Iceland 2005 (Day 2)
On 19 August 2005 Catherine and myself flew out to Iceland for a ten night touring holiday round Iceland. We drove round the country and saw many an exciting and interesting thing. This is one of many blog posts about that holiday – this particular post is from day two which was our first full day in Iceland..
Oh and warning. This is long. Go, get a cup of tea or something.
It’s the morning, you’re in Reykjavik, and you’re going to be leaving on a flight at 11am for somewhere in the north coast of the island. What do you do?
Well if you’re Bill Bryson, you probably manage to visit fifteen museums before 9am, find out that there’s nowhere decent to eat Breakfast, and turn up at the airport with five minutes to spare, look dishevelled at desperate at the airline staff, before finally clambering on your flight.
Thankfully I’m not Bill Bryson, but I did have a flight at 11am. But first things first…
It’s Guesthouse Isafold and it’s relatively early on a Saturday morning – it’s before 8am cos one of the TV stations hasn’t actually started broadcasting yet. I know this cos I spent far too much time waiting for RUV (the Icelandic equivalent of the BBC) to come on air for the day, which it duly did with some strange music that sounded like it was recorded in the 1950s and had only remained because every time they tried to ditch it, hoardes of people complained.
Some might see this as a waste of time, but I started doing it whilst waiting for Catherine to return from the shower. Which incidentally, smells eggy. The water that is – not Catherine. She always smells delightful.
Anyway, the water. It smells eggy because in many parts of Iceland, hot water comes on tap straight into homes, direct from various hot springs. No need for a boiler, although it does come at a cost of your water having a strange rotten egg smell. Not particularly strong, but noticable if you’re not used to it.
After a shower, a smell and some quite frankly odd music, it was time for our first Icelandic breakfast – meat, pickled herring, cheese, museli, bread and so on – in the Isafold’s slightly odd, nautically themed breakfast room. It has ropes for banister rails and everything.
To the Airport
Food inside us, we packed our stuff up and headed for the exit. Our day was to be a busy one – our itinerary told us to get to Reykjavik’s city airport at 10:30, with our plane at 11am.
After much pondering, we’d decided to walk to the airport – looking at the maps, it didn’t seem far away, so it seemed a sensible idea and would give us a chance to take another glimpse of the capital.
Our route saw us pass Tjörnin – the lake that splits the city in two, and where the city hall and a huge number of birds are based, squawking away and swimming around. You could also see the small, twin propeller planes coming in, that were destined for the city airport just as we were.
After taking far too many pictures, we continued to the airport, down various streets and turns which clearly incidicated that only a fool would visit this airport by foot. But we plodded on. We needed to be there by 10:30 after all.
Now that was in many ways, our first mistake. We are, after all, people who are used to checking in for planes well in advance, so we thought 10:30 was the latest time to turn up – the time when check-in would close.
Oh no. This was a domestic flight and it’s at 10:30 is when check-in actually opens, which meant we ended up sitting around like lemons for twenty minutes having got there too early. Not that we were the only ones – the places seemed to be packed with British tourists who’d made the same mistake.
Plane for Mr Bodwin?
Our Lonely Planet book described the city airport as little more than a glorified coach terminal and they weren’t far off the mark on that one. The place was tiny – it’s three check-in desks unoccupied for the most part. On the rare occasions when a check-in would open, Air Iceland staff literally picked up a wooden sign and hung it on some brass hooks, so that people knew where to go.
When we were finally allowed to give our suitcase to the staff, they attached a label on with a stapler. A class act and no mistake. Just to make things worse, the lady checking us both in, seemed to have all manner of problems working out who I was on my computer, despite her having my passport, and my name flashing up several times on screen.
After some manual data entry (despite having seen my name several times on screen) we shuffled off to the gate (well a patio door), me clutching my boarding card marked ‘A Bodwin’ close in my hand, hoping to heaven that no one would bother asking for my passport, and then asking who Mr Bodwin was.
This would end up being trivial, as the problems when we finally came to board weren’t down to my completely incorrect name (and yes, my passport was checked) but due to the fact that the airline staff suddenly decided our hand luggage was to heavy to go in the overhead lockers. Well it would, to be frank, have been nice to have been told before.
No doubt had this been Britain, this would have resulted in my luggage ending up in Hawaii or something – a fear which may have accounted for me being rather nervous as I ended up re-queing at the check-in desk, petrified that the plane would take off without me.
And even worse, you’re in a foreign country. Just how do you explain all this confusion to someone who might not speak English?
The lady on the desk – who we know speaks English well – is busy talking (extensively) to someone else… A strange man turns up to join her and says something in Icelandic to me…
"Do you speak English?"
The response is a "Yes", but with a subtle undercurrent of "But of course. Why are you even asking me such a silly, pointless question? What are you, some kind of fool?". Okay, I made that last bit up…
This was the only time in my entire holiday that I asked anyone if they spoke English. It became abundantly clear that almost anyone under 40 in Iceland, not only speaks English, but they speak it ten times better than I do. Just to make things worse, I later read that English isn’t even their second language – that’s Danish. And not only do they learn Icelandic, Danish and English at school, but loads of them learn German as well. Four languages under their belt. And I struggle with school boy French…
Our small suitcase safely checked in, we finally got aboard the quite frankly puny plane, whilst I sat nervously hoping our luggage would make it on the plane. Indeed, no one seemed to be in any hurry until around three minutes before departure, when the little suitcase – and a few others – were finally loaded onto the little buggy and driven the one meter distance that seperated the terminal building from the plane, before being loaded into some no doubt cramped space on their aircraft.
With that, it was chocks away, with a safety demonstration that lasted about five seconds, before we finally made it into the air and above the clouds.
Our destination was Akureyri – a town on the north of Iceland where we would pick up our hire car, and begin driving round the island.
The flight itself was just long enough for the air steward to offer us an Icelandic newspaper, and throw some coffee or tea at the passengers, before we landed in the airport – which had a runway which, unnervingly, started in the middle of a fjord.
Akureyri airport is a posher coach terminal – by pulling some shutters down, they can make it into an international airport, with passport control and everything! Admidtedly one of the car hire companies would lose its desk that way, but never mind.
On our visit, the immigration control booths were shut, the door to customs locked and the shutters up, meaning we could see our luggage being loaded onto the buggy that would drive it an inch down the tarmac to where it would be unloaded and placed on the very posh, but very small luggage carosel.
Naturally our cases were near the end, but never mind as the car hire window took around two seconds to get to, and besides, there was someone already there.
We’d opted for a cheap car, which was just as well as the man from Budget seemed to have just two cars left – a Polo with about 60,000 on the clock, or a Toyota Yaris with about 12,000. Naturally it was that we opted for.
Unfortunatly there was a problem – the supplied mobile phone wasn’t working, so the friendly man suggested we follow him down the road to the Vodafone shop.
Now at this point I should mention three things. First, I had only ever driven three cars and one van in my whole life – none of which was a Toyota Yaris. Secondly, I had never driven on the left hand side of the road. Thirdly, I’d never driven a left hand drive car. Oh and fourthly, when I do drive a new car, I spend most of my time stalling it. As such, the idea of following the man from Budget down the road, wasn’t hugely appealing, especially after I’d stalled it twice within five minutes. Oh and by the way… fifthly, I hadn’t actually driven for 18 months…
I would have much rather taken it all at my own pace – slowly and steadily – but instead found myself panicing about losing a man in a silver car, almost going through several red lights and getting panicy when the road when onto four lanes.
After a little drive (and a few stalls of the car) we ended up sitting in a shopping mall car park, waiting for the man from Budget to fix the phone, when a car comes alongside my highly suspect parking.
The actions of the driver might, once more, show Iceland’s fear of crime. The driver gets out of car, leaves his window down and the doors unlocked, and does his shopping. His car hasn’t been touched when he returns. Ever wonder if you’re living in the wrong country?
One working phone supplied, we pondered our options. It was lunchtime. We could stop in Akureyri for lunch but we had a busy day. There’s a supermarket here – we could grab a butty and eat on the way.
And so it was that we found ourselves in an Icelandic Netto – which appears to be unreleated to Netto in the UK, cos for starters, everything is expensive. After wandering round, we found ourselves standing looking at the tiny range of sandwiches, wondering what everything meant. To confuse things, all the pictures on the wrappers were of a sandwich containing ham, cheese, lettuce and tomato. Now Catherine’s a vegetarian so this wasn’t very helpful, so in desperation, we bought a packet of sliced cheese, two crusty rolls and vowed to roll our own. To accompany, a large packet of Bugles – some nice conelike crisps from Walkers/Smiths empire that they don’t sell in the UK, but which I’d seen before in France.
Our guide books had all said that Icelandic roads were really quiet. Not this one, which didn’t help my confidence as I attempted to get used to driving a new car on a new side of the road. Even worse, when we pulled off the main road and down a side road, everyone seemed to be following us to Laufás.
This was our first deviation from the itinerary – a visit to a turf roofed farmhouse that was built in 1866 and is now a museum. Such farmhouses were once rather common in Iceland – the turf providing perfect insulation in the cold weather. Indeed such is it’s capabilities that the idea is now being used in Britain to make homes better insulated.
After sitting in the carpark eating our handmade sandwiches and admiring the peace, quiet and tranquility of it all (Iceland really is beautiful and pictures alone can’t do it justice) we wandered over to the farmhouse, only to find it locked and in darkness. After wandering around the buildings a little, we finally opted to do the sensible thing and ask at the cafe/shop building next door. One member of duly museum staff obtained, we paid our 500kr each (around £5) and walked inside the old eider farm.
The farm was a series of small buildings connected by interconnected walkways, which showed the soil surrounding the walls betweeen the different sections – easily 10cm thick. It was cute and nice, but must have got a bit cramped for the 20 odd people who lived there all year round.
After taking our fill, we headed back to the car – not before taking some ‘artistic’ shots of the local scenary – and prepared to drive on. The church at Laufás is also supposed to be worth a visit, but unfortunatly it was in use for a funeral which appeared to have been about to start just as we arrived in the area. This was, presumably, why the roads had been so busy on our way (the church car park was absolutely heaving with around 25 cars in it) – on our departure the roads were almost near empty. Just what the doctor ordered.
Heading back to the main road, we drove on to Goðafoss (pronounced Goethafoss I believe), a large waterfall where the local goths congregate, and where around 1000 years ago, a pagan chieften threw his idols and statues and embraced christianity. Tsk. Litter bug.
We had to share our visit to this beautiful horse-shoe shaped waterfall with a coach tour who had just arrived at the same time as us. Coach tours are quite fascinating to watch, as a parade of people troup off the bus, walk up, take some snaps then proceed to march in line off to the nearby cafe and gift shop. It wasn’t long before we were almost alone again!
After a bit more of a drive, and a few stops to admire the view (there are plenty of parking areas with information signs on the bigger roads) we drove towards our last port of call – and indeed our base for the next two nights – was Reykjahlíð on the banks of beautiful Lake Mývatn and a popular place with tourists who descend on the area to see its wide variety of natural beauty.
Our guesthouse was the Guesthouse Eldá but our various instructions were confusing which meant even after following signs for the place, we still weren’t sure whether we were in the right place – our guidebooks said it was in a completely different location to the small house we were standing outside now, and which bolding proclaimed to be Eldá. Was it merely an offshot building, we wondered as we drove around the whole four streets that made up the town, before finally doing the sensible and knocking on the door.
It was the right place, and we were duly dispatched up the road to another building, labelled Birkihraun II and which our Rough Guide to Iceland proclaimed was a seperate guesthouse. Ours not to wonder, we opened the door, took our shoes off and proceeded to wonder where on earth the rooms were. On our right were a shower and a toilet, on the left was a staircase, and in front of us, a lounge/dining room with a suspicious looking closed door and no one else in sight.
All we’d been told was that we were in room three and the key was in the lock. Having quickly discounted upstairs (which was clearly someones home) we pondered the suspicious looking closed door, decided what the hell and found our room (and several others) lurking behind. Twin again (not sure whether Iceland understands the concept of a double bed) we dumped our stuff and collapsed for a bit, before walking towards town to see the sights and to hopefully get some food.
At this point, I feel I should quote the Rough Guide to Iceland’s comment on Reykjahlíð.
Reykjahlíð is strung along 500m of road on Mývatn’s northeastern shore. The main focus is a new, well-stocked STRAX supermarket and fuel station at the eastern side of the "town".
The Rough Guide to Iceland (second edition), page 269
Before arriving, I’d thought this was a quite frankly odd way to describe a town, but it turned out to be 100% correct. The main focus is a supermarket, cos there’s very little else there bar hotels and houses. Oh and some solidified lava flows from August 1729 that descended from the Leirhnjúkur volcano.
Amazingly the church escaped – you can form your own conclusions why – but the scenary is now filled with the solidified black lumps and cracks.
We walked round for a while, fighting off Reykjahlíð’s other famous item – the local midges that, whilst they don’t bite, seem to delight in swarming round your face at every available oppertunity.
Tea options were limited to a hotel (£30 a head), a fast food outlet near the supermarket, or a rather cosy cafe-bar named Gamli Bærinn. We opted for the later, where I ate the Icelandic speciality of ham and cheese toastie (they seem to love this humble dish) whilst Catherine had a Vegetable Sandwich, both with chips and washed down with Icelandic water. We also opted for some Viking beer and a Thule beer. Hmm. The little we say about that, the better.
After feeding ourselves up, we decided to head for the Museum of the Lake which the Lonely Planet had said was good and was open until 10pm. Amusingly it was also half a mile away from the lake, tucked away in the hills, and on arrival seemed to have become a school instead. Obviously this vital tourist attraction had been held up by not actually being near the lake and as such, had given up the ghost, which might explain why no other guide books had mentioned it.
Not deterred, we walked on the top of the hills as the sun began to slowly come down, and took some lovely photos before heading back to the guesthouse to settle back, eat the remaining Bugles and cheese, do some reading and get some kip for the next day.