Iceland summer 2012: Keflavik

Being picked up at 9.30 meant I actually had a good long slow lazy morning. I finished my packing, read for a while and dragged my suitcase outside and up the steps to find my minibus was already there.

I was delivered to the ticket office with my ticket already in my hand – I’d successfully kept it safe for ten days! – and waited for the airport bus. There was a big cruise ship in the harbour opposite. It had been there for at least a day and looked far too big and shiny to be in a place like Iceland.

The coach, when it arrived, was clearly the flagship – all wooden floors and walnut inlay and cream leather and red velour – the effect slightly spoiled by the rows of blue LEDs along the ceiling. I read and marked more Poetic Edda and tried to eat chocolate chip cookies without getting too many crumbs on the floor – it was the first morning I hadn’t had breakfast, as I’d finally run out of mini cereal packets and I was starving by ten o’clock. I successfully checked it using the machines – usually the first machine doesn’t work but the second does but this time it all worked fine first time. I just slotted my passport into it and it printed all the paperwork I needed. I dropped off my big heavy bag – 22kg, just about within Icelandair’s weight limits and went out to see the sculptures when they weren’t under snow. I hadn’t realised the dinosaur egg was in the middle of a fountain, even if the fountain wasn’t switched off. I hung around departures for a while and then decided there was very little keeping me there, whereas there was plenty to entertain me on the other side of security. I am a master of getting through security now and I think it’s been a year since I’ve been searched, although they did search me pretty thoroughly at Innsbruck.

On the other side, the first stop was the tax free counter to reclaim the tax on some of my shopping, which I immediately spent on a breakfast of bread rolls, my favourite overly-sweet Icelandic apple juice (probably not actual Iceland apples, though – it’s a matter of practicality, apple trees take up too much room in the greenhouses to really be worth farming there) and some Honey Loops and then I spent a while going through the various shops before I settled down with my netbook for an hour while all the shops closed for lunch.

Eventually I decided to wander down towards my gate. No luck – I was boarding from somewhere completely different this time which involved going through proper official passport controls which weren’t opened. I went backwards and forwards for a while, had some food sitting at a table in an abandoned café, went back to the main shopping area and then settled down with a lot of Americans and Canadians waiting for the passport gate to the American flights to open too. It seemed there were no flights either coming in or going out between about 10am and 4.30pm, at which point there was the London flight and three or four US flights all arriving and then leaving again pretty much at the same time, which explained why the airport had been such a ghost town for a few hours. I’d have arrived later but the airport buses had been a bit awkward with times and I’d had a choice of the 10am bus which would get me there a bit early or the next bus which might have been a little closer for time than I was comfortable with.

Just after 3, the passport gate was opened. I went through, had a quick look around the small shops on that side and then discovered that flights were starting to arrive and I could start collecting planes again. I collected nine in all – Askja (a volcano in the east Highlands that has a fantastic little geothermal lake in the side of the main caldera), Grímsvötn (a volcano under Vatnajökull that eruped in 2011), Hengill (the active volcano near Reykjavík where the geothermal power stations are), Oræfajökull (a volcano I don’t know of), Eldborg (the pretty crown-shaped volcano near Snæfellsnes), Skjaldbreiður (the original Shield volcano near Þingvellir), Surtsey (the newest island in the world, the second-newest volcano in the Westman Islands), Katla (the big bad one under Mýrdaljökull that’s overdue), Krafla (another volcano I don’t know) and Keilir (the perfect cone on Reykjanes).

Once I’d finished darting around trying to take photos of them all, it was time to board. We were clearly on a bigger plane this time. I was right at the back again but this time, the last six or so rows were sectioned off from the rest of the plane and it was quieter. There were enough spare seats that people were invited to find somewhere more comfortable if they wanted. I was reasonably happy where I was. There was a non-English speaking person sitting on my row but not quite next to me and he wandered the plane most of the flight.

While we waited to take off, I took photos of the in-flight magazine of the pages where all Icelandair’s planes are listed. With the nine I’ve got today, plus Eyjafjallajökull which I got last time, I only have five left to collect: Grábrók (a volcano I don’t know), Hekla (the other big bad overdue, near Landmannalaugar), Herðubreið (another one I don’t know), Magni (and another, although I do know it shares its name with one of Thor’s sons) and Snæfell (not actually Jules Verne’s one – “Snow Mountain” is a good enough name to have been used twice and this particular one is north-east of Vatnajökull).

This time I did watch the Hunger Games on the way back. I turned the sound up so I could make out what they were saying and soon realised I had a race against the plane as to whether I’d have time to make it to the end before we landed. For a while, I seemed to be in the ridiculous position of landing with less than two minutes of the film to go but then we had to do a big loop just east of Oxford (I’d turned on the maps on the screen belonging to the empty middle street so I could watch the film and the route at the same time) and that meant it finished ten minutes before we hit the tarmac. It was dark in London. That was new. I hadn’t seen dark for a while, only inside the volcano or when the curtains were closed in the common area of the guesthouse. Coaches only going every two hours, I had some time to kill before I got on mine. I got something to eat and watched something peculiar at the Olympics across the bar which later turned out to be the steeplechase.

We left Central Bus Station at 10 and it took maybe twenty minutes to get to T5 via T4. We then sat there for a very long time. For a while I entertained myself watching the light and water display of the fountains outside the main entrance but we were there so long that they got switched off. It transpired we had a problem with one of the tyres. Someone was coming out to fix it, they’d be ten or fifteen minutes and it would only take ten minutes to fix and then we’d be underway. No. Soon a lady was sticking her head in and saying we might have to change coaches later. Then the luggage came out of the hold and was put on trolleys. I watched it from my window, now starting to get properly fed up because it was eleven at night by now, I’d had a long day and I didn’t want to be in the UK at all, let alone still at Heathrow after all this time. The luggage was wheeled away and I picked up my stuff, preparing to change coaches. The luggage came back. I had no idea what was going on, whether we were coming or going or staying, starting to think about reclaiming my suitcase, finding another pod and spending the night there before making my way home in the morning.

At long last we were indeed put on another coach and an hour and a half after we’d first departed, we were finally on the road. I could see the moon – something else I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

Almost everyone got off at Bournemouth, leaving just me and one other man, who got off at Frizzell’s Roundabout, leaving me with my own private coach for the last ten minutes. Richard met me at Poole and brought me home and I finally got in at ten to two in the morning.

Iceland summer 2012: Vestmannaeyjar

January 23rd 1973 was a stormy day in the Westman Islands. Heimaey’s fishing fleet hadn’t been able to go out and all the men were home for once. The children were too excited about all their brothers being home to study for their exam at school the next day.

In the middle of the night, there was a big earthquake through the island as a fissure a mile long tore open. Fire and lava spurted up through the gap from hundreds of craters. Some of these craters only lasted a few hours. The largest got bigger and bigger and built itself a cone-shaped volcano, later called Eldfell (Fire Mountain). As the lava flow began to engulf the town, the island was evacuated using the fishing boats which wouldn’t normally have been there. 5000 people were evacuated in four hours.

The new volcano continued erupting for six months. A third of the town, five hundred houses, were buried under lava and tephra and the lava got closer and closer to the harbour. A few islanders and some rescue workers noticed that when it hit the seawater, the lava solidified so they had the idea of pumping cold seawater on it to try and hold it back, to stop it slithering across the entrance to the harbour up to the cliffs on the other side and sealing it off. It worked and by the time the eruption was over, the harbour was safe and in fact, better than before as it was now sheltered from the open sea with a narrow entrance. The island was 20% bigger – there being a volcano and a lava field where there had been sea. The Mayor of Heimaey had had to make a decision – whether to let the lava take the town or the harbour and it had been decided that the harbour was more important – fishing being the lifeline of the town. The villagers of Heimaey took on a volcano and won.

The name of the Westman Islands needs another story. Having heard tales of a vast unpopulated land, a Viking by the name of Ingólfur Arnarson and his brother (it’s not actually as simple as that with Vikings; I’m not actually entirely certain how they were related or if they were related at all) Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson set sail in 870AD for Iceland, along with the slaves they’d taken from Britain and Ireland on the way past. Coming into sight of the new land, Ingólfur declared that he would let the gods decide where he should make his new home. He threw his seat posts, a symbol of being head of a household (although Icelandics make it sound like “chief posts” so that may be it) into the sea and declared that wherever he washed ashore, there he would make his home. For three years he lived around and explored the south west coast of Iceland while his slaves searched the land for these posts. They turned up eventually on the northern side of a peninsula on the south coast, a piece of coastline covered in steam vents. Ingólfur named this place Smoky Bay – Reykjavík and there he lived as Iceland’s first permanent settler. Meanwhile, Hjörleifur’s slaves had rebelled, killed him and settled on some small islands. When news of this eventually reached Ingólfur, he tracked them down and had them all killed and they gave their name to the islands – the islands of the Westmen, ie from the British Isles, west of Norway.

Going to the Westman Islands meant a fairly early start, in a minibus with Dee Dee of the Golden Circle tour, who recognised me and asked if I was stalking her. We were a bit late leaving because some of the passengers went missing, so Dee Dee drove like a mad person. It should have taken us two hours to get to Hvolsvöllur – Dee Dee managed to get us there in an hour and a quarter and half an hour later, we were at Landseyjahöfn – the new harbour for the quick ferry from the mainland to the Westman Islands, half an hour instead of three and a half from Þorlákshöfn on the Reykjanes peninsula. Because it was the weekend of the National Festival of the Westman Islands (Þjóðhátið in Icelandic, more generally known as “The Festival”) – the Icelandic equivalent of Glastonbury – the car park was packed and eventually Dee Dee had to drop us at the terminal and go off to park the minibus.

We were given our tickets and told that if we lost the return part, we would be stuck on the islands and then Dee Dee discovered she had a couple of spare tickets and began to muse about selling them – “Do you know how much these tickets are worth this weekend?”

I am incapable of staying still on a ferry. Having befriended a French girl called Cécile on the minibus, we settled down at the back, where we could see the sea and the islands and what little of the mountains were visible under the mist on the mainland. But within minutes of getting underway I’d decided I wasn’t staying still and spent the rest of the crossing roaming around what little of the ferry was accessible to passengers. I’d always expected the Westman Islands to be quite flat but I’d seen them from the Ring Road several times during the last week and discovered that they’re actually big jagged things. That should actually have been pretty obvious. The weather had heated up a lot since we’d left Reykjavík and I was pretty comfortable even on deck in the wind in just a t-shirt. We were also accompanied by a lot of people heading to the Festival, who’d clearly started drinking about the time they left home. And alcohol is not only expensive in Iceland but also only available in state-owned shops called vinbuðin. There’s one in every town and the opening hours are usually mid-morning to evening although there’s one town I’ve come across and now can’t find where it’s only open for one hour a week. These festival-goers were already into the drinking songs at 10.30 in the morning.

We arrived on Heimaey after thirty-five minutes, coming in between the old brown high jagged cliffs and the new lava that had threatened to seal off the harbour thirty-nine years ago, disembarked, met Dee Dee on solid ground and were immediately taken off to our first excursion of the day – a boat ride round the island on a motorboat called Viking.

On the smaller boat, the waves were much more noticeable. It was still incredibly smooth and flat – I suspect beautiful calm days like that are fairly rare in the Westman Islands but we were still bouncing along like we were on a ride and I had to keep hold of the side. I am not and never have been susceptible to seasickness and sadly not everyone on the boat was like that. I kept my distance from one particular passenger.

We had a guide with a microphone pointing out various sights and giving a constant commentary on the place but it was impossible to make out much of what he was saying over the engines and the wind and the waves. Mostly I ignored him. I know he pointed out Surtsey but as there were three possible candidates, I just took photos of the group and decided to find out later. Surtsey is even more extraordinary than Heimaey. On November 14th 1963, there was a huge volcanic explosion a few kilometres south-west of Heimaey and within a week, there was a volcano sticking out of the sea. The eruption lasted three years and by the time it was over, the newest island in the world had been born and had become the second largest island in the Westman group. The sea is not kind to new lava and it soon shrank to half its birth size but within about fifty years, it will settle at its final size and stay that size for a few million years. It’s named after Surtr, ruler of the Norse world of fire called Múspell, who will fight Freyr at Ragnarok and then engulf the Earth in flames.

We also saw lots of kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs and lots of puffins swimming in the sea or flying over the surface. They’re fairly easy to see because their wings are a different shape from the other birds and they look awkward but they’re almost impossible to get photos of. We stopped off in some sea caves – going into volcanoes from the bottom, effectively – which had incredible coloured stripes and after an hour and a half we were heading back into the harbour. There was just one more stop. There was another sea cave in the big brown cliffs and this one has an echo. Our driver parked in there, came back onto the top deck and produced a saxophone.

Dee Dee had given us some mini-guides to the Westman Islands which included this line: “Accompanying you is a guide who might perhaps be in the mood to play a trumpet or a saxophone inside one of the caves” and now I understood.

Back on dry land, Dee Dee showed us to the Café Kró, right opposite the boat trips where she’d organised lunch for us – soup and bread. Cécile was concerned about it possibly being fish soup. I didn’t care what it was because I had no intention of eating it but I hoped the bread would be good. It was. Little fresh baked mini baguettes, still warm. No plates but I was quite happy to eat bread out of a bowl. We sat with the Italian man and his young son, who were from Florence. The soup turned out to be pepper (which Cécile was also not too keen on, as wasn’t the Italian boy) so we all sat and ate bread and then the Italian man and Cécile had coffee and brought back lots of sugar cubes for the boy to eat.

We were then put on a coach for our next excursion – a ride around the island to see what we couldn’t see from the boat. Stop one was just out of town, by the bay where we could see an elephant in the corner of the cliff. Not a real elephant – Iceland can be weird but not that weird. Just like a natural sculpture of an elephant. A few of us took photos but we’d already seen it from the boat, much to the driver’s disappointment. We were also right across from the Festival campsite. It seemed quite quiet but then it was still only the middle of the day and I knew a lot of the festival-goers either hadn’t arrived yet or were still in town.

Next we stopped at the opposite end of the island, at Stórhöfði, which is the windiest place in Europe. The wind stops there only four times a year – not four days, our guide made clear, four times and the last time was three weeks ago. It’s a great viewpoint.

We spent a little while there and then went down the side of the hill, parked the bus on the side of the road and climbed over another hill to spend a while puffin-watching. First we had to contend with sheep – in Iceland, sheep roam freely over the summer and then everyone helps collect them up at the end of August and the farmers reclaim their own and put them away for the winter. If you don’t want them on your land, you fence them off, rather than fencing them in anywhere and you often have to stop, even on the Ring Road (which is the Icelandic equivalent of the M25 except bigger) because there are sheep in the road. In this case, there were sheep on the hillside with an amazing island and blue sea background. I’m not used to seeing sheep with the sea in the background.

I’d had the sense to bring my binoculars so once I’d taken photos of the hillside in the hope that the puffins would be visible in them, I settled down to watching them closer up. They’re very cute. They hop around on the grass and then they stand and stare around for a while and then they hop around a bit more. It was quite idyllic, actually, sitting on a hillside in the sun, watching the puffins below us.

Next stop was a toilet stop at Vestmannaeyjar Airport. Little Bournemouth Airport is Heathrow compared to here. Compton Abbas is Bournemouth compared to here. Better view, though.

Back on the bus, we headed off to Eldfell. This is the volcano that nearly destroyed the place in 1973 and the driver told us one of my favourite Icelandic stories. I heard it from Geir on my second day as well, so I’m absolutely convinced it’s true.

Eldfell is still hot nearly forty years later. As little as 20cm down, it’s 300°. When important foreign visitors – royalty and world leaders and the like – come to Iceland, they’re always taken to Heimaey and they go up the volcano to inspect the crater. The Mayor of Heimaey has some dough buried in the volcano the day before, in a milk carton wrapped in foil, and the heat of the ground cooks it, so they dig it up and eat it as a gesture of international friendship. One day the King of Spain was due to visit and he’d heard about this volcano bread and was looking forward to tasting it and had been talking about it. Two hours before he was due to arrive, the Mayor discovered the dough hadn’t been planted – according to our Viking Tours guide, the man from Viking Tours who’d been meant to take it up there hadn’t. The Mayor panicked – the King of Spain wanted to eat this bread – they had to do something about it. So he asked a local baker to run up there with a loaf of bread. The ground would warm it and the King of Spain would never know. The baker did. Later the Kind of Spain arrived, they went up Eldfell, the bread was dug up and eaten with great ceremony. The Mayor asked the King what he thought of the volcano bread. “Very good,” the King said. “But I didn’t know it came sliced.”

We had a choice at Eldfell, whether we wanted to look at it and then go back to the bus or whether we wanted to walk up to the crater and then walk back down to meet the bus in half an hour. That’s not a choice. Of course you walk up to the crater. The ground is red and quite loose and the same ultra-light pumice I found all around Hekla and at the top of Þríhnjúkagígur. Cécile flew on up and tried to walk all the way around the top of the volcano instead of stopping at the edge of the volcano. During the eruption, the crater became so high and fragile that the north side of it collapsed and for a while, a colossal lump of rock floated in the lava, threatening to crash down onto the town. When you’re visiting the crater, you stand where that broke off and look down into the bowl and up at the high fragile side opposite although you can walk around like Cécile tried to, but there’s not much path there and it looks like you have to be very careful not to fall into the crater. Apparently if you’re not wearing hiking boots, you can feel the heat radiating off the ground. I’d decided if I was walking up a still-steaming volcano, boots were a better option than sandals. I looked at the crater, then I looked down at the town, at the grey and black lava field. Forty years ago, where I was standing just did not exist. It was sea. To put it in perspective, the rock under my house is anywhere between forty-five and two hundred million years old. The oldest part of the Westman Islands is only six thousand years old and the part I was standing on is only thirty-nine years old.

We half-walked, half-slid back down the cone to the bus, just in time to hear the guide talking about puffins. They eat puffins in Iceland. Foreigners tend to say “But how can you?! They’re so cute!” and he was explaining about exactly which ones they eat. Their beaks change colour and pattern as they get older, like rings on a tree so they only eat puffins between three and five years old, before they’ve started breeding and basically, they eat them because there are lots of them and they taste good. There are strict rules and limits on how many and where and when the puffins can be caught and when the little ones get confused and fly into town instead of into the sea, the islanders catch them in nets and send them on their way.

Now we were coming back into the other side of town. We’d passed a house with a turf roof, the workshop of an Icelandic MP and Eccentric Character. He’d caused a bit of a stir in the news recently. He’d had a car crash on Reykjanes, hit a big brown boulder. Talking to a local clairvoyant, it seemed a family of elves lived in it. He asked her to ask them if they wouldn’t mind moving to the Westman Islands. Apparently the elves were fine with this, so he had the boulder put on a lorry and ferried over to Heimaey and he went on foot, carrying a cardboard box which contained a jar of honey and the elves. He even paid the elves’ ferry fare. “Love this nation,” said the guide.

Fishing, as I said, is an important business in Heimaey. They dry fish and export it. But during the twenties or thirties, when Iceland had prohibition Spain had threatened to stop buying their dried fish unless Iceland started buying their wine again. So Iceland quickly changed its laws – so quickly that it forgot to also un-ban beer. Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989. “Love this nation…” the guide said again.

We drove through the new lava field. Our guide is a Heimaey native, born and bred, who was there the night the volcano erupted and is of course the one who told us about the school exam due the next day. He pointed out all the sights. He pointed out exactly when we driving over the swimming pool he’d learnt to swim in, where his house had been, told us about how he’d illegally sneaked back over to the island when the volcano was still going and about how when he saw fire in the sky, he was excited because he thought his school was burning and he wouldn’t have to do the exam the next day. He pointed out everything.

Our final stop was at Eldheimar, or “Pompeii of the North” – an archaeological dig in the east of the town, where they were slowly and delicately uncovering some of the streets and houses buried in tephra – the lightweight flying rock. Most of the houses were actually pretty intact. I suppose the tephra is light enough to not collapse the roof. There’s not much visible – the project hasn’t been going very long and isn’t welcomed by all locals. Just a few corners and a bit of roof here and there, along with signs showing what house is where, what it looked like, who the occupants were and a before and after photo. You can just about get into the first house – not that it’s open to tourists, but the former owner went in to see it when it was first uncovered and she said everything looks exactly as it did the night she evacuated.

Then we were taken back to the harbour, left at Café Kló for an hour. Dee Dee had told us repeatedly to be back at the ferry by five and it was just after four. Cécile wanted a cup of coffee so we went inside the café, only to find it had turned into a cinema for the afternoon. All the doors were shut and the lights were out and there was a film about the volcano – probably the one that’s on at the Volcano House in Reykjavík. It really was horrific when seen like that.

I left Cécile to her coffee and went to wander around the town. I quite fancied getting across to the big brown cliffs and I know it’s possible but I couldn’t figure out how and besides, I didn’t really have the time. Once I’d done a circuit of the nearest streets, I settled down on the pavement in the harbour to enjoy the view and watch the ferry coming in before going to board at five to five.

The ferry had been a bit late coming in and so it was late leaving. Our little group managed to gather together on the steps inside the terminal with Dee Dee and stood there and waited while Dee Dee looked at her watch every five minutes, unable to understand why we weren’t on yet. She’d spent the day at the Festival – her friends tell her she has to come every year and she always refuses because she doesn’t drink alcohol and doesn’t think the noise and crowds will be much fun if you’re not drunk. But this year, she volunteered to take the Westman Islands tour even though it was supposed to be her day off because then she could visit them without having to stay for the noisy drunken bit and could then tell them “No, I’ve been!” when they demanded in future years. All she’d really had to do was drive us to the ferry, make sure we knew when we had to be where and then take us back again so she’d had quite a relaxing day.

Eventually we were allowed on the ferry. I settled on the back with Cécile again until we started moving and then I was off again. This time I managed to spot puffins off the sides as we crossed back over to the mainland. We found the minibus, parked right at the back of the crowded car park.

Back in Reykjavík two hours later, I had lots of packing to do.

Iceland summer 2012: Reykjavik

This was my first and only day off. I woke up ridiculously early, of course, but didn’t venture out until 10. I went up Laugavegur, heading for Hallgrímskirkja and as I walked up the hill, I suddenly spotted Baldursgata (Baldr’s Street – Baldr being the son of Odin) which reminded me that I’d wanted to go and take photos of all the “God streets” around the church. I found Lokastígur (Loki, the God of Mischief), Þórsgata (Thor, the God of Thunder), Njarðargata (probably Niord, the father of the Vanir), Freyjugata (Freyja, Niord’s daughter), Bragagata (Bragi, the God of Poetry), Válastígur (Vali – there are two in Norse mythology. One is the son of Loki, whose entrails were used to bind Loki while a snake dripped venom on him until Ragnarok and the other is the son of Odin who was born to avenge Baldr, who was killed by Loki, using Hod – this was the crime Loki was bound for), Óðinsgata (Odin, the All-Father) and Týsgata (presumably Tyr, the God of War).

Once I’d found them all and taken photos of the road signs, I went up to the church. It was busy, much busier than it had been last time and there was a man practising the organ inside. Hallgrímskirkja is very simple and grey and minimalist inside, except for this massive, silver ornamental organ that dominates the back wall. I sat down to watch and listen.

I wanted to go up the tower but there was a queue for the lift. The church was open until 9 at night so I decided I’d come back later when it was quieter.

I went down to the seafront via Snorrabraut, which I can only think is named after Snorri Sturlusson, one of the most famous men in Iceland, the only saga writer known by name, the author of the Prose Edda and for a while Lawspeaker at the Alþing, Iceland’s ancient parliament (established 930AD), walked along the seafront and decided it really was about time I went into Harpa, the new conference and arts centre by the old harbour. After the town being so busy, it was weird to see Harpa so empty. The outside is all green glass and sea-like patterns but inside is dark grey concrete, stairs at weird angles. I went upstairs, right to the top. The view isn’t actually as good from up there as I’d hoped because of the window frames and the coloured glass.

I decided to go back to the Flying Viking to have something to eat and get a map but on the way, I passed the Volcano House, which has two films, one on Eldfell and one on Fimvorðuhals and Eyjafjallajökull running several times a day and also has displays and a café. I decided not to sit and watch the volcano films but I did stand and read a recipe for a volcano cake before I went home.

I didn’t mean to stay in until evening but that’s what happened. Later on, when the sun was a bit less fierce and the crowds a bit smaller I went out again, with the intention of going up the church tower. I got distracted on the way by a man sitting on Laugavegur playing some kind of Alpine-style pipe made out of drainpipe.

Then I went up the tower. The church was empty by now and there was no queue so up I went. The view was very different on a summer evening to last time I was up there. There are a couple of islands in the bay between the city and Esja and I couldn’t believe I’d managed to not notice them last time. The thing that looked like a crashed plane last time now just looked like a building in the distance and I spotted a fairly large plane coming in to land at the Domestic airport.

I wandered along to the Tjornin, which was now full of water instead of ice, walked along to the end, round the back and along back to the new Alþing building and the cathedral – Hallgrímskirkja isn’t officially Reykjavík’s cathedral but because it’s the biggest one in town, it’s the one where big events tend to happen. The cathedral itself is a small dark stone church down in the centre of town.

My plan to walk back through the town to the harbour and seafront was derailed by running into Wally, the Australian street performer. I was kept entertained for half an hour, not least because I couldn’t work out where he was from – his English was far too good to be Icelandic and yet he didn’t sound English. He dragged various volunteers out of the audience, none of whom were Icelandic either except the lady on a hen night apparently with her wife-to-be.

By the time his show was finished, I was getting cold. I went into my favourite shop, Eymundsson, the bookshop and went down into the basement where they had children’s books and came across Thor: Tales of Asgard. I’d been hoping to find a DVD of either Thor or the Avengers – probably Thor, since the Avengers isn’t out yet – because the idea of Thor and Loki actually speaking Icelandic, which is old Norse, the language of the sagas and myths of those times, was appealing, whether it was dubbed or just in subtitles.

Once again I stopped off at the seafront to see my favourite view before I went home for the night.

Iceland summer 2012: Snæfellsnes

Despite being quite a long day, Thursday felt like an easier and more relaxing day than the others. I think that was because there wasn’t really any “must-see” sight – it was just a day of seeing nice things and taking it easy.

We were heading up the west coast, round or under the fjords and I used the time to go through the Poetic Edda. I read the Prose Edda in Denmark and I’d tried to read the Poetic Edda, which is a collection of older poems about the Norse myths and legends before. It’s hard – even in translation, it’s still full of old Norse words, phrases and concepts, it uses a lot of kennings and assumes you remember a lot of details. You have to read it with a finger in the notes and a finger in the index, so went through with a pencil to make it easier to read.

Our first stop was at Borganes, about an hour north of Reykjavík. We were at a petrol station on the industrial estate with the best view in the entire world. It’s on the edge of the Borgarfjördur. We had about ten minutes there to get food, then we headed on to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which finishes at Snæfellsjökull, the volcano that stars in Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Other than blue sea and sky, the first major sight we saw was Eldborg, the remains of a perfectly formed crater in the middle of a field just beside the road. I think I flew out last time on Eldborg and I’d particularly wanted to see it. There’s no cone, no volcano, just this crown-shaped crater in the middle of nowhere.

Our first official stop was at Gerðuberg, a 2km long wall of basalt columns, which are perfectly hexagonal. It was freezing cold there and I began to think that for the first time, I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes with me. I took photos of the wall and sheltered behind the coach to take photos of the view, including the bright red volcano cone behind us.

We carried on, now turning left onto Snæfellsnes, past cliffs made of my new favourite rock, rhyolite, which is the pretty green and orange striped stuff, like at Landmannalaugar and followed the coast round to a small fishing village called Arnastapi. We just had time for a photo of the small harbour before our guide led us out onto the cliffs to see the kittiwakes nesting.

At first you think that all you can see is grey cliff and then you look a bit closer and realise the cliffs are almost invisible under the mass of birds nesting on them. Some are adults, some are half-grown birds and some are even fluffy little chicks. Different species nest at different heights but this cliff seemed to be nothing but kittiwakes. We went on to a spectacular natural arch, where you could see greenish-blue sea framed by a rock window, again covered in kittiwakes and the occasional gull. Then before we went back to the coach, we went to see a lake where arctic terns like to swim. There weren’t many there that day, which was just as well as apparently they dive-bomb visitors.

The next stop was only five or ten minutes further round the coast, at Hellnar. The guide had booked us a table at “the most popular restaurant in Iceland’s countryside” and ordered fish soup. Anyone who didn’t want the fish soup was quite welcome to wander around and entertain themselves for an hour.

I entertained myself. The restaurant was a tiny little hut on the side of the cliff, almost on the beach. I went down to the beach and took photos of a sheltered corner of the cliffs and planned to sit there on the rocks to eat my breadsticks. Then I looked up at the cliffs and decided it might be better to not sit underneath them – they looked a little bit fragile. I did give in to the lure of building a stack of rocks to join all the other little stacks and then I went up behind the cliffs to try to find somewhere among the rocks, out of the sun. That was hard – there’s very little shelter in Iceland, very few trees over about three feet tall. There is a saying – “If you get lost in an Icelandic forest, stand up” and because of the way the boulders were wedged into the hillside, it was impossible to find shade. I settled down in a patch of grass against a boulder and ate my breadsticks and read the summary of the Laxdæla Saga from my guidebook with Snæfellsjökull looming over me – definitely one of the more scenic picnic spots I’ve ever had.

All too soon I had to scurry back down the rocks onto the path and then up the side of the cliffs back to the coach to go to our next spot.

This turned out to be a black sand beach at a place called Djúpalónssandur, which used to be a fishing village and is now gone. The freshwater lake where they got their drinking water is still visible through a window in the cliffs and the lifting stones are still there – there are four of them and fishermen had to be able to at least lift the lightest two onto a ledge at hip height. They are called Fullsterkur (full strength, 155g), Hálfsterkur (half strength, 140kg), Hálfdrœttingur (weakling, 49kg) and Amlóðii (useless, 23kg).

On the beach itself are the remains of a trawler from Grimsby that was wrecked there years ago, scattered rusty iron all over the place, which mustn’t be disturbed and makes a bit of an obstacle course to get down to the beach. I stood and looked at the crystal clear water for a while and then decided that I had my sandals on and I didn’t care if I got black sand stuck to my feet, I was going in. So I paddled in the north Atlantic quite happily (got asked several times later on if the water was cold – yes, it was but not as cold as in the canyon at Þórsmörk).

On the way to our next stop, which was nearly an hour, our guide announced that she was going to read us some wisdom from the Vikings. The moment she said it, I knew exactly what it was going to be and I grabbed my copy of the Poetic Edda and she did indeed read out verses from the Havamal, the Sayings of the High Ones, which was one of the poems I’d spent the morning marking. I preferred my version – between the translation in her version and her difficulty with some of the English words, it was quite difficult to understand some of it, which is why it was met with blank silence from everyone else.

The next stop was on the north coast of Snæfellsnes at a small town called Ólafsvík. We only had half an hour so we couldn’t go far but I took some photos of their eccentric and very un-Icelandic church before spotting the waterfall. It was just behind the town and if I hurried I had time to visit it. On the way I came across boards all about protecting the town from avalanches coming off the mountain behind it and from the “slushfall” coming down the stream from the waterfall. They’d built a little boulder wall across the river just below the waterfall – I couldn’t see exactly how that was supposed to stand up to higher waters but it seemed to work.

The final stop at the day was in the harbour at Stykkishólmur, which also had an interesting un-Icelandic church but I didn’t get a chance to find it. I saw the harbour, lots of boats and big brown jagged cliffs protecting it from the huge open fjord beyond.

Then we had a two hour drive home. The first part of this was incredibly beautiful. We drove across fjords and fields and past mountains and then just as I was beginning to wonder where on Earth I was, I spotted the red volcano and realised we were back at Eldborg and Gerðuberg.

The sun was still out when we got back to Reykjavík so I went over to the seafront to see Esja again, interrupted as I crossed the main road by fireworks over downtown. Fireworks are very hard to see in daylight.

Iceland summer 2012: The Golden Circle

Today was the Golden Circle. I did this trip in December when the country was under three feet of snow and I wanted to see it 1) in daylight 2) not in the snow.

It was very different. Last time there were maybe ten of us and we were in the truck. This time there were fifty-odd of us and we were in a big coach and a minibus. Our guide was Dee Dee, a hyperactive red-haired Viking whose real name is six or seven syllables long and the only bit I got of it was that it began with an H.

She could talk for Iceland. I took two whole pages of notes over the day. Per capita, Iceland does/has the most of everything. The most golf courses per capita, drink the most coke, eat the most Subway, import the most ADHD medicine, have the most writers and artists. Iceland has won Miss World three times, the World’s Strongest Man eight times, there’s one car for every two people in the country, three sheep for every one person, one mobile phone for every one person.

Our first stop was Nesjavellir, a power station at Hengill. We didn’t do this one on the trip last time because it’s not always accessible in the winter. A lot of Reykjavík’s hot water gets piped in from re. If you’re in an older hotel, they get their hot water directly from the ground below the city but the newer ones get it from the pipeline and the pipeline water is cleaner and less sulphurous than the city water. Specifically, she said “old hotels like Best Western”. That’s where I stayed last time and it would explain why the shower smelled much more eggy there than it does here. Here also has amazingly cold clear pure cold water – at the Best Western, even the cold water was lukewarm and had sulphur in it.

Next was Þingvellir – we were doing the tour in the opposite direction this time, then. We were dropped off at the education centre at the top of the North American cliffs and we walked down to Parliament Rock for Dee Dee to do her Viking speech, from 1000AD, when Þorgeir, the lawspeaker at the time, declared that Iceland should become Christian. Then out came the Mjölnir necklace – Thor’s hammer – to demonstrate that to Icelanders, it was Thor’s hammer. To the Norwegians, who ran Iceland at the time, it was a cross – Þorgeir had allowed the pagans to keep their religion as long as they did it secretly without the Norwegians noticing. “Thor was the son of Odin and he had lovely red hair. Like me! And her, and her” – I was one of the Thor-like redheads pointed out, although Dee Dee’s is naturally red and mine isn’t so much. Even people who weren’t part of our group were watching the performance.

We crossed the bridge and looked down into the Wishing Well – a twenty-five metre deep crack full of crystal clear water and coins of all currencies. There are even two credit cards in there. Then, having walked through the Parliament Plains, we were back in the coach and off to the visitors centre just up the road.

Our third stop was Gullfoss. Last time I saw that it was frozen solid. Today it was flowing and the path all the way up to the top was open so you could get within a few feet of this enormous mass of fast-flowing white water. The spray was incredible. Once I’d taken a few thousand photos, I went back up to the shop and café and ran into the dentists-in-training from the glacier tour. It’s very weird to be in this strange and alien country and meet people I know up in the Highlands, because Gullfoss is in the Highlands. They had been snowmobiling on Longjökull and had stopped to see Gullfoss while the other people in their group went whitewater rafting.

In the shop I finally bought the red and black striped armwarmers I’ve been wanting for six months and then went to get bread and butter, which I remembered being available last time. It still was and it’s still free, even if you don’t have the soup or the sandwiches or anything. I ate bread and butter until I could eat no more.

The next stop was back at Haukadalur, the hot springs area where Geysir is found. We were dropped off at the top entrance again to walk down and meet the bus at the shop. I took my time with Strokkur, determined to get a video of him spouting (Dee Dee called it “him” – volcanoes are always female but Strokkur is apparently male) and a photo of the bubble that forms just before it spouts. That meant trying out the burst setting on my camera and that also meant I ended up with about a hundred photos of Strokkur’s pool bubbling away before I actually got the pictures I wanted. Actually, I got 119, of which only 11 showed him in action.

I didn’t have time to linger around the other bubbling pots. I managed three quick burst photos of Little Geysir and of the landscape across the pots and then I had to run for the bus, because I’d forgotten it was leaving at 2.15, not 2.20.

Next was Skálholt, the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops and the first place I ever saw Iceland in daylight. I hadn’t realised you could see Hekla from there. There was no man practising the organ inside but Dee Dee sang an Icelandic song to us and then we went downstairs to see the stone coffin of Páll Jónsson, one of the most beloved of Iceland’s bishops, whose death is told about in one of the sagas. When they dug up his coffin, they discovered those particular sagas were all true.

We made a special stop at Kerið, just as I hoped. It’s an explosion crater at the side of the road and it’s very pretty in daylight. It’s deeper than I remembered and has a sparkling green lake in the bottom. You can see Hekla behind it and a volcano in the other direction with a huge red iron patch on the side. I’m very glad I got to see it in the sun, although it was ridiculously hot.

The final stop was at Hellisheiði power plant, the biggest geothermal facility in the world, on the other side of Hengill. We didn’t stop at Hveragerði – that had been ok at nine in the morning on a snowy day for fifteen people but you can’t throw fifty people into a small shopping centre in the height of summer, even if there is a crack between the continents inside it. There was an optional trip to the power exhibition upstairs and that was worth it just to be able to go and look at the machinery. I didn’t watch the DVDs and I didn’t play with the world’s biggest touchscreens, although I watched other people play with them. Then I sat outside and dipped my fingers in the “moat”, just to make sure it was cold water and that they weren’t decorating the place with hot geothermal water – I suspected it would be cold because there would be far too many people like me who have to stick their hands in to be able to have boiling hot water there.

And then we were back in Reykjavík. I jumped off downtown as usual, because there’s no way the massive coach would be able to get up my street and walked back through town, with a stop-off in the bookshop on the way past because I can never resist that. And Iceland has a ridiculous number of English books.

Tonight I have written three blogs and spent the best part of an hour trying to wash the Blue Lagoon out of my hair. It felt like it had been thatched this morning and despite epic amounts of conditioner, I suspect it’s not going to feel a lot better tomorrow.