Monday, 31 March 2014

Geothermal

Mrs A and I were obviously looking forward to a trip the isle of ice and fire, but the rush for crisps on the plane by Icelanders returning home was a touch disconcerting. What was going on? Didn’t they sell potato snacks in Reykjavik? The number of times the hirsute family in front of us made extra trips to the galley for ‘boxer chips’ whiffed strongly of panic buying.

Mrs A and I were berthed either side of the aisle. She, of course, made instant friends with the passengers on her right. Hotel details, recommended tours and sights were gleaned, even the sunset times. Laughing and joking they were. I leant across and butted in. “Hi, yes we hope to see the northern lights!” But my conversational equivalent of the photo bomb got me nowhere. In dealing me a dismissive glance, the bloke in the middle seat barely broke his flow about scuba diving plans.

Instead, I attempted light-hearted communication with the two sat next to me. “Mind those popcorn packets, they go everywhere!” said the cabin chap, handing them a couple of cardboard packages bulging at the seams. I waited a couple of minutes into my beer and crisps and then casually remarked "I'm looking forward to you opening that popcorn!" Grin grin. Point point. Window seat man looked at me with alarm pricking his eyes and laughed nervously. His petite, slightly clingy partner did the same and shuffled noticeably away from me. They simply radiated "Nutter alert”.

We arrived during a brilliant sunset over the bay. Reykjavik is different to anywhere I’ve been before. “Lego Town” remarked Mrs A. It was a bit. Low rise, simple and colourful. We found a welcoming bistro for dinner and were overwhelmed with charming service and decent food. Rumours of menus containing nothing but puffin burgers and putrefied shark were well wide of the mark.

Saturday night is the big event in town. The runtur is a weekly bar crawl through the Downtown area and things were getting lively by the time we wove our way back to the Sky Bar on the eight floor of our hotel. One corner of the packed bar was occupied by a group of acoustic guitar toting Christians belting out gospel ditties and the other featured a couple of hardened Northern Lights watchers with noses pressed up against the windows, scanning the heavens for glints of green and blue. They looked like train spotters, which also explained the faint whiff of egg sandwiches.

I thought I caught glimpses of hairy, big jumpered locals squabbling over boxes of crisps hoarded from Easyjet in another corner, but it may have been a trick of the light.

The bar’s serious, vaguely austere manager collared me on the outside decking as I was taking in the view. “See that beam of vertical light?" I did. A broad and powerful searchlight illuminating the sky. She looked at me full on. "Batman lives under that! " I howled. Bloody hell. Icelandic humour ice-dry enough to be British. The beam was actually, she told me, a memorial to John Lennon created by Yoko Ono and is turned on to mark specific anniversaries. It was to be the nearest we got to lights in the sky...

On the bus to the Blue lagoon the next morning and Mrs A had made friends again, slipping into easy conversation with a charming young lady in the seat next to her. Not to be outdone, I turned to the woman on my inside, clocked the sour face, folded arms and decided against small talk.

The Blue Lagoon was totally excellent. Yes it's a tourist trap, but it is so well done. There was nothing corny or tacky about the experience. Like so much in Iceland the attraction is perfectly managed, discrete and respectful.

It's certainly no fault of this thoughtful management policy that I'd attached my electronic wrist tag (Group 4 - take note) worked out the security lockers and was half undressed before realising that the good lady wife still had my swimwear in her bag. So, clobber chucked back on and locker digitally locked again, I went downstairs to see if I could locate Mrs A. I was tip-toeing around, wondering whether I should shout through the door of the ladies’ changing rooms or try to explain my dilemma to an ever helpful assistant. Thankfully my mobile buzzed and a few moments later, Mrs A emerged with my floral print swim shorts dangling from an outstretched hand. Blushes saved.


It was her idea to head out to the lagoon early. Top plan. We were amongst the first into the geothermal wonderland that morning. All those adjectives you’ve seen about this place apply: weird, surreal, other worldly… Fantastic. Sulphurous steam rose from electric blue water encased by mountainous snow covered lava flows. The sun streaming through light cloud cast an ethereal glow over the milky surface. Mostly, the temperature was very pleasant, but occasionally, vents pumped out screaming hot streams of scalding liquid. I lurched into one boiling trough that caused me to hop about like a Maori on hot ashes, nearly spilling my drink in the effort of water-sprinting away.


The silica face mask was a laugh. Full of restorative algae and minerals apparently. It’s basically fast drying clay that fixes everyone’s face into some Edouard Munch parody of wide-eyed high-eyebrow astonishment. We went to the cascade to wash ourselves clean. Mrs A was under the rock water fall for ages and I thought I spotted her making advances to a dead-ringer for William Hague on her right. She explained that the force of the shower had knocked the glasses from their perch on her forehead. She was trying to pick them up with her feet. William Hague didn't look much better. If he turned his head in a certain direction the gushing torrent made his large ears flap like Dumbo in a wind tunnel. Glorious place it may. Flattering it is not.

Skin softened and aquated, we returned to Town for a chilled pootle. Reykjavik may only be home to a shade over 100,000 souls but it knows how to mix architectural muscle with the big boys when it chooses. Harpa is the capital's main music and performance complex. We had a great view of the irregular shaped, glass and steel creation from our hotel. At night the window frames light up in sweeping and ever changing patterns. Inside the place is equally spectacular. Geometric glass and mirror ceilings and walls dominate the cavernous, multilevel performance and public spaces. Hardly any of the floors or uprights are at 90 degrees and we felt disoriented more than once.

It is well used too. We stumbled across a gentle piano and guitar recital and on leaving had to shoulder-barge through crowds assembling for a production in one of the main halls.

Later, after a gentle beer, we took the lift to the top of downtown's other dominant edifice, the Hallgrimkirkja. This gothic cathedral sits atop the highest hill and can be seen from miles around. Insane buttresses fly off the main tower like swept jet fighter wings and the building looks like a pimped up Thunderbird 1 on the launchpad.  This is my newest favourite monolith in the whole world. Spanking views from the top revealed the surprisingly extensive spread of the city hemmed along the coast. The colour of the place again shone through strongly.



Reykjavik is full of weird business and visitor signs. Mrs A collected ‘The Happy Smiling Headware’ shop, and meeting place for the ‘Hand Knitting Association of Iceland’  

After exploring north side, we so, so wanted someone to ask us the way to the Hateigskirkja church, because we could legitimately have said "Oh yeah, turn left at the Volcano shop and hard right up by the Penis Museum’. I kid you not. Sadly we ran out of time, otherwise a poke around this establishment may have been reasonably stimulating.


I’m familiar with variable weather that seems to give four seasons in one day, but Iceland seems to have all the seasons going on at the same time. Rain of a more irresistible nature had, however, set in by the evening and our late night Northern Lights trip was cancelled. Instead we found time to explore a few more bars and ate probably the best meals of the stay in the classy (and yet again friendly) Restaurant Reykjavik. Helen’s charr ensemble (a fish she had never eaten before) was glacier fresh and my lamb was as tender as a re-run of On Golden Pond.

And then back to the Sky Bar, though much quieter tonight, where the manager was very chatty about the surprisingly good Icelandic ales. I’m happy to endorse Einstock IPA and Bjatur blonde ale, as well as some more predictable lagers. She said most were brewed further north where the barley grew. Barley? Out of bare rock and steaming pools? I was doubtful. As I was about the flocks of sheep that allegedly roamed the island and supplied my meal tonight.


So the next day we went on a trip to seek out barley fields and sheep pastures. We saw absolutely nothing. Not a stick of wavy grass or a single scraggy ewe. That’s debunked another Icelandic myth.

What we did instead was explore some of the most active and riveting geology on the face of the planet. The rain continued to lash and driving over the Blue Mountains, visibility dropped to about 20 feet. Prospects didn’t look good, but when we turned north, the sky lightened to reveal ridges, escarpments and volcanic peaks poking out of the murk.

By the time we hit the geyser fields, the weather had all but dried up. Mrs A was telling me about how Icelandic trolls die if they see sunlight and that planning decisions on one part of the island are subject to respecting the ancient, mythical pathways of elves. I in turn was harping on about the subcutaneous pressure required to power the water blasts and the sheer size of the Langjokull glacier. It was a guide book score draw.


Seeing a whole hillside venting clouds of hot air from clear water pits plays havoc with the senses. The original Geysir pool, which gave the geothermal phenomenon its generic name, no longer spouts boiling water, but its near neighbour, Strokkur, performs magnificently every minute or so for the assembled galleries.


Geological highlights continued. The powerful triple water falls of Gullfoss slam into a spectacular gorge fuelled by glacier meltwater further inland. The sound was as immense as the sight. So I thought I’d video it. Something I rarely do. I won’t be bothering again. “Listen to this” I said to my Dad and Bruv, when back home. They’d been looking after the girls – or possibly the other way round –during our trip. Fully expecting an ear splitting roar brewed in the very pits of the earth, the distant thrum we heard had more in common with a weedy generator on Summer rations than screaming falls throwing down 52 million cubic metres of turbulent water a minute. “Hmm, that’s impressive, Dave [chuckle].” observed Bruv. Think I’ll stick to the pics.


This area was the most northerly we ventured on the trip and the icy blast straight off the glacier was numbing. So the comforting lamb soup, speciality of the café at the top of the falls, warmed spots that really shouldn’t have been exposed in late March.

On the way back to Reykjavik we gained a glimpse of the fissuring and cracking that is renting apart the North Atlantic plate from the Eurasian one. The Thingvellir national park is a giant rift valley formed at the cutting edge of tectonic action. The split is reportedly increasing at 1-2cms per year. “Can you actually see it?” asked Daughter No 1. “Not in real time” I replied. But imagine if you could. Sat there all year waiting for the 2cm shift and then missing it because you went to the loo…” Geology brought to fizzing life.

The rains returned as we dropped back into the capital, extinguishing any lingering prospects of a Northern Lights appearance. That night we stumbled across perhaps the best bar of the stay. Laundromat is a large airy informal space dominated by a square central bar whose base houses shelves of paperback books. Red leather benches, booths and non-conformist tables surrounded the bar and were populated by a genuine all human life clientele. The food was somewhere between posh café/bistro, and the beer list took up the entire back page of the menu. Proper!

Why Laundromat? Mrs A said it was still a working launderette and we couldn’t work out how. Until I went to the loo downstairs where I passed three bright red washing machines and three large red tumble dryers. All being used and waited upon by locals minding hopper-sized laundry baskets.  As I say. All human life.

We couldn’t pass up a drink in a subterranean bar called Koffin where I finally tracked down a dark beer I’d seen supped elsewhere. Mori Red, hand pumped and served in a pint glass, was as tasty as it was civilised.

Then one late-night last drink in the Sky Bar, peering through rain lashed windows at the dancing, symphonic patterns of tint and hue flickering across the face of the Harpa. A colourful metaphor for this vibrant city full of wonderful people surrounded by stunning landscapes.


And we barely scratched the geothermally ravaged surface.









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