Iceland Feb 15: Viking Horse & Blue Lagoon

In reality, it’s quarter to seven on Tuesday morning and I’m eating a croissant and drinking apple juice at Keflavík. Having an alarm to get up nice and early, I’ve obviously been waking up every hour or so to check the time and I gave up at about 4am, when I heard the second aeroplane using the motorway outside my window as a runway (it later transpired that all these planes were actually snowploughs, it having been very snowy overnight). I was picked up just after 5, taken on a tour of the hotels of the city as usual – at two of those hotels, the person who was supposed to be picked up wasn’t there. I don’t know what became of them but I’d like to think that a phone call was made and they were dragged out of bed and put on another minibus. It was very hot in my room – I was trying to dry everything that got soaked at the Blue Lagoon yesterday and then it was quite warm in Reykjavík, so I didn’t put my coat on and then when we arrived at Kef, I didn’t think I’d want it. Mistaaaake! The weather was pleasant, with fresh snow on the ground, in Reykjavík. At Kef, there was a snowstorm, wind so strong I couldn’t even get out of the coach. Even the twenty yards from the coach to the door was trouble, trying to run, frozen instantly, with a bag in each hand, trying to hold my coat and my hat – with the same hand, obviously, with the inevitable result that the coat ended up across my face, so running blind into the airport.

But in another reality, it’s still ten o’clock on Monday night and I’m writing this as soon as I got home.

On Monday morning I didn’t wake up early. I’d had the first half-decent night’s sleep since I’ve been here and I had nothing whatsoever to do in the morning. So I didn’t do any of it. Well, I wrote Sunday’s blog and did the photos. And then, reluctantly, I packed for the afternoon’s activities. I was being picked up at 12.30 and after spending far too long waiting for the nice man from Íshestar at the Grayline office, we were off to Hafnarfjördur.

I am experienced in the ways of Íshestar, so I hadn’t brought many warm layers. No point shoving them all in a bag. I won’t want them while riding or at the Blue Lagoon. You see, Íshestar have these big fluffy overalls and neon orange rainsuits, so I got all dressed up, prepared for any weather. I’ve been out riding in any weather and I know how freezing it can get, riding in stinging hail, with your feet about to fall off. Admittedly, I was the only one of the entire group to opt for head-to-toe orange rainwear but it was recommended and it was cloudy and if it had rained, I’d have been the only dry one.

My horse was called Sægal (once again, very much guessing at the Icelandic spelling) and he was pretty. He was dark brown with blonde highlights in his mane and black legs. They were all very fluffy and for the first time, I wanted to call them ponies. I stroked him and talked to him and a couple of horses from the next paddock came to the gate to visit and I had three horses! I was hoisted onto Sægal and left up there for a while, while everyone else was paired with a horse and put on it. The horses in the next paddock were apparently showing off. What it looked like was every single horse having a fight with another one, all biting each other and kicking and jumping on each other. A fairly magnificent sight, these small fluffy horses rearing and showing teeth and leaping. I thought they were fighting or bored or overexcited or something but apparently no, just showing off.

We walked sedately across the lava field, until we came to the fork where the experienced riders could go off in the fast group. I am not an experienced rider. I’m gradually becoming less nervous and I can cope with a few yards of jogging but I’m not ready to tölt and probably never will be. Like all the horses I’ve met so far, Sægal was quite a characterful little thing. He didn’t eat the scenery but neither did he like getting his feet wet or muddy and my little horsie walked around patches of mud, puddles and ice. At one point when we jogged, one of the horses behind us got overexcited and tried to overtake the line and had to slot in in front of us. Sægal didn’t like that. He was determined to get in front of this horse.

We made a short stop in a field. I was hoping to be able to get off because my legs were hurting but no. We wandered around the field, some of the horses had a snack, one walked straight over a small tree and one wandered down a bank and into a wild patch. Kelsey (who had been on the Snæfellsnes tour with me on Saturday) took photos of us all, hauling the horses around to get them into pretty arrangements, or moving anyone who was in the way.

When we headed off again, we just went in whatever order and Sægal was happier now with the horse in front. I wasn’t so much – the horse in front didn’t want to jog and by then, jogging made a tiny but nice variation on my muscles.

It was just starting to snow when we arrived. I had to hand over my camera to someone because I couldn’t work out how to dismount with camera in hand (it had been in an inside pocket until the photo stop, then it was around my wrist) but once I’d handed it over, I managed to get off the horse without dying, managed to tie him to the gate with no trouble, took some more photos of him and removed his saddle all by myself.

When we’d changed back into normal clothes, we had to wait for the next bus – long enough for the woman from Illinois to ask out loud a few times “how long do we wait for the bus before we start to worry?” But it came along eventually and off we went to the Blue Lagoon.

It was getting dark by the time we arrived and it was misty and snowy, although that cleared up as it got really dark. The mountain behind it became briefly visible through the mist and then you could see its outline against the red glow from Grindavík. It’s sort of fun and sort of scary swimming in the lagoon in the dark. Because it is dark. There are little lights around the edge and every now and then they’ll swing a searchlight across but mostly, if you’re not sitting under one of the algae boxes or the hot water pumps, it’s pretty dark. But of course, you don’t really go there to swim. You go there to hop around in the warm water. I also went in the café and had a chocolate cake loaf because lunch was a very long time ago. I didn’t think I’d eat the whole thing but I did! It just vanished! I’d had the sense to take a spare towel because I knew I’d want it every time I got out to go to the café or get my camera from my locker and it would be soaked long before I wanted it for actually drying. I may or may not have ended up with several little pebbles in my bag.

I got the nine o’clock bus back and by some miracle, I was the first one dropped off instead of the last. I put out the wet stuff to dry and packed as much of the rest as I could and then, fast-forward three or four hours and we’re back where this blog began, except that I’ve finished the croissant and the juice.

Iceland Feb 15: Swimming in Reykjavik

Yesterday (Sunday!) I spent the day in Reykjavík. First stop the supermarkets because I’d eaten all my food, next stop the Tjornin to enjoy the ducks and geese and swans – they make noises like sad little bike horns and it’s hilarious and there were a couple of geese scrapping and a swan that kept looking suspiciously at me.

Next stop was Hallgrímskirkja, the big pointy church on the hill. Sunday morning service had just finished, which meant the church was open to tourists again. Well, tourists are welcome to walk in on the service as long as they’re quiet, but if they’re coming in, would they mind staying for the whole thing, as it’s very disturbing for them to keep walking in and out. I don’t think I’ve been inside for ages. I’d forgotten how plain it is. It’s all whitish stone and plain windows, just one little stained glass one hidden away at the side. It has those benches like you get on Spanish trains, where you can swing the back over so it faces the other way, although there were signs up pleading with tourists not to do that. As well as the colossal organ on the back wall, there were two small ones and a piano. I didn’t bother going up the tower – on a cloudy rainy day, it was a waste of time.

I planned to go in Café Loki for hot chocolate afterwards but it seems that the café’s moved to upstairs. That’s probably not a bad thing – when it was downstairs it was a tiny bit squished and there’s a marginally better view upstairs, but Café Loki is known for its traditional Icelandic food, which I think has always been served upstairs and I decided I didn’t really want to sit with boiled sheep heads and drink my hot chocolate. So I went back down the street, back to Lækjatorg to get on a bus.

Having gone into the TIC, and knowing I wanted to go swimming in an outside pool  – because it’s fun swimming outside in February – I got the bus to Kopavogur. Except Kopavogur sits on a hill covered in lava. I can only conclude this lava came from Esja a very long time ago. I know she’s a dormant/extinct volcano but no one’s ever mentioned any eruptions of hers. I don’t think there are any other volcanoes any closer than Hengill, which isn’t too far from the city and is active. Very active. Anyway, Kopavogur is very exposed and it was very windy and very cold and by the time I’d walked five minutes up the road to the pool, I’d decided I really didn’t want to go in there. So I went back to the bus stop and had lunch during the twenty minutes I had to wait for the bus. There are three buses running between Reykjavík and Kopavogur and all three leave at the same time, every half hour. If you miss one, you miss all three. It was still freezing sitting in the bus shelter, even wearing the big purple coat that’s a bit too big and hot if you’re moving at all. Every single person who passed by seemed to be wearing a Cintamani coat, even the little kids. I’d been into the Cintamani shop in the morning. That stuff is expensive. It seems effective – if Icelanders who spend most of their time outside wear it, it’s got to work. Tour guides, glacier guides, park rangers.

So I got the bus back to the town centre and went to get a map with a list of all the thermal pools on it. There are three in central Reykjavík – I’d already been to one and after debating which of the other two to try, I went for the closest. I took the bus to Hlemmur (this is a distance of maybe 400m – not a journey I’d bother with by bus if it wasn’t for the bus pass) and then, ditto, took the bus down Snorrabraut. I’ve walked up and down Snorrabraut, I’ve taken buses down it, I’ve ever stayed on it and I have never seen the pool. It turns out it’s far closer to Hlemmur than to the Snorrabraut bus stop, so having taken the bus most of the way down the road, I then had to walk a lot of the way back.

Sundhöllin is the oldest pool in Reykjavík,  opened in 1937, in an Art Deco style building designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (who also designed Hallgrímskirkja and the National Theatre). People love it. I occasionally use “municipal” when I feel a pool is less then space-age. In this case, the word I used was “institutional”. The pool was ok – it had a section for children, it had a lane and it had a couple of diving boards in constant use by local kids. But it was freezing! This is no thermal pool! This is ice cold! I went to the hot tubs instead. They’re on the roof! Well, they’re on an upstairs balcony but given that Reykjavík is not a high-rise city and the pool is just a teeny tiny bit up the hill towards Hallgrímskirkja, we were slightly raised over the nearby rooftops. There were opaque glass boards around the tubs – partly so you couldn’t see in, partly just so you don’t fall over the edge – but you could see a little underneath them and take in the view of Snorrabraut. How I never spotted this place is beyond me. The hot tubs were nice, if a bit busy, but there’s only so long you can sit in a rooftop hot tub before getting too hot, and this was in the cooler of the two. I thought I’d go back in the pool, which would probably feel delightful now. It did not. It felt colder than ever – so cold that I only got halfway down the ladder, the cold water only halfway up my legs before heading back outside and plopping down in the hotter tub.

So this wasn’t the pool for me. I got dressed, consulted my map and decided to go looking for Vesturbæjarlaug. The internet now says it’s within walking distance of the city centre and looking at the map, I suppose it is only a couple of streets away from the Tjornin, but that’s still a distance from Hlemmur and it looked further on the map. I walked back to Hlemmur and got on a bus.

Bus 15 takes you round the end of the airport – Reykjavík airport, the domestic one, not Keflavík, which is the international one an hour or so away – and along the seafront and then it goes round in what looks like a perfect square on the map and of course is no such thing in real life. I got off at the penultimate stop – in the rain – and walked back towards the place that looked like a sports centre because that’s where a swimming pool will be hiding. No, that was a school. It was raining, the wind was so strong that it was an effort to walk against it and I had the sort of hiccups that burn. I’d seen a petrol station, so I planned to walk there and ask about the pool. It was Sunday! The petrol station was closed, self-service only! A little further on, I found a bus stop. Fine.  I would give up, take the bus back to Reykjavík and go back to Laugardalslaug. But the bus wasn’t coming for a little while so I looked at my map. It wasn’t specific where the pool was – the little picture was somewhere within that square the bus was supposed to go round but maybe it was on the right, a couple of streets up. Well, I was already wet and furious, I might as well wander up there and find out. And there it was! Right at the end of the square, just where the bus goes back onto the easy back-and-forth part of the route. In I went.

Oh, Vesturbæjarlaug is much better than Sundhöllin! Alright, it was outside, but the pool was a good temperature. The lane pool, despite being connected, was much colder and also frighteningly deep at almost five metres and there was apparently a sauna, steam room and solarium, none of which I investigated. Two sunken hot pots, one hot tub (I’m concluding that the difference between a pot and a tub is how deep they are in the ground – the 38° – 40° hot pot was far more popular than the tub of the same temperature. There was a cold tub, very popular with children. And there was a kind of shallow pool-tub. Part of it was a shallow semi-circular thing and then if you climbed over the little dividing wall, there was a deeper hot tub with two round tubs at each side. All tiled in blue – another thing that hot pots don’t have. So when you’re sitting in the small hot tub, all you can see is dozens of people sitting in this small pool, with two separate temperature labels, despite the fact that when you go to investigate, the water goes from one to the other and how can one be hotter than the other?

Anyway, I liked it there a lot more than the other. The only downside, apart from it being a pig to find, was that it closes at 6 at weekends. That’s really early. Sundhöllin is open until 8 and I’m pretty sure somewhere like the Blue Lagoon is open until 11. I drifted from tub to pot to tub and went in the play part of the main pool. Back in tub, pot, tub. It was cold and windy still but somehow you didn’t feel it nearly as much here as even in Laugardalslaug, where the wind had been strong enough and cold enough to try to take your face off and rip out the row of trees inexplicable planted in the middle of the place.

Of the three central Reykjavík pools, I understand why Laugardalslaug has the best reputation, why everyone loves it there, why it’s the biggest. It’s by far the best. I would go back to Vesturbæjarlaug but I’d probably give Sundhöllin a miss.

After that, it was time to go home. Bus 1, which I normally get, was leaving just as I went into Hlemmur and then next one wasn’t due for half an hour. But Bus 4 came along. I know Bus 4 goes down my bit of motorway and when I ran for it and hastily checked the timetable, it does stop at Kringlan. So on I went! And wasn’t that a mistake! Yes, it stops at Kringlan, but it stops on Miklabraut, out the front, not Kringlumýrarbraut, at the side. It’s on the wrong side of the biggest shopping centre in the country and it was more than a ten minute walk to my normal bus stop, from where it’s another ten minute walk, in the rain and the wind and the dark.

Iceland Feb 15 – Gallery – Snæfellsnes

Iceland Feb 15 – The Wonders of Snæfellsnes

Today – yesterday (I’m writing this on Sunday but I’m putting Saturday’s date at the top of it – let’s see which day I end up going with) I went to Snæfellsnes. That’s a peninsula on the west coast, about halfway up, about 30 miles long. I’ve done this tour before, in the summer of 2012, and I drove round it myself over the summer, making about eight hundred stops along the way. I wanted to see what it looks like it winter so I decided to go again. What I liked about this particular trip the first time is that it’s quite relaxed – there’s no “this is an important place and you must see this and understand this” – I mean, I like that sort of thing, which is why I get upset at people who don’t understand Þingvellir but it’s nice to go somewhere where the only real purpose for going is that it’s nice. Why are we stopping here? Because it’s pretty. Why are we stopping here? Lots of birdies. That sort of thing.

We set off at about 8am. It was, of course, still dark and we had to stop for five or ten minutes on Miklabraut because some idiot turned up late and missed the bus and had to be delivered to the bus by minibus. And when I say bus, I mean a kind of all-terrain coach with a lorry front. I thought, given that it’s a long way, a relatively obscure place and it’s February, that there wouldn’t be many people. Wrong! I believe there were two spare seats on the entire bus. After spending the first hour crushed in near the back, I moved when we got to Borgarnes and caused minor chaos. Halldor, our guide, counted us and can only have counted us correctly yet noticed I wasn’t in my seat and began searching for me. It was only when my previous neighbour found me sitting at the front – right behind Halldor, who really should have noticed a person who hadn’t been there before if he could notice a person wasn’t where they had been – that we finally worked out what had happened. He counted us twice! How can you count us twice, get the right number twice and still think someone’s missing?

So, yes, we stopped at Borgarnes. That was kind of my base when I was there in the summer. I’m very, very fond of Borgarnes, although I don’t know how I survived because the roadhouse doesn’t have any plastic cheese slices and I did most of my shopping at that roadhouse. The mountains were just about visible – bit dark, even by gone 9 o’clock in the morning, but visible.

Off we drove up north to Snæfellsnes, me now sitting next to a Chinese boy who spent the entire day playing match-the-jewels on his iPad, where I could see some of the view out the front and watch what the driver was doing.

Our first stop was at Ytri-Tunga. I feel like I recognise that name – maybe it’s a name from the sagas, although I don’t remember reading any saga set on Snæfellsnes. It was cold and windy and cloudy but Halldor wanted to go down to the beach to see if we could see any seals on the rocks. Any seals on the rocks would have been smashed to pieces, given how violent the sea was being, but whatever. And he pronounced them “sheals”. Funny how “sheep” become “seep” but with seals it’s the other way round. We didn’t see any sheals.

Next stop was our lunch stop at Arnarstapi. Arnarstapi is a teeny-tiny village, mostly summer houses, only two families living there all year round. It’s not much more than a few wooden houses on a big patch of grass beneath a lovely pyramid mountain but the reason the tour groups all stop there is that this patch of grass sits on top of some perfect basalt column cliffs with abundant sea birds. Arnarstapi is where I got attacked by Arctic terns in the summer because their idiot baby was waddling around on the path. No terns there in February. We saw fulmars, assorted gulls and grebes (no puffins either) and probably some kittiwakes. I found seashells up the cliff and on consulting Halldor as to how they got there, he clearly had no more idea than I did. Is it the sea and the high waves in big storms? Yes. Or is it birds dropping them after they’ve eaten the insides? Oh. Probably both. Anyway, I may have brought back a perfect, if small, pair of joined blue mussel shells which then came unjoined in my pocket. I also fell over on the rocks trying to get a nice photo of the rock bridge/window. No one saw that happen.

We ate lunch in the community centre. It’s a big white ugly concrete building from the 50s. You can buy soup and coffee and drinks etc in there but you can also use it as a place to sit and eat your own food. My favourite feature, by far, was that on every table there was a little black notebook and a tin can full of coloured pencils. It seems every person who’s sat down to eat at that table has drawn a picture and written a message. So I did. Unfortunately, just as we were leaving, I realised I never wrote a date on it, which I was furious about but there’s nothing I can do now. I copied one of my photos – Barður Snæfellsás, with mountains in the background and orangey grass on each side.

Next stop, Djúpalónssandur, a black sand beach with interesting lava formations. The way down to this is a path down the lava. I saw them digging it and improving it over the summer and I’m sure it’s lovely except that it was buried under snow. We had to resort to climbing down over the grass, which goes against a lot of my Iceland instincts. Stick to the path, don’t climb on the lava or the moss. There were no cairns to knock down this time. Lots of driftwood. Interesting take from Halldor on the wreckage of the Grimsby fishing trawler – it’s there because “no one can be bothered to pick it up.” I was sort of under the impression it was deliberately left there, that it had become a feature of the beach. Black sand, black rocks, lava and rusty iron. The sea was far too rough here for paddling, like I did the first time. You’d be mad to so much as let the sea lick your feet, the mood it was in. I paused to look through the window at the cloud where I know Snæfellsjökull was hiding, I tried to lift on the fishing stones – there are four, of assorted weights, and fishermen had to be able to lift at least the smallest two onto a ledge at hip height. Yesterday there were not four. I know the smallest got smashed – presumably a tourist who wasn’t quite as strong as I thought – but last time I went, the two pieces were still there. I tried to pick up one of the remaining ones – no idea which one and it was as much as I could do to even move it, let along get it off the ground. I am not meant to be a fisherman. But I don’t mind. I don’t like fish and I’m not a big fan of boats.

Next stop: Ólafsvik. The least inspiring town on the entire peninsula, especially when it’s raining. I suspect most people just stayed in the little shop at the roadhouse. I went down to the harbour, decided it was uninspiring and tried to run up to the waterfall. Not a good idea. A teeny bit too far for the twenty minutes I had and also it was pouring with rain. I got halfway there, took a couple of photos and hurried back before I caused more problems on the bus.

Our last stop was just outside Grundarfjörður, at Kirkufell. This is a table volcano, very sharp at one end, flat on top and supposed to look like a church. It pops up in photos all the time. We made a photo stop except it was barely visible in the cloud and no one really wanted to go soaked getting a photo of the mountain hiding behind the cloud. I think we were supposed to stop in Grundarfjörður but it was raining and there’s not a lot there, apart from the only high school on the peninsula. Halldor attempted to explain about the Icelandic education system but having talked fluently for the last six hours, his English was finally beginning to run out.

We missed out Stykkishólmur altogether, turned off on the 56 south and quietly went back to Borgarnes, where my mountains had disappeared behind cloud. It was not very good weather.

I sat there at the front of the bus for a good ten hours. Whenever Halldor wasn’t talking to us, he was talking to the driver in Icelandic and over those ten hours I understood a handful of words. “Jökull” – glacier. “Walter Mitty” – we were driving down a stretch of road used in the recent film, the bit Walter skateboards down, I think. “Já” and ”Nei” – yes and no, fairly obviously. “Jæja” – a supposedly untranslatable word that seems approximately equivalent to “well” but can be used for dozens of other things. A variation on “lokið” – different case ending but it means closed and was referring to the door. A variation on something else, again, different case ending to the one I know. I was enjoying understanding several words in a row that Halldor said as we approached Reykjavík until it dawned on me that he was reading out a list of hotels we were going to drop off at. And there were some things I could understand from context and tone of voice – “is everyone aboard?” was fairly obvious even though I don’t know any of the words. What I did discover – because this was the first time I’ve heard Icelandic spoken so much, in a proper conversation – was how fast they talk, or how fast it sounds, anyway, and how many vowels and “k” sounds it seems to have. And then I realised that give or take minor shifts in pronunciation and spelling, this is more or less what it would have sounded like if two actual Vikings had been chatting.

As I said, Halldor talked a lot – kept up a commentary for at least eight hours of the trip. I more or less knew most of it but it took me by surprise how many facts and figures he can pour out – dates and heights and names and all sorts – mountain heights in metres and feet, dates of buildings and eruptions and significant events in the Settlement and all the stories. Not just stuff that was relevant to what we could see around us – tangents comprising everything he’s ever known about the history and geology and geography of the entire country. When I say I knew most of it, I couldn’t have put in a fraction of the detail he did. It makes me wonder if every Icelander learns this stuff, or if the sort of people who hoard all this information are the sort of people who become tour guides or if he went to the fabled tour guide school that Dee Dee told us about. Because all tour guides do it, pouring out an incredible amount of detailed information. Do all Icelanders in general? Do they really all read the sagas? Is it really true that the language has changed so little that a twelve-year-old can read the millennium-old manuscripts? Halldor did say they might criticise the spelling but if it’s true, then Icelandic has changed less in 800 years than English has since Shakespeare’s day.

We got back to Reykjavík just before 7pm, dropped off at half a dozen hotels and then the last few were delivered to the BSÍ terminal to be put on a minibus, since our places were inaccessible to the big bus. That was fun! There were two Chinese girls – one who’d worn a face mask all day long. Did she think there was too much pollution in the pure Icelandic sea air? Too much disease among the passengers on the bus? – who were staying at someone’s house. Our minibus driver spent five minutes consulting their directions before we left. We got halfway across the bus park and he stopped to look at them again. Did the first drop off and then he wanted to look again. When he’d looked, he got out a map and compared the directions with the map. By this point, we’d been back in Reykjavík three quarters of an hour and I seemed to be no closer to ever actually getting home. Because I’m out in the back of beyond, I’m always the last to be dropped off, which I don’t mind as long as it actually happens and I’m not just left sitting in the minibus while an obscure street is looked up for about fifteen minutes.

I’d sort of hoped to see the Northern Lights on the way home but it wasn’t dark enough and even if it had been, it was far too rainy and cloudy. All the Northern Lights trips were cancelled, or at least all the RE ones were.

Iceland Feb 2015: Reykjavik & Laugardalslaug

Today, much to my surprise, it was snowing when I set out on my trek up the hill to the nearest bus stop eight miles away. Really thick snow, coming in horizontally and it looked like it was settling. As I stood at the bus stop, the snow stopped and the sky turned blue.

Ever since I first came to Iceland, I’ve heard the phrase “if you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes”. I’ve never believed it. It’s always been wet and grey and horrible for several days or hot and sunny for several days or whatever, for several days. Today I’ve seen it change from sunny to snowy within five minutes about twenty times.

Because I woke up late, I missed breakfast so I went and got some bread and cheese and other bits and pieces. I thought it would be nice to eat by the Tjörnin, watching the birds but then I decided tempting that many birds with bread would cause a riot so I didn’t. I really like the Tjörnin, especially in winter when most of it is frozen and hundreds of birds flock to the one corner where the warm water pours in. There are ducks and geese and swans that make a noise like a bike horn and some new ducks today – little black and white ones that dive. When I’d enjoyed the ducks long enough, I walked down the street to the seafront to enjoy Esja, looking all snowy among fluffy white clouds. It was very windy and cold but clear and pretty. It occurred to me that Harpa was the perfect place to eat. You see, there isn’t really anywhere in Reykjavík except possibly Hlemmur where you can get out your own bread and cheese and eat it unless you want to eat outside but Harpa is perfect. I ate my brunch and then spent a while taking photos – Harpa is such a weird place that it’s fun to take photos. Up the third floor I found myself looking north, at a patch of cloud where Esja had been not twenty minutes earlier and realised Reykjavík was under another snowstorm. By the time I got back outside, the sun was out again and by the time I’d crossed the road and was waiting at the bus stop, another snow cloud was coming over Esja. I’ve never seen anything like it – how quickly and dramatically the weather can change. The snowstorm hit the city as I waited for the bus up at Hlemmur and then another one as I got off the bus at the big pool, exc ept this wasn’t snow, this was razor-sharp hail. I’d picked up the latest Reykjavik Grapevine at Hlemmur and that made a good shield as I headed for the door.

Laugardalslaug, I think, is the biggest swimming centre in Iceland. It has a 50-metre indoor pool, split into two 25-metre pools when I went in. In the middle is a kind of bridge with those diving stool things. And when I got in, I noticed there are tracks along the sides of the pool – you can move that bridge back to open it up to full 50 metres! Outside there’s another 50-metre pool – warmish but if you’re there on a windy day, 50 metres is a very long way to swim against the wind. I did ten lengths, which is twenty in QE’s pool. Joined to it is another biggish pool, slightly cooler, for playing in. Alongside the lane pool are four hot pots – 38°, 42°, 40°, 44° – yes, I’d have put them in order too. At the end is a “saltwater spa” – a kind of hot pot full of salty water at a supposed 40° but actually much colder than the 40°pot. Behind them is the steam bath  – eighteen white plastic thrones with a white light above each one. Other than the steam, it looked just like the sort of capsule you’d put people into stasis in while you travelled across space. Next to the play pool was a shallow dish-shaped hot pot/pool and a larger hot pot, more like a kind of mini pool that you sit in, at 38°. Icelanders like to know precisely what temperature everything is. Showers don’t have red and blue. Showers have one knob that you turn to a temperature.

I stayed there for ages, trying out every pool and every pot. I didn’t go on any of the slides. Oh, Laugardalslaug, despite being just a local pool, has an electronic bracelet system just like at the Blue Lagoon, except you can’t buy food or drinks with it. You pick a locker at random, close the locker and hold your bracelet against the red light and it locks and the bracelet remembers which one it unlocks. In the event you don’t, there’s a special scanner in the middle of the changing room which will tell you which locker it currently operates. And they employ people specifically to make sure everyone has their naked shower before they go in the water.

I got the bus back to Hlemmur and then, since it was nice, I walked down Laugavegur, which is the main street in Reykjavík, stopping off in so many shops, looking wistfully at the Cintamani shop (this season’s colour is apparently orange) and of course, the weather being so Jekyll-and-Hyde today, it was snowing by the time I reached the end. There was no view over the bay and it was getting on for five o’clock, so I popped into 1011 to get more juice (“Did you look at them and think ‘I’ll try one of each’?” said Vala behind the till) and then got the bus back to Kringlan. I timed my walk back and downhill, without several stops for photos of snow, it took ten minutes. And in the other direction, the next bus stop must be at least an hour’s walk away.

Tonight I’m not doing anything except packing, going to bed early and hoping no one screams in the night. I’m being picked up to go to Snæfellsnes at 7.30am tomorrow.

Iceland Feb 15: Warm Baths and Cool Lights

Bonus of new blog over OffExploring blog, I can see if you’re reading it! Twelve people read it yesterday. Discounting the one I know is in the USA, that means eleven people I know read my blog. And 62 views is an unimaginable number. I know how it happened – every time anyone looked at a picture in my gallery it counted as a view. A couple of people looked at all eighteen and read the blog and racked up nineteen views each. But still, it’s very exciting to see the numbers. You can’t hide from me!

And now on to last night’s entertainment.

I was picked up at 5.30 on the dot for the Warm Baths and Cool Lights trip. I’ve done this before and there were only three of us so the fifteen packed into the minibus this evening. Siggi, our guide, chatted away and off we went, via Þingvellir, to Laugavatn. I said the weather was disappointing in Reykjavík; well, it’s certainly snowed elsewhere! Although it was pretty dark and the windows were smudged with dirt/rain/snow/ice, the world was unmistakably white once we’d left the city behind and although it was even harder to be sure, it looked like the road was nothing but ice. The roundabout when we came into Laugavatn was definitely a disc of ice several inches thick.

We were delivered to Laugavatn Fontana, where I entertained myself by feeling very cosmopolitan and superior by taking the obligatory naked shower, whereas most of my fellow travellers conveniently didn’t see the sign. Anyway, I know I went into the non-chlorinated water clean and shiny.

I don’t know what they’ve done to the pools at Laugavatn since I was last there. Sæla, the long shallow one, felt much warmer than usual. Viska, the raised hot pot, felt much cooler. Lauga, the mini swimming pool, felt warmer and the newest pool, the lava one that doesn’t seem to have a name, was painfully hot. I did fifty lengths in Lauga – less impressive if I tell you I estimate it to be somewhere between five and ten metres long. I sat on a rock doing a mermaid impression and trying not to boil in the lava pool, dipped into Viska a few times because it’s very weird for it not to be painful in there and spent most of my time lounging around in Sæla. There are some black stone sculptures in there. Some are good for lying against, one is nearly a circle and you can either curl up inside it or entertain yourself blocking one or two of the three jets that squirt out of it to see what happens to the others and there’s one shaped like a giant cup with a big fountain going into it. That one’s excellent for sitting in, even if the water sloshes over the edge when you do as if you’ve caused a huge tidal wave. Obviously I sat in it.

I even ventured into Ylur, the sauna (the wooden benches are too hot and the German boys sat in there with me) and then into Gufan, the three steam rooms. Those are fun! They sit directly over the hot spring so the heat and smell depend on what the Earth feels like doing. Today one of them was stone cold and the other two were really really hot. They’re also really dark for some reason. I don’t sit down for fear of getting lost and if you’ve ever tried inhaling sulphur, you’ll understand why I don’t go in Gufan very much.

As usual, the time was up far too quickly. Floating from one pool to another, trying not to touch the handrails as you climbed out of and into pools because they were so cold, it felt like I had forever and then suddenly it was 9 o’clock and I had to get out. There is a big red LED clock which also shows the humidity and the temperature. I watched the temperature climb from 6.3° to 7.5°.

They say that you need three things for the Northern Lights – cold, clear and crisp and we didn’t have any of them. Iceland is warmer than it is at home. You also need total darkness and aurora activity. Total darkness is easy enough – there are vast parts of Iceland with no street lights but aurora activity is very temperamental and if the sky is blanketed in clouds, there’s no chance. To quote Siggi: “You have to have clear skies. What we’ve got this instant – this is terrible” and “There are high clouds, low clouds and medium clouds. We’ve got a bit of everything”. He said it might be clearer down on the south coast so we drove south to where we met the Ring Road just west of Selfoss. Still very cloudy. We headed west, to Hveragerði. “We’re going to drive up the mountain to 450m. It’ll probably be foggy at the top but we’ll see what happens when we come down.” I, for one, was not fooled. I knew perfectly well that we were going back to Reykjavík and we were not aurora hunting. It had been cloudy and rainy all day, it was cloudy and rainy as we were driving around. There was no way we were going to see any lights. We did make a quick stop in the Bláfjall “I thought I saw a star! But it was just an aeroplane.” All the same, we stopped and got out to check that the sky was definitely still full of clouds. It definitely was.

I got home at 11.20, which is nice and early. The trouble was that at about 3.30am, someone started yelling and banging doors. Banging as if to get attention. At that time in the morning, you can jump to some odd conclusions and I began to think that this was a low-tech way of waking everyone for a fire alarm. But no, it was just a drunk person, who yelled and yelled and then started screaming. I have no idea what was happening but it was frightening at that time of night. And the busy road outside had gone silent. Presumably because no one’s heading to or from Keflavík at 3.30 in the morning but it seemed scary for the road to be silent and empty.

The result of all this was that I didn’t even wake up until ten to nine. Having looked out of the window and seen that it’s wet and cloudy and a tiny bit dark, I’m not quite ready to go out yet. I will need to – I have at least three bus journeys to use up, I plan to go swimming in one of the local geothermal pools and I may or may not have eaten absolutely everything I bought yesterday.