Icelandic dreams

By | Category: Travel destinations
a typical Icelandic landscape

a typical Icelandic landscape

A wistful Icelandic Lullabye is printed on Icelandair’s customer’s pillows:

Bye bye and hush-a-bye,

Can you see the swans fly?

Now half asleep in bed I lie, awake with half an eye.

Hey-ho and well-a-day

Over hills and far away,

That’s where the little children stray,

To see the lambs at play.

 

It is unseasonably mild for this frozen, glacier covered country.  We arrived in Reykjavik on a late flight and I am now traversing the city’s fortified coastline at pre-dawn.  In Iceland, it will stay dark until 9:00am. And I am at the darkest place I can reach at 5:00am, hoping to see a glimpse of the Northern Lights.

I know that it is unlikely I will spot them – too much light pollution.  I stroll along and notice the waters are calm. But I can easily understand the need for this mighty rock strewn fortification between me and the sea.  I imagine how angry the sea must get when winter storms rage.  At one time most Icelanders, many of whom were fishermen, did not swim.  The loss of life from drowning in the centuries and decades before the mid- 20th century was staggering.  Thank goodness that swimming is now a required subject in school for all residents.

Reykjavik is ringed by snow covered mountains. But not the enormous heights you might imagine, but tiny ones that have only just begun to grow in geological terms.

steam from the geothermal springs

steam from the geothermal springs

This morning we will be travelling by coach to what is known as the Golden Circle. Driving along the snow covered North Atlantic ridge, our first stop will be Gullfoss.  The sky is a multitude of pastel colours with huge geo-thermal steam clouds rising from the earth.  Otherworldly is how I would describe it.  After about an hour, we stop at the Icelandic Horse Centre.  Though there are a couple of ponies in penned areas, there are really no horses to be seen.  It’s a coffee break by all accounts and our first opportunity to stretch.

We soon arrive at the waterfall, Gullfoss.  It certainly doesn’t disappoint.  The convergence of two rivers, one being the Hvítá River, means this is an incredibly powerful force of nature. The way the waterfall disappears into the canyon gives the appearance of a supernatural apparition.  And, as this scene is below the observation platforms, it makes for spectacular viewing.  Apparently, an English industrialist tried to buy this waterfall and the surrounding land at the beginning of the last century for a hydro-electric station.  The farmer who owned it, and subsequently the waterfall, is reported to have said, “How can I sell my friend?”  His daughter then fought on to ensure that the land, the river and Gullfoss, would never be developed.  She is considered Iceland’s first environmentalist.

After being blasted by the wind when walking along the Hvítá River’s edge; we moved on to the relatively calm Haukadalur Valley.  The famous Geysir is located here, and all other spouting hot water displays are named after it.  Geysir is part of an entire field of geo-thermal activity and has been shooting off for about 10,000 years.  It was first mentioned in Icelandic records circa 1294.  Stukkor is the name of the current geyser that blows every five minutes or so.  The excitement around being so close to this sort of natural phenomenon is actually quite hard to explain. The   squealing and screaming of observers is quite amusing.

We then moved on, about a twenty minute drive, to the geo-thermal steam baths at Laugarvatn Fontana; the piece de resistance of the entire day.Iceland gorge

On our arrival, a member of staff leads us to the lake front to demonstrate the temperature of the water.  And also the temperature of the muddy ground near the shore.  He grabs a spade and furiously digs out a large pan.  It is covered with cling film. On speedy inspection, we discover it is bread in the pan that has actually been baked underground.  Remarkable.

We strip off (and then put swimsuits on!!) before spending an hour in the pools, also near the lake. These are a variety of temperatures ranging from very warm to hot.  A shower is required before stepping outside from the changing rooms. Brrrrrr…it’s really cold!  But the saunas, built in the very same place as the first hot house when the properties of the water were first discovered, are divinely hot!  The various pools (three pools and one hot pot – as our guide calls it) are blissfully warm.  It is amazingly conducive to conversation, floating around in the water with other people. A very relaxing end to the day.

Though it wasn’t the very end. On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped for twenty minutes at the rift valley where the American and Euro-Asian tectonic plates meet.  This is called Pingvellir and is where the first ever Parliament in the world met during the 9th century.  This scenic area, which features Iceland’s deepest lake, is spectacularly beautiful.

Back in Reykjavik, I learn about the fishing industry and Icelandic life at the Vikin Maritime Museum, next to the old harbour and a short walk from the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina where I am staying.  The lobby, gift shop and entrance area are slightly non-descript, as are the first few exhibits. But as I go to the second floor and start examining the exhibit properly, I become engaged in the displays. I find out more about how the Icelanders have lived and survived in a hostile environment over the centuries.  Going to sea and eeking a living from fishing this far North is not easy. It is portrayed to perfection in a video which captures a day in the life of a 19th century crew at sea.  The wooden rowboats they use in this film are still around today and were the mainstay of the fishing fleets for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

the toughness of the fishing fleet

the toughness of the fishing fleet

There was a particular map on display which pinpointed the exact location of where all twelve tonne and larger ships had been lost between 1932 and 1942. At least four dozen of these vessels; each indicated by a black ‘ship shaped’ pin, were indicated.  The map was densely covered in these black pins.  I can only imagine the tragic loss of life from these sinkings.

All manner of interesting exhibits, including an entire room with a photography of children and child labour at sea, populate the museum.

Choose Iceland in the winter and you will enjoy many attractions with a minimum of other tourists.  This is without a doubt, a wonderful time of year to come.  And this year in particular, plan to book a Northern Lights tour.

Return flights from London Heathrow to Reykjavik with Icelandair from £242pp based on travel in September. Call 0 84 4811 1190.

To book a tour of the Golden Circle visit Reykjavik Excursions or call +354 562 1011.

Click here for further information about Laugarvatn Fontana or call +354 486 1400.

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