Zealand and Morocco (Morocco?) . The least friendly country by-the-way was declared to be Bolivia followed by Venezuela and then Russia. Well, in my personal experience (and that is all that it is) I certainly wouldn’t put Morocco in the top three and I certainly wouldn’t place Russia in the bottom three either.
Other facts that might make Icelanders sad is that it is the only northern European country not to win the Eurovision Song Contest despite competing in twenty-six competitions and it has never qualified for the football World Cup finals or the European Championship finals. On the other hand it does now have three blue flag beaches and four blue flag marinas.
The weather was a bit of a surprise because we had interpreted ‘Ice land’ rather literally and were expecting sub zero temperatures, snow and lots of ice. What we hadn’t taken fully into consideration was the effect of the gulf-stream that delivers warm water from the Caribbean directly to the south of the country and thereby keeps the temperature unexpectedly mild.
Reykjavik is on a line of latitude 64° north which is approximately the same as Anchorage in Alaska and Arkhangelsk in Russia but whilst the average October temperature in these two cities is about -10° centigrade in Iceland it is generally a degree or two above zero. Whilst you wouldn’t step out on the streets in Anchorage or Arkhangelsk without a warm coat, woolly mittens and a flask of hot soup it really wasn’t absolutely necessary here. Iceland it seems is a most inappropriately named country.
When we arrived it was dreary and overcast but to be fair there was now some weather improvement and although there were still impenetrable steel grey clouds it had at least stopped raining. It was only a short walk to the seafront and we found our way to the promenade and walked along to the Sólfar Suncraft, which is a stainless steel 1986 sculpture of a Viking long boat that occupies an impressive spot overlooking the bay and Mount Esja on the other side.
Iceland is proud of its Viking heritage because the country was first colonised by Norwegians in the ninth century and the story goes that the first permanent settler was a man called Ingólfur Arnarson who landed here in 871 and named the location Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, on account of the comforting plumes of hot steam that were escaping from the nearby hot springs.
By early afternoon there were some promising pools of blue sky spilling through the clouds as we walked back from the sea and into the city centre and along the main shopping street of Laugavegur. We were ready for a break so we stopped at a small café that we recognised from the previous visit and where on that occasion a coffee and a sandwich and a cake came to a very unreasonable 1,600 krona, or about £13 but this time it was way cheaper for four of us at about only £8 and I began to feel more comfortable about Icelandic prices.
It was an early morning flight to Iceland so we stayed over the night before at the Ibis hotel in Luton where we spent a very pleasant evening and then got up early to walk to the airport which was just a few minutes away which was a good job on account of the fact that it was raining quite hard. The day began well enough and I wasn’t to know at this stage as we sat with a cup of tea in the departure lounge that within just a few hours four things were going to really irritate me!
First – airport security.
These people are just unbelievable and without a shred of customer service skills between them. They herd you up like cattle and then belittle you by stripping you down at the scanner and then work at snails pace to clear the lines. I am fairly certain that every morning they have a meeting and decide on the tactics for the day about really irritating everyone. Today it was watches and jewellery and bizarre inconsistency about the size of the plastic bag for carrying through liquids. My bag was stopped and searched for no apparent good reason and the staff dealt with this in a completely charmless and ignorant way.
Second – easyJet
So when we had finished our tea we made our way to the departure gate which turned out to be a breathless concrete stairwell serving two flights with about four hundred people pushing and shoving their way to the desk. As we approached a member of staff stopped us and informed us that the flight was full, there was insufficient space in the overhead lockers for all the baggage and that ours would have to go in the hold. How annoying is that? We take hand luggage so that we can carry everything we need with us and so that we can get though the arrivals hall as quickly as possible.
It is possible that I over reacted a bit here but with good reason because the previous time we flew to Iceland we put our suitcases in the hold of the British Airways plane and Kim’s somehow managed to go to Glasgow, became a lost luggage statistic and didn’t show up at Kevlavik for four days. I complained but the young man had been expertly trained not to show any reaction or emotion so we were separated from our luggage and anything that we might need for the three hour flight. And then the flight was delayed for almost an hour because of all the baggage messing about!
Third – Sixt Car Hire
Unfortunately hiring a car on line is as big a financial minefield as booking a low cost flight with a range of confusing add ons and exclusions all designed to generate additional revenue. Sixt have come up with a brilliant wheeze. I thought that I had purchased fully comprehensive insurance but the desk clerk told me that the cars suffered so many stone chips because of the gravel roads in Iceland that this had now been excluded and could be purchased at an additional cost of €9 a day under the description ‘gravel damage’ and just to be safe I agreed to buy it.
Then it became almost surreal when he explained that further cover was available at €10 a day for volcano damage. Volcano damage – WTF?
Upon enquiry he told me that if a volcano explodes it can generate enough heat to strip the paint off the car and that this was not covered either. Sixt provide this explanation and justification for this additional level of insurance cover:
“Due to volcanic eruptions in Iceland in recent years there is still a great amount of ash in the highlands that tends to cause damage to vehicles in windy weather. Any damage caused by volcanic ash is not covered by any insurance or terms and conditions in Iceland. We do what we can so that our customers can travel our beautiful country without a care and this is why we now offer all customers to purchase Sand and ash protection and Gravel protection, specially made to deal with our unique Icelandic conditions.”
Well, I considered this for a moment and came to the conclusion that if I was close enough to an exploding volcano for it to strip the paint off the car then it was almost certain that I was likely to be in a lot of trouble and great personal danger and the last thing that I was going to be worried about as my flesh melted into a puddle of grease and my bones were surely burnt to a blackened cinder was the condition of the paintwork on the hire car (gravel chipped or not) so I sensibly declined the offer to purchase the additional cover and quickly paid up just in case he next tried to sell me snow or rain insurance in case the car got wet!
As a postscript to this point I would like to point out to Sixt car hire that as we drove around over the next few days I didn’t see a single car stripped down to bare metal so I have come to the inescapable conclusion that volcano damage insurance is a complete con.
Fourth – The Best Western Hotel, Reyjkavik
We had landed through a thick grey sky heavy with rain and outside the weather was wet and not at all inviting. It wasn’t heavy rain, just that low cloud and mizzle that is cold, damp and depressing. Reykjavik was about a fifty-kilometre drive and it was across a barren lunar type landscape with black granite rocks and no vegetation at all except for vibrant green moss that was clinging uninvited to the inhospitable boulders.
I mention this just so you can get an idea of my mood at this precise moment…
After forty minutes or so we arrived in Reykjavik and quickly found the hotel, unloaded the car and presented ourselves at reception. The young man at the desk looked embarrassed, leaned across the counter, lowered his voice to hushed tones as though bad news is better whispered and said there was a problem, the hotel had overbooked and we were being sent elsewhere.
I was not happy. I asked him to explain the point of me spending an evening on hotel booking web sites to find the one that I want, to book it based on location, price and facilities only for him to tell me that I couldn’t stay there. It seemed that a tour company wanted the rooms and they were going to get priority even though I had booked the rooms eight months earlier in February. I made this point (twice I think, maybe even three times) and he told me that the date of booking was irrelevant.
There was no negotiating on this point so we reluctantly accepted his invitation of a complimentary drink in the bar later, collected up our bags, reloaded them in the car and made our way to the alternative accommodation.
It had not been a great start – welcome to Iceland.
Before hiring a car at Keflavik in Iceland whether with Sixt or any other rental company check out this Tripadvisor page first:
Leif Erikson contemplates a Voyage of Discovery…
There is no real evidence that Eiriksson discovered America but his statue faces to the west as though in expectation of belated recognition for his achievement. Today he looked out over Viking skies full of Nordic drama with mountainous clouds as big and as grey as a medieval cathedral.
Leif Ericson, Reykjavik
Outside the cathedral in Reykjavik is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson who was an Icelander born about 970 and who explored the oceans and the lands west of Iceland, establishing colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland and who according to legend reached America long before Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucchi.
The statue was a gift from the American Government in 1930 to mark Iceland’s one thousandth anniversary and October 9th is commemorated as Leif Ericson day in the United States. The date is not associated with any particular event in Leif Erikson’s life, it was chosen because the ship Restauration sailing from Stavanger in Norway, arrived in New York Harbour on October 9th 1825 at the start of the first organized immigration from Norway to the United States.
Now we began to appreciate fully the landscape and as the sun began to appear through broken clouds we stopped for a while to enjoy the spaciousness of the countryside. First we found some Icelandic ponies that are unique to this country and then stopped for magnificent views of the River Sog with the sun hugging the horizon and shooting shafts of brightness through the heavy clouds.
Sólfar Suncraft, Reykjavik
It was only a short walk to the seafront and we found our way to the promenade and walked along to the Sólfar Suncraft, which is a stainless steel 1986 sculpture of a Viking long boat that occupies an impressive spot overlooking the bay and Mount Esja on the other side. Iceland is proud of its Viking heritage because the country was first colonised by Norwegians in the ninth century and the first permanent settler was a man called Ingólfur Arnarson who landed here in 871 and named the location Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, on account of the plumes of the steam that were coming from the nearby hot springs.