Friday, 6 November 2009

Three days is long enough to see Reykjavik

Having just passed three score years, my present from three score years and one was a short holiday to Iceland – a country to which neither of us have been to before. Iceland suffered tremendously in the recent economic collapse and is said to be virtually bankrupt as a country, hence it has become affordable to the casual tourist rather than a place where any expenditure caused a sharp intake of breath and a conversation with your bank manager. Never-the-less, it is still not cheap and our impression is that costs are about UK plus 25%.

The hardest bit of getting to Iceland was the drive from home to Heathrow around the M25 – the rest of the journey was easy, a comfortable plane only about 25% full, a Flybus coach awaiting us at the airport and then a minibus to the hotel – why can’t all countries be this organised and efficient?.

Reykjavik is a small town, typically Nordic in appearance built around a bay and on a hillside. It seems to be quite a large city and certainly is well spread out – there is little land pressure and hence most buildings are only a few floors. 110,000 of the 320,000 Icelanders live in the capital.

Although Reykjavik is not the liveliest of cities, it has a fearsome reputation for drinking (despite the cost of alcohol and the weather). The streets are clean and tidy, traffic is light, and pedestrian numbers low. Scattered around the  town are numerous silent building sites – a consequence of the national financial position. One of the most famous is the new national concert hall which stands as an incomplete monument to lost wealth.

What can you do in three days?

Wednesday Morning (sunrise around 9 am) – short walk around town with a visit to the National Art Gallery (not worth it unless you are in to modern blobs!), see some nice old buildings which look really nice in the half light and cold. Lift to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja Church tower to see the town


laid out all around, if you time it close to the hour then you get to hear the

View from Church Tower

Clarion which is of course, longest at noon.

Wednesday afternoon – visit to the Blue Lagoon. This is a world famous outdoor pool (not really a swimming pool) where the silica rich waters are thermally heated and hence are covered in steam throughout a winter’s day. An efficient bus system takes you there in about 1 hour, upon check-in you are given a neat bracket which is your pass throughout the complex – it opens the entry gates, opens and closed the lockers, can be used as a charge card at the cafe etc.

Having hired towels and robes, we changed into our swimming wear, had a shower and an inside acclimatisation bathe and then


went outside into the steam. The pool is about 1 metre deep

Blue Lagoon General 

on average with some deeper spots but one can stand anywhere in the pool and just soak in the heat. Scattered around the edge are buckets of silica mud whose application is said to be good for the skin, having covered your face, you then swim around and let it wash off.

Blue Lagoon Pat

90 minutes was enough so it was a shower and something in the cafe. The shop there sells most things you do not want and amusingly, all of the most famous brand of Icelandic outdoor wear bore labels showing it was made in Latvia. Why come to Iceland to buy an souvenir made in Latvia?

The moon had risen when we left and headed towards the bus stop and

 Moon over Blue Lagoon

was shining down over some of the pools. The thermal power station

Power Station

nearby looks quite eerie when surrounded by steam.

Wednesday evening – Northern Lights. Two coaches of eager northern lights viewers were driven out into the dark countryside – well reasonably dark for a full moon evening! The northern lights stayed in bed for the whole evening and so we had a few hours driving around the cold darkish Icelandic countryside.

Thursday – an all day trip on the near mandatory “Golden Circle” – power stations, geysers, waterfalls, tectonic plates and politics. Our guide was a mine of information including such pub quiz gems as: “there is a golf course in Iceland for every 5,000 inhabitants” (60 in all); there is a swimming pool for every 1500 inhabitants” (200 in all); and “there are no polar bears in Iceland because last year they shot the only two bears to swim over to the country from Greenland in the last 20 years”.

The Power Generating Station is an impressive and noisy piece of

Generating Plant

industrial architecture which produces 700MW of energy a year. The process is simple, you drill a hole until you reach super heated water created by volcanic lava, let the water turn to steam to drive turbines which then generate electricity. The hot water is then used to heat houses and eventually gets pumped back down into the aquifer. Iceland sits across two tectonic plates and hence geothermal power is available in many places in the country. If you live there, you can dig your own well in the back garden in the hope of striking hot water.

Melt water from the largest glacier in the country has created the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall

Gullfoss 2 Gullfoss 1

and nearby, there are a number of geysers, in particular  Geysir and Strokkur.which either explode every few minutes or simply bubble away


with very hot water.

The countryside around is very spectacular in a barren Scottish sort of way and the drive through the Thingvellir National Park was very beautiful.

Scenary 3 Scenary 1 Scenary 2

The fractured rock is a result of the separation of the two tectonic plates (Eurasian and American) which are drifting apart at a speed of 2 cms per year thus resulting in the geological thermal characteristics of Iceland. The Thingvellir (“parliament plains”) was also the place where Icelandic Chieftains met for a “parliament” meeting once a year starting in 930 AD to elect leaders, argue cases, and settle disputes - sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.

Friday morning gave us the chance to visit the National Museum to see a very well laid out display of numerous artefacts from Icelandic history and then (as is often the case) to quickly see something which had been recommended by some other travellers, an outside exhibition of sculpture

Sculpture 4 Sculpture 2 Sculpture 3

by Einar Jonsson. We were amazed at how much emotion was conveyed in each of these sculptures, each of which seemed far more than a piece of cold bronze.

The trip back was as easy as the trip back – a nice way to celebrate turning 60 – thanks Pat.

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