Center City Walk and Northern Lights

Trip Start Jan 18, 2012
Trip End Jan 24, 2012

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What I did
Aurora Borealis
Harpa - Concert Hall & Conference Center - Reykjavik

Flag of Iceland  , Gullbringusysla,
Saturday, January 21, 2012

Up not so early, but managed to catch the 12:15 shuttle into town.  I started walking and ended up at the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center building.  Jon had told us that it is very elaborate and very expensive.  It was begun just before the Icelandic currency plummeted and on top of that, it had to be rebuilt because the Chinese steel all rusted as soon as the weather hit it.  Now they cannot afford it.  He didn't say what will happen.  When I went there, it was open and some musicians were setting up a small performance space in one of the concert halls.  It is an incredible building with lots of geometry going on.

I had wanted a photo of the cliffs at the north of the bay and this building could be the foreground.  None of those photos turned out though.  Since the Harpa is right on the harbor, I walked toward the closest dock and looked at some of the boats.  Then crossed back to find the City Center main thoroughfare.  Not all the shops were open.  Surprisingly one rather large tourist souvenir shop was closed.  I began to wonder if it were a siesta break.  There also were not that many people downtown.  Our guides keep encouraging us to go to the City Center rather than the shopping malls.  Maybe that's where all the people, except tourists, are.

I did find several bookshops open - nice ones.  I was looking for Icelandic sagas in English, particularly the one Jon mentioned that follows the Ring Road.  That would have been nice for the future trip I have planned for warmer weather.  I saw some of the mysteries by Icelandic authors that I have been reading but it doesn't make sense to buy the books here because they are so much more expensive - a $15 book might be twice that in Icelandic money (while marked at $15 USA).  On the other hand, it is a better time to visit Iceland if you're from the US since my guidebook gives a rate of exchange whereby the US dollar buys almost twice as much now as whenever the book was written- a few years ago.  Iceland is famous for having the highest number of books sold per capita (8) of any nation.  Our Aurora guide said that books are the most popular Christmas gift and everyone starts thinking about what book they want as a gift - presumably so they have an answer when asked.

I decided to give up on shopping for today and headed toward the lake and museums.  After walking around the length of the lake, I found the National Museum of Iceland and went in.  I bullied the woman at the desk and she gave me a senior discount even though I wasn't entitled to one.  I had misunderstood and thought she said seniors were 47 and older.  The Museum took two floors of a modern building and covered Icelandic history and exhibited lots of items.  Iceland was the last country in Europe to be settled in 876 I believe.  The settlers were mostly Norse Viking farmers who wanted more land and escape from the taxation of the new king.  Some of the Vikings stole people from Ireland to be their slaves but that didn't work out so well and they freed them not long after.  But red-haired people turn up in Iceland.  By 1000 they were Christianized.   Later they were taken over by the Norwegian king and then the Danish king when Denmark took over Norway.  In 1944 Iceland won its independence.  So I learned some of this from the Museum and some I heard from the various guides.  There were a few exhibits that were more modern and had items from the 60's.  I marvel that the 60's are now ready for Museums to save and interpret.  There was also a woman's riding outfit that is amazing!  The photo doesn't do it justice.

After the Museum, it appeared to be getting dark so I headed for the large church that dominates Reykjavik since I thought that would be a good time to get a photo.  I went inside but for some reason, cheapness perhaps, decided not to climb the tower.  I should have.  Maybe tomorrow.  There were quite a few parents with kids on sleds or in strollers walking to and from the church.  I don't know why.  Actually, there were quite a few parents with kids downtown too.  From the church I walked back downhill to the City Center and saw some nice shops along the way - bookshop, the Handknitters Association shop, jewelry, galleries - not all were open though.  I had thought about getting something to eat before I went back but it was already close to 6 when the shuttle was due and I hadn't researched where I wanted to go so I just headed back.  There was a couple from Seattle waiting at the shuttle stop and they were quite friendly.  They were going back to the other Icelandair hotel  the Natura.  However, the bus driver did not drop me off at the Hilton, he went back downtown, so I had to wait for the next group of people to get on before I could get off.  Maybe there are staggered times for Hilton & Natura people - I think not, I think he just didn't notice.  And he didn't understand me when I asked if he were going to the Hilton when he got back on the bus.  Oh, well.

When I got back to the hotel, after going to the 24 hr convenience store for breakfast food, I stopped to ask about Northern Lights excursions.  The tourist office lady convinced me to sign up so I had little more than an hour to get ready and eat something before we left at 8:30.

It was an involved process to pick people up, get them all signed up and back in the buses at the station.  Finally we were off - we drove out to where the first Parliament was held and around 10:30 we all piled out - this was a large busload of people - with about 10 other large buses in an area out in the country - to reduce light pollution.  It may be some sort of nature park - there were buildings with toilets but judging from the smell outside, I didn't want to have to go in - and some board walks with railing.  I found out later that it was the Pingvellir National Park --full of history and right on the volcanic rift.   I followed some people - our instruction was to find a place to stand for the next half hour in the dark --  and stood against a railing.  Most people were facing toward the railing.  The couple to my right were beginning to face the other way after checking their compass.  The man told me north was in the other direction.  So after the first half hour, I switched to the other side of the buses.  During the second half hour there were some lighter areas.

It wasn't until the very end that I began to believe that the light might not just be moving clouds but the aurora itself.  It was quite faint.  Then it got somewhat bigger.  At its peak, there was an arc of greenish light that spanned some brighter light closer to the horizon.  Toward the end, the was a kind of column of diffused light at the right side of all this while the other bands pretty much disappeared.  I had almost given up on my camera - with no tripod, little preparation to adjust settings - I tried once by bracing myself against the building and the shuttle wouldn't release.  Then for some reason I tried again later and noticed - I have been standing in the dark, or as dark as I could find with something to lean against - and lo and behold, I had my lens cap on.  When I tried a shot without the lens cap, I got an image - faint but actually brighter green than what I saw in front of me - I was absolutely thrilled.  Thrilled to have seen the aurora borealis and thrilled to be able to take a photo - as bad as it is!. 

So by 11:30 we were done and back to our hotels by 12:30 or so..  Our guide told us that she had been out until 2 am the previous night, but I think in the end they saw something.  She was very nice and told us about Icelandic history and customs - even read us ghost stories from the sagas.  They do a very nice job with tours here - or at least the ones associated with Icelandair.  It might have been a lot nicer to see the aurora last night with the small group in some out of the way place all by ourselves.  This mass excursion was not the ideal but then again I did get to see it..  Jon had also mentioned the other day that often the Aurora does not look as impressive as the photos you see of it.  That may be, but it was exciting to see it especially after several days of searching.

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