City two of The 40 Project. I’ve never been to Iceland, but I have admired it from afar. One of the photographic challenge sites I used to frequent had a regular winner from Iceland, who took some stunning landscape shots. In addition I enjoy walking, and Julia Bradbury covered an Icelandic walk, which made it look spectacular. Plus, I’m from Yorkshire, so the cold doesn’t overly bother me usually.
We arrived at the airport and I was immediately impressed by the stunning architecture. Lots of clean design, and use of natural materials – stone (granite?) and wood. We then found the bus we’d booked onto, and took a short journey to… the Blue Lagoon clinic where we were staying. This is a true meeting of East and West – the American and European techtonic plates meet right under our feet.
What can I say – absolutely stunning scenery. Very hard to describe; you could certainly film an episode of DrWho or similar here and convince viewers it genuinely was another planet. They call it “evil lava” and it’s easy to imagine Mordor made of this. The Blue Lagoon itself really stands out. A bright yet mellow shade of blue contrasting against the black and green of the landscape, and the gray sky (have I mentioned the perpetual mist/drizzle yet?). I’ve taken lots of photos, and I really hope that some of them manage to do justice to the atmosphere and impact of standing within this alien vista.
The clinic itself was interesting. Off season it acts as a hotel with 14 rooms and has a somewhat austere spartan feel, but friendly staff, great design and our room had a balcony right next to the volcanic wasteland.
After check-in we set off almost immediately to the main Blue Lagoon resort. Stunning design again, and a breathtaking place. They also employ some very particular etiquette rules; they are very strict about insisting you shower naked before putting on your trunks and entering the water. Once in the water you take it easy, and optionally can apply some of the silica mud of which wondrous medical claims are made (they also sell it in the shop, for lots of money). There is also a steam cavern, waterfall, and the main pool has lots of nooks and cranies to explore and enjoy.
After a few hours taking it very easy we decided to eat at the adjoining LAVA restaurant; so called as its built into the volcanic rock. We opted for the set 3 courses, which turned out to be an outstanding meal. Starter was tempura langoustines on a bed of bacalao, with some of the best batter I’ve ever had. Mains were catfish for me, with local barley and beetroot sauce. Greg had Icelandic lamb, which was wonderfully tender. For desert we enjoyed a chocolate creation with Mexico chocolate ganache 66,5% with mojito sorbet – mint, cocoa. We were proudly informed that it had won Icelandic desert of the year 2011, which after tasting we could well believe.
In the morning we enjoyed a continental breakfast followed by an hour and a half in the clinics local private section of lagoon. This was much smaller and more intimate than the main Blue Lagoon, but also only had a few clinic guest using it. So it felt at times like our own private lagoon, and it was nice to enjoy the experience with greater solitude than the busier day before.
After this we caught a coach to Reykjavik proper, and after checking in promptly took off again to explore the city. It’s small as cities go (to give some perspective, the population of Iceland is less than Bristol) but still has more available to see than we can fit in during our time here. We opted for the 871+-2 museum, the cathedral and a well known sculpture garden.
We tackled the museum first with its settlement exhibition, which I’d describe as small but well formed. It is built around the excavation of an old Viking era settlement building, next to one of the oldest man-made structures in Iceland – an old boundary wall. The 871+-2 comes from the dating, which was calculated though volcanic ash layers.
Next came the cathedral – Hallgrímskirkja – which really blew me away. I’ve seen many impressive cathedrals – St Paul’s, York Minster, Notre Dame, Milan and Berlin cathedrals, and more. But this was probably the most elegant I’ve ever seen – very distinctive design both inside and out; clean, and clearly Scandinavian influence. Lots of wood inside, and a most amazing mineral font. Certainly a look which very much appealed to me, and I look forward to sharing the photos. It also contains a magnificent organ, which luckily someone was rehearsing with during our visit; so we could enjoy a sampling of atmospheric music as we admired the architecture.
The sculpture garden was also impressive. It was full of sculptures from a famous Icelandic artist called Einar Jónsson. They are all imaginative and well executed, with great use and representation of the human form. I particularly enjoyed Prayer, Christmas, Earth and Time (I suspect some of these names are wrong, and I’ll correct when I’ve checked the photos!).
For dinner we had Icelandic fish and chips. Kinda like home, but with a local twist. Greg had Wolf fish with a lime and coriander skyrones on a Mango salad, and I had Ling with a tartar skyrones, both of which came with potatoes fried in rosemary oil. Plus I sampled some local beer called Gull, whilst Greg tried a refreshing homemade sparkling drink with lemon and ginger, which turned out to be delicious.
We had an early night, as it was an early start the next day. We had booked a tour of the Golden Circle, which commended with an 8am pickup!
So, day 3 and I don’t think I’ve mentioned the weather yet. How very un-British of me! Well, it seems to be perpetually rather misty here in Iceland. Low cloud combined with fairly frequent drizzle limits visibility. But it does somewhat remind me of (North England) home! Anyway, today was an early start along with drizzle, but as they day progressed the weather improved and it was dry almost all of the day. At one point the sun even came out! More importantly, I was able to take some good (I hope) photos of the spectacular scenery that we visited. I also haven’t mentioned the Internet quality – fast and free in hotels and cafes. And 3G was surprisingly common and very fast; much better than Glasgow (which was particularly poor) and Bristol. PS don’t panic on our behalf – Greg sorted out a package for us before we left, giving us 25MB per day for a reasonable price.
Greg had booked our Grand Golden Circle tour with Netbus, who were reviewed as a little more quirky than the really big tour players. Our bus was a minibus with 14 tourists including myself and Greg. Our driver was a great guide, with a very dry sense of humour and was able to entertain us with not only Icelandic history but also contextual geological information as to what we were seeing, plus some local myths and legends thrown in. (Did you know the trolls only come out at night? Apparently not all the tourists on Northern Lights tours make it back… ;-). Actually, the whole trip did remind me somewhat of Troll Hunter!)
Our tour travelled through absolutely spectacular countryside, quite unlike any I’ve ever seen. Alaska was closest, but this was different. Our first stop was a volcanic crater called Kerid (Well, the first stop was actually a small shopping mall for a “technical break”, but that seemed less relevant). The crater was impressive, but less immediately jaw dropping than the next two stops, which were waterfalls. The first was smaller, in an idyllic setting. The second, Gullfoss much larger, and with an interesting history. Lots of photos of all of these; in fact today I think I doubled the photo count so far (to over 700 and counting!). Greg has been wearing his photographic widow hat today, to go with his very fetching actual hat and gloves (it’s quite cold too, btw). But the best, in my view, was yet to come.
After the waterfalls we stopped for lunch in Haukadalu. This contains a number of thermal hot springs and geysers, including the active Strokkur and the older Geysir; in fact it’s the origin of the English word. Another interesting and photogenic location though lunch was overpriced, as were the tourist shops, selling Icelandic knitwear and various other items. From here we traveled to the Pingvellir national park and site of the original parliament. This is located in a rift valley, described to us as the Earth’s smallest continent – 7km by 20km – which sits in between the European and American tectonic plates. Did I mention it’s also sinking (slowly)? You can look out from Europe and see America, as it were, and as we did.
Aside from the geological interest, it also happens to be stunningly beautiful. Really incredible, even on an overcast day. I just hope that some of the photos from today come out well, as I’d love to do this location justice. The ground is multi-coloured with interestingly shaped volcanic rock. There is a river running though the valley. And off in the distance the mountains are snowcapped. There’s a reason the Icelandic Prime Minister has co-opted the old Bishop’s house as his summer house.
Dinner was at the very highly regarded Sjávargrillið (Seafood Grill). We were tired by this point so ate early, and both went for the lobster feast set menu. (I deliberately avoided some dishes I’d never tried before, but which I was concerned might be endangered; puffin, whale). Very impressive, especially for a 24 year old head chef. Several different types of lobster, langoustines, and some catfish. Also nice touches like great bread with butter served on volcanic rock. Desert was an intriguing creme brûlée with a sublime raspberry sorbet. Overall though, LAVA retains the crown for us.
Tomorrow we fly, very early (update – rescheduled to 1.5hrs later, once we were already at airport), to … Oslo!
Update – April 5. Two things I wanted to mention but forgot originally..
The Icelandic houses are all very short. Very few high rise compared with most cities I’ve visited. I’m putting this down to the local weather.
And next to our hotel was a delightful cafe called C is for Cookie. Really relaxed with free water and wifi, and a small selection of travel books and National Geographic to read. They also did great hot chocolate and a yummy warm chocolate brownie.
You can now see a photo journal of our Iceland days.
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What a great time you are having, I’m envious, looking forward to reading about your adventures, take care and have fun, much love, Margaret and Russell