I finally found time this weekend to edit together some footage I shot at the Blue Lagoon Chill in Iceland from November. I couldn’t stop grinning as I was watching everything back; it brought back such incredible memories.
Memories of the cold air, the warm water, the fantastic music, the feeling of being somewhere completely different to anywhere I’ve been before, the sunset, the sauna in a cave and the new friends made.
It’s a few weeks since I returned from Iceland and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s not the breathtaking landscapes or the wintery atmosphere but more the attitude of the people. I’ve always been someone who hates the status quo, seeks out the unusual and detests silly bureaucracy and rules, and I think Icelanders share my outlook.
After the financial crisis in 2008, Reykjavik’s response was a backlash against politics, resulting in voting actor and comedian Jon Gnarr to be Mayor of Reykjavik. His policies were, amongst others, free towels at local pools, and to have a polar bear at the local zoo. He has ADHD, writes a Facebook page and when young he was treated in a psychiatric hospital because they weren’t sure whether he was “mentally retarded or brain damaged.”
It’s pretty hard not to laugh along with him…
I stumbled upon an article that was written right before the financial crash that describes Icelanders as some of the happiest people on earth. It said that the reason for this is that if something goes wrong, they just shrug, pick themselves up and carry on. Maternity/Paternity is shared so there’s better equality in the workplace because if you hire a man he’s got as much chance of taking time off for a newborn as a woman has.
Then I found this fascinating mini-documentary about how the financial crisis made people really think about what they wanted from life. People suddenly went from a normal life to bankruptcy, so they had nothing more to lose. “Before, there was a lot of pressure put on young people to make money and I think it’s different now, people are choosing what they really love, like studying arts more and doing things they want to do.”
I think we could learn a lot from them. The more I read about Iceland the more it confirms to me what a fantastic way of thinking they have. It’s got under my skin so much I think I might even revisit the place within two years.
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It can be hard to find information on exactly how much people tend to spend on trips, so I’ve decided to write a breakdown of costs for Iceland. When I travel on a regular holiday such as this one I don’t tend to have a budget – I think before I spend, but I don’t limit myself too much (this will be a lot different when I actually do my RTW trip!).
So here’s the breakdown for 5 nights in Reykjavik:
Flights from London to Keflavik/Reykjavik and back: £192.00
Airport transfers including pickup and drop off at hostels: £20
Special Festival Events (Iceland Airwaves Blue Lagoon Chill & Sigur Ros gig): £70
Whole day Golden Circle Guided Tour and 3 day Reykjavik Card: £70
Accommodation (3 nights twin room, 2 nights shared dorm, 4 breakfasts included): £114
Food&Drink (partly self catered but I also bought meals out): £100
Misc transport (buses before we got the Reykjavik Welcome Card): £5
Northern Lights spotted over Reykjavik: Free
Total: £572pp for 6 days / 5 nights including flights and transfers
If doing the same trip on a budget and not during Iceland Airwaves you could easily do it much cheaper. Our desired hostel was booked up for most of our trip, but if we had booked earlier we could have been in the same 6 bed dorm for £70 for 5 nights (no breakfast though, and no linen but you can take a sleeping bag) or a 16 bed dorm for £59. There are quite often deals on flights, or flight packages that include tours too. You can also do half day Golden Circle tours for around £32 instead of full day, or you could hire a car and do it yourself.
Iceland isn’t cheap, but it didn’t break the bank either. If you travel sensibly by considering buying food from the supermarket and cooking a couple of meals, or by taking buses not taxis, then it can be done on a budget, just not the same kind of budget you would have for SE Asia or Eastern Europe. Plus, the experiences we had in such a short amount of time were well worth the money.
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On our last day in Iceland we had some time to kill before the bus to the airport so we thought it might be fun to go and find some Icelandic music to take back to England. As we were discussing where to go, a voice came from behind us in the hostel. “I couldn’t help over-hearing” she said. A nice Icelandic woman just chilling with her laptop. “Don’t go to that one on the main street, go to 12 Tonar on the road up to the church… trust me, it’s way better” she said with a smile. We thanked her for her local knowledge and set off.
When we arrived at 12 Tonar we saw a special Iceland Airwaves stand full of CDs of Icelandic bands that played at the festival. We picked a few up and stared at them intently. I knew what sound I was searching for, but predicting that from the album artwork was tricky. I knew I wanted a band that didn’t sing only in English (preferably mostly Icelandic), so I picked a few up that looked interesting.
The man that worked there, possibly the owner or manager, came over and asked if he could help. “You can listen to any you want” he said. Any of them? Loads of them were wrapped in sellophane with promotional stickers on them like in any CD shop. “Anything you want… take off the wrapping, I have loads more, it doesn’t matter.” Seriously? This wouldn’t happen in England. “Would you like a latte perhaps?” Wow I totally loved this place already. Granted I don’t actually drink coffee (it has an unwanted and urgent effect on my digestive system to put it politely) but if I did drink coffee I would kiss this man right now.
We took a handful of CDs and sat on the sofas where we each had a CD player and a chunky pair of headphones. Well, we lost (spent) an hour and a half of our lives in that shop absorbed in the music. I could have stayed all day if I didn’t have a flight to catch. The CDs with promising album artwork weren’t what I was expecting or looking for, but finally I stumbled across a gem – exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. The album was Twosomeness by Pascal Pinon, half sung in English and half Icelandic, with stunning melodies and voices.
Simultaneously, Bekki also stumbled across a gem that was completely different – Exorcise by Tilbury. We bought 3 albums in total (CDs in Iceland are double UK prices so 3 was our limit), and left with a wish that all record shops were like that.
When we flew out of Iceland I vowed to return one day to that magical land. Next time I’ll go in the summer, hire a car and drive around the whole island experiencing the midnight sun. I already can’t wait – the place has left a lasting impression on me.
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I’ve been waiting for this day for many years; it’s the day of the Golden Circle (and Green Energy) tour in Iceland. The Golden Circle is basically the tour that everyone does when they visit Reykjavik and you’d be mad not to do it. I once saw a photo of the famous geysers and became obsessed with the desire to photograph them myself.
In the Tourist Information Office we asked whether they could recommend any particular tour companies for the trip, and they said that a company called Sterna were a little less known than the others so the tour group would be smaller and more intimate. We trusted their opinions and booked the trip, and were picked up in the dark morning at about 9am along with just 4 others. At this time of the year sunrise isn’t until 9.30am so at 9 on a rainy day it’s still black as night outside.
We were greeted by our cheerful guide Yonna (I’m not sure how to spell it, but it sounded like YO-NA) who would be our driver and general fountain of knowledge, her particular favourite subject being ghost and elf stories. My favourite Icelandic facts were that 30% of Icelanders believe in elves and they have 13 Santa Clauses, one of which is called Bjugnakraekir meaning ‘sausage grabber’. All of the Santas sound a bit scary and mean so I’m glad we only have one friendly one.
First stop was a geothermal power plant based at the foot of a volcano range. It was deserted; we were the only ones there, and we watched some interesting videos about how the natural power is harnessed to heat all the homes and buildings on the island, and listened to simulations of recent earthquakes which brought back scary memories of my first ever earthquake in around 2002 (in England no less, 5 on the richter scale, beginning with a sickeningly loud bang which this multimedia demo was reminding me of). We saw that a huge strip going right across Iceland was full of active volcanoes and that the gap between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates increases by 2cm per year – we’d see evidence of this later in the day.
After that we went to a small waterfall called Faxi where again, no-one else was around. It was pissing it down with rain all day so we got pretty wet, but as a photographer I was delighted – fog and rain is far more interesting in photos than blue sky, thought it did mean that we missed out on what we were assured were spectacular views of mountains and glaciers.
We also stopped at a volcanic crater Kerið where Bjork once performed a concert, with the audience sitting on the banks of the crater. I can imagine how surreal this must have been.
As we approached the mighty Gullfoss waterfall our guide started to get a little worried. “Uh, it’s very foggy, I really hope you’ll be able to see the waterfall….. I’m not sure, it’s really really foggy.” The fog had closed in rapidly and we couldn’t see much of the road ahead. Yonna’s fears were put to rest when we arrived. The fog was hanging over the waterfall but we could still see it; it was majestic, and beautiful in the mist. I think Yonna breathed a sigh of relief. The Gullfoss cafe was a welcome bubble of warmth and we had lamb soup to heat us up.
The next stop was to Geysir to see the hot sprint Srokkur shoot water into the air every few minutes… the thing I’d seen in a photo and been in awe of. The landscape was otherworldly; it truly felt like we were standing on another planet. Hot springs were bubbling all around, belching sulphuric steam out across the red rocks, while deep vivid blues could be seen far below the surface tempting us to get closer. The rain didn’t deter us and we stood and watched for a while.
The final stop of the day was Þingvellir National Park; a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site that often finds itself as the backdrop for films and TV – Season 2 of Game of Thrones was filmed there amongst others. It’s of cultural and natural significance; one of the world’s first parliaments was established here, and through it runs a valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It was really weird to walk between the tectonic plates knowing that they’re moving apart at a distance of 2cm per year. The park was vast and beautiful.
During lunch Yonna had sat with us knitting a dress she’d been working on. We told her we really loved the traditional Icelandic jumpers that everyone was wearing, and that I had only ever knitted a scarf and would love to some day knit one of those jumpers. She said she knew of a great wool shop and would take us there if there was time. She asked the other group members if they didn’t mind going to this wool shop on the way back, and nobody objected so off we went. Well, this wool shop was bloody fantastic. It was actually the Alafoss factory outlet – the traditional Icelandic wool that all the famous jumpers were made from, full of treasures. She helped me find some patterns, measuring me so I knew what size to knit, and showed me how many balls of wool I would need for my jumper. “Maybe get one extra, just in case…” she suggested. I laughed. “Yeah I’ll definitely need extra” I replied, knowing how shit my scarf looked (seriously, holes and weird loops everywhere).
I really appreciated this little detour, but it was clearly no trouble and she enjoyed going there herself. This is why I love Iceland, it’s been like this the whole trip. I’m not counting the first hostel fiasco because the owners weren’t Icelandic. Everyone else has been really lovely.
Today was a great day – we moved from our eerily quiet guesthouse on the edge of town to the coolest hostel in Reykjavik right in the centre, Kex.
Kex is host to some bands during the festival. Dubbed ‘off-venue’, they’re a series of mini gigs in hostels and bars around town where you don’t need a ticket to go. When we arrived at Kex a band was just setting up to start a new day of music.
“Wow!” we both said as we walked in. Kex is trendy. And homely. And just really really special. Everyone was wearing chunky traditional knitwear and tapping away on their Macs in the bar/diner area or lounging in hammocks under the warm glow of the low lighting. The location was perfect – a view of the bay and mountains on one side and only one street away from the main street through the centre of town. It was warm and beautiful and the sort of place you could comfortably hang out in all day and night.
The food wasn’t cheap but the quality was incredible; gorgeous home-cooked traditional foods like pulled pork and horseradish sandwich, baked beetroot and goats’ cheese or salted cod.
After a chill out and a fantastic meal we set off towards the venue for the Sigur Ros gig. It was like going on a pilgrimage where what seemed like the entire population was walking in the same direction; a large sports centre on the edge of town. It felt like a scene from the X-Files; it could have been a crowd of microchipped abductees heading for the light for all I knew. But I do have an overactive imagination.
If I’m honest the venue was hot and uncomfortable. We’d layered up for the walk and couldn’t find anywhere to put our coats so once everyone was packed in it just got warmer and warmer. Everyone was in there by 6.30 for a 7pm start, but without any announcement, the band didn’t walk on stage ’til 8. I have no idea whether that was the intention, or whether they didn’t get the 7pm start memo, or whether there was a technical issue, but it was a frustrating start.
Despite that, when Sigur Ros eventually came on it was spectacular. Images were projected onto a thin veil covering the stage, and the sound was as pure if not purer than a recording. Then after two or three songs the veil dropped and we could see the band clearly. The most memorable moment for me was the beginning of one of my favourite songs, Svefn-G-Englar. It gave me goosebumps it was so atmospheric; lights on the stage lit up the band dimly as if by candlelight then died back into darkness, until the song built up from single rhythmic notes into a spectacular crescendo. The pain in my back and feet and the heat seemed to disappear as I was transfixed.
The band did a mixture of a few newer songs and then some of the more iconic well-known tracks like Hoppipolla. The tempo was generally slow and etherial and nobody really moved an inch for the whole 2 hours that the band played. By the end I was too hot and felt a little unwell so I sat on the floor for the three or so songs of the encore. It was a relief, and almost meditative. All I could see was the coloured lights reflecting on people’s faces, and I felt the deep roar of the drums and bass go through my whole body.
What an experience. Only last year we were saying wouldn’t it be amazing to see Sigur Ros live in Iceland, and here we are living the dream.