Reykjavik Day Two – Snow on the Mountains

View down to harbour with snow capped mountains in distance.

The bad news from Elding the night before had confirmed that our whale watching boat trip for the morning was cancelled. We had new plans to make. We spread out the city map on the breakfast table. “Look at this Tessa” I showed her the weather chart on my app. The weather map for our area in UK usually maxes the wind chart at 50mph.

“Those gusts yesterday were 90mph,” I said “and last night with wind chill it was -5? Doesn’t look much better today.” Tessa looked happy. She loves cool as well as stark. (I had to watch she hadn’t surreptitiously sneaked the room thermostat down when I wasn’t watching.) Last night, while we sweated in our layers and waited to see the light in the mini-van Gunnar said “coaches and mini vans aren’t allowed by law to go out on the roads when the winds are over 50mph.” Interesting. Also interesting is that our instincts about the Jimini jeep looking like it might get blown over were spot on. I’ve since been told by a petrolhead friend Jiminis had a reputation for that when they first came out.

We weren’t surprised our whale watching trip was cancelled. Neither of us would have wanted anyone to risk taking a boat out in the weather we were experiencing, and I suspect if they had all we’d have seen was our own vomit. I’ve seen Fin whales (60ft long, the Formula Ones of the ocean) and the incredibly rare Right whale but I’ve never seen a humpback so it was still very disappointing.

“Maybe we could go and see the Whales of Iceland exhibition instead?”

“I’d like to go to at least one of the galleries in those amazing modern buildings” said Tessa.

I don’t share Tessa’s love of brutalist architecture. I wasn’t sure I could be bothered to schlep all the way over to the concrete block housing the Kjarvalsstadir art gallery which, though still a bit of a trek, was the closest.

“I thought I might make my way to the Penis Museum by the harbour while you do that,” I said.

“I think that might actually make me physically sick,” she’d said.

However, not really wanting her to have to set off on her own, I decided the Penis Museum could wait. We got lost trying to find the Kjarvalsstadir (of course we did) blown off course several times, but isn’t that how you learn about a new place? Or, in this case, come across places you’d wanted to go to anyway.

Ghost house

“Look Tessa, that’s the Sundhollin, that’s the spa we wanted to go to tonight. ” We went in to ask if we had to book. Whilst we are both ‘wild swimmers’ (how I hate that term) and happy to plunge into water of 8 degrees (ME! yes, I know!) and Tessa 12 degrees and up, the thought of lolling in an outdoor pool heated with natural thermal water to 38deg from the oozing lava beneath the entire island excited us both.

Sundhollin Spa outdoor pool

Mostly all we heard was the roaring of the wind, however in the suburbs on the way to the gallery we kept hearing birdsong. Flocks of redwings feasting on berries had moved into the city. I didn’t have my binoculars on me, but as they flew off there was the telltale rusty colour under their armpits.

Kjarvalsstadir Art Gallery

At the Kjarvalsstadir I learnt a sharp lesson in the benefit of ‘giving it a go’. I normally am a person who likes to say ‘yes’. And now I can’t think what got into me – unless it was the wind and cold – that made me hesitate to visit. Anyway, I can honestly say I enjoyed the work of Gudjon Ketilsson in his exhibition called Jaeja as much, if not more, than any in recent times. There was an actual Icelander on the desk. “Can you check my pronunciation?” I asked her. I was determined by the end of the week to get Eyjafjallajökull right – that big volcano that had all the news readers getting their tongues in a twist when it popped off in March 2010 disrupting air travel all over the world. Thought I’d start with the most difficult then everything else would be easy. “No, she said.”Not quite,” and rattled it off perfectly. “Tak,” I said (thanks) “bless,” (bye).

My attempts to remember how to say Eyjafjallajökull, hear that clucking sound?

Jaeja an untranslatable Icelandic word that means nothing on its own but can be used for almost anything…like: here we are. Or: look at this. In Gudjon’s case he means a found object, or any, put in a different context giving it a value. A man after my own heart. “Oh my god look at that” I am prone to say when I see something like discarded rubbish, plastic caught on a fence or beautifully coiled dog shit for instance, in a different way. Plus he loves hats, so what was not to like? We were first drawn to what looked like black calligraphy on the wall. A closer look revealed it was a collection of black plastic jetsam he’d come across pinned to the wall.

Here are some hats, carved in wood.

We thought this was folded linen and a pile of bones – but they were all ceramic.

He is also a very fine draftsman.

We lingered a long time in the gallery, it was warm and out of the wind, but eventually hunger sent us off to search for the vegan cafe we’d clocked by happenstance on the way.

Sky looking rather ominous at Plantan Vegan Cafe.

“My god look at those cakes.”

.
But we chose the sensible option and feasted on a delicious brunch.

There was constantly a worry about how much everything might cost. We’d been warned by David at Rickshaw that a simple soup lunch might be £15 an evening meal £30…but that was before Truss and her crashing of the economy and sinking of the pound. This holiday was booked nearly a year ago in February when it came up on offer from Rickshaw Travel. Covid was still an issue. “Safest place,” said David “you won’t need to worry about Covid there.” Plus it is a relatively short haul flight so there’s less climate guilt involved. But then the £1 hit an all time worst ever low.

“That brunch looks incredible I said. Let’s have it as our main meal,” I said “and eat the sandwiches we assembled at breakfast for dinner tonight.”

I learned another lesson the Plantan. Tofu scramble can be delicious, and that it wasn’t necessarily going to be a week of Tessa eating fresh local fish (she’s a pescatarian) and me eating pizza every night. Reykjavik at least has heard of vegetarians, even vegans.

Harbour

By the time we’d walked back up to the top of the city and down to the harbour the Icelandic Phallological Museum was closed. Who knows what I might have seen? It was nominated best local attraction in 2015 and looks like it is run by a real weir…I mean eccentric, I had so many questions I’d have liked to ask.

We walked around the harbour to the extraordinary new concert hall and conference centre, the Harpa.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre
Windows that reminded me of a honeycomb
Harbour at night. We apparently just missed a showing of the Northern Lights over the sea.

By the time they, very politely, threw us out, it was dark, and time to go back to the Klopp, eat our sandwiches, grab our cozzies and make our way back up to the Sundhollim Spa. Exactly what we needed after clocking up another 22,000+ steps. It cost us next to nothing with our City Cards. Originally built in the 1920s it has been renovated recently. Lit up at night it’s a magical place. There are several pools outside, the smallest right on the roof top with rows of blasting jets. Tessa soon opted for a bit of time in the cool indoor pool but I spent most of the time cooking in the rooftop pools sky gazing. You never knew…. We reconvened in the shallow pool under a kind of mushroom thing which gradually fills with water and rains down hard on you every five minutes or so. (Best to turn on your front when it does this to protect your soft bits.) The pools were mostly filled with local folk. What a great thing to do after a hard days work rather than slump in front of the telly with a glass of wine.

Mushroom shower thingy just visible back left.

We wound our way slowly back to the Klopp drunk on relaxation and warmth. When we arrived there we saw there was an excited huddle on the steps.

“You just missed them” said a young woman pointing excitedly up at the sky “right here, we saw them right here…red and green and curtains and folds and look, here,” she showed me her phone. “Can you believe it? Right in the middle of Reykjavik. Amazing.”

“Bugger,” I said, forgetting how much Tessa hates swearing.

“Must have been while we getting dressed in the changing rooms,” she said.

“Sod’s Law,” I said.

We fell asleep listening to the Archers. For goodness sake Chelsea, make your mind up…time is running out if you do decide to have an abortion. It’s a great storyline, what with Roe versus Wade and all that, but come on….

Blown Away in Reykjavik – Ray-kia-veek

First sighting of Iceland, ice crystal on the window.

I’ve always thought it against nature to get up in the dark. 3am tested Tessa and me as we obeyed the alarm, downed our instant porridge and scrambled out of the Premier Inn Gatwick to catch a 6am flight to Reykjavik. We’d spent the night before listening to the Archers and watching ‘Have I Got News for You.’ Would Chelsea get an abortion? Would Truss see sense and stand down? I fell asleep imagining the emails the PM’s mother might be sending her: “Lizzie Darling, just come home…”

“Look Tessa, a glacier” I woke and gazed out of the frosted window of the EasyJet plane at a 3D contour map of Iceland. “There’s nothing there,” I said “can’t even see any roads.” The plane bumped down just after 9am. Half an hour of paperwork later we set out to search for our Suzuki Jimini (whatever that was). The minute the arrivals doors opened we were buffeted by the ferocious wind.

People who have been to Iceland are often glassy eyed about it. They mention its spectacular landscapes, whales, the Northern Lights, traffic free roads, glaciers, the Penis Museum, but no one, not a soul mentioned wind. Rain was predicted for most of the week and we’d packed for that, but wind? Nary a whisper to warn us. I understood snow would be a possibility (as it is almost any time of year) but I assumed that like most sensible countries they had plans for that. Tessa was sceptical. “It’s the law that they have to use winter tyres from October” I reassured her.

We battled our way to the furthest end of hire car parking lot where the Budget cars were parked. “Is this it?” said Tessa checking the numberplate, “this?” We stared with dismay at the little white jeep. It looked distinctly unstable for windy conditions. While Tessa battled to open the back door I chased my bobble hat which had been snatched off my head and was making its way back to arrivals.

“There’s no room for our suitcases in the boot area” said Tessa when I got back “see if the back seats slide forwards.” They didn’t. We tried manoeuvring our cases onto the back seats through the front doors. The only doors. It was worse than manoeuvring a truculent toddler and toddlers don’t weigh 10k+.

“This is hopeless” we agreed. “There’s nowhere to hide our luggage,” said Tessa “lets see if there’s something else.”

By 11 o’clock, our first morning in Reykjavik ticking away, Tessa who’d generously agreed to be the first to drive us in and out of Reykjavik (it’s two years since I’ve driven a manual and I thought it best to relearn on the open road) was trying to find how to start the Vitara. I scanned a huge guide I found in the glove compartment. “Wouldn’t you think ‘how to start the car’ would be easily found?” I said. We tried every which way.

Luckily a man arrived to collect the car parked next to us. “Try keeping your foot down on the clutch, then turn the key,” he advised. Bingo.We were off…on what looked remarkably like a motorway into central Reykjavik. Tessa doesn’t drive on motorways. “It’s Ok, “I’d said “Iceland doesn’t have any.” I kept quiet. Better not to say anything and spook her. Perhaps she wouldn’t notice?

Our phones refused to talk to the car system, and weren’t up to date with all the one way streets consequently we had a frustrating half hour driving around one way streets trying to find the multi story by our hotel which we knew was near but couldn’t get to. There was a horrible moment when, stopping to ask directions, my car door was snatched out of my hands by the wind and banged a bollard hard. Only after checking for dents I saw the sign on the window advising you wind down the window first in strong winds and use two hands to open the door. This seems like a great tip even for here.

It was a huge relief when we spotted the hotel and multi storey and drove straight down a slope to the basement and stopped. Tessa wanted to reverse to adjust our parking. Could either of us find reverse? On every attempt the car slid dangerously closer to the wall, at one point with me braced between car and wall to stop it crashing into it. We re-examined the angle we were parked at. “Looks fine anyway,” we agreed.

The Klopp Central Hotel in the old town, lived up to its description (thank you David at Rickshaw Travel) we couldn’t have been better placed. What’s more, Miro on reception not only explained how to get into reverse but also that there was cheaper parking on the street a short hop away. I put on a few extra layers to combat the wind, closed all the windows Tessa, who loves the cold, had opened and at last around noon we set out to explore.

Reykjavik makes up for its surrounding spectacular, snowy mountain landscape with a riotous paintbox of colours on its little houses. Most are faced with galvanised metal, many are decorated with fabulous graffiti. Every turn in the Old Town was a delight and had views down to the harbour, across to the mountains and up to the Hallgrimskirkja, that tall pointy church iconic to Reykjavik.

We had ideas of where we wanted to go: the jumper shop, the tall pointy church, Bakari Sandholt, (mouth watering review in the Lonely Planet guide), Sundhollm Spa with an outdoor thermal pool, the National Museum, The Old Harbour, the Penis Museum, the Harpa concert hall, and (particularly important to Tessa who loves brutalist architecture)Reykjavik Art museum: Kjarvallsstdir. Everything turned out to be within walking distance give or take 22,000 steps and quite a bit of getting lost. Checking the flimsy map in those winds was a pantomime palaver and my Icelandic pronunciation was clearly way off. You try Snaefellnes…the double ll in the middle has to have a clucking sound like a chicken, just to confuse those of us who know a little Welsh pronunciation where the double ll sounds like you are clearing your throat of phlegm.

As it happened the Icelandic jumper shop turned out to be just round the corner from the hotel. For years I’ve had a dream of owning one inspired by all those Scandi Noir dramas I watch on Walter Presents. I factored in the expense when I booked the holiday.

I gazed at the billowing piles of them and asked an assistant “did you knit some of these?” “Ah yes,” she said “I go home at night. I knit. Imagine, an entire life revolving around these gorgeous jumpers. Tall women looked stunning in them, but no matter how badly I wanted one they looked absolutely rubbish on me. I’m too short to carry them off. Besides, although they looked so soft, they were incredibly itchy. “Ah well,” I sighed, “I’ve just saved myself £300.”

Bakari Sandholt, our laudably frugal choice for lunch.
Bakeoff Perfection
First sighting of the pointy church.
Hallgrims church
Hallgrimskirkja

The priapic Hallgrimskirkja, dominating the top of town, is every bit as imposing as it looks in the picture. Built originally in 1945 its buttresses of concrete columns represent the basalt cliffs prevalent in Iceland. We may have staggered around like drunks in the wind, but to see it on such a sunny day set against puffy clouds was an unexpected bonus. Tessa loves stark, and stark it was in a magnificent way.

Mira at the hotel had been dismissive about the National museum “they don’t have much, and make a lot of what they do have.” Perhaps that was why no-one seemed to know where it was. Mind, it was difficult to find anyone actually from Reykjavik to ask. When we eventually got there I had to partly agree with Miro…see one metal stirrup, see them all, but I loved the reconstruction of life in a Badstofa (country dwelling of old), and Tessa loved it and especially enjoyed the intricate wooden carvings on crosses and bedheads.

Badstofa (interior of a dwelling past century)

We had a background worry all day that our Northern Lights boat trip booked for the evening would be cancelled and thought it best to go to the Elding Office to check at the harbour to check. Our fears were confirmed. “Sorry ladies it’s too rough. Probably the Whale Watching trip in the morning will be cancelled as well. I will call you tonight.” Our faces fell. Hadn’t I come to Iceland specifically in October to see the lights? “But you could go on a minivan trip to see the lights if you like? Our men know where to find them. I’ll see if there are spaces…you are in luck. Wear plenty of clothes.”

On the way back up to the Klopp we picked up a slice of pizza for dinner and ate it while we listened to the Archers. (They are still keeping us on pins about Chelsea.) I piled on more layers: merino wool vest, long sleeve tee shirt, wool polo neck, jumper, gilet, raincoat, wooden long johns under my trousers. At 8 we set out in plenty of time to find the mini van pick-up spot at 9pm and promptly got lost again. With 9 o’clock ticking ever closer, trying to follow directions on Tessa’s phone, we ended up following my instinct of where it might be and joined a long queue. We piled into Gunnar’s van with a dozen or so other people and set off to search for the lights.

It takes a lot of patience to see the Northern Lights unless you are incredibly lucky. Gunnar drove us here and there, stopping every now and then to park up and look. And look. We all rubbed condensation off the windows and scanned the skies around us searching for a sign in the dark sky. Gunnar kept calling his boss. We moved on, and on again. Gunnar kept us entertained with tales of Icelandic folk lore (children are threatened with getting an old potato from Father Christmas if they’ve been naughty) and with handouts of hot chocolate and cinnamon buns and subtle hints that we might not get lucky. A self educated, well travelled Icelander he quoted Dickens, Wuthering Heights and recommended various books – yet his day job was police dog training. Iceland is full of poets I understand. There is scant literature in Icelandic…the market is too small.

We wound up bouncing off road down a track in the middle of deserted heathland somewhere near the south coast, maybe near Grindavik, and piled out to shelter from the wind behind some abandoned buildings. I was thrilled, it couldn’t have been more Icelandi Noir if it tried. At last, quarter to midnight, just when Gunnar was about to give up, we saw a patch of lightening sky. “Check with your phones” said Gunnar “if you have an iPhone 12 and up you will see the lights in a photo before they become visible with the naked eye.” He was right. There they were. As we watched they got brighter and brighter and we could clearly see them with the naked eye. Ok, not the most spectacular showing with ribbons and folds and patches of pink, red and purple, but we saw them. Plenty of people come to Iceland and never see them. They are random. 90% of the time they are just green. They can last for hours or only minutes. Ours lasted for about an hour fading gradually. We watched, we froze and we probably bored half the minivan occupants waiting till the last fade.

“I can’t believe it” I said to Tessa “on our first night. We actually saw them.”

_DSC3700

The red colouring on the heath is from the tail lights, running to keep the less intrepid inside the van warm.