Thursday, December 31, 2015

Iceland, sunsetting

The last Iceland post and the last of the the year. 

I spent my birthday on the Golden Circle tour, in a comfy minibus driven by a charming, funny, knowledgeable man named Thor, in the congenial company of a dozen or so others. Mid-morning, still in pitch darkness, we visited a town sitting on so much volcanic and seismic activity that they baked bread in the ground, grew peppers and tomatoes all year in geothermic greenhouses, and where one of the sights pointed out was a big hole where a house had fallen into the ground one morning. After that is was golden waterfalls, churning geysirs, the old site of the Allthing, and a lake so deep and clear that there are three separate species of Arctic char each evolved for a different depth of water, and scuba divers get vertigo. And much more besides. 

The following morning another minibus picked us up early and took us to the airport, where security waved through our souvenir heavy metal horseshoe complete with spiky nails when we said we wanted to keep it because of the wonderful time we'd had with the horses. We spent our last krona on miniatures of Schnapps, and as I was going through passport control the dour young man frowned at me as he looked at my passport.

'Did you have a good party last night then?'

Was I looking that rough? I wondered, then twigged; I'd been having such a good time for the whole time I kept forgetting about it.

'I had seawolf with lobster sauce, a candle in my ice cream and some very nice schnapps,' I replied.

We landed late but comfortably at Luton in the fog, and went through an hour or two's insignificant but anti-climactic hassle trying to get on a pre-booked bus to Stansted. Once on board, the comparative dreariness and the excruciating easy listening station (I never knew there were so many profoundly mind-numbing cover versions of already mind-numbing smoochy ballads...) was alleviated by exchanging text messages with my lovely niece and her chap waiting to pick us up at Stansted, so neither of us worried about the others too much, and with Glenn here at home, who reminded me that the day, December 13th, was St Lucy's day, and Radio 3 was playing some lovely music from Nordic countries.

I promised myself to look this up on the i-player when I next could, and found it was part of a whole Northern Lights season (most of the programmes are still available to listen), which I'm still relishing discovering, including the 20th century Icelandic composer Jón Leifs

I took so many, often rather haphazard and blurry photos of the Golden Circle and its sights and a few videos too. There is so much to photograph and so much to be said about it but so little perhaps that hasn't been photographed or said before or better, so I thought it best to stick them all together into one montage video, and was able to track down the Jón Leifs Requiem piece to put with it. I'm quite pleased with the video, but especially want everyone to hear the music; it's about five minutes long, so if you have the time, please adjust the volume, put on headphones etc as necessary, and maybe even view it full screen? 


So it only remains to wish everyone the very best for the coming year. The difference between my own blessed state and that of so much of the world can never be reconciled, I know, I've no new platitudes to shed on the matter. 

But I'd share my happiness and good fortune if I could. Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Iceland, birding and icing (on the cake)

There were plenty of interesting things within a very short distance of our apartment in Reykjavik. Right next door was the National Gallery of Iceland, but I have to confess I didn't go in, in the plan-filled three and a bit days we were there there simply wasn't time, what with eating and drinking and wool shops and all, though it looks well worth a visit.

Then there was the town lake, the Tjörnin, which was just a step away. It was almost entirely frozen over while we were there, except for one corner,  which was densely populated by waterfowl. The lake, despite being in the centre of the city, is famous as a birdwatching paradise all the year round, and has become popularly known as the biggest bread soup in the world because of all the feeding that goes on. Generally it seemed at this time that Icelandic bird life is thin on the ground; the silence when we were any distance from the city was notable, and there were few perching or ground birds to be seen (another reason to return another season...). However, this corner of the 'Pond', as the name translates, was a wonderful exception.

There were ducks and geese a-plenty

the ducks mostly the ubiquitous mallard, but also some tufted ducks, and the geese were greylags:

the swans were whooper swans:

When I was an ornithologically nerdy teenage kid, these were something of a holy grail. While others of my peers were sleeping off their disco hangovers, I was known to get up at a quite unearthly hour of a Sunday morning, get my own breakfast and go and meet a few kindred spirits, others of my age and their worthy elders - fathers, geography teachers or whatever - and drive many many miles to the Norfolk broads to catch a glimpse of unusual water birds. To tick off all three species of British swan in one afternoon was a source of some pride. It was, of course, the appeal of train spotting, but not only, it was also the experience of the wildness and wet*, the openness waterlands, the big skies and the thought of the distances those birds had come to be there.

And here I was, having crossed those distances myself, to a place where the wild, outlandish whooper swans and greylags squabbled on a town pond with seagulls for crusts of bread. 

Waddled and shat on the pavement until, startled by a well-groomed pooch,

they'd take off in a cloud and a clap of wings.

The birds had clear moods and patterns in the day, at night they were sleepy and resting on the ice, in the day calm and alert, and at first light, at about 10 am, they were very lively, and doing a lot of whooping. 

By the time I took the videos they were calming down a bit. Our apartment was just behind the church in the last frame.

During the time we were there, we saw more and more people walking on the ice. Our last evening we decided it had to be done, so we made our way across to the tiny island. In the distance a pair of girls were skating like fairies, and a group of boys stood on the island chatting in Icelandic and stamping and laughing with the kind of elation that youth and icy weather and a Saturday night give rise to. One of them turned to us with glittering eyes and exclaimed in English 'This island is not safe! We are here to protect it from evil!'

We laughed and stamped too, then made our way back over the ice and left them to it.

There's a lovely live webcam of the Tjornin here.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Iceland, riding

On the evening of the day we went to the Blue Lagoon we went out after the Northern Lights. We were lucky and saw them on our first trip out ( if you don't see them the first time the companies that run the trips offer to take you out again until you do, if you're available). Tom succeeded in taking one or two photos (no mean feat without special equipement), and the guy who took us, a well known successful Lights chaser and photographer, took more including one of us in front of the aurora where we look like a couple of stuffed owls who died of hypothermia, and I think Tom will probably use them - he's doing Iceland posts over at Gwynt and we're trying to avoid too much uxorious duplication. The funny thing is, it was initially the Northern Lights which drew me to the idea of Iceland in the winter, but while I found them impressive to be sure*, and while I'm very glad I did see them, they weren't really the high point of the trip. I think perhaps that was the horses.

In Iceland, we were told, no livestock or even fodder may be imported. There is but one breed of cow, whence cometh the excellent milk, butter and skyr - the yoghurty product of which two pots were left in the apartment fridge when we arrived as part of the next day's breakfast I'd ordered; it is, it seems, almost devoid of fat (presumably that goes to make the butter) and yet has a remarkably thick, rich texture. There is one breed of sheep, which furnish the rough thick Lopi wool with which I am currently besotted, which comes in all shades of earth but also every hue of jewel and berry too, taking the colour with the depth and luminosity of silk; they also provide delicious meat, which, along with the milk and the wool is one of the few things which are plentiful and inexpensive there. And there is one breed of horse, the Icelandic horse, of course, which, though not tall, must never be called a pony.

I hadn't initially thought about the possibility of visiting much less riding any of these marvellous creatures; for some reason I thought it would involve going far into the hinterland and perhaps wouldn't be possible in winter. However, it turned out there were plenty of companies offering visits and rides, even for the likes of us, neither of whom has sat on a horse since we were kids, since when our flexibility and weight have waned and increased in pretty much inverse proportions. We booked a 'Nature Comfort' trip with Ishestar, which was the first I came across, but there are other and smaller operators too.

This was about the most basic option, and included being picked up from the apartment late morning, a twenty minute drive into the frozen hills, an hour or so to mooch about at the centre - where we had an excellent roast lamb lunch for about a tenner, some of which Tom sneakily managed to share with the resident springer spaniel - and then an instructional video and an hour on a horse in the surrounding countryside before being ferried home again. As we were the only ones taking that trip that day we had the minibus and the ride entirely to ourselves except for driver and guide. A bigger group of young people, who I think were probably on a longer riding holiday, were just coming in from their morning out. One girl was saying to another something along the lines of '... oh, it was OK, the snow was soft, no harm done',  to which the other replied 'yeah, I came off yesterday, you just have to relax...'.

From where we were sitting we could see their horses just released in the paddock (Tom took these pictures).


Beautiful beasts, every colour known to horse, but somewhat rambunctious, I thought. The packed ice and lumpy volcanic rock didn't look too soft to me, and I decided not to relay the overheard conversation to Tom.

I needn't have worried. We were duly togged up with helmets and introduced to our mounts. I had Alder,

and Tom had Early,

(their names are as they sounded, not sure of the spelling). 

These two were clearly used to the geriatric shift, they plodded round good-naturedly with us on board, and while I appreciate what must be the wonder of the exceptional gaits of tolt and pace special to the Icelandic horse and often described as 'explosive', 'dynamic', 'fast' and other such alarming adjectives, I am happy to say we were not called on to experience them. Early on the young woman who escorted us turned and seeing Tom allowing Early to pick his own slow way over the icy road advised 'you may have to be a bit firm with him'. 

'To make him stop or to make him go?' I enquired.

'To make him go,' she replied, as though talking to an idiot and biting back the 'of course'.

Slow and easy it may have been, but it was altogether a magical experience in delightful company. Our guide (who wasn't really sarcastic) at one point turned around and said sweetly that she hoped we didn't mind that she wasn't talking much, but it was the most beautiful day she had seen in two years of working there, and she liked to just listen and enjoy the landscape, which was exactly how we felt.

It was truly listening to silence, no bird calls, scarcely any human sound except the odd distant engine of a vehicle coming and going, the occasional neigh of a horse from the stables, which made Alder prick up her ears and doubtless think about her nice warm box and sweet hay, but she clip-clopped on patiently. The sun had been up an hour or so and just skimmed along the horizon of the bowl of hills where as we made our circuit before making its way behind them again by the time we finished; it was windless and washed in glowing pink and lavender and gold. Contrary to expectations, Iceland in winter is full of colour, hard to catch in photos, in good weather anyway, and we were lucky with the weather.

A tour guide we had the following day, clearly another Icelandic horse enthusiast, told us that they are so comfortable, safe and stable that you should be able to balance and drink a full glass of beer while riding one without spilling a drop. Indeed, they were rather like big equine armchairs, even in these icy conditions. Now and then their hooves slipped, but they are built for this climate, know where to put their feet, and for good measure have special winter shoes on. Once or twice we experimented with steering a bit but mostly let them find their own way. Nevertheless, I wasn't quite confident to let go too often to take photos, and when I did getting straight horizons wasn't easy. 

But I was able to take some more when we got off. Up close it's clear why they are horses not ponies: they have a bulk and substance about them which just feels big, their height notwithstanding, there's nothing about them that's on a small scale. These two were so gentle and fun and friendly, though, lovely characters.

We had saved our breakfast apples for them, Alder cheekily snuffed at them in Tom's pockets. It turns out however that this is another regard in which Icelandic horses differ from other equines, they don't much care for apples. Alder turned mine down altogether, even when I bit off small pieces to tempt her; Early finally condescended to try one, but only if Tom would hold it and turn it so he could munch on it bite by bite, rather as a human might, then wipe his foamy sticky muzzle on his sleeve.

'He's a nice old fellah' I remarked to the girl (meaning the horse). She smiled, 'He's polite' she affirmed.


We scarcely saw any cows or sheep, they being tucked up by now in their winter quarters. The horses, however, can stay out of doors all the year round, even through the savage storm that had swept the island a couple of days before we arrived, subsisting on scant winter grasses and other vegetation; no animal feed is imported into the country because of the risk of disease, just as no livestock can be brought in, and any horses that leave can never return. On the following day we had a long tour of the Golden Circle, the popular tour from Reykjavik which includes the most spectacular and accessible geysirs, waterfalls, Thingvellir etc. Photos and impressions from that are still being sorted and mulled over, but the driver pulled in at short notice where some more horses had come to a fence to be fussed and petted.

That's my hand rubbing that one's nose. I jumped out of the minibus and in my excitement with stroking and photographing forgot to put gloves on; by the time I returned ten minutes later my hands were so cold it was much longer before the pain in my thumbs subsided.

There were some crusts of bread which they were willing to eat, and some people were pulling up handfuls of dry grass to offer them, 

but mostly they seemed happy just to stop for a chat and a pat.

and to pose in the afternoon sun against an impressive backdrop.

Handsome beasts, I think you'll agree.


* it was 'moderate' activity, but there were good views. I think, however, that the fault lay not in the particles but in my night vision, which, this rather confirmed, is not good, I felt I was peering to see it through a veil of poor sight, such as I don't experience with my corrected daylight eyes, it seemed rather indistinct and I couldn't really see the colours in it, though I suspect these show better in photos than the reality anyway.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Iceland, bathing

The Blue Lagoon is one of those things you have to do in Iceland, they say*. So I did.

It's not exactly natural, or only at one or two removes. It's actually developed from the outflow of a power station, which isn't quite as bad as it sounds, as it's a geothermal power station.

It's only of quite recent times that the Icelanders have been able to make much use of the plentiful hot springs they have, there were very few places where they were at a comfortable temperature to bathe in or otherwise use, like the ones in Laxdaela saga where Gudrun, her hair so long and thick she could tuck her plaits into her belt, met and began the eternal triangle with Kjartan and his foster brother Bolli. Now, however, using advances made in the oil industry, they have the pipelines and other technology to harness this bounty, so heating for home and hot water is one of the few things there that are incredibly cheap and abundant, and sustainably so.

The Lagoon is surrounded by a black laval rocks, like most things there,

 and there are many open pools and walkways around the main resort:

And it really is very blue, because of the white silica mud that it contains, which in the shallows forms into some quite strange crystalline flakes and patterns:

So, following its cooling via the power station, the water in the Lagoon is a delicious 37 to 39 degrees, just right for bathing,  and the resort development is growing apace:

Tom took these last three pictures from the café which looked directly over the pool, since by that time I was in the water, though it surprised me how many people were using their cameras and phones while bathing (though there weren't too many selfie sticks there or anywhere that we saw, and people were more inclined to photograph each other, asking or offering to strangers to do so, which was heartening; perhaps they are on the wane, or else the people who come to Iceland aren't the type to use them).

Tom opted out of taking a dip, fearing triggering bronchitis going in and out of cold air, and not being a great one for prolonged watery submersion, though he regretted it perhaps a little. However, he settled down with a drink, and after a time I procured myself a glass of wine from the floating bar shack in the last photo, and came and joined him on the other side of the glass:

The gloopy silica mud, which is also available in bins around the pool, is supposed to be good for the skin. I'm not entirely convinced about this, it seemed rather drying to me. They give you a little pack of skincare products with the entry package and I used the moisturiser quite a bit in the days afterwards, but perhaps that was the result of the cold air. It's certainly not great for your hair, in spite of applying colossal amounts of the free conditioner before and after; you can spot the people who have been in the Lagoon everywhere by the way their hair is standing out in stalky clumps the texture of sisal. 

But no matter, it was all worth it; it really is a most pleasurable, somewhat surreal and altogether memorable experience. Whether or not it's therapeutic to the skin, there is something very soothing and benign about just being immersed in the water and the atmosphere,  it seems to have a very calming, dreamy effect on people of whom I wouldn't perhaps have expected it; a kind of steamy, slowed down, sense of community prevails. Not for the last time in Iceland I felt a little like I'd landed on another planet, it reminded me of something out of Star Trek, except the rocks aren't polystyrene, so you need to watch out not to stub your toe on them underwater. Highly recommended.

* I know much more serious and intrepid people than I have spent time in Iceland and not done so, but then they are travellers, I am a tourist.


So here we are and Christmas day is nearly upon us, and I've not come up with anything very festive or appropriate. Having had quite a bit of coming and going of late it all feels rather quiet now and not especially Christmassy, which is just fine with me. But however or whether you yourselves are celebrating, I wish you all good things and many happy moments. Merry Christmas.