MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “Keflavik”

Roving Round Reykjavik

After 9 days in Iceland, I’d seen a lot of the country’s natural beauty, but I felt I knew little of its history or its culture. It really is a country deserving of more time, but I had been so determined to pack as much in to my 10 day whirlwind circumnavigation as possible, that I was really just touching the surface. It took reaching the little town of Borgarnes, 60km north of Reykjavik, to delve a little into the history of the place. Despite its small size, it is home to the Settlement Centre, a really interesting museum detailing the settlement of Iceland as well as the tale of Egils Saga based on a transcript from the 13th century. The location of Borgarnes is pretty, being out on a peninsula, and parking up at the Settlement Centre I was greeted by a local friendly cat who was eager for some attention.

The museum is divided into two separate sections: one upstairs and one downstairs, and for each you are provided with a head set to narrate you through the numbered displays. It was a bit crowded in places with the displays in a relatively small space, but for me, it was a good introduction and overview to the surrounding area as well as the country as a whole. Nearby there were some cairns erected to remember a couple of the people depicted in Egils Saga, and behind the museum there was a beautiful sculpture on the hill overlooking the mountains across the water. At the end of the road, a little island sits across a bridge, and round from here, a short walk led round the tip of the peninsula and up behind the local school. It was another overcast day but with just me and a couple of locals around it was a very peaceful place to be. I’ve found Iceland’s churches to be very pretty so I wound my way round the streets and up the hill to the town’s kirk for a wander around the grounds. As with many of them, it was up a slight hill giving a rooftop view of the area.

Cairn for a missing lady

Borgarnes sculpture

Bridge at Borgarnes

Borgarnes panorama

Borgarnes church

Borgarnes church

 

I drove across the bridge to leave Borgarnes behind and wanting to avoid the Toll tunnel, I left Route 1 and took the more scenic drive round route 47 up yet another fjord, before doubling back on the far side to rejoin the Ring Road to head south to Reykjavik. As with the day I first arrived, despite it being a relatively small city, I was grateful for the GPS on my phone to guide me to my night’s accommodation. But once in the heart of the city, I realised it was actually quite straightforward to navigate around. My first night in Iceland I stayed in the outskirts of Reykjavik but this time I was staying amidst all the action. Unfortunately this meant the reality of city life as a car driver: trying to find a place to park near my hostel and then having to pay for the privilege when I eventually found one. It was strange being back amongst hustle and bustle when I’d had peace and tranquility in rural Iceland for the past week.

I started exploring the capital city by heading down to the harbour and wandering around the port looking at the mixture of tour boats, fishing vessels, cargo ships and passenger ferries. Amongst it all there was even a dry dock, and there was movement and buzz everywhere, being in the middle of the working week as it was. I followed a painted line on the ground west past businesses and round to an area of museums and shops. I joined the crowd of people at a popular ice cream shop before retracing my steps to where I’d started then continuing east along the waterfront towards the city centre. Some statues lined this walk as I made my way to the Harpa, the city’s music and conference hall. Opened in 2011, it has a distinctive facade with a multitude of different coloured glass panels.

Ferry in Reykjavik harbour

Boat in dry dock

Sign at Reykjavik harbour

Fishermen statue

Statue outside Harpa

Harpa

 

Next I worked my way to Skólavörðustígur, the street that leads up to Iceland’s most iconic building Hallgrímskirkja. Completed in 1986, the 73metre tall church not only is distinctive in design but can be seen from many angles around the city, acting as a handy locator beacon. Designed by the same person who designed Akureyrarkirkja in Akureyri, it is one of the city’s top attractions. On a sunny day this building looks stunning, but even on a grey day, whilst it blended slightly into the cloudy background, it was still a distinctive sight to behold. Outside, the statue of explorer Leif Eriksson stands proudly on the forecourt and through the front doors, the long body of the church stretched forward, with the massive organ suspended above the front door.

Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja

Explorer Leif Eriksson

Inside Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja's organ

Statue in Hallgrímskirkja

 

After wandering around downstairs, I purchased my ticket and queued for the lift up to the observation deck within the tower. Up here, through a series of pane-less windows, there was a 360 degree view overlooking the city. There is a smattering of coloured roofs and walls amongst the mainly pale-coloured buildings, and the mountains to the north as well as the surrounding sea surround the fringes of the city. The city’s domestic airport is close by, and it is a handy spot to get some bearings before exploring the city further.

Reykjavik panorama west

Reykjavik panorama north

Reykjavik panorama east

Reykjavik Panorama south

 

Back outside, I walked round the church to appreciate it from all angles before wandering down to the foreshore to head back to Harpa in the hope of grabbing tickets for a show. Along this promenade was one of my favourite sculptures in Iceland, that of a Viking-style ship depicted in metal. Behind it on the water, some sail boats lazily moved along nearby. Unfortunately when I checked the schedule inside Harpa, there was nothing at a suitable time for me to attend so I decided to spend my evening wandering the streets, given that daylight would continue past midnight. Passing old and colourful buildings, I found myself at a large lake behind the city centre.

Hallgrímskirkja

Walking round Hallgrímskirkja

Walking around Hallgrímskirkja

Ship sculpture on the promenade

Sailing at Reykjavik

Building in Reykjavik's Old Town

Building in Reykjavik's Old Town

 

Tjörnin was pretty deserted by this time, and I almost had it to myself, wandering along side the water. There were more interesting sculptures along the path and crossing a road to reach its far end, there was a water fountain and a statue in the lake itself which bore a striking resemblance to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid. I visited Copenhagen when I was a young girl but if I close my eyes I can still picture the Little Mermaid, and it felt strange looking at a similar statue in another city. Beyond the lake and across a main road was Vatnsmýri, a wetland where there were loads of Greylag geese wandering about. I was completely alone here, and it was a nice part of the city to get some peace and quiet.

Sculpture at Tjornin

Church at Tjornin

Reykjavik's Little Mermaid

Reykjavik wetlands

Greylag goose

 

I awoke to sunshine on my last morning in Iceland. Ever wary of the ticket metre kicking in on the street outside, I took my car out of the city early and headed to Perlan, a domed building atop a hill which offers a differing view over the city. The building itself had seen better days and was rather drab looking inside and out, but the outdoor viewing platform upstairs gave a 360 degree view of the city from a different perspective than had been on offer at Hallgrímskirkja, and from here in the sunshine, the famous church looked beautiful. It was also possible to see more of the southern suburbs disappearing into the distance, than had been evident elsewhere.

Hallgrímskirkja in the sunshine

Reykjavik from Perlan

South Reykjavik from Perlan

Band statue at Perlan

 

After driving to Laugardalur near where I’d stayed the first night, I visited the large park and the small Botanical Gardens within them. It was a popular place with joggers, and children on visits from school, but there wasn’t much to look at, and the gardens themselves proved rather underwhelming. I returned to the city centre, and parked my car up for the rest of the day, ensuring my parking ticket was correct. Now the city centre was mine to explore, and with the shops and eateries open, I made the most of city life. I was pleased to discover lots of street art around the city, something which I’ve grown to love as it has taken over my home city of Christchurch. I’ve had the joy of exploring other worldwide cities’ mural works such as Melbourne in Australia and my native Glasgow in Scotland, so I went out my way to explore side alleys to see as much of it as I could find. In between this I enjoyed not just the tourist shops, but some quirky local shops as well, and despite being a weekday, the city centre was full of people. Outside a handful of restaurants there were various signs offering both Minke whale and puffin to eat, and they seemed particularly targeted towards tourists. I’ll usually try local cuisine when I’m abroad, but not when it involves killing endangered creatures.

Building in Reykjavik

Reykjavik street art

Whale on the menu

Tourist menu

 

But as the afternoon came round, it was soon time for one of the highlights of my trip. I probably wouldn’t have known about it, had it not been for reading a fellow blogger’s post, and despite initially being put off by the price of it, I soon came round to the idea of it. Unfortunately there was a slight mix up with the bus pick up service that was included in the price I paid, and this led to a slightly stressful time where I was worried that I wouldn’t get there. In hindsight, I could have just driven myself, but I had somehow convinced myself it involved an unsealed road which in fact it didn’t. In the end though, all was well, and I made it with everyone else to the building up in the hills outside of Reykjavik to join my tour group to go Inside the Volcano, and we all kitted up in a waterproof jacket to make the long trek there.

Þríhnúkagígur is a dormant volcano that last erupted over 4000 years ago. Quite unique in that the magma chamber has not been filled up, it contains a large chamber that can be descended into for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what a volcano looks like from the inside. There is a 50 minute walk across the nearby lava field to get there, a relatively barren and desolate land from which some cones stand out in various directions in the distance. Eventually we reached a small hut where we were split into groups and given our harnesses and helmets. To a lot of people’s delight there was an arctic fox pup running around, having become orphaned and being looked after by the staff there. I was excited to be put into the first group to descend, so there was little time to wait before we were marched up the side of the cone to the crater rim where the rigging and ‘elevator’ awaited us. Despite being June, there were patches of snow visible from here, and we had a nice view across the mainly black landscape towards the edge of Reykjavik which was visible in the distance.

Crossing the lava field near Þríhnúkagígur

Arctic fox cub

Crater rim of Þríhnúkagígur

Top of the crater descent

Snow amongst the lava

 

The descent into the volcano was incredible, harnessed into what looks like a window-cleaner’s lift bucket. It was slow and steady and as the entrance is narrow, we got very close to the colourful rock on the way down. Then as the chamber widens, we were all blown away by the glorious yellow that was the dominant colour of the rock. I really wish I had better camera skills because despite having 3 separate devices that could take photographs, I struggled to get anything that came close to the immense beauty that lay under the ground. After 120metres of descent, we were let loose to explore the nearby rocks whilst the lift returned to the surface to collect the next group. I wandered around in a bit of a daze, my excitement blurring my vision a little, as I tried desperately to absorb what I was seeing. There was just yellow everywhere, and interspersed with this were reds and blacks, and with this view there was an ever present audio of dripping water and echoing voices. I love caves, and this felt no different, and whilst I paid no attention to myself at the time, I’m pretty sure I had a giant grin on my face the whole time.

Descent into the volcano

Colours inside Þríhnúkagígur

Bright yellow wall of the magma chamber

Roof of the magma chamber

Brilliant yellow rocks

Lift descending into the chamber from above

 

By the time the remaining groups had descended, it was then my turn to go back up. I tried hard to take mental snapshots of the view with my eyes in a desperate attempt to burn the memory in my head. Back at the surface, there was warm soup waiting for us at the cabin, and as there was then some waiting to do, I wandered around the nearby paths before the arrival of rain sent me back to the cabin. The walk back to the waiting bus took nearly as long as the hike there had been, and then it was time to head back to Reykjavik. The bus driver forgot about me on the way back meaning I had to circle the city twice to be released near my hostel. I was too tired to eat out, so grabbed a take-away before heading back to my dorm to pack.

Þríhnúkagígur cone

Info board at the cabin

Hiking back across the lava field

 

I had an early rise to head to the airport, and in an attempt to be quiet and not wake my roommates, I accidentally dropped my laptop which not only broke it, but made a very loud noise. I cursed out loud before hastily exiting from the room. I reached the airport at Keflavik in good time and dropped my rental car off before reaching the terminal and being greeted by utter chaos. Clearly several flights were leaving at a similar time, and the staff there seemed unable to clearly direct people or deal with the increasingly grumbly travellers who were forced to wait in lines that seemed never to move. It was another reminder that the country’s popularity is rising faster than it can cope with, but despite getting there to discover that my flight was an hour later than my ticket said, I brushed both annoyances out of my mind to enjoy a last breakfast in the country that I had easily fallen in love with.

Right to the Golden Circle

Sometimes you have a dream and it remains that way, never materialising into reality, and sometimes that dream just takes a long time to reach fruition. This was Iceland for me. Back when I lived in Scotland, long before the thought of moving to New Zealand had ever entered my head, I dreamed of visiting the land of fire and ice to the north. There seemed to be neither the time nor the money to make it work, and so it remained only a wish until finally in June of this year, it became real. In fact I booked my flights from Glasgow to Reykjavik several months before I’d even booked my flights from New Zealand to Scotland. This trip was happening, come hell or high water, and my plan was to spend the longest day of the year in the land of the midnight sun.

There was just enough time to watch a movie on the Icelandair flight, the credits rolling as the plane hit the tarmac, and as often happens, a large grin crossed my face as I stepped out and into the airport. I was excited and also rather nervous, as I had booked a hire car to allow me to circumnavigate the country, and for the first time in my life I would be driving on the opposite side of the road, and doing so from the opposite side of the car. I’ve driven in 5 countries, all ‘lefties’ and this was my first time on the right. I made the short walk to the rental office, packed up my car and prepared myself to get out on the road. Despite 11 years of driving manual, I have since spent over 4 years driving an automatic. Thankfully my rental car for my Scottish road trip had been a manual, allowing me to get used to changing gears again because now I found myself with a gear stick and an arm that wasn’t used to moving one.

After a few deep breaths, I eased out of the parking lot, set off on the road, and hit a roundabout. That was just cruel. In fact there were 3 roundabouts just to leave Keflavik, the small town where Iceland’s main airport is situated, behind but finally I was on the open road and surrounded by barrenness. I knew the island was volcanic, but I wasn’t prepared for the lumps of lava rock that sat either side of the road, and there was little vegetation to see for miles. Arriving in the evening, and with hours of daylight still ahead, I was in no hurry to get to my hostel, so when the turn-off came, I turned off the main road and followed the signs through the blackened landscape until I reached the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous geothermal spa.

I’d pre-booked a ticket which was recommended, and having done so it was an easy process to get in, receiving my wrist band and pointed in the direction of the locker room. I had to be helped to get my locker to lock as it was a little confusing, but I was eager to get into the pool. A requirement at all geothermal spas in Iceland is to shower naked prior to entering, and private cubicles were available for this. Following the signs, I headed downstairs and out the double doors, and there I found myself walking into the lagoon, a place I’d heard so much about for many years. It was absolutely packed, with GoPro toting tourists everywhere. I briefly regretted not bringing mine in purely for some water-based photos, but I quickly put that aside and got on with enjoying myself.

Priority number one was finding the silica mud that is free to apply to your skin for a facial. I located the booth and lathered it on, then duly spent my time wandering around the different parts of the lagoon, testing what temperature I preferred and allowing myself to unwind after the mild stress of getting used to the car and the road. One of my favourite things about the place was the in-lagoon bar. Using the electronic wrist band as currency, food, drinks and treatments can be purchased with a swipe, and these are then paid for at the end of the visit. I had heard about Skyr, an Icelandic dairy product, so I got hold of a Skyr smoothie and sipped it whilst walking around the lagoon. It was one of those marvellously surreal experiences that you have when travelling.

 

I tried the sauna and steam rooms but found them so hot it felt like my throat and nostrils were on fire, so most of my time was spent in the very large lagoon. Eventually though, I grew hungry, and headed into the cafe for some expensive food and another Skyr smoothie. Ever aware that I still had a bit of driving to do to reach my hostel, I finally got changed and did a bit of exploring of the facilities before leaving. Even the walk back to the car park takes you past silica lakes and large lava rocks, and whilst the cloudy skies detracted from it slightly, it felt other-worldly. I took my time, watching some birds flit between the rocks, but then it was time to get back on the road and retrace my route back to the highway.

 

I was exceedingly grateful for the GPS routing on my phone as although Reykjavik is deemed a small city by worldwide standards, it was big enough to feel that I would have got lost without it. I’d picked a hostel away from the city centre as I was heading east early the next morning. It was in a very residential part of the city, and whilst the route took me to the correct street, it had me pull in at a block of houses. Thankfully one of the residents was able to point me in the right direction, and I was soon to discover how the nation as a whole is exceptionally friendly and welcoming and eager to help. The hostel room numbering was a little confusing so I couldn’t find my room very easily, but then it was lights out to get some sleep, only to appreciate that it was still daylight outside until well after midnight.

I had an early rise to set off on my circumnavigation around the island. I was driving anti-clockwise, and my first port of call was the Þingvellir National Park to the north-east of Reykjavik. I discovered early on that driving in Iceland was actually really enjoyable and my previous worries about driving on the right side of the road were unfounded. Although I had my GPS navigating me, the signage on the open road was easy to follow, and although it is a stunning country, I managed to find the scenery not too much of a distraction. The traffic at that time of the day was light and I had large sections of the road to myself, despite being part of the renowned Golden Circle.

I hadn’t bothered to buy food having read that the visitor’s centre near my destination of Silfra had a cafe, but I was dismayed to find it closed when I got there, and it wasn’t opening for hours. I found throughout my whole trip that Iceland eateries are late openers, and dining out for breakfast was a very difficult thing to do. I knew I’d end up starving but there wasn’t much choice, and I silently kicked myself for not seeking out a supermarket the night before. Whilst the businesses were closed, nature was open, and I made my way to the meeting spot where my morning tour was due to start. Being part of the national park, the car park had a charge, and the machines only accepted card payments.

To one side lay a large lake, Þingvallavatn visible down a river where geese and their young waddled about on the banks. Up river from the car park, a pretty little church adorned the riverside, and climbing up over some lava rocks, I found a track that led me up the wall of a chasm and down into a large rift valley. This whole region has been created by tectonic plate movements as the North American and Eurasian plates move apart from each other, and the whole area is riddled with fissures and valleys as a result. I followed the path up to the top of the rock and from the viewing platform I could see out over the landscape, both dramatic and at times barren. I tried to guess where I’d be going for my tour, but as the clock ticked on, the crowds of people that would become a constant accompaniment to this part of Iceland started to appear, and I made my way back down into the fissure, and up over the lava wall to meet my tour guide.

 

I don’t remember how or where I found out about this tour, but when I read that it was possible to snorkel between the two tectonic plates, I knew I had to do it whilst I was here. The company that runs snorkelling trips also offers diving trips too, and there were regular tour times running each day. So regular in fact, that there was a constant flow of people kitting up and heading to and from the entry point, and it was a busy place to be. Whilst pick-ups are available in Reykjavik, a few of us had driven ourselves there, and in the end we had to wait quite a while for our guide to arrive from the city. Then the long process of preparation began.

Despite being the height of summer, the water temperature was just 3oC, so there was a lot of layers to get geared up in. I already had a base layer on under my clothes, but on top of this went a thermal body suit, a dry suit, a head mask and gloves. A few of us were of a build where our dry suits weren’t water tight enough around our necks, and so we had to have the indignity of a collar put on. For all intents and purposes, this was like a broad cable tie around your neck that was ratcheted up until water tightness was achieved. About half of our group needed this and it was not pleasant at all. I immediately felt lightheaded, but one of my tour companions was feeling immensely claustrophobic with his on and he was struggling to hide his agitation. With all the checks that needed to be done, the kitting up process felt like it took forever, and even after we made our way to the entry point, the amount of tours taking place meant there was quite a queue to get in the water. My lightheadedness had eased but a couple of my tour mates pointed out that my lips and skin were turning a shade of blue, so our guide was called over and he had to loosen up my collar a notch. It still felt unpleasantly tight, but my colour was pink again within a matter of minutes, just in time to get in the frigid water.

 

It really is the clearest water I have ever swam in. I was a little disappointed to discover that there was no aquatic life, but the crystal clarity and the changing depths of the rocky chasm still made for an interesting snorkel, and although my face which was uncovered was freezing, I was more than content ploughing my way through the snorkel route. Half an hour passed in no time at all, and having first headed near the lake then veering off to another channel, we reached the exit point, and I didn’t want to get out. Waiting till every one else had hauled themselves up, I pulled myself out about 34 minutes after getting in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a much needed hot chocolate and cookies waiting for us back at the van where we got out of our gear and were then left to our own devices. I took a wander back down the path to where we’d come out at the end of the snorkel, and then watched some geese for a while as they nibbled at the vegetation. By now into the early afternoon, the place was packed and the car park was full. Aside from the snorkelling and scuba diving, there are various walks in the area to explore the geology as well as viewing one of the country’s many waterfalls. An Icelandic flag flies near here to mark the location of Iceland’s first parliament in 930AD, with sessions being held there until 1798. One of the downsides about being so close to the waterway was the incessant swirling flies that flitted around your face. They never landed nor bit but their constant dancing close by became very annoying.

 

It became clear upon reaching my car that people were fighting over parking spaces, so I made somebody very happy when I signalled I was leaving and gave them my spot. I still had a lot of ground to cover in the Golden Circle and I’d really only just started.

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