Iceland December 2013: Black Lava & Blue Lagoon

First job of the day is now to fetch the bag from the door handle. Today I was visited by Askaleikir, Bowl-licker, who had also brought gingerbread. Let’s have no more of “the characters”, by the way. This is an Icelandic Christmas tradition dating back centuries (far longer than Father Christmas, I’m told) and these are the thirteen Yule Lads, who are trolls from the mountain. Their mother is Grýla, a witch and she owns the Christmas Cat, who eats children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas. The Yule Lads come to town each night up until Christmas Eve and they each stay for thirteen nights, I think. One more arrives each night, so Askaleikir arrived from the mountains for two weeks last night. You leave a shoe on the windowsill for the Yule Lads – in this hotel they provide a little bag on the door handle – and the Yule Lads put something in – a treat if you’ve been good or a potato if you haven’t.

Despite today’s tour starting at 10, the pickup was an hour and a quarter beforehand – fair enough, because Íshestar are out at Hafnarfjorður, which is a bit of a drive out of central Reykjavik. So pickup was 8.45, almost as early as yesterday. Except that I was still pottering around my room at 8.37 when my phone rang. “Have you booked a tour? The pickup is here…” Fortunately I’d already packed – I put on my coat, stepped into my boots without doing them up and ran down the stairs, straight out the door and into the Eldhestar bus who looked at me like I was crazy. Then I heard my name being called behind me. Íshestar, not Eldhestar, the Ice Horses, not the Fire Horses. Íshestar were at the back door. I had an excuse for being late – the pickup was early. But at the next stop, the people were still having breakfast and I have no idea what took so long at the last hotel.

At Íshestar, wearing two pairs of socks, some wellies and a fuzzy fleece-lined warm oversuit, I was paired with a horse called Gleitur. I can’t find that name anywhere on the internet, and the spelling is only a guess and I have no idea what it means. Might have to get in touch with Íshestar. Anyway, she’s about eight, grey at the front but quite dark at the back, with dark legs. She will get lighter as she gets older. I instantly discovered that she likes to eat snow and once I was up and we were waiting in the paddock for everyone else to be ready, she wandered up and down clearing the snow off the railings. She’s also quite impatient – she really wanted to overtake the horse in front but that’s not allowed. We have to walk sedately in a row, one behind the other. The scenery was amazing but I had to keep both hands on the reins, not enough free hands to take photos. The area around Hafnarfjorður is blanketed in snow and when we went through the trees, it was like the entire world was in black and white. We went a bit faster a few times – I don’t know enough about horses to know if it was actually trotting but it was certainly faster and a lot bumpier. The first time, when I rode Socrates, I really enjoyed it but this time, even though I was much more comfortable on a horse, I felt like I was going to fall off and hung onto the saddle. At one point, Gleitur actually tried to overtake and I was very proud of myself for managing to pull her back, steer her back to the right into the line and hang on and not fall off while going “a bit faster” all at the same time. She’s a good horse. She made me and the rider behind me laugh by stopping to snatch a handful of hay from under the snow as we crossed a road. The weather was mostly ok but for a while it hailed, for a while it snowed and it got cold. My hands were fine in my gloves but my feet, even in two pairs of socks, were freezing. We took the horses back to the paddock, I got Gleitur harnessed to the railings with no problems, took photos of her and then went back inside to take off the riding stuff and try to get the feeling back in my feet. They hurt so much! The outsides had got so cold I began to wonder if they’d have to be amputated. I could hardly walk, I wasn’t sure whether they were numb or tingly but they hurt a lot.

I was transferring to the Blue Lagoon, so I had a transfer pass and also a ticket for a picnic lunch. I’ve had one before. It mysteriously vanished before I got to the bar to pick it up and equally mysteriously, it happened again today.

Anyone going back to Reykjavik left around 12.15 but those of us going to the Blue Lagoon had to wait another half an hour. Me and the family who were having breakfast. They were odd. I think they were Danish but the kids – two boys no older than ten – switched from Danish to American-accented English as if they were born speaking both and yet their dad seemed to speak to them in Spanish.

We pootled down into Hafnarfjorður and stopped on the harbour front. There we had another twenty minute wait to change buses. It would have been quicker to just go back to Reykjavik and get on the Blue Lagoon bus in the first place. Reykjavik Excursions, sort that out. Fifty minutes hanging around. I didn’t even book with RE, it was only much later that I wondered how I’d ended up on an RE bus. I booked directly with Íshestar.

At the Blue Lagoon, they’d closed the A changing rooms and sent us upstairs to B and C. I’ve never seen A closed before, I have no idea why they did that. B and C are much smaller – there’s no space to change in because it’s occupied by the table and mirrors for sorting out your hair before you leave.

It was cold. The weather had already turned and only the very brave or very stupid took the outdoor route to the water. And it got worse. You could only move around facing the building unless you wanted your face scoured off by the wind and rain/hail/snow/whatever was falling at the time. And by “falling”, I mean being blown almost horizontally at high speed. I don’t know what they’d done to the water but the hot patches were painfully hot – the sort of painfully hot where you paddle as fast as you can away into cooler waters shrieking “Ow, hot, ow, hot, ow, hot!!!!!!” or just plain whimpering. It was an entertaining game – finding water warm enough to not die of the storm raging above your head but cool enough to not remove your skin. It seemed bigger than last time and for a while I genuinely wondered if they’d enlarged it since August. They haven’t. It just feels a lot bigger when there’s a fraction of the number of people in it, the weather is trying to remove your head and swimming across is hampered by hundred foot high waves.

Since they no longer have the extra sweet apple juice, I settled for a blue raspberry slushie which is properly wet and sweet but also a terrible choice on such a freezing day. You have to keep under the water but keep the drink above it unless you want it instantly melting which means you’re drinking at a very odd and uncomfortable angle. Then I got cold and went in for a hot chocolate.

I planned to stick it out until the 9.15 pickup in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights from the water but the weather got worse. You couldn’t see across the pool, the mountains had vanished and it was a battle between shivering and burning. It had kind of stopped being fun so I gave in and came home, stopping at the indoor dry cafe for the Traditional Babybel.

It was pouring with rain by the time I came out. There is a path through the lava from the door to the car park, presumably so you can enjoy the spa bliss without the sound of traffic. It’s not very long, maybe fifty yards, maybe a hundred but by the time I’d scurried up there and into the bus, I was soaked. As we went out onto the road, I realised my legs were wet. I hadn’t got dressed before getting dry – it was just that my winter trousers are not quite as waterproof as I’d believed and the rain was heavier and wetter than I’d realised. I hope it gets really cold tonight and snows again – all the snow is being washed away or turned into slush and it’s not so pretty. I also really hope the weather improves tomorrow because ice climbing is not going to be fun in conditions like this.

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