Iceland autumn 2012: Reykavik and Viðey

Today dawned very bright and clear. With no plans for the day, I decided to go the Pearl and maybe as far as the geothermal beach. But first of all, I had to go down to the seafront to say hello to Esja, who I haven’t actually seen yet.

I walked along the seafront, took photos of the view, took photos of the Viking boat, enjoyed the sky and the sun and the fact that I could see Esja and went along to Harpa. It’s always interesting to go inside. It’s not a very pretty building from the outside – interesting, yes, but it really doesn’t blend into Reykjavík’s architecture. Inside, the outer walls are all hexagons and the ceilings seemed to be hexagonal blocks of glass and the inner walls are all black concrete and if it’s sunny, like today, the outer walls reflect on them so you end up with colours and patterns all over the place, which makes interesting photos.

I headed into town and remember the Volcano House so I went to see the Cinema on Fire which started approximately five minutes after I arrived, and I was the only one in the audience. It’s two films, each about twenty minutes long. One is on the 1973 Heimaey eruption. This was of course filmed while it was going on and it shows its age. Still, the whole thing was incredible and well worth documenting and it wasn’t the film I saw in the café on Heimaey over the summer. I hadn’t realised that the worst of the eruption came two months after it started. At first it was the shower of ash that buried houses and caused trouble but in March, it started pouring out lava and that was the bit that was really destructive. I love and am horrified by the Heimaey story in equal parts.

The second film was Fimmvorðuls and Eyjafjalljökull, which are part of the same system. Fimmvorðuhals went up a few weeks before Eyjafjallajökull and threw out lava fountains and was pretty and unproblematic. You all know what Eyjafjallajökull got up to. This film was made only two years ago – while the eruptions were going on, of course – by a professional filmmaker, which meant that when the film changed, it suddenly turned widescreen and all bright and clear and beautiful. And it was beautiful, because the first five minutes were just panoramas of Iceland, showing how volcanoes had shaped the landscape.

I went along to the tourist information centre to get some ideas for the afternoon. I picked up leaflets on domestic flights – it’s only forty-five minutes to Akureyri, not a thing to do today but perhaps at some point, or indeed it’s only about six hours by bus. There’s Esja to be climbed – also not a thing to do today but next time, or the time after. Possibly better in summer. And I found a booklet about trekking – specifically, the Laugavegur trail, which goes from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. I want to do that. Perhaps in 2014/15. It can be done in two days but it’s more comfortable in three or preferably four. Arctic Adventures provide a guide, book tents/huts and best of all, they drive your luggage to the next night’s stop so you only have to carry the bare minimum.

I picked up a leaflet on Viðey. This is a little island in the harbour, great for just wandering in the summer. You can also go in the winter but the boats only leave from one place and it’s just a bit out of comfortable walking distance. However, they do evening tours with hotel pickup to go and see the Peace Tower. This is a monument to John Lennon and world peace commissioned by Yoko Ono in 2007. Basically, it’s fifteen or so huge searchlights which form a massive column of light that stretches up a very long way – possibly visible from space. It’s only on for two months, from October 9th (John Lennon’s birthday) to December 8th (John Lennon’s deathday). I wanted to go to Viðey, I see that the Peace Tower is a bit of a Sight, so I decided that’s what I’d do with my evening.

Last stop of daytime was Tjörnin, the Pond. It’s one of my favourite places in Reykjavík. It’s just what it sounds like – a big pond. Most places would call it a lake. And it’s not peaceful at all. At the town end, there are always people feeding the birds and it’s all chaos and noise – bird chaos and bird noise but they cause a lot of it. There are geese and swans making all sorts of interesting honking noises, there are ducks and seagulls splashing and having fights, there are birds trying to jump out of the water to pounce of people in search of bread and it’s just great fun, even if you haven’t got any bread, to stand and watch for ages, mostly because the honking noises are hilarious.

I was picked up at about quarter to eight, taken to the harbour along with Manchester’s version of Taylor Swift – I have never heard anyone use the word “like” so many times in so few sentences – and a girl from Nottingham. They’d all been out and about and seeing things but apparently none of them knew any of the names of the places. “Somewhere out in the wilderness, really pretty, with waterfalls” was about the best we got.

We were taken to the harbour, took photos of the Peace Tower from land and then got on the whalewatching boat. The island is only a couple of minutes away and if the North Atlantic Ocean wasn’t so fatally cold, you could easily swim there. But we weren’t going straight there! We were going to see the Tower from the sea first. It was quite choppy. I was fairly sure the boat wasn’t actually going to capsize but I wasn’t 100% sure and I was quite glad when we were taken to land.

We were shown Iceland’s oldest stone house and Iceland’s second oldest church (I’m apparently the only one interested in knowing where the oldest one is – the guide had to confer with the driver/captain to get the answer. Up north, where the other bishop used to be, that’s where. Iceland used to have two bishops, one at Skálholt, the other at Hólar. The last Catholic bishop, seated at Hólar, was murdered at Skálholt and thrown in the river, if I remember rightly) and then we went up to “the seeing hill”, or Sjónarhóll, (without getting garrotted by the washing line next to the path and almost invisible in the dark) where there’s a view over the Tower and Reykjavík and of the full moon – a hill made for taking photos, really. I had managed to forget my hat and it was very windy, so I put the hood of my big red shirt up and secured it in place with my headtorch, which also came in handy for making my way down the hill. Our guide said that sometimes scheduled flights from Reykjavík Domestic fly right through the light. As if on cue, a plane rose out of the city, heading straight for it and yes, through it. That did look quite spectacular. Then it circled around and went through again, made a bigger and slower circle and did it a third time. I have no idea whether that’s just a stunt or whether it was a coincidence or whether the plane thinks it’s a moth and is attracted to the light but it was great to see.

We walked down to the Tower itself. It’s a wishing well, about eight feet high, made of what looks like big ceramic tiles but are actually glass, engraved with “Imagine peace” in twenty-four languages around it. It sits on a platform of Icelandic stone – rhyolite, basalt etc – and there are six searchlights set into the platform, shining in horizontally before being reflected by big mirrors upwards. There are seven more lights underneath the monument and the whole thing sends up a huge column of light right up into the sky. When there’s cloud above it, it just lights up the sky and our guide said that when he sees it like that, he really wants to put a Batman logo in there. No one can quite work out how to actually do that, though, as the light is actually fifteen separate lights. It uses 75kWh of green geothermal electricity, or as our guides kept putting it “about as much as a medium-size Icelandic town”. Electricity is clean, renewable and cheap in Iceland because of the volcanic activity but apparently, the bill for the Tower is still quite big. Yoko Ono paid for it for the first two years but now it comes out of Reykjavík art institute money. Iceland was chosen for this monument for three reasons, by the way. It doesn’t really have any connection to Lennon (any more than Vilnius does to Frank Zappa). 1) Iceland has no army. This is a great thing for a Peace Tower 2) It sits exactly on the boundary between America and Europe 3) Green electricity to power it.

We stayed there for ages, taking lots of photos. I was playing with the settings on my camera and managed to get some of the cliffs behind us, better than what I could actually see. And I was hoping the Northern Lights might come out to play. They were predicted tonight. The Northern Lights have a scale of 1-6 and tonight was apparently a 3. A 2 can be seen within the city itself. But no, not so much as a spark.

We stopped off in the second oldest church on the way back. There’s a tree in there and as part of the peace thing, you write a wish on a tag and tie it to the tree. When the tree is full, the wishes are removed and put in a time capsule underneath the Tower, to be opened in 2040, when Lennon would have been 100. There are several of these trees around Reykjavík. We wrote our wishes, tied them on and went back to the boat.

This time there was no faffing around looking at the light from the water. We just went straight back, bouncing over the waves. Everyone else was half frozen and stayed inside. I didn’t. I don’t. I went down the side to where I could see out the front and hung on, enjoying the wind and the bouncing.

Back at the quay, we had hot chocolate while we waited for the minibus to warm up – at least, I assume that’s what was going on. Hot chocolate that was too hot – I had to take mine on the bus and drink it when I got back to my hotel.

I need to pack tonight. It’s hometime already. I’m already making plans for next time.

Iceland autumn 2012: The Golden Circle

I got up late today – well, I was awake at 6.30 again – to find my horseriding blog is OffExploring’s Travel Blog of the Day! That happened last time I was here too, I forget what I’d done that day. Since I didn’t have a crack of dawn pickup, I took my time going down to breakfast. I thought I’d add cereal to my usual bread and butter as there were Honey Loops or Cheerios or something. Something that turned out to have the approximate taste and texture of cardboard. I won’t be making that mistake again.

First stop was at the eastern end of Laugavegur to take a few photos of the petrol station from Næturvaktin – at least I’m fairly sure it’s the one. The arrangements of pumps looks different and the inside is definitely different but that’s allowed. And yes, I know the petrol station from an Icelandic comedy series is a weird thing to be excited about. I am weird. Then I turned left and went down to the seafront, where I watched some seabirds and spotted a seal – right there in the seafront in the middle of the city!

As I walked along, heading for downtown Reykjavík, it started to rain and the fog came in until I couldn’t even see downtown Reykjavík. I was wearing my waterproofs but it was really wet, I could feel the rain starting to soak in through my trousers and my glasses were not only coated in water, they were also steamed up so I was more or less blind. The rain let up enough for me to take a photo or two at the Viking ship, and to borrow someone to take a photo of me with it, as is apparently the tradition, then I turned left and went straight up Frakkastígur, to Hallgrímskirkja and took shelter in Café Loki. I was soaked, I was ridiculously hot and I was exhausted and all I could manage was to get to the counter and ask for a “hot chocolate without… hot chocolate without…?” I knew what I meant but I’d completely forgotten how to say it. Cream, that was what I meant. No cream. The girl brought me a cup of very hot hot chocolate, with chocolate dust in the froth and I sat there and stirred it for ages until I’d cooled down and it had cooled down, enjoying the fact that I could see Leifur Eiriksson framed in the glass in the door and Hallgrímskirkja framed in the window. It was good hot chocolate.

I retreated back down Skólavörðustígur and had a look in the interesting arty design shop. Why have I never been in there before?! I could have bought half the shop! It’s only things like novelty ice moulds and bookends and keyholders but some of them are so brilliant and so funny! Stopped off in the smaller Puffin next and then Eymundsson, the bookshop. Last time I came in here (July) Fifty Shades of Grey was number 1. Today it was number 2 and Fifty Shades Darker was number 1. I deduce that Icelanders are quite slow readers but they all want to carry on beyond the first book in the trilogy.

Last stop was the bigger Eymundsson down on the main street before going back to the IE offices to pick up my ticket and get on my bus. Foolishly, I’d assumed autumn was low tourist season and that most people who wanted to do the Golden Circle would do the full day one. No. Packed coachload. Our driver talked the whole way. His English is not quite as fluent as most people’s here and the sound system on the coach isn’t wonderful. He didn’t say very much that I didn’t already know but at least I was listening – just about everyone I could see was sleeping.

We went to Þingvellir where it was cold and rainy and although we could see the plains and the cliffs, we couldn’t see much view. Down to the Wishing Well where I learnt that the beginning of the custom of throwing coins into it came from the Danish king, who came to visit Iceland (which was at the time a Danish colony) for Iceland’s 1000th birthday in 1874, wanted to know how deep this particular gorge was and threw a coin in to see, much to the horror of the Icelanders who witnessed it. These days, everyone throws money in and I was told there are at least two credit cards in there too. Even on a wet grey day, the water was crystal clear.

Next we headed up to Gullfoss. This has always been my least favourite stop on the Golden Circle – it’s a very nice waterfall but it really isn’t nice enough to merit such a long stop, even if it does have a café at the top. But today – today, Gullfoss looked beautiful. It was all powder blue, set in a golden-brown autumn landscape, frozen around the edges but still flowing fiercely and for the first time, it really looked beautiful and special. We only had forty-five minutes here today, which was actually only just enough time to get right down and then up to the middle of it, take a few photos, take a few videos, come back up and crash into everyone in the shop because my glasses misted up inside.

Then we were off to the hot springs, where I still don’t think we get enough time. Strokkur provided us with a show, as usual, which is always fun and I got a few videos of her, but I spent most of the time with one eye on Strokkur and the other on the smaller frothy pots further down, which are just as entertaining but tend to get rushed past. I have a particular soft spot for Litli Geysir, which just sloshes around violently. It was chilly enough that as well as the steam that generally comes out of the springs, there was the extra vapour that happens when it’s cold, so the whole place was in a low-level mist, except when Strokkur went off, and then there was high mist as well. It’s very pretty there – perpetually green, or greenish because the hot steam keeps the place warm and damp and the mountains up the back are streaked with red.

We did a couple of unofficial stops on the way back. Faxi, which is a waterfall with a salmon ladder up the side. The guide told us we were doing a stop that you won’t find on any itinerary, which is a pity because it’s very interesting and it’s right beside the road “and except that it’s called Faxi, which I’ve just told you, you don’t even know what it is.” I actually said out loud “I do!” because that was really the first sight I ever saw in Iceland – my guide decided to stop there when it was all frozen up last winter. Our other unofficial stop was Kerið. It was getting dark by then, so harder to take photos of but still nice to see. Last I heard, there was potential access trouble, as it had been bought by three brothers who didn’t want tourists looking at it but there was no sign of any of that today, and I do hope there never is, because it’s a very nice crater.

We drove back to Reykjavík after that. It was dark, the sky had occasional clear patches but was mostly cloudy and it rained. We drove back through Hveragerði, where the guide talked about earthquakes and earthquake-proofing houses. I’ve been here three full days, driven through Hvergerði three times and no one has mentioned Icelandic bananas! What is wrong with this country?! If I’d actually made Iceland Fact Bingo, I’d be losing badly because I expect Icelandic bananas! to come up, or at least Icelandic roses (both grown in the massive geothermally heated greenhouses in Hveragerði). Neither has anyone mentioned hot springs unexpectedly spouting in the middle of people’s houses or even the more horrifying one about having to be careful where bodies are buried because they can be thrown out of the ground and into the air by newborn hot spouts.

I’d planned to get off in the town centre but when the bus stopped on the corner of my street and Laugavegur, I though I’d hop off there instead, to save myself the walk in the drizzle. It also meant that I was right by the shop, for more bread and chocolate.

I got back to my hotel to find a note under my door – my superjeep trip to Þórsmörk tomorrow is cancelled because there aren’t enough people on it. I’m not entirely surprised. I was wondering about that. So I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow. Iceland has more than enough on offer to keep me busy, just have to pick something to do. I could walk up to the Pearl, see the view from the revolving restaurant and go to the Viking Saga museum and then the geothermal beach and just spend a day wandering the city instead of rushing around like a mad person. I probably won’t try climbing Esja, although I’d like to. I could find a Rekjanes tour or go to whichever museum contains the ancient manuscripts of the sagas. I wish I’d brought my Sagas of Icelanders with me, because I see it in all the bookshops (and believe me, I go in every bookshop I see) and I want to finish the Saga of the People of Laxardal. But it’s a big heavy book so I left it behind. Or I could find out where the cinemas are and maybe see Bond with Icelandic subtitles. Or go to the Volcano House and watch their Eyjafjalljökull/Eldfell films. I saw a chunk of the Eldfell film in the café on Heimaey over the summer. Watching it is a tiny bit traumatic. Decisions, decisions. First up, how do I get home from Heathrow on Monday? This is a little detail I still haven’t worked out.

Iceland autumn 2012: South Shore Adventure

Another early morning, another early breakfast, another early start. I was picked up by a huge coach and delivered to the BSI terminal under a spectacular pink and orange sky, only to discover the ground was very icy when I tried to get away from the buses enough to get a photo of it.

Today we were off on a South Shore Adventure. First stop was Hvolsvöllur, which is a very small town about an hour and a half from Reykjavík. There is a petrol station with shop and café, a small supermarket and not a lot else. It exists to provide supplies and fuel for tourists who are heading east and hikers who are heading Þórsmörk/Landmannalaugar direction. There’s a good view of Eyjafjallajökull from there.

Next stop was Þorvaldseyri farm. Well, not the farm itself, just the layby outside. This was where Eyjafjalljökull erupted and it’s where you see all the pictures of it. The whole place was black with ash two years ago but apparently after it stopped, grass began to sprout out of the ash within two weeks and now you can’t tell anything happened.

Third stop was Sólheimajökull, a tongue of Mýrdalsjökull, which is Eyjafjalljökull’s larger neighbour. We dropped off one passenger right at the turning to go on a superjeep tour, left half the group behind to do a walk on the ice and the rest of us proceeded right down to the glacier itself. We walked down past the glacial river – as brown and opaque as most glacial rivers and yet incredibly reflective – and then down to the ice. A lot of it was covered in filth – partly the filth and ground-up rock the glacier has picked up on its long slide down the mountain but a lot of it ash from Eyjafjallajökull. I hadn’t realised how close to Sólheimajökull we were actually going to get. We walked underneath it! The underneath, protected from the dirt and the ash, was absolutely crystal clear glacial blue. When I walked on Falljökull over the summer, we were told to stay away from the ice caves because they could collapse and that’s a lot of very heavy ice to fall on your head but apparently this time it was ok. We all posed for photos in a blue ice tunnel and then went under a tongue of the glacier and emerged the other side before slowly making our way back to the coach. I’d heard our guide talking about volcanoes while we were on the ice. Katla is a huge volcano under the next glacier to the east. She’s ten times the size of Ejyafjalljökull and overdue. The phrase that particularly stuck in my head was “If Katla starts today, you’re all becoming Icelanders”. Because if Katla blows, the disruption to air traffic caused by Eyjafjalljökull will look like the blink of an eye. Katla is huge and under a huge glacier and will send up monumental amounts of ash. This isn’t “if” Katla erupts. This is when. When she erupts, European flights will stop for a long time. Hekla, on the other hand, I’m really hoping goes soon. She’s also overdue. She’s erupted 35 times since Viking times and this century has gone on a pattern of every ten years. 1970, 1980, 1991, 2000. Last time she erupted, half of Reykjavík went to watch. I think I said this in my blog over the summer. It was a pretty eruption, all red lava and very little ash and people wanted to see it. Problem was, while they were watching it from the mountainside, a big snowstorm came up, causing Iceland’s biggest ever mountain rescue operation, while the lava cheerfully went on bubbling away elsewhere, not actually being a problem. Hekla tends to start with no warning whatsoever and scientists say she could start any day. If Hekla starts while I’m here, I’m moving my flight back a day or two and going out to watch. She’ll become a big tourist attraction within minutes, there’ll be hundreds of tour buses, I can get out there easily enough and I’m not missing an eruption. Of course, chances are it won’t actually happen. But keep an eye on the news.

We drove along the south shore for a bit, past Dyrhólaey, which is the big bit of rock with a hole in it (said to be tall enough to sail a ship under – the way this is phrased makes me think no one’s actually tried it. Apparently this part of the coast is hard to get around by boat because of the lava) and down the west side of Reynisfjall, which is a big ridge of rock separating fairly green countryside from the volcanic desert on the other side. We stopped at Reynisfjara, a beach of black lava sand. There are magnificent basalt cliffs, with the six sided columns that really shouldn’t form naturally and yet do, shallow caves with hexagonal ceilings, three big stacks off shore called the Reynisdrangar (supposedly three trolls who were caught by the sunlight trying to grab ships) and big unpredictable waves.

Our lunch stop was on t other side of Reynisfjall, at the last town before civilisation runs out for a while, at Vík-í-Mýrdal, more commonly known as plain Vík. It’s a pleasant little town that I stopped briefly at on the way to the glacier over the summer. Now I got an hour there. Most people went for the café at the petrol station (which serves typical Icelandic stuff as well as eggburgers, hot dogs and apparently “toast with cheese and marmalade”. I didn’t try it out. I went into the wool shop, which is the factory shop and therefore cheaper than the shops in Reykjavík, if you’re after lopi jumpers (the traditional Icelandic woolly jumper with the elaborate ring pattern around the neck) or blankets. Still upwards of £80 though.

Once I was done with the wool shop, I went down to the beach, through bright yellow reeds to just wander and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. I took photos of the Reynisdrangar from the other side and the snow-dusted mountain that overlooks the town and sat on the rocks and generally appreciated being on an alien beach.

I ate lunch on the coach on the way back to our next stop, Vík being the furthest east point of the day. I’d brought bread rolls and cheese slices and these are easy to eat on the go but on the other hand, you have to hold on to them very tightly when the bus driver takes downhill hairpins a little quick – trying to keep hold of two halves of bread rolls balanced on one leg with one hand and cheese slices balanced on the other leg with the other and not fall out of my seat at the same time.

Next stop was Skógar Folk Museum. A man called Þórður Tómasson started collecting stuff in the forties when he was fourteen and eventually turned it into a museum. He’s ninety-one now but he still comes to the museum every day and plays the organ and has unexpected singsongs with the visitors. When I say he collected “stuff”, I mean “stuff”. There’s a copy of the first ever printed Icelandic bible, there are spoons made of cow horn (you cut out a spoon shape from a horn, soak it in boiling water to make it hot and use a spoon-press to make the spoon rounded. Trouble is, if you eat hot food with it, your spoon goes floppy again. Still, not much else to do on cold Icelandic nights except repress your spoon every day), bits of rope and driftwood, buckets made of whale bones, the handle from a treasure chest hidden behind the waterfall in the Viking age (they still haven’t found the treasure but the existence of the handle more or less proves that the treasure isn’t just a myth), a fishing boat, stuffed birds, bird skeletons, paintings, musical instruments, furniture, ice skates made out of cow bones (this particular pair was still used until the 1970s), an Icelandic washing machine and mangle (used until the 1960s), ladles, plates handpainted with such exotic plantlife as poppies, chestnuts, hazelnuts, blackberries etc (exotic to Icelanders, who have no such things) and a collection of turf and wooden houses which were relocated here as part of the museum.

This was all very nice and our guide was great and hilarious and I’m very glad we weren’t just let loose to wander but it wasn’t as interesting as the waterfall across the field.

Skógarfoss is 62m high, straight down. Possibly not the highest I’ve seen or the widest but the two combined I think make it the biggest and most powerful and you get soaked if you get anywhere near it. You can see the spray coming off it from all the way over in the village, where you can’t actually see the waterfall because it’s hidden in its own short but deep little valley. It just plunges down off the cliff in this vast white cascade and you can get so close to it, if you don’t mind getting drenched. Actually, it’s quite good fun, especially if you’ve had the sense to wear waterproof stuff. I could have done with less time at Vík and more time at Skógarfoss, especially as it was the reason I chose this tour in the first place.

Next stop was another waterfall, one I already knew, Seljalandsfoss. Our guide seemed to think the waterfall itself isn’t very interesting and only worth the stop because of the unique path that means you can walk behind it. I disagree. I like Seljalandsfoss. It’s high and thin and heavy and it looks great. And yes, you can follow the path up and walk right up behind it. Today it wasn’t looking as good as it did over the summer. In the summer, it was set among bright green grass and fields and it caught the sun and sparkled and gave me lots of photos of rainbows. Autumn in Iceland is a dead-grass-brownish colour. Pretty and exotic but very different from summer.

By the time I was finished with Seljalandsfoss, I was soaked. I hadn’t put on my big coat, instead I’d put on my fleece and raincoat and that seemed good – I’d stayed pretty dry although my mittens were soaked through. It had started to rain although not so much that it really makes a difference when you’ve been waterfalled twice within a few minutes. In the coach, out of the wet stuff and settled in for a long drive back to Reykjavík, I tried taking photos from the window, as I’d been doing all day because we’d come to a great bit of snow-covered floodplain but the window was too speckled to get pictures. It was raining, in a slightly odd way. And since when had the landscape been so white? And why was the cloud suddenly so low that we were driving through it and couldn’t see the mountains anymore? Because it was snowing, that was why!

We stopped at Hvolsvöllur for “ten or twelve minutes” (oh yes, our guides are quite precise with their stops) and I hopped down to take photos of the snow that had definitely not been there when we’d stopped this morning – not been there half an hour ago, come to that. I hadn’t bothered with either of my coats, just pulled on my thin green fleece over a t-shirt and went out to prance in the snow and proclaim to anyone who came near that “This wasn’t here this morning! This is amazing!” and take a photo to match the one I’d taken in the morning, of the road and the warehouse and Eyjafjallajökull, only with the volcano missing because of the fog and what was left coated in snow. I took a photo of the socks on the pipes that I’d forgotten about in the morning and then decided I really had to take a photo of myself in the snow for Facebook. I did and then used Reykjavík Excursions’ free onboard wifi to upload it, only to discover that I was accidentally wearing my Love Winter t-shirt and it was very visible in the photo of me in “the first snow of the winter”.

It had stopped snowing by the time we reached Reykjavík a bit after 7pm. Having had fun playing with the camcorder, I decided I really couldn’t spend tomorrow wandering the city. I also couldn’t face another early start and long day so I decided what I would do was start lazily, go and have a hot chocolate and get my petrol station photo (we went past it again on the way home!) and do the afternoon Golden Circle trip. It’s a mere two hours shorter, which I deduce must be caused by not spending an hour and a half at Gullfoss for lunch and skipping Skálholt – I still get Þingvellir and Geysir and a look at Gullfoss but I also get a morning off. I tend to come to Iceland and spend every day wearing myself out seeing things and doing things and waking up far too early. Still, things to see, places to go. I think I’m now reaching the point where I could do with hiring a car so I can get to all the places I want to and spend as much time as I want to there. Half a day at Þingvellir, at least. As much time as I want at Skógarfoss. Stopping at the roadside to take photos of all the things I keep seeing but can’t get pictures of. An hour or two in Selfoss, which I’ve driven through so many times. Who wants to volunteer to come with me and do the bit of driving that involves navigating Reykjavík? I’ll drive once we’re out of town and I’ll do a tour guide-style commentary of everything I know about this place (quite a lot now although I have come across one question I can’t answer – where in Reykjavík can you find a pool table?) and I’ll even make sure you can pronounce Eyjafjalljökull by the time you go home.

Iceland autumn 2012: Horse riding

Despite the late night, I didn’t sleep as well as I’d have liked and I was awake by about 6.30am, ready to get up and pack for the day and then have breakfast (warm bread and butter, apple juice). I got a wifi password from the man on reception and then took to the internet for half an hour before it was time to go and wait for my bus.

We did a quick trip around town, picking people up, getting diverted on Laugavegur because of roadworks and then down the other end. Esja was almost hidden in the mist but there was a little bit of snow-capped mountain visible and looking beautiful. We turned up Kringlumýrabraut and at the western end of Laugavegur, there was the petrol station from Næturvaktin, which is an Icelandic comedy series I shouldn’t even know about, let alone have watched, let alone be excited to see in real life. As far as I understand, it’s the most popular and successful TV show ever made in Iceland and the main character is playing by Jón Gnarr who is now Reykjavík’s mayor. On Saturday I’ll walk up there and get my photo of it.

Today’s trip was horseriding, on the special Icelandic horses. They were brought over with the Viking settles from 874 onwards and a ban on further import of horses was brought in during the tenth century, which means no foreign disease and no dilution of the breed. There are actually more Icelandic horses exported around the world than there are in Iceland itself but once a horse has left the country, it can never come back. They’re smallish, more furry than most horses I’ve seen, quiet and good-natured and they have five gaits, including the tölt which is unique to this breed.

We drove out to Hafnarfjorður to Íshestar’s stables, where we were put in wellies and orange rain stuff if we wanted and then taken out to be paired with a horse. I was given Socrates, a gingery-brown horse with a blonde mane, who is very wise and very good with children and therefore good for a beginner. I can’t remember the last time I was on a horse but once I got my balance it was ok. I was a little bit disappointed that he didn’t have an Icelandic name but on the other hand, I can pronounce, remember and spell Socrates, even if I did immediately rename him Soc (partly because it was easier and partly because Socrates is actually pronounced slightly differently in English and Icelandic) and then keep forgetting and calling him Cos by accident. Other horses were introduced by their Icelandic names and then seemed to be known by their English translations – among our group were Flame, Thunder and Socks.

We set out onto the lava field, the horses walking quietly one behind the other, most of them so close that they had their noses in each other’s tails. The horse in front of me was going slowly and refused to be hurried, while Soc clearly wanted to overtake, so eventually we did, although Soc decided to go up the front side, onto the lava field rather than along the path (which may or may not have made me shriek in panic “I’m going off-road!”)

The experienced riders who wanted to go faster and try out the tölt split off from the rest of us after a little while. We mostly walked, did a very little gentle trotting. It was misty and slightly drizzly. I’d failed to get hold of any gloves so my fingers were freezing, my glasses were so speckled I was completely dependent on Soc, my feet were going numb (because while my wellies were of course waterproof, they weren’t insulated and I was wearing normal socks). It was a seemingly-endless slow walk, one behind the other, across a landscape I couldn’t see.

We stopped eventually beside what I concluded must be a school, somewhere among the Blue Mountains, in a little nest of walls that might have once been buildings. We jumped down and kept hold of the horses (so they didn’t 1) wander back to the stable on their own and 2) didn’t step on the reins and break their legs). Soc was hungry so he stepped into one of the ex-houses, found a patch of grass and soon flattened that. I decided to try out actually pulling him around, so I gave him a tug and managed to get him over to a newer patch and chattered away to him. The sun was coming out, the view began to become visible and Soc began to dry and turn really fluffy.

I don’t know how long we stayed there. Eventually the faster riders began to prepare to go. The slower ones were going to wait, so our horses didn’t follow the others and decide they wanted to gallop too but it seemed to be time to go so I dragged Soc out of the walls and back onto the field. That was ok for a moment but Soc very quickly decided that as we weren’t going immediately, he’d like some more grass. By now I’d mastered not getting trapped between him and a brick wall and I’d mastered getting him to lift his head so I could get the reins under his nose but I hadn’t really mastered making him stay where I wanted him to. We made a very awkward climb over the wall again and there was a very loud metallic clank. By the time it came to actually getting back on him (which meant getting him back onto the field again) I discovered that the loud metallic clank was the sound of Soc losing a stirrup – a very odd occurrence, according to our guides.

I scrambled back up, both stirrups in place, feeling restored to fingers and toes, glasses cleaned, sun shining, Soc fluffy and fed and obedient again. The ride back was more fun. Partly because we were now at the front of the group instead of the back, partly because I was more comfortable, partly because I’d got used to Soc. We moved a little bit faster, trotting fairly regularly instead of a tiny bit every now and then. I’d learned to control Soc’s speed and eventually he got used to the speed I was comfortable with. I could keep my balance ok by now, I could hang on when he picked up the speed a bit, I was quite enjoying the ride. The only thing was that occasionally Soc would throw his head down, which pulled the reins – and therefore me – forwards which was a bit disconcerting. He was good as gold. I hear horses are like cars, some have more buttons than others but if you ride a horse with more buttons, you have to know how to push them. I don’t think hungry little Soc has a huge number of buttons but what he has are the best buttons in the business, if the business is teaching a beginner to stay on a horse while it moves a little faster than a walk across a lava field.

We brought them back into the paddock, to find that just about every horse Íshestar was out there too. Soc wanted to stop just inside the gate but by now, I could get him moving and steer him a little so I triumphantly got him out of the way, jumped down and took him to a railing to be tied up. There was another horse on the other side who was very interested to meet me and who I used as an improvised handwarmer by putting my hands in front of his nose and letting him breathe on them. A guide came over to show me how to take the saddle off and I grabbed her to take a photo of me with my horse. The other horse was far more interested in the camera than Soc and eventually the guide had to shoo him away and I had to give Soc’s reins a tug and show him the camera before saying goodbye to him and taking the saddle inside.

Everyone else in my group appeared to be going whalewatching afterwards, so once we’d been given diplomas for successfully not dying on a gentle two hour trip over the fields, got back into our own clothes and collected our stuff, they were all given a packed lunch and we got back into the minibus.

I sort of intended to go into town but I thought first I’d come back to my room, warm up, have something to eat and leave half my stuff behind. Three hours later… well, I was cold and tired because I didn’t sleep much, I sat on the radiator until I’d thawed out and then eventually decided I had no choice, I had to go and get some money and some food. Yes, I came out with a grand total of about 140 krona, which translates as 71p. Icelandic money is hard to get hold of – the only places you can order tend to demand a minimum that’s quite a way above the amount I want.

I got back into lots of warm clothes and ventured out. Obviously, I started down Laugavegur because that’s the main shopping street and it also is the way into the town centre. I stopped in just about every tourist shop along the way, got some cash out at Austerstræti, which is the far end of the pedestrianised area. Quick stop in my two favourite tourist shops, down to the seafront only to find not only is Esja invisible in the fog but so is the sea itself and I headed back up Laugavegur, via Hallgrimskirkja because I hadn’t been up to say hello yet.

I stopped off at the 1011 just round the corner to stock up on food, both for tonight and for a picnic tomorrow on the south shore somewhere. There are plenty of 1011s in Reykjavik – I have at least four on my mental map, plus the Bonus. And they’re not open 10am – 11pm. They’re open 9am – midnight. And now there’s a Subway open on Laugavegur. Iceland hasn’t been short of Subways but none of them have been accessible to me. I can’t get out to the one at Hafnarfjorður on my own or the one where you come off the ring road. But I’ve resisted the temptation to actually go in the handy one. I just like the idea that it’s there if I want it.

I’d left the heating on while I was out and I returned to a veritable greenhouse. Even before I’d got my boots off, I was turning off the radiators and flinging open the balcony door. Warmth is nice. Heat beyond my ability to cope is not.

Tomorrow I’m off to the south shore, to play on some lava beaches (should have brought my sandals but I didn’t, for the obvious reason that it’s October in Iceland), see at least two waterfalls – Seljalandsfoss, which I already know and Skogarfoss which I don’t and finish up at Vik which looked like a very pretty little town when I passed through it over the summer.

Iceland autumn 2012: Flying by night

Leaving work at 3.30pm and getting a late flight seemed, at the time (about a week and a half ago) like an inspired idea. It would effectively give me a whole extra day.

Once I’d survived check-in (and the less said about that the better), I thought the best way to pass the time at Heathrow would be to have something to eat and I even managed to find a café that was perfectly happy to do a plain cheese toastie. Except that it took twenty minutes to arrive and one side was burnt almost beyond edibility.

The plane was a little delayed because of late arrival and it was Hengill, who I flew home on in the summer – a 757-300, which was packed. I hadn’t expected so many people to be getting a late evening flight to Iceland in October, which is hardly the height of the tourist season. I had to sit next to someone! Someone who decided, before he’d even sat down, that he really wanted a newspaper and who read it across me. The screens weren’t working so I tried to sleep for a while. Meanwhile, the screens were restarted two or three times and I suddenly realised my neighbour had put his newspaper down and was looking through the films. I decided to have a very careful look at Prometheus. I knew I’d hate most of it but I also knew that some of the beginning scenes had been filmed in Iceland. I saw some very nice bits of Landmannalaugar and some rivers and a big waterfall and then an alien did something that I didn’t like and I may have looked a bit of an idiot stabbing desperately at the screen in an attempt to make it go away. Instead I settled down with The Town, looking out of the window every two minutes just in case the Northern Lights decided to show up. Next to me, my Icelandic neighbour had decided to watch Prometheus and I giggled when he spied a waterfall he recognised and prodded his neighbour to excitedly point it out.

We landed after 11pm (that’s after midnight, UK time, collected another plane – Herðubreið – I need to count but I’m probably only missing pictures of about four planes out of the entire Icelandair fleet by now), got through passport control (collecting another “as we say in Iceland” poster on the way past) and baggage reclaim and so on. I strode over to the kiosk to collect my bus ticket and then out into the Icelandic night to get on my bus, where I was greeted – in a strange country – by someone I recognised. Matthias, the guide who took me caving in December and to Þórsmörk in the summer, Matthias who had been so perturbed by my sandals. Matthias who forgot to switch on the headlights until we were a few miles away from the airport and had been flashed at twice by passing cars. Even out in the wilderness of the Reykjanes lava field, there was no sign of the Northern Lights but I did see something that I see every time I’m here and always forget to mention.

The houses in Hafnarfjorður often have white roofs. This is confusing because it looks like they’re covered in snow. It’s not snowy in Reykjavík – it may well be further out in the Highlands but not in the south west yet – but my brain has difficulty making sense of snowless white roofs.

I reached my hotel at one o’clock in the morning (or 2 UK time…), at exactly the same time as a group who’d presumably been out hunting for the Northern Lights. A rabble of people came in, most of them went straight for the lift or stairs and one hung around in reception, looking lost. I’d deliberately chosen a hotel for the simple reason that there’s someone on reception all night, whereas the owners of a guesthouse might have been less than delighted with a visitor checking in at 1am. There was no one there. I began to consider the possibility of sleeping downstairs in a chair but there was a bell so I dinged it and immediately, a man was there. He thought I just needed a key and was a bit astonished to find that no, I needed to check in, I’d only just arrived. He hadn’t realised; I looked “so casual”. I’m not sure whether that was my ability to stroll into the hotel as if it’s perfectly normal to arrive so late or if it was that I was only wearing a hoodie open over a t-shirt rather than anything that suggests I’ve had a fairly long journey. I got checked in, declined the offer of a personalised map as I already know my way around Reykjavík and came up to bed. My room is four doors down from where it was last time, same view and everything only this time I get a balcony and a fridge. I think I had a fridge last time but I think maybe I couldn’t open it because I definitely remember leaving everything on the windowsill with the curtains closed to keep it cool. Bed by 1.30am.