Tag Archives: Northern Lights

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

Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery…

Iceland, Images

Iceland Postcard 1

Pingvellir National Park Iceland

Gullfoss Falls Iceland

Reykjavik Cathedral Iceland

Iceland Vikings Reykjavik

 

 

Iceland, The Northern Lights

Northern Lights Iceland

“Narrow swirls of light would sweep across the great dome of sky, then hang there like vapour trails…. Lights would flicker brightly in the west, then vanish in an instant and reappear a moment later behind me, as if teasing me.”  –  Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

It seems to me that there are few things that when we see them seem to provide an uplifting, almost outer edge spiritual experience, is difficult to explain why and unusually excites and arouses.

A dolphin under the bow of the boat or a field of nodding sunflowers for example and to this short list I am going to add the Aurora Borealis – the Northern Lights, that phenomenon of the Arctic skies that is elusive and ethereal, one of the great, timeless thrills of travel, a beautiful, shifting dance of nocturnal rainbows that is guaranteed to send viewers into certain orgasmic ecstasy or miraculously turn them into poets.

When we arranged this trip to Iceland we hoped of course that we would see them, Margaret asked us to go with them specifically – “to see the Northern Lights”, we agreed immediately but we were careful to bear in mind that this natural phenomenon is not like the Blackpool Illuminations, they can’t just be turned on and off for the benefit of tourists, no one is guaranteed to see them (unless you happen to be Joanna Lumley making a television programme that is) and many people leave disappointed.

We were encouraged however by the fact that October is the best month for sightings and in an eleven year cycle this particular October was predicted to be one of the most reliable times to see the display.

We had already spoken to many people who had paid out for a coach tour into the interior in the hope of seeing them and had returned without a sighting.  One man rather apologetically told us that ‘he had definitely seen something’  but we knew from the downhearted tone of his voice and the disappointed look of a man who had wasted a considerable amount of money that he was trying harder to convince himself rather than us.

Reyjkavik Iceland Northern Lights

And so we came to our fourth and final night in Iceland and to date we had seen nothing on account of the cloudy skies and not helped by being in the middle of Reyjkavik with all of its sodium street lights but now we were on the west coast at Kevlavik, it was a clear night and we were all more optimistic about our chances and after dinner in a restaurant close to the harbour (disappointing by the way) we made our way out onto the headland beyond our hotel where the sky turned black and the moon shone in a phosphorescent glow on the curiously calm sea as the gorse knotted hills behind us blotted out any intrusive artificial light from the town.

There we met an Australian couple who were wrapped up warm as a precaution against the wind and had cameras and tripods at the ready and they explained that they had been chasing the Aurora Borealis for ten days all across the country and for them like us this was their last chance to get the light show that they had come to see before returning home.  I asked him if it might be easier to see them closer to home in the Southern hemisphere but he gave me a patient geography lesson and explained that in the south the only real audience for the Antarctic alternative, the Aurora Australis, are the penguins.

Eventually we caught sight of a few flashes of colour in the sky but they were always only very temporary and not especially thrilling or uplifting and then some uninvited cloud came by anyway and we declared ourselves as unlucky with this as we are every week with the National Lottery and as we abandoned the venture and made our way back to our accommodation I prepared to tell the story that, like the man on the night time bus trip, ‘I had definitely seen something’.

We had some duty free wine and beer to finish now so we sat chatting and drinking and suddenly the Australian man, who had the rather unlikely name of Les Parrott, appeared at our window and was gesticulating madly at the sky with great excitement as though someone had stuck a red-hot poker up his bottom  – ‘The lights, the Northern Lights’  he shrieked over and over so that we were left in absolutely no doubt and we threw on our coats and chased after him back to the headland where the sky had cleared and there was promising activity all around us.

Suddenly the lights fell from the heavens 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: a mysterious, multicoloured show in which the night sky was suddenly lit up with a wondrous glow, like whispers of coloured smoke, the luminous green of a highlighter pen that twisted and swirled like a heavenly lava lamp and then created a pattern that looked like a giant tornado racing towards us from the horizon.  It was as though I was an air traffic controller studying a radar screen and the sky seemed immense and infinite as I twisted and turned and tried to monitor as much of it as I possibly could.

The scientific bit:

The scientific term for the lights is the aurora borealis (named after the Roman goddess of the dawn).  The lights are formed from fast-moving, electrically charged particles that emanate from the sun. During large solar explosions and flares, huge quantities of particles are thrown out of the sun and into deep space. When the particles meet the Earth’s magnetic shield, they are led towards a circle around the magnetic North Pole, where they interact with the upper layers of the atmosphere. The energy which is then released is the Northern Lights and displays occur when solar particles enter the Earth’s atmosphere and on impact emit burning gases that produce different coloured lights (oxygen produces green and yellow; nitrogen blue).

The scientific bit ends.

We could barely believe our good fortune, I for one had given up any hope of seeing them and was certain that we were destined to leave Iceland the next morning disappointed.  It was truly wonderful and something that I will never forget or tire of telling people about but there is no doubt that we were lucky and although I am under no illusions that this was by no means the best Aurora Borealis ever and my photographs are not going to make National Geographic Magazine it is probably the only one that I will see and later that night as I tried to sleep I could still see the swirling ghostly patterns in the sky above and all around me.

Iceland Northern Lights

“Always travel in hope, rather than expectation, of seeing the Northern Lights. For the best chances of seeing the lights, head north – but not too far. ”    Alistair McLean, Founder of  The Aurora Zone

Weekly Photo Challenge: Object

Reykjavik Cathedral Iceland Hallgrímskirkja

Object within an Object – Iceland, Reykjavik:

This is a picture taken from behind the face of the clock inside the tower of the Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran Cathedral of the City.

Read the full story…

Iceland, Reykjavik – Towers and Trains

Reykjavikk Skyline from Hallgrímskirkja,

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 and 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. 

Hallgrímskirkja, Reyjkavik Iceland

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.

Sólfar suncraft Reykjavik Iceland

Travel Review of the Year 2013

Semana Santa Holy Week Siguenza 3

2013 has been a good year for travel and I have managed to make a total of seven overseas trips (my record is twelve in both 2007 and 2008), starting in March with a return to Spain.

Despite the ambition to visit as much of the country as possible this was the first visit to the peninsular in nearly two years since the previous trip to Extremadura in May 2011.  Our destination this time was Castilla-La Mancha and the medieval town of Sigüenza in the Province of Guadalajara halfway between Madrid and the capital city of the Autonomous Community of Aragon – Zaragoza.

One of the reasons for choosing this small town was the desire to see one of Spain’s most famous religious festivals and by all accounts Sigüenza is a very good place to see it.  The Semana Santa is one of the most important traditional events of the Spanish Catholic year; it is celebrated in the week leading up to Easter and features a procession of Pasos which are floats of lifelike wooden sculptures of individual scenes of the events of the Passion.

Turkey Postcard

One day in January when the temperature was hovering around zero and icy rain was lashing at the windows my daughter Sally called me with a travel proposal.  She had booked a holiday and the arrangements had fallen through which meant there was a spare place available that needed filling and crucially – paying for and I was being called up as first reserve.

“You will enjoy it dad, you can spend time with the grandchildren and it’s only for a week.”  I gave in quickly and asked the obvious questions of where, when and how much? “May, Torquay, only £900”. Actually I thought £900 for a week in Torquay in May was rather expensive but I agreed to it all the same and the deal was done and I started to research what there might be to do with three very young children in south Devon in early summer.

A couple of weeks or so later Sally phoned me again and said that she was applying for a passport for her new son William and although I appreciate that we are from the north I wasn’t yet aware that there were visa requirements for British citizens who wanted to travel south within the United Kingdom.  I called her back. “Why do we need a passport for William? I asked, “For the holiday, obviously”, she replied, “But we don’t need a passport for Torquay”, I smugly informed her, “Torquay? Torquay?”, she said, “who said anything about Torquay? We are going to TURKEY!”

Burgos Cathedral

In June we returned to Spain to visit the north of the country.  We started in Asturias and its capital city of  Oviedo and then drove south through Castilla y León  and visited the provincial capitals of León, Zamora, Salamanca, Avila, Segovia, Valladolid, Palencia and Burgos and that is all of them except (and I apologise for this) Soria.  It would have been just too much of a detour as we came to the end of our travels but I have promised to go back one day and apologise for this rudeness because Soria has one of the most bizarre festivals in Spain where once a year local men demonstrate their faith and fearlessness (stupidity) by walking over red hot coals!

But I have a plan to put this right because in April 2014 we plan to return to Sigüenza and I think it may be close enough to this missing city to take a day to visit.

Girona Catalonia Post Card

In July we travelled to Catalonia in north-east Spain and fell in love with the city of Girona. It is said that Girona consistently wins a Spain country-wide poll of citizens on preferred places to live and  I had a really good feeling about the city and as we sat and sipped cool beer I thought that it might be a place that I could return to.

I used to think that it might be nice to sell up and go and live abroad but as I have got older I have abandoned the idea.  The reason for this is that I wouldn’t want to end up in a British ex-pat condominium and I imagine that living outside of this would bring its own problems.  I am English not Spanish or French and my character, behaviour and whole way of life has been created from an English heritage that, even if I wanted to, I could not lay aside and become something that I am not.

But, now I have another idea.  It always annoys me when I see a poster advertising something that happened last week, before I arrived, or will take place next week, after I have gone home, so I think I could be happy to live for a while, say twelve months, in a different country so that I could enjoy everything that takes place over the course of a year in a Spanish town or city and I would be very happy to place Girona on my short list of potential places.  Before we left we walked past a famous statue of a lion climbing a pole and there is a story that if you reach up and kiss its arse then one day you will return but there was too much spit and dribble on its butt cheeks for me to take out this particular insurance policy.

France Côte d'Opale

2013 was a special birthday year for my mum as she gregariously tipped over from her seventy-ninth year to become an octogenarian and as part of the celebrations she invited my brother Richard and me to join her and her partner Alan to visit the north east corner of France and stay at at a hotel that they especially like, the Chateaux de Tourelles in the village of Le Wast, just a short distance away from one of my favourite French towns, Boulogne-Sur-Mer.

Something like ten-million British travellers arrive in Calais each year and then without looking left or right, or stopping for even a moment head for the motorways and the long drive south and in doing so they miss the treat of visiting this Anglo-neglected part of France.

Normally I have a preference for travelling by sea and always enjoy the short, weather-unpredictable, ferry crossing but they like the Eurotunnel shuttle so on this occasion we took the thirty-minute subterranean route rather than risk the choppy seas of the English Channel and the mad rush to the car deck upon docking.  It was busy at the terminal and on the following day the service set a new record for numbers of vehicles at almost sixteen-thousand. I had been through the tunnel before on Eurostar but never on the vehicle carrying train so this was a new experience for me and overall I have to say that although it is quick and convenient I think I prefer the boats and the rugby scrum.

Puglia Map

Every September since 2004 our late Summer travelling has been to the Greek Islands and it hadn’t really occurred to me that that we would break that habit and that 2013 would be the tenth year in a row, after all there are roughly one thousand four hundred of them and I have only been to about twenty-five so there are still a lot left to visit.

We were persuaded to make a change to our normal September routine when the Ryanair website offered return flights to Bari in Southern Italy for the bargain price of only £70 each (no hold luggage, no priority boarding, no pre-booked seats obviously) so we snapped them up and started to plot our way around the Italian Region of Puglia one of the least visited by tourists and most traditional areas of the country.  We have travelled to Italy several times but mostly to the north and certainly never to this part of the boot.

Iceland Postcard

For our final travels of 2013 we went north in October in search of the Northern Lights! This was a second visit to Iceland and the first since the financial crash of 2008 so there were some significant changes – mostly financial.  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.

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 and circumnavigate the island, that would be about one thousand, five hundred kilometres but I am guessing that this would be a wonderful experience.

So now thoughts turn to 2014 and the current plan  is to visit Poland (Wroclaw) in January, Sigüenza in Spain in April, possibly Ireland in June and then a holiday with my family to celebrate my sixtieth birthday in Corfu in August but obviously I hope to slip a few more holidays in between these main events!

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