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Category Archives: Iceland
“Drink is a sort of anaesthetic, it diminishes the pain…and I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica.” – Peter O’Toole
In Iceland March 1st is National Beer Day and my blogging pal Richard (https://abitofculture.net/) explains why…
“Before I talk about beers and bars, here’s a bit of history that might surprise you. Prohibition was introduced in Iceland in 1915, and although spirits and wine were later allowed, beer was still outlawed until 1989. The beer ban was finally lifted on 1st March that year, a day celebrated annually by the nation as Beer Day. Beer festivals, pub-crawls and drunken debauchery allegedly ensue. I’d loved to have experienced Beer Day in the bars of Reykjavik, but unfortunately got there four days too late!”
I imagine Richard found Reykjavik a little quiet as it recovered from a collective hangover!
Like Richard I have visited Iceland but never on National Beer Day. I would like to but here is a word of caution, if like me, you are tempted to join Icelanders to celebrate 1st March then be sure to take a lot of cash because beer (and everything else as it happens) is very expensive. Here is a top tip – if you are travelling to Iceland and you want some spirits, beer or wine then be sure to visit the airport duty free shop after you land because here alcohol can be bought for almost sensible prices.
But Iceland isn’t the only place to celebrate a National Beer Day.
National Beer Day is celebrated in the United States every year on 7th April, marking the day that the Cullen–Harrison Act which repealed prohibition became law. After being signed off by President Franklin D. Roosevelt it is alleged that he said “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”
Everyone seemed to agree with him because it is said that on the day that the Act was passed into law people across the country consumed one and a half million barrels of beer to celebrate. This raises a question mark for me – during prohibition who brewed one and a half million barrels of beer and why?
Not satisfied with National Beer Day, the USA has a second day of celebration on 27th October which is celebrated as National American Beer Day. There are more than two thousand breweries that manufacture beer in the United States and I suspect that they all taste the same.
In 1990 I first visited World Disney World in Florida and spent an hour or so at EPCOT World Showcase. After a whirlwind tour of the World we came eventually to the United Kingdom, designed to look like a typical British village with shops, thatched cottages and gardens. The shops sold British goods, such as tea, toys, clothing, and Beatles merchandise. I was fed up with it all by now and bypassed Hampton Court and the Cotswold village and aimed for The Rose & Crown Pub which at least served English beer.
I ordered a pint and so did an American guest but he took one sip and his face distorted in agony at the taste (English beer has flavour whereas American beers do not), he said ‘What the hell is that?” and slammed it down on the bar and left. I was tempted to take it but the bar staff, obviously used to this reaction, swiftly took it away and poured it down the sink.
And another day to mark in the diary in the USA is 24th January which is Beer Can Appreciation Day which celebrates the day in 1935 when beer was first sold in cans.
National Beer Day in the United Kingdom is celebrated on 15th June which is a happy coincidence for me because that also happens to be the day of my birth. 15th June was chosen as the day of celebration not in recognition of my birthday however but rather because it happens to be the day in 1215 when Magna Carta was signed by King John and the Barons at Runneymede and article 35 of the Charter stated “Let there be throughout our Kingdom a single measure for wine and a single measure for ale…”
During research I have been surprised to find no mention of a National Beer Day in Australia but someone suggested to me that is probably because every day is Beer Day in Australia.
If they ever did have a National Beer Day I would suggest April 30th to celebrate a gargantuan beer drinking achievement. The Australian cricketer David Boon (who had a moustache so huge it had to be taken out twice a day for a walk) famously drank fifty-two cans of beer on a flight from Sydney to London before the 1989 Ashes tour, breaking a record of forty-four set by Doug Walters and Rod Marsh on an earlier flight. Boon himself played down the achievement by pointing out that they were only small airline sized cans.
“Hey Mom, they have pizza in Italy too!” American tourist family overheard in Rome
February 9th in the USA is National Pizza Day.
First, the facts…
… Over four billion pizzas are sold in America every year, 17% of all restaurants are pizzerias, including Italy at World Showcase at Disney World at EPCOT and around about three hundred and fifty pizza slices are eaten every second. Pepperoni is the most popular pizza at just over one-third of all pies ordered.
“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie that’s Amore” (Harry Warren/Jack Brooks)
When I was a boy growing up we didn’t have pizza!
For my Mum preparing food took up a lot of every day because there were no convenience meals and everything had to be prepared from scratch. There was complete certainty about the menu because we generally had the same thing at the same time on the same day every week, there were no foreign foods at all, no pasta or curries and rice was only ever used in puddings.
The main meal of the week was Sunday dinner which was usually roast beef, pork or lamb (chicken was a rare treat and a turkey was only for Christmas) served with roast potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, which for some reason mum always called batter puddings, and strictly only seasonal vegetables because runner beans weren’t flown in from Kenya all year round as they are today.
We had never heard of moussaka, paella or lasagne and the week had a predictable routine; Monday was the best of the left-over meat served cold with potatoes and on Tuesday the tough bits were boiled up in a stew (we would call that bouef bourguignon now) and on Wednesday what was left was minced and cooked with onions and served with mash and in this way one good joint of meat provided four main meals with absolutely no waste. Thursday was my personal favourite, fried egg and chips and Friday was my nightmare day with liver or kidneys because I liked neither (and still don’t!) I complained so much about this that later I was allowed the concession of substituting sausage for liver but I was still obliged to have the gravy (which I didn’t care for much either) on the basis that ‘it was good for me!’
If we had been Catholics then we would have had fish I suppose but we didn’t have things out of the sea very often except for fish fingers.
I can still remember my very first pizza and I consider myself fortunate that it was in Italy, in 1976, my first ever overseas holiday when I visited Sorrento with my dad.
It was lunchtime and because we were in Naples we had to visit a pizzeria because Naples is the home of the dough based, tomato topped classic. Legend has it that Queen Margherita of Savoy gave her name to the famous pizza on a visit there in 1889. Tired of French gourmet cooking (as you might well be) she summoned the city’s most famous pizza-maker, Raffaele Esposito, and asked him to bake her three pizzas – of which, prepared in the colours of the Italian flag – red (tomato), green (basil), and white (mozzarella) the simple and patriotic version was her favourite.
A lunchtime pizza stop in Rome…
Today, authentic Neapolitan pizzas are made with local produce and have been given the status of a ‘guaranteed traditional speciality’. This allows only three official variants: pizza Marinara, which is made with tomato, garlic, oregano and extra virgin olive oil, pizza Margherita, made with tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil, and pizza Margherita Extra made with tomato, buffalo mozzarella from Campania, basil and extra virgin olive oil.
I became an immediate fan of the Italian classic and all of its variants just so long as it doesn’t have pineapple on it. And, I am not the only one who thinks pineapple is wrong on pizza; in February 2017, the President of Iceland, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson said and he was ‘fundamentally opposed’ to pineapple on pizzas. He said…
“I like pineapples, just not on pizza. I do not (unfortunately) have the power to make laws which forbid people to put pineapples on their pizza. For pizzas, I recommend seafood.”
Interestingly I cannot see that Italy itself has a National Pizza Day!
Maybe because in terms of pizza consumption per population Italy is only fifth in the World. Fourth is Germany, third is the UK, second is the USA but first is NORWAY! I can understand that, if I lived in Norway I would eat cheap pizza because Norway is amongst the most expensive places to live in the World.
Canada joins in on Pizza Day and I nominate this Poutine (fried potato, gravy and cheese curds) Pizza as probably the worst ever variation on the famous pie. If we had ever had pizza at home and my mum served this up I can guarantee that I would be there twenty-four hours later listening to her repeat over and again – “you are not leaving the table until you have eaten all of your dinner” or, on rare occasions that I could wear her down…” one more mouthful and you can get down” and just to make it clear that didn’t include “I don’t want to eat this shit”.
Happy National Pizza Day USA and Canada and Australia too, I believe – have an extra slice for me (no pineapple preferred).
“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, Folklore Professor at the University of Iceland
Sightings of Elves are like sightings of Elvis – frequently reported but never confirmed!
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 In Iceland 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 one time 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 folk.
These are the thousands of elves who make their homes in Iceland’s wilderness and coexist alongside the 320,000 or so Icelandic humans. 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 now 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 previous President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson seemed taken in by this and 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?
Unfortunately hiring a car on line is as big a financial minefield as booking a low cost flight because there is an inevitable range of confusing add-on charges and exclusions all designed to generate additional revenue.
Sixt in Iceland 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.
This is like excluding burglary from a house insurance policy or heart attacks from medical insurance. Brilliant business for them. The customer buys insurance but they exclude the things that you might need to claim for!
Then it became almost surreal when he explained that further cover was available at €10 a day for volcano damage. Volcano damage – WTF? I wondered if I was on ‘Caught on Camera’ or something!
On 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 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!
Sixt are good at this sort of thing. Last year in Ireland I returned a car and a member of staff carried out an examination and satisfied himself that there were no bumps or scrapes, no chips in the windscreen and that the tyres weren’t flat and punctured, nothing that is that he could charge me for, and we turned to walk away but were staggered when he called us back and said that there was some sand in the carpets and that there could be a potential £60 cleaning charge.
“£60” I protested and almost choked and he defended this bit of daylight robbery with an explanation that this sort of sand was especially difficult to deal with. I covered my nose because I noticed that there was funny smell and I reminded him that I am Sixt Platinum customer and he backed down and said not to worry because the quantity was on the margins of acceptability and he would not charge us this time.
Just as well because if he had I would have asked for the keys back and taken it to a vacuum machine in the next door garage and sucked it up myself for £2 no matter how difficult it might have been (not). In case he changed his mind I actually thanked him for not mugging me but quickly returned to the car and wiped the steering wheel with a wet-wipe just in case there was a charge for removing fingerprints!
These thieves will try anything to generate additional revenue.
So, what is the solution? There is an alternative. Buy some cheap car hire insurance in the UK and when under pressure at the sales desk think of Captain Kirk and raise a force field around yourself to resist the hard sell. It usually means leaving a deposit on the credit card to pay for damages but this can then be claimed back from the cheaper insurer.
It works. This year I went to Ireland and one day had the misfortune to get a puncture. I was really annoyed about that because I hadn’t bought tyre damage insurance from the car rental company; I always buy tyre damage insurance and I have never had a puncture so I cursed my misfortune on that day. I needn’t have worried. When I got home I made a claim on the cheaper ‘buy before you go’ option and they promptly paid up!
The puncture story reminds me of another. In 1986 I went to Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands and mid-way through the holiday hired a car, a little blue Seat with an open top and on the first day set off into the mountains in the interior. This turned out to be rather hard work as the road looped in extravagant sweeping motions around deep valleys and gorges and followed a precarious route to the top.
Actually, we didn’t get to the top because after an hour or so we got a puncture and I had to change the wheel at the roadside. We were high up and close to the edge and part way through the process the car started to slide off the jack and I wondered how I was going to explain to the hire company just how the car had fallen off the road and disappeared into a ravine.
To my eternal shame I didn’t own up to the puncture but just put it in the boot without even pumping it up and left it. I have always felt guilty about that!
Today I continue my series of posts about places that I have visited that at some time have been designated either before or after as the ‘European Capital of Culture’
With a clear sky we were hopeful that after returning from the restaurant that we might be able to see the Northern Lights but even if they were there then the lights from the city were way to bright for them to be visible so we went to bed disappointed,
In complete contrast to the weather on the previous two days there was a magnificent blue sky in the morning – as I woke I sensed sunlight leaking into the room around the edges of the curtains and from the hotel bedroom window Reyjkavik looked much more cheerful in the sunshine without its heavy overcoat of grey cloud and gloom with which we had become familiar.
And so before leaving we agreed to have one last walking tour of the city which is the World’s most northerly capital ( the most southerly capital is Wellington, New Zealand) and is the twin city of Oslo, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Helsinki in Scandinavia as well as Moscow in Russia and (surprisingly) close to me in the United Kingdom, Kingston-upon-Hull.
After breakfast we checked out and stored our luggage and then walked into the city to see the parts we had missed on the first day and Mike was particularly keen to show his railway engine discovery to Kim and Margaret. We had liked the Sólfar Suncraft so much the first time that we made for the seafront again and made a second visit there before we walked further along the promenade towards the docks until finding our progress barred by road works where underground heating pipes were being installed we abandoned this route and turned instead towards the city centre.
There were some bright new recently constructed buildings that reflected the new wealth of Iceland standing close to the older buildings and houses that were utilitarian grey but enlivened by gay coloured aluminium cladding, not gentle pastel shades like those in eastern Europe but strong vibrant primaries, reds, yellows and blues that were presumably chosen deliberately to cheer up long cold winter days.
Maintaining property must be a nightmare here and the timber must require constant attention as in many places the bony fingers of winter frost had mischievously picked away at peeling paintwork allowing the damp to penetrate the wood underneath with no doubt dire and irreversible consequences. I like to repaint my house every twenty years or so whether it needs it or not but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they have to do this painful operation twice a year in Reykjavik at least!
As the sky was so clear and we could guarantee excellent views we returned now to Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran Cathedral and the tallest building in the city which took nearly forty years to build and was consecrated in 1986. The design is said to be based on a geyser plume or a lava flow but if you ask me it looks more like a space shuttle about to blast off but it is nice enough inside and the signature piece is a twenty-five tonne organ with 5,275 pipes and someone was in there this morning practising on it.
Our main purpose for visiting the cathedral however was not to visit the interior but to take the lift to the observation tower at the top of the seventy-three metre tall tower. It cost 700 krona (about £3) and it was worth every one because from the top there were glorious uninterrupted views in all directions, to the sea in the west, the glaciers in the north, the islands in the south and the ragged coastline to the east and we stayed at the top for several minutes enjoying the views.
Back at the bottom we walked to what I suppose you might call the old town, the site of the original Viking settlement and the administrative centre of Reykjavik with the Parliament building, the President’s official residence and the Government buildings and as we walked Mike carefully nudged us towards the port area for a second inspection of the railway engine.
The docks were busy this morning with cargo ships unloading, the tugs making their way in and out of port and some brave (crazy) men on a training vessel practising some rescue procedures and taking it in turn to one by one jump into the icy cold waters. Our route took us past the conference centre where exhibitors were packing away their Arctic Energy Conference displays and it looked quite empty now.
Our time in Reyjkavik was coming to an end so we enjoyed one last walk along the waterfront as far as Sólfar Suncraft and then walked back in the direction of the hotel stopping on the way at the little café that we liked for coffee and cake and then to be reunited with the little Chevrolet Spark that we collected from the hotel car park and then left the city in the direction of Keflavik, the airport, the Blue Lagoon and our final hotel.
The Northern Lights
Suddenly the lights fell from the heavens and opened and closed like theatre curtains, disappearing in one place in the sky and returning to another and we cheered and whooped like children as we were treated to one of nature’s great displays.
The sky was vibrant and alive producing a spectacular heavenly dance show – a twirling tarantella, a frantic flamenco, a crazy can-can and more twists than Chubby Checker!
A mysterious, multicoloured magic show in which the night sky was suddenly illuminated with a wondrous glow, the luminous green of a highlighter pen that swayed and swirled like a heavenly lava lamp and then created a pattern that looked like Darcey Bussell pirouetting across the stage .