Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Iceland, Day 1 - Lost luggage and arrival in Reykjavik
The flight to Reykjavik was from London Gatwick and as this involved the thoroughly unpleasant ordeal of using the M25 London orbital motorway we set out the night before and stayed at the Gatwick Radisson Hotel next to the airport on an excellent overnight deal that included free car parking. This should have made things relatively straightforward on the next morning when we had an early flight to Iceland. Of course this turned out not to be the case. We woke up in good time but then inexplicably dawdled about and missed the airport shuttle bus and had to wait for the next one to arrive. This shouldn’t have been a problem but although they were scheduled to run every fifteen minutes this involved a forty-minute delay while the driver fiddled about while he waited for an American guest who was checking out of the hotel at the pace of an arthritic snail. When we finally arrived at the airport there was a fast track booking in service, which we got all the way through to the end when it asked for credit card details used in the original transaction. As this was twelve months ago naturally we didn’t have them so we had to abandon the process and queue in the old fashioned way. It looked like we would surely miss the plane, but just when I was about to give up and go home the checking-staff finally called us to the front so that we could get through on time.
Ordinarily this would not have been a problem either, you don’t need too much time in the departure lounge after all, but on this occasion we had a vital transaction to make. Alcohol! Iceland is notorious for the high price of wine and beer because the Government heavily taxes it; this is ostensibly to reduce the scourge of alcoholism but probably just an excuse to raise excessive revenues. We needed some sensibly priced wine to take with us so after exchanging sterling for krona, we made straight for duty free to make the important purchase and bought two boxes of wine that we calculated would be sufficient to see us through the three days. Then followed a quick sprint to the departure gate and arrival with only minutes to spare.
This was a British Airways flight so there was a level of sophistication to which we have become unaccustomed in our travels with the budget airlines and here are just a few things that British Airways do better than Ryanair; on this flight there were comfortable leather seats, flight attendants in smart uniforms, ample legroom for stretching out, a bag of breakfast, complimentary drinks and a pretty blonde Icelandic girl in the seat next to me and whilst we were in the air we had nothing but good things to say about the airline.
Things changed however when we arrived in Reykjavik and here is something that Ryanair do better than British Airways; they remember to put your luggage on board the same aircraft as you and deliver it to the same airport at the same time.
Arrival in Reykjavik started well enough with duty free being helpfully opened for arriving passengers and I was able to purchase moderately priced beer to see me through the three days and after this important purchase we waited for the luggage to arrive on the baggage carousel. And we waited for quite a while longer than usual because although one bag came through quickly, there was no sign of the other. Luckily for me it was mine that had come through. We watched the conveyor belt complete about five full cycles and a forlorn pink suitcase go round at least four, when it began to dawn on us that the bag probably wasn’t going to come through the little hole in the wall where the luggage came from. Apologetic staff at the arrivals desk confirmed that unfortunately the bag was still in London but assured us that it would arrive the next day and be delivered directly to our hotel. This was British Airways and they seemed to display a degree of confidence and efficiency about their handling of the situation so we were certain that this promise would be fulfilled.
After completing forms about the missing luggage we were obliged to explain the situation to the Icelandic customs officer who was a bit unnecessarily sharp with us and who seemed to be showing an unnerving amount of interest in the alcohol supplies that were the equivalent of eight bottles of red wine and six litres of beer. I don’t know if we had too much but he waved us through anyway with a charmless sneer and we went through to the arrivals hall to pick up our hire car and after completing the hiring formalities discovered that it was cunningly hidden at the very back of a car park with hopelessly inadequate signage to assist. Welcome to Iceland!
We had landed through a thick grey sky heavy with rain and outside the weather was wet and not at all inviting. It wasn’t heavy rain, just that low cloud and mizzle that is cold, damp and depressing. Reykjavik was about a fifty-kilometre drive and it was across a barren lunar type landscape with black granite rocks and no vegetation at all except for vibrant green moss that was clinging to the boulders. This was an unfamiliar terrain unlike anything that I had seen before and it reminded me of a tray of freshly baked muffins that had risen quickly due to the heat and had split and cracked as though some mighty force from below and heaved them up through the earth’s crust, which of course it had. Approximately three-quarters of Iceland is completely barren of vegetation and plant life consists mainly of grassland which is regularly grazed by livestock. The only tree native to Iceland is the northern birch but humans of course have damaged the delicate ecosystem because birch forests were heavily exploited over the centuries for firewood and timber and deforestation resulted in a loss of critical top soil due to erosion, greatly reducing the ability of birches to reestablish themselves. Today there are very few trees in only a few isolated areas of the island.
We had been allocated a nice silver car with hobnail tyres that made a strange crunching noise that made me think at first that I had got a flat but a quick check revealed that everything was in order and the journey to the city was straightforward and uneventful. In fact the tyres were studded with aluminium rivets designed for ice and snow and we hoped that this meant that someone at the hire desk knew that the sort of weather we were hoping for was on the way.
We found the Hotel Bjork with no difficulty at all and once we had checked in and found the room I emptied my bag and hung up my clothes and we went through the contents to share them out equitably between us and I gave up my spare hat and pair of gloves but the offer of baggy underpants was rejected. Kim was a bit pissed off about the situation but a glass of wine cheered her up a little and when we left the hotel to walk into the city and the rain stopped and there was even a patch or two of blue sky puncturing the steely grey skies so things were beginning to look up.
It was only a short walk to the seafront and we found our way to the promenade and walked along to the Sólfar suncraft, which is a stainless steel 1986 sculpture of a Viking long boat that occupies an impressive spot overlooking the bay and Mount Esja on the other side. Iceland is proud of its Viking heritage because the country was first colonised by Norwegians in the ninth century and the first permanent settler was a man called Ingólfur Arnarson who landed here in 871 and named the location Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, on account of the plumes of hot steam that were coming from the nearby hot springs.
By now there were some promising pools of blue sky spreading overhead as we walked back from the sea and into the city centre and along the main shopping street of Laugavegur. We were quite hungry so stopped for refreshment at a small café selling lunchtime snacking food and we had a coffee and a sandwich and a cake to share and the bill came to a very unreasonable 1,600 krona, or about £13 in sterling, and we began to worry about the cost of evening dining arrangements. It occurred to me that the way they set prices in Iceland must be to think of a ridiculous figure, double it and then round it up to the nearest 100 krona!
Iceland is relatively expensive, but the standard of living is high because Iceland is now one of the most prosperous countries in the World and according to the latest United Nations index on human development has just overtaken Norway, who have been top for the last six years, as the World's most desirable country in which to live. Australia, Canada and Ireland make up the top five, the UK is currently sixteenth and interestingly as many as sixteen European countries are in the top twenty. In 2006 a study of world happiness at Leicester University placed Iceland fourth behind Denmark, Switzerland and Austria and the UK was forty-first out of a hundred and seventy eight.
After the expensive snack we walked up a steep hill to the Hallgrimskirkja, which is the city’s Lutheran Cathedral and at seventy-three metres high dominates the skyline. Outside the church is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson who was an Icelander born about 970 and who explored the oceans and the lands west of Iceland, establishing colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland and who according to legend reached America long before Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucchi. The statue was a gift from the American Government in 1930 to mark Iceland’s one thousandth anniversary and October 9th is commemorated as Leif Ericson day in the United States. There is no real evidence that Eiriksson discovered America but his statue faces to the west as though in expectation of belated recognition for his achievement. Today he looked out over Viking skies full of Nordic drama with mountainous clouds as big and as grey as a medieval cathedral.
At the hotel we made sure the desk staff knew that the missing bag would be arriving tomorrow and then we drank duty free wine and beer before we went to the restaurant around the corner for evening meal. Fish of course which was expensive but not completely extortionate and we had good food and a bottle of wine for about £60. When we went to bed the weather looked a little more promising and we looked forward to tomorrow and our planned drive around the Golden Circle.