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Sunday, October 17, 2004

Reykjavík Diary: Day 3

My penultimate day in Iceland begins with pouring rain--worse than the previous two days. They say that if you don't like the weather in Iceland, wait a minute. Well, I waited an hour, and still no change. I was not looking forward to doing the Golden Circle tour in the rain.
I ordered a packed lunch from the hostel (I swapped one of my expensive breakfasts for it) and waited for my pickup. A small van comes for me and the other people going along, and I thought that was it. in stead, we were dropped off at a service station, nd told to go to the office (a converted London double-decker) hand over out tickets and board the Mercedes-Benz coach. All this without umbrellas, in the pouring rain. Not a good start. It took three minutes, though, and after a 10 minute wait off we went.

I did not get the name of our guide then, and beats me to try to remember it now. It sounded like Matti, to me, but I could be wrong. He--strangely--spoke English with an American accent. Anyway, he starts to talk about Reykjavík and how it spread over he years to now be home to over 40 % of Iceland's population--125,000 people. It is one sprawling place. Last night (in London) I was reading that Iceland is second only to California in the number of cars per capita, and they have their own motorsports to watch, like driving up a near-vertical cliff-face in a souped-up jeep, or driving across an unfrozen lake full throttle on a snowmobile (!). These people live is a strange land, and they have strange habits to match.

Our first stop was the geothermal power plant at Nesjasvellir. The rain had by then gone down to a drizzle. If this sounds boring, well, it wasn't--far from it. There was a visiting Chinese delegation, so we were not allowed to enter the plant. no matter. We were 300 metres above it--the plant, for one, does not look like a plant, more like a set of randomly placed steampipes in a valley. The valley, treeless as it was, was fantastic to look at. it overlooks Lake Thingvallavatn, and the views from the lookout were simply majestic.

The rain had stopped, and then it started again, then it stopped again; the aforementioned saying is true. That las less of a problem than the windchill--on top of the ridge, despite all the clothes I was wearing, I was freezing, and dying for a pair of gloves. We walked over some moss, which we were told takes 100 years to grow an inch. This moss was a foot thick, and the only this that would grown on the poor volcanic soils.

There's was a lot of technical stuff from Matti about high-temperature fields--Nesjasvellir is the third hottest place is Iceland. It's 27 kilometres from Reykjavík, and it supplies 25 percent of the city's hot water--the aboveground, earthquake-proof insulated pipeline loses only one degree of heat between the two places. (The insulation is so good that the snow on the pipeline does not melt.) The plant has walking trails for hikers, and the pipeline has overpasses built so that snowmobilers and off-roaders don't try to go over or under it. Nesjasvellir is one adventure park for the people of Reykjavík.

On to Lake Thingvallavatn. The largest lake is Iceland is not that big, but is beautiful, with two symmetric islands in the middle. (Lava domes, I think.) At most times of the year (like now) you could die of hypothermia if you fall in. Still, there were lots of holiday homes along the shoreline road, which isn't at all busy. Driving reminds you that Iceland is not a place to hitchhike--you'll die of cold waiting.

We arrived at the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) information centre. No rain at first--then a minute passed. The centre is Scandinavian modernist in design, with clean, minimalist lines. This, suits the location, as any stucture pales in comparison with it's location and history.

Iceland has the world's oldest parliament, the Alþing (Althing), established in 930 AD, just 60 years after settlement. The parliament was sited at Þingvellir because of the abundance of freshwater and grazing land. When you see it, though, you can't help but wonder if the scenery had something to do with it. The American and European/African geologic plates are separating at this point, and what you see is four kilometres of no-man's land that is expanding at the rate of 4 centimetres a year. Þingvellir is very hard to describe, and photos of a part of it fail to do it justice. It's like a part of granite literally split open--except that the split is miles wide, with a river running through it.

There is a hotel, a government guesthouse and the prime minister's summer home withing the national park. 20 years ago the prime minister's previous summer house here was destroyed in an earthquake, with him and his family inside. A memorial stands in his honour, and Matti told us the present incumbent holidays elsewhere.

The Alþing met against a cliff face, the Lögberg or law rock, where the speaker addressed the gathered lords of the Icelandic Commonwealth. The acoustics are reportedly fantastic, and he cliff reflects an amplify the sound. Further down the same trail there is a waterfall; you can't help but wonder if the Alþing was not distracted, but apparently the waterfall was not there 100 years ago--there is so much tectonic activity here that watercourses change quickly in geologic terms. (There are over 24000 earthquakes a day in Iceland, though most are imperceptible; they're expecting a major one in 15-20 years, though.) We walked past the waterfall and across the river and back to the coach. Off we went to Geysir.

The Icelanders are very proud that Geysir gave its name to all such natural phenomena worldwide. The original one spouts irregularly, but it's neighbour, Strokkur, shoots up every 6-8 minutes. You have to make sure that you're not standing downwind, otherwise you'll get drenched with the sulphuric water. It's quite a site, though I was freezing, and, as expected, the rains came. After 25 minutes there, we were off across great countryside to Gullfoss.

If you've seen Niagara Falls (I must confess that I have not) you might think that Gullfoss is better, but not too much better. You'd be wrong. To start, you can get very, very close to it--there is a path that runs alongside and above the waterfall--and it gets louder as you get closer. The gorge is also more spectacular, like a narrow fissure in the earth. If you approach from on top you can almost miss it. Then you see it, a great waterfall.

I needed to get film, so I went to the visitor centre to buy an overpriced roll. (I had some excellent lamb stew as well while up there.) As I walked down to the fall it started to rain. First a drizzle, then harder. So far nothing I haven't seen before.

Then came the path to Gullfoss itself. Oy.

Gullfoss is not only loud; it also churns a lot of water, and produces spray--a LOT of spray. Before I knew it I was getting thoroughly soaked, both from the rain and from the spray. There was so much water I had to take off my now useless glasses. I began to fear that I would fall off the cliff face (there are no rails, believe it or not) and into the falls, and the fact that people were going in the other direction because of the rain was not comforting. At one point I was alone in the wet cloud--even the last three Japanese tourists fled. I took off my now useless glasses and groped my way from above Gullfoss, and walked up the path, past the memorial to the woman who walked the 100-plus kilometres on several occasions from here to Reykjavik to save this treasure for the nation after her father sold it to foreign investors.

Back in the visitor centre I had to take off my long underwear and just wear my water-resistant hiking trousers.I became reasonably dry, and sat down to chat with a young doctor from Tennessee who was also on my tour. He was very health conscious, though pleasant. I discovered that my camera was malfunctioning badly--my soaking wet trip behind Gullfoss, all to get photos, may have been in vain--and I changed rolls.

Off we were again. We stopped at a little waterfall, and "Matti" told us that there were lots of hidden waterfalls all over the place that people don't know about. For a hidden waterfall, this one was pretty damn big.

After that five-minute photo op--it ended prematurely because, as you know by now, the rain had started to fall--we continued to Skálholt. This was one of the two historic centres of Iceland's Christianity (the other is a place called Hólar) and where a large part of it's violent Reformation happened. (The King of Norway, to whom Iceland became allegiant in 1262, became Lutheran, and forced his dominions to convert. Some resisted; guess how that ended.) The original church no longer stands, and the present-day modern replacement was built in the postwar period, with contributions from all Nordic countries. It's a pretty, modern wood-framed church--it's a cathedral no more--and the modern stained glass is particularly appealing.

Driving on, we stopped for 10 minutes at Kerið (Kerith) which is an old volcano explosion crater, now filled with water. It's small, but no less spectacular for that, and if time and the trail had allowed it (and if the rain stayed away) I would have circumambulated the crater. We then drove on through boulder-strewn countryside to our last stop.

Hveragerði (don't ask me how to pronounce this; my best guess is hver-a-gerth-ee) is sited on a low temperature volcanic field at the base of a mountain, and the heat there is used to warm up greenhouses where the Icelanders grow bananas, flowers, and other tropical plants. It's this sounds spectacular, it wasn't; It was not a well-laid out place such as the one at the Keukenhof in the Netherlands. Also, at the entrance is the tackiest tourist shop in Iceland, with slot-machines, moderately overpriced souvenirs, and expensive snacks. I retreated to the coach for the return trip to Reykjavik.

On the way back to the hostel I saw the Catholic Cathedral (this in a place that is officially 96% Lutheran) and the house where Reagan and Gorbachev had their famous 1986 summit. I was tired, and I retreated to my room to lie down and warm up a bit. Feeling drained, I decided to go to the pool complex next door and sit in a hot pot for a while.

After an hour or so, I went back to the hostel, dropped off my things and went off for a trip to the city centre to continue the Björk vigil. Rather than take the bus to the most central place, Læjartorg, I stopped a little way out at Hjemmur, and decided to walk down the main drag, Laugavegur. While walking, a long-haired young man comes and starts to talk to me at a pace in Icelandic. I had to hold up my hands and say "Afsakið (excuse me), talarðo ensku?" He says, "Oh, Ensku, English" and then invited me to his band's free gig at Kaffi List down the street. I said sure, I'll check it out.

I proceeded to walk, though, to the end of Laugavegur and across to the main square. (It does not look all that main, to be quite honest.) There I had a New York boat sandwich, which turned out to be quite good. After eating half of it I walked back up Laugavegur.

Kaffi List literally translates as Art Café. (This country sure does a lot of literal naming.) It looks posh inside and out, and I was kind of uncomfortable being there as I did not think that I was dressed for the occasion. (I did match the band, at least.) The funk jam session was quite good, but I did not stay long, and went out to go to Sirkus (Circus), which is recommended by the free English-Language Icelandic monthly newspaper, Grapevine.

I ended up staying two minutes. The music was the hard techno Europeans love, and the place, from my brief glance, didn't serve tea. The people all looked too cool for me too. I decanted to Kaffibarinn, where I also did not stay long. It was packed, and there was no place to sit. I went out for another walk down Laugavegur.

Close to the square, a drunk Icelander came up to me outside Apótek, a restaurant that used to be a pharmacy. When I protested in English, he told me that somebody was trying to kill him, then he laughed. I was not amused, but neither was i afraid; he annoyed me more than anything else. He begged to buy me a drink. I politely declined, and tried to move on. He followed me down the street until I decided to flee into Hverfisbarinn, where the bouncer (oddly, the first I say in Reykjavik) got rid of the guy for me. I was thirsty, and I had another tap water with lemon.

After a while I returned to Kaffi List and stayed 40 minutes or so to listen to the rest of the funk gig. Really good music. Afterwards the long-haired dude called me and asked me how I liked it, and I showed him my appreciation. I left for Kaffibarinn to close the night, having already missed the last bus back to the hostel.

I ordered tea and drank it standing up, the packed bar lacking seats. I got bored by myself, and moved to leave when a guy called me over. Turns out he was a hiking guide, and he invited me to sit at his table with his French charges. He was probably the most ebullient Icelander I spoke to, and it was a marked change. Among other things we talked about swimming pools, and told me the one where I could meet the prime minister. (Iceland had to be the only country where the prime minister and his cabinet have listed telephone numbers.) He clearly loved his country, and, given what I've seen, who could blame him?

At 1 am the lights came on. Few people moved, and the DJ still played on. These people really know how to have a good time, and closing time was not going to abruptly stop them . No sign of Björk, but no matter. (Another thing I noticed in the bar, Mike; a lot of the people do look like Björk after all.) When people started to leave, I said my farewells to the guide and his friends. In light rain I began my 40-minute walk in deserted streets back to the hostel. It was not a bad walk, but it was a bit saddening. The northern holiday would end the next day.