Saturday, 28 July 2012

Reykjavik - the world's most northerly capital

I imagine few people have been to Iceland without visiting Reykjavik at some point, and we were no exception.

Arriving at our hotel there from the airport at 1am I was surprised by the 'night' sky. Although I knew nights were short in Iceland at this time of year, I thought it would be like Scotland where nights are brief but it still gets dark. But this isn't the case - at this time of year the middle of the night is only as dark as this: 

Reykjavik night sky, 1am

The next morning we took a walking tour of the city sights; first stop was the city's cathedral, Domkirkja, built in 1847.


Next door is the Alþingishúsið, the small 19th century National Assembly - the country has 63 members of Parliament. Iceland has the world's oldest existing parliament, the Alþing, founded in 930, and this building is just the modern manifestation of an ancient system.

Alpingi - a modern annexe was added to the side in 2002

part of the city centre

The Safnahúsið (literally 'museum house') was constructed 1906-1908 to house the National Library, before it moved to another building in 1940.

Safnahúsið, old National Library building

The statue below shows Ingólfr Arnarson, considered to be the first permanent resident of Iceland. Arriving in 871 legend says that he tossed his öndvegissúlur (high seat pillars) overboard and settled where the gods washed them ashore. He named the place Reykjavik, which means 'smoky bay', due to the steam rising from the geothermal vents.

Ingólfr Arnarson

Although it isn't the city's cathedral Hallgrímskirkja is the country's largest church and its 6th largest building. Built between 1945 and 1986 it was designed to resemble basaltic lava flows.

Hallgrímskirkja church

Outside is a statue of Leifur Eiríksson, the first European to discover North America around the year 1000 AD. He was probably born in Iceland and the statue was a present from the USA in 1930 to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Alþing.

Leifur Eiríksson

Inside the church is an organ with 5275 pipes.

organ, Hallgrímskirkja

Tjörnin is a small lake/large pond in the middle of the city with a large population of birds. In the winter geothermal heat is used to prevent part of the lake freezing over so the birds can still swim there.

Tjörnin (The Pond)

A small park lies to the south of Tjörnin and we were amused to watch a cat trying to catch an arctic tern there. Needless to say the cat didn't succeed and the bird almost seemed to enjoy teasing it.

arctic terns

North of the pond is Reykjavik's Ráðhús or City Hall, which has an interesting 3D map of Iceland.

3D map of Iceland, Reykjavik Ráðhús

Ingólfstorg is a stone square in the city centre with geothermal steam vents.

steam vents, Ingólfstorg square

Reykjavik was designated UNESCO City of Literature in 2011 and literary quotes stencilled on the pavements were still visible this year. Here are two I particularly liked.

One of our days in Reykjavik was rather rainy, so we visited the Perlan complex (which my guide book described as looking like half of Barbarella's bra!).

Reykjavik under a rainy sky (Hallgrímskirkja to the left)

Reykjavik under a rainy sky, seen from Perlan

Perlan is a complex with a hemispherical structure placed on top of (old?) hot water storage tanks, and it houses the Saga Museum, shops, eating places and a viewing deck (see more about Sagas below). 

Perlan complex

Later as it was still raining we went to the National Museum which was very interesting, with well translated English explanations throughout. I also loved the folding chairs that you could carry round the museum! One of its exhibits is Guðbrandur's Bible, one of 500 bibles that were printed in Icelandic in 1584 and which are considered as masterpieces of the printer's art.

Guðbrandur's Bible

printing plates, woodcuts & printing blocks (16th-18th century)

Finally, a word about food. Here's a copy of the menu from a restaurant in Hafnarfjörður - note the sheep head, foal, whale; we also  saw guillemot. These are all traditional Icelandic food, but being the fussy eater that I am needless to say I didn't try any of them!

menu, restaurant in Hafnarfjörður

Related posts:

Suggested reading:

Iceland publishes the greatest number of books, and produces the most writers and literary translations per capita of any country in the world. 
  • The Sagas are medieval family sagas. Written in the 12th and 13th centuries they describe events that took place in Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries.
  • Halldór Laxness won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955 and is considered Iceland's literary genius.
  • Arnaldur Indriðason writes crime fiction which is based in Reykjavik and is one of Iceland's most popular writers. His work has been published in 26 countries and translated into 20 languages.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Diving in Scotland's Firth of Forth

"If you can dive here you can dive anywhere".  That was how Mark Blyth of DivebunkerBurntisland, summarised the challenge of diving in Scotland's Firth of Forth. Although I've dived in many countries around the world (some diving trips are mentioned here), as an expat I had never dived in my home country and it was time to set things right!

The occasion was our forthcoming trip to Iceland where we would be doing six drysuit dives. Our only previous drysuit dive was in Russia's Lake Baikal three years before, so we decided to get some more practice while we were staying with my family in Scotland.
As someone who can feel the cold when diving in water at 29°C with a 3mm full length wetsuit, I was rather apprehensive about diving in Scotland, albeit in 'summer' - which is generally colder than Reunion's 'winter' - in a drysuit. However although I can't say I never felt the cold during our two dives, it's not what I remember, despite water temperatures of only 12°C.

The Dive bunker (source)

The club is actually installed in an old railway bunker from where it take its name. After we suited up and put our material (including 14kg of weight per person!) into the boat we were towed 300m to the slipway.

Looking back at Burntisland, heading out into the Firth of Forth


Mark Blyth and I, pre-dive

Our first dive site was the Vows, and we had a welcome committee waiting for us before we even got into the water.

our welcome committee of seals at the Vows

Once underwater we did some buoyancy exercises (drysuit buoyancy being different from that of a wetsuit), but it wasn't long before I felt something tugging at one of my palms.

When I turned round and looked I was surprised to see a seal nibbling my palm, almost playfully. When we'd been on the surface they hadn't come too near our boat, but underwater they were almost within touching distance. Apparently seals interact by nibbling each others flippers, so maybe they though we were giant seals? Or they just wanted to see our reaction?

In any case they seem to be curious animals, and one seal in particular would repeatedly spend a few minutes with us, swim off and then come back.

They rather made me think of underwater dogs, with their big soulful lash-rimmed eyes and their long whiskers.

Although they were - to me - the most impressive animals we saw underwater on this dive, there was also plenty of other things to see too, most of which were new to me. Fish were few, but there were multiple crabs, sea stars and jellyfish (moon and lion's mane), as well as lobster and soft corals such as dead man's fingers. On our second dive in particular (at Blae rock) we saw literally millions of sea stars (brittle stars?) on the sea floor. They were so plentiful that when I started the dive and saw the sea bed I thought it was blanketed by plants.

Diver on Blae rock (source)

All in all for me an unforgettable and unique diving experience!

Related posts:

Further information:

Friday, 6 July 2012

Six months in Reunion: book review

Like Crags and Craters this book is an exact reproduction of an older book (not an OCRed copy) by a publishing house called Bibliolife. The full title is Six Months in Reunion: A Clergyman's Holiday, and How He Passed It, the author is a Reverend Patrick Beaton, and it was originally published in 1860. The Literary Gazette of the time said "Mr Beaton's work is written with taste and skill, and abounds with anecdote and information".

Eruption at Ste Rose March 1860, illustration May 1860 (source)

I ordered this over the internet, and was rather annoyed when I received it to find out this was Volume II of a two-volume book. I was not aware of the fact before, as there is nothing to tell you this in any of the online information available. Consequently I'll never know exactly what brought Rev. Beaton to Reunion and what his first impression of the island were - if this were mentioned at all in the first volume. 

Drawing by Mettois based on a photograph by Bévan. From "Voyage
à l’île de la Réunion" by Louis Simonin, Paris, 1861 (source)

On the whole this is not a book I enjoyed much, as the promised holiday aspect seems completely submerged by endless and rather boring commentaries on the condition of Protestants in Reunion, slavery, 'coolie' immigration, and sugar cane culture and transformation, with occasional second-hand anecdotes. Out of twelve chapters two are consecrated to a lightning-fast visit to Salazie (there and back in the space of day from Saint Denis), and the last chapter is probably the most interesting as the author describes a stop made at St Helena on his way back to Europe.

English: Copper engraving, 'A View of the Town...
Copper engraving, 'A View of the Town and Island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean' (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all this is a book which might be useful to a student of Reunion's mid-nineteenth century history, but if you're looking for light reading steer clear.

Six Months in Reunion: A Clergyman's Holiday, and how He Passed it

Further reading:

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