Saturday, 31 March 2012

Iceland 3 - No Whales, a Reykjavik Tour and Pizza

24th March 2012
Luckily we could lie in a little today as our whale watching trip did not leave until 12.30pm.  Last night we got back to the hotel at 2am and I was so excited I didn't get to sleep until after 3am!  I was just lying in bed coming round when I got a text.  It was from Elding, the firm that was running our trip today, saying that due to predicted bad weather the trip was cancelled.  I looked out of the window, the weather was the best I'd seen it on this trip to Iceland, but that country is a bit like the UK, the weather can change in minutes.

Glen and I met up and discussed what to do this afternoon instead.  We decided to do another trip, and went for the Reykjavik tour.  So at 1pm we were heading into the city on the bus, our guide was Julia, was half English.  Our first stop was Hallgrímskirkja, the gorgeous main church of the city, you see it's graceful steeple from many places.  We'd visited it before nut it was good to go again, it is such a beautiful building, said to be inspired by the volcanic though it is light coloured as are many of the buildings in Iceland.  By now there was a vicious, icy wind blowing - now I realised why the boat tour was cancelled!

We visited the harbour and saw our Elding boat in dock.  On the opposite quay were two whaling boats, it turned my stomach to see them, and sad to think that some of the whales the tour company sees at sea may end up on those killing boats.  It was interesting to hear that there is also a lot of opposition to whaling in Iceland itself which was good to hear.

We went to another seashore and the Presidents home across the bay was pointed out to us.  Last time we visited it, but on a day like this we would have been blown off our feet as it is a very exposed area.  We then went up a wooded hill called Öskjuhlíð to Perlan - The Pearl.  Our guide for some reason did not like the pine trees, but I liked them, there are few trees in Iceland and a patch of green was good to see.  This where the geo-thermal water is stored in large tanks before being pumped around Reykjavik.  Above the tanks was a big dome that housed a museum, cafe, restaurant and shop.  It also has a 360 degree walkway around the dome that gives stunning views over the city and countryside.  Again we had visited Perlan before but it is always a lovely place to visit and we had lunch there. Not many people went outside and those that did came in looking very windswept to say the least!  We didn't go out, we got fantastic photos last time.

We continued our tour, which was turning out to be very different from the last city tour we took here, I suppose each guide has their own routes and places on the agenda.  Julia's trip was nice because it was very personal and she told us how Reykjavik has changed since she was a child here in the 50's and 60's. She told us the story of the washerwomen from the city who would walk miles to a hot spring in the valley to do their washing, at least they had hot water! It struck me once more what a spread out place Reykjavik is, the centre is relatively small and there are lots of large open areas and sprawling suburbs.

Our last stop was the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum in the Laugardallur Valley, a residential area of the city. Sveinsson (1893-1982) was a native of Reykjavik and the building the museum is housed in was both his home and studio.  We didn't have time to go into the museum but we walked around the garden around it which had numerous sculptures on view.  Some were very abstract others more realistic, I found I really liked his work, there was something very moving about them.  He had a sculpture there of the washerwomen Julia had told us about earlier.  Some sculptures were large others quite small and various materials were used. Shame we didn't have time to go inside.

We were dropped off in the city centre as we wanted to do a bit of shopping and have a meal.  We pottered about some souvenir shops, we both bought a Frostroses candle holder which a very pretty and I've never seen anything like them anywhere else.

We  wandered along looking for a restaurant we could afford and picked an Italian (can't remember its name) that was reasonably priced.  It wasn't a fancy place but the pizza we had was absolutely delicious and huge.  We even treated ourselves to a glass of wine each, (having wine in a restaurant in Reykjavik is a treat!) well it was the last night of our holiday and we actually had a little money left.

Polar Bears on the Streets of Reykjavik!
We left the restaurant and found the weather was getting really bad, the strong, icy wind was still there along with rain now.  We decided to get a taxi back to the hotel seeing the weather was so horrible.  

Once back at The Cabin we had the last of the wine that we had brought with us before going to bed really early as we had to be up at the ungodly hour of 4am the next morning!  Night owl me was surprised that I managed to get to sleep by 10pm, must have been all the fresh sea air.

So our little holiday in Iceland was over.  I still feel Iceland is the most amazing place to visit, and the people are friendly and helpful (and speak excellent English).  The Blue Lagoon was like stepping into another world and what a wonderful day of chilling! It was disappointing not to get out on the whale watching trip, but that's the way with tours that require nature to play ball.  Seeing the Northern Lights made up for missing the whales though, the magic of that time on the snowy mountain pass watching the Aurora will stay with me forever.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Iceland 2 - In Search of the Northern Lights

After our exquisite day of chilling at the Blue Lagoon we went back to our hotel and had a meal, then we checked at reception whether the Northern Lights trip later that night was going ahead - the tour company cancels by 7pm if it is not happening and you can try again the next night.  As it was raining and cloudy outside we fully expected a cancellation, but much to our surprise the trip was on.

The bus picked us up at 9.30pm and sure enough the clouds had lifted and the stars twinkled above us. We headed through the suburbs of Reykjavik, I noticed that most people in the city did not close their curtains/blinds at night when their lights are on, rather strange...  We drove on into the blackness of Iceland's interior, we were heading Þingvellir, the site of Iceland's parliament from 930 to 1789.  It is also the area where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet causing a major fault line, fractured rocks and regular earthquakes. It's a fascinating place to visit (Glen and I went there in 2010 on our last visit to Iceland) in daylight, but of course on this night we could see none of this.

The northern lights or Aurora Borealis (this term was first coined by Galileo, Aurora was the Roman goddess of dawn and Boreas was Greek for the north wind) are seen around the north and south magnetic poles of the earth.  They are caused by the collision of charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere. The charged particles originate when solar wind (caused by solar flares) hits the earth's magnetosphere. The differing colours are the result of both the height of the phenomenon and whether the particles collide with oxygen or nitrogen.  

At Þingvellir there were loads of people, and it took some of the special atmosphere away somewhat.  We got off the bus and joined the throng with eyes raised to the heavens.  There were a few lights scattered around the valley but not many and the sky was very dark, so many stars were visible, it was especially clear because there was no moon, it looked beautiful. The plough constellation was overhead, much higher in the sky than in the UK. It wasn't too cold so the wait was not uncomfortable - then again I was well wrapped up in long-sleeved vest, long johns, thick socks, wool lined boots, thick trousers, velour top, down coat with hood, ski gloves and a wool scarf wrapped round my head!!    

Unfortunately we did not get a show of Northern Lights, all we saw in an hour and a half was a slight arc of white.  It was very disappointing and the bus was quiet as we headed back towards Reykjavik.  Then after about 15 minutes our guide said that he could see Northern Lights in the sky to our right.  Everyone immediately went to the right and sure enough we could see some lights, suddenly the bus had come alive!  The bus driver pulled off the road onto a side track and we all excitedly piled out of the bus.  We were on a high mountain pass and it was very cold and there was snow all around, and there, above the jagged snow-capped mountain tops, were the Northern Lights.  They were a curtain of white/very light green that covered about a quarter of the sky. There was little light pollution here, only the lights from a ski slope just behind a mountain and the orange glow of the lights of Reykjavik glowed faintly behind other mountains.

The aurora were moving very slowly as if being blown by a very gentle, slow-motion breeze, there weren't many people now and there was a hush as we marvelled at one of the most beautiful natural phenomenons there is. There was something incredibly moving, almost magical and awe-inspiring about it. They would fade only to be reborn in a slightly different form and I felt quite emotional as I watched their graceful dance, one of my dreams had come true, and there was nowhere else I would have rather been at that moment than that cold, Icelandic mountain pass. 

After about half an hour the lights became fainter and we all piled back on the bus.  We had a bit of a scare when the bus wouldn't start!  I had visions of being stuck on that mountain pass all night watching the lights - not a bad thing!  The driver soon got the bus going though and we were soon heading back towards Reykjavik with a now very happy and chatty busload of people!

Monday, 26 March 2012

Iceland 1 - Volcanic Bathing and Pampering

22nd March 2012

My cousin Glen and I landed in Keflavik airport, Iceland on a damp, murky afternoon.  The airport is small so we were on our way to Reykjavik on the Flybus in record time.  It was misty and we couldn't see far beyond the road, occasionally eerie, black statues standing on plinths were visible amongst the chaotic lava fields that the road runs through. Iceland really is like no other place on earth.

Our hotel was The Cabin, a bit out of the centre of Reykjavik, overlooking the sea and beautiful Mount Esja. The rooms were very small, they lived up to the hotel's name, but were fine for our purpose.  By now the weather was really bad, windy and driving rain.  We had intended - at the recommendation of my friend Michelle - to go to see Icelandic singer Magni play in a pub called Den Danske Kro.  We were tired, it was a bit of a trip into Reykjavik city centre and the weather was vile so we decided not to go.  Instead we had a nice, reasonably priced meal at our hotel followed some of the wine we had brought with us (alcohol is very expensive in Iceland).

23rd March 2012

Up early today, had breakfast and then were collected for our trip to the Blue Lagoon.  That's something I like about Iceland bus companies pick you up and drop you off at your hotel. We took the road back towards Keflavik and branched off into the lava field not far from the airport.  As we approached we could see plumes of steam rising into the air.  We were dropped  off by a  pathway that weaved through the the six foot high lava.  It was very windy but dry.

After a short walk we went inside the building and got our dressing gowns and went to the modern changing rooms.  You enter the Lagoon via an indoor pool that is waist deep and then go out of a door into the Lagoon proper.  Initially the cold hit us, and what you have to do is crouch down until your head and neck are all that is not submerged under the bath-warm water of 37-39 degrees C. It's handy being small like me as I didn't have to  crouch very much, but as the water is very saline it wasn't an effort to crouch anyway.

The lava surrounding the Blue Lagoon was formed in 1226, it is known as Evil Lava as it is very rough and difficult to traverse. The geothermal water originates 6562 feet below the earth's surface where it is heated to 240 degrees centigrade.  As it comes towards the surface it cools and captures minerals from the earth which gives the water its distinct blue colour.

The Steamy Blue Lagoon
The water was deliciously warm, the heat of it varied a little in different parts of the Lagoon, but it was never cool.  There was a sandy/rocky floor which seemed natural but it must have been manmade as the rock all around is the Evil Lava which would not be good under bare feet!  I have a bit of a skin problem at the moment and found that as soon I was in the water it was soothed, and now days afterwards my skin feels as smooth as a baby's bottom!

It was very relaxing in the water, it wasn't very noisy or crowded and the Lagoon is also a lot bigger than I expected. All the rock on and below the waterline was white with a layer of silica from the water.  Steam rose from the water and beyond, mountains were visible in the distance.  It all felt very elemental and other-worldly as does so much of this amazing country. It is definitely a must-do when in Iceland.

One tip, if you wear glasses like me take them off they'll only steam up in the Lagoon, I had to store mine in my cleavage LOL!

One of the Outer Pools
We left the Lagoon showered and got dressed and went for a drink in the cafe.  We had facials booked Glen was in first at 1pm and I was at 2pm.  While Glen was receiving her treatment I had lunch of a very expensive burger in the Lava Restaurant.  Just before 2pm I went up to the treatment area and waited in the seats there, Glen came out looking very chilled and fresh-faced!  Then it was my turn to have a facial with Kristjana.  The "bed" was fabulous, it was shaped so that you lay in a gentle curve, very, very comfortable.  The room was quite dark, lit by candles and soothing music played in the background.  The facial was bliss, especially the massage part and she used Blue Lagoon creams rather than oils.  All too soon it was finished, as usual after a facial/massage I felt a bit spaced out and took a while to come round.

Glen and I went to look around the shop which was lovely but very expensive, I bought some shot glasses and a fridge magnet (I always buy the latter as a souvenir when I go away).  We then went for a walk along one of the paths around the lava fields and outer pools.  It was quite open there and there was a fierce wind that nipped your cheeks. The outer pools were as blue as the ones in the Lagoon but the water in them was cool.

After this we got our bus back to Reykjavik and our hotel.  It had been a fabulous day of chilling and I felt re-invigorated, I loved every minute of it!

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Joshua Tree - 25 Years Old!

I know I'm a day late, but here's to The Joshua Tree, released 9th March 1987!  After all these years it's easy to forget just how revolutionary it was at the time.  Big sounds, full of songs that were to become classics with soaring voice and guitar which brought a new emotion to rock 'n' roll.

I was a fledgling U2 fan at the time and remember listening to the record (yes record!) for the first time and instantly loving every song.  That had not happened before or indeed since with any other album. It also cemented my love for U2's music, which in turn has led to making some wonderful friends, travelling all over the world and lots of other fun times. So as well as being a great album The Joshua Tree enriched my life in so many ways too.

Disasters and Jobs

I've not had a lot of time over the last couple of weeks for my blog as other things have taken priority.  I've had a few domestic disasters, the worst needing a claim on the insurance.  I won't bore you with the details, but am pleased to say the problems are nearly resolved.

A couple of weeks ago I found out my job with Age UK was finishing at the end of this month.  Social Services have not renewed the contract so the service I was part of will be discontinued.  I feel bad for the old people, they are losing what, for some, is such an important part of their lives.  One lady I visit each week cannot move from her chair due to a stroke and she looks forward to have someone like me coming in to chat and do crosswords with.  It may not sound like much, but to her it means she does not just sit alone in front of the TV for hours on end.  It seems that the elderly always come last on the list when it comes to funding, which I think is a big indictment of our society.

It also means I need another job, which I think I may have found.  A company that provides support workers advertised an open day in our local paper so I went along to it on Monday and ended up getting an interview right away.  All the forms have been filled in, references and Criminal Records Bureau checks are in hand, so it looks like I'm well on my way to getting a new job.  It will be supporting elderly people in their homes after they have left hospital.  Fingers crossed it works out!

Less than two weeks until my cousin Glen and I go to Iceland.  There have been superduper solar storms these last few days that have resulted in fantastic displays of northern lights in the Far North so I hope they continue along with clear skies when we are in Iceland.  It's three months since I was in Dublin and I find that after three months I get antsy and am ready to travel again, so I'm ready that visit the island of ice and fire!