We spend the last day of 2018 back in Reykjavik taking it easy, using the spa facilities (there’s something sublime about dashing from a sauna through icy air, into a warm pool and sitting there while snowflakes twirl above you) and exploring the city. The whole of Iceland is dramatic landscapes, stark, colours pared down to white, grey and blue. Here is no exception though of course more shops and houses, many of them, specifically in the Main Street very quaint. The town sweeps down to the harbour with the towering snow covered mountains behind that.
The Lutheran parish church Hallgrimskirkia an easy landmark to spot at 74.5 it is the largest church and among the tallest (man made) structures in the country.
Iceland was proclaimed an independent republic on 17 June 1944 although it actually gained independence from Denmark much earlier, on 1 December 1918 with the signing of the Act of Union with Denmark. The Act recognised Iceland as an independent state under the Danish crown. Yet those years of Iceland being under Danish authority still rankles slightly and in fact while all alcohol was banned in 1915, wine was legalised in 1922 and all other alcoholic beverages EXCEPT beer were legalised in 1935, partly the story goes because beer was seen as a Danish drink. Eventually in March 1989 now celebrated as Beer Day in Iceland, the ban on beer ended. I have to say I for one am glad the ban didn’t last- in Iceland I had the tastiest beers I’ve ever had (a strong citrusy base) and they gave me almost no sinus issues.
Although we haven’t been in Iceland very long, I’ve gained the distinct impression that, as capricious and volatile as their currency and weather may be the Icelanders are the opposite. I found them friendly and unflappable. Both men and women strike one as mentally and physically strong and independent. Of course they do all descend from the Vikings. Having a common descendant while living on a rather isolated island with a mere 330 000 inhabitant (excluding the 20 to 30 000 immigrants, expats and people working there on contract) has it’s challenges, for one thing it’s almost certain that in the past there was bound to be some accidental incest, lets’ just say the sting pool was small and – especially back in the day villages separated by great distances. These days however there is an app for that which is linked, as I understand it, to the national census database, so not only can you remember your great aunts birthday but you can check that that cute girl you’re wanting to ask out isn’t your 2nd cousin.
The Icelandic economy is capitalist and market related, and as I’ve mentioned above, pretty volatile as a result partly of being a small island with really just three main “products” – Tourism which is really growing. Like all places that become popular, and rely on the income and jobs that tourists bring they will have to carefully balance income versus effect on the environment but for now it’s an important part of their independence from the EU. Fishing is their other natural resource and one of the reasons they hesitate over joining the EU despite the perceived stability it brings. They know that in addition to opening up avenues for themselves they will be opening up their waters to pillaging and mass fishing, this they are rightly I believe, reluctant to do. Finally there is geothermic energy which means nearly all power in Iceland is as good as free. However this doesn’t instantly turn them into Prius driving, hemp wearing, eco angels. I’m not certain, but believe the bus system in Reykjavik is pretty good. This is their biggest city after all with approx 122 000 people that’s a third of their total population! Outside of this metropolis there are long distances between small villages, on treacherous terrain, icy roads and often in insane weather. As a result nearly everyone owns a car or two and super trucks are pretty much everywhere.
By the way – good news fellow vegans – you will have to avert your eyes ALOT (oh my gosh the amount of feathers, fur and leather yikes) BUT…you will not go hungry! Surprisingly for a bunch of leather wearing Viking descendants they cater very well in most venues for vegetarian and vegans and there are quite a few vegan specific stores in Reykjavik. While the economy is market and capitalist based, the social structure is far more socialist. Labour is possibly amongst the most expensive and protected in the world (yay for the workers!) and titles such as Sir, Mr, Mrs are not used. Our one tour guide tells how he had a chat to their Prime Minister at a coffee shop recently…just you know bumped into him and had a chat. The latter drives himself to the airport when he needs to catch an international flight and everyone uses first names – especially as your surname simply tells people which family you belong to. The cost of labour, combined with the few natural resources makes the cost of many things, particularly food, in Iceland very expensive. In an attempt to not have to solely rely on imports they farm a great deal using greenhouses, however nearly everything that goes into building them and feeding the plants has to be imported.
Our last night in Reykjavik, old years eve, literally ended with a bang. We had booked dinner at The Pearl – a beautiful, futuristic looking building with a glass dome allowing an astounding 360 degree view all around as well as above. The perfect place from which to watch the fireworks – talk about cognitive dissonance. I felt a little awkward frankly, after all I petition passionately about how fireworks should be banned. One need only look at the damage caused by a single flare back home in Bettys bay and surrounds or at the many animals injured or at best terrified. Yet Icelanders have what appears to be an obsession with fireworks! While back home our law officials and firemen seize fireworks when they find them, in Iceland the rescue workers / firemen sell them to raise funds.
There was an attempt this year to become more eco aware and, in addition to the fireworks there was the option to buy a tree to plant in their ‘forests” which they are trying to develop. Don’t expect too much, mostly they consist of a few spindly birch trees – we tried twice to buy trees. The first day they said come back tomorrow, when we came back they were sold out of all (?)3 trees. I soothed my conscience by reminding myself that here – there was nothing that could burn uncontrolled…sooner or later it would hit ice or snow and fizzle out. Furthermore there are very few pets and while Iceland has some wildlife in this vast landscape they are spread thinly. All in all I suspect that emergency responders wish for more excitement, crime is extremely low (aside from rigorous gun laws, I mean everyone knows everyone and where the heck you gonna run to?) and in winter it seems their biggest emergency is often rescuing errant trampolines that aren’t tied down in windy weather and go flying over highways. Well let me tell you it truly was astounding an astounding display putting Hong Kongs fireworks over new year quite in second place in my mind. And boy, while it reached it’s peak at midnight when we woke the next morning to hear some folk still going at it with the fireworks. Literally tons (650 tonnes in 2018) of fireworks are burnt and despite the fire impact being less there is a pollution factor – you can read more here https://grapevine.is/news/2018/12/26/pollutants-over-iceland-will-be-measured-before-and-after-new-years/
Meantime, while the food was the first mediocre meal I’d had in Reykjavik but the view, the display and the company more than made up for it. We were seated with a lovely couple, equally open minded and well-travelled so it was a delightful evening and we broke away just before midnight to go and watch them burn some bonfires before returning back to dessert and, of course the fireworks.
The good news is the festivities and company were so intoxicating that very little alcohol was consumed which meant that we woke the next morning tired but not feeling too lousy leaving more time for lazing around the spa and wandering through the town until the chill made our noses call “mercy” (every other part was fully covered) and then an early night for an early start to Gay Paree. For no discernible reason I always feel very at home in Paris, and no matter their reputation, I find the French nothing but polite and yes perhaps not effusive but definitely friendly. Further good news for me is that there appears to be an increasing awareness of vegetarian and vegan diets. It’s much easier to find a few options and even some specifically vegan shops. The first stop, as always is at Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur basilica.
While I don’t believe that a church, synagogue etc necessarily by dint of what the building is supposed to represent necessarily makes it more spiritual than say watching a beautiful sunset or climbing a fabulous mountain however, the Sacré-Cœur , for me has a sense of the sacred about it. It’s a beautiful church and I always feel moved when I enter (albeit that I cannot help but reflect on the historical inaccuracy of a caucasian Jesus with his long flowing brunette locks.)
I spend time thinking of people who’ve meant much to me, had a huge influence in my life and who’ve now passed on. I wonder if, even if one is not Christian there isn’t something in the myth of gods son giving up his life for the rest of humanity that speaks to the highest part of human nature? Self actualisation through service to others even at the risk of losing one’s own corporeal body? I spend much time in silence remembering, musing before Pierre and I exit again.
We enjoy wandering through Paris, going for a run in the Jardine – When we were there the Musée d’histoire Naturelle was running a beautiful, educational display, the paths dotted with giant illuminated sculptures literally shedding light on the world’s extinct and endangered species. Unfortunately we had left it too late to attend the light show that is currently on…ah, well perhaps next time and besides we already have a big evening planned for Moulin Rouge. The Fabric hotel is small but provides great attention. https://www.hotelfabric.com/en/ They do a lovey breakfast but there is not a restaurant so for lunches and dinners you’ll need to get out and explore a bit, never a terrible thing in Paris. It was nice and central with a Laundromat and yay for me, vegan restaurants really nearby – incredibly for a country that clings to its foie gras, Paris is increasingly able to offer good options to those of us who stick to an animal free diet. There are more and more vegan specific restaurants too!
The Moulin Rouge turns out to be a good deal classier than the local one that I recall from Cape Town. It provides a very slick show, absolutely amazing set, costumes to die for- oh I was so jealous of those beautiful costumes. It was, for me, a very late show since we went to the 11pm showing and, if it had just been beautiful scenery, costumes and boobs I most certainly do not think I would have managed to stay awake. Let’s face it as a girl myself I get to see lots of boobs very often (some every day LOL) and these are just like many others I’ve seen…so what really kept me on the edge of my seat was the amazing artists in between the bevy’s of beautiful boobs. There was a couple who did the most terrifying stunts on rollerblades…I was literally holding my breathe at times; then the strong looking dude who balanced on increasingly more complex and smaller glass sheets and glasses; and a couple of acrobats who were as humorous as they were skilful…all in all combined into a lovely fun show. Unfortunately but understandably no photos are allowed so I am sharing a scanned version of one of us taken there.
Then from the metropolitan, buzzing energy of Paris we caught a train to Lyon (via Belgium…long story but let’s say WOW airline did not WOW us) before getting a transfer to Alp d’ Huez.
Guy, an English gent now living for a few years in France was a font of information and encouragement. Up and up and around we drove until finally arriving in Alp d’ Huez a tiny village set among the Alps. It operates for about 8 months of the year catering either to skiers or later in the Summer season, cyclists.
The rest of the time I imagine it is almost empty since most of the staff live in villages a bit lower down. I would highly recommend this as the perfect place to learn ski-ing. It has all kinds of slopes and is used to dealing with newbies as well as the more daring so no-one yells or gets too upset when you collapse in a heap of ski’s in their path. In fact a lovely Russian man pulled me out of one tricky position….he spoke no English or French but somehow he made himself understood and pulled me out of the safety net I’d got stuck in.
I can tell you I have a whole new respect for skiers. My arms hurt, I was panting hard and beginning to sweat, my calf muscles strained and my shins protested. And that was just putting on the boots! I was so sure I’d come a cropper before I even put on the ski’s as I clomped clomped in my Judge Dredd boots which embraced my leg in a way similar to which a python embraces it’s food. Poles in one hand, ski’s over my arms I just prayed I wouldn’t land on my arse before I’d even got a ski on. However practice makes perfect and by the end of a week I was strapping myself in and clomping confidently over to the ski- lifts spending a few hours on the baby and green slopes and then ski-ing back to the resort.
It’s an exhilarating feeling of freedom as you come down, the muted whoosh of the wind in your ears, the crunch of snow under the ski’s. We stayed at the Hotel Grandes Rousses https://www.hotelgrandesrousses.com/en/hotel-alpe-huez . This is the perfect hotel for newbie skiers, it has a ski shop where you can buy / rent anything you need and they’re so used to setting up people new to the sport, then from there you can literally cross the road to the ski-lift which stops very near where the ski instructors are. On the way back, once you’ve learnt a bit you can ski all the way back to their back door. They also make killer cocktails, it’s incredible how thirsty ski-ing makes you. However, this part of France has not heard of vegan or lactose intolerant, in fact they have a hard time with vegetarian – for instance there were 3 “vegetarian” options on the menu – 2 starters a basic salad (they do make a divine green salad tho), another salad with copious amounts of cheese, and essentially a bad macaroni and cheese number. We took to having tapa’s in the bar where I’d enjoy a vegetarian soup (I don’t want to guarantee it’s vegan…I chose not to ask about the stock) a green salad, bread and well that was pretty much my standard fare. There is an English pub that does good grub and there vegetarians may have more luck – I had a Mexican meal and I noted that they had a veggie burger there too.
I wasn’t certain how I’d “take” to ski-ing but I totally loved it even if I’m not particularly skilful or brave, the wonderful thing about being a beginner is that the gains come fast. I anticipated injuries but really the ones I got were not the ones I anticipated. First off the initial boots were too tight and that left my shins feeling slightly bruised, especially given there’s a lot of leaning into the boots. And then, oh my gosh, my poor lips – like those pictures you see of cracked dry earth…they were dry the moment we arrived in the Alps but the final day when I was out on the mountains for about 4 hours – that killed them…I seriously wanted a lip transplant until I got exactly the right balm from the Pharmacist – next time I am so putting that stuff on from the start plus some extra sunscreen. Possibly the most expensive part of this holiday was the – now that we’ve invested in it…well we simply will have to use it again.
Our last stop was our home from home – Amsterdam, Ink hotel just being ‘lekker’ relaxed, gezellig and enjoying the chilled vrolijk atmosphere. Then finally back onto a plane for yet another favourite city, home, Cape Town where, as lovely as the holiday had been, as exciting as it was to be amongst so much snow and ice, it was good to come home to a South African summer.