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Monday, 2 January 2012

Sunshine, the Blue Lagoon and home...

Dark mornings are a feature of a British winter of course, but in Iceland at this time of year it doesn't really get light until after ten thirty and that takes some getting used to. You can wake up, have a lie in, then get breakfast, and its still dark! This morning though the milky blue dawn revealed a perfectly clear sky and the prospect that we might even see the sun for the first time here. We packed up and made off through Reykjavik's silent grey streets, heading for the airport. Our day snowed-in at Hengill meant we didn't see as much of the city as we would have liked - the Cathedral tower will have to remain unclimbed (by us anyway). As we drove out through the snow-covered lava fields, the sun hid behind the hills, casting a glow over the low clouds offshore before finally climbing above the horizon, impossibly bright. We pulled off the road before the airport to go to the Blue Lagoon, a small lake full of mineral rich water which was giving off clouds of steam ahead of us. 

Its not quite the natural wonder that it appears to be. The water is pumped from a mile underground and then used at the nearby geothermal power station before being pumped into an artificial lava lake-bed which forms the Blue Lagoon. Not that there was any mention of that on the signs outside which talked a lot about the natural healing properties of the water, but you can forgive them for that. "Come and bathe in power station-outflow" isn't perhaps the ideal way of pulling in the punters. It is though, a lovely experience. The water is warm and a cloudy blue. It was -6C when we were there and the clouds of steam made it impossible to see from one side top the other. P and I smothered ourselves in the white silicate mud and were instantly ten years younger. Tom, who hasn't got ten years to lose gave the mud a wide berth. He liked the lava cave though and it was all slightly surreal. It was very relaxing too and we left feeling that we had warmed up our inner cores and taken a few lines off as well!

From the observation deck we enjoyed our last big views across icy Iceland before making for the airport.  Even at midday the sun was only just above the horizon so it never really feels like anything more than early morning, until the light slowly begins to fade and twilight settles over everything.

We never did see the Northern Lights in the end, although we had our fingers crossed right until the last minute at the airport where it was still cold crisp and clear - the perfect conditions apparently. But, not quite, according to the lady at the cafe at our gate who told a couple of disappointed English tourists that it wasn't NEARLY cold enough to see the Northern Lights yet. Maybe we will have to come back again. It was a lovely few days and left us hankering for more.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Into the wild...

We felt somewhat thwarted by the weather yesterday, having been forced to scuttle back to Reykjavik without really seeing anything of the countryside. Actually "countryside" doesn't seem to be a word that you associate with Iceland. It suggests rural idyll with hedgerows and cows chewing the cud and butterflies. Iceland isnt really like that - at the moment anyway. I think a better word for Iceland's interior is "terrain". But what terrain it is. We emerged from the city into a perfectly iced landscape; vast open stretches of white rolling off to blunt-faced cliffs topped with a perfectly squared-off shelves of snow. The sky was duck-egg blue, streaked with misty clouds tinged rose from the sunrise. It was a breathtaking drive through a silent frozen world. The road had been ploughed but there had been a couple of inches of snow overnight making it all but invisible. We swished along over the smooth surface stopping occasionally to stand in the chill and take it all in. It couldn't have been more beautiful.

 We stopped at Thingvellir National Park and found the famous chasm between the tectonic plates which opened up relatively recently. Normally you can walk through it but the snow was too deep, so we had to admire the view instead. Thingvellir was the site of the first Icelandic parliament - a meeting place really, where for a few weeks a year people would gather and laws would be made. One man would recite all the Icelandic laws from memory. We could have spent more time there, but with only a few more hours of daylight left we pushed on to Geysir, an hour or so further.

 The first clue that we were getting close to Geysir was the sudden mist which smothered the road. Then we noticed that the ditch beside us was steaming and soon, that the whole field next to us seemed to be smouldering, We parked and went to look. All around us little vents were steaming away and boiling water was dribbling along beside the path. Geysir gave its name to the geyser of course and we walked within a few feet of one which erupts every few minutes. We saw it go several times, the boiling pool sucking in and out a few times before suddenly releasing a huge bubble of steam.. Small birds, with fluffy brown breasts peeped and flitted around us through the steam. They are about the only wildlife we have seen. Thor, who took us to his community bonfire last night told us that a couple of polar bears have swum over from Greenland in the past few years only to be shot. Iceland does not really want enormous hungry bears on the loose. They would certainly frighten the horses, of which we have seen dozens; little Thelwell creatures with fat necks, bowed backs and shaggy mains.

After soup and hot chocolate we hit the road again, and had it more or less to ourselves on the way back. Occasionally we passed a clapboard farmhouse with a porchlight glowing as dusk flattened out the landscape. After a couple of hours we were back in Reykjavik's slushy streets, the sky a bruise of blue. That was a New Year's Day we won't forget.

New Year's Day in Iceland