Thursday, 26 July 2007

Iceland Part One, Days 1-3.

We arrived here safe and well, thankfully, despite my usual premonitions of doom and disaster which always acompany any flight. There´s little to report on the travel itself, save to remind myself in block capitals to NEVER STAY IN THE NORMANDY HOTEL AGAIN. Christ on a bike! It was dreadful. I ordered a plate of ribs (why?) for supper and was presented with several pigs worth of rib cage. Surely nobody can eat that amount of pork and live? It sat rather unpleasantly with me for the rest of the night, but probably not as unpleasantly as it should.

Sister and sons travelled with us, which was astonishingly not as painful as one might have thought as there were plenty of free seats at the back of the plane meaning we could all sit together in relative comfort. The main joy was that I discovered while on the flight that the 3 hour flight was actually nothing of the sort, but instead a 2 hour flight.

As we flew over Iceland I got my first true thrill of the holiday - which isn´t bad considering we´d not yet stepped off the plane! Looking down at the landscape below, I was almost girlish in my delight at the sight of a massive glacier spread out beneath us. It turns out it´s the 3rd largest glacier in the world - or possibly ice cap, if there´s a difference, but lies too far to the south for us to take a trip to see it. Ma and Pa have already had their 3 day journey there and back, and we simply don´t have the time to do it - so I´m really glad the weather allowed us such a great sight of it as we flew overhead.

The moment we stepped off the plane we were straight into the thick of things, and I have to say it was a true delight to be on a holiday where none of the decision making falls to you and you simply either go with the flow or go your own way. So far, we´ve definitely flowed.

As we all piled into a crap-bucket of a car, driven by a man who spoke no English and who, frankly, looked like he spent more time at the bottom of a bottle than behind the wheel of a car, Ma announced we were off to the Blue Lagoon for a post-flight swim in the naturally hot waters. Great!

It wasn´t a good start when it transpired that our driver not only couldn´t communicate with us (entirely forgiveable) but actually didn´t know where he was going (not forgiveable), but things soon picked up. The Blue Lagoon is a large, shallow lake of naturally heated spring water, milky with salts and minerals, which has been converted into a public swimming bath. We changed into our cossies with prudish British care while natives pranced naked about us (especially an old woman who seemed almost determined that as many people should see her as possible) and made our way out into the cold, oh my god cold air. As swiftly as we could, we scuttled into the water, with noises reminiscent of Ma drinking her first cup of tea after a great tea drought. It was blissful! Just as warm as bath water, and, because of the colour, rather like swimming in milk without any of the unpleasantness that would entail.

We swam and frolicked with Gemmil and Wrecker. Fisher and I plastered mud on our faces from the little bucket provided at one side, which didn´t seem to do me any good but was at least an exfoliant. More delightful was sitting beneath a waterfall of hot water, letting it pummel your shoulders and relax your tense limbs - in a rather violent fashion.

Eventually it was time to get out, so once again we scuttled as quickly as we could out of the cold air and into the changing rooms, showered, dressed, and went to have our first Icelandic food with Pa in the restaurant.

Here, not only were we introduced to rather tasty Icelandic fish, but also to the prices.

Dear God. We knew it would be steep ... but 13 pounds for a starter?? Pa informed us that the prices at the Blue Lagoon restaurant were actually quite reasonable. He and Ma had been out to several places where the main courses were never shy of thirty pounds. Today, Sister picked up a 16 inch pizza for the boys´ supper and was told it was cheap at eighteen quid! A beer is seven pounds. Our Rough Guide cost 29! It´s astonishing. We wondered how people managed to live here at all, until Pa told us that the average annual wage is something like 35,000 pounds. It´s all just put on an elevated scale - so the real question is: how do they manage to have a thriving tourist industry?

Anyway, prices aside we were well pleased with our first taste of Iceland, and looked very much forward to our journey into Reykjavik. The scenery was greeted with mixed reactions. I thought it quite spectacular. Sister thought it revolting. Great black fields of lava broiled their way out before us, covered in sage green mosses and lichens and fringed by distant mountains far more jagged and unfriendly than those back home. Sister asked what the first word we thought of was when she said ´Iceland.´Fisher said ´barren.´I said ´lunar´. To me, the lava fields really do seem alien - as though you´ve landed on an entirely different planet rather than just a different country. I love it, but I can see it getting tiresome in the end.

Anyway, on we drove into Reykjavik (astonishingly our driver did know how to get there) and were dropped at the little apartment Ma has rented for us. It´s fine - perfectly serviceable, and Fisher goes so far as to really, really like it. I don´t know what there is to like, really - but then there´s nothing to dislike, either. It´s just a plain, single-roomed apartment. The only difficulty is that there´s no washing machine, so we´ll have to use the local laundry which takes 2 days to clean your clothes. Still, a minor quibble in all.

Reykjavik is an intriguing place. It´s almost like a shanty town in some places, with houses made of corrugated iron and dilapidated old buildings falling down in the midst of perfectly respectable residential areas. There seems to be no division of rich and poor at all, or industrial and residential. The docks are full of cranes, rusting ghost-boats, vast tankers and busy fishing vessels - and the whole place is looked down upon by the magnificent cliffs of nearby mountains. As you walk through the quiet streets, you catch glimpses of this fabulous mountain which you may or may not have forgotten was there, and it just all seems rather surreal. There´s a rather American-outpost feel to it all, which put me in mind of the programme Northern Exposure. However, it´s by far the safest city I´ve ever been in. Nobody is threatening, crime is incredibly low, and the light nights mean you can walk anywhere at any time.

The architecture leaves little to be desired, as I´ve suggested, but there are a couple of fantastic churches. The main cathedral swoops up into the air like a pale grey space rocket, with wide wings curving upward from the base into the spire. It´s incredibly tall, lifting your eyes to the skies - which are frequently worth looking at for their own sake! Today, little cotton-bud clouds flew so low over the fields it almost felt that you could reach up and touch them, while the gossamer threads of stratus wisped far, far above.

On our first night, Fisher and I were so thrilled to be in a new place without the ties of dogs, or the need to drive anywhere, that we actually went out!! We´d had supper with Ma n Pa n Sister, but decided that instead of going straight to bed we´d try out a ... get this! ... gay bar! Actually, we´d seen it before and thought it looked like a really nice café - and only afterwards did we find out it was part of the incredibly relaxed gay scene. Icelanders, while very groovy about gay people, just don´t make any kind of song and dance about it.

Actually, that´s not true. There´s a gay parade that´s nothing but song and dance, but we´ve missed it - which is kind of a shame.

Anyway, we went and had a few glasses of wine, then rolled home. While the booze is expensive and hard to come buy here (you can only buy wine or anything except low alcohol beer in special booze shops which close at 6pm - or bars, obviously) they serve it in vats! You get about a third of a bottle of wine in each glass, so after 2 I was utterly steaming! I mean, I had consumed several small tipples with Sister and Fisher earlier, so I´m not a total lightweight, but even so - by the time we got back to the flat I was ready to fall into a mini-death, which I proceeded to do. We´d had a bit of a wander, taking in the main square - which is no more than a little collection of corrugated iron shops around a small concrete area where a great deal of motorbikers gather with their machines - and the City Hall. City Hall is a modern piece of architecture which I find ugly, but beautifully situated on a lake. Literally on it. Water goes all round it.

Anyway, I´m bored of writing about Reykjavik. While it´s fascinating in some ways, it´s also a bit of a limbo for me. There´s nothing in it that truly grabs my attention, and I think of it only as a place to stay while we explore.

On our second day, we had a very ´first full day after arriving´type day. You know, where you don´t really do anything strenuous, nothing´s particularly planned, and you actually end up just wishing you´d launched right into some wild, exhausting spree because it´s really just a day of bitty nothingness. In fact, I can barely remember what we did at all.

We rose late. We went to meet Sister, Gemmill, Wrecker and Ma in a café. We checked out a couple of antique/junk shops with Sister. Sister, sons and Ma then went off to check out the zoo while Fisher and I had a wander by ourselves. We bought the Rough Guide, fainted at the cost, picked ourselves up and went to the Culture House. This was well worth a visit for two reasons: the exhibition on Surtsey (an island that rose out of the sea during the 1960s and continues to grow today) and the original Medieval manuscripts of some of the Sagas they house there. Having seen this, we then returned to our apartment for some reading and relaxing before supper with the folks again. We then went early to bed, in order to be up for Ma´s planned outing - which took place today.

This has been by far one of the most enjoyable days I´ve spent in ages! We caught a taxi at just after 9am and piled in with the whole family. Luckily it was a new driver and new car - both of which were a distinct improvement on the last ones! We sped south from the city, where the landscape springs green about the roadside - quite unlike the bleak lavafields to the north. After about a 40 minute drive we arrived at the Allthingi - the ancient Icelandic parliament, which took place in the most beautiful setting of a rift valley. We walked through a gorge with great walls of rock on either side, before emerging out onto the valley floor and following a wooden path up to the Law Rock (can´t remember the name in Icelandic). Here, the speaker would recite the Icelandic laws aloud before the parliament was considered open. Icelanders like to think of this as the first example of democracy in action, but considering it was basically a chieftain-based society this is pretty much bunkum. However, in theory anyone was allowed to speak their grievances - and as a great deal of Icelandic time seems to have been spent on vengeance, those grievances appear to have been many.

I´m running out of time on this ticket, dang it, so I´ll have to draw my first entry to a close, without finishing an account of today. Never mind. I´ll not forget it in a hurry - and there´s too much of it to rush, so better to start again tomorrow, or whenever I get my next chance. At least this café, like everything, is very near to our excellent little apartment.