Iceland 2011: Reykjavik

The final blog of the trip. I had breakfast, packed and went out into Reykjavik at dawn. It was a clear morning and felt far too warm for my usual five layers and I was very tempted to run back to the hotel to abandon my mittens and a couple of jumpers.

I went down to the seafront. The snow on the way was deep and crunchy and very winter-wonderlandy. On the seafront, I stood and took more photos of Esja and the white mountains in the distance and then it struck me that although the sky over Esja was clear and pastel-coloured because of the dawn, the sky over downtown was black – really black, really maybe-a-volcano-has-erupted black. I wandered down past Harpa to the harbour but before I got there, the snow started.

At first it was weird snow – it was very very sharp, the sort that cuts your face if you don’t take shelter, and Harpa is a great shelter. I looked up into the structure and realised finally how the lights in it work – the front is panels of coloured glass which glow weirdly and for a couple of days I thought the light was just reflections from cars or something like that. But no, there are coloured strip lights inside.

The snow stopped so I went out again and tried to look at the harbour but it started again – huge soft flakes this time. I walked along the main shopping street in the snow and it had stopped by the time I reached my street, so I crossed the road and took photos of the horse statue and of the coloured houses and of my footprints. It was weird walking back where I’d just come from, through fresh snow and seeing my own footprints, looking like two people with one leg each walking in different directions.

I went back to the hotel, checked out and got picked up for the airport. This time I got a good view of Reykjanes. I want to see it in summer when it’s a black lava field of nothingness but this week it’s a white wilderness and it’s stunning. I could see the power station from the main road – there was a massive cloud of steam rising up and next to it, a smaller fainter haze of steam that was the Blue Lagoon.

At the airport I checked in using the automatic machine. It had defeated me at Heathrow and I’d had to check in using a real person because the machine ignored my passport but I was determined to do it this time. Once again, the machine ignored my passport. I tried “I do not have my document” and it processed and processed and processed and then gave me an error. I moved onto the next machine and that one did work. As soon as I put my passport in the slot, the lights turned red and it scanned and gave me a luggage sticker and a boarding pass and I handed over my bag and went outside to take photos of the sculptures – a dinosaur claw breaking out of an egg and a stained glass section of rainbow.

I got through security without being searched and wandered the shops. I bought a lava stone bracelet and looked at the Blue Lagoon lotions and potions and then found a cafe that sold bread and butter and apple juice and then went to my gate. On the way, I passed a plane being loaded and it had its name on the nose – Eyjafjallajokull, so that got a photo. All Icelandair planes are named after volcanoes. I’d flown out on Eldborg.

At the gate, it began to dawn on me a lot of people had trolleys to get their stuff to the plane. Hand luggage, carry-on, whatever you want to call it. If you need a trolley to get it through departures, you’ve got too much of it. If you can’t carry it, you shouldn’t be taking it on, and that also applies to wheely suitcases because I always but always fall over them when I’m trying to get through the plane door.

Also, if you can stand in a queue watching people get their passports and boarding passes scanned for ten minutes, then get to the desk before you realise you need your passport, then you shouldn’t be allowed on the plane. (Planes would be much less crowded if I ran an airline)

This plane was Keilir, which is the conical volcano I spotted from Halgrimskirkja and which I could see as we drove across Reykjanes. I’d spotted blankets on the way over and wondered how to get one. Turns out you just jump up and grab one so I settled down in my seat with no neighbours, snuggled up under my blanket and spent the journey playing with the screen. On the way over, it had frozen over Scotland and I’d been stuck watching the map for two hours. This time it worked fine. The girls in front of me, on the other hand, their screens froze and the stewardess switched them off and switched them back on again. And switched off my entire row as well. Once it was back on, I watched the Unique Iceland documentary, which shows tourists what to see and finishes with the line “And finally, say it with me…. Eyjafjallajokull!”, then I watched an episode of the Simpsons, How I Met Your Mother and finally, half an hour of Titanic before we touched down in Heathrow. Where it was far too hot for all the layers I’d put on in Reykjavik and I went out into a London December in just a t-shirt.

Iceland 2011: The Blue Lagoon

Having had another nice breakfast of rolls and apple juice, I was picked up at dawn (that is, 10.30 in the morning) and taken to the Blue Lagoon, the big geothermal spa and ultimate Iceland must-do.

My favourite thing about the Blue Lagoon is that it’s waste water from the power station next door. Svartsengi is a geothermal power station. The sea water comes up from below the ground at 200-300 degrees under high pressure, is used by the power station to generate electricity, then flows over to the Lagoon, which was dug out of the solid black lava, once it’s cooled enough to not take our skin off. This place is not natural.

It is paradise. I had done a lot of reading before I went there. I knew about the naked showers before you’re allowed in, I knew about the drying effects of the water on hair and to put conditioner on it before going in, I knew about the electronic bracelets to open the lockers and pay for snacks (an ingenious system – I love it), I knew about the uneven lagoon bottom, rocky in places, silty in others. The one major thing no one had mentioned is how incredibly salty the water is. You don’t have to get it anywhere near your mouth to be able to taste it.

I had locker 55 – 56 would have been easier to remember but it was a bottom locker – and I managed to figure out the bracelet lock – the locks are not on the individual lockers, they’re for a block of about four. I also manage to knock myself on the head with the corner of the locker door which didn’t bother me too much until I discovered two hours later I’d created a huge lump on the side of my head by doing so.

Next was the infamous naked shower ordeal – not actually so bad because a lot of the showers have doors. They don’t lock (or even close all the way) and they’re opaque glass but they are doors.

Now I can go into the water. I had read about this – you can either go through the door and brave an Iceland December before scrambling into the water or you can go into the little pool to the left from where there is a door to the outside, meaning you don’t have to leave the water. I chose this option every single time. It was a hideous day. The car park is a little distance away, down a lava-sided path. I hadn’t bothered with my three hundred layers today – I came out in t-shirt, fleece and coat and I hadn’t done up the fleece or coat. Getting from the bus to the door was horrible – howling wind and heavy gale, trying to hold my hood up with one hand and hold my coat closed and hold onto mittens and ticket with the other while keeping my head down so I was mostly blind and rapidly losing feeling in my fingers. So it wasn’t a nice day but better to have a rain/snow storm while I was drifting in warm water than while I was doing something else.

It’s very nice to drift in warm water while Iceland throws a storm over your head. You do have to keep your shoulders below the water and dip your ears in every now and then. And because of the wind you had to swim around facing the building because if you turned round, you got your face scoured off by high-speed sharp rain.

I investigated the lagoon, found the hottest spots – some painfully hot. Found the white silica mud and smeared that on, then took shelter inside to investigate things like the cafe where I also investigated the space-age coffee machine and the bracelet paying method by having a cup of hot chocolate and then the relaxing room, where I relaxed in a nice chair by drawing the view although as it disappeared inside low-hanging clouds while I was drawing I had to make it up a bit. The sauna and steam room turned out to be accessible via the lagoon – I’d have to go outside for them. I also investigated the towel-robe-locker conundrum. The changing area is for changing. You have to get dry in the shower area before going to the changing area. I had left towel and robe in my locker so I dripped a bit, then sneaked back to my locker. The best way, I concluded, was to leave the robe in my locker where no one else could walk off with it and leave my towel in the racks in the shower area. It’s fun to walk around in a white robe. Very luxurious.

I ventured outside again and found the sauna and steam rooms. My ability to stay in them has improved hugely and they’re particularly nice if you’ve had to climb out of the warm water and scurry across decking to them during an Icelandic December rainstorm. Then you don’t need the cold sprinkle afterwards – just getting back to the warm water gets you frozen.

I had an unusual lunch of too-sweet apple juice, a mini Babybel and half a packet of salt & pepper crisps which nearly burnt a hole in my tongue – I had to sneak the rest back to my locker using the big sleeves of my luxurious robe.

In the afternoon I drifted from one hotspot to another, used the silica another couple of times, had another cup of hot chocolate and liberated four little pebbles – I’d noticed the bottom was a bit pebbly in places and when I scooped some up with my feet to look at them, they turned out to be black and white speckled lava pebbles so they also got sneaked back to my locker.

At four o’clock, a lot of people left, presumably a tour group who took up all the showers for quite a while and then made the place much quieter. I went back outside. It was getting dark by now and although the novelty of being in an outside pool in such weather hadn’t actually worn off, the novelty of being in an outside pool in such weather in the dark had come along too. It could have done with being better weather – there were quite big waves in the pool, you had to swim backwards a lot of the time and I was going from hotspot to hotspot and by then, I knew where every single one was.

Then at five on the dot, the wind dropped and the rain stopped and suddenly it was a different world. We could swim in whatever direction we wanted without losing any eyes, the surface was smooth, steam rose off the water and hotspots appeared all over the place – like right in the centre which had previously been a particularly cold spot. And by “particularly cold”, this is by Blue Lagoon standards. Still easily warm enough considering it’s Iceland, December and raining. Now it was really really fun, much more peaceful, much warmer and even more amazing. I swam up to the far end, where I hadn’t been before and watched some strange red glowing lights in the sky. Probably not the Northern Lights – it was too early in the evening and anyway, they’re usually green. But they streaked the sky for a few minutes before disappearing which is why I’m disinclined to think it was the power station or the airport glowing.

I could have stayed there forever. I could have spent the last three days there instead of seeing the country, especially once the weather cleared up. But my bus went back to Reykjavik at 7pm so I had to drag myself out. In order to maximise my time in the lagoon, I didn’t bother with a hair-cleaning shower – I planned to do that when I got back. I did dry my hair though, or I attempted to. You couldn’t tell the difference. But while I was doing that I realised my ears were full of silica.

After I’d got back to the hotel and phoned home only to discover afterwards, judging by the state of my phone, either my ears were still full of silica or my hair was. I looked in the mirror and discovered the stuff had dried nicely all around my ears and made a pure white crust. So that was nice. Still, my ears are nice and deep-cleaned now. And my hair is conditioned and soft despite the lagoon’s best attempts to turn it into straw.

I am coming back here. I have fallen in love with Iceland in a way I never have with any other country. I am coming back.

Iceland 2011: Lava caving in Leiðarendi

I wrote this once and the stupid machine ate it. I am not pleased at having to write it again.

Day three and I finally made it down to breakfast – bread rolls and apple juice.

I didn’t do anything this morning – vague plans to go into town were scuppered by darkness and then snow – a rarer thing than you might expect in Iceland, or so I’m told.

At 12.30 I was picked up by a kind of armoured minibus and we went through the routine of driving to the IE offices, collecting tickets and collecting other passengers who’d decided to start from the town centre. There were seven of us in total.

Reykjavik not being abundant in caves, we went out on the Reykjanes peninsula, to the mountains behind Hafnarfyorthur. I stick by my initial assessment of Iceland as a frozen white wilderness. The trip was worth it just to see the white nothingness in the mountains. It was stunning. Reykjanes is usually black lava fields that looks like the moon but this week it’s the Arctic.

We parked our bus on the road and changed into day-glow orange overalls and were given helmets and lights and “mittens”, which were of course gloves. Then we jumped out into the road and took photos of each other before following our guide onto the white nothing.

The cave was easy to find, two holes in the ground ten yards apart, all surrounded by fencing so you couldn’t fall in. We were going in the left one and coming out the right one. But our guide looked down the exit hole and decided it looked too narrow with all the ice and snow and that we’d actually come out of the same hole.

The entrance involved sliding down the snow. Inside, the rock was a little bit darker than I’m used to, being basalt instead of limestone and it was decorated with hundreds of stalactites made of crystal clear ice. That was stunning. But other than the colour of the rock and the “icelets”, it felt a lot like the area around the top of OFD. The lava cave is fairly young, only 4000 years old but that’s enough time for water to begin to shape it. There were small calcite formations, fallen and shattered rock, low ceilings. It was cleaner and drier than a UK cave, no mud, no water. There are no rivers on Reykjanes because of the porous rock and any underground streams sit a lot deeper so our guide couldn’t imagine any circumstances under which the caves might flood.

My main problem in the cave was with the peak of the helmet which blotted out a useful chunk of vision. I have never before walked into or broken a stalactite but I took out a few icelets today, as did everyone in our group and as have most people, judging by the broken chunks of crystal clear, otherwise intact and unmelted icelet scattered all over the floor.

We ran into a group of Icelandic “outlaws”, wearing their lopapeysas, the traditional ring-neck jumpers, having a quiet little party with hot coffee made on a Trangia.

Once we were past them, we settled down on the floor to have a story – about real outlaws who’d lived in lava caves throughout the country and about night trolls. I answered correctly that what happens to trolls when they are in daylight is that they turn to stone although first I said that they burn.

That was the end of the first cave. We went back where we’d come from and went into the “second” cave. Actually, it was just one cave where the main entrance was right in the middle. The second half of the cave was a little bit lower than the first and had a few more calcite formations, including a chimney shaped circle of curtains and a lot of patches of “troll teeth” – hundreds of small sharp stalactites.

At this end, we sat down again and turned all our lights off. Old habits dying hard, I’d switched mine off every time we’d stopped anyway (which had bewildered the guide. I think he thought I wanted to do the whole trip in the dark)

The way in had involved sliding down the snow. Now we had to scramble up it. It wasn’t too hard but the last bit, the bit where we emerged into open air, there wasn’t much to get hold of to pull myself up so I went for the much more fun option of launching myself face first into the deep snow outside. Fun.

We posed for more photos then we followed the guide back, wading and jumping through knee deep snow, making fresh footprints in untouched snow, taking more photos of each other and generally acting like five-year-olds. And I ate my traditional caving Mars bar in the bus. Another difference between UK caves and Iceland ones. In a UK cave, my Mars bar is perfectly soft and squashed by the time I eat it. Here it had got cold and was rock hard.

I was dropped off in the city centre this time. I did a tiny bit of shopping, found a Christmas market with Santa and lots of kids dancing around a Christmas tree, went to find the new Althingi – I say new. The Althingi, if you remember, is the Icelandic parliament which was held at Thingvellir since 930AD. It moved to a building in Reykjavik in around 1880 so it’s comparitively very new. Then I realised my ears and the inside of my head were very very cold because I hadn’t bothered to bring my hat caving (I did take two headtorches. Three sources of light and all that. The fact that the guide is carrying a small torch is not good enough) so I came home, via the main shopping street, which is after all the direct route. Most of it was closed to traffic today which meant a traffic jam on the part that was open. There was a little band playing loud but quite good music from the back of a lorry – the poor bass player seemed to be getting frostbite in his fingers. It’s been snowing on and off today and it’s now at the stage where the pavements are snowy and the roads are slush.

I’m in my hotel now. In a nearby room a baby is screaming and in the room above me, someone is scraping chairs around. Both of these have been going on for days. Fortunately the baby shuts up at night but the chair scraping goes on constantly until about midnight. It actually infuriates me even more than the baby. What are you doing to those chairs?!

Iceland 2011: Reykjavik

Today started quite late, as I didn’t get home until 2am last night and there didn’t seem a lot of point in going into town before the sun was up.

I followed my map to the main shopping street, then got distracted by the view down a side street – blue sea, pink and white mountain and pink sky. Reykjavik has one of my favourite sea views – the bay is surrounded by real Arctic white mountains and it’s spectacular. A little further along was a sculpture of a Viking long boat and some tourists were having their photos taken with it, so I borrowed one of them to take a photo of me.

From there I made my way back into town and walked along one of the two main shopping streets, looking at the shops but not yet quite brave enough to go in. Then I got distracted again, this time by the view up the street to Hallgrimskirkja – a space shuttle shaped cathedral on top of the hill that dominates the Reykjavik skyline.

I went inside – it’s all grey sleek Gothic arches and stunning in a minimalist way. Then I went up the tower – in the lift, which is the only way except in the event of a fire while you’re up there.

At the top of the lift is a little room where the clock faces are. The bottom panels, between about 4 and 8 are clear glass so you can look out over the city. The clocks, apparently, are not necessarily accurate – the strong winds up there often blow the hands off course.

Then there are a few steps up to the viewing platform. That’s an even better view, if a windy one. I could spot a conical mountain, almost certainly a volcano which I think must be in Reykjanes direction. I could see the domestic airport right in the city centre – it was an RAF base when Iceland was occupied during the war, I think. I could see The Pond, a massive lake in the town centre and I could see my hotel, as well as a 360 degree view of white mountains.

From there I went and looked in the shops, bought some bread and chocolate and found myself in the city centre, by the IE offices, opposite the Prime Minister’s house. And Reykjavik apparently has geese wandering the streets. No one blinked an eye at them. I followed the little flocks – so many geese and they wander in the road and drivers wait for them to decide to get out of the way and I found myself at The Pond.

It was almost completely frozen and I could see people walking on it although I thought it might not be a good idea for me to try it. I was quite happy to be entertained by squillions of birds – swans with yellow beaks, brown geese, ducks and gulls of various varieties all making a racket and flocking from one end of the unfrozen patch to the other as if they were some kind of feathered hive mind. The swans were great because they make a lovely beeping noise and the geese were great because every time they scrambled out of the water, they slipped on the frozen edge which was quite hilarious to watch.

I stood there for ages, enjoying the entertainment but by then the sun was setting and because I’d been out at dawn, it felt like a really long day – this is the biggest problem with being in Iceland at this time of year. And it was still only 2.30 but my shoulders were aching, one of my boots was rubbing, I’d seen almost all the sights and I’d woken up far too early so I came back, had some food, phoned home and then having slept for the best part of two hours, woke up not knowing what day it was. Near-constant darkness is confusing in ways I hadn’t imagined.

And I got back to find IE had phoned the hotel about the caving tomorrow – they want to provide me with kit so they wanted to know my height and weight. Very organised of them. I don’t know how much I weigh and I only know my height in feet, which they don’t use here. The receptionist said she was sure IE can convert it. So the caving is on and the only question is whether or not I’m the only tourist who wants to go caving in Iceland in winter.

Iceland 2011: Northern Lights at Þjóðvegur

I was picked up along with three other people from the hotel door and we made the now-familiar journey to the city centre for tickets and got on a coach this time – lots of people wanted to see the Northern Lights.

Our guide also commentated for the first half hour and is also overly proud of her ability to pronounce a word in her own language – amazing how many times the Icelandics feel the need to say Eyjafjallajokull in a sentence. She also decided to teach us to pronounce it. We were heading for a place about 30km from Eyjafjallajokull where we could have coffee and “go in and out”.

We took the same route as in the morning, Ring Road east and down into Hveragerthi although we stopped at the side of the road at the top of the hill where I could finally take photos of the weird glow. No Northern Lights there do we headed down. We went through Hveragerthi and through Selfoss and stopped at a little petrol station. Here was the place. It had two little shops – one for car stuff like oil and polish etc although it also sold barbecues and horseshoes and a mini general store joined on. We took shelter in here and drank hot chocolate and a hardy few went out the back to look for the lights.

It was freezing. It was sheltered at the front but windy at the back and Iceland is cold enough by day. It was also very snowy. I kept stepping into ankle-deep snow without realising it, then I got myself stuck in knee-deep snow which managed to get into my boots.

The local staff opened the restaurant, not to serve food but to let us sit down inside. It wasn’t very warm but it was better than being outside and we knew if any lights did show up that someone would come and get us. There had been a couple of Americans on the coach behind me and they started getting giggly and taking photos of each other with postcards of the Northern Lights.

A woman from my hotel decided to go outside and she took her phone and promised to phone her mother if anything started happening and by about 10.40 she phoned. Everyone ran outside. No signs of the lights but there was a weird orange glow on the horizon. No one knew what it was and I concluded it must be a volcano in the distance because that’s what I conclude any orange or red glow without an immediately obvious cause is. It turned out to be Moonrise and the moon was vast and bright orange.

Unfortunately our guide chose that moment to order us back onto the coach but only, it turned out, so we could go somewhere in complete darkness.

We went back through Selfoss and turned right towards Thingvellir and stopped in a little u-shaped lay by up in the mountains. For half an hour we stood there. There was no wind so it wasn’t quite as cold but it was cold enough. I experimented with camera settings and discovered I could get quite good photos of the sky if I used the Starry Sky mode with a 60 second exposure and used the self-timer so as not to blur the photo by pressing the button. I lay it on the ground looking at the sky as I have no tripod and got some lovely night skies.

After half an hour it was time to go. No lights tonight. They’re not guaranteed, they only show up about on about half the nights, “we can’t just push a button, y’know?” (our guide definitely had her catchphrases). We got back on the coach and I took off my boots and put my feet on the heater to defrost and that was the moment our driver spotted the Northern Lights off to our left.

We all leapt off, me trying to get my laces half done up so my boots wouldn’t fall off. In an attempt to find a spot to watch the lights I managed to step into knee-deep snow again and found I couldn’t get up. No matter. I half crawled half swam to more solid ground, positioned my camera so it was pointed at the sky and set off a photo. I only managed five because each takes two and a half minutes to take but they were good. At least, they look good on the camera. The first photo had a green curtain and a red glow to the left, the others had glowing green lines and red and orange glows. I’ve since discovered the colours don’t show up nearly as well on tablet or phone screens but look at the pictures on the camera, they’re great.

The Northern Lights are not quite as impressive to the naked eye. It looked like a yellowish cloud where there had previously been clear sky although it did do that vertical line thing that makes it look like it’s coming through from another world. The red and orange was absolutely invisible to my eyes but I could make out a hint of the green in the sky.

We stood there for quite a while, just staring and taking photos – ridiculous number of people seemed to think using the flash would make a better photo.

Then they faded away completely. We got back on the coach and went back to Reykjavik. The four from my hotel and four or five from another had to transfer to a minibus because we live on narrow streets and that didn’t have the nice heating the coach did. We got back just before two in the morning.

Iceland 2011: The Golden Circle

I was picked up at the crack of dawn today by an Iceland Excursions minibus from right outside my hotel door. Well, not the crack of dawn exactly – dawn doesn’t crack around here until the middle of the morning. I was picked up at 8am, taken to the IE office and told to exchange my printed confirmation for a ticket and then be back in half an hour. Half an hour later, the minibus had transformed into some sort of all-wheel-drive truck thing.

The driver kept up a commentary all the way through Reykjavik – we saw the oldest prison in the country, now only has one prisoner, it’s the Prime Minister’s office and then suddenly four or five police cars appeared, blocked off the junction and three black cars whizzed through and stopped outside that very building -presumably the Prime Minister arriving at work. We were also told that some streets in the city are geothermically heated so they don’t freeze in winter and become slippery.

As we headed out on the Ring Road, it was still very dark and snow began to blow across the road, then it got thicker until we were in a snowstorm so heavy you couldn’t see six feet in front (although I was delighted to discover the truck had triple windscreen wipers).

We made our way down the hill in the dark to Hveragerthi (the th is a letter we don’t have in English. It looks like a d with a line through the top) which is a greenhouse village, where the Earth’s crust is very thin. They use the heat to grow flowers and fruit and vegetables – even bananas. The crust is so thin you have to be careful digging in the garden in case you accidentally dig up a hot spring and thirty years ago, some people were sitting watching TV one evening when a hot spring sprouted right there in their house. It’s a weird town because as we descended, we could see the lights of the town but we could also see massive orange glows, like something out of the Simpsons, which turned out to be the greenhouses.

We stopped at a little shopping centre where there was a crack in the ground – the crack between the North American and European tectonic plates. There’s also a bakery which cooks its bread by leaving it in the ground overnight so the heat of the Earth bakes it. Mostly we just stopped there though to give the sun a chance to catch up with us. It was 9.40am by the time we left and only just beginning to hint at daylight.

Our next stop was Kerith (also spelt with that Icelandic letter) although on the way we saw Eyjafjallajokull in the distance and the driver took great pleasure in being able to say it. We’re not allowed to leave Iceland until we can pronounce it, so I’ll be fine on Monday, I’ve been practising. Kerith is a 6000 year old extinct volcanic crater with very steep sides. It was freezing cold there – colder than anything I’ve experienced or even imagined. It was windy, it was freezing, it wasn’t quite as dark as it looks in the photos but I was very glad to jump back on the bus.

Next stop was Skarholt, formerly the centre of Icelandic religion until their bishops got moved to Reykjavik. It was cold there too but now fairly light so everyone took photos of the bare white landscape and we went into the church where a man was playing the organ, presumably just for the tourists, and there were three bus loads following each other around – ours in our truck, one lot in a minibus and one lot in a coach but no more than eight or ten to a group.

Next stop was a waterfall called Flaxa, I think, which has stairs carved up one side for the salmon. That was quite spectacular viewed from above.

Next, another waterfall, Gullfoss. This is a huge two-step waterfall where the water makes a sharp 90 degree turn before the second fall. It’s spectacular in summer and today it was almost completely frozen. It looked like it had frozen instantly in mid-fall, all still white froth and ripples. But it was incredibly cold down by the falls so we didn’t stay too long – we went up to the cafe for food (rolls and butter are free, whether or not you have the soup with them) and I wandered the shop and didn’t buy massive scarfs or handwarmers or traditional woollen blankets, although I did buy a felt Christmas tree, a rune necklace and an Iceland flag blanket badge to add to my collection.

We went on to the geothermal area at Geysir. Geysir itself has stopped erupting, although the pool is still hot and bubbly. It’s weird and otherworldly to see the ground all white and grey and brown streaked and steaming constantly. Strokkur does erupt, very regularly and that’s quite a sight to see – a jet of boiling water sprayed thirty feet into the air every five minutes. The first time I saw it up close – and it was a double eruption as well – I just stood staring and giggling, then I picked my way round to the other side. The ground is frozen and the compacted snow is fine to walk on but the hot steam has turned the paths around Geysir into lethally slippery sheet ice.

Our driver got some bread from the cafe at Geysir and stopped at the first pack of Iceland ponies he spotted and we all jumped out to feed them and stroke them. They’re really fluffy and very friendly and gentle although they were certain we had more bread and we all got headbutted as they searched for it. I like Iceland ponies.

Our last stop was Thingvellir (the th is another letter we don’t have in English, called a thorn. It looks like a trombonist hiding behind a tree). Thingvellir starts at the foot of a textbook shield volcano – the one which all shield volcanoes are named after, actually – Skjsldbreithur (th being the th that looks like a d), Shield-broad – all the way down to a lake called Thingvallavatn. This is where the split between the two continental plates is most obvious – it’s a huge rift valley where the American plate ends with a big black sheer cliff and the European plate starts somewhere the other side of the river among the gorse and in the middle is a kind of continental no man’s land where the two plates are pulling apart and creating new land at the rate of an inch per year (which will make Iceland the biggest country in the world in 6 million years, according to our driver). It’s where the Icelandic parliament began in 930AD before moving to Reykjavik in 1800 – Thingvellir means parliament field. The river that comes out of Thingvallavatn is nine times bigger than the river that flows into it – because the glacier that feeds it flows under the lava and so the lake effectively fills from underwater. We were shown an amazing bit of gorge where the water is bright blue and absolutely crystal clear – it’s called the Wishing Well and people throw coins in and lots of people dive in there. We made our way around the end of the lake and stopped at the view point on the edge of the American plate, warned up in the visitor centre and then it was time to head back to Reykjavik via Esja, Reykjavik’s mountain – according to my city guide the locals “have an unitchable scratch to climb it” and if your house or flat has a view of it, then it’s more expensive than a house or flat without the Esja view. We didn’t stop there or attempt to climb it (and I won’t attempt it tomorrow either, that would be stupid…)

The Northern Lights are on for tonight – at least, the tour is. They can’t guarantee the lights will appear but if they don’t, we get to come along for free another night to give it another go. So tonight will be a late night but fortunately tomorrow I’m wandering Reykjavik and don’t need to be up early, although it would be nice to see what the hotel has in the way of breakfast.

Iceland 2011: Arrival

I keep hearing about what a surprisingly mild climate Iceland has – protected by the warm Atlantic current, maybe a bit of snow in winter occasionally, but not as cold as you’d think – no colder than New York, according to the inflight magazine. I haven’t seen a lot yet but I think Iceland is a very appropriate name. My view from the sky was of a frozen white wasteland (although I mean that in a nice way – it was spectacular.) It was also still light enough to see things outside at 4.30pm despite the sun officially setting over an hour earlier. It is snowy and there’s a bite in the air but it’s not unpleasantly cold. I didn’t see much on the drive over to Reykjavik either but I could see that the Reykjanes peninsula isn’t a field of black lava as I was promised but a winter wonderland.

Turns out the northern lights aren’t being switched on tonight so the trip to look for them is cancelled and I should get in touch with Iceland Excursions tomorrow (hoping the hotel will do this as they’re the ones IE actually contacted). This is why I planned this for the first night, so I’d have other opportunities because I know the lights are unpredictable and in the meantime, I get an evening in. My room is nice, I can’t get into the minibar which is probably just as well and it’s absolutely true that hot water here smells of rotten eggs. I am not looking forward to trying out the shower. It was cold but I’ve folded up the curtains so the heat from the radiators comes into the room and not straight out through the windows and turned the radiators up a bit so I have a little tropical paradise in here. It’s snowy outside, deep snow with clear footprints in.