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Saturday, 21 July 2018

Isafjordur and Akureyri

Always exciting pulling into a new port. These are Akureyri and Isafjordur respectively

Isafjordur - the port is functional and bleak.

Isafjordur, a walk along the fjord

We met a remarkable tour guide who told us how his grandparents had lived in a turfhouse, which were still being built in the early C20th, when, it was calculated, there existed over 100, 000 of them.  

Part of the reason may well have been that being partly underground they were well insulated; warmth being valued more than smoke and poor ventilation. There were other reasons, too, one being the scarcity of trees in Iceland. When the Norse first arrived, it’s estimated 30 % of the landscape was covered by trees, but deforestation and slow growth because of the harsh climate meant that wood soon became in short supply. Trees are still relatively scarce,  though many have now been imported, some from as far away as Siberia.

When someone asked about stone houses, the guide, a local geologist,  told us that the Danish king had forbidden the import of mortar and cement into Iceland for fear they might have built stone forts in a struggle for independence. Basalt, (the local lava rock) is apparently unsuitable for dry-stone walling. This and the unsuitability of bricks in the Icelandic climate made for interesting and ingenious alternatives. Forget IKEA, Iceland is the spiritual home of prefabrication.

Concrete has liberated Iceland, that and corrugated iron, and of course prefabrication. What could be utilitarian and bland is made less so  by an emphasis on colour. 

We walked through streets of beautifully painted houses, simple  but elegant and weirdly out of place in a bleak and over powering landscape, like beads strewn on hillside and meadows. The colour would be all they going for them in winter and darkness.  A tribute to the human spirit.

The first port we called in at was Isafjordur, where, in the tourist information office, a young bearded guy guided us on with a map of the town, linking various members of his extended family. to the places where we should visit. These included his mother and grandmother, his wife's family and the hospital where he was born. The town centre is marked by some cobbling and three trees.

Isafjordur Culture House, once the old hospital, now a beautifully equipped library.
With a population of just 2,551, this library would put most of our libraries to shame. It shames Monmouth (pop 11,000)  with a library staffed by volunteers and which doubles up with a 'One Stop Shop'


                         Isafjordur - a tad bleak just here,  but for the Germanic looking hotel.

                                                 Isafjordur houses

A bar in  Akureyri in Northern Iceland. 
I drank my first Icelandic beer here. 

* Courtesy of Lydur Skulason from Iceland

Friday, 13 July 2018

Trolls, Geysers, and Waterfalls

The Thingvellir plain is a geological marvel. Southwest of Reyjkavik, it is where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and, geologically you can walk from Europe to America in a matter of minutes.

It is also the birthplace of Icelandic democracy. The Althing was founded here as an open air assembly in 930 AD and is the oldest continuous parliament in the world. Held in what is now part of the Thingvellir National Park, all the most important men of the island gathered to meet, change and make laws. All free men were allowed to attend, and the assembly continued to meet even after Iceland was annexed by Norway in the C13th. Only when Denmark took over was its power significantly reduced, but even then the Althing continued to surprise – giving women the vote in 1915.

It perhaps makes up for what I termed the ‘murder pool’ a stone’s throw from the Althing, and where justice was summarily meted out on – primarily on women. There they were drowned.

The white house is, coincidentally, the holiday home of Iceland’s Prime Minister. A story, perhaps apocryphal, involves an American tourist exploring the church and the house and accosting a stranger for information about the two buildings. On being told it was the Prime Minister’s private residence he was surprised, telling the Icelander that in America, the President’s private residence would have been well guarded with no tourists allowed anywhere near it. As they said their goodbyes the tourist introduced himself, as did the Icelander. ‘I’m the Prime Minister,’ he said.

Next to the house is Thingvellir Church built in the C10th but destroyed by a great storm in 1118. This present church was built in 1859 and had three bells, the original ancient bell, a bell from 1968 and the 1944 bell installed when Iceland got its independence from Denmark.  

The circular green to one side of the church, is the National Cemetery of Iceland holding just two graves. The first grave is that of Einar Benediktsson, a C20th nationalist and poet. There followed a period of headscratching when it transpired that nobody else wanted to be buried in the middle of nowhere. Then they decided they would dig up the body of an even old poet Jonas Hallgrimsson who died in Denmark in 1845. Such a great Icelandic poet must surely be buried in Iceland! Unfortunately it is likely that they exhumed and transported the wrong body – that of a Danish baker. So, poet and baker lie side by side in the National Cemetery of Iceland.

When you see for yourself the bleakness, and imagine it at night or in mist, it's easy to imagine an alternative world.

The Huldrefolk or  hidden folk are the Icelandic equivalent of elves seen by few but believed in by many. One story traces their origins to Adam and Eve, and yet again blames the woman. Eve was washing her four children. Two were clean, two were not when God came a calling. Ashamed of showing her two dirty children, Eve hid them from God’s sight. To prove a point, perhaps, though God knows what, the Good Lord decreed that henceforth these two children and their descendants should be hidden from man. A variant of the story explains how the Elves were neutral in the great conflict between Lucifer and God. Lucifer was bound to Hell, the Elves were punished by being hidden from man. One thing for sure, those stones associated with the Hidden Folk are treated with huge respect, to the extent that roads are narrowed or skirt around them.

Volcanic gorges like these resemble roughly hewn castles, perhaps built by Trolls.
Trolls were or are, man-eaters,  slow and dull-witted,  but on occasions, surprisingly helpful and loyal to those who come to their aid. Their big problem is sunlight, which turns them to rock.

And of course there are geysers and waterfalls. Lots of waterfalls

Gulfoss (Golden Falls)

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Moonwalking Zombies

One of my fantasies, not yet ticked off from my bucket list, is to be ensconced in a coastal inn with a pint of good bitter, a roaring log fire, and the sea bashing against mullioned windows touching my left elbow. Windows have to be mullioned like they are in all good pirate books. Well, this is the closest I’ve got so far. The windows aren’t mullioned and my wife objected to me starting a fire in the cabin but at least I’ve got the sea bashing against my windows
Just getting started

Tantrum over

We had two heavy seas – one only a force five, but this was a force eight gale, and what fun it was. Most nights the sea gently sent you to sleep like a mother rocking a cradle. This was like being rocked by a poltergeist. And the morning was no better. You placed a foot down, and the floor suddenly wasn’t there, having dropped by three or four inches. Worse, you were surrounded on all sides by moonwalking zombies in the same boat – literally. Dignity went out of the window, along with the strategically positioned sick bags along every handrail. I couldn’t afford to be sick* – I had a £200 all inclusive drinks package to work my way through – and so I wasn’t.

The sea gradually calmed, and what follows now are just four or five boring photos of sky and sea – boring to everyone but me but not adequately translated on to the screen. This was why I wanted to be here – sea and sky and silence, seeing what my dad would have seen in less happy times. The last two photos are more interesting, showing a sun that never fully sets and the surreal experience of walking about in daylight at one minute past midnight.

Waiting for the First Mate to hand me the hot rum. Cocoa would have been nice, too

Now this is where it gets weird. Thus far and not farther says the sun

When your body clock is out of synch with reality. 

*Fred Olsen are - rightly - obsessed with hygiene. You are not allowed to enter any restaurant without being subjected to a hand spray - all closely observed. Re-board the ship from any excursion and you pass the handspray man guarding the gangplank. Wash your hands in the toilet, and there's a tissue provided so you can open the door without touching the handle. Never been so clean in my life, nor my hands so raw.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Reykjavik here we come!

Friends know I have always wanted to go to sea. My dad was a Chief Officer in the Merchant navy and as a child I wanted to follow his footsteps . . . as a ship’s cook. Life took a different turn but the initial desire remained unchanged. I had reservations about ‘cruising’ – some of which were confirmed, but being now too old to cut the mustard in a ship’s galley it seemed the only way to get the sea out of my system. My dad was on the Atlantic convoys and did the Murmansk run during World War II, so going to Iceland was in a sense a pilgrimage too.

We chose Fred Olsen because ‘The Black Watch’ was a smallish ship with the bonus of starting from and returning to Liverpool. But what was it like? The demographic was a bit on the old side. Walking through the various lounges after or before lunch was – on occasions - like walking through a care home, and many of those sitting there looked like they didn’t have long to go before they were in one for real. An insensitive statement, also a melancholy one since we're all heading in the same direction. It’s a one-dimensional statement too. 

One of the great pleasures, I discovered was talking to random strangers. Some were peculiar or boring as hell. Most were fascinating with stories to match, and suddenly age ceased to matter. Having said that, there were an alarming number of ‘Fred Olsen’ obsessives. It would begin with an innocent question: Was this our first cruise? And then you’d catch the missionary glint and within moments you’d hear how wonderful ‘Fred’ was. How this was their ninth or tenth cruise with ‘Fred.’ After a time I had this image of ‘Fred’ as Nordic Colonel Sanders figure, avuncular and benign. I think they probably prayed to him at night.*

Even so, in terms of drawbacks, age wasn’t really a factor, and there was more than a sprinkling of younger people with curious minds.

When we talked about it afterwards, the main reservation proved to be the ‘lack of control.’ The cruise was hassle free with none of the stress of airport travel and nothing at all to worry about, and the Filipino waiters and staff were beyond criticism. They worked twelve-hour shifts at peak efficiency and radiated charm and good humour throughout. Unbelievable.

 For the younger ones, it was a way of seeing the world with full board and lodgings, and a tax-free wage they could save or send home. Our waiter was supporting three sons studying computer science, dentistry and medicine, his greatest lament being he only saw them three months a year.

And that in itself was a source of guilt. We’d paid a large sum in advance —one meant to cover all our tips—and yet it didn’t seem large enough. The other source of guilt, which is strange coming from a Catholic, was the relentless consumption of food and drink.

 We were always eating, always drinking. Why? Because we’d spent (for us) a king’s ransom on merely being there, as well as on an extra £200 all-inclusive drinks’ package. (You’ll be relieved to know I made £75. 50 profit on that one, though it was hard work and my liver needs time to recover.)

As for the food – huge breakfasts of incredible variety, mid morning tea and biscuits, three course lunches, full mid-afternoon teas with every kind of cake, three course dinners – and for the truly Falstaffian, late night supper buffets ranging from German sausages to Indian curries.
The chart below is a breakdown of the food consumed though, unfortunately, it doesn’t indicate whether it is a daily breakdown or the totality of the 10 day cruise. Either way it confirmed my youthful decision not to follow a career in catering.  Too much hard work.

Right, Iceland next week but as a taster the ship berthed at Akureyri – unbelievably Iceland’s largest town after Reykjavik

(The real Fredis fascinating)