Captain’s log, stardate 050220151346
I departed Heathrow on the good ship Snæfellsjökull at about half past eight, having achieved an entire three seats to myself. I looked through the films and decided on The Beach – only fifteen or so years late. I had no idea what it was about – people looking pretty in front of nice scenery, maybe. Forty minutes in, they’d found the beach and there was still an hour and a half to go. That hour and a half was definitely not what I’d been expecting and it all made much more sense when the credits came up and I discovered it was a Danny Boyle film. As the film went on, I had a little look around the cabin and noticed a lot of men in glasses. Well, there’s only one explanation for serious-looking men in glasses on a plane – spies. Spies, who seemed to be lurking near me. I also watched eight episodes of Shaun the Sheep before we touched down at Keflavík, where the weather was surprisingly mild. The only snow I saw was heaped up in mounds around the car park and the thermometer in the coach that took me into Reykjavík said 5°C, much warmer than I’d expect at 1am in Iceland in February.
As we drove across Reykjanes, I spied an Orkan petrol station. I’ve spied these hundreds of times in the last few years but it occurred to me that “vowel+n” means “the” when stuck on the end of a word. The Ork? Now, we all know – we should all know, because I rave enough about this – that Tolkien loved Iceland and the sagas. There’s plenty of the Volsung Saga about Middle Earth – it’s almost a blueprint for The Hobbit and the dwarves’ names were lifted straight from the Poetic Edda, in order. Now, I don’t think Tolkien ever came to Iceland and I don’t know if Orkan existed back then anyway, but if Sauron and Saruman and their forces of evil represent industrialisation, do the Orcs therefore represent the oil industry? Probably not. Ah, the things you think about in a coach at 1am.
I have never been taken from Keflavík to Reykjavík the same way twice and in the dark, it’s particularly easy to lose your bearings. The Greater Reykjavík Area is just a mass of orange lights, far bigger than it should be, far too big for a small city. The first landmark you spot is a green flashing light in the distance, from a building you can’t see perched on a hill you can’t see and you put on your best Johnny Depp voice and whisper “It’s the Pearl…”
After that it vanished. The Pearl is on the southern side of the city and it was quite a way off. Soon I was lost and confused. We hadn’t been past Taco Bell, we hadn’t come down the road that curves to the right. We had to still be in Hafnarfjörður, which has to be as big as Reykjavík itself. And then I saw the seafront and just as I knew where I was, it was confirmed by Hofði on the left and Harpa shimmering away in front. We’d managed to come round to the north of Reykjavík.
We were put on separate buses and taken out to our various lodgings. I was the last to be delivered, right out in the suburbs, almost in Kópavogur. If you haven’t already heard, I’ve made mistake after mistake with accommodation this time. I booked the cheapest guesthouse in the country and then read the reviews and realised that was a mistake. No cancellation. Bye bye money. I found somewhere nicer and nearly as cheap. But it turns out it’s two and a half miles from the city centre, barely in Reykjavík at all. But we haven’t come on to the troubles yet.
I was a little bit nervous about arrival. I’d put on the booking form that I’d be arriving late but it’s one thing arriving at 1.30am at a hotel with a receptionist on duty twenty-four hours a day and another arriving at 1.30am at a guesthouse and I think the driver who delivered me guessed that because once I was inside and had pressed the bell for help, I heard the engine clattering away outside for far longer than it normally would. Greyline are fantastic. Anyway, I signed a form and was given a key and after a mini lecture about what floor to go to (“on the second floor. The third floor. We call this the first floor, so first, second, third”) I went upstairs – no lift, so good thing I packed light – and found my room. The man on reception had shown me the number engraved on the key – 28 – and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I was just about to go back down and plead for help when it occurred to me to look at the tag. 33 – ah, there was a 33! It’s a biggish room, not enough light but that’s fairly normal for hotel-type places, and looking out over the closest thing Iceland has to a motorway – a duel carriageway heading from Reykjavík out to Kópavogur, Garðabaær, Hafnarfjördur and Reykjanesbær.
On Thursday morning I was awake far too early for someone who didn’t get to bed until 2am, mostly thanks to the M25 right outside. It was still dark but it was so hot in my room that the window had been open when I arrived and I left it open. I went down for breakfast – toast with some kind of spread that made the bread go squidgy and very watery liquid that tasted vaguely orangey. I packed a few things and headed out. The closest bus stop that I knew of for certain was at the Natura. The Pearl isn’t so far from here so I went up there, enjoyed the view, froze my ears off because I didn’t bother taking my hat out with me and then set off on the quick hop-skip-and-jump down the side of the hill that would deliver me to the bus stop. I wanted to find somewhere closer for regular use but this would do fine for now.
Off I went down the hill. Iceland has had snow not too long ago. There are still bits of it and the side roads are still covered in ice. This hill, I exaggerate not, was an ice rink. I put on the Yaktrax and they made no difference. I took teeny tiny steps, clinging to thin patches in the ice, anywhere grassy, anywhere with a bit of proper snow, using trees as ropes. At one point I even had to climb down a rock, which turned out far more slippery than I expected. What should have taken five or ten minutes seemed to take an eternity and several times I stopped and had to take a while to decide what was the best way of tackling the next bit of seemingly-impossible pathway. Taking photos on the way was unthinkable. I had to get in position, plant both feet properly and only then could I let my concentration go anywhere other than my feet. Two people came up the hill and I had to stand still and wait until they were past (with the comment “very dangerous!” as they passed) before I could go on. It’s just not possible to slither down an ice rink with other people visible, it’s too much of a distraction.
I got my bus eventually, went to Hlemmur, the main bus station in the city centre and bought my bus passes – a three day for now and a one day for Sunday. The card machine rejected my credit card. Then it rejected my spare credit card. Then it rejected my debit card. I concluded it was a problem with the machine rather than with three cards and indeed, the ATM was fine, so I bought my cards with cash and then took a bus up to Lækjatorg to go shopping. I went round my usual favourite tourist shops, in the bookshop and then in the 1011 for some food before getting the bus back. There is no bus stop anywhere near my guesthouse. I can watch buses sail down the motorway right outside my window but they don’t stop. The nearest stop, as far as I can see, is either up by the Pearl or at Kringlan. It does seem “once you’re out, you have to stay out”. I thought there was a closer stop but it turns out to be in the centre of Kópavogur, which is where the interesting church is, which you can see from this building but it’s not really in walking distance, especially when bands of rain keep sweeping across. They don’t last long. You suddenly notice it’s getting cloudy, then it gets misty, then you get rained on, then suddenly the sun is trying to come out again.
I planned to eat, get my swimming stuff and go to one of the local pools but it’s a long walk back to the bus and I’m going swimming tonight anyway. I have eaten. Iceland no longer seems to do the nice pear juice but there’s now an interesting mixed fruit juice and I’m making plans for the next few days – swimming and abusing the bus passes, mostly.