Saturday 24 April 2010

He Always Has Had a Big Mouth.....

Bono was at the Cornucopia, a retrospective of Damien Hirst's work held at Monaco's Oceanographic Museum recently.  I've never understood Bono's fascination with Hirst's work,  I think it's a load of bollocks, but each to their own.  I did like this photo though!

Friday 23 April 2010

Iceland Part 3 - Comedy and Ocean Waves

Our last full day in Iceland, and we were up early  and picked up by the bus for our whale watching tour, this was something that both Glenys and I have always wanted to do. The weather wasn't too good, a threatening grey sky and little spits of rain, it was also markedly colder than the previous two days. 

We arrived at the harbour and got onboard the boat.  On offer were all in one padded, waterproof suits, Glenys and I decided to have them.  Well, what a performance getting them on!  We already had quite a few layers of clothing on (in my case, knickers, tights, thermal long johns, jeans, thick socks, walking boots, bra, thermal vest, thick jumper and warm jacket and fleece gloves, chola hat - I am rather cold-blooded ).  Because of all the clothes we weren't exactly supple and needed to help each other into the suits, it was a bit of a struggle and we gave people around us a laugh that's for sure!  Once in the suit I found it hard to bend my legs as I had so many layers on and my gait was a bit like a zombie as I ambled along!  But later in the day I was glad to have that suit on and didn't care how I looked.

There was a snug inside area, but we decided to go out onto the top deck.  We watched Reykjavik slowly disappear into the horizon as we headed out into Faxaflói Bay, the largest bay in Iceland.  Various types of seabirds swooped and glided over sea their wingtips almost touching the water, this was their world, and their elegance and grace was beautiful to see.

The guide spoke - in excellent English, as do most Icelanders - over the tannoy and told us they used a "clock" system for anything that she wanted to bring to our attention.  We were to look out for gatherings of birds, spouts of water in our quest to see a whale.

After about three quarters of an hour at sea the weather very quickly worsened, a strong, icy wind tossed the boat in the choppy sea and water spray shot over our upper deck.  I pulled hood of the suit up as far as I could and the only part of me that was exposed to the elements was my eyes, thank heavens for those suits!  It was almost impossible to walk so most people just stayed where they were in the wind and spray.  And, despite our hardy, dogged determination the whales were a no show today.  It was disappointing, but we knew a sighting wasn't guaranteed.  In the angry weather Iceland looked almost primeval and our little boat quite insignificant.  Humankind can be very arrogant thinking we have everything sorted to our satisfaction, but nature still is ultimately in charge in places like this. 

Getting out of the suits was much easier than getting into them LOL!  But they did the job perfectly, the only parts of me that were cold were my feet and hands, the only parts not covered by the suit.  We disembarked, and as we walked along the harbour I tried to ignored the whaling boats on the other side of the quay.  It was a strange juxtaposition, on one side boats setting out to celebrate and watch whales and on the side boats setting out to kill them.

We got a taxi back to the hotel in order to take off all our thermal wear before going back into the city centre to do some shopping.  First we had scrumptious chocolate cake and coffee in a place called Sufistinn (it had said in our guide book that they are supposed to have the best cakes in Reykjavik and I think they must be right). 

Iceland is a notoriously expensive place (even by British standards!) so we knew we wouldn't be buying much.   We went to the main shopping street Laugavegur and pottered round the places there.  Reykjavik doesn't really feel like a city, the centre is small by most city's standards, but I thought that was a good thing.  Down some streets you would get grand vistas to the sea or mountains.  It was very clean and hardly any litter.

By now the weather was miserable, drizzly with a strong icy wind.  We got a few souvenirs and then started to look for somewhere to eat.  We checked on prices, some were very expensive, some more reasonable, we settled on a modern place called Solon that was amongst the reasonable batch.  We had a lovely meal there and there was a good atmosphere in the restaurant.

We took a taxi back to our hotel and packed.  We had to be up very early next morning (4am!) for our flight home, so after a glass of wine (from a bottle we had brought with us as alcohol is unbelieveably expensive there) we had an early night.

4am, oh no.  Glenys and I are both not the best first thing so there was little conversation as we got our stuff together and boarded the bus to Keflavik.   At the airport we had to use self service check ins of which there weren't very many so it was a long wait to get to one.  Then almost every other person, including us, who used them could not get checked in!  So then you had to join the bag drop queue to check in the usual way.  It took ages and as I'm ratty anyway at such a ridiculous hour I was not best pleased!  Luckily security was fast and efficient.

Our plane was first going to Manchester, dropping off and picking up before going to Glasgow to do the same.  We thought that we would just wait on the plane, but no, UK regulations meant we had to get off the plane in Manchester, go to the transit area and through security before getting back on the plane!  I'm all for being careful with security, but this was pointless, we'd been screened in Iceland.  Or do the British authorities not trust the Icelandic security?

Finally we were back on the plane, in the same seats.  The flight to Glasgow was quick and there were some mutterings when the flight attendants announced that passengers going on to Iceland should just stay in their seats!  Ahh well.  At Passport Control there was a horrendous queue, it took about half an hour to get through, and then when we got to baggage reclaim our bags were not there!  Another 20 minute wait and they came through.  Then finally we were on our last leg home.

Iceland is an amazing place to visit for anyone who loves wildlife, nature and stunning landscapes.  For me there was a beauty in its dramatic volcanic vistas,  bubbling geysers, waterfalls, glacier sharp mountains and moody seas that I found both awe-inspiring and humbling.  Mother Nature is definitely still boss in Iceland and her "angry volcano" has recently told the whole world that!  Below is a fantastic photo taken of Eyjafjallajökull and the northern lights recently.

Picture: REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson

Monday 19 April 2010

Iceland Part 2 - Enchanted Plains and the Language of Geysers

We set off on the famous Golden Circle Tour at 1pm, Steiner was our driver/guide once more.  We drove out of the city on a road that led us to the mountains.  Some parts were a bit like Cumbria, some like Scotland and some could only be Icelandic.  Sparsely inhabited, we could go for ages and until we saw a farm nestling in a hollow by a mountain.

Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park.  This a plain surrounded by mountains and fractured rocks and there is a large lake called Þingvallavatn.  The lake's water was co clear and still that the mountains were reflected perfectly onto its mirror-like surface.  It took my breath away, an alien, desolate landscape of immense beauty.  The photo I took that I've added here doesn't really do the place justice.  It was silent and the air pure, magical.

The first Icelandic parliament (Þingvellir means parliament plain), the Alþingi was set up here in 930 and the General Assembly continued to meet there until 1798 when the seat of government was moved to Reykjavik.   Iceland has the longest continually running parliament in the world.

Now for a lesson in plate tectonics - The Eurasian and North American plate boundaries run right through Iceland  that is why is a very geologically active area.  At Þingvellir, the two plates are pulling apart and the land between is subsiding. This is happening at the amazing rate of two centimetres a year!  We walked down by one of the fault lines, it looked so solid and permanent, yet this place is anything but!  I found it very awe inspiring to be in such a place.

Back on the bus we headed for Gullfoss (Golden Falls).    The animals we saw the most of were ponies, sturdy and tough with long coats, a bit like the fell ponies that roam around parts of Cumbria.  Part of the road to it was very poor and we were joggled about a bit.  The road had only recently re-opened after the winter.  

Gullfoss is situated on River Hvita, the water cascades down two steps that face in different directions, one is 11 meters high, and the other 22 meters, then the water roars into a very narrow canyon that is 70 meters deep.  Gullfoss is the biggest waterfall in Europe. It was very beautiful, some of the falls were still iced up forming strangely shaped mega-icicles.  Spray reached high into the air. 

It was getting quite cold now, so we went into the visitor's centre for refreshments.  I decided to go Icelandic and try their traditional meat soup, Kjötsúpa.  It is made with lamb and vegetable and was delicious, feeding and warming, just what I needed.

Then it was back to our bus for our last stop, Geysir, just a few miles along the road in the Haukadalur valley.  This is a very active geo-thermal area named after the biggest geyser there (our  "geyser" comes from Geysir).  Geysir erupts approximately once a day, the smaller Stokkur erupts roughly once every five minutes and we saw this happen, with little warning, a few times, sending boiling water and steam about 30 meters into the air with a huge whoosh, very spectacular.  

In a relatively small area there are about 30 geysers and bubbling pools, steam drifts in the air and there is a strong smell of sulphur.  It's like being on another planet, everything about it is so alien.  If you stand quietly you can hear the "language" of Geysir - bubbling, popping, hissing, gloopy thuds, deep gutteral moans, even high pitched whistle-like sounds, each geyser has it's own voice.  I found it absolutely fascinating.

No wonder the Golden Circle Tour is popular, in a few hours you see so many wonders of nature.  And seeing the fissures at Þingvellir and the boiling geysers and pools at Geysir made me realise that our earth is very active beneath the surface, and in places like Iceland even on the surface.  The power of nature in Iceland has recently shown itself once more with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull sending ash into the atmosphere and grounding airlines all over Europe for days.  Sometimes Mother Nature is still in charge.....   

Then it was time to go back to Reykjavik, we came back another way so saw different scenery.  Every now and then by the roadside mounted on rocks were mangled cars - these were crashed cars, used as a warning to drive carefully, never seen anything like that before.

We ate at our hotel that night and it was delicious.  Then we went to Bedtime Stories, held every Thursday night at our hotel.  And there you listen to an actor reading Icelandic stories, old and new, whilst drinking hot chocolate.  You also can use pillows and blankets to snuggle into if you want.  I really enjoyed it and it has inspired me to buy one of the books.  Then it was off to bed, it had been a long, but enjoyable day.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Iceland Part 1 - No Snow, But We Find a Pearl and a Smokey Bay

Glenys picked me up from home in the morning and we drove up to Glasgow, it was a nice morning so the drive was pleasant and there were no delays.  We parked the car, got the shuttle bus to the terminal and before long we were on the plane heading to Iceland.  The trip lasted just over two hours, my first view of the country was seeing the Blue Lagoon shimmering amongst the brown-black volcanic landscape, as I looked out that familiar excitement of arriving in a place I had never been before grew. 

The terminal at Keflavik was very smart, lots of wood, slate and granite, obviously quite new.  We got our ticket for the Flybus to Reykjavik and headed towards the city approximately 40 kilometers away.  We were travelling through the Reykjanes Peninsula, a flat area in south western Iceland.  The land was desolate, the dark volcanic lava fields and wildly scattered rocks barren except for grey brown lichen that grew over some of them.  Often there were little cairns of rock built by people.  The road was very good and we passed many new roads that seemed to just disappear into nowhere.  I was surprised there was no snow - though we could see snow on the mountains that surrounded the perimeter of the plain.  It was a lovely afternoon, sunshine and blue skies, what a wonderful welcome Iceland was giving us!

We reached our hotel, the Loftleiðir, after a 50 minute journey.  From the outside the hotel was not inviting, it was like a 60s/70s building, not the most aesthetically pleasing to look at!  But it was completely modernised inside and was really lovely.  We had separate rooms and instead of small singles we both got a normal sized room which was great.  Mine looked out over the car park of the hotel, to the right, on a forested hill, was the famous Perlan (the Pearl).  I could see Reykjavik city centre with high snow capped mountains behind.

We decided to walk up to Perlan which was close to our hotel on a hill called Qskjuhlid .  The Pearl consists of six metal tanks around a central dome.  It is where the geo-thermal water from beneath the earth is stored and then pumped out to heat the Reykjavik buildings.  The dome changed colour with the sky and time of day, it was an impressive building.  We walked up wooded hill and into the building.  It was very modern, on the ground floor is the Saga Museum which at this hour unfortunately was closed.  There is a geyser that regularly soared up almost to the top of the building. 

On the 4th floor there is a viewing balcony that surrounds the dome, the 360 views from there are breathtaking.   It was a lovely evening, sunshine and lots of blue sky that made the calm water of the bay a deep blue.  Below Reykjavik spread out looking very pretty with it's white and bright coloured buildings and church spires, all flanked by dramtic mountains.

Also on the 4th floor of Perlan was a cafe (unfortunately we could not afford to eat at the plush restaurant on the 5th floor!) and by now we were really hungry.  We had a lovely meal that was not too expensive.  We sat by the window looking out over Reykjavik - this cafe must have one of the best views in Iceland. 

The darkness comes very slowly at this latitude, and it was still light as we walked down  Qskjuhlid.  We passed close to one of the many "hot holes" of Iceland from which steam was rising into the air.  In shady corners small areas of snow still lingered and as the sun got lower it got decidedly cooler.

Next day we had a couple of tours, the first, in the morning, being a tour of Reykjavik.  The city centre is compact and I was surprised to learn that the city is not that old - by European standards.   The first settlement in the area was around 870 when Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson arrived.  However there was no urban development until 1786 which is recognised as the date of the founding of the city of Reykjavik (which translates to Bay of the Smokes, referring to the geothermal geysers in the area).

The houses tended to be either white or greens, blues, yellows and most had a outer cover of painted corrugated steel.  Our guide, Steiner, said that rooves and walls are covered in this as other materials do not cope well with Icelandic weather and they found this material serves the purpose well.

The city was much more open than I expected, it is very spread out with a lot of new building going on, it's still developing.  We saw the Parliament building and drove through the oldest part of the city which was very pretty.

Then we went on to the Hallgrimskirkja, which is the building you see from all over Reykjavik and beyond, situated on a hill and soars 244 feet into the air.  It was begun in 1945 and finished in 1986.  It is one of those few examples of a 20th century building that is stunningly beautiful and unique, that will be treasured for a very long time.  The architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, is said to have designed it to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland so much part of Iceland's landscape.  It is the Lutheran parish church of Reykjavik.  Inside it is very simple, almost bare, this made the one stained glass window really stand out as the sun shone through it, it was gorgeous.  I think it is one of the most beautiful churches I've seen.

We visted Perlan again and were told more about Iceland's unique geothermal heating system.  Nearly all the country's heating and hot water is via the hot water that is under the land's surface.  This natural resource was first harnessed in 1930 and gradually developed throughout the country.  The one thing that is cheap in Iceland is heating and hot water.

We drove a little outside of the city to Bessastaðir, the residence  of Iceland's President.  It was situated on a flat area of land close to the sea.  What I noticed most was the silence there, so, so quiet and peaceful - except for the calls of the geese that were flying in for the summer and landed close by.   I can imagine the weather can get wild there as it is very open, but on this sunny day it looked a lovely place to live.

After that we drove back into Reykjavik and our tour ended.  We had an hour and a half for lunch before we went on our next trip.  We sat in a lovely little square in the oldest part of the city for a while enjoying the sunshine before going to look round a few shops and then had a delicious coffee in a place called Sufistinn.  Then it was back to the bus for our afternoon trip.

Next instalment to follow soon.

Saturday 3 April 2010

Off to the Land of Ice and Fire Soon!

My cousin Glenys and I are off to Iceland soon for a few days.  It one of the places on my "to do" list and I'm really excited about going there.  Whilst there we've got a day long island tour and a whale watching trip.  Again the latter is on my list, there's no guarantee of seeing any whales of course but it'll be an experience anyway.  I don't think we'll have time to go to see the volcano that erupted recently, and which is still grumbling, but if we can we'll go to see it.  Check back here for my write up about the trip.