Tag Archives: Travel

So, Iceland, eh? Final thoughts

Thursday 15th July 2021. We’ve been home a couple of days now and are gradually easing ourselves back into all the home-based routines that had dominated, well, the last 18 months, really. The number and intensity of the seriously unfamiliar sights we’ve been treated to for two weeks have overlaid the mundanity of our return to domestic routine with a patina of unreality.  Before this fades, I thought it would be an idea to pull together some thoughts into a sort of valediction whilst things are still reasonably fresh in our minds.  All of the following should be read in the context that we had an excellent holiday experience which it would be difficult to improve upon.

  1. Is Iceland expensive, as is reputed?  It’s certainly not cheap.  For lunch, dinner and a couple of drinks daily, the total cost for fifteen days ran out at over £2,000 for the two of us. A large gin & tonic could be around £12, for example, and a glass of wine with dinner around £10.  This may seem steep, but then again I don’t know how these compare with, say, London prices.  However, this was a holiday, and the exchange rate made it difficult to do the necessary mental arithmetic to establish how much things translated to in English money, so we firmly turned our face against worrying about it.
  2. The gin. There is a good variety of Icelandic gins.  We found that the flavour of many brands, such as Himbrimi, while tasting perfectly gin-like neat, seemed to disappear when tonic was added.  An exception to this is Icelandic Angelica gin, which we only really discovered on the flight home, but which was very nice in a G&T.
  3. The diet. As we travelled around in Iceland, it seemed that every restaurant menu featured the same items – cod and/or arctic char, lamb, beef, occasionally chicken. Of course Iceland  is an island and has more sheep than natives so the presence of fish and lamb is not a surprise. Generally, menus seemed to prioritise fish/meat and potatoes over vegetables; and the fruit typically available at breakfast tended (rather counter-intuitively) to be melon,  watermelon and pineapple.  But then the island’s climate isn’t really a fruit-growing one and its ecology isn’t particularly vegetable-friendly.  So, Friðheimar apart, many things have to be imported; Dagur told us that a large proportion of this is centrally-managed, hence the uniformity of produce across our travels.
  4. It’s very easy to pay in Iceland. Everywhere, absolutely everywhere, enabled contactless payment and we used our phones for this.  Terrifically convenient and well-organised. You don’t even need to be connected for Google Pay to work.
  5. Talking of which, Iceland’s connectivity is generally excellent.  There were a couple of remote places where the mobile signal didn’t reach, but I could almost always get online if I needed to; and – at the moment. at least – calls and data go against my UK quota, so I could do the utterly critical tasks, like Instagram, at any time. Such a relief, you can’t even guess.
  6. Iceland is a large island, certainly larger than we had realised.  To see what we saw round the island took 13 days of relentless tourism.  Even then, we really only skimmed the surface; the country would repay a deeper. slower visit; or, of course, several shorter ones. In our case, having a knowledgeable guide like Dagur was a key ingredient to the success of the holiday.
  7. And, of course, it’s vastly different between summer and winter.  We have only experienced the former, and certainly want to go back during the winter time to experience the difference.  While we spent a fortnight exploring the whole coastline during the summer, our guide reckoned that one can experience most of what Iceland has to offer in the winter  (ice caves, geothermal hot pools, northern lights) in just a few days whilst staying within striking distance of Reykjavik and thus avoiding having to travel in what might well be rather problematical road conditions.
  8. The light.  We travelled near midsummer, which meant that although the sun officially set (we were just below the arctic circle), it never got really dark.  A photo example can be found in an earlier post. For me the practical upshot was that I tended to lose track of time whilst writing the blog every evening since I didn’t have the cue of it going dark; so I sometimes looked up to find that it was after midnight.  All the hotels had blackout curtains, but all let in a certain amount of light. My advice to travellers that find it difficult to sleep in the light is to bring a sleep mask if your time there is in summer.  (Of course, at midwinter, it barely gets light, particularly in gloomy weather.)
  9. The weather. Ah, the weather!  As far as we could determine, the only predictable thing about the weather is that it will be windy (Chris Foster, Jane’s friend in Reykjavik, commented that Iceland is the fourth windiest place in the world – and no-one lives in the other three).  Anything else can change very rapidly. We packed for cold and rain but were lucky, by and large, to get cloudy or sunny weather. We should have packed sunscreen, but didn’t.
  10. The lupins. This is a contentious issue among Icelandic people; some appreciate their environmental benefits and some hate their invasiveness.  But one thing is certain: during their brief flowering period, around mid-June to mid-July, they are a colourful addition to the countryside.  For the rest of the year, they’re just green, apparently.
  11. The scenery. It’s anything from attractively scenic to jaw-dropping.  In a way, it’s a shame that so much good scenery is concentrated in a single island.  Pretty much every mile brings a fresh sight that, anywhere else, would have you stopping the car to take a photo; but in Iceland it’s commonplace and after a while, I wonder if one gets a bit inured to the passing landscape unless it’s a massive waterfall, a geothermal hotspot or a panorama over a fjord.
  12. The birdsong. It was a practically ubiquitous and continuous soundtrack to our holiday, with the drumming of snipe and calls of curlew, kittiwake and other birds ever-present. Jane said that it reminded her of her childhood in darkest Somerset, with a level of birdsong you rarely if ever hear today. The same idea applies to insects; Dagur had to clean the Land Rover’s windscreen of splatted invertebrates on several occasions, an activity that is no longer so common in England.
  13. The roads. The major roads are very well tarmacked; less major roads are hard and (largely) level, without a tarmac surface but easily navigable in a normal car; and below that are large numbers of very bumpy tracks which may be found on a map but which really require a serious 4×4, such as the Land Rover Defender that we were in, to be sure of getting along without problems; and the highland mass in the middle, with bridgeless river crossings and rough tracks, should be avoided unless you have serious overland capability, local knowledge and at least one backup car.
  14. Whilst on the topic of roads, the wildlife. Or, more accurately, the sheep.  They’re not strictly wild, but are free to roam wherever they want, which is quite often on the road.  The sensible ones know to get off the road as a car approaches, but they’re not always sensible, and ceaseless vigilance behind the wheel is necessary.
  15. The language.  It’s a bastard.  It has several of its own characters, plus a lot of diacritical marks so even the letters you recognise aren’t necessarily pronounced the way you might think.  Both Jane and I really struggled with understanding and pronouncing place names. I have a favourite sight, the canyon at Fjaðrárgljúfur, but I’m buggered if I can retain the name in my head for more than a few seconds at a time.
  16. The people.  All the Icelanders we met were very smiley, happy-looking, friendly people.  This may, of course, be a side effect of the long days of summer, and the reverse may be the case during the winter, but we left with a positive view of the natives.  Given that the population is about 350,000 and the tourist industry in a good year brings in two million visitors, it’s  unsurprising to find other nationalities at work in the hospitality industry as well. Generally, we got excellent service wherever we went.  In these post-Covid times, though, one has to be a little careful when out in the wilds of the Icelandic countryside to establish what’s open and what isn’t.

Should you visit? Unless you want a fly-and-flop, sunshine-and-beach holiday, the answer is yes. It’s an astonishing, remarkable, unique place. We feel very lucky that we have been able to visit and look forward to going again.

A departure from the unusual

Tuesday 13th July 2021. Today was departure day, with all of the old familiarities of international travel subsumed by the strangeness and uncertainties imposed by the pandemic. Our departure was not until 4pm, so at least we could do something we  are used to doing, which was to wander the streets of a town exploring as we went.  The area of Reykjavik around our hotel is full of lovely little architectural touches, as well as homicidal people on rented electric scooters, and it repays rambling around. In many places, the actual streets are decorated.

and there’s the longest hopscotch track [Jeremy Clarkson Voice ON] in the world [Jeremy Clarkson Voice OFF].

Many of the buildings have some quite extravagant art on them.

And the touches of colour are not only for the traditionally-architected buildings

but can also be found among the more modern ones.

At one stage we stopped for a coffee, in, as it happens, the bar out of which we got chucked at closing time yesterday.

At that point we were en route from the downtown area which contains both the Lutheran cathedral (which, while attractive enough, is, well, just a church really, and hardly Interesting at all)

and the Roman Catholic cathedral (the Church of Christ the King, an altogether much grander affair, unsurprisingly)

in our search for the final Interesting Church of the holiday, which we’d espied as we scurried to and from our Covid test.

This is Háteigskirkja, which as far as I can tell is a non-denominational church. Its website modestly refrains from conveying very much useful information about it, which is a shame, because it’s a striking building; and as the door was open (unusually in our experience of Iceland’s Interesting Churches) we ventured in to find some lovely mosaics inside.

Climbing the stairs to the gallery level we noticed yet more stairs continuing up… the place was deserted so of course we climbed them, eventually arriving at a final workman’s stair up to an open trapdoor… Well, what is a photographer to do when faced with an open trapdoor? Thus we clambered out into one of the bell towers.

When we did this, it was about five to midday and I wasn’t going to hang about trying for artistic images just in case these bells were attached to a clock – so we scarpered back the way we had come!

On the way back to our hotel, we caught a glimpse of the back end of Hallgrímskirkja, the “Space Shuttle” church.

I was quite glad to get that picture, as it’s very difficult to do it from near the church itself.

And that was the end of our wandering around Reykjavik, as it was time to collect our bags and hope that the taxi would arrive that Dagur had promised us would take us to the airport.  Arrive it did, bang on time, with a very large and friendly chap driving it. He whisked us off to the airport where we went through the various formalities of providing the necessary documentation to prove we weren’t currently plague-ridden.  As we approached the security check, I realised that I still had my penknife with me; I usually remember to pack it in my hold luggage, as the security bods don’t generally like people carrying them on to aeroplanes.  Since this was a Swiss Army knife – not a huge one, but even the small ones are ridiculously expensive to replace – I decided to ask the security chap if there was any way I could take it through.  Rather to my surprise, he said it was OK, which was nice of him.

Covid paperwork – and the necessity to wear a mask – aside, the departure process was exactly like it always was, though I suppose the airport was less crowded than it might have been.  After a mask-free fortnight, this was not particularly welcome, but it shows that care is still needed.

We treated ourselves to a coffee and a toastie, and boarded the plane, which was only a few minutes delayed. Much to my surprise, the WiFi on board was free, so I took the opportunity to update this blog as far as I had time to do (you’ll have inferred that this didn’t include today’s entry), and took advantage of some sustenance to fuel the creative juices.

(That wasn’t all me – Jane decided she had to provide moral support.)

Arrival at Heathrow was on the original schedule, and we took the usual half-mile walk to get to the border checks, wondering if there was a horror story about to unfold, having heard tales of six-hour delays and horrendous queues.  Much to our surprise, everything was very swift.  We had all the right paperwork, we whizzed through the border checks, our bags came out pretty fast and our taxi was very nearly awaiting us, we got through so quickly – Heathrow Terminal 2 was very, very quiet.  From touch down to getting the kettle on at home took barely over an hour and a quarter.

And so we reach the end of our adventure into a really unusual place.  Iceland is a remarkable destination, even if you only stay and do the tourist bit in the south; but having seen most of the accessible areas of the island, with, in Dagur, a guide who knows his way around and could make sure we saw things of interest to us, made our time there even more impactful. And we’ve covered a lot of ground:

The middle bit is only accessible with courage and a backup car, but looking at that summary I can understand why our brains were full of the sights, sounds and smells of the country.  It’s been a fantastic fortnight, and we’ve loved the place.  We Will Be Back, as it will be interesting to see what the place is like in Winter (apart from just cold, of course).  I’ll do a further blog post with some general summary-type thoughts about Iceland, and so maybe you’d like to come back in a couple of days to take a look; it will be our opportunity to round off what’s been an extraordinary holiday in a really unusual country.

 

Day 14 – We stood the time of test

Monday 12th July 2021. When we originally made the holiday arrangements with Dagur, we added an extra day into the schedule so that we could potter around Reykjavik. I’m immensely glad we did, in the light of the hoops one has to jump through in order to travel internationally in these pandemic times. UK requirements were that we had to be able to show a negative Covid test taken no more than 72 hours before departure, and the exceedingly well-organised Iceland authorities made this a very straightforward process – we booked the test online for the morning of our free day, and the leisurely 24 hours we’d added into the schedule on spec would give us a cushion in case the tests took the full 24 hours to come through. All in all, another example of the remarkable good fortune we’d experienced on this holiday.

That good fortune didn’t entirely hold. We had to get to a testing centre which was a couple of miles from our hotel and we decided to walk it. In the event, the walk there was into the teeth of the driving drizzle that, as I’ve said before, there is probably a special Icelandic word for, almost certainly containing some strange vowels and consonants. Also, my fond belief that we would turn up to a largely deserted testing centre and sweep effortlessly through looked a little optimistic when we saw the queue.

In fact, the queue moved swiftly and the process inside the building ran with an efficiency that could have been described as ruthless were it not discharged so courteously. The chap who thrust a cotton bud so far up my nasal passage that I feared it would come out of the top of my head was very polite and helpful whilst going about his business; it took seconds and there was a steady flow of people, which made me wonder how much he is enjoying his days at the moment.

The walk back to the hotel was much more pleasant, with the wind behind us; and having got back to the hotel to change into Being A Tourist clothes, we went out to look around Reykjavik in a little more detail than we had on our arrival day.

The first thing we did was go up to that “Space Shuttle” church (you remember – this one)

and took a look inside. It’s a Lutheran church, so the sort of ritzy decoration that typically adorns Catholic churches (often at the expense of the peons they purport to serve) is absent, leaving a clean, calm environment – somewhat reminiscent of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

The church features a very impressive organ. Stop sniggering at the back.

One can go up the tower, at a cost, but we decided not to, instead opting to follow a suggestion from Dagur to cross the road and look into the sculpture garden of the Einar Jonsson museum opposite the church.

He lived from 1874 to 1954, and the sculpture garden has some lovely examples of his work.

(Obvs I have many more photos, but I wouldn’t want to bore you, not really.)

We went back to our hotel and about 5 hours after we had undergone the test, again with no fanfare or choir of angels but rather via a text, I received the following:

“Sóttvarnalæknir og Almannavarnir: Stephen. Skimun sýnir að þú ert ekki með COVID-19 sjúkdóminn.”

Thank goodness for Google Translate, I say; this helped me establish that it was a negative result. To be fair to the authorities, they also e-mailed certificates to us. In English.

After that we wandered round the area close to our hotel, marvelling at the time and trouble taken to make the buildings interesting.

There are many more interesting and quirky architectural sights that we saw, but, again, there’s a limit to your patience with my photos, so I’ll spare you for now. If you come back tomorrow, you’ll see some more, I can promise you that.

We had made an arrangement to meet Chris Foster, you remember – the folk singer and artist contact from Jane’s dim and distant [slap! ouch!] for drinks in the evening. We thought that it would be a good idea to have a bite to eat beforehand as ballast, but equally thought it would be nice to get away from the arctic char/lamb/beef options that so often figured in our diet over the last fortnight. So we went for a Thai meal and I can now vouch that the beef salad in Krua Thai in Reykjavik is a belter.

After that, we met Chris and his wife, Bára Grímsdóttir, who is a legendary force in Icelandic folk music and song, for “a couple of drinks”, which actually resulted in us getting chucked out of one bar as it closed and then still knocking further drinks back as the hotel bar closed; it was a good evening meeting a couple of really interesting people, in my case for the first time.

And so, rather blearily, to bed. We still have a morning in Reykjavik before we have to go to the airport and bid farewell to this remarkable country, and so we might well go out and see a few more of the sights. Come back and find out if this was the case, why don’t you?