Tuesday, 31 January 2012

New Year's Eve in Reykjavik

It's a month since my New Year's Eve Reykjavik style. It's a quite a traditional thing to do to go to a bonfire and there are about a dozen big bonfires at various locations around the city. Luckily when I went for a walk to the animal park from the City hostel I happened to notice a rather large bonfire being built up just at the back of the hostel.

The snowy hostel

New Year's Eve fell on a Saturday and in the morning I ploughed my way through high piles of snow to walk into town. I'd wanted to go to the flea market but it was closed, so I just ended up having a bit of a wander and then going for coffee. The buses all stopped running early afternoon and I didn't fancy walking back so I made sure I was at the bus stop in plenty of time. I thought the bus might have been full, but there was hardly anyone on it.

A lazy afternoon with a bit of a snooze followed. In the evening I joined other hostellers in the common area for chat and vodka. We also tried a traditional Christmas and New Year soft drink that is made by mixing a malt drink with fizzy orangeade. It wasn't nearly as bad as it sounds. There was what sounded like a Mass in Icelandic being played out over the TV speakers. This in itself wasn't so interesting, but instead of showing the Mass itself on the TV there was just a very long series of slides picturing lots of wonderful shots of Iceland in winter.

Cosy and Christmassy inside the hostel

At about 8.30pm, through the large living room windows we saw the bonfire start to flame and so all wrapped up and drinks in hand we walked over to it. It was huge and wild and hot with great reflections in the puddles of melting of snow. People of all ages were out lighting fireworks and flares and waving sparklers. We could see fireworks all around Reykjavik from where we were so had a great show. Bits of hot ash, some still aflame, wafted from the fire and the fireworks and flares were going off in all directions. It would have been a health and safety officer's nightmare, but luckily there didn't seem to be any present.

Bonfire and a view of Reykjavik

Bonfire reflections

As the fire started to die down people drifted away. This was the time every Icelander heads for a TV set to watch the same programme: Áramótaskaup, a satirical look a year just gone. We watched it and it did seem quite funny, but as it was in Icelandic and as we hadn't spent the previous year in Iceland, we didn't get any of it. Apparently this programmed will be the main topic of conversation for Icelanders over the next week or so.


Red hot ash flying everywhere

At midnight the sky exploded with fireworks. We went upstairs and got a great view. They were going off all over Reykjavik and went on for ages. Around New Year the law allows anyone to purchase fireworks and around 500 tonnes are imported each year. They are sold in benefit of rescue charities and are a great money-raiser for them. There had been plenty going off ever since I arrived, but this was just practice for the real bonanza.

And fireworks

Once the sky started to quieten I went to bed. There were still plenty of fireworks going off, but they were more random. Some people in the hostel walked into town to hit the bars, but I had an early start as I'd booked on to a Golden Circle tour for the next morning so decided to be sensible. And I didn't fancy getting all my layers back on to trudge through the snow again.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Tips for Kilimanjaro

I went to the Destinations Travel Show in Manchester today. It's comprised mostly of stalls run by travel companies advertising their tours. As I tend to avoid tours this isn't of much interest to me. Even the talks are basically a half hour of advertising blurb. I've been to these shows before so I knew what to expect and only went because I had a free ticket and didn't have anything else planned.

I did find one thing of interest of though.  A talk on climbing Kilimanjaro by a tour leader who's already been up and down ten times. He works for Exodus, so of course some of the talk was on what Exodus do for you if you go with them (good breakfasts served in a mess tent and the open-sided toilet tent always positioned with a great view), but a lot of what he had to say was more general and included a lot of good tips. Here are some of them:

  • Acclimatisation - each day when you reach your camp for the night, don't stop there. Have a bit of a rest then climb for about another hour, before coming back down to the tents. This starts getting your body ready for the thinner oxygen, but you're sleeping at a lower altitude to recover from your first exposure to it.
  • Take plenty of chocolate - healthy food is all well and good, but there are times when only comfort food will do. This will be one of them.
  • Expect pain, lots of it.
  • Headaches aren't only caused by altitude, but by the intensity of the sun hitting your eyeballs too. Take a really good pair of sunglasses.
  • Wear a hat - don't fail to summit because you've got sunstroke.
  • Take some really good earplugs - you'll be sleeping in close proximity to a lot of people some of whom will snore. And snoring is amplified at altitude.
  • Don't panic if you can't sleep. As long as you are horizontal and resting, you are still doing your body some good. On this note, don't take a nap when you arrive at camp as this will really throw your sleep patterns out.
  • If you're hungry you're doing ok. People who are hungry make it to the top. If you're not hungry, it doesn't mean you won't make it, but it is a sign that you may struggle a bit more.
  • There isn't a lot of snow at the top and what there is is very compacted and frozen. Normal walking boots are fine, you won't need crampons.
  • You need to drink a lot of water even if you're not thirsty. However, water bladders will be frozen when you start heading for the summit at midnight on the final day. Carry your water in an alternative way.
  • There are several reasons why the last day starts at midnight. One is so that you can't see where you're going. It's about 7hrs on a switchback path that would destroy any moral you had left if you could see it.
  • If you use an ipod wrap a heat pad round it otherwise it won't work.
  • After the first few days, you'll be above the cloud cover so it won't matter what the weather's like - you won't be in it.
  • The weather is really changeable and no one time of the year is particularly better than any other.
  • The climb starts at around 1600m - spending a few days in the area first will help your acclimatisation.
  • Running, swimming and cycling are the best training. They have to be done to the extent that you really get your heartbeat up and sweat a lot.
  • Walking across 'The Saddle' (the strip of land that dips between the lower peak and and the summit) is soul-destroying. It's a day of walking with nothing ever seeming to get any closer.
  • Don't expect to do too much talking whilst you're walking - you'll be conserving your oxygen for breathing.

Thursday, 19 January 2012


Having plans for fun things to do in the holidays or at weekends is what keeps me going through term time. Especially when I work 14 hour days like today. And know that I'll be late again tomorrow. And even that won't be enough; I'll still be behind with everything I need to do. So the plans are really important.

This week my plans have really been coming together for half term. I'll be going down to London to stay with a friend in Chesham for the first part of the week and then heading round the M25 to Kent to stay with different friends for a few days.

On the Monday I'm going to Wembley to do a tour of the new stadium. We're then heading into town to have a late lunch at Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant. To finish off our day we have tickets for a Night of Adventure at the Vue Cinema in Leicester Square. This is a roll call of people who do interesting, adventurous and intrepid things. They each present a slide show of their 'adventure' but have only 20 slides and 20 seconds per slide to present it. I'm hoping for inspiration.

We also want to go to the Vertigo bar on the 42nd floor of the Nat West Tower. This is the second tallest building in London and the bar is small and surrounded by windows with amazing views. It's expensive so we'll only be having one drink there. I don't know if we'll have time to fit it in on Monday between the restaurant and the show so may have to postpone it till another evening.

For the Tuesday and Wednesday I have my tickets for the Hajj exhibition at the British Museum and the floatation tank. I'll have plenty of time on these days to do other things as well, like visiting some of my favourite shops: Stanford's, the Algerian Coffee Stores, the bookshops on Charing Cross Road ...

As well as plans for this half term, I also have the England game to look forward to in the June half term and Womad in the summer. A few weekends are getting booked up too, with friends coming to stay at the end of the January and a weekend in Nottingham planned so I can go to my first ever ice hockey game with a friend's daughter (she's a bit of an expert and so will be able to explain it all to me).

The 14 hour days don't seem so bad when I think about all of this.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Eating lunch in Reykjavik

Swarta Kaffi

Swarta Kaffi must have an owner who has spent time in South Africa. It's a small place on the first floor of a building on Laugevegur. It's very cosy inside and has a definite African theme - there are masks and other African artefacts all over the place. What makes me think it's a South African connection rather than African in general? Well, it's the food. Swarta Kaffi is famous for serving soup in a bowl made from bread. Each day they have a meat soup and a vegetarian soup - generally cauliflower. The 'bowl' is a loaf sized bread roll with the middle pulled out. It is then filled with soup and the extracted bread is served on the side. This is an Icelandic play on the bunny chows of Durban. Durban has a large Indian population and so curry is pretty much a staple. A bunny chow is a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry; the extra bread is also served on the side. I haven't seen this done anywhere else. I might have thought it coincidence except for the African theme in the cafe. Last time I was here I did ask the waitress about the origins of their main dish, but she didn't know.

The soup and bread is delicious. The staff are friendly and the atmosphere is welcoming. It's a bit more expensive than buying soup in some places so it's somewhere I don't make a habit of going to, but it's definitely something to look forward to once on each trip. 

Groen Kostur

This place is hidden at the back of a kind of small shopping centre\office block, opposite a car park and a branch of Bonus (the cheap supermarket chain). It's only a minute or two walk from Laugevegur. The place is small and modern with small, round, high tables and high chairs. So it's not the most comfortable of places to sit. A lot of people seem to get takeaway from here so I suppose comfort isn't the priority.

The food is all vegetarian and vegan and there's a good choice. There are always several choices of 'plate' as well as snacks, cakes, soup and so on. The 'plates' are made up of a mix of salads, quiches, rice, potatoes, and so on. They are served with a small bread roll and each type of 'plate' has a fixed price. There are a selection of dressings on the counter and a selection of jugs of water. One jug has plain water and the others each have a different fruit such as lemon, orange or apple floating in them. 

The food is delicious. Each time I've been here I've tried one of their plates of food, but the soup served with bread and houmous also looks really tempting.


Gardurin is located about five minutes walk from Laugevegur and is another tiny lunch place. It closes in August each year for holidays so I wasn't able to come here last time. Each week they produce a new menu with a different dish for each day of the week. This means there isn't much choice but the food for each day sounded good and so I suppose it saved making a hard decision. The main dishes are served in full or half portions and there are soups and cakes as well. Everything is vegetarian.

The place is very hippie-ish with incense burning and Indian pictures and artefacts. The tables are small but as they are regular height this is a nicer place to sit than Groen Kostur.  It was quite friendly and the food was good, but if I had to choose I think I would go for Groen Kostur (even though it means sitting on a high chair) because although the food here is good, the food at Groen Kostur is even better!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Coffee shops of Reykjavik

One thing I love doing is sitting in a nice coffee shop drinking really good coffee, maybe indulging in a slice of cake, imbibing the ambience and generally just relaxing; chatting if I'm with a friend, reading or writing if I'm on my own. Reykjavik is a wonderful city for this. There are so many little coffee shops and cafes and although they all seem busy, it's usually possible to get a seat. The decor and atmosphere is very different depending upon where you go, but one thing they all have in common is great coffee.

I don't like milky buckets of coffee so I tend to avoid Starbucks type chains and rarely drink lattes or cappuccinos. In the UK I'll usually ask for an Americano so that I know it's freshly made. Coffee which has been standing around and kept warm for half hour or more (hours in some places) does not taste good. In Reykjavik I drank 'regular' coffee. This is usually in a big flask that you help yourself too. Because the cafes tend to be busy and Icelanders seem to drink a lot of coffee, the coffee in the these flasks in replenished frequently and so never has time to get stale. The coffee is dark and very strong which is just the way I like it.

A regular coffee is usually refillable as well, meaning I could sit for ages and have a couple of cups. The price was usually between 300 and 400 krona (about £1.60 to just over £2). Drinks from the espresso machine are usually more expensive and not refillable. Here are my thoughts on the coffee shops I went to:

Cafe Paris

This is a popular cafe situated on a corner overlooking the square in front of the cathedral. In summer there are tables outside. In winter everyone huddles inside, but as it's quite large it doesn't feel cramped. There are pictures of volcanoes on the walls and a bookcase in the middle. It serves full meals and has a bar, as well as selling coffee and cake.

The first time I went in I had an Americano as it was free with my Reykjavik Welcome Card. It was strong and dark and had a little bar of Milka chocolate alongside. I had a piece of apple cake with it which arrived beautifully served with cream and fruit and a sliver of chocolate.

Next time I ordered regular coffee. Instead of being given a cup to fill myself at the counter, the coffee arrived in a silver insulated pot. Very posh. I got two and a bit cups of coffee out of it and still got a Milka chocolate even though it was regular coffee. I thought it would be expensive, but it was only 400kr.

Cafe Paris can be found at Austurstræti 14 and their website is here.

Tiu Dropar

Tiu Dropar is in the basement of Laugavegur 27. It's a cosy, quirky looking place. To get to the cafe you have to go down steps at the side of the building. The door leads in to a long thin room with a counter at the far end. There is another room at the back. The decor is old-fashioned enough to be retro; there are old teapots and jugs and things used to ornament the place.

I was here fairly early in the morning and so there were only a few other customers. Later in the day it does get very busy in here. The other customers seemed to be having breakfast, whereas I just had a regular coffee and a pancake. The coffee was refillable and good. The pancakes were piled up on the counter and I couldn't resist. They were thin and sugary and rolled up into tight cigars. It was served cold, but tasted delicious.

The website is here but doesn't seem to be working very well.

Cafe Haiti

I discovered Cafe Haiti when I was here last time. It was a tiny one-roomed place with a couple of tiny tables. The owner is from Haiti and from what I can make out came to Iceland because she married an Icelandic guy. Her English isn't great so it's a bit difficult to talk to her. She imports coffee beans from Haiti and roasts them herself.

In the two and a half years since I was last there, she has moved into much bigger premises in the touristic harbour area. Although nice, her new place doesn't have the cosy ambience of the old one. It was very quiet when I was there this time, though this could have been due to the blizzard that had whipped up over night and was still going on. In the old place there was a steady stream of Icelanders coming in to buy takeaway coffee. It might be a bit out of the way for them now and maybe she's relying on the tourist trade instead. But because of the weather it was hard for me to really know.

I had a regular coffee here. It was just as good as last time, but I don't think I'd bother walking down to the harbour especially for this. Not when there are also so many other good places located more centrally.

Here's the facebook page for Cafe Haiti.

Te og Kaffi

This means tea and coffee in Icelandic. It's part of a chain and the one I went in was in the square opposite the Prime Minister's offices. This was beside my bus stop and so was quite handy. It has a modern look and red cups. I just had coffee here which was refillable and tasted good.

Their website is here.


Kaffitar is also a chain and seems quite Starbucksy. I resisted going in at first as I didn't expect to like it. But one afternoon I really felt like a sit down and a coffee and I could see a free table here. So in I went and was pleasantly surprised. I had an Americano and a slice of Snickers cake. The cake was amazing (I really must try to find a recipe) and the Americano tasted like real coffee. This was the branch on Laugavegur.

A few days later I went to the National Museum and the cafe in the museum is a branch of Kaffitar. The cafe here is on the ground floor and has plate glass windows looking onto a water feature. I sat by the window with a regular coffee (refillable) and watched the birds bathing in the water and the moon rising over the houses opposite.

It does feel like a chain and I prefer the ambience of the quirky little one-off places, but I certainly can't fault them on their coffee.

Here's their website.


This is the ground floor coffee shop and restaurant in Harpa, Iceland's new concert hall. The concert hall is all glass and reflections, with lots of black. It's a big open space and the cafe feels like it's in a cavernous hall. It's very modern with tables and chairs in rows almost resembling a school canteen. There are also some high tables with bar stools. Behind the coffee area is a formal eating area. The cafe serves meals and has a bar as well as serving coffee and cake.

I had coffee and although it was refillable it was made on the machine. It was good coffee, but I wasn't tempted by anything else. This place is fine for coffee if you're already in Harpa, but isn't worth making a special trip for.

The website is here.

Don't know why this won't go the right way up!
Reykjavik City Hall Cafe

I'm not sure if this cafe has a name, but it's usually just referred to as the cafe or the coffee shop in City Hall. City Hall has been built at the northern end of Tjornin (the pond) and seems to be half on land and half in the water. The cafe juts out into the water which was frozen solid when I was there. I sat in on a comfy sofa by the window watching the geese slipping and sliding around as they strutted past.

The place is very cosy with sofas, colourful cushions and big candles. The wall onto the pond is all glass so summer or winter this would be a great place to sit and feel part of the view.

I just had a coffee here and as with everywhere in Reykjavik, it was good.

Here's some information on City Hall.


Babalu is a tiny place upstairs at Skólavörðustígur 22a. Sitting in Babalu is like a cross between sitting in someone's living and sitting in an Aladdin's cave. The walls are brightly coloured, there's a sofa under the eaves, and everything bit of available space is taken up with kitsch and what is basically junk. I loved it.

The coffee is refillable and they have nice cakes. This time, instead of cake, I had a bowl of really warming potato soup. There's a tiny roof terrace which I was able to sit out on the last time I was here and watch everybody on the street below. (It was Culture Night/Day and so there was a lot to watch). This time it was far too cold to sit outside and wasn't too warm inside either. There was quite a draught coming up the stairs from the open front door. But I love this place so much I stayed for a quite a while anyway.

Kaffi Mokka

I'll include Mokka here even though I didn't get to it this time. I did go last time and the only reason I didn't go back was that I was too busy trying out other places.

Mokka is one of the oldest coffee shops in Reykjavik and was the first to get an espresso machine back in the 1950s. Its decor doesn't seem to have changed since then. It's always been a bit of an arty place and now has photo exhibitions on its walls. This cafe serves what are said to be the best waffles in Reykjavik. I had one with my coffee the last time I was here and it was fresh and fluffy. All the locals seemed to be eating them too, which is always a good sign.

Kaffi Mokka can be found at Skólavörðustígur 3a and its website is here.

Follow up to a previous post: As I've just been looking up websites for coffee shops I thought I'd check Trip Advisor to see if my review was still the only one on there. It's not. There are loads. So I'm not famous after all.

Earthquakes and weather

Iceland has a lot of weather. The local joke is that if you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes and it will change. In summer this is true. I would be hot and cold in the same day; have rain, hail, wind, sun and fog all within the space of a few hours. However, in the winter the weather seems a bit more stable, though as I was only there for a week and a half maybe I didn't get a true picture. Most days it was cold and snowy with clear blue skies in between the snow showers. I can understand though, why Iceland would need a pretty good met office with a pretty good website. However, the Icelandic met office website excels itself by also doubling as an earthquake website. There is a whole section of the website devoted to earthquakes and they constantly have a list showing the biggest earthquakes that have occurred in the last 48 hours. Yes. The biggest earthquakes that have occurred in the last 48 hours. There are that many. One was felt by some of the guests in the hostel whilst I was there, but I didn't feel anything. So I missed out on adding 'experiencing an earthquake' to the list of things I did on my holiday. (I have felt tremors before in Manchester, so I wasn't too upset to miss out). But this is a cool website for anyone going to Iceland.

The St Kilda mailboat

St Kilda is an island (actually a small archipelago) out in the Atlantic way west of Scotland. It was abandoned in 1930 when the way of life become unsustainable for the remaining 36 inhabitants. It's now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and one of the best ways to visit the island (and one of the only ways to spend more than a few hours there) is to take part in one of their work parties. So far it hasn't been feasible for me to do this, but one day I will.

Until their evacuation, the residents of St Kilda lived in almost complete isolation. The only way they had of communicating with the outside world was with the aid of a St Kilda mailboat. These mailboats were small wooden boxes in which letters and money for a stamp would be placed. They'd be sealed up, an inflated sheep's bladder would be attached as a float and the mailboat would be launched. They usually landed in Scotland or Scandinavia where the finder would hopefully post the letter inside.

Today I saw an article on the National Trust for Scotland's website about a mailboat launched by one of last summer's work parties being found in Norway. Although there are other means of communication now, each work party launches a mailboat as a way of re-enacting the tradition. Until I saw this article I hadn't realised they did this.

I wonder who'll find the one I launch when I eventually join a work party there?

Monday, 9 January 2012

Lots going on

There seems to be so much happening at the moment. We're on day 9 of the year and already I feel that this is going to be a good  year in which I'm going to achieve lots.

I signed up for the travel writing course with the London School of Journalism on Saturday night and by Sunday I had my first two lessons emailed to me. I really wasn't expecting it to be that quick! Today I've had another email from them with a lot more information. I've skimmed through the two lessons to get an idea of what's expected of me so I can start thinking about them. I'll wait until the weekend to go through them properly though.

Still on the topic of writing, yesterday I was reading Wanderlust magazine and found a short book review that had been submitted by a reader. This is a regular column where readers can submit a review of a 'must read book' that they've 'read on location'. There's no payment involved, but it seems like a good way to start getting myself into print.

I made a quick study of the style of the already published article and then wrote one in a similar style and emailed it off to the magazine. I also used a few of the tips I'd picked up from my skim-reading of the two writing course lessons I've received to make the layout and presentation seem a bit more professional. I've already got a reply from 'Tom' thanking me and saying he's looking forward to reading it. Reading what? My review? Or the book itself because he likes my review? Does this mean I'm going to be published? It's all a bit ambiguous. But if I am published then that's a good start on my 2012 twelve list.

On a completely different topic, today was my first day back at school and I was already discussing half-term plans with a colleague. We got onto summer holiday plans and she mentioned she has booked to go to Womad with a group of girlfriends. I had no plans to go to Womad over the next few years because it falls in the summer holidays when I'd rather be away somewhere for a month or more. I want to go to Womad, but thought it could wait a while. However, when my colleague mentioned it and then invited me along it seemed like fate. Another example of how keeping a list and focussing on the things I want to achieve helps to make them happen. So I've said I'll go. It should be fun to be with a group of people as well.

I've just been online to book a ticket, but it's all a bit confusing. I need to check with her tomorrow which type of ticket she's got and for which days, then I can get mine booked. I'll still have time to go to Scotland afterwards (or Japan if the free tickets thing happens), and I can explore Wiltshire or Somerset for a few days before the festival starts.

I've got the floatation tank booked in London for half-term and today they've emailed me to confirm two sessions. I've mailed back to correct it to one session! I've also got a ticket for the Hajj exhibition at the British Museum over half-term. During the rest of my time in London the friend I'm staying with suggested meeting up at lunch time one day to go to Jamie Oliver's restaurant Fifteen. If we can't get in there then we may go to the Ritz for afternoon tea instead. I'd like to go to Jamie's restaurant, but the afternoon tea at the Ritz would mean another challenge ticked off. Choices, choices ...

Whilst I was planning my half-term and thinking about the things I can achieve I thought I might as well check out England fixtures at Wembley. I got excited when I realised England are playing Holland on February 29th, until I realised that this is the week after half-term. I thought about trying to get down for the game, but I really don't think I'd make it on time. I've looked at other fixtures and there's a Belgium game I could go to in June. It's on a Saturday, so the travelling time wouldn't be a problem. I'd rather go to the Holland game, as The Netherlands is a country I go to most years and feel a bit of a connection to. Also, the only other game I've ever been to at Wembley was an international schoolboys' game when I was at school myself. This game was England vs Holland, and so it seemed kind of meant to be that the game I see now should be England vs Holland. Except it's not meant to be. Oh well, can't have everything.

To apply for tickets for an England game I need a FAN (FA number). I've applied for one and now have it ready for when the tickets for the Belgium game go on sale. I'll have to keep monitoring the FA's site to make sure I do get a ticket.

I still have quite a few posts about Iceland in the draft stage as well which I'm trying to get finished, but now I'm getting distracted by all these other things. I'm certainly not complaining about having lots of good things going on in my life though!

Gazing at the Northern Lights

The first three nights I was in Reykjavik there was no tour to the Northern Lights. The two bus companies that run the pretty much identical tours decide at around 5pm each evening whether the tour should go ahead or not. They decide this based on cloud cover, weather reports, and reports on the activity of the aurora causing particles. Each evening I checked with the hostel receptionist, but no luck.

On the fourth night (30/12/11), I asked as usual, fully expecting the answer to be no as there was pretty heavy cloud cover. But the answer was yes. I was a bit sceptical, but the receptionist showed me the cloud cover report on the internet and it was clear to see that from 11pm onwards the cloud was really expected to clear over the Reykjanes Peninsula.

I booked the tour with Reykjavik Excursions as their tour started half an hour later than the one with Iceland Excursions and there didn't seem any point in hanging around for an extra half hour when it would be too early to see the lights anyway. The tour was 4,900 kronur or about £28.

I got all wrapped up in my layers of thermals and fleeces, made a flask of hot chocolate and packed my tripod. The bus picked me up outside the hostel and then went round a few other hotels and the BSI bus station collecting more people.

Once everyone was on board we headed out on the airport road to the Reykjanes Peninsula. Once we were out of the Reykjavik we began to see the moon and then stars. A good sign as it meant the cloud was clearing. We stopped in a couple of dark places, but had no luck with the lights. We then drove to the end of the peninsuala, by the sea and near a small village and a lighthouse. There was quite a big area for parking here and other buses were already parked up, with others arriving after us. Everyone got off the bus and gazed at the sky. There was nothing to see. As it was cold I thought I might as well as wait back on the bus until something happened. I didn't want the lights to finally appear just as I reached the point of no return with hypothermia and frostbite.

I hadn't been on the bus for long when I noticed everyone pointing and looking at the same section of sky. I got back off the bus and with difficulty could just make out a patch of sky that was slightly lighter in colour. It could easily have been light from the moon, but the driver assured us it was the beginning of an aurora.

As we watched it began to turn green and spread across the sky. Not the whole sky, just a stripe from horizon to horizon. It would widen and darken, and then fade again. Sometimes fading completely in the middle. It was paler than I imagined it to be, yet on the photos people were taking it looked just as deeply coloured as the photos in magazines and tourist brochures. Maybe the cameras just pick up more light or something.

We watched it for about an hour until it pretty much faded completely. It did do a bit of swirling but mainly stayed as a stripe. So it wasn't as impressive as I was expecting, but was still pretty cool. I'm glad I've seen it anyway and feel quite privileged as I know this is something lots of people dream of seeing for themselves.

As for my photos? They didn't come out at all. My amazing new camera which has been so good at taking photos so far, including in low light, just wouldn't pick the aurora up on 'auto'. I switched to manual but couldn't get anything to work properly as I couldn't see the buttons in the dark and I'm not familiar enough with this camera to do everything by feel alone.

Once I realised I wasn't going to get any good photos I lent my tripod to a couple of South Africans who were sat in front of me on the bus. They got some really good photos which they have said they will email to me. I really hope they do. I don't know when they'll be going home to do this, so I may have to wait a while. But whenever it is, I just hope they don't forget me or lose my email address!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

The Killer's Guide to Reykjavik

This is another book that I read around the time I was last in Iceland. Here's the review I wrote of it at the time.

by Zane Radcliffe

This is the first of Zane Radcliffe's books I've read. I enjoyed it so much I immediately ordered his other two off Amazon.

The main character Callum is a successful Glaswegian internet entrepeneur. He sells his travel website and moves to Reykjavik to live with his Icelandic girlfriend, her daughter and mother. Both Callum and his girlfriend Birna have skeletons in their respective closets which lead to Birna's daughter being kidnapped and/or killed (I'm trying not to give too much away).

As well as a great story the book really is a 'guide to Iceland'. Radcliffe interweaves numerous facts and lots of information about Icelandic culture, geography, food, beliefs and so on into his story. If I'd read this book before visiting Iceland the storyline would have stood out much more than the guide part of the book. But having spent a month there last summer I can really appreciate just how much information he has melded seamlessly within the story.


Lonely Planet vs Rough Guides (Iceland)

June 2010
I bought the latest Rough Guide to use as a guide book for Iceland on this trip. I was only going to Reykjavik which I already know quite well and so didn't really need a guide book, but I never need much of an excuse to buy books.

I chose the Rough Guide as it was more up-to-date than the Lonely Planet (ok, only by a month which probably makes no difference at all) and I'd used the Lonely Planet last time and fancied a change. Whilst in Reykjavik I looked at other people's copies of the more recent Lonely Planet.

I usually like Rough Guides, but have to say that I wasn't too impressed with this one. It seemed to be lacking information. Places I knew were in the Lonely Planet and just wanted to check my book for the address, couldn't be found in the Rough Guide. This would have been ok if there'd been alternative places in the Rough Guide, but there didn't seem to be. Also I noticed a few mistakes. For example, the Rough Guide refers to the Downtown Hostel as the City Hostel, and the City Hostel as the Reykjavik Hostel.

May 2010

When I looked at the more recent Lonely Planet it seemed just as good as the older one I had at home. I didn't need to use the Rough Guide for travelling around the country, but my impression is that it wouldn't have been as good as the Lonely Planet for this either. So it's not that the lesser Reykjavik section is balanced out by a much meatier rest of the country section.

But the best guide book for Reykjavik has to be The Real Iceland by Pall Asgeir Asgeirsson. I bought this whilst I was in Iceland last time and it has lots of quirky information in it, such as the addresses for each of the Sigur Ros band members and the address for Bjork's mum (as well as for Bjork herself, but it warns her son can be bad-tempered if you turn up on the doorstep). It's only a slim little book (so nice and light to carry around) but is really informative and I'd highly recommend anyone heading to Reykjavik to get hold of a copy.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Interesting people

I love the way I meet some really interesting people when I travel. My recent stay in Reykjavik was no exception. There were a few people staying in the youth hostel who, like myself, were there for a week or two over the Christmas and New Year period. This meant we could get to know each other quite well. 

There was a South African guy who was so friendly he seemed to have got to know everyone in Reyjavik, not just the hostel. He was planning to hitch-hike round the ring road which pretty much follows the coast right the way round Iceland. I used public buses to do this in summer a couple of years ago and so know how desolate this road can be. In the middle of winter with short daylight hours and the most snow in a generation or two, it would be really isolated. Did this put him off? Of course not. With a backpack and an Icelandic woolly hat he set off. I never heard how he got on, but I don't doubt he will have been fine. 

A twenty-something French woman was staying in Reykjavik whilst planning her next move. She'd lived on and off in Iceland over the past few years, always thinking it would be the last time, but always ending up back. Most recently she'd been working on a farm. She spoke Icelandic and had a learnt a lot about the culture. She was considering going to live somewhere remote in Scotland for a while as she hated busy places. Reykjavik was a busy place in her eyes. She was also extremely environmentally conscious and tried not to fly unless it was absoloutely necessary. I moan about the price of flights but it was surprising how much more expensive it is to travel by land and water. 

There were also a couple of Canadian guys. One was also really into the environment and worked as a ranger in Canada. He'd heard of an Icelandic MP who was a keen environmentalist and had added her as a facebook friend. This being Iceland, she had a normal page rather than a 'like' page and accepted him. They'd chatted back and forth and he'd met her last year when he'd come to Iceland. They met up again this time. What other country would that happen in? He'd also got to go backstage at a Sigur Ros concert last time as he just happened to meet them too. 

The other Canadian worked as a gardener during the summer months and spent the winters travelling. He'd already been to a few places this winter and was planning on visiting his father in Central America after Iceland. 

These are just a few of the people I met, but they all had really interesting stories to tell. Meeting people like this always inspires me to think about what's really important in life and not to get bogged down in the nitty gritty of everyday life and work. Easier said than done of course, once I'm back at work and have so many demands on my time. But I'll keep thinking about the interesting people I meet and hopefully this will motivate me not to get stuck back in a rut.

Laxness Museum

Going here was a real mission. Halldor Laxness is Iceland's best known writer, probably because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which I suppose says a lot. I've only read one of his books so far, but I loved it and do want to read more. As well as liking him as an author, the reviews of this museum were good and as I love having a nosey round other people's houses ... well, it just had to be done.

I'd checked the opening times of the museum online, so I only needed to know how to get there as it's quite far out of Reykjavik. When I asked for directions in the tourist office, the woman behind the desk said 'well, first you need to rent a car, then ...' She didn't continue as she'd seen my look of dismay. Even if I could afford car rental, there would be no way I'd drive in this amount of snow!

So then she said, 'let me check in case I'm being too pessimistic'. A few minutes later she'd come up with a plan for me. I had to get one bus way out of the city and then get a connecting bus that left only five minutes after the first bus was due to arrive, so it would all be a bit fine-cut, but possible.

On the day, I wanted to be sure of nothing going wrong so called in at the bus station an hour and a half before the first bus was due to leave. I checked my plans with the lady in the ticket office and what a good job I did. Because it is winter and not many people go to the Laxness Museum, the second bus only runs if it is booked at least an hour in advance. She phoned for me and booked both my outward and return journeys. As the buses are only every four hours I was going to have a long time at this museum. I was hoping for a little coffee shop I could sit in and read and write my journal.

The first bus arrived on time and got me to the required stop right on schedule. I shouldn't really expect any less from Icelandic buses. Even in this weather everything seems to run like clockwork. There was a taxi waiting at the bus stop, with two people sitting in the back. The bus station lady had said something about the bus being a taxi, but I thought she meant some kind of minibus taxi. No, the bus was an actual taxi.

The bus/taxi driver dropped me at the last stop which was a few minutes walk from the actual house. It was bitterly cold and the snow was really deep and difficult to walk through. By the time I got to the house my fingers were numb even though I was wearing fleecy gloves. I wasn't looking forward to hanging around the bus stop for long on the way back.

The house is large and white and Laxness lived there with his wife and children for most of his life. His wife, who was younger than him, is still alive but lives in a home in Reykjavik. There are wonderful views of hills and fields on all sides. In the garden to the side is a small swimming pool. The steam rising from the geothermally heated water made it look so inviting; an oasis in the snow.

The house was so homely inside, I could really imagine living there and curling up on one of the sofas with a good book. There were so many things that I would like in a house of my own if I could have one big enough. The hallway had a grandfather clock and an old chest; the living room had a grand piano, an egg chair, and large array of cacti and other tropical plants (looked incongruous but good against the snowy background!); the dining room had a table to seat twelve and a samovar; the bedrooms had plenty of bookshelves; the study was lined with books, had a couple of desks (a tall one that Laxness would stand at to write, and a regular one at which his wife would sit to type up his manuscripts), and piles of papers; and there was a small library, basically what would be the box room in any other house, but in this one it was lined with books. Throughout the house was an art collection of mostly modern works and a collection of artefacts gathered from trips around the world.

I walked round the house listening to the audio guide and then went round twice more just looking and trying to absorb the place. I wasn't allowed to take photos inside the house, but plenty can be found here on the museum's website.

Once I could tear myself away, I walked round the garden and then watched a short video in the ticket office. One of the ladies working in the museum was finishing work and offered me a lift back to the bus stop where I could catch one of the regular buses back into Reykjavik. As there was no coffee shop for me to sit in and wait another 2 or so hours until the taxi bus was due, I gratefully accepted and she phoned to cancel the taxi bus for me. If the weather had been different I would have easily passed the time going for a walk and exploring the area, but it would have been foolhardy in conditions like this when I would have no idea what the ground was like that I was walking on because of the thick layer of snow.

Even though it's a real trek out of town, this is somewhere I will come to again the next time I'm in Iceland.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Hot air balloon crash

Just come across this via twitter. I'd never heard of any accidents involving hot air balloons before. I'm sure there's always going to be a risk involved: standing in a basket, hundreds of meters in the air with a blazing gas canister certainly doesn't sound particularly safe, and no doubt the owners or company bosses will make me sign all kinds of liability waivers before I ever get so much as a toe in that basket. But even so, I hadn't had any qualms about going up in one and everyone I know who has been in a hot air balloon has loved the experience.

So although this hasn't put me off, it has given me a few concerns. Maybe I should wear a fire-proof suit with matching parachute when I eventually do this task?

Independent People

I read this book whilst I was in Iceland the first time and wrote the review shortly afterwards. I thought I'd include it here as I visited Laxness' house on this trip and it made quite an impression on me. I'll write about the house later.

By Halldor Laxness

Laxness is Iceland's Dickens or Tolstoy. This is a wonderful saga-like tale set in Iceland at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bjartur is a sheep farmer trying to make it as an independent man. Life throws everything possible at him, including demons and his stubborn pride, but he almost makes it. By the end of the story he has lost the little he had and is back to working for others for a living. Reading this story in the year or so after the Icelandic financial crisis I wondered how many Icelanders had actually read this most well-known novel from their most well-known writer. Surely if they had the crisis would have been averted as it seemed to have been caused by the same mistakes that caused the crisis for those trying to be independent in Iceland over 100 years ago.

Laxness is so convincing with his descriptions and setting of the scene that I frequently looked up from this book only to be surprised that I wasn't actually in the middle of nowhere on an Icelandic farm. Bjartur is such a convincing character that I wanted to strangle him at times (metaphorically speaking of course) for his stubborness. But at the same time I could understand his reasoning and his reluctance to give even an inch of his hard fought for independence away.

When Bjartur meets with other male characters the long conversations that ensue veer from poetry, sheep and politics to their ideas of what is happening in Great War that is engulfing the rest of Europe and how wonderful this war is for them. Suddenly everyone wants to buy their sheep and prices have soared. They wish for the war to never end. These conversations give wonderful insights into the lives of people at this time, the things that were important to them and their interpretations of the world around them.

I'm home

I got home from Iceland this morning. It's been a really long day as I had to get up at 3.30am for my flight. I have so many different things I want to blog about I don't know where to start. It's going to take a while for me to get everything out of my head and on to my computer. I met some amazing people, heard some amazing stories and saw the Northern Lights. Amazing.

I've been practising with my new camera and been taking loads of photos every day. I still have to take one for today to keep up with 2012 task of taking at least one photo every day. I ordered a video camera before I went away and it has arrived. I haven't opened it yet, but learning how to use it will go towards my other 2012 task of learning how to use three new pieces of technology or software.

Over the coming week I need to book the floatation tank for half term and enrol on a writing course. I also need to sort out insurance for the two houses I currently own (my goal is five); sort out some repairs in the house I rent out; put together a fitness programme;, return my new backpack as it's already got a seam coming loose; get to Martin Mere to take a photo that will win me a trip to Antarctica; remember to take a photo each day; download (and upload) all my photots; try to get out on at least one walk; and get my blog updated. I don't really have time to go back to school on Monday!