Iceland autumn 2012: Reykavik and Viðey

Today dawned very bright and clear. With no plans for the day, I decided to go the Pearl and maybe as far as the geothermal beach. But first of all, I had to go down to the seafront to say hello to Esja, who I haven’t actually seen yet.

I walked along the seafront, took photos of the view, took photos of the Viking boat, enjoyed the sky and the sun and the fact that I could see Esja and went along to Harpa. It’s always interesting to go inside. It’s not a very pretty building from the outside – interesting, yes, but it really doesn’t blend into Reykjavík’s architecture. Inside, the outer walls are all hexagons and the ceilings seemed to be hexagonal blocks of glass and the inner walls are all black concrete and if it’s sunny, like today, the outer walls reflect on them so you end up with colours and patterns all over the place, which makes interesting photos.

I headed into town and remember the Volcano House so I went to see the Cinema on Fire which started approximately five minutes after I arrived, and I was the only one in the audience. It’s two films, each about twenty minutes long. One is on the 1973 Heimaey eruption. This was of course filmed while it was going on and it shows its age. Still, the whole thing was incredible and well worth documenting and it wasn’t the film I saw in the café on Heimaey over the summer. I hadn’t realised that the worst of the eruption came two months after it started. At first it was the shower of ash that buried houses and caused trouble but in March, it started pouring out lava and that was the bit that was really destructive. I love and am horrified by the Heimaey story in equal parts.

The second film was Fimmvorðuls and Eyjafjalljökull, which are part of the same system. Fimmvorðuhals went up a few weeks before Eyjafjallajökull and threw out lava fountains and was pretty and unproblematic. You all know what Eyjafjallajökull got up to. This film was made only two years ago – while the eruptions were going on, of course – by a professional filmmaker, which meant that when the film changed, it suddenly turned widescreen and all bright and clear and beautiful. And it was beautiful, because the first five minutes were just panoramas of Iceland, showing how volcanoes had shaped the landscape.

I went along to the tourist information centre to get some ideas for the afternoon. I picked up leaflets on domestic flights – it’s only forty-five minutes to Akureyri, not a thing to do today but perhaps at some point, or indeed it’s only about six hours by bus. There’s Esja to be climbed – also not a thing to do today but next time, or the time after. Possibly better in summer. And I found a booklet about trekking – specifically, the Laugavegur trail, which goes from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. I want to do that. Perhaps in 2014/15. It can be done in two days but it’s more comfortable in three or preferably four. Arctic Adventures provide a guide, book tents/huts and best of all, they drive your luggage to the next night’s stop so you only have to carry the bare minimum.

I picked up a leaflet on Viðey. This is a little island in the harbour, great for just wandering in the summer. You can also go in the winter but the boats only leave from one place and it’s just a bit out of comfortable walking distance. However, they do evening tours with hotel pickup to go and see the Peace Tower. This is a monument to John Lennon and world peace commissioned by Yoko Ono in 2007. Basically, it’s fifteen or so huge searchlights which form a massive column of light that stretches up a very long way – possibly visible from space. It’s only on for two months, from October 9th (John Lennon’s birthday) to December 8th (John Lennon’s deathday). I wanted to go to Viðey, I see that the Peace Tower is a bit of a Sight, so I decided that’s what I’d do with my evening.

Last stop of daytime was Tjörnin, the Pond. It’s one of my favourite places in Reykjavík. It’s just what it sounds like – a big pond. Most places would call it a lake. And it’s not peaceful at all. At the town end, there are always people feeding the birds and it’s all chaos and noise – bird chaos and bird noise but they cause a lot of it. There are geese and swans making all sorts of interesting honking noises, there are ducks and seagulls splashing and having fights, there are birds trying to jump out of the water to pounce of people in search of bread and it’s just great fun, even if you haven’t got any bread, to stand and watch for ages, mostly because the honking noises are hilarious.

I was picked up at about quarter to eight, taken to the harbour along with Manchester’s version of Taylor Swift – I have never heard anyone use the word “like” so many times in so few sentences – and a girl from Nottingham. They’d all been out and about and seeing things but apparently none of them knew any of the names of the places. “Somewhere out in the wilderness, really pretty, with waterfalls” was about the best we got.

We were taken to the harbour, took photos of the Peace Tower from land and then got on the whalewatching boat. The island is only a couple of minutes away and if the North Atlantic Ocean wasn’t so fatally cold, you could easily swim there. But we weren’t going straight there! We were going to see the Tower from the sea first. It was quite choppy. I was fairly sure the boat wasn’t actually going to capsize but I wasn’t 100% sure and I was quite glad when we were taken to land.

We were shown Iceland’s oldest stone house and Iceland’s second oldest church (I’m apparently the only one interested in knowing where the oldest one is – the guide had to confer with the driver/captain to get the answer. Up north, where the other bishop used to be, that’s where. Iceland used to have two bishops, one at Skálholt, the other at Hólar. The last Catholic bishop, seated at Hólar, was murdered at Skálholt and thrown in the river, if I remember rightly) and then we went up to “the seeing hill”, or Sjónarhóll, (without getting garrotted by the washing line next to the path and almost invisible in the dark) where there’s a view over the Tower and Reykjavík and of the full moon – a hill made for taking photos, really. I had managed to forget my hat and it was very windy, so I put the hood of my big red shirt up and secured it in place with my headtorch, which also came in handy for making my way down the hill. Our guide said that sometimes scheduled flights from Reykjavík Domestic fly right through the light. As if on cue, a plane rose out of the city, heading straight for it and yes, through it. That did look quite spectacular. Then it circled around and went through again, made a bigger and slower circle and did it a third time. I have no idea whether that’s just a stunt or whether it was a coincidence or whether the plane thinks it’s a moth and is attracted to the light but it was great to see.

We walked down to the Tower itself. It’s a wishing well, about eight feet high, made of what looks like big ceramic tiles but are actually glass, engraved with “Imagine peace” in twenty-four languages around it. It sits on a platform of Icelandic stone – rhyolite, basalt etc – and there are six searchlights set into the platform, shining in horizontally before being reflected by big mirrors upwards. There are seven more lights underneath the monument and the whole thing sends up a huge column of light right up into the sky. When there’s cloud above it, it just lights up the sky and our guide said that when he sees it like that, he really wants to put a Batman logo in there. No one can quite work out how to actually do that, though, as the light is actually fifteen separate lights. It uses 75kWh of green geothermal electricity, or as our guides kept putting it “about as much as a medium-size Icelandic town”. Electricity is clean, renewable and cheap in Iceland because of the volcanic activity but apparently, the bill for the Tower is still quite big. Yoko Ono paid for it for the first two years but now it comes out of Reykjavík art institute money. Iceland was chosen for this monument for three reasons, by the way. It doesn’t really have any connection to Lennon (any more than Vilnius does to Frank Zappa). 1) Iceland has no army. This is a great thing for a Peace Tower 2) It sits exactly on the boundary between America and Europe 3) Green electricity to power it.

We stayed there for ages, taking lots of photos. I was playing with the settings on my camera and managed to get some of the cliffs behind us, better than what I could actually see. And I was hoping the Northern Lights might come out to play. They were predicted tonight. The Northern Lights have a scale of 1-6 and tonight was apparently a 3. A 2 can be seen within the city itself. But no, not so much as a spark.

We stopped off in the second oldest church on the way back. There’s a tree in there and as part of the peace thing, you write a wish on a tag and tie it to the tree. When the tree is full, the wishes are removed and put in a time capsule underneath the Tower, to be opened in 2040, when Lennon would have been 100. There are several of these trees around Reykjavík. We wrote our wishes, tied them on and went back to the boat.

This time there was no faffing around looking at the light from the water. We just went straight back, bouncing over the waves. Everyone else was half frozen and stayed inside. I didn’t. I don’t. I went down the side to where I could see out the front and hung on, enjoying the wind and the bouncing.

Back at the quay, we had hot chocolate while we waited for the minibus to warm up – at least, I assume that’s what was going on. Hot chocolate that was too hot – I had to take mine on the bus and drink it when I got back to my hotel.

I need to pack tonight. It’s hometime already. I’m already making plans for next time.

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