Tag Archives: Iceland

Weekly Photo Challenge: Shadowed

Shadowed in Reykjavik

When I was much younger I was in the Boy Scouts which was genuinely good preparation for later life because it taught discipline, purpose and respect and some truly useful skills like first aid and survival, using an axe and a compass and lighting fires without the aid of a cigarette lighter.

Looking now at the Scout progress card however there is one thing I’m not so sure about and that is stalking.  In the Scouts you got a badge for being good at that but these days that sort of thing is likely to land you in a whole lot of trouble!

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Cover Art

Sólfar Suncraft

Sólfar Suncraft

Beginning of a Voyage…

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.

Ireland, The Ring of Dingle, Famine, Immigration and Music

Ireland Dingle

“At the very edge of Europe, as far west as you can go in Ireland…. once described by National Geographic as the most beautiful place on earth… a place where the mountains roll into the ocean.

The plan now was to get back to the car and drive to the most westerly point of the Dingle peninsula which is called the Ring of Dingle or the Dingle Way depending on whether you are driving or walking.

We weren’t going very far so the flashing dashboard and the prospect of blowing up the engine didn’t worry me to any great degree and we left the hotel car park, negotiated our way out of Dingle and picked up the scenic road to what seemed like the ragged edge of the World with a coastline of jagged cliffs and inhospitable rocky inlets.

The road climbed high above the sea, sometimes close to the ocean and sometimes heading off inland and soon we came to a succession of small tourist stop off points advertising historic attractions and we pulled into a car park promising an Irish famine cottage and we purchased tickets from an old lady in a ticket shed in a bizarre transaction that took place through a half inch gap in a window as though she was highly suspicious of visitors or thought we were bandits who would steal the days takings which by mid-afternoon must have been worth all of about €15.

There was a strenuous walk to the cottage and a farm and behind us there were some wonderful views over the south of the peninsular, Dingle Bay and the Kerry Mountains on the opposite side which made it easy to understand why Hollywood film makers have chosen this place as a location for films such as Far and Away and Ryan’s Daughter.

Famine Cottage Dingle Ireland

Inside the cottage there was a recreation of a typical mid-nineteenth century family home and information boards about the famine and the consequences.  It seems that at that time Irish people lived almost entirely on potatoes and that a working man would eat as much as fourteen pounds a day – that is a lot of potatoes, roughly equivalent to two hundred and fifty bags of potato crisps!

Now, I know potatoes are versatile – boiled, baked, mashed, fried, hash browns, dauphinoise, gnocchi but I imagine this sort of diet can become awfully monotonous!  Unfortunately not only did the Irish rely completely on the potato they specialised in just one variety.  The Arran Banner was a heavy cropper but also particularly susceptible to the potato blight virus and a succession of harvest failures in the late 1840s led to starvation, death, farm failure, cruel and vexatious evictions by English absentee landlords and eventually mass emigration to the United States.

Interestingly it is most likely that the virus came from the United States in the first place (just like the phylloxera virus that infected French vine crops at about the same time) but regardless of this they blamed the English and five million Irish (80% of the total population at the time) chose to go there anyway.  Today nearly sixty million people in the USA, almost 20% of the population, claim Irish roots and twenty-two out of forty-four of US Presidents (including Barack Abama!) have claimed Irish ancestry.

For only €4 (senior rate) it was a good reconstruction and there was a curious ancient burial mound with an information board but a path blocked by a barbed wire fence and no real sign of where the ancient monument actually was so confused by that we returned to the car and carried on.

A little further along the road there were signs to fifth century beehive stone houses but I don’t think they were original and we had had enough excitement for one day at the famine cottage and the ancient burial site and any more and my head might have exploded before the car engine so we drove straight by.

Europe

Very soon we were at the most westerly point of the peninsula and could go no further and we were staring out at two thousand miles of water and next stop Canada and the USA.  At 10°27’ longitude Dingle claims to the most westerly town (as opposed to city – this is important) in Europe but whilst this may be true there are lots of other ‘most westerly’ claims to take into consideration.

The Blasket Islands (10°39’) at the end of the Dingle Peninsula are the most westerly point in the British Isles but these have been uninhabited since 1953, Iceland is the most westerly country in Europe and Reykjavik is the most westerly capital city (21°93’); Lisbon (9°14’) is the most westerly city on mainland Europe and furthest west than anywhere else are the Azores at 31°30.

When someone tells you that something is the biggest or the longest or the highest or the heaviest it is always worth checking up I find.  The most westerly point in Asia is Cape Baba in Turkey and in the United States it is Alaska which is also the most easterly as well because it stretches so far that it crosses right into the eastern hemisphere (a good pub quiz question that).

Another interesting fact about this place is that is was more or less the place where Charles Lindbergh crossed the Irish coast in 1927 in the Spirit of St. Louis in the first successful flight from New York to Paris.  I like this extract from his journals:

“I have carried on short conversations with people on the ground by flying low with throttled engine, and shouting a question, and receiving the answer by some signal. When I saw this fisherman I decided to try to get him to point towards land. I had no sooner made the decision than the futility of the effort became apparent. In all likelihood he could not speak English, and even if he could he would undoubtedly be far too astounded to answer. However, I circled again and closing the throttle as the plane passed within a few feet of the boat I shouted, “Which way is Ireland?” Of course the attempt was useless, and I continued on my course.”

From this most westerly point that we could go today we drove back inland along the north side of the peninsular which was not so scenic or dramatic and eventually the road returned us to Dingle and the hotel.

The weather was a real surprise.  I was expecting continuous rain and slate grey skies but it was warm and sunny and in the late afternoon we sat in the garden of the hotel with a glass of wine and watched the boats slipping in and out of the harbour in pursuit of Funghi the dolphin and enjoyed the peace and serenity of the verdant emerald countryside and the unexpectedly indolent ocean.

Later we walked along the coastal path back into Dingle to eat at a sea food restaurant next to the harbour and after an exceptional sea food platter we followed that with a visit to a gaily coloured pub where there was lively Irish music entertainment which went on way past normal closing time.

With no sign of the pub closing or the music stopping we called our own personal time and walked in the moonlight back along the coastal path to the hotel.  It was our last night in Ireland and while we walked along the moonlit path I wished that it had been our first!

Dingle Ireland Murphys Pub

Iceland, The Assessment

Iceland Cover

This was a second visit to Iceland and the first since the crash of 2008  so there were some significant changes – mostly financial.

In 2008 the economy bombed, the krona has lost more than half its value.  GDP dropped by 10% in under a year and unemployment hit a forty year high.  Following negotiations with the IMF 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 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 immediately after the crash the krona lost fifty percent of its value against the euro and even taking into account six years of relatively high inflation, which even now remains high at over 5%, I was rather hoping for cheaper prices this time and I was not disappointed because I estimate that the tourist cost of living was only about 65% of the costs of 2007.

Iceland Postcard

The smugness of 2007 had been completely wiped away and coffee shops, bars and restaurants were now all eager for business and visitors’ money, beer was cheaper, wine was cheaper and food was cheaper.  Hotels were no more expensive than anywhere else in Europe and local businesses were keen to accommodate visitors.

One place that wasn’t cheaper was the ludicrously overpriced Blue Lagoon’ and I would recommend visitors to Iceland to definitely give this overrated attraction a miss. Since our last visit to Iceland in 2007 the cost of everything seemed to have become more reasonable but the entrance fee to the Blue Lagoon had rocketed from €20 to €34 and that was only for the standard winter entrance which rises to €40 in the summer and which includes no more than an hour or so in the water.  At the premium end of the scale of charges is the luxury experience which costs a whopping €430 – EACH!  The Blue Lagoon boasts about four hundred thousand visitors a year so this place is making serious money.

Iceland Keflavik The Blue Lagoon

And talking of rip-offs visitors should also beware of car hire scams.  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’.

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.  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 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 I was surely burnt to a cinder and my flesh was stripped from my blackened bones was the condition of the paintwork on the hire car, so I declined the offer to purchase the additional cover.

Reyjkavik Iceland Northern Lights

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.

But I/we did enjoy Iceland, we had a nice hotel, found an excellent restaurant (Harry’s Bar), drove the Golden Circle  and on the final night got to see the Northern Lights just as we had given up all hope of seeing the spectacular light show.

I am tempted now to return to Iceland, maybe in June and experience the midnight sun but this time I would miss Reykjavik because I have been there twice now and seen all that there is to see but I think I would hire a car (perhaps not from Sixt) and circumnavigate the island, that would be about one thousand, five hundred kilometres but I am guessing that this would be a wonderful experience.

Iceland Volcano

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More about Geysers – Yellowstone Park, Wyoming

“Since its first known eruption 16.5 million years ago, it (Yellowstone) has blown up about a hundred times….The last eruption was a thousand times as that of Mount St. Helens (in 1980), the one before that was 280 times as big and the one before that was so big that no one knows how big it was”                         Bill Bryson – ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’

My previous post about the Icelandic Geysers reminded me of my visit to Yellowstone Park in Wyoming USA in 1995 and the spectacle of an ever higher tower of boiling water and steam than the one that we had seen today.

Yellowstone was designated as a National Park in 1872 when President Ulysses S Grant signed a new law ordering ‘the tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River to be set apart as a public park’ and in so doing it became the first National Park in the USA and indeed the world.

The park is sensationally beautiful with stately snow capped peaks, lush meadows with lazy herds of grazing bison, meandering rivers like sapphire ribbons amidst the yellow-green prairie and tumbling streams, a magnificent sky blue lake and bounteous wildlife.

But there is danger too because Yellowstone is what is called a caldera (from a Latin word for cauldron) which is a volcano that collapses rather than builds a mountain  and it sits precariously on top of a reservoir of restless molten rock about two hundred kilometres below the surface of the earth that rises here close to the fractured surface and is the reason for all of the geysers, bubbling mud pots and hot springs that are scattered liberally around the park and belch and spit continuously.

Yellowstone Geyser

At least 22 people are known to have died from hot spring-related injuries in and around Yellowstone since 1890.  Most of the deaths have been accidents, although at least two people had been trying to swim in a hot spring, park historian Lee Whittlesey, author of the book “Death in Yellowstone“.

In 2016 a man wandered off the boardwalks walked over the fragile crust and slipped into an acidic hot spring.  His body was boiled and dissolved leaving no trace except for a few personal belongings.

People do other dumb things in Yellowstone.  Also in 2016  Canadian man loaded a bison calf into his SUV because he thought it was cold. The calf later had to be destroyed because it could not be reunited with its herd.

The magma chamber is about sixty- five kilometres across and about twelve kilometres thick so that is something to bear in mind when wandering about leisurely admiring the scenery because if (when) it goes off again it is going to be rather uncomfortable for anyone standing nearby.

There are more geysers and hot springs at Yellowstone than in all of the rest of the World put together and whilst we were there we obviously stopped off to see the most well-known and reliable geyser in the park.  Old Faithful is a popular tourist spot where the geyser erupts promptly every seventy minutes or so and there are grandstands arranged an appropriate distance away from the boiling steam for the visitors to sit and admire the spectacle.  An eruption can shoot anything from 3,700 to 8,400 gallons of boiling water to a height of fifty five metres and can last from one to five minutes. The average height of an eruption is forty four metres and that’s about the equivalent of about ten London double decker buses.

Previously the most famous geyser in the park was Excelsior, which used to erupt regularly to a height of a hundred metres but, as with the Great Geysir in Iceland, in 1888 it just stopped and didn’t erupt again for a hundred years.  One day Old Faithful will no doubt just stop in exactly the same way.

The biggest geyser in the park and indeed the world is the Steamboat geyser which blows to a height of one hundred and twenty metres but this spectacle is most infrequent and inconveniently unpredictable and you really wouldn’t want to sit waiting for it because that could waste more than half of your life away.

Old Faithful

The Northern Lights

Northern Lights Iceland

Yes, it is a bit blurred but it sort of captures the moment – I will write this up later!

Who remembers this –

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pV8uvKqlcQY

Alternative Twelve Treasures of Spain – Fire Mountain, Lanzarote

The “Twelve Treasures of the Kingdom of Spain” was a contest/poll that was conducted by the Spanish Television Company Antena 3 and the radio broadcaster Cope. The final results were announced on 31st December 2007.  I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the eight out of the twelve that I have visited and having completed that I thought I might come up with a personal alternative twelve.  The original twelve quite rightly included Mount Tiede on the Canary Island of Tenerife but, at number five, my alternative is Fire Mountain on nearby Lanzarote.

In December 1983 together with some friends I had a holiday on the island  and on a day trip out visited the volcanic National Park called Timanfaya.

Lanzarote Fire Mountain

After a couple of days of visiting the beach and sitting around in bars we decided to do some sightseeing around the island so we walked into the commercial area of Puerto Del Carmen where we were staying and found a car hire office with the sort of prices that suited our budget – cheap – and you only get what you pay for of course because being at the lower end of the scale we were allocated a clapped out old grey/blue Daihatsu Jeep which despite being worn out seemed perfect for what we had in mind.  First things first though and after taking possession of the rattling bone shaker we had to quickly find a fuel station because the fuel indicator was hovering somewhere just below empty!

The weather was poor that day and thick clouds kept racing in from the Atlantic Ocean, mostly steely grey but sometimes black and ominous and bulging with moisture which promptly fell as heavy rain as soon as they crossed the coast and raced inland.  After breakfast we pulled on what we thought might be suitably warm clothing and headed off in a northerly direction to the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya.

The temperature was comfortable by the coast but it soon began to plummet as we drove into the interior of the island and started to climb and we weren’t prepared for that and it wasn’t long before we began to regret not bringing even more clothes along (or even the blankets from the beds in the apartment) because it was soon very, very cold indeed with frequent rain squalls and a stinging wind that lashed our legs and faces.

As we had a four wheel drive we thought we might test its capabilities so rather than follow the tarmac highway we went off road and tried to plot our own course.  We got hopelessly lost of course and at one point came across a surprised islander, a whiskered old lady in rusty black clothes, and asked for directions to the park.  I can’t be sure but I think she said that the sensible thing was to go back to the main road because this was safer and even though she was quite insistent about this we ignored her advice and carried on along a boulder strewn track that tipped and lurched the vehicle for the next few kilometres until eventually we came to the boundary to the Parque Nacional de Timanfaya marked by a sign carrying the mischievous El Diablo (The Devil) logo.

The emblem of Lanzarote is a demon because the early settlers interpreted their first experience of a volcanic eruption as the work of the devil.  It was so cold today that we would have welcomed some sort of volcanic activity I can tell you!

We arrived at the visitor’s car park and that was as far as we could drive into the park and there we tagged on to some coach party trips and watched several demonstrations by a sun gnarled old man with a face of leather and knotted hands of ‘how hot’ the area is because temperatures just a few metres below the surface here reach between 400°C and 600°C!   First of all he threw dry brush into a harmless looking hole in the ground and it immediately caught fire, while water poured into a bore hole erupted seconds later in the form of steam – like a mini-geyser and he finished this off by demonstrating a natural gas vent that doubles as a BBQ!

There was a coach tour into the National Park and around the volcanic craters but instead of the comfortable seat option we choose an alternative camel ride which involved a thirty minute circuit of the craters on a form of transport that even made the Jeep seem comfortable!

To be honest we were glad when the camel excursion was over, it might have been the preferred transport option of Lawrence of Arabia but we were just pleased to get back to the Daihatsu and drive away in a westerly direction.  We were making our way now towards the old capital of the island called Teguise where islanders used to take refuge from the coastal storms and from pirate raids and had built themselves an impressive fortress at the highest point with commanding views over most of the island.

This was the Santa Bárbara castle and it turned out that only that year there had been a complete restoration by the Fine Arts Association and on account of being some of the first visitors to the restored attraction it had a most non–medieval feel about it but having paid the entrance fee we visited the museum and wandered around the castle walls until we collectively agreed that it was time to leave and make our way back through the island capital, Arrecife and back to the relative warmth of the coastal strip.

It was still quite early and I innocently asked what we were going to do for the rest of the day?  Richard gave me a withering look, rolled his eyes skywards and said ‘have you got no imagination?’ and we spent the remainder of the day in the comfort of the bars of Puerto del Carmen.

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Other posts about Volcanoes:

Mount Vesuvius

Yellowstone Park

Iceland

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Unfocused

Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

It was getting late when we arrived Þingvellir and although the sun was poking through again the light was beginning to fade on the site of the historic Icelandic National Assembly that was set up in 930 and remains the spiritual home of Iceland.  There were few visitors and the site had an eerie beauty, ringed by mountains with deep lava chasms, cobalt rocks and water falls with impatient water cascading down the black boulders and shattering into a thousand droplets of fine mist as it collided with the unforgiving rocks.

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, 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 as they are drifting slowly apart.

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Iceland – What Went Wrong?

1000 krona

The trip to Iceland was eighteen months ago when the country appeared to be riding the crest of a 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 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 things have gone spectacularly wrong.

Today the economy is in unbelievably horrible shape and the three banks, Kaupthing, Landsbanki, and Glitnir are in receivership. The stock market has lost 90% of its value, the central bank is technically insolvent and a mountain of liabilities dwarfs its modest pile of assets.  The krona has lost more than half its value.  GDP is expected to drop by 10% in 2009, and unemployment will probably hit a forty year high.  The Government of the country is in meltdown and in January the Prime Minister resigned and called a general election.

Following negotiations underway with the IMF since October 2008, a package of $4.6bn was agreed on 19th November, with the IMF loaning $2.1bn and another $2.5bn of loans and currency swaps from Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark.  In addition, Poland has offered to lend $200M and the Faroe Islands have offered 300M Danish kroner.  Poland is the biggest net beneficiary of the European Union cash handout so it could probably afford to give a bit back but for the Faroe Islands it is the equivilent of the United Kingdom lending 300 billion danish kronas or 35 billion pounds!  How generous is that.

Iceland retained its top spot in the index on human development in 2008 but it is doubtful it will still be there at the end of 2009 and I’m not sure just how happy they are now either.  In the New Economic Foundation’s 2009 Happy Planet Index Iceland came ninety-fourth.  The Icelandic króna has declined more than fifty percent against the euro.  Inflation of prices in the economy is almost out of control and interest rates had been raised to eighteen percent to deal with it.  The króna’s decline is reportedly only beaten by that of the Zimbabwean dollar.

The assets of Icelandic pension funds are expected to shrink by up to twenty-five percent and the Icelandic Pension Funds Association has announced that benefits will in all likelihood have to be cut in 2009.  Iceland’s GDP is expected by economists to shrink by as much as 10 percent as a result of the crisis, placing Iceland in an economic depression. Inflation may climb as high as seventy-five percent by the end of the year.  Unemployment has more than tripled with over seven thousand registered jobseekers (about 4% of the workforce) compared to just over two thousand at the end of August.

Borgarnes Iceland old ferry terminal

Iceland, which has previously always resisted membership, has also formally applied to join the European Union. The bid must now be approved by the EU, after which Iceland’s people will be asked to vote on it in a referendum.  Iceland, with its tiny population of just 320,000, has traditionally been sceptical about joining because some fear that quotas could hurt Iceland’s fishing industry but many people there have warmed to the idea of membership following the devastating economic meltdown, which saw the top Icelandic banks collapse in a matter of days.

With things this bad and Iceland crying out for customers this could be a good time to take advantage and visit again.  In the United States it is in the top five of bargain destinations because of the fall in the value of the Krona and as long as that keeps ahead of the prices in the shops and the restaurants that should make it nicely affordable.  I hope we would still be welcome there because it does have to be said that Iceland does partly blame the United Kingdom for its economic woes because we turned down requests for assistance and then invoked anti-terrorist legislation to seize Icelandic assets.

The Iceland national tourist web site is reassuring however and says:

While Iceland and most other countries are currently dealing with a serious financial crisis, business in Iceland is being conducted as usual. All services – including banking services – are functioning as on any other day. Hotels, restaurants, airlines, car rentals, currency exchange facilities, offices, shops, etc. are all open for normal business.”

Visitors can be assured that they will be treated with same friendly hospitality that Icelanders have become known for throughout the travel world. There is no reason to fear that a visit to Iceland will be anything other than an enjoyable experience’.

I think I would be prepared to risk it and so are lots of others because visitor numbers from the United Kingdom have increased by 20% since September 2008 .  We British know a bargain when we see one!

Iceland protest

http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/3396.htm

Iceland – The Blue Lagoon, Power, Psoriasis and Pubic Hair

The signs to the attraction were a bit confusing but as we approached we could see the plumes of steam rising into the atmosphere and finally it was impossible to miss the huge structure of the power station looking like a set from a James Bond movie and we turned off the road and into the car park, which today, probably on account of the wretched weather was virtually empty.

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