DAY TRIPPER; Smoked puffin and bananas on ice
a surreal 24 hours in Iceland
Saturday 11 May 1996
We were popping into Reykjavik on our way back from America. Spring had just happened in Boston and we left the city on a warm, hazy evening. Four hours later, at Keflavik airport, it was sunrise: it felt like the frosty dawn of the earth.
In the thin, bright light the sky was speedwell blue. The dark land appeared flat, stretching towards snow-capped mountains, but on closer inspection it was lumpy and furry, as if ploughed by a giant at the end of autumn and then forgotten. The clear air was sharp as grapefruit juice and our previously bedraggled party brightened to meet it, stepping out towards the bus which was to present us with the glories of Iceland in a day.
First stop: the Blue Grotto. This has more in common with Lourdes than Capri. Near-miracle cures are reported from psoriasis sufferers who have bathed in this warm, round, sulphurous pond, scraping the sediment from the bottom and plastering their skin with it. You can buy tubes of the mud. I did - although I don't have psoriasis you never know when it might come in handy.
We picked up a guide whose name was Peter, and who know absolutely everything about Iceland, from the number of sheep to the date of Bjork's return. He began imparting information in such a low sing-song, soporific voice that you'd want to employ him to read the children to sleep.
Next thing I knew I was staring at a bunch of bananas and wondering if we were in Jamaica. No, it was a greenhouse, heated - as is the whole of the country - by hot water bubbling just below the surface. The bananas were ripe and shoulder high, but no little vandals would nick them. In spite of their roistering Viking history, Icelanders are extremely well behaved: in 1994 there were only four muggings, all of them in central Reykjavik, all after 3am.
Impressed, we tottered out, but reality slipped again at the sight of the well outside. There it sat, alone and steaming like some witchy supply source. It makes sense when you think about it - but there was no time for that.
Back on the bus, another snooze, and there we were on the fringe of a volcanic crater, filled with blue water. Peter just had time to tell us that volcanoes erupt every five years before we all dropped off again, dimly grasping that it was four and three quarter years since the last explosion here.
We really woke up for Gullfoss waterfall. I'd never seen one so impressive, though a Scot among us muttered loyally that he had, in the Highlands. It was enough to keep us awake as we pottered about, not very close to the edge, to learn that last year a tourist had fallen over and, aargh, his body had never been found.
The man from IcelandAir must have been dreaming of fish, because he awoke suddenly, his mouth pointing at the roof of the bus, gasping. We all gasped then, for we were at Geisir, the place that gave its name to geysers. On a rocky platform we stood around the edge of a hole full of sloshing water. It looked like the type of hot bath you leap out of quickly. As we watched, the surface gathered and became a huge, blue bubble and then, suddenly, spouted boiling water 30-feet into the air. Happily there was no wind, or several sleepy tourists might have had an unwelcome scalding.
Time for lunch, at the Geisir hotel. Sitting at school-type dinner tables, we relished some salmon and a beer or two before our post-prandial nap took us to the top of the world. Here was the place where the first parliament was held, some 700 years ago. It was called the Althing, and it sits at the very spot where the tectonic plates are moving slowly apart. Well, usually slowly. Every hundred years there is another earthquake on this site, which is a continuation of the notorious San Andreas fault. They haven't had one now for 99 and three-quarter years. We moved on rapidly.
At some point in the afternoon we were in a shop that sold bright, woolly jumpers. That's where I got the slippers. There are twice as many sheep as people in this country and they don't miss a chance to flog you some knitting.
Then it was evening, though daylight remorselessly continued. Our dinner featured smoked puffin. This is the only country whose national symbol is also their favourite dish. I'm slightly ashamed to say that it was delicious.
On double overdrive now, some of our party caroused the night away at the Rejkjavik Bar, but I had had enough. I left such partying - and the trip to a glacier and a ride on the sturdy, hairy little horses - for another time. For now, I'm glad to have the photos, and the cosiest slippers in the world.
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