Iceland 2022: days seven, eight and nine

Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday

Tuesday was another bright, blue sky, sunny day. I had an evil little plan. I decided to head for Grandi, the area on the other side of the Old Harbour, to decide whether or not I wanted to go to FlyOver Iceland while I was there. I strolled along the seafront, same route as the night before, turned right at the new H&M and shopping redevelopment and popped out at the familiar bottom corner of the old harbour. Strolled out, past all the little green wooden buildings that are now cafes and seafood restaurants and found myself in the Grandi district. Some good museums here – the big Maritime Museum, Aurora Reykjavík, the Saga Museum, Whales of Iceland and FlyOver. I went past them all to the rocks at the end of that bit of peninsula. Good views from here, all the way across to Akranes and snowy mountains even further north.

I came back via a bit of a shopping trip along Laugavegur. Mostly postcards but I bought a pair of volcano socks while I was at it. Then home for a late lunch and a lazy afternoon.

Because my evil plan was to go back to the Sky Lagoon. I wanted to see it in the sun instead of a winter storm, I wanted to see the views across the fjord and I wanted, if it was possible, to see the sunset.

I got most of it. A big cloud came down ten minutes before I left, which was a bit before sunset and that ruined the colours a bit. I was getting the 9:41 bus back to Hamraborg and even that closer stop is 15 mins walk. There are two buses serving this peninsula – one clockwise and one anti-clockwise. I’d got the 35 out which takes 4 minutes but the 36 back, also taking 4 minutes, had finished an hour ago. I thought that meant I’d have to walk the 2.5km back to Hamraborg but I realised the 35, even though it meant going the long way round and taking 18 minutes, would get me back five minutes before the bus to Reykjavík. It would be a pain but more comfortable than walking.

So after a huge loop of Kópavogur I got back on my bus to Reykjavík and got home about 10:30 which is the latest I’ve been out all trip.

On Wednesday the demolition started at 8am. I went off to Vesturbærlaug on the bus, the last of the three local pools in central Reykjavík that I hadn’t visited yet. It’s ok. There’s no real reason to pick it over Sundhöllin (really close and convenient) or Laugardalslaug (further out but amazing pool). Then I went for my walk, back along Laugavegur heading downtown, stopped in a few shops, walked back along the seafront. The usual.

I had to pack. I couldn’t pack everything: my swimming things were still wet and I’d need them again in the morning. I still had food for breakfast and my electronics and whatnot. I’d considered doing the airport transfer via the Blue Lagoon which is a popular trip on the way home but decided against it. Pointless, really. I was being picked up at 12 which meant between 12 and 12.30 and getting to the airport at hour later. What could I do in Reykjavík for a couple of hours in the morning?


Or was it worth it? I needed to be out at 11 to dress, do my last shopping on the way home, pick up my luggage from the apartment’s storage room and be at bus stop 13 in time for 12. By the time I’d got up, had breakfast, finished packing and done my walk, it would hardly be worth it.

Until I found myself wide awake at 6.30 this morning, Scroll social media for an hour and a half until my alarm went off or get up and get going? By ten past seven I’d had breakfast and everything was packed. I went for my walk, taking in two things I’d noticed last night that I’d missed – the two-towered church at the top of my road and Cold War negotiation site Höfði. I’d put my big bag in the storage room and was sliding into the warm water of Sundhöllin by 8.30.

I did 50 lengths and sat in three hotpots. Then I got out, did my shopping, came home to retrieve my luggage… and discovered that whatever they said about luggage storage, checkout was at 11 and I was 12 minutes after that. My door code had expired and I couldn’t get back into the building to pick my bag up! That was a complication I hadn’t factored in. I pressed Call on the keypad but no one answered. Luckily two girls left at that moment and I grabbed the door and got in. That left me more than half an hour to rearrange my stuff, put my swimming stuff in the big bag and have lunch sitting on the pavement before the bus arrived. That was 25 minutes ago. We could be halfway to the airport but we’re waiting for nonexistent passengers at bus stop 5 outside Harpa right now. No, real passengers have finally just boarded, at least six of them who clearly didn’t get the “pickup starts at 12” memo. No… maybe 14 of them. Where on Earth have they been?? Can we go now?

And at last we’re at Kef. I’m in a queue to drop my baggage but at least I can kick it across the floor and don’t have to carry it.

Iceland 2022: day six

Today was a lazy day. I got up at 6.50 the last two days and not a lot later the day before.

The sun was out and the sky was blue! I’ll take it where I can get it but imagine horse & river day in the sun! Imagine seeing the volcano without a heavy mist hanging over it! It was a good thing it was warm, though, because my boots were still soaked although sitting them on the towel rail had made a big difference. I planned to go to the big pool at Laugardalslaug today but that could wait until later. Since it was nice, I was going to Nautholsvik, the geothermal beach.

I got on the wrong bus. It did say the wrong destination on the front but it was from the stand with the right timetable on it. For the first two or three stops I waited for the sharp right turn as it had headed off in what felt like the wrong direction. Yes, wrong bus. I got off at Artun B which is a kind of mini bus hub along Miklabraut, went under the big road to Artun A with the plan to get the 5 if possible but any bus back to Hlemmur would do, really, only for the 5 to arrive at the same moment I did. So off we went, back to Hlemmur and beyond, to the university next to the Domestic airport. That’s the nearest stop for Nautholsvik. The bus only comes this far at weekends, after 6.30pm during the week and on bank holidays. If I’d gone tomorrow I’d have had to walk a huge chunk of the way but it happened to be Easter Monday.

The beach is fairly small and made of imported golden sand. When the tide is in, the lagoon on the beach connects to the fjord and the hot pot on the sand is surrounded by water. Today the tide was low. I think that’s for the best – there’s no freezing fjord water flooding in and diluting the trickle of hot geothermal water. As it was, most of the lagoon was freezing but if you paddled in a straight line from the hot flow the water was pleasantly warm. Pleasantly hot in places. However, it only took literally two steps to go from hot to freezing. There’s a reason most of the sea swimmers are wearing neoprene gloves and boots and the kids are all in full waterproof snowsuit things. And then there’s me in my t-shirt and sandals.

The hot pot on the beach was empty at this time of year but there’s another at the beach club. Well, it’s not a beach club. It’s a building with changing rooms, showers and a steam room with an outdoor hot pot above the beach. That one was packed – far too packed for me to bother paying admission when I was going to a better pool later anyway. I suspect you can use it for free if you change on the beach but there was a freezing breeze, hence the snowsuits, and that didn’t make the pot any less packed. I walked back up to the university and got the bus back.

Having topped up my food supplies again, I had an extended lunch break before getting the bus to Laugardalslaug. Yes, mid-afternoon on a warm sunny bank holiday. Most of Reykjavík had had the same idea and although there are five hotpots here, they were all packed too. I tolerated it and eventually plopped into the 50m outdoor lane pool. Maybe it’s the better weather but it’s warmer than Sundhöllin’s outdoor lane pool.

I swam 32 lengths because that’s 64 lengths of QE and a mile is something like 63.333 QE lengths. Imagine how happy I was to discover that 1600m is only 0.994 miles! Always do one more insurance length just in case!

Anyway, because it’s Iceland and because I’m out of practice in casually swimming a mile, I did ten lengths at a time and then sat in the 40-degree sunken hotpot for a while before going back for the next ten. The sun was low but still up for several hours and I promised that once I’d done my 32 lengths I could swap my goggles for sunglasses and sit in whatever hotpot I wanted.

I’d been there more than four hours by the time I decided I’d better be getting the 7.55 bus. Mostly because I hadn’t actually done my walk and I wouldn’t want to do it much later. I didn’t want to do it then at all. The sun was about to set by the time I was adequately dressed and fed and going out and the breeze was up. I walked along the shore half-frozen and then turned left to downtown Reykjavík and walked back via Laugavegur which runs straight from the heart of the city to Hlemmur, at the bottom of my road. It’s sheltered there and I was positively hot by the time I got back.

Iceland 2022: days four and five

Today was an 8am pickup from my door and a minibus trip 45 minutes east along the Ring Road to Hveragerði for my horse trip and hot river hike.

We were dressed up in luminous orange rubbery waterproofs and riding helmets and then paired with horses. Mine was Vorboðar which means Bringer of Spring. He was brown, relatively tall and had quite a lot of grey in his mane. We were the beginner group, the “done it less than 20 times” group which was a step up from the most accurate box I was forced to tick when I booked, which was “never been on a horse”. The next step was something like “much experience” and although neither were the right answer, it’s better to underestimate for these things.

Off we went and five minutes later, just as we were getting comfortable, Molly announced that we were going to cross the river. Even on horseback, my feet were nearly in the water and I was petrified Vor was going to get swept off his hooves. Icelandic horses are very strong but they’re not very tall and this was a lot of water!

We walked nicely more or less in parallel with the Ring Road for a while then turned sharp left. We were going to try the tölt, the unique fifth gait that Icelandic horses have. It’s about trot speed but while it looks a bit crazy it’s supposed to be very smooth. With Íshestar, it’s the experienced riders who get to try the tölt, not the people like me who hardly know which end bites and which end kicks. And it was terrifying! I can hang on while Vor walks sedately but when he picks up the speed you realise actually there’s nothing to hang on to!

We covered nearly 9km and by the time I got back I seemed to be getting used to tölting. It is more comfortable than walking – my legs ached from being held in the stirrups but somehow they hurt less when we tölted and I found I didn’t need to hang on as tightly as I thought at first.

Soon realised what had been happening to my legs when I dismounted. Ouch. Hobble waddle hobble waddle. My boots were soaked through and squelching and my trousers were damp for reasons I still can’t figure out, except my orange rubber trousers clearly weren’t 100% waterproof. The enormous jacket had done its job though.

Once we were unchanged, we were sent into the canteen. The morning riders had coffee and cake and those of us hiking were sent across to the farm’s hotel for lunch (or to eat our packed lunches as discreetly as possible in the hotel). Over the course of that hour I began to suspect I was the only one doing the hike. Yep! I admit, if I’d been booking it on the day I wouldn’t have done it but I wasn’t expecting this kind of rain and fog three weeks ago. So we put on our own non-orange waterproofs and off we went. Yes, I don’t know my guide’s name. She’s young, German and from Bielefeld (which doesn’t exist, so she can’t be) but no idea what her name was.

The hot river is up the valley behind Hveragerði. It turns out “up” is the operative word. It’s the opposite of a valley. It’s an hour-long hike up a mountain. In the pouring rain with no view and boots that were sloshing before we began. Worst of all, we knew when we started that because of the rain, the river wouldn’t be warm enough to bathe in. I was fine with that when I was imagining three gentle kilometres through a valley. But an hour of trudging uphill to a fast-flowing ice-cold river?

I bought a t-shirt when I got back to Eldhestar. Everything in my bag and pockets was soaked. My boots were soaked. Since they were already so wet I’d splashed through a few streams instead of risking the slippery stepping stones. My sleeves were soaked. My gloves had got soaked on the horse so I’d pulled my sleeves down over my hands. My raincoat and heated coat were both wet but my t-shirt was reasonably dry and so was anything above the elbows of my thermal top. But I bought this t-shirt and sat in the canteen with my wet stuff scattered around me until the afternoon horse lot were finished and then I sat in the back corner of the minibus to gently steam all the way back to Reykjavík.

Back home I scattered my wet stuff everywhere. That’s everything from my waterproof coat to the spare camera battery I had in a bag in the belly of my backpack. There wasn’t space to put all the wet stuff. I had to spread some of it on the floor. I changed, I ate, and since it was earlier than I’d expected and I’d missed my dip and I’d checked the Easter opening hours, I went to Sundhöllin to properly warm up in the hot water.

Today was another 8am start, indecent when you’re supposed to be on holiday. Golden Circle plus Secret Lagoon. I’ve done the Golden Circle as a tour at least three times and I’ve driven bits of it or all of it even more times. It remains both fun and interesting.

Bára dropped us at the Þingvellir viewpoint and gave us 50 mins to walk down through Almannagjá to meet her at parking 2. I detoured through the park to see a cleft with clear blue water which meant wading through two fluddles. I was wearing my sandals. My coats had dried out and I had more clothes but my boots were still soaked. So I waded through those fluddles. I’ve paddled in cold things in Iceland and in cold things right here below the Drowning Pool in Þingvellir but this was cold.

Next stop: Gullfoss, possibly my least favourite of the Golden Circle’s Big Three. There’s a path out to a rock that sticks out into the middle of the waterfall, literally, with only knee-high ropes to stop you falling in. I’ve often wondered how that’s even allowed. Well, it isn’t anymore. There’s a gate and the path is closed. Maybe it opens when there isn’t ice on the path or when the flow is low or… I don’t know, maybe it’s not permanent but it was closed today. I walked along the cliff at the top to above that rock. Never seen Gullfoss from that angle.

Third was Geysir and our lunch stop. I always like Geysir. Explosions of boiling water don’t get old. This was where the group split. Those of us going to the Secret Lagoon had an hour and everyone else had nearly two hours because they had to wait for Bára to drop us off and return for them.

The Secret Lagoon is quite good! It’s very rustic compared to the Sky or Blue Lagoons – just a roughly rectangular pool 1.2m deep fed with water from the surrounding hot springs. The bottom is gravelly and the sides are furry with algae. They have crates of pool noodles so everyone’s floating around on a few. There’s no temperature regulation. Near the hot springs (which are separated from the pool in one place by just a rope) the water is painfully hot and it varies around the lagoon although as our time there zoomed to an end, the entire lagoon seemed to become painfully hot. I loved the first 50 minutes but five minutes later I was ready to escape.

Bára distributed Easter eggs. Pre-plague it was samples of Icelandic flatbread but that’s not allowed anymore. The eggs contained what I assume is quotes from Hávamál, the Old Norse classical poem that appears in the Poetic Edda. I haven’t opened or eaten mine yet but people did on the bus and then yelled their mál down to Bára to translate. As you might expect, what got yelled by non-Icelandics was usually incomprehensible and the piece of paper had to be passed down the bus to be read.

We made one bonus stop on the way back. I’m not allowed to say where it is but it’s a red scoria crater that’s being mined for gravel. Yes, a gravel pit – but a pretty one! Its walls are red in places and green and grey in places and almost tie-dyed in between. It’s not a standard Golden Circle stop – it’s an active gravel pit with mining machinery in it but it was very beautiful and there isn’t much left on a Golden Circle itinerary that’s new to me now.

We got back to Reykjavík quite early – 5, 5.30 maybe? I could have had another hour in the Secret Lagoon and got back by 6.30 but never mind. Today is Easter Sunday so the pools close early but at least I have a free evening to rearrange my damp stuff and catch up on the blog. Tick. Done that.

Tomorrow is a lazy day. I’m not getting out of bed until at least nine. I’m getting the bus to the big pool (I’ve checked the opening hours; I just have to check the bus times) and if the shops are open I’ll top up my food supplies. Mostly the bread.

Iceland 2022: day three

Volcano day! I walked down to BSI, Reykjavík’s main bus station if the bus in question belongs to Reykjavík Excursions, sat outside on a concrete bench and waited, as I’d given myself over an hour to walk 2km. I wonder why I didn’t opt for the customary pickup. Maybe I booked this as soon as possible, before I’d settled on accommodation and so didn’t know where my pickup would be?

There were more of us on this volcano hike/visit to the geothermal wonders of Reykjanes than I’d expected, given that the weather is pretty horrible (April & May are spring in Iceland, which means winter) and the eruption stopped six months ago. A full size coachload (well, 43 seats as best I could tell) with only one pair empty and the odd one here and there where solo travellers haven’t had to pair up.

We drove 45 minutes to Grindavík to borrow their campsite’s toilet facilities since there are none at the volcano and the usual stop is closed for Good Friday. Then onward to the volcano!

The group was too big to hike together and I’d managed to lose Halldor, our guide, by the time I’d got off the bus. Fine. Follow the track up onto the ridge in front of us and the lava is on the other side.

Oh yes, it is. A valley filled with black lava, steaming and smoking in a thousand places, all of it rippling in a violent wind that made hot but solid rock look like the sea. It was incredible. We had two hours to explore. Climbing the mountain to see the original crater from the top was an option was it was cloudy and a long way up and I decided I’d rather see the lava up close. We were told not to walk on and especially not where it’s steaming because it’s still hot and there might be thin patches of crust which can break and drop you, or at least your feet, into the molten rock underneath but tourists will tourist because they’re stupid and there were plenty of them just marching out across the steaming lava. I stood on a nice cool solid-looking edge for a photo and felt guilty enough about that.

Two hours was plenty. I could have spent longer looking at this amazing thing but it was so windy. So so windy. I walked back down from the ridge leaning forwards which isn’t a thing you do when walking downhill in normal weather.

Two of the group were late so most people had eaten most of their lunch by the time we departed. First to Grindavík again for a lunch break at Cafe Bryggjan where almost everyone disembarked despite me watching them eating their lunches twenty minutes earlier.

Message from the Dark Side there is! said Yoda’s voice suddenly into the silence as we waited for the last few cafe-goers to return and the entire front half of the bus burst out laughing.

Next we had to experience the wonders of Reykjanes, which I’ve seen before in equally revolting weather. I was expecting to go straight from the volcano to the Blue Lagoon so I had no enthusiasm for this waste of three and a half hours anyway but on and off the bus every fifteen minutes in howling wind and rain to look at something grey when the entire world was grey… well, it was eating into my Blue Lagoon time.

We visited a bit of cliff with a blowhole (actually just curved concave cliffs that throw violent waves upwards. Ok, that was quite fun when one of the waves splattered the viewpoint), Gunnuhver (hot spring area consisting of one massive steam vent and lots of hot reddish mud, plus the remains of the old boardwalk twisted and broken under the steam vent – a ghost did it), the bird cliffs at the tip of Reykjanes (more black gravel car park and violent waves than birds) and the Bridge Between the Continents (bridge, yes. Between the continents, no. Between two low cliffs over a sandy hollow that you can walk down to from both sides in ten steps and a hop if you’re feeling adventurous).

And at last, at nearly 5pm, we made it to the Blue Lagoon. I thought this was a combined volcano & Blue Lagoon tour but somehow 25 of the ~30 of us were just doing the volcano. So Halldor dropped the five of us in the car park and everyone else went home v

A few small changes since I was last there. Now they don’t give you towels at reception – there’s a man with a little booth just inside the lagoon door who gives you a towel when you’re ready to return to the changing rooms. The face masks are now ladled out by a person in a little box instead of kept in a plastic tub under a grating for you to scoop up with a long spoon. And the in-water bar has moved. The new corner was open last time I was here.

Oh, and you check out at the self-service machine. Scan your bracelet, pay off anything you spent in the water and then use it to open the exit gates, which swallows the bracelet as it opens.

Anyway. The wind howled. It was cold enough for huge clouds of steam to come off the lagoon which the wind then whipped up into a low dense mist. I went out with my glasses on but they were permanently steamed up and I got fed up with having to push them down my nose and look over them, leaving me half-blind in an unusual horizontal way. I got a towel and returned them to my locker (you’re not allowed in the changing areas while wet).

Anything out of the water froze while the water itself ranged from scalding hot in one place via pleasantly hot to pleasantly warm to “how is there cold water swirling around here???”. I went in the steam bath and my nose began to throb in an alarming way. Was it about to fall off? Did it have frostbite? I’d worn my mask outside for the last couple of stops just to keep my face warm; my nose shouldn’t be so frozen but I guess it had been out in the fresh air for quite a while as I bobbed around the warm lagoon.

I got the last bus home, far too early. 8.15. That only gave me about two and a half hours and for all I’d decided the Sky Lagoon is better and I like it more, it felt too soon to be getting out. I’d managed my free (it’s not technically free, it’s prepaid) drink of blue ice and my face mask and already it was time to go.

I got the bus. The driver said he wasn’t stopping at bus stop 13, which is my local, but could give me bus stop 10, “which is the same place”. It turned out to be Hlemmur, right opposite the supermarket. 10 and 13 are therefore so close that I wonder why they bothered creating two of them. Anyway. Home, food, unpacking, charging and bed. Pickup tomorrow is 8am but at least it’s at my own door

Iceland 2022: days one and two

Day one

Well, most of it was travelling. I’m reasonably certain I was on the plane with – and sitting next to one of, although she’s still unidentified – the Icelandic woman’s football team. My entertainment system didn’t work. Nothing played, not even the map, although the system itself worked. It’s just whenever I selected anything, it was unavailable. Next door’s was available! She had films! She watched (skipped through) Avatar.

I took the Grayline bus into town. Last time I was here, Grayline and RE both sat right outside the door and tourists poured off in two streams. Now Grayline is relegated to the car park and a coach for ~50 transported 17 of us. We were all for bus stops 13 or 6 – this is the system Reykjavík has invented to keep tourist buses to the large main streets. Every hotel or guesthouse is a max five minus walk from a bus stop and mine is 13. I was half-expecting us to go to the depot and change onto minibuses but we were definitely heading towards downtown and then we were driving up Rauðarárstígur and I knew that’s where my stop was so I gathered all the stuff I’d managed to scatter across three seats in under an hour. My apartment is a two minute walk up a hill and using the door that’s further up the hill. The room is a studio apartment which means fridge and toaster! I have a view of the white back wall of the spectacularly ugly Iceland University of the Arts but if I go to the kitchen I can see the backs of some pretty apartments and a bit of noisy demolition that stopped on the dot of 6pm yesterday and didn’t start up again today.

I did some essentials shopping and then walked the 600m (but felt less) to Sundhöllin. One naked shower later and I was in the baby pool, which is the 39-degree shallow pool where the adults sprawl if they don’t want to sit in the hot pot. I sat in the hot pot too. It’s the same temperature but it’s deeper and you have to sit on the ledge rather than sprawl so it feels hotter. I eventually got in the lane pool and swam ten lengths against a vicious breeze so I decided to warm up in the rooftop hot pots which have always been a bit hot. The stairs are nominally inside but all the doors are open and that was a wind tunnel. The cooler pot is also 39 degrees and that was actually pleasant, except it’s much windier on the roof (it’s not the roof, it’s a balcony halfway up) than in the pools downstairs in the new extension so I gave up and returned to the baby pool.

Today I got the bus to the Sky Lagoon. Take 1 or 4 to Hamraborg and then you can either get the 35 that goes as far as good roads go and walk 15 mins through industrial estates or you can get an earlier bus and walk the entire 2.5km from Hamraborg, which is what I did. It didn’t feel anywhere near the 31 minutes Google Maps said it would be. Reykjavík, on the next peninsula north, looked depressingly close after a bus ride and a longish walk. I guess if you arrive by car, like literally everyone else, it only feels like a few minutes.

It was good! The water ranged from warm to hot, the lagoon is an infinity pool with a couple of sheltered “bays” within the rocky labyrinth it’s set in. I have no idea how much is natural. Was this a lava field they’ve dug out and filled with water or has the rock been brought in and bolted in place to create this cliff play set? Does it matter?

The water is just about deep enough to swim in although no one’s swimming here. It’s all about the views (except today when it was foggy, misty, cloudy and rainy) and the bar and the selfies. I know lots of phones these days are waterproof but it made me very nervous to see so many unprotected phones in the lagoon. Even worse were the definitely-not-waterproof ones in plastic sandwich bags or ziplock bags held carefully out of the water. The bar sells waterproof phone cases! Please invest in one!

I had a glass (plastic cup) of Egil’s Appelsin, an Icelandic version of Fanta that’s just a bit too orange. Then I did my Ritual.

Step one: lagoon. Done. At least an hour and half of lagoon.

Step two: cold plunge. Very cold (but “not as cold as it should be”). I plunged my ankles.

Step three: sauna. Better from the bottom step than the top. The sauna has a huge full-wall window open onto the sea. I’m astonished it doesn’t steam up but my glasses and camera didn’t either. I saw an eider duck bobbing about outside.

Step four: cold rain shower. Not as bad as I thought. You’re in a sort of high-sided open-top room and cold rain sprinkles down. I quite liked it.

Step five: scrub. Body, not face. Salt, eucalyptus and something else. You sit on the logs in the Ritual room to apply it and then…

Step six: steam room. Covered in scrub, you sit in the steam room and let it soak in. It was very steamy.

Step seven: shower off the scrub and return to the lagoon. I wouldn’t call this a “step” myself. Of course you have to wash the stuff off and of course you’re returning to the lagoon. This is admin.

But it was pleasant and my skin felt soft and smooth. I stayed in the lagoon until nearly 3pm when I decided I should face the wind and rain fully dressed and tackle the Maundy Thursday bus timetable and also get some food. I walked back to the main road until I found a bus stop and it turned out the anti-clockwise bus to Hamraborg was coming in one minute so I got on it. It took five minutes. The clockwise bus wasn’t due for twenty minutes and would take seventeen minutes to finish its loop and end up back at Hamraborg. Then back to Reykjavík on the 4 and get some cheese in Krónan. Actually, they didn’t have everything I wanted. Mango juice, check. Cranberry juice, check. Apple juice? Orange juice? Nope. I had to go back to 10-11 to finish up my supplies for the weekend – between Easter opening hours and long day tours, I don’t know when I’ll have another chance to top up.

Now the wind is howling and I might have a shower to wash the lagoon and the pool out of my hair v

Russia 2019 day 15: travelling to Perm

Only one more hour on the train, sitting opposite a man dying of congestive heart failure or pneumonia or TB or all of them. It’s been some delightful noises to listen to for the last six hours.

The train from Ekaterinburg to Perm is the Trans Siberian Railway from Novosibirsk to Moscow and it’s totally put me off doing any more of the journey. I hate him. The wife, who I think is called Olga, has been nice, once she realised I was a useless foreigner. I don’t have a seat, I have a bunk and mine is a top bunk. She showed me how to make the bed, how to get up and down, where to put my luggage and hopefully in just over half an hour, she’ll show me what to do with the bedding when I depart.

I slept on and off for the first two thirds of the journey. Getting the train at 6.44am meant being up at 5 – and then refusing to leave the apartment because it was too dark. I’ll walk around Moscow in the dark but Ekaterinburg is scarier. I waited until five to six, when civil twilight was well underway and the metro was definitely going to be open by the time I got there.

I arrived in time to get to platform 13, the furthest from the door, with enough time for Olga to have my bed mostly made by the time we started moving. I wasn’t at all sure about being stuck in a top bunk but I was tired and it was pretty comfortable. At our last stop, about an hour ago, Olga requested that I come down and sit on the seat, which means I’ve had views of birch forest and small villages and dying Russians. This is third class. I could probably have upgraded, given that my seven hour journey cost £14. It’s an open bunk carriage, blocks of four opposite two sideways. The bottom single sideways bunk turns into a table for two.

About half an hour before arriving at Perm, the provodnitsa, the woman in charge of our carriage, came round to tell us to get ready to go. That’s why they take your ticket when you board, so they know who’s disembarking when. Helpfully, Olga and her husband were also leaving at Perm so I copied what she did with the bedding and watched her fill in forms and consult passports and wondered if I should also be doing admin for getting off a long-distance train. They had a lot of paperwork with the name AMAKS at the top – a clinic in Perm? A new job? I decided that when I got to the hotel I’d look it up.

First job: which bus to take? Perm 2 station is a long way from the city centre, an hour and a half’s walk to my hotel. There were 6 or 8 buses but I had no idea where they were going, let alone where they stopped along the way. No idea where my local stop was either. This is why the metro is so much easier but Perm has no such thing. Eventually I got on a bus to Perm 1 station. That’s closer and I’d written out walking directions from there.

The last stop before Perm 1 was a hotel called AMAKS. Mystery solved already.

Perm 1 is by the river. It’s pretty and there’s a river station. A boat trip in my future? First, find the hotel. That was easier said than done. I was carrying two bags plus a bag of food. It was 2pm and the sun was brutal and I was still wearing the jumper I’d needed at 6am. I still hadn’t eaten and I’d been awake most of last night anyway. It was not optimal find-the-hotel conditions. Cross the railway. Can only be done in one direction and I started in the wrong one. Forget the instructions, just walk towards the blue dot I marked on my phone yesterday. It seemed i could cut corners. There was a park to my left. Surely the hotel was in the opposite corner of the park? I could walk through it. And I could sit down and take off the jumper. So I did, discovering at the same time that three goats live in the little park, pestering people for food and standing up on their back legs to eat the trees. Very good. A park with goats and a nice river – Perm had already beaten Ekaterinburg.

But then it turned out that this wasn’t the park on the map. The park on the map was a giant cemetery and there was no way round it, through it or past it. I tried. Dead ends everywhere. Yeah, dead. I raged. Loudly. But there was no way. I had to return to the main road and start again. It took an hour and three quarters from Perm 1. If you remember, that’s longer than it would have taken from Perm 2.

I didn’t do much for the rest of the day. Ate. First food in twenty hours. Had a very much needed shower – not as good as the big jacuzzi I left behind but never mind. Slept. Enjoyed being in a hotel, with people downstairs who speak English.

Russia 2019 day thirteen: Ekaterinburg

Today started slower than planned. Ekaterinburg is a noisy city at night and I had no idea if the constant yelling and bellowing was just a good Saturday night our or a repeat of the events that happened here in 1918. Fireworks – proper display ones, not the ones you buy from a cabinet in Tesco – going off quite literally in the street below my window at 4:35am did not help. Neither did the extra two hours time difference or the amazing jacuzzi in my own bathroom which I didn’t want to get out of.

So, first stop today was the supermarket, which is in the huge shopping centre (biggest in Russia outside Moscow) just visible from my living room window. Breakfast of nearly-Weetos and apple juice (no bits! More luck than judgement) and then at last I went off into the city.

This is the fourth biggest city in Russia and at the moment, it feels like it. All I can see from my window is high-rise glass towers. This is far more of a city than even Moscow felt like. Pity its metro is only nine stops on one line – I actually have to walk from the stations!

My main stop today was the Romanov death site, the little collection of cathedrals and churches built on the site where the last of the Russian ruling dynasty that began with Peter the Great was slaughtered -Nikolai II (who used to be bizarre, as they say) and his wife and son and four daughters, plus a handful of friends and allies. They were taken by Bolsheviks into the basement of a local engineer’s house and killed. Shot, and then when that didn’t work because people don’t always stand quietly facing the wall when a firing squad comes for them, stabbed. It took forever to kill them all. The house was demolished for fear it would become a focal point for pro-Tsarist anti-Soviet chaos and in the 70s, the current Church on the Blood was built.

It’s free to go inside. It’s a working church. That’s presumably why you’re supposed to cover your head there when I never had to in any of the churches in Moscow or St Petersburg – they’re all museums now. The “exhibition” downstairs is a low dark room full of gold and icons and a wall of memorial stones to the Romanovs. Their bodies are now in a tomb in the Peter & Paul Cathedral in St Petersburg along with their official memorial.

Upstairs is the main church and that looks a lot like most other churches. It’s high and light and covered in nearly-pastel paintings right up to the ceiling. However, there was a ceremony going on, probably a Russian Orthodox wedding, with a girl in a white lacy dress (not a huge wedding cake with train, just a simple dress), two singing priests in gold outfits, candles, incense, quite a few people taking photos. Some of which I’m now in the background of, with my hood up because it never occurred to me to take a headscarf to the death site.

I sat on the steps outside and wondered what it would look like if we had a revolution like that. How many Mountbatten-Windsors would you need to kill to end our monarchy? More than six. How wide would you need to go? How many cousins and distant relations would you need to wipe them out? Now, a revolution like the one Kyiv had five or six years ago, that might not be so bad for our current predicament…

Next I walked up the main road. This end of Ekaterinburg is less glass and towers. I don’t imagine there’s much that’s recognisable from 1918 but there are some older buildings there. And then I went into the station and bought my train ticket to Perm. It took a few attempts – the machine wanted my card and PIN before I even started telling it where I wanted to go and the list of trains is given in Moscow time, local time not appearing until one screen before the end and you have to enter all your passport details – no wonder the guard wanted my passport when I boarded the St Petersburg train. I even know I’ll be departing from Track 1.

And then I got the metro home and had a very late lunch and jumped back in my lovely jacuzzi.

Russia 2019 day nine : Flying to Murmansk

4:45 is a stupid time to wake up, especially when you’ve paid for breakfast every morning and you’re not going to be able to eat this one. And this is the convenient flight, the rare one that doesn’t dump me into unknown Arctic Russia at 4am.

I’d asked about getting to the airport for an 8.30 flight and the receptionist was adamant that the metro to the airport bus was the best way. He even got out a city map to show me how to navigate there on the metro, as if I haven’t lived underneath St Petersburg for the last three days.

That said, I did jump off in the wrong place. It’s just not fair to have Moskovskie vorota and Moskovskaya three stops apart on the same line. Bus 39 was waiting when I emerged at last and although the orange machines wouldn’t accept my smartcard, the conductor was right there and she sold me the sort of paper ticket I’ve only seen in Kyiv and on the Moors Valley railway.

I had to go through basic security just to get into the airport. I checked in online yesterday but I checked in again to get a paper boarding pass. Then through real security, which was fine except that I had to also go on a conveyer belt through a scanner. The operator clicked his fingers every time it started moving as if he was trying to convince us he was working it by magic.

Now I’m sitting at my gate with a bottle of pear Fanta. My opinion is broadly that it would be nicer if it wasn’t fizzy.

Gate change! I get comfortable at D02 which is on my boarding pass and the screen and then suddenly a flight to Sochi is going from my gate and I’m supposed to now be at D08, which the announcer voice is pronouncing as V.

To be continued from Murmansk. I hope it’s cold because I’m carrying a big coat that’s been most inappropriate for the weather so far.

The flight was uneventful except that I was stuck in the middle seat and the person with the window seat spent the entire flight wearing a sleeping mask. We got given a biscuit-thing and a cake-thing which I haven’t sampled yet – it’s been a long time since I’ve been given free food on a plane.

We landed and the pilot announced that we’d landed so people started to get up only then the cabin crew went marching down the plane ordering them to sit down and slamming the lockers closed. Were we being held hostage on the plane? What was happening? What was happening, as far as I can understand, was that we were reversing just far enough that we’d require a bus to take us to the terminal. (We absolutely did not need a bus. It was right there).

Getting through the airport as a domestic arrival with hand luggage took all of twenty seconds and then I declined several offers of taxis in favour of the bus – by which I mean marshrutka, battered old minibus. I sat in the back corner which turned out to be a very good decision because we picked up a lot more passengers than we had seats on the hour-long drive into the city and you can’t give your seat to someone in more need if you’re wedged in the corner. Just try not to lean on the back door because i have zero faith in that withstanding any pressure.

Murmansk is a grim dirty little mining/port town, just like Narvik, redeemed by its location, just like Narvik. I bet it looks pretty magic in winter, if unbearably cold. We drove up the east side of the Bay of Kola which looks like a perfect dark blue Arctic fjord surrounded by hills just made for snow. Here’s the frontier feel I looked for in Kiruna.

The station where the marshrutka dropped us is only about 200 yards from my apartment but here came the logistical problems. First, I had no idea where no. 22 is and the nice girl in the jewellers (well, if you’re going to approach a stranger in a Russian Arctic frontier town who isn’t going to speak English, that seemed the least threatening option) didn’t either. She’s on the same road but doesn’t seem to know what number her shop is in. Then I found it but it’s an entire building, home to half a dozen shops and 70ish apartments. Where’s the door? How do you get in? You phone the place. The person who answers doesn’t speak English, of course. You text. No response and you wonder if the number is actually working. And then the answer is Russian. I took to my guidebook’s language section and went for “I’m in front of” and eventually got the full address including apartment number. I’d been about to go to the big international chain hotel up the road – they would surely speak English and if necessary, it’s a roof. More expensive than the apartment but it’s an option.

I found the door and rang the bell. About four times. No answer. No answer to my “Да, я здесь” text (Yes, I’m here). It’s now about 1.15. I arrived at the station around half past eleven. I haven’t eaten today. My bag is heavy. I went to the hotel. Trainee Maria was wonderful, once she’d realised my booking wasn’t at her hotel. She phoned my landlady in Russian and five minutes later, I was standing outside the door again, being let in at last. We’d met before. When I’d first phoned, I’d gone looking for someone looking for a visitor and she’d looked like she was looking for someone. But when she spoke to me and I failed to understand a word, she apparently took that as meaning I wasn’t the person who’d just phoned her and not understood a word.

Anyway, arrival, check-in, payment and quick tour was done somehow with no mutual understanding, although I did get straight on the wifi and use the Google Translate app. She’s not very good at typing and I’m not convinced she can see very well either.

But now I have an apartment in Murmansk for three nghts. It’s kind of old-fashioned – in Soviet Russia apartment decorates you, that sort of thing. This is definitely not a major modern cosmopolitan city like the two I’ve just left. But I have a bath and a kitchen and more space than I’ve had for weeks and despite the difficulties, I like Murmansk.

Russia 2019 day 8: St Petersburg

It was raining when I woke up although by the time I got out of bed and had breakfast and packed and got outside it was merely grey and threatening drizzle.

Today was the Hermitage which I’ve been putting off. Finding it was no problem; I ran into it by accident yesterday but finding the entrance was harder – there was no queue yesterday to show me the entrance. That’s because it’s closed on Mondays.

The entrance on the embankment is for your groups. Back to Palace Square. I go in the front door – what’s misleading me is the lack of queue here. People don’t come here on their own without pre-booked tickets and they really should. There were four people in front of me at the ticket machine where there was the population of a small city at the tour entrance and of a large town at the internet tickets entrance. Then it’s maybe ten minutes to get through security and ticket control. “Take a sandwich and a bottle of water” says the guidebook. Nope. No liquids – although if you play stupid enough you clearly can because that tourist didn’t buy that litre carton of orange juice in the cafe. I’m glad I brought a refilled Fanta bottle today and not my own plastic bottle because I would not be surrendering that. Still, probably not many people hiss furiously what I did at the security gate. I don’t like this city half as much as Moscow.

First, the big staircase. Oh, and all the tour groups posing on it. Then back downstairs to see the Egyptian stuff and go in the cafe-lounge for a new drink and a croissant because I was very hot and sweaty and thirsty and furious.

Once I’d done that I could go and have a try at the Hermitage. I’m really not an art person or a museum person but you can’t not go to the Hermitage (and for 700₽ – less than £9! That’s a ridiculous price for something on this scale! Imagine tickets to the Louvre costing €10!) The first few rooms were palace rooms and I did like the Malachite Room, which is mostly a fairly ordinary imperial room, only with endless fireplaces, vases, pillars and tables made of malachite.

Other highlights: the red & gold throne room, the red & gold sitting room and the room that was gold from floor to ceiling. When I have a house, I need a room as gold as that. I charged through the Winter Palace with very little regard for art, though. I paused at the necessary pictures mentioned in my guidebook but the rooms themselves were far more interesting.

As for getting around the place – well, there’s only one staircase to the top floor and only one to the stuff on the ground floor under the nice gold room, which has no public connection at all to the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman art in the New Hermitage. Entire corridors on the middle floors are closed and the obvious routes round them one-way only. There’s no way at all to get into the coins & medals upstairs unless that staircase in a closed room is actually open.

They say it would take a year to see the Hermitage properly. I saw plenty in the four or so hours I was in there. No, I didn’t look at most of it properly but I found more that I liked than I expected to. It would be nice if there were more places you could stop to drink that bottle you brazenly removed from the cafe-lounge – it’s a pain to have to return to the corridor by the Egyptians every time you’re thirsty.

When I left, feet very flat and tired, there were soldier-types practising marching in Palace Square. The mini-platoon in ceremonial uniform was absolutely surrounded by Chinese tourist cameras. The two in camouflage uniform apparently counting steps were getting less attention. Then the platoon returned to their bus on the edge of the square and mini military band took their place, although they took so long about it that I gave up and went home, amused to find hundreds more soldiers in green uniforms waiting at both zebra crossings on the way back to the metro.

I had a quick break back home and then went to find Vladimirsky Cathedral which is almost as close as my local metro & therefore easier and quicker to just walk to. It turns out this is a working cathedral (although it became an underwear factory during the Soviet era) populated by babushkas in headscarves and not a tourist in sight. I didn’t have a headscarf. So I stayed by the door, very quiet, not taking photos, not wandering, just standing silently and looking for a couple of minutes. It’s not very spectacular. Either it has a low ceiling or the main domes are closed inside as well as outside – it’s covered in scaffolding.

And that’s it for St Petersburg. Tomorrow I leave the realm of vaguely-European cosmopolitan cities I’ve been to before and safe-if-boring chain hotels and head to Russia’s ugly industrial slightly-radioactive port city in the Arctic.

Russia 2019 day five: moving to St Petersburg

Seven o’clock isn’t actually very early to get up but it felt like it, especially for a train leaving at 9.20 from a station two metro stops away. I got there in time. For the first time, the day dawned grey and with the sound of tyres on wet roads. That could be due to obsessive road-washing but no, it was a damp day.

I’d heard that I needed to be at the station an hour before the bullet train left, to go through security and find my platform, neither of which turned out to be a problem. Security meant dumping my bags on the conveyer belt of an x-ray scanner, as I’d already done a couple of times, and then again to gain access to the Сапсан platform. The departure boards spoke English but I think I’d have been able to figure it out. Sapsan has its own platforms and its own branding and I can read Санкт Петербург so I’d probably have been ok anyway.

One thing that surprised me was that the guard didn’t want tickets for boarding, only passports, and then I needed the last four digits of my passport number to use the wifi. It was like being on a plane except Russian-style – men guards in big military hats and white gloves, women guards in tight grey pencil skirts, an entire army of them, at least one per wagon.

It’s called a bullet train and Sapsan means peregrine falcon so I was expecting fast. And it does make the journey from Moscow to St Petersburg in four hours instead of nine or ten but the fastest I saw, briefly, on the carriage displays was 219km/h which is 136mph which is fast but it’s not that fast. It never felt faster than the train I take from Southampton to London.

Four hours passed surprisingly fast and before I knew it, I was packing up ready to alight in my second city. Escaping St Petersburg Moskovskaya was a lot harder than getting into Moscow Kurskaya and once I was outside – onto Nevsky Prospekt, I discovered later – it was chaos. Far more chaotic than Moscow. So far my images of the cities were that Moscow is the huge old sprawly dirty scary city and St Petersburg is the smaller, more delicate and pretty one. London and Helsinki. But I’d been wrong about Moscow, which is the cleanest city I’ve ever been in and surprisingly ordered, although it has too many cars, as does every major city in the world. I have three full days to see how right or wrong I am about St Petersburg.

My hotel was just down the road, although my luggage seems to have doubled in both volume and weight since I arrived in Russia so it felt far too far. Carrying it from the station to the hotel in Perm next week is probably going to kill me.

First things first, a quick lunch from my Moscow leftovers and then back to the big shopping centre behind the station for new supplies. There’s always a supermarket in a shopping centre and this one possessed the same supermarket as the one at Kyivskaya the other night, my favourite one so far – although in this particular one I question their decision to put the chocolate and confectionery on opposite sides of the shop. Same goes for drinks & juices and cheese & yoghurt.

I knew I wasn’t going to do much today. But when I’d walked into the hotel, they had an excursion booking desk and front & centre was a big poster for Feel Yourself Russian, the folk show we saw here seventeen years ago and it’s still running, with the same posters. I’d been considering hunting it up but since it right there I booked it for the evening.

Transfer is included in the price – that means a taxi gets sent for you. I’m not a huge fan of taxis and by the time I arrived, I wished transfer was not included. It would surely make tickets half the price and I’d be far more comfortable on the metro. In a car with a stranger, on streets I don’t know and which don’t match the route I looked up before going out, driving at 70km/h on inner-city boulevards, overtaking, traffic lights going green onto green-lit zebra crossings and it took twenty minutes for me to notice the three-foot crack across the windscreen. I was pretty sure someone was going to die before we arrived and while it was probably going to be a pedestrian, I wasn’t ruling out it being me.

I don’t remember going to the Nikolaevsky Palace last time but how do you forget walking into a palace, up a huge ornate staircase that gets specially pointed out in the Wikipedia entry, and into a palace chamber? Even better, there’s a string quartet halfway up the stairs and people in Imperial Russian costumes dancing around.

Last time, we took photos throughout. Not in 2019, although fully half of the front row didn’t get the message and there was one woman at the far end who didn’t once look up from her phone or remove on earphone.

Audience aside, it’s a great show. It starts with a four piece male choir (who leave waving CDs and traditional wooden clacking instruments) and then they bring on the band, complete with enormous triangular guitar-thing and two accordions, and then the Cossack dancers. It’s all so chaotic and colourful and crazy. There’s someone in the band whose job is to whistle deafeningly, and the male dancers yell and the female ones shriek. And yes, they do the floor dancing that looks really bad for your knees.

During the interval there were snacks, Russian-style. We wandered freely around the palace – well, the part that was open to us. There’s a lot of palace that isn’t. The second half was similar except it was a different dance group and the band had been wedged into the corner so they had as much stage as possible.

I recognised some of the costumes from my old photos and I recognised the dance of two elderly Cossacks hugging each other, which is actually one person with boots on their hands as well. Bit disappointed there was no chicken dance this time or playing of tiny saws. But they did a dance with one person continually falling off the stage and one where they all sat on the stage and took it in turns to show off their favourite floor-dancing and at the end, one woman crouched while one of the men spun her round and round using an actual handle.

Afterwards, those of us who weren’t on a tour bus gathered around Sergey, who delivered us to taxis back to our hotels. This one wasn’t quite so scary but I’d still take the metro over my first Uber. I saw St Petersburg by night. There’s a palace or neoclassical mansion quite literally around every corner. There are horses pulling decorative coaches. My brief impression, somewhat blurred by speed, is that I like Moscow more. There are ladies selling tourist junk from tables along the street, I saw litter and using a zebra crossing seems to involve taking your life in your own hands. I felt safe in Moscow at night. I’m not so sure about St Petersburg.