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Posts Tagged ‘Iceland’

The day after we got back to Reykjavik, we took it fairly easy. We returned the car to the rental place at the city airport. We went to the flea market – which is held at weekends in a big hall near the harbour – where Habiba bought herself a nice, blue Icelandic woolly jumper. We got hotdogs from a nearby stand that is apparently quite famous; they have a framed photo of Bill Clinton eating there. The hotdogs were pretty bland. We hung out in the Harpa for a bit, taking pictures. Later, we walked out to a beach; there was no way down to the sand apart from climbing down the breakwater-like embankment of boulders. We stayed up top.

The following day, we went on a whale-watching trip, on a boat out into the bay. (This trip was a change to our – well, Habiba’s – expectations. She’d had her heart set on going to the Blue Lagoon, a fancy geothermal spa that’s actually formed from the run-off from a power plant. When I’d told her a day or two before that I wasn’t interested in going there, she’d got upset and told me I needed to bring up my thoughts and objections much earlier – which was a fair point: I’m pretty scared of any face-to-face conflict. She gave up her plans for the Blue Lagoon in favour of going on the boat ride – and I think she didn’t regret it in the end.) We got 10% off with our Europcar coupons; we paid about £35 each, I think.

We boarded the boat, entering through another boat converted into a gift shop with a whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling. We got on board early and snagged places for ourselves at the back of the upper deck. First stop on the trip was ‘Puffin Island’. The guide told everyone that puffin numbers had collapsed in recent years, but that this year there seemed to be a lot more around. We didn’t get to see them close up, but there were lots of them on the small island, more in the water around it and plenty flying to and from the islet, zipping through the air close to surface of the sea.

Next, the boat headed further out into the bay (Reykjavik actually means ‘smoke bay’ – because of the geothermal activity the first settlers saw when they arrived). The guide told to that we would probably spend an hour, maybe two, searching for whales. However, within half an hour we encountered a few minke whales feeding. The guide was very impressed with how quickly we found them and how many we saw; the three-hour trip lasted only two and a half hours for this reason. the guide was kept busy letting everyone know where the whales could be found.

There were maybe half a dozen to ten whales around the boat at various distances – sometimes as close as ten or twenty metres. They swam mostly in straight lines, surfacing a few times in relatively quick succession then arching their backs to dive deeper to feed. Predicting when and where a whale would surface became quite an entertaining guessing game, standing there ready with your camera focused on a patch of sea, set to infinite burst. The limitations of our cameras made it a little frustrating trying to get perfect shots. Still, it was a great experience. On the way back, we saw a distant seal.

In the afternoon, we went to the Reykjavik Art Museum building near the harbour. Habiba was particularly entranced by a house made of wool. I liked the room of works about the USA/USSR summit held in Iceland; there was an interactive piece that measured facial expressions; another focused on the intrigue surrounding a missing Tom and Jerry video tape.

The day after that, we got up early to go on a six-hour tour of the Golden Circle – some of the main natural attraction in Iceland within easy driving distance of the capital. We got picked up at our hostel by one bus, taken a few metres down the road and asked to transfer to another bus, our actual tour bus. The driver narrated most of the journey and he was very charismatic, full of dry humour as well as lots of facts.

First stop was Kerið, a little volcano with a caldera lake – more of a pond, actually.

A little further down the road, we stopped to take a few pictures of Faxifoss, a wide waterfall with a salmon lift – a kind of stream-cum-staircase – thoughtfully constructed to one side.

Next, we visited Geysir, the geysir from which we get the word ‘geysir’. The Geysir geysir itself doesn’t erupt any more since an earthquake that presumably changed the underground watercourses. Instead, water periodically spouts from the Strokkur geysir – every four to ten minutes, maybe. Shorter intervals between eruptions result in smaller spouts. We were there for an hour – including time in the visitor centre – so we saw it go up several times.

After that, we headed to Gullfoss (‘gold waterfall’), a large, split-level waterfall that has a very convenient rock outcrop right next to both stages of the fall.

The driver had promised to try to find somewhere to stop so we could see, pet, take pictures of Icelandic horses. These are a special breed of equine for a couple of reasons: they have six gaits (instead of the normal four – walk, trot, canter, gallop), the extra ones (the tölt and the skeið) being, apparently, very smooth and ideally suited to travelling over rocky ground; they are smaller than most horses and are able to lie on their sides and even roll over – something other breeds can’t do without rupturing their innards. They are keenly protected and once one leaves the country it can’t come back.

Finally, we went to Þingvellir (‘THING-vet-leer’), the site of the original Icelandic parliament or Althing, the world’s oldest currently sitting parliament (it dates from the 10th century). There was no building at the original site – it was just a meeting place. The place is very interesting, though – it’s in a rift valley formed by the movement of the European and North America continental plates moving away from each other.

We stopped in the valley – for far too short a time – then again up at the top of the cliff. And then it was time to return to Reykjavik. It was a very satisfying tour.

The next day, we got picked up again, ferried to a larger bus and taken to Keflavik Airport. From there, we flew to Gatwick. I waited about half an hour or so for Habiba to clear the queue and Immigration; she talked to the officer about the flagging of her passport and was reassured that it was nothing too serious – it just told future officers what had happened previously. Then we caught our separate flight to Basel, where Habiba’s friend picked us up and took us to her home.

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For the remainder of our time in Iceland, we originally planned to spend some time near Lake Myvatn in the centre north of the country. We realised, though, that it would be very expensive to stay there and difficult to get around. We arranged, instead, to spend most of our last few days in Reykjavik – but not before spending a night in Akureyri, a large (by Icelandic standards – 18,000 people) town in the north.

To get there, Habiba found us a car-sharing ride via a website for exactly this purpose. It turned out that the guy was not only taking us to Akureyri, but moving a portion of his belongings to Reykjavik, carrying another traveller to Reykjavik and picking up two more when he dropped us off. When we saw his car, we didn’t realise there was another person along for the ride – and it didn’t even look like it would take the two of us and all our stuff. The boot was nearly full and there was a pile of stuff occupying passenger space in the back. However, we moved stuff around, the other guy – a Briton – sat in the front with his backpack, my backpack was squeezed in between the back seat pile and the roof of the car, the driver unloaded a few board games back at his Egilsstaðir home and Habiba and I squashed ourselves in with our smaller bags by our feet or in the space behind the handbrake.

The ride to Akureyri was pleasant. We chatted a little, the driver played some good music (some Queen, a bit of Rammstein – I was happy) and we stopped at a couple of interesting places. The first of these was the mudpots at Námafjall (‘á’ is pronounced like the ‘ow’ in ‘town’ (and you’ll remember that ‘ll’ is ‘tl’)). These mudpots are small craters full of grey, bubbling mud and they emit steamy clouds with the juicy bad egg smell of sulphur.

The second place was Goðafoss, a waterfall that looked like a scaled down Niagara Falls and was so-called because an early convert to Christianity tossed his pagan statues into the water there. There was one outcropping of rock that looked out over the basin and looked like an inviting place to stand. To get there, though, you had to cross a delta of rivulets by leaping from rock to rock – not so easy when you’re wearing a small, but heavily packed backpack.

In Akureyri, we had a couple of beds booked at Akureyri Backpackers, the local branch of the hostel we stayed at and would stay at again in Reykjavik. It was a much nicer place than the capital’s version – newly opened (it smelled of paint and work was still being carried out in places) and, with its pristine white walls and its wood floors, good enough to be a hotel. We were told when we checked in that they’d double booked our beds so we were upgraded for free to a twin room.

Leaving the hostel to check out the bus station for travel the following day, we saw Isabel and Dylan, who had left the farm a few days before us. We hung out together for a while; we got curries from a little Indian takeaway – my vindaloo tasted all right, but wasn’t very spicy. Later, Habiba and I went to the botanical gardens together.

The next day, we began to carry out our plan to hitchhike all the way from Akureyri to Reykjavik. We got up nice and early and started waiting by the main road going through the town (Highway 1, the ringroad circling the whole country) at around nine o’clock. We took note of the traffic lights with the heart-shaped red lights. I’d been pretty sceptical about the project, but Habiba’s enthusiasm brought me on board. No one picked us up and I argued that we’d stand a better chance if we walked further through the town in the direction of the capital.

We made our way to the hostel that Dylan and Isabel had been staying at. While waiting – Habiba wielding a piece of paper with ‘REYKJAVIK’ written on it – a couple of cyclists told us that we should try further along the road, so we moved on to the last major junction in the town. And we waited. And waited. Eventually, I told Habiba we should cut our losses and stop at midday and make other plans; she reluctantly agreed. At about 11:55, a couple of lads in a 4×4 told us they could take us about sixty kilometres to their village. We needed to go about 300 km and, given our track record up to then, it seemed a less than certain prospect that we would secure further rides.

So at noon, we started to pick up our bags. Just then, Isabel and Dylan drove past in their rental car. They waved to suggest they’d come around and get us. They were on their way to a music shop; they didn’t have plans to travel to Reykjavik, but they took us with them and then dropped us at Europcar, where we could get our own vehicle. Bus tickets to Rekjavik would have been 11,800 kronur each (£59), if I remember rightly – and the bus only left once a day at eight thirty in the morning, necessitating another night in Akureyri. Renting a small car for twenty-four hours cost 20,000 (£100), although we had to return it with a full tank of petrol.

So we (by which I mean Habiba) drove to Reykjavik. Habiba needed to stop frequently at first so we could take pictures of the beautiful, mountainous countryside. I was on navigation duty; not a difficult task, but we tried to keep track of how far we’d gone and when the next petrol station would come up. With the car, we got a book of vouchers – one of which we made use of for 10% off a whale-watching trip – and three coupons for free coffee at N1 petrol stations. At the first rest stop we made, we discovered that the N1 cappuccinos were disgusting. I got filter coffee next time.

We drove between mountains carved out by glaciation – sometimes rocky, sometimes grassy, sometimes scree sloped – through old lava fields grown over with moss and past fjords cut into the gentle grass- and farmland. Unlike the east of the country, there weren’t many trees – perhaps the reforestation project wasn’t focused here. The drive took something like six hours – maybe a bit longer and concluded with a three kilometre drive under the bay to the north of the capital. The walls of the tunnel were rough ripples of rock, making it seem like you were traversing a natural cave.

We parked up on Laugavegur (‘au’ is apparently pronounced, according to one guide I read, like ‘furry’ without the ‘f’ or ‘r’ sounds, and, as I mentioned in a previous post, the ‘g’s are silent; which basically makes the name of this street an ‘l’ followed by a blur of vowels, punctuated with a ‘v’: ‘Ləəəvəər’) and checked back in to Reykjavik Backpackers for four nights.

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Iceland is a bit out of the way for a Europe trip that had previously covered the Balkans from Istanbul to Zagreb, the heart of central and western Europe and the UK, but it’s been Habiba’s dream to go there for a long time, so it was duly scheduled for the penultimate country in our Grand Tour. We flew into Keflavik, the country’s main international airport, then took a bus to Reykjavik, the capital, where we spent the night at Reykjavik Backpackers.

Iceland has a population of just 300,000, most of whom live in and around the capital. It’s a pretty modest place. There’s little historic architecture of the sort that we’d seen in every other stop along the way. The most important old building, perhaps, was the parliament – which looked like a large, old, stone cottage. There was also a grand modern building – a concert hall called the Harpa, a post-modern honeycomb confection. Most of the the ordinary shops and houses were faced with corrugated metal – some of them were quite attractive, but it’s not the classiest of building materials.

We explored a bit and went to bed. Sleep did not come easily: it was a holiday the following day, so lots of people were out drinking – something Icelanders do a lot – our hostel was on one of the main shopping streets, so it was pretty noisy; also, being so far north, the sun doesn’t set far below the horizon in the summer, so it didn’t get darker than early twilight at any point of the night.

In the morning, we left the hostel and walked to Reykjavik Airport (we’d enquired at the bus station the previous day about getting a bus, but the holiday schedule was quite sparse). It was closed when we got there, but someone opened the small airport up within a few minutes. We got on a small passenger plane for our flight to Egilsstaðir (the ‘ð’ is a an eth, a voiced ‘th’; however, the ‘g’ is silent and the last two syllables are run together so it sounds like ‘Aylstathr’), a town in the east of the country.

Once there we waited for the farmer at whose farm we were to volunteer at for the next two weeks to pick us up. We waited. And we waited. On a second attempt to call him, over two hours after we arrived, Habiba spoke to him and discovered he’d forgotten that we were coming. Not long after, he came and got us and took us to his farm a few kilometres to the south, Vallanes (double L in Icelandic is a bit like that in Welsh, but it sounds more like ‘tl’; thus, Vallanes sounds like ‘Vat-lan-ess’.

On the ride, we passed areas that had large stands of young evergreens growing on them. I asked Eymundr, the farmer, about them and he explained that they had been planted as part of a government initiative since the 1980s and that he’d planted a million trees. I later learnt that the saplings had been imported from across the Arctic Circle – from Norway, Canada and Siberia.

The farm specialises in barley, but grows various other crops, too; it produces its own line of organic foods – Móðir Jörð (Mother Earth) – which, we discovered, are quite expensive. It’s not a big farm and there are only four members of staff – the farmer and his wife, Jói (‘Yo-i’) – an Icelander – and Dagma – a German. The latter two live in a couple of welded-together prefab huts known as the Monster House because of the sea serpent painted all around its exterior walls. Volunteer workers live in the same place. Habiba and I shared a small room with a bunk bed, a table, two chairs and a wardrobe; there were maybe half a dozen more such rooms, along with two or three bathrooms, a kitchen-dining-common area and Joi’s room.

Volunteers like us generally go there because of an organisation called WWOOF – Wordwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. They have a set of global and national websites that people sign up to for a moderate fee and get access to details of various participating farms. WWOOF has no active participation in the arrangements people make.

We worked six days a week at Vallanes, officially from nine to five, but the working hours were fairly relaxed, and included a lengthy coffee break in the afternoon. We got room and board – cooking and cleaning were done on a rota basis. There was one desktop computer with internet access. The farm was not terribly big – there was the farmer’s house, a small factory unit called the White House, a few greenhouses, a few small fields, a barn with more food producing equipment and a hen house, and the Monster House.

Apart from the regular staff, there were several volunteers at any one time: Natasha from the UK, Isabel from Switzerland, Dylan from the US, Laurent (‘Lo’) from France, Yoko from Japan, Maria from Spain, Guillaume from Quebec, Mihaela from Italy and so on. The personnel was rounded out by the farm’s cat, Susan (or Aphrodite, depending on who you asked). She was a smallish animal with very soft fur; sometimes she would come and check out what we were doing, approaching us for strokes; she let me pick her up without much complaint. Other times, we wouldn’t see her for days. The farm was also a hotspot for birds, especially a particular species that often flew about emitting a soft, low kind of beeping call: buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-buh.

Our work mainly involved looking after seedlings: for several days, we pricked them out of seed trays and planted them up in trays consisting of individual pots – beetroot and kale were the main crops involved. They also took a lot of watering, and this was nearly a full-time job for one person (I did it a couple of times). The greenhouses were long, arched metal structures covered with plastic sheeting; the weather was often very pleasant and, inside the greenhouses, it got very hot.

A big task at the end of our two weeks at the farm was making veggie burgers. This involved mashing up beetroots and potatoes, feeding the mixture into a patty-making machine, dipping the burgers in to an oat mix then boxing them up. Manning the burger machine was a fun challenge, as it popped out one patty every couple of seconds and you had to catch it and put it on a tray, building up as many as three layers of burgers until the oat mix dippers swapped the tray out for the one they’d just finished.

Other random jobs involved weeding, cutting down some some small fallen trees, mowing, removing the sheeting from a greenhouse and preparing it for a new covering, moving things around, cleaning a minibus (I did this all by myself – it was full of soil) and general cleaning and helping.

On our first Sunday day off, Habiba and I went with Dagma to the public baths in Egilsstaðir. I wasn’t too excited about this – swimming is not something I long to do; I had to borrow a pair of Bermuda shorts from the Monster House wardrobe o’ random clothes. It was actually a pleasant experience, though. Entry cost 500 kronur – about £2.50. The weather was sunny, but cool – which is relevant, because it was an open air swimming pool.

There was a main pool, a paddling pool that had warmer water and was a very popular place to hang out, two hot tubs and a water slide. There weren’t many people there and most of them stayed in the warmer sub-pools, so you had plenty of peace and space to swim a few lengths. As I’m not a great swimmer, this was appreciated. As Habiba doesn’t like people getting in her way, I’m sure she appreciated it, as well.

On our second day off, the following weekend, we hitchhiked to a waterfall about twenty kilometres south of Vallanes. We walked to the main road and set off in the direction of Hengifoss. I’d never hitchhiked before and was wary of what the experience might bring. Before too long, however, a woman pulled over in her four-wheel-drive and invited us to get in. She turned out to be a friend of Eymundr, the Vallanes farmer.

The walk up to the waterfall was a moderately strenuous, but short hike. We lengthened it by taking lots of photos. Before the main fall, there were a couple of other points of interest to take in. The river was fed by Iceland’s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull and tipped over the edge of a long, flat, ridge, carving a gorge on its way to a long, narrow lake that was very close to Vallanes further north. The first point of interest was a twist in the gorge where the water thundered through and the resultant spray made a rainbow in the sunlight. The second point of interest was a part where the walls of the gorge had the geometric form of lava columns – like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. And then Hengifoss itself was a tall pillar of water spewing over the edge of a cliff into a great cul-de-sac lined with various strata of rock.

We were pretty optimistic about hitchhiking back to the farm and we set out, crossing the causeway-bridge combination across the lake and along the road we’d come down. It was about an hour and a half and a couple of dozen vehicles later that we were finally picked up – by the same woman who’d taken us to the waterfall earlier. She dropped us right back at the farm, stopping for a minute to say hello to Eymundr (who was dressed in nothing but shorts and boots).

The two weeks on the farm went by pretty quickly – and it was a very pleasant experience. We had fun hanging out with the other volunteers – especially Habiba, being rather more sociable than me. The sun bothered me a bit; I took to using a kerchief-bandanna thing I found in the communal wardrobe to protect my neck and ears – combined with my green cap, it made me look like a WWII Japanese soldier (I decided to keep this when we left).

The second week got a bit boring for me, and I became somewhat withdrawn – I missed having my own space and privacy. I took to listening to Fear Factory to counteract the organic, touchy-feely, hippy goodness of it all – especially the kind of music people listened to and played (Digimortal is a fantastic album, it turns out). I’m glad that I had Habiba there as my connection to humanity. There were some other very quiet characters at the farm and I could imagine how lonely they probably were.

At the end of our fortnight of farming for a few days of travel and sightseeing in Iceland – which will be the subject of my next post.

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