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.”
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.
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.”