Tag Archives: Reyjkavik

It’s Nice To Feel Useful (4)

  

It’s nice to feel useful (4) …

Every now and again I start to look back over my posts to review what has been going on.  One of the things that I like to do is to take a look at the search questions that seem to bring web-surfers by the site and take a look at some of the more bizarre and unusual.

P&O Pride of Rotterdam

All of my reports  in this post  are about travel related questions. Firstly this one – Ferry Crossing Hull to Amsterdam Horror Stories”.  I am not sure what the enquirer had in mind here, perhaps it was the story of the woman who threw herself overboard or perhaps the suicide statistics on the nearby Humber Bridge, maybe it was the on board catering arrangements which, actually, I have to say were excellent!  Either way here is the post that I wrote about the otherwise brilliant ferry crossing – Hull to Rotterdam.

Spain Postcard Map

Second in this category is is there mountain driving throughout Spain?” What a dumb question – with an average altitude of six hundred and fifty metres it is second highest country in Europe after Switzerland so of course there is mountain driving and to be honest most people could work this out by consulting a geographical atlas.

To be honest however I have to admit to having been caught out by this myself and on a recent visit to Catalonia I was forced to abandon a drive to Andorra because the mountain drive was just too difficult – An aborted drive to Andorra.

Ryanair Cabin

Next in this section – How long is Ryanair airplane seat belts?” and quite frankly how the heck should I know and do I really care. I first wrote on the subject of Ryanair in 2009 and it immediately started getting hundreds of hits and then in 2011 it just stopped completely.  I reviewed and reposted it and changed the title from the specific ‘Travel Tips when Flying Ryanair’ to the more general title that it has now and hey presto the hits started coming again. – Travel Tips when Flying Budget Airlines.

Gerald Durell Corfu Greece  Lawrence Durrell Corfu Greece

Next, I like this one – Lawrence and Gerald Durrell – how tall were they?, honestly, what sort of question is that and unless you were their tailor or their undertaker why would you want to know.  I did write a post about the Durrells when I visited Corfu where they both lived so perhaps this is where the enquirer ended up – “Corfu, In the Footsteps of Lawrence and Gerald Durrell” and I will be returning later this year so hopefully I can provide more missing detail!

Sagrada Familia Cathedral Barcelona

How about this one – How long would it take me from Sagrada Familia from England?  Without further information that is a tough one because unless you have discovered time travel which is very unlikely then the options seem to me to be restricted to road, train or airline.  The motorway option will take a couple of days if you test the motorway speed limits to the maximum and the train option is probably more or less the same but a flight from London Stansted will see you in Barcelona, or nearby Girona (Ryanair) in under two hours.

I flew to Girona recently and this is my post about Gaudi’s unfinished Cathedral – The Sagrada Familia.

Finally in this section I have found a question about Morocco – Buying a rain jacket in Fes” which just makes the mind boggle.  You can pretty much anything in Fes but it doesn’t generally rain a lot in Morocco, except when we went to the Majorelle Gardens in Marrakech so when I was there rain wear was not very prominent and we had to make do with a travel umbrella – The Souks of Fes.

edam

Moving on from travel I have found a couple of health related queries.  I am not a doctor or a dietician but I think I know the answer to the first one – is edam good for your liver?” and my response, unless there is medical research to the contrary, is probably not.  I did write a post about a visit to a Dutch cheese factory so perhaps this is where the enquirer was directed – Heritage visits and Museums.

And then this one – “Banana Death”  

I confess that I have never been a great fan of bananas but except for the time when my dad and I fell out one tea time because I refused to eat one in a sandwich I have never really considered them to be especially dangerous. 

My dad loved bananas and it is an interesting fact that they are now the most popular fruit in the UK with Britons eating an average of between 25 and 30lbs of fruit each year; more than double the amount consumed 15 years ago. Annual UK sales are at a record £750m, representing more than a quarter of all fruit sales.  I wrote about bananas once here – Banana Sandwiches or Chip Butties?

Tourists The Grand Tour of Europe

Finally to sex because it is estimated that well over half of all web searches are about this subject.

Firstly “Places to get laid in Europe” and believe me if I had the answer to that one then I would keep it to myself.  Perhaps the enquirer was thinking about the red light district in Amsterdam or perhaps they found their way to my post on the Grand Tour of Europe?

But I have saved my absolute favourite for this collection util the very last and this is it:

Did Vikings have large penises?”

Vikings

Well, I am not an archaeologist or an anthropologist but what  sort of odd question is that to put into a web search engine?

I find myself being completely unable to help with this subject but on a recent visit to Iceland I did get to visit the rather odd Penis Museum but I don’t think that will have the answer to that one either.

.

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

Iceland, The Blue Lagoon

Iceland Keflavik The Blue Lagoon

I had made a bit of a mistake here because to get to Blue Lagoon we had to drive back in the direction of Reyjkavik so it would have made a lot more sense to have gone there on the way rather than doubling back for the twenty minute journey.  And we were beginning to get low on fuel so I started to panic about that although the others all stayed surprisingly calm.  I don’t know why because I imagine that running out of fuel in Iceland, miles from anywhere might be a bit of a problem.

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The steamy waters are part of a landscape constructed by lava formation with warm waters that are rich in minerals like silica and sulphur and are used as a skin exfoliant. The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area of the lagoon averages a very comfortable 40° centigrade all year round and bathing in the relaxing water is reputed to help many people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis.

The lagoon is fed by the water output of a nearby geothermal power plant because in Iceland, renewable energy provides over 70% of the nation’s primary energy and over 99% of the country’s electricity is produced from hydropower and geothermal energy.  At the Blue Lagoon as part of the power generation process superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity.  After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal hot water heating system and then the water is fed into the lagoon for recreational and medicinal users to bathe in. 

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.  Soon after the power plant was opened and the pools began to fill people started to bathe here and some made claims about magic healing properties so eventually the company seeing this as a commercially viable venture developed it as leisure centre/tourist attraction, put a fence around it to prevent people getting in for free, hastily erected a rather ugly looking concrete building and started to charge admission fees.  They market it in the promotional literature in this rather extravagant way:

‘Guests enjoy bathing and relaxing in Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater, known for its positive effects on the skin. A visit to the spa promotes harmony between body, mind and spirit, and enables one to soak away the stresses of modern life. The spa’s guests rekindle their relationship with nature, soak up the scenic beauty and enjoy breathing the clean, fresh air.’

We parked the car and went inside and at the reception desk I was in for rather a nasty shock.  Since our last visit to Iceland in 2007 the cost of everything seemed to have become more reasonable but the entrance fee here had rocketed from €20 to €34 and that was only for the standard winter entrance that 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.

Blue Lagoon Iceland

After recovering from the financial shock and then changing and showering the only way to the open air pool was to leave the building and as the temperature was only slightly above freezing it was a short but brisk walk to the luxuriously blue water which was warm and welcoming and once safely submerged we made immediately for the hot spots.  Soon these became too hot to sit around in and we had to swim off to explore. 

The bottom of the pool was soft and silty with a pale brownish mud that you definitely wouldn’t want to slap on your face or anywhere else for that matter. Even though the water is changed every forty-eight hours (or so they say) a handful revealed a scoop of human hair and it was unnerving to think that we were swimming about and walking in the dead psoriatic skin cells of nearly half a million visitors a year. 

Put this on your face and as the mud dries I can guarantee an unusual beard of multi coloured pubic miscellany that would not be terribly attractive.  Having made this unpleasant discovery we hastily left the soft silty bits and stayed for the rest of our visit in the parts with the rocky lava bottom.

I suppose the Blue Lagoon is a ‘must visit’ place when travelling to Iceland but it is a seriously expensive experience bordering I would suggest on the ‘rip-off’ especially when there are a number of alternative geothermal heated pools in Reyjkavik without the marketing hype for only a fraction of the price.  I for one wouldn’t waste my money and go there again.

So we returned to Keflavik and left Kim and Margaret at the hotel while Mike and I returned the hire car.  At the office we completed the paperwork and then the clerk checked the car for paint stripping volcano damage and having satisfied himself that there was none signed the paperwork to release us from our contract. 

We had expected a shuttle service lift back to the hotel but the clerk explained that he couldn’t do this on account of being the only one on duty and so to avoid a taxi fare we walked the five kilometres back instead which seemed to surprise Kim and Margaret when we eventually got back in the gathering gloom of early evening.

Iceland, Keflavik and the Cod Wars

It was a drive of about forty minutes from Reyjkavik to Keflavik but today the sun was shining which was in contrast to the journey that we had made in the opposite direction just a few days previously and this time we could appreciate the lava black basalt littered landscape dripping in lime green moss and decorated with yellow lichen.

To date only twelve men have walked on the moon (well, maybe, maybe not, depending on your point of view) but for those of us that haven’t I imagine that it looked rather like this (without the moss and the lichen obviously).

In Icelandic terms Keflavik is a big town, the second largest outside of the Reyjkavik conurbation but with a population of only about fourteen thousand this only really makes it a large village in UK terms so finding our accommodation at the Hotel Berg was very straight-forward.

We liked it immediately, it was friendly and welcoming, our rooms were available ahead of check-in time and they were comfortable and warm with good views over the adjacent harbour.

Our plan for the rest of the day was to visit the Blue Lagoon thermal pools but it was still quite early so we thought that before that it seemed only good manners to take a look at Keflavik and walk for a while along the seafront.

First we came across an old fishing boat that had been dragged up out of the sea and was now on permanent display safely marooned on dry land.  It was called the Baldur and visitors could go on board and walk safely on decks where men had previously risked their lives out at sea and it reminded me of the National Fishing Heritage Museum in Grimsby (my home town) and the Ross Tiger fishing trawler moored up alongside.

This made me think of the Icelandic Cod Wars!

In 1958 Britain went to war – this time with Iceland.  The First Cod War lasted from 1st September until 12th November 1958 and began in response to a new Icelandic law that tripled the Icelandic fishery zone from four nautical miles to twelve to protect its own fishing industry.

The British Government declared that their trawlers would fish under protection from Royal Navy warships in three areas, out of the Westfjords, north of Horn and to the southeast of Iceland.  All in all, twenty British trawlers, four warships and a supply vessel operated inside the newly declared zones.  This was a bad tempered little spat that involved trawler net cutting, mid ocean ramming incidents and collisions.  It was also a bit of an uneven contest because in all fifty-three British warships took part in the operations against seven Icelandic patrol vessels and a single Catalina flying boat.

Eventually Britain and Iceland came to a settlement, which stipulated that any future disagreement between the two countries in the matter of fishery zones would be sent to the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the Icelandic Minister Bjarni Benediktsson hailed the agreement as “Iceland’s biggest political victory.

Icelandic Fisherman and catch

But it wasn’t the end of Cod Wars because there was a second in 1972 and a third in 1975 when on both occasions Iceland further extended their territorial fishing waters without consultation and continuing to protect these is what keeps Iceland from joining the European Union even today.

I had no idea that when I visited Iceland that I was now there as a resident of the English fishing town of Grimsby which was once recognised as the largest and busiest fishing port in the world. The wealth and population growth of the town was based on the North Sea herring fishery but this collapsed in the middle of the twentieth century and so diversified to distant water trawler fishing targeting cod in the seas around Iceland.  The concessions that Britain made to Iceland as a result of the Cod Wars which put these fishing grounds off limit destroyed the fishing industry in the town.  It is said that many men who survived the sea came home without jobs and drowned in beer.

Today Grimsby is dominated by the fish processing sector rather than the catching industry. Processors are mainly supplied by over-landed fish from other UK ports and by a harsh twist of fate containerised white fish from Iceland.

There is a National Fishing Heritage Centre in Grimsby which is a museum including a visit on board a real Grimsby Trawler – The Ross Tiger.  It’s a museum well worth visiting and the last time that I went I learnt from the guided tour that ironically Grimbarians don’t particularly care for cod anyway and have a preference for haddock which they consider to be a superior fish!

It wasn’t only Grimsby that was adversely affected by the outcome of the Cod Wars and across the Humber Estuary the fishing industry in the city of Kingston-upon-Hull  was similarly devastated by the capitulation of the UK Government and also went into dramatic and irreversible decline.

In view of this in a previous post I expressed surprise that Reykjavik and Hull are official  ‘Twin Towns‘ but I suppose the arrangement may be an attempt at reconciliation and mutual understanding because this was one of the original principles of twinning which became a popular thing to do after the Second World War as people sought to repair shattered relationships with their neighbours

I have often wondered however what the process was for getting a twin town. Perhaps it was like the draw for the third round of the FA cup when all the names go into a hat to be drawn out with each other, or perhaps it was like the UCAS University clearing house system where towns made their preferred selections and waited for performance results to see if they were successful, perhaps it was a sort of international dating service and introductory agency or maybe it was just a nice place where the Mayor and the Town Clerk rather fancied an annual all-expenses paid trip!

After visiting the Baldur we walked along the coast where the sea was calm today but the defences in place suggested that this might be a rough place in high seas.  Keflavik translates as ‘Driftwood Bay‘  so I searched for a while and picked up some nice pieces for my driftwood boat sculptures and then we walked back to the hotel, checked out the restaurant options for later and then picked up the car and drove the twenty-minute drive to the Blue Lagoon.

Ross Tiger Grimsby Fishing Heritage Museum

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

Iceland, Waterfalls and an Unexpected Train

Gullfoss Water Fall Iceland

“No waterfall in Europe can match Gullfoss.  In wildness and fury it outdoes the Niagra Falls in the United States”                                                                                      From the Travel Diary of two Danes in the retinue of Frederick VII of Denmark (1907).

The Gullfoss Falls in Iceland…

The landscape was becoming increasingly mountainous now with deep black fissures with verdant green moss and clinging lichen .  On account of the year’s first snowfall just a week previously the black mountains were capped with generous amounts of snow and below the frost line the ice was dripping down the side like white gloss dribbling messily down the side of a half empty paint pot.

After a short drive we arrived at the Gullfoss Falls and this was as far as a small Chevrolet hire car could go because there were signs for of an impassable road ahead and warnings that car hire insurance policies were invalid (surprise, surprise) beyond this point so taking heed of this we left the car in the waterfall car park.

It was a clear afternoon and about thirty kilometres to the north we could clearly see the massive ice cap of Langjökull, which is Icelandic for ‘long glacier’ and at almost one thousand square kilometres and nearly six hundred metres thick is the second largest ice cap in Iceland after Vatnajökull in the south-east.

Gullfoss Falls, The Force of Nature…

We weren’t planning to go to the glacier anyway so the road with no access wasn’t a great disappointment and we made our way instead to the mighty Gullfoss Falls which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country and was therefore quite busy.  The falls are where the wide Hvítá river, swollen with melt waters from the nearby glacier rush southward and about a kilometre above the falls turns sharply to the left and flows down into a wide curved three step staircase before abruptly plunging in two stages into a crevice thirty-two metres deep with a thunderous roar and unstoppable force.

The river was wild and untamed this afternoon dashing madly over rocks and advancing like a cavalry charge racing to the precipice and the final crevice which is about twenty metres wide, and is at right angles to the flow of the river which results in a dramatic water plunge and an atmosphere full of hanging mist and as we watched we were left in no doubt about the wonderful power of nature.

Gullfoss Falls Iceland Waterfall

Major Waterfalls of the World…

I haven’t seen any of the World’s major falls such as the Angel Falls in Venezuela (the highest, and thirty times taller than Gullfoss), the Victoria Falls (claimed to be the largest in the world by volume) or the Niagara Falls (the widest in the world), but these were nevertheless really most exciting and dramatic and even better because the river was swollen from weeks of heavy rain and the water thundered over the rocks adjacent to the paths and the spray gathered into a white mist that wrapped itself around us like a damp cloak.

As we followed the path from the car park to the falls we negotiated a muddy path, dangerous and slippery in places and providing a treacherous surface  that went all the down to the water’s edge.  In the gorge there was a spectacular close up view of the wall of white water that was surging into the ravine and falling into a boiling cauldron in the crevice below.  We were getting quite wet from the spray now so we renegotiated the tricky path back to the top and followed the high level path with viewing platforms at various points along the way.

After a short stop in the overpriced restaurant and souvenir shop we made our way back to Reykjavik and just like the previous day we avoided the gravel roads and choose the longer route back along the roads that we had used earlier that morning and we drove the sun began to come out and by the time that we were back in the city the sky was cloudless and blue so Mike and I went back out to the streets to take a walk to the port area of the city and left Kim and Margaret with the duty free wine.

At the city convention centre there was an Arctic Energy Summit with delegates from Scandinavia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland and the President of Iceland no less in attendance and suddenly it became clear why our hotel had been double booked and we had been booted out of our rooms at the Best Western.

The best thing about conferences like this one is that there are always free pens and key rings and such like so with nothing to stop us going inside I had a look around the exhibition stands and filled my pockets before leaving and going to the waterfront to see the ships and the boats.

The only Railway Engine in Iceland…

We walked along the dockside past the fishing trawlers, coast guard vessels and tug boats but suddenly Mike lost all interest in the nautical activity and the ships because he had spotted a railway train and, this being his passion in life, he bolted from the boats and drooled over the engine. 

It was only a small dock shunter that was no longer in use but this turned out to be the absolute highlight of his day, he liked this even more than the geysers and the waterfalls and we spent longer there than we had intended and when we finally returned to the hotel Kim and Margaret were already dressed and ready for evening meal so as we were now in a rush we took the easy option of just going across the road to ‘Harry’s Bar’ again.

Iceland, Fjords and Whales

Borgarnes Iceland old ferry terminal

“That is Snaefellsjokull a mountain about five thousand feet in height, one of the most remarkable in the whole island, and certainly doomed to be the most celebrated in the world, for through its crater we shall reach the centre of the earth.”, Jules Verne – ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’

Breakfast at the Alternative Foss Hotel turned out to be quite excellent with a good selection of hot and cold buffet selection and a waffle making machine that was working very well indeed until Margaret interfered with the cooking process and spilled the ingredients all over the table and left a sticky batter mess that was dripping over the side of the table top for the unfortunate staff to clean up.

It was a rather overcast day as we left the hotel, reunited ourselves with the little Chevrolet car and tentatively made our way out of the city of Reykjavik in a generally northerly direction.

After fifteen minutes or so we left behind the housing estates, the edge of town shopping malls and the car showrooms of the city and soon we were in open country.  This was an unfamiliar terrain unlike anything that I had seen before with jagged blackened boulders and deep granite fissures and it reminded me of a tray of freshly baked muffins that had risen quickly due to the heat and had split and cracked as though some mighty force from below and heaved them up through the earth’s crust, which of course it had.

Approximately three-quarters of Iceland is completely barren of vegetation and plant life consists mainly of grassland.   The only tree native to the island is the northern birch but most of these are only a memory now because humans of course have damaged the delicate ecosystem as  these birch forests were heavily exploited over the centuries for firewood and timber.  Deforestation resulted in a loss of critical top soil due to erosion, greatly reducing the ability of forests to re-establish themselves.  Today there are very few trees in only a few isolated areas of the island and none where we were driving.

Our plan was to drive north to the villages of Akranes and then Borgarnes and the swing inland and visit the Þingvellir National Park but for now we just kept driving north and keeping the sea close to the left.  Eventually we arrived at a decision making point with a road around the Whalefjord or a toll tunnel underneath that would save eighty kilometres or so of hard driving. 

Iceland Landscape

So we took the second option through the only underwater tunnel in Iceland, almost six thousand metres long and reaching a depth of one hundred and sixty-five metres.  It cost 1,000 Krona at the toll booth, or about £5, which seemed like good value to save the fifty minute alternative drive around the fjord.

The tunnel received a bad rating in the latest European tunnel test (believe me, it’s true), which is carried out annually by the German Automobile Club ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club).  Specifically mentioned were poor lighting (it was very dark I have to say), the absence of an automatic fire alarm system and poor ventilation.

We were only underground for a few minutes but in that short time the weather surprisingly improved and when we emerged on the Akranes peninsular the sun was doing it best to elbow  its way through the cloud.  We took the coast road to the town but only stopped on the outskirts and without giving it the courtesy of a visit carried right on to Borgarnes where we crossed a bridge that had replaced a previous ferry service and from the deserted quay side made our way into the town centre where we found a car park next to a café and a sort of museum called ‘the Settlement Centre’. So we stopped for coffee, cake and WiFi.

After the drinks break we declined the opportunity to visit the rather overpriced exhibition and I was satisfied that I wasn’t missing anything special, it was about the Vikings and I imagine rather like the Jorvik Centre in York or the Norway boat ride at EPCOT World Showcase in Florida but without the ride so instead walked for a while along the coast, next to the black volcanic sand beach and the windswept headland with yellowing grass, deprived of sunlight and chlorophyll  blowing helplessly first one way and then another in the strong wind that was buffeting us in all directions.

Across the bay and at a distance of about seventy kilometres we could make out the summit of the mountain and glacier Snæfellsjökull which is the smallest glacier in Iceland but famous for being featured as the entrance to the centre of the Earth in the book by Jules Verne*.

Some people also consider Snæfellsjökull to be an enormous source of energy and it is often visited by those with an interest in the spiritual and supernatural. An Icelandic politician (just before he went off for treatment I imagine) once had a dream about aliens coming to visit Earth on the top of Snæfellsjökull, famously attracting people from all over the world to witness this. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the aliens didn’t show up and let’s face it if Martians or Vulcans or whatever did come to earth then it is rather unlikely (unless they are very shy or have adequate volcano damage insurance for the spaceship)  that they would choose this very remote location.

We left Borgarnes across the second longest road bridge in Iceland and instead of making for the tunnel under the fjord decided to drive around it on our way to Þingvellir National Park a little way inland.

First the road took us around the north of the fjord past a fish processing plant and then a whaling station which is still used but where there was no activity today and then next to this the rotting remains of a British Second-World-War naval base where escort ships were stationed for protecting the North Atlantic convoys from the German U-boats.  At that time there were two hundred and fifty-buildings here including a hospital, a cinema, a restaurant and a shop but there are few remains now of what was once a British township on the island.

At the end of the fjord we turned west and followed the southern shoreline, past more remains of Second-World-War activity but what we really have liked to see were the Whales that give this fjord its name and where the Whale-watching tourist trips take to the water but by the time we had reached the turning towards Þingvellir we had rather predictably drawn a complete cetacean blank.

The weather had been showing signs of improvement with the strong winds pushing the clouds aside and allowing the sun to peek through but once away from the water and into the Kjósarskarðsvegur valley on the way to Þingvellir the clouds began to gather again and the afternoon became quite gloomy and often a little damp as we crossed through a forlorn and weather weary landscape.

Iceland Landscape

* “The distance from the surface of the Earth to the middle is 6,370 kilometres, which isn’t very far (relative to the size of the Universe)…. Our own attempts to penetrate towards the middle have been modest indeed.  One or two South African gold mines reach to a depth of over 3 kilometres, but most mines on Earth go no more than about 400 metres below the surface.”                                 Bill Bryson – ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’.

More Leif Ericson – Statues in the USA

Leif Erikson Boston  Leif Erikson Minnesota

After recent travels to Italy I told the story of Giuseppe Garibaldi and how he is so famous that his statues appear all over the World and now I have been to Iceland and seen Leif Ericson and although not nearly as prolific in his bronze and stones appearances as Giuseppe, Leif does seem to have an impressive number of likenesses of his own, especially in the USA.

This is not entirely surprising of course because Norsemen from Greenland and Iceland were the first Europeans to reach North America in what is today Newfoundland, Canada when Leif Ericson reached the Continent via Norse settlements in Greenland around the year 1000.

Nearly a thousand years later many Norwegian immigrants went to the United States primarily in the second half of the nineteenth and the first few decades of the twentieth century. According to the most recent United States census there are more than four and a half million Norwegian Americans and most live in the Upper Midwest and currently comprise the tenth largest American ancestry group.

In the two pictures above Leif can be seen in Boston, Massachusetts and then not surprisingly in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Below he is in Chicago, Illinois and (my personal favourite) Newport News in Virginia.

leif-eriksson-chicago  Leif Erikson Newport News Virginia

Reyjkavik, Vikings and Explorers