Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chasing Aurora

Aurora Borealis from the Grayline Iceland Tours brochure

For many years I dreamed about going to Iceland or Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis. That dream became reality in mid September of this year when I finally landed at Keflavik airport in Iceland. The first few days of our stay was marked by rain and heavy clouds. Then a storm followed. It seemed hopeless. But on Thursday the sun came out and the clouds lifted. Grayline Tours confirmed our northern lights mystery tour and I was in heaven!

We were driven to Reykjanes Peninsula which is south of Reykjavik at around 9 p.m. The sky was still shedding the light of day so we drove quite a distance away from city lights to get the best view. I kept scanning the darkened skies for traces of the aurora and finally I saw a patch of green in the sky. It wasn't big nor was it dancing but it was there. The driver stopped the bus and we all trooped out of the bus to watch the aurora from an ancient lava field. It was chilly outside and we stood there for a while but the aurora never developed. So we left for greener pastures until we reached a lighthouse where we parked for an hour or so to wait for the northern lights to reveal itself. We were not lucky there either. As we were right by the water, it was much colder though we had the option to get a hot drink at the café. Most of us queued up for the restroom instead.

Downcast we headed back to Reykjavik. It was then past 1 a.m. We were told that our tickets were good for two years or until we see the northern lights. And I had made up my mind to rebook the tour for the following evening. As we approached the city, the bus went down a darkened road as the driver tried one last time to find the elusive aurora. And there in the middle of nowhere, the guide called us to get off the bus as soon as possible. What happened next was magical. Above us was a huge canopy of green and white lights. And all I could say was "Oh my God!". And yes, the incredible spectacle before us was His work of art. 

I couldn't get a good photo of the aurora. I only had my IPhone camera and my digital camera. But it's enough that I saw with my own eyes what I had wanted so much to see all these years. When I got back to the hotel, I reviewed the photos and found some smudges of green in a few of the shots I took. I increased the exposure of the image below in order to see the green rays better but it made the photo grainy. 

My photo of the Aurora Borealis

We saw the northern lights again the following evening from our hotel window. It was nothing like the images I've seen on Instagram or Google images but we did catch a green whirlpool. How amazing that was! What started as a hopeless pursuit amidst bad weather conditions turned out to be a good week for chasing aurora.

For more information about the Northern Lights tours, check their website at grayline.is or send them email at iceland@grayline.is. The mystery tour costs 6400 ISK as of this writing. Tours are conducted from September 15 to April 15. I highly recommend Grayline as their staff took us to many locations and didn't give up until we saw the fleeting northern lights. The ability to rebook the tour free of charge in case the aurora is a no show is quite reassuring.

*****

Image with lighthouse from Grayline Iceland Tours.




Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Reykjavik Walks

Reykjavik is an easy city to explore because of its compact size. We spent three days discovering this charming old town and made lots of stops along the way to read all the helpful descriptions provided at each site and tried some local Skyr and pastries along the route. The Shore walk begins at Höfdi House on Borgartún, overlooking the bay. It is a beautiful stroll along the coast. The City Center walk starts at Government House while the Cathedral Square walk begins on top of the hill at Hallgrímstorg.  The Harpa Concert Hall may also be included with the Shore walk as it is at the end of the boulevard and a hop and skip from the Sun Voyager. 

Shore Walk

Höfdi House

The Höfdi House is where détente saw light. The great thawing of ice between the United States and USSR (as it was known then) began with the meeting of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in this house in 1986.

One of the former residents of Höfdi House was the poet and entrepreneur, Einar Benediktsson who lived here from 1914 to 1917. There is a statue of him standing in front of a harp (which symbolizes his poetry) on the grounds of the property. Here's an excerpt from his work, Surf.
"Mighty heartbeats from the ocean's cold depths
My strength and peace I drink from your sound."

Sun Voyager

Sólfar or Sun Voyager is a steel sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason. What appears like a Viking ship ready to set sail into the Atlantic, is really a dream boat--it carries dreams of hope, progress and freedom. It is also an ode to the sun. 

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center

See description under City Center Walk.

City Center Walk

Government House

The Government House is the office of the Prime Minister of Iceland. It was originally built as a prison and used as such till 1861. Then the Governor of Iceland lived here until Iceland became a sovereign state in December 1918. Government house is sometimes called The White House.

Iceland has the oldest parliament in the world known as the Althingi. It was established in 930 A.D. and the country's leaders met outdoors on the Law Rock (a flat ledge on a rocky outcrop now marked with a flagpole) in Thingvellir to enact laws and render justice. The meeting was open to all free men and it attracted large crowds.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center

Geometry + glass + light = Harpa Concert Hall. It is the home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera. The entire building is clad in glass and reflects the play of light. Harpa was designed by visual artist, Olafur Eliasson. 

Old Harbor

The old harbor is the jumping off point for whale watching and puffin tours. It has been scrubbed and updated and has become the new hub for locals and visitors alike for its restaurants, shops and scooter rentals. 

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

This is one hot dog stand that always has a queue in front of its cozy stall.  Tourists from around the world can't wait to do a selfie with their hot dogs. Bill Clinton ate here. So what's in the hot dog? Free range lamb and some beef and pork. You add the condiments. Or you can order one with everything in it. They accept cash or credit card. A hot dog and soda as of this writing is 600 kr. And that's a steal since dining in Reykjavik restaurants averages 3800 kr. per person. On Tryggvagata and Pósthússtraeti, across from the harbor. They also have branches in other parts of the city.

Cathedral Square to Downtown

Hallgrímskirkja

This cathedral is the iconic symbol of Reykjavik. (See separate article on Hallgrímskirkja.)

Skólavördustígur 

What's in a name? This rainbow street is called Skólavördustígur. It is dotted with restaurants and boutiques and a short stroll downhill from the cathedral. It intersects Laugavegur, the main shopping artery in Reykjavik.

Trolls on Laugavegur

According to Norse mythology, trolls are supernatural beings who live in isolated mountains, caves or rocks. They are giants, strong, hideous looking, slow witted and unfriendly to humans. There is a distinction between small and large trolls. The small trolls are the huldufólk (hidden people) or elves. 

The fascination for trolls in Iceland can be explained through the natural environment according to B. S. Benedikz (author of Iceland):
"The reason is of course perfectly clear. When one's life is conditioned by a landscape dominated by rocks twisted by volcanic action, wind and water into ferocious and alarming shapes, the imagination fastens on these natural phenomena." From Wikipedia

*****

Images by TravelswithCharie