Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 10

Before wrapping up yesterday, we went back out for a brief car ride, just for the hell of it (something we’ve virtually never done in all our time together). We drove twenty minutes further along the road that brought us here and then came back. It didn’t yield much – just different studies in isolation: isolated houses or small groups thereof; an isolated (very pretty) church by the side of the lake; (most oddly) what appeared to be an isolated kid’s adventure playground; an isolated golf course – but this was all fascinating in itself, especially as by the standards of the country as a whole, we’re virtually in a suburb of Reykjavik. Then we had our usual afternoon time in the hotel, although we must have been super-energized because we didn’t have a nap. Ozu seemed to me to be licking his paws in a way that suggests we may still be dealing with his seasonal itchiness when we come back (if it was really bad though I suppose he’d have been wearing his cone, so that’s something, unless they’ve just thrown up their hands at him, which is a sentiment I could understand).
We had dinner in the hotel restaurant (Ally had celeriac; I had plaice) and our 9 pm reservation was late enough to shut the place down. This surprised us as the hotel appeared to be full or close to it. There’s also a “Northern Lights” bar with a huge window and sweeping view of everything that’s out there - this might on occasion constitute a prime location for seeing the Northern Lights themselves, but we're unlikely to get lucky on that so early in the year. Tonight the window was merely reflecting the huge painting over the bar, which appears to represent London being invaded by the devil, or something equally site-appropriate. There were two other couples in the bar when we arrived, but they soon left, so we shut that place down too. I really don’t think we were up very late; perhaps everyone else is exhausted by greater exertions than ours.

We skipped the hotel breakfast the next day (despite a lack of certainty, ultimately quite unfounded, about when or if we might find any food elsewhere) and embarked on a day of motoring around the “Golden Circle”, described in the guide book as “an artificial tourist circuit…loved (and marketed) by thousands.” Indeed, it was quite obvious that large volumes of people (many of them transported by tour buses) were doing much the same as us, in exactly the same order – you even get to recognize some individuals (like the two guys with the apparent project of being photographed playing ping-pong in front of each iconic destination, or the young guy with an apparent crippling fear of driving on gravel roads [should have done what we did and got the gravel insurance!]). First we went to Pingvellir, site of the world’s first democratic parliament, and situated on a tectonic plate boundary; there's a cliff edge so long and straight that it seems like the remnants of an artificial fortress. We followed various trails for a couple of hours before moving on. The next major attraction is Geysir, the original hot-water spout after which all other geysers are named. Nowadays, Geysir is content to take place to its younger companion Strokkur, which shoots out water every five to ten minutes (“stand downwind only if you want a shower”). It appears that Strokkur is constantly surrounded by a ring of people, cameras poised for the next perfect selfie opportunity, many of which would probably just end up recording a wall of white spray. There’s a rocky path up from there, allowing you to look down at Strokkur's efforts as if it were a mere common kettle. We walked as far as we could before returning to the car.

Probably most impressive is Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall. Apparently it drops 32 metres (Niagara Falls for comparison is 50 metres), but it feels higher, perhaps because it makes such an impressive entry out of almost nowhere (you climb down a staircase from a non-descript parking lot, walk along a bit and there it is). It creates a tangible, magical wall of mist above it, and today was sustaining a perfect rainbow. Like everyone else, we were suitably overcome with awe.

Although all three sites (especially Geysir) provide the usual opportunities for eating and shopping, they do have a stirring collective coherence about them, attesting equally to the earth’s fragility and to its strength. The geysers and the waterfall dramatize the massive forces usually held at bay, acting up here as if the ground had lost confidence in its powers of containment. But at the same time, the whole allure of this area is its rarity – elsewhere, water scarcity if not outright drought is far more likely to be a threat. Iceland might almost seem like the world’s Achilles heel, the pressure point where a strategically malign application of force could usurp everything, or where a shrewdly benevolent one could redeem it. For now, it just marks time, the tectonic plate boundary widening by a few millimetres a year…
Also today, we visited the little town of Laugarvatn, primarily to visit Lindin, reportedly the best restaurant for miles. We ate in the more casual bistro part of it, where Ally had a barbecued lamb sandwich and I had bean patties (one of the nicest meals of the trip, but then I’m ready to slip back into our usual predominantly vegetarian diet). Laugarvatn doesn’t make much impact as a town, but it has some lovely lakeside views, a spa, and a big swimming pool that looks as if it were built with grander ambitions in mind. We walked round the local supermarket, and saw the two ping-pong guys I mentioned earlier. They’d found some meat that clearly delighted them as a bargain deal, especially when it was confirmed to them that the expiration date was still a day away.
So that’s basically the story of how we were almost entirely typical tourists for eight hours or so, except that at the end of it we probably got to come back to a nicer place than many of the tourists did!

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