Sunday, 10 April 2016

Iceland

Iceland. A mystical country that has intrigued me for years.

When I stepped off the plane at Reykjavik airport in August, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Beautiful clear blue skies, and blindingly strong sun. Not weather you always associate with the coldly named country. Admittedly, I wasn't expecting iceberg arctic conditions, and to be greeted by a north face clad penguin to collect my bags, but still.

As the bus from the airport took me to Reykjavik, I was struck by the volcanic landscape. Similar to the canaries, the land looked almost desolately lunar. It is an odd view, with its black, almost dead sensation, and yet not without it's own special kind of beauty. I was also struck by how sparse things felt - maybe too conditioned to the UK and in particular the city claustrophobic feel, where buildings are squidged next to other buildings to exploit as much millimetre of the space as possible.

Reaching Reykjavik itself in glorious sunshine, I could almost admit to feeling warm. I set out to roam. The city felt european, and yet also not quite. Buildings were colourful, something I often long for in the UK outside small seaside towns; how can you not find these inherently more cheerful than the drab grey slabs of concrete, or even worse, the red bricked modern housing estates sprawled across the UK that could be any mundane town in any ordinary place.

What I liked about Reykavik was how easy it was to walk to everything else - such a small city but packed with goodies around every corner. It's like sight-seeing christmas come early. I quickly established my mantra when alone in a foreign place - find a landmark. In Reykavik's case, you have easily, the Hallgrimskirkja.
Just before I left for my trip and on our weekend away, my friends gave me a lovely birthday card in which they wrote 'Have a great time in Iceland, look out for the big churchy thing that looks like a REALLY big set of pan pipes' which had left me chuckling at the time, but this is actually a pretty good description of the Hallgrimskirkja. A strikingly large cathedral that dominates the skyline; its blocky, concrete appearance overlooks proceedings, indeed, like a omnipresent....set of giant lego pipes.

Untitled

I went to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja tower and saw stunning 360 views of the city. I kept thinking of the difference between the last time I had been looking at similar 360 views - when I was on the top of the Tokyo governmental buildings - when the panorama before me was an endless mass Sim City sprawl of buildings until infinity. And yet here, in Iceland, was a little city of brightly coloured lego compactness.

Untitled

Reykavik is a culture hot bed. We boast in Wales of our cultural prowess for such a small country; Reykavik has it alone and yet is roughly around the same population size of Cardiff. There are many art and photography galleries, museums and a film festival. It boasts an architectural feast in the Haimj concert hall - an outstandingly beautiful construction of optically illusional glass. It reminded me of a beautiful giant kaleidoscope.

Untitled

It also did not get dark until very very late. Wandering around Reykavik at night in August, and I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't still 3pm. The unbridled joy of going for a run around the city at 11.30pm in daylight will live with me forever (Iceland loves running. Another massive tick box of YES for me). Conversely, winter months must be bleak times (anyone who watches those endless scandinavian and nordic dramas on BBC4 will already tell you this). Icelanders must have a hard constitution, hardened by the incredibly high cost of alcohol (I think I felt drunk just reading the menu prices). It makes me feel a wuss for feeling miserable whilst running up Pen Y Fan in a January raining hale of gales.

Not far away from the concert hall that overlooks the docks of Reykavik and deep ocean, are the boats that can take you Whale and puffin watching. Having been lucky enough to visit Skomer island in pembrokeshire to see puffins, I was keen to look for Whales. I chose the smaller boat to go out to sea, for the main purpose of being closer to the Whales. What no one told me at the time, was that this of course, meant a bumpier ride as well as an increased chance of a Whale actually knocking the boat over. But luckily I am a fan of the sea and its roller coaster offerings.

It is luck and chance of the day to whether you see Whales or not of course, and I was blessed to see lots of Whales on my trip. Lead on the trip by a Scotsman (the accent threw me at the beginning), we were taken out to sea (and see) and learnt much about the sealife as a whole. And we saw many Whales. Lots of Minky Whales, gracefully gliding around the sea looking for food. We saw humpback Whales leap out of the water and land with a splash. Quite simply one of the most incredibly powerful and yet graceful scenes you could wish to witness.
The trip was utterly respectful to the animals - never deliberately approaching or getting too close, not wishing to disturb these most magnificent creatures. The girl from Wales finally saw her Whales, and I had a new found respect for these majestic, intelligent and stunning animals. That Whales must remain free (certainly not in any form of captivity), not exploited, and also not hunted, is absolutely a must.

Untitled

A short journey out of Reykjavik, and you hit the countryside. I was keen to see the beautiful landscape, the mountains and natural wonders. It is not long before you are out of the city and into the relative remote hills. The rolling hills were, to me, not dissimilar to the Brecon beacons in many ways - although that may have been because of the grey and drizzly weather. The difference being were more random houses potted around as we passed. At one point, we could even see the unpronounceable (and also troublesome to spell) Eyjafjallajökul; its looming peaks calling out to me tantalizingly in the distance between the clouds. Mountains call to me like sirens, their majesty and large forms bewitch me with their power and strength. There is something so reassuring about mountains and hills, they are stoic and reliable. Yet with a whisper of danger and intrigue.

Untitled

Then I saw the geysers. I am not sure if anything could have prepared me for witnessing large jets of hot water burst out of the floor like a bubbling random piston; it was as if the floor beneath us was alive. A dragon lay under the surface, roaming and stalking the underworld, until it teased the upside by spitting out its foaming shoots of water whenever it felt like it as if in a firy protest or just to amuse. That this natural phenomenon occurs still baffles and delights me now. It reminds me yet again that nature is so unashamedly, what it is.

Untitled

Even more incredible, was watching the people watching. Rings of people form around the geysers, phones and cameras held aloft, all waiting on baited breath for the geyser to perform. Sometimes it took ages. Sometimes the bubbling potion caused tourist oooos and ahhhhhs as the teasing water promised to deliver (and yet didn't). Even more curious were the people stood away from the geysers, hoping for a selfie. Watching the watchers became as fascinating to me as the geysers themselves.

As we drove through the hills and landscapes, I yearned to return in the winter; to see the snow and harshness - the equally beautiful but dramatic changes in season. No wonder Iceland has produced many great musical artists, with such landscapes to inspire ethereal electronic wonders. It feels an ethereal country, where volcanos rule above, and creatures tease below; where light lasts all day or darkness dictates instead. Where culture blossoms and history breathes. Beautiful, fascinating Iceland.

Untitled

See my set of photos from Iceland on Flickr.