Iceland summer 2012: Reykjavik

Having been woken up by the sound of the terminal apparently crashing down around me, I adjusted my suitcase to shift as many of the books as I could find into my hand luggage and headed to the Heathrow Express to take the shuttle over to Terminal 1. Heathrow at 8.30 in the morning is very different to the deserted Heathrow of 11 at night.

I was a bit early. I checked in at the machine, which took all of thirty seconds because this time, it recognised my passport first time but I had a twenty minute wait before the bag drop opened. For the sake of not letting the queue sprawl across the entire terminal, Icelandair opened up the mazes so we could at least be contained while we waited and then took pity on us and opened five minutes early. My suitcase just made it in under the weight limit and with that deposited, I went in search of breakfast.

I had a couple of hours to kill after that. The shops in departures didn’t keep me entertained for very long so I went through security to see what I could find on the other side. I think I’ve mastered the art of getting through security without being searched.

Two hours killed and I went to my gate and got my first glimpse at the planes. My one was right outside the window so I could get a good look at it and find out which is was going to be. All Icelandair’s planes are named after volcanoes and I was delighted to find I was going on Sjkaldbreiður, because that’s not only a name I recognise but also a volcano I know. It’s Shield-broad, visible from Þingvellir, the volcano after which all shield volcanoes are named, which I’m going to see again next Wednesday. I think last time I flew out on Eldborg, which is a perfect cone-shaped volcano on the way to Snaefellsnes and back on Keilir, which is the equally perfect cone-shaped one on Reykjanes, visible from Reykjavík. I was less delighted with the toddler who wouldn’t stop crying as we waited at the gate.

Fortunately, Gate 21 was actually Gate 21A and Gate 21B. The Reykjavík flight was at 21A and all the screaming kids and half the passengers were actually going to Beirut from 21B. I got on my plane, grabbed a blanket on the way past and soon discovered that despite Icelandair’s threats of “we are operating a full plane today”, I had an empty seat next to me. I didn’t get the bliss of the entire half-row being empty but an empty one next to me is good enough. We had one of the golden Dove planes behind us in the queue – I thought at the time it was the Olympic Firefly one but Google has told me I was wrong.

Once I’d enjoyed the takeoff and we were actually in the air, I started playing with my screen. I tried watching the Hunger Games but the plane was too noisy and I was constantly playing with the volume, going between being deafened and not being able to hear it properly, which made it impossible to follow what was going on. I put on This Means War instead, because I’ve seen it before and it’s not difficult to follow anyway.

We still weren’t at Iceland when it finished so I watched an episode of the Big Bang Theory and then played with the screen, as we were only twelve minutes out, only to discover a fifty minute documentary on Þríhnjúkagígur that I should have watched. I managed about a minute and a half of it before Iceland appeared in my window. I could understand how I’d mistaken it for a cloud bank when we landed last time. It was so different this time. It wasn’t a big white cloud island. It was greyish brown and there was a steaming patch of bright baby blue – the Blue Lagoon, visible from miles away against the lava. I was expecting the famous Reykjanes lava field to be black but it was definitely brown and from above, it looked like a big muddy field.

I got off the plane, through passport control and baggage reclaim and onto the minibus in record time and once we were on the open road, I discovered how very wild Reykjanes looks from ground level. Suddenly there are mountains and volcanoes rising up which you just can’t pick out from the sky. I kept an eye out for Þríhnjúkagígur but at the moment, it’s impossible to tell which ridge of volcanic rock is the hollow one. I did spot Keilir and then our guide pointed out, to our left, you can see Snaefellsjökull – that’s the one which supposedly contains a route to the centre of the Earth. I still wasn’t entirely convinced you could see it from Reykjavík, though.

As ever, there was an adventure on the way to the hotel, despite being on a minibus that I know drops off at the door. The trouble is, the driver wasn’t entirely sure where the Flying Viking is. We stopped in the right road and he took me down to the nearest hotel to ask them. They hadn’t heard of it. He took me to the next one. They didn’t know. He radioed base and was told it’s number 9 – right across the road from where we’d stopped. I crossed the road and stopped at the door of number 9. It didn’t look right. I couldn’t remember exactly what the picture on the website looked like but this wasn’t it. And my instructions said to come round the back of the building and up the steps. I couldn’t see any way to get to the back of this building. I trundled off to the end of the road, hoping but not expecting that if I went up the road parallel to it, I’d find the back. Of course not. In that case, maybe he’d misheard the building number. Maybe it wasn’t 9 but 29 or even 39. I followed the street right the way to the end, keeping a very close eye out for Flying Viking. Nothing. In despair, starting to think I might just trundle my suitcase back to the Best Western at the other end of the city, I stopped a stranger and pleaded for help. She phoned “a phonebook company”, gave the name of the owner and talked to at least two people and finally said it’s at number 10. I trundled all the way back down, only to find number 10 was exactly where the minibus driver had left me and that all the hassle could have been avoided if there had been a Flying Viking sign anywhere on the front of the building. I went to the back door, claimed my keys and let myself into my “apartment”.

It’s the basement of the building and has a nice new-looking pine kitchen/common area, with a couple of walls which are supposed to look like they’re carved out of the rock. I would be very surprised if they actually were, but they do look good. The shower looks especially good.

I dumped the heavy suitcase, found my favourite red travelling shirt because I wanted the pockets and headed out to get my bearings in this unfamiliar part of town. I soon found all the restaurants and then most of the souvenir shops before ending up walking past Harpa and onto the seafront.

If anything, Iceland looks even more desolate and wild in summer than it did under four feet of snow in December. Esja has massive, steep sloping sides and in the distance, you can see proper volcanoes. It’s spectacular, especially today. There were some big black rainclouds coming in from the north but over Esja, it was mostly blue sky and a few scraps of white fluffy cloud. And there was a rainbow emerging from one of the patches of cloud and resting at the top of Esja’s steepest slope, a very faint rainbow that I’m still not convinced my camera really picked up but definitely a rainbow. I had my photo taken with the Viking ship again – I like compare and contrast photos and today’s blog photo is December’s Viking ship picture just to remind you how very white and Arctic it was then – and then went up to the old harbour. I got distracted by the Princess Daphne – I’m not sure whether she’s a ferry or a cruise ship. Either way, she’s registered in Madeira and quite a long way from home. I watched her leaving the harbour and went on my way.

Just past Harpa, as you head towards the harbour, there was a new exhibit of Reykjavík since the eighteenth century. I had a little look at some of them – it showed what the city used to look like and how much of it had been reclaimed from the sea and it meant I could see how it might have looked in Jules Verne’s day (not that he ever actually came here). I carried on up and found myself in the less pretty end of town, on the edge of a big industrial estate/retail park. The sea was hidden behind a big boulder wall but I scrambled up and triumphantly spied Snaefellsjökull in the distance. It was a bit hazy but definitely there, if half-hidden behind the Princess Daphne on the horizon.

I got a tiny bit lost on the way home, wandering up streets I sort of recognised but couldn’t quite put together yet. I didn’t know if I’d seen them from the minibus or from my wander, I recognised the church at the end of the street but couldn’t remember when I’d seen it or where to go from there and eventually stumbled upon the right road.

I’ve braved the sulphurous shower and it doesn’t smell as bad as I thought, although it definitely doesn’t smell like English water. I’ve eaten bread and cheese and I’ve unpacked. I think I can settle here for the next week and a bit.

Sleep may be an issue, though. It’s now gone ten at night and the sky is still as blue as day. I think the sun will technically set but I don’t think it’s really going to get properly dark until I get home.

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