shewhomust: (dandelion)
On the building front: the errant downpipe has been reattatched, and the insurance company notified that the cause of the damp has been corrected, and they can start repairs as soon as they are ready. Meanwhile, while the scaffolding is in place the builders are doing useful things to the back of the house, repointing, repairing window frames, repainting woodwork.

The next job will be external repairs: the wall at the end of the garden, the outhouses, the steps down to the garden. The wall has already gone. We knew it was unsound, it was further damaged in bringing scaffolding through, and when the builder tried to remove the tree growing out of the top of the wall, it became clear that the tree was in fact the only thing holding it together. Just as well we already wanted to replace it. Replacing the back steps is also we've had in mind for some time - but it will have to wait until the scaffolding is removed.

This ought to be enough excitement to satisfy anyone. I don't know why I feel that nothing much is going on here.

On the Northern noir front: I've been enjoying Shetland enough to be sorry to see it come to an end, but thought the resolution was a little weak. The scheduling did it no favours, following the emotional blockbuster of the fifth episode with a two week gap, and then a dénouement which depended on cramming quite a lot of new material into the final hour, some of which didn't add up. As usual, I'm left feeling that the books are better. And the TV version seems set on dismantling everything interesting about Jimmy Perez's personal life. Oh, well.

It tells you somrthing about Trapped that where Shetland is filmed in Shetland in the summer months, Trapped meets the Icelandic winter head on: it is set in February, so not only is the town cut off by snow, and the population 'trapped', most of the action takes place in the long winter nights. This can be dramatic, and events are often macabre, but I wouldn't call it gloomy. There's a relish to it. One confrontation in episode three, which is as far as we've got, takes place while one of the characters in skinning and gutting a reindeer.

If that's part of your definition of noir, you can add The Last Seabird Summer to the list. Adam Nicolson (whose book, Sea Room, I have quoted before) investigates the decline in sea bird numbers around the coast of Britain, which includes going to Iceland (Grimsay, in fact, the island on the Arctic Circle) where licensed hunters still pluck puffins from the air with fishing nets, and cook them in barbecue sauce. Nicolson's discomfort at this is a thing of beauty.

Nothing to do with anything else, but the Guardian has an obituary of Gillian Avery. I loved The Warden's Niece; I've read and enjoyed others of her books, but The Warden's Niece remains special.
shewhomust: (dandelion)
In accordance with the rule that you wait hours for a bus and then three come along together, we have failed to watch all the big TV dramas, but are dividing this weekend between three northern crime series. Two of them spin off from the novels of Ann Cleeves, who is both friend and client, and it is one of the vagaries of scheduling (rival channels, so it can't be collusion) that they are both running on TV at the same time.

Vera is the least northern of the three: it's set in Northumberland, but strays into neighbouring counties, and location-spotting is not the least of its pleasures. It's the least noir, too. The convention appears to be that crime fiction is divided into 'noir' and 'cosy', and cosy is inferior in both literary and moral terms, treating murder as an entertainment and avoiding the grim realities of life. The crimes Vera solves are personal, domestic in scale. They show violence - and the pressures that provoke the violence - breaking into the sort of life lived by the majority of her viewers / readers: I don't see what's so cosy about that (and the first story ended with something genuinely shocking and unexpected, so don't let me overstate this ;'cosiness'). One episode of the four in the current series was based on the latest Vera Stanhope book (The Moth Catcher), the others are original stories, but retain the flavour of the books. Much as I like the books, they suffer from being cut down to fit into however long remains of two hours when you have subtracted the interminable advertising breaks; perhaps I prefer to original stories because I don't have the novel to compare them to. Vera has been an agreeable way to spend Sunday evenings, and I'll be sorry to say goodbye to her tomorrow.

Shetland is made by the same company as Vera, but they have made some very different choices. Given six one hour slots, they have opted to tell a single continuing story, and that story is harsher and more violent. It's probably obvious from the previous paragraph that my own tastes in crime fiction tend towards the so-called cosy; I am more interested in exploring why an ordinary person might commit murder than in contemplating the actions of people whose wickedness is sufficient to explain whatever they might do. If you want me to stay interested when the investigation moves to Glasgow and the Mr Big of gangland, you have to work twice as hard to make me interested. This series of Shetland has achieved that, by keeping the focus not on the hard men but on the effects of their activities. (Here's what Ann had to say about this, though if you are watching the series you may not want to read it before you have seen episode five). There's enough suggestion that the dénouement will bring it all back home to Shetland to make me impatient for the final episode: a two week wait, thank you BBC schedulers!

Further north and more noir yet, we have just watched the first part of Trapped: which begins with a headless, limbless torso being fished out of an Icelandic fjord (later we get a good look at it). As in The Bridge, there's an international complication: the body may have come from the ferry which has just docked, and the captain insists that he is subject to Danish law. It's a curious mixture of grand guignol and officialdom. The scenery - before the weather imposes a white-out - is spectacular. In an extraordinary piece of negative product placement, the ferry, with its probable crime scene, obstructive captain and other suspicious characters is - as it is in real life on this route - the Norrona, which has been on my wish-list since the long ago days when it used to call at Lerwick on its way from Denmark to the Faroe Islands.
shewhomust: (puffin)
Inevitably, I thought of [ profile] sovay when I read this:
The Sound of Shiant is also known as Sruth na Fear Gorm, the Stream of the Blue Men, or more exactly the Blue-Green Men. The adjective in Gaelic describes that dark half-colour which is the colout of deep sea water at the foot of a black cliff. These Blue-Green Men are strange, dripping, semi-human creatures who comr aboard and sit alongside you in the sternsheets, sing a verse or two of a complex song and, if you are unable to continue in the same metre and with the same rhyme, sink your boat and drown your crew.

That's Adam Nicholson, in Sea Room, part of that book-haul I was so triumphant about at the time. It turns out to be a very good sort of book to pick up when you hace a wretched cold that won't go away, and you aren't sleeping well, and you want to take a break in the afternoon but you don't want to get too deep into anything. And if you drift off to sleep among thoughts of islands, there's no harm done.

Wikipedia knows these 'Blue men of the Minch', though its account lacks the charm of Nicolson's: they are kelpies, it says, if not Picts, or possibly Touareg.

If the weather had been more encouraging while we were in the Western Isles, we might have tried to find a cruise to the Shiant Islands: we did consider it, once we had worked out that the islands are the only place in the Hebrides where you see puffins. (See! puffins!) Puffins like it there, it seems, because they return year after year: puffins ringed on the Shiants in 1975 and 1977 were found there again in 2009 (and reported to be Europe's oldest puffins, though an Icelandic puffin site claims that the oldest puffin on record is one ringed in the Westman Islands which was 38 years old when recovered).

Now, the Westman Islands really are on my must-see list...
shewhomust: (bibendum)
The blue houseThat evening brought us to the end of our road across the north of Iceland; the next morning we turned south. We were staying on a horse farm, outside the town of Hvammstangi, and just had time for a quick stroll round. The Seal Centre had closed, but the handicraft shop was still open - this is where [ profile] durham_rambler brought the big brown jumper. I was very taken with the many corrugated iron houses, painted in a rainbow of bright colours (more pictures of Hvammstangi).

The next day, driving south and west, we realised that summer had been advancing while we were in the north; the meadowsweet was in bloom, and the fields were dotted with bales of straw, all neatly wrapped in plastic, One farm had apparently held an event for children, because each bale in the field had been decorated on the end towards the road, with scenes and 'welcome' messages and silly faces.

That's where my notes run out; next stop, Snæfellsnes.
shewhomust: (Default)
My notes from our Icelandic trip peter out at about this point. Yes, I make notes, in a notebook, my memory needs all the help it can get. And no, I don't rely exclusively on my notes, that's what the camera is for. Which is just as well, because literally all I have written about the next two days is:
Akureyri smells of coffee.
Glaumbær: 300 years of coffee in Iceland.
Which isn't a whole lot to say about a morning spent exploring the main town (it has a cathedral, so technically I suppose it's a city) in northern Iceland (photos of Akureyri); or a tour of a traditional turf farm museum - yes, another one, but there's always more to see. This one had some wonderful examples of how turf actually works as a building material:

Wall and doorframe

Not a slice of Christmas cake with royal icing, but the farm wall abutting the painted woodwork of the doorframe. (more pictures from Glaumbær). I don't know what the "300 years of coffee" refers to - I must have read it at the Áskaffi café there. It reminds me of the role of coffee in the electrification of Iceland.

Just one more page of notes from the road (but plenty more photos): I wonder why?
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Saturday's travel supplement includes a description of an Icelandic road trip, a drive around Route 1, which is pretty much what we did. Like us, Amelia Hill travelled with Discover the World, though she road-tested a package called 'Natural Iceland Farmstays' which won't go on sale until this summer (though there's no indication that she wasn't paying her own way). It sounds as if it needed a little road-testing, too: I detected a certain edge to her handling of Discover the World's claim to have "hand-picked a charming selection of rural accommodation..." and to the long hours' driving necessitated by their itinerary - and I don't think this is just because that was how we felt.

It's almost a year since I last wrote about our trip to Iceland; all that time we've been about to arrive at out hotel on Lake Mývatn. Discover the World had urged us to spend three nights there, to give ourselves two full days exploring Mývatn. We weren't convinced: our itinerary didn't give us very long anywhere, and we were trying to squeeze in as much as we could; besides, we'd heard about the midges. As it turned out, our hotel by the lake, while perfectly OK, wasn't particularly exciting (and I note that the farm-stay holiday takes you to the farm at Vogafjós where we lunched, and thought would be a good place to stay).

Into the Labyrinth

We packed our one day by Lake Mývatn full to bursting, though. We may have been lucky with the midges: we met nothing to compare with, say, the clouds of little black flies which are such an affliction on a bad day in Kielder Forest - though, inevitably, I managed to swallow one. For much of the day we weren't walking by the lake at all, but exploring the various manifestations of volcanic activity in the surrounding hillsides. But we did start our day with a short stroll among the pseudocraters immediately across the road from our hotel: 'pseudo' because although these smooth sided hillocks and circular lakes look like volcanic craters, they are actually formed in the molten lava by escaping steam.

Then on to Dimmuborgir (pausing only to admire some lava stacks by the waterside). This is a labyrinth of jagged lava formations, all pinnacles and arches and twisted shapes on which tradition or the local tourist office has exercised its imagination, seeing palaces and cathedrals in a three-dimensional Rorschach test. There's a signposted path, and by the time we had completed it, we were ready for a break.

Lunch, as I said, was at Vogafjós, and after lunch we went to the Earth Baths, the Jarðbödin thermal pool. I'd built up quite a resistance to the Blue Lagoon, the big thermal baths near the airport - it was so heavily advertised, and felt so commercial, not to mention expensive. But we couldn't very well leave Iceland withouut having swum in a thermal pool, so we opted for this lower key option, and I, at least, enjoyed it much more than I'd expected to.

Earth Baths

I'd been thinking of it as a rather peculiar sort of swimming pool, but of course it's much more like a bath that's big enough to swim in (and when we were there, only a fraction of the area was open; beyond the enclosed pool is a whole lake, to which we didn't have access). The water is warm, and opaque, and sulphurous, and slippery to the touch. The ground beneath your feet - which you can't see - is uneven, but as smooth as if it has been polished, so there is no choice but to slow down, and move with great caution, and every now and then just drape yourself over a rock and watch the world go by.

It was extraordinarily relaxing, but we thought we could still manage a little drive, up into the Krafla volcanic area: past a field of steaming, bubbling sulphurous mud and up the mountain with increasing trepidation towards the plant where the volcano is tapped for energy.


Apr. 20th, 2010 10:34 pm
shewhomust: (Default)
I don't really remember how earlier volcanic outbursts from Iceland were reported. I've been thinking that surely there was more coverage of the eruption itself, this extraordinary, fascinating, frightening thing, and less complaining about how inconvenient it is. But that's probably just the tendency to think that things were better in the past. I've seen wonderful footage of volcanoes (some of which, like this report on Surtsey and Heimaey, has ended up on YouTube), but it isn't necessarily news footage.

Perhaps I'm just disproportionately irritated by the refusal of radio and TV even to try to pronounce Eyafjallajökull. The Grauniad, being the Grauniad, can't make up its mind how to spell it, either, but I have more sympathy there. Not that I can pronounce Eyafjallajökull myself, either - I was hoping to learn from the radio. But the BBc has resources I don't have: these are broadcasters who pronounce the names of Sri Lankan cricketers, for crying out loud, with aplomb if not with precision, surely they must be able to do better than "the Icelandic volcano"? Set some researchers onto it! There's something dismissive about the formula "the Icelandic volcano", as if we really can't be expected to concern ourselves with such trivia as what those northern barbarians call their geography. As if Iceland had only one volcano! But then of course they're stymied when they want to report the concern that the eruption of Eyafjallajökull may be followed by a larger one from Katla - because to name Katla would be to admit that these places do have names, we're just afraid to use them. So Katla becomes "another Icelandic volcano". As [ profile] janni says: "I picture it off in the corner, muttering, 'You want a volcano you can pronounce? I'll give you a volcano you can pronounce ...'"

So thank goodness for the internet which brings us our news: that same post of [ profile] janni's has some fine links. People are posting photos to Flickr: this set has some great ones. Via [ profile] makinglight, the Boston Globe's Big Picture collects some more amazing images: I particularly like the one of the farmers working to dust-proof the barn in time for lambing, while the barn door frames a view of the plume of ash rising serenely from the volcano. But there are some dramatic night-time views, too: the National Geographic answers my question: why is there so often lightning in these pictures?

Against this degree of upheaval and risk, the inconvenience of the flight ban is secondary. Which is easy to say, since I've not been personally inconvenienced. It crops up in unexpected places: an author friend reports back from the London Book Fair that it was "very odd this year. Like a ghost town." She had a day's schedule of meetings booked, but only her French editor actually got there. Sad tales of rose-growers in Kenya say something about the madness of the market economy. And the Poet Laureate has written a poem.

I came to the Today programme this morning halfway through an item about a family who had managed to make their way home from holiday - I suspect in Spain, though I missed that. Since they couldn't fly (and, as I say, I only heard half the story) they had hired a car. They'd clearly been unlucky: French railways were on strike, they said, and the main road through the Pyrenees was closed, they'd had to find their own way through. But it had been a revelation: France is a big country, they said, when you're driving through it, much bigger than it seems when you're floating above it. And it would be pleasant to drive through, if you were on holiday and could take your time... Well, yes. I wonder if they will, next year?
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Last week's Guardian review has an interesting article on William Morris in Iceland (illustrated with a lovely photograph of Jökulsárlón, which I don't think he visited). Fiona MacCarthy argues that the trip to Iceland influenced Morris's political thinking.

Recording our own trip to Iceland, the next stop was Húsavík, whale-watching capital and home of the Phallological Museum. [ profile] durham_rambler had been adamant that he didn't want to visit this, so we hadn't scheduled a visit; now, as we drove into town at five to five, he was suddenly interested: "Isn't this where - oh, look! there it is!" By the time we'd managed to park (in the carpark of a supermarket where I was delighted to see, propped against a wall, a giant stencil presumably used to mark out disabled parking spaces) it was closed. Next time, then - and I liked the look of Húsavík, so that'll be fine.

Meanwhile, we had to move on to our destination: we were to spend the next couple of nights by Lake Mývatn.

First sight of Myvatn
shewhomust: (bibendum)
And while I'm on the subject: you could live well in Iceland on bread and soup. (Unless you are vegetarian, of course. I'm not sure what Icelandic vegetarians eat, but whatever it is, it'll be an expensive import). You wouldn't want to: there is also skýr, and skýr cakes. But you could.

The basic soup is a very meaty lamb broth, available everywhere; in Akureyri I ate a smooth, creamy cauliflower soup; and in Blönduós there was seafood soup, which turned out to be a dark savoury bisque, bursting with shrimps and chunks of fish.

The bread that accompanies the soup may be white, or it may be dark rye (I've posted already about the traditional rye bread, one of the reasons I was eager to try baking rye bread in a covered pot). Geysir bread is baked slowly in the natural heat of the volcanic earth: the result is open-textured, chewy and very good.
shewhomust: (Default)
Our walk over the hills to Brúnavík marked another turning point in our Icelandic circuit: we had travelled east along the south coast as far as Höfn, then turned north up the east coast. Now we rejoined route 1 and headed west, further inland. 'Inland' is a relative term: we had read the descriptions of driving on unmetalled tracks in Iceland's interior, and decided we could live without it. So we didn't hire a four wheel drive car, and were now legally prohibited from changing our minds. We didn't regret it...

Route 1 snaked across great expanses of bare earth. Our guidebook recommended the detour to Möðrudalur, and since it sounded like a pleasant lunch stop, we turned down route 901. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this:


The web site describes Möðrudalur as the highest farm in Iceland, at 469 metres - a picturesque traditional settlement, for values of 'traditional' in the paradoxical Icelandic style: on the one hand it traces its origins back to the settlement of Iceland, on the other the church is dated 1949. The triple-roofed building in the picture may look like a turf farm, but is actually the filling station.

I felt as if I had wandered into a museum stocked with careful reconstructions; but the café had the atmosphere of one of those remote pubs where everyone stops because where else is there to go? It was Beamish crossed with the Tan Hill Inn.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
No walking this week: we've cried off because of the weather. Either the day starts grey and misty, and stays that way, or it alternates bright sunshine with sudden sharp showers, drenching cold water or flurries of snow. Perhaps the coming week will be better. Meanwhile, there was a walk we took in Iceland...

A view of the town

Despite the oddness of the accommodation at Borgarfjörður (the settlement across the bay in the photo), we were glad we had two nights there, as it allowed us to spend a full day walking over the shoulder of the hill abd down to Brúnavík, the next bay, accessible only on foot. We read the instructions in our documentation, which included the phrase "then descend abruptly..." and agreed that, no, not us, we'd take the circuit the other way round.

So we climbed up to the first pass on a broad rocky track, past bare rock and valleys that back home I'd have identified as hushes (a mining technique which involves damming a stream, letting the water build up and then breaking the dam so that the the resultant flood strips off the topsoil and makes it easier to reach the minerals beneath), supervised by the inevitable golden plover, which sat on the ridge above us and whistled derisively as we toiled up the slope. It was a hazy day, but the mist was never quite bad enough to make us turn back, always just that bit above us.

Beyond the shoulder of the hills, the adjacent valley was green and lush. Sheep scattered as we approached, or stood in the stream, drinking unconcernedly, although the water was bright rusty orange. The grass was lush, the flowers plentiful and the going boggy, but we picked a route down past the emergency shelter to the bay, where we sat and watched the gulls and ate our sandwiches, and pretended not to notice a couple of other walkers a little further along the coast.

The return journey was, as promised, shorter and steeper than our outward route. At a couple of points, we realised afterwards, we made it steeper than it needed to be, clambering up the almost vertical rocks beside the trickle of a waterfall, and only realising when we paused and looked back that we had gone straight from one waymark to the next but one, instead of taking the easier but longer route marked out for us. We did a lot of pausing and looking back, to the bay, and the green slopes and the ruins of the farm:

The abandoned farm by the bay

The farm, said our information sheet, had been abandoned in 1944. When it was still in use, it would have looked from the outside like one of the turf buildings we'd seen at the museum at Skogar, and could have been any age. But now the turf exterior had melted away, and we could see the concrete shell which revealed it as a comparatively modern ruin, clinging precariously to the hillside.

And on, watched by interested sheep, over another pass, and follow the stream back down to the road.

As always, it was the descent that was really hard work. We had just enough energy left to drive out to the end of the headland, to Hafnarhólmur, where wooden platforms have been constructed to make it easier to watch the birds on the cliffs. You can sit in the last of the sun and marvel at the cute baby kittiwakes (cute gulls: it isn't natural) or climb up and look across the water to the puffins flying to and from their burrows. Afterwards I was so stiff that I could barely hobble up and down the steps in the café where they serve the fish soup - but since the style is that you serve yourself with soup and bread, I managed.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
It isn't spring - of course it isn't spring, it isn't necessarily even the thaw. But it's certainly a thaw, and I've been thinking about where all the water will go when it thaws up Weardale, and remembering the waterfalls of Iceland, and how counter-intuitive it seemed at the time that the waterfalls were at their height in the summer. Here I expect the rivers to be low in winter, but in Iceland that's when they fill with meltwater - ah, suddenly this makes sense.

Where did I read that waterfalls are a feature of a young landscape, that with time tthe river wears its valley down to a level? I don't remember, but this too makes sense: throughout our stay in Iceland we were encouraged to stop and admire waterfalls (Wikipedia has a list). I said, when I wrote about our tour of the 'Golden Circle' of popular tourist sites (on which we diverted from the main toute to see Faxafoss on the way to Gullfoss) that these were spectacular, beautiful waterfalls, but that neither of them was my favourite.

Mostly, I don't care for this habit of arranging everything into lists of the 'top 10'. But I felt at the time that I was being plied with superlatives, that every waterfall was the most something: the most beautiful, or the most powerful - Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe, in the sense that it has the greatest throughput of water, in other words, it is the wettest waterfall (also the greyest, but that's less of an attraction. Svartifoss has the finest black basalt columns, and was certainly one of my favourites.

But there's nothing quite like having a waterfall to yourself, without the coachloads of tourists - very well, other tourists. Since we were staying the night in Skógafoss, we were able to stroll up to the waterfall in the evening, and enjoy the scenery in peace, and remark how the abundance of spray had carpeted the cliffs with lush green moss, and charmed rainbows out of the evening sun.

Later, in the east, driving towards Egilsstaðir - the coast is so deeply cut with fjords that we were constantly driving from one direction or another towards Egilsstaðir, and never actually visited the town - following the river valley down from the pass, as the water tumbled down a series of cascades, we seized the opportunity to pull of the road and take the little path a hundred yards or so to the falls.

Our own private waterfall

For once, I don't think it scored any superlatives: we'd seen bigger falls, and more spectacular ones. But this was the only one we had completely to ourselves, and the water fell cleanly over the lip of the cliff, and there was a grassy path and wild flowers along the way. I don't even know its name, but this stays with me as my favourite of all the waterfalls we saw in Iceland.
shewhomust: (Default)
So much for optimism: our intention, yesterday, was to go out to the coast, walk on the beach and then go to an afternoon party. I was looking forward to both elements of this, and it seemed reasonable - surely the weather would be milder at the coast, and we could leave home late enough (and return early enough) to benefit from any day-time thaw. And the sun was shining. What could possibly go wrong?

Which was of course the cue for a phone call from our hosts: It's blowing a blizzard here, it'll probably reach you soon... And it did. So the furthest I have gone this weekend is the compost bin.

According to the stats on my userinfo page, this is the thousdandth post in this journal. I'd hate such a landmark to be so negative, so, turning my thoughts to travel, and summer, and a sea-coast, let's have a photograph from Iceland:

The port, Seyisfjrur

This is the port at Seyðisfjörður in the Eastern Fjords, which is where the Norröna, the Faroese ferry, docks once a week - and clearly today was the day, because as we drove up the winding corniche, all breathtaking scenery and sheer drops to the sea, we met more oncoming traffic than we had yet seen anywhere on Route 1.

The Eastern Fjords are the Land of the Long White Cloud. We woke to sunshine and drove down to the coast and into the mist, and at first thought we were just unlucky. But as we followed the road along the side of each inlet, then up over the shoulder into sunlight and back down, we could actually see how each long narrow valley contained its own even narrower, perfectly fitted cloud.
shewhomust: (puffin)
[ profile] durham_rambler has sent me a link to a BBC feature about the puffling rescue system in the Westman Islands. This is old news, but still, pufflings! (The film makes it look very dark in the islands - in August?)

If you'd prefer the audio version, the BL sells a CD of puffin noises (with a 41 second sample, which is probably as much as I need). D., who forwarded on the link, points out that the headline is "Coastal Birds Download on British Library
Coastal Birds Download", but that he was unable to download a puffin - well, it's the wrong time of year, obviously.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Notoriously, many things in Iceland are expensive; what is less widely mentioned is that other things are completely free. We did not pay to enter the National Park at Skaftafell, and we didn't pay to park there. With indsight, the same was true of our long day's exploration of the Golden Circle: craters, waterfalls, geysers, Þingvellir itself, all were free to enter. There might be a café, and a shop which tried to sell you fluffy puffins, but you didn't have to buy them, and if you chose to eat at the café there would be a jug of drinking water produced without fuss. A cup of coffee was not cheap, but it came with unlimited refills.

Skaftafell was our first full day of walking. [ profile] durham_rambler particularly wanted to walk closer to the glacier, and I particularly wanted to se the waterfall Svartifoss, and naturally these lay in different directions. We walked first to the glacier - an easy, there and back walk on level tracks, apart from a couple of ridges to be climed at the very end, so that the lake of meltwater was hidden until we were almost there. Then we returned to the café for lunch, and set off again in the opposite direction.

Just one more... It's a steep climb up to Svartifoss, but there's plenty to see on the way: other waterfalls, for one thing, and views back agross the plain, a sheer hillside down and then flat to a misty horizon, with a broad river winding across it.

Of course, once you have climbed up, you descend again into the little valley, to see the falls coming down over the cliffs of basalt columns. It's a beautiful, almost enclosed space, and once you have picked your way across the rocks and selected one to sit on, a comfortable place to be. I felt almost benevolent towards the other groups of people with whom we were sharing it - until we were ready to move on and make space for someone else, and realised that the party of French hikers had dropped their luggage on the narrow plank bridge spanning the stream, and weren't very enthusiastic about moving it, either.

Beyond Svartifoss the horizons opened out, and we were walking in uplands that felt almost like southern France: hot sun, dry stony soil and a heady scent rising from the scrub. But it was so silent: neither the chirping of insects I associate with that landscape, nor the incessant cries of the curlews and lapwings of home. I paused to remark on the silence, and looking back saw the peaks, the gleam of the glacier beyond, and the next group of walkers coming up behind us - not so very like home after all.

Our route back took us past an abandoned farm, now maintained by the park, the traditional triple front, barn, kitchen, living space, their turf walls backing into the hillside, overlooking more outbuildings down below the road. The doors stood open to visitors, and a picnic table opposite was a fine spot to pause for a drink of water before the final descent.


Aug. 31st, 2009 09:44 pm
shewhomust: (Default)
VikIt was at Vik that I finally began to digest the fact that just because it's shown in the road atlas, that doesn't mean it's a town - or not anything we'd recognise as a town anyway.

Iceland has a population of around 300,00, of whom 115,000 live in Reykjavik. The towns we had seen so far were Keflavík/Njarðvík, near the airport, and the market-gardening centre of Hveragerði - small towns, but equipped with supermarkets, shopping precincts, streets, all the elements that I take for granted when I think of towns. And that's pretty much what I was expecting to find at Vik. The guide book called it a town, and said that unusually for a coastal town, it had no port; also that the older part of the town is on the coastal plain, but that the new buildings are higher up the slopes, and that this is because when Katla erupted in 1918 the plain was flooded, and so much debris was (many? were?) washed down that the coast was extended by 500 yards (as we were saying, geology just keeps on happening; I am disconcerted by the matter-of-fact way Icelanders deal with this).

So, after a happy morning playing on the black beach, we drove into Vik looking for lunch, parked round the side of the petrol station, where we noticed that there was a shop and a café, and strolled off to see what the other options were.

There weren't any. This was it.

There was a school, and a church perched high up above the town. There was a post office. There was a small housing estate, with a path down to the water, where there was a sculpture called 'For' looking across the sea to its twin in Kingston upon Hull. There were a couple of industrial units, a gifts and crafts shop, and the garage we'd already noticed. If there was anything else, we didn't see it.

This isn't a complaint. We ate at the café: [ profile] durham_rambler had the soup, and I had fish and chips, which were served with pink sauce of the sort prawn cocktail used to be served in, back in the 1970s when we still ate prawn cocktail. The fish was lovely and fresh, and perfectly cooked. The craft shop was probably the best of the entire trip: the knitwear department was upstairs, and you could look down into the workshop and watch the knitters. I bought a waistcoat, and eventually decided against a poncho (though I see it's still available on their web site).

I liked Vik, it was an entirely satisfactory lunch stop; but it wasn't what I had been expecting - at it was the point at which I began to recalibrate my expectations.
shewhomust: (Default)
Towards the end of our time in Iceland, I made a note of the photographs I wasn't taking; the sights which filled my days, but of which I didn't have many pictures (often because these were the views from the moving car, the landscape through which we travelled).

Top of the list was Route 1 itself. The backbone of our trip was the ring road which circles the whole of Iceland, and every now and then it appears in my photos, but the view which filled the windscreen (and features on the postcards), the classic wide angle shot, white line flanked successively by black carriageway, yellow marker posts and white cotton grass in the ditch on either side - well, there wasn't that much traffic on the road, but too much for me to attempt that one.

Then there were the farms. At the margin where the flat land of the coast (or, later, of the long valleys, with the river meandering across the valley floor) rose abruptly, brightly painted farms, and the occasional church, nestled against the broad green sweep of the fells.


But it seems I was wrong to think I hadn't any photos of this, for here is Þorvaldseyri, purely by chance a particularly enterprising farm, where they are succeeding in growing wheat.

I also listed as absent from my photos the dramatic clouds - which, looking again, is not entirely the case, although they aren't always represented in the pictures I choose to show the world (a dark sky doesn't always make for easy photography). But my note describes a scene of black cloud, with bright light falling from it onto the straw bales (wrapped in white plastic) in an acid green field; and, a little later, a bright green hayfield running down to a steel grey fjord under dark clouds, and, right at the water's edge, a red tractor. I wish I could have photographed that.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
I bought this Icelandic cookbook at the Þingvellir visitor centre; cookbooks are one of my favourite kinds of holiday souvenir, and besides, it has a glossary at the back. (Admittedly, this didn't stop me, later on, ordering the 'mackerel runner carpaccio' under the impression that it was - well, mackerel. It wasn't until after I'd eaten it - it was very thin slices of frozen fish, which melted fishily on the tongue, and quite delicious - that they told me a mackerel runner was a kind of shark.)

The book is designed for visitors to Iceland -

Oh, maybe the fact that it's in French makes that a little obvious. In fact it's a translation from the German, but even so -

Well then, it's a slightly curious mixture. It's very attractively produced, in a slightly advertising design sort of way - by which I mean, I suppose, that the illustrations are decorative rather than informative: the photograph on page 88, for example, beneath a recipe for mashed swede, appears to show someone feeding a cassette tape into a hot spring. The introductory text is entitled 'Cooking with the four elements' but assembles some solid information under this elevated rubic - and ends by listing, in order to demonstrate how people typically eat, the lunch menus served over two weeks at the agricultural college in Hólar.

The recipes are similarly concerned with what people actually eat, rather than with fancy restaurant deconstructions of traditional dishes. Some of them are rather daunting - and no, by this I don't mean the notorious rotten shark, but for example the pink 'cocktail' sauce used as a salad dressing and served with chips: its ingredients are mayonnaise, sour cream, ketchup, pineapple syrup (from the tinned fruit, I think), sherry, paprika and seasonings. A curried rollmop salad contains mango chutney and a banana as well as pickled herrings. This confirms that on the one hand, Icelanders do have a sweet tooth, as well as being heavy handed with the salt, and on the other hand that the banana has a special place in the national cuisine. Snickers and banana tart?

There are some usable recipes, especially for fish, but the main interest for me was in the more traditional dishes. I don't suppose I shall ever want to cook a guillemot, but it's good to know that if I do, I have the recipe (the trick seems to be to soak them in milk to remove as much as possible of the flavour of guillemot, and then to lard them liberally with bacon to conceal the rest. And add redcurrant jelly to the sauce).

There's also a recipe for the traditional rye bread - otherwise known as 'that dark, sweet cake that tastes a bit like parkin, provided you don't put ginger in your parkin' (frequently served with smoked salmon). It's simple to make, say the instructions, but the key point is that it has to be baked very slowly for 24 hours in a closed container. The traditional utensil for this is known as a makkintossdós - a Quality Street tin.

There is a web site for the German edition of the book; the French edition invites you to visit, which leads to one of the best "we are going to put a web site here when we get round to it" pages I have ever seen: a blank page with the single line of text: no, not even - just four characters: )
shewhomust: (bibendum)
There is a circuit which tourists in Iceland are encouraged to follow, a day's drive which visits three major and representative attractions: the great waterfall at Gullfoss, the spouting fountains of Geysir and the historic site of Þingvellir. This is known as the 'Golden Circle', and it makes for a very full day; and there are other stops you can make along the way, to climb up the beautifully regular crater at Kerið and walk round its rim, a smaller waterfall at Faxafoss - no wonder I came home overloaded with experiences and incapable of writing about anything more taxing than pizza! Gullfoss was magnificent, and the first chance I had to see what was meant by the descrition of Iceland's glacial rivers as "white", but not my favourite waterfall of the trip (oh, that's a whole other post); I loved wandering among the spouts and boiling mud of Geysir; but I could happily have spent the whole day - or more - at Þingvellir.

Wall of rockÞingvellir (the Thingmeads, or Parliament Meadow, as William Morris translates it) is the site where the Icelandic parliament met from its establishment in the tenth century until the end of the eighteenth century - a valley like a stage set, with a wall of rock on one side, split - as all of Iceland is split - by the rift between the continental plates, pulling the country in two directions along a fault which runs right through this heartland. So, at one end the mountains, at the other the lake, and between them this flat valley across whose floor a riven ambles indecisively; and a backdrop of rock, through which there runs a corridor lush with flowers, purple cranesbill and yellow buttercups. At the centre of this wall is a mound called the Lögberg - the Law Rock - on which the Speaker would stand and recite the laws of the country, one third in each year of his three year term. (This identification - like much else of the neatly packaged history provided for the tourist - is a mixture of conjecture, tradition and plausibility; the precise location of the Lögberg is not absolutely certain).

The place has the power of its geological structure; it has the resonance of its place in the history and the sagas of the nation; but it is also a lovely landscape in which to wander among the flowers and the rock and the clear waters. We spent at most a couple of hours there; [ profile] janni camped there for two nights; Morris camped there for three. I like his delight in his first arrival at Þingvellir:
Once again that thin thread of insight and imagination, which comes so seldom to us, and is such a joy when it comes, did not fail me at this first sight of the greatest marvel and most storied place of Iceland.
shewhomust: (bibendum)
Our holiday in Iceland was booked through Discover the World; it was effectively their Fly, Drive & Hike option, but modified and slightly extended (we flew from Manchester, flights are less frequent than flights from London, and we chose to extend our holiday rather than shorten it). We spent 17 nights in Iceland, staying in hotels with bed and breakfast prepaid, and the cost of flights, car hire and accommodation for the two of us was slightly over £4000. We don't habitually prebook to this extent, so the size of that sum rather took our breath away, but it compared well enough to what other firms were offering, and we were both very happy with our holiday (to the extent that [ profile] durham_rambler is convinced that going to Iceland was his idea, and I think it was mine!). Would we use Discover the World again? Probably not, now we know how easy it is to deal with Icelandic hotels in English - another time we would probably travel independently.

There follows, for my own benefit and that of anyone else who might be interested (not to mention setting out some of the feedback I might want to give to Discover the World), a list of hotels, with our impressions: Cut for length and detail )

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