It may not have been clear from my posts so far, but we are stationed in Reykjavik for the duration of our stay. As I booked this trip because of the great deal offered by Icelandic Air, it was a package with restrictions … a limit on how many days we could stay and had to stay at one of two specified hotels the whole time in Reykjavik. This actually hasn’t restricted us at all, but should I have the good fortune to return to Iceland, I would want to travel around the island and get to all the nooks and crannies, and move camp each night. But for this trip, a single home-base worked perfectly fine, there is so much to do within reach of Reykjavik.
So we decided to stay “home” on St. Patrick’s Day and spend another day in the city of Reykjavik. Slept in late. We had already scoped out where we wanted to end the day, at an English pub we’d found the first day that had advertised 300 isk Guinness and Kilkenny (my favorite Irish beer). This exchanges to around USD$2.50 a pint. That, my friends, is a darn good deal.
But first we made our way around the old town in wickedly cold, strong wind to see the last couple sights on my list … going to the top of the tower in the church for city views. Sufficient to call it The Church because it’s the tallest thing in the old part of Reykjavik by a long shot, and it’s the one thing you can see from miles away. Locals will direct you around town using that feature as your compass (walk toward the church, walk north of the church, etc.) Here are some views ... such a pretty city, I think.
Next I wanted to check out the “culture house” which is the former national library where there was an exhibit on ancient manuscripts, some of the collection is on loan from Denmark. That was a worthy experience for me. Icelanders are very keen on their sagas, or “eddas,” which are epic tales kept alive mostly by a very strong oral story-telling tradition. Sometimes they’re written down and illustrated. Their illustration style, which is fairly consistent, is unique and reminds me somehow of drawings in old fairy tale books … almost a subtle comical element.
In addition to viewing the old books, there was a room showing the Icelandic manuscript production process … how they made the paper-thin sheepskin pages (yeah, they’re animal skins, not plant-derived paper), how they made the ink dye of various colors and quill pens, insights into the life of a scribe and the physical ailments they tended to acquire, etc.
The old manuscripts have been a source of animosity between Denmark and Iceland regarding their ownership. A few decades ago, Denmark repatriated several of them to Iceland. The ceremony was recorded and you could watch it on a TV. The solemnity with which it was conducted gives you an idea of how seriously these items are respected and treasured in this culture. Here’s a photo I snapped of the television screen, showing the presentation the Danish made to the Icelanders of the largest manuscripts. Imagine having those things on your bookshelf ... a little light reading in bed before going to sleep, perhaps.
Unexpectedly, the top floor of the building contained a modern art exhibit. Though some of it was a bit too avant-garde for our little minds, we enjoyed it and were subsequently inspired to visit the national gallery to see their art exhibits. We felt the national gallery was a bit of a disappointment, but it was a small entrance fee, and of course that’s just our personal taste. My favorite part was looking out the upper level window at the swans gathered on a partially-frozen pond. And kind of a crazy thing we saw, was this guy striding across the pond, at first glance looking like Jesus walking on water. The ice didn’t appear to be very thick at all, and this illustration of faith in it rather impressed us.
And here's the kitty cat of the day, citizen of Reykjavik.
Then to our pub where we were crowned with St. Patrick’s day Guinness hats and beads while I swilled an undisclosed number of Kilkennys. One thing that amused me that I’ve never encountered in America and probably wouldn’t … I think we’re a little uptight about this kind of thing … every time I went to the Ladies room, there were men in it. They were just employees working … refilling toilet paper, getting bar supplies from the storage unit that was accessed through the full length mirror, which was actually a door, etc. But nobody paid any mind to anybody else, just business as usual; once one of the guys was chatting with one of the ladies telling her how Guinness is a very low-calorie beer (true), and that if she were to be on a diet she should drink Guinness. She was close to busting some seams on her leather pants … I wondered if he was giving her a hint or just unaware that’s a pretty stupid thing to say to a girl. She didn’t seem put out.
And THEN … we were walking back through the city to go “home,” when I looked up at the sky and noticed what I first thought were airplane contrails. But as I studied how they moved yet never dissolved, and then discerned a pale green hue, I began to suspect an aurora. A minute later, a girl from across the courtyard (we were walking in front of The Church) shrieked into the night, “Look, it’s the northern lights!” (in English) Goosebumps rose up underneath my sweaters and heavy coat and scarf.
Let me give a wee bit of back story. The Northern Lights is something on my Top 10 list of things to see and has been there for ages. When I saw this great deal to Iceland, though I’ve always wanted to see the island, the first thing that went through my head was “northern lights.” So it was a huge motivating factor in booking this trip. We’d been in Iceland since Tuesday morning, it was now Sunday and we were leaving the following Tuesday night. We had checked the aurora forecast (solar flare activity) every day to find disappointing numbers of 1 or 2 out of 9, meaning very quiet on the sun, and hence no lights. So I was quite surprised to see those lines above the church. We hurried back to the hotel and asked the front desk staff about it. We said we thought we’d seen a trace of them and wondered if we drove out of town if we’d see them better. (we already presumed this and had done so the night before with no luck, but decided to double check) The guys said, “Yes! It’s the best forecast of the year! You should go out.” This seemed highly improbable to me given the “2” on both aurora forecast websites. “They just changed it,” the hotel guys said.
So we grabbed some camera gear and extra clothes and bee-lined to a place we’d already scoped out in our driving as a good candidate for watching – a ski area not too far out of town. And there, I got to cross off another item from my list, lucky little devil that I am. That makes 5 crossed off of my Top 10. Green lights on St. Patrick’s day could hardly be more appropriate. I can’t really gauge Erik’s reaction to and assessment of the experience because I was so overwhelmed by my own. I squealed like a pig in excitement (no joke, I really did) and was jumping up and down outside with glee. It was so cold that we spent a lot of time inside the truck … the lights sort of come and go – they’ll be filling the sky very brightly and morphing quickly into discreet shapes and lines, and then they sort of dissolve into a general green mist. Sometimes they wavered almost like a curtain of light in the sky. During those misty times we’d sit in the car waiting for them to build up again into shapes and then go outside. I can see why people get addicted to tracking them … such a tiny little taste, I definitely am not satiated. My photos didn’t turn out well, as I was woefully unprepared for the shooting conditions and got frustrated trying to operate the camera, so I just gave up. Honestly, it's one of the few occasions I'm not really even bummed I didn't get photos, because they can't remotely capture the feeling of having this light fill the sky above and all around you. (Though now I'm super inspired to see them *again* and be better equipped to photograph them!) But here are a few glimpses anyway of what we got in our cameras. The big white thing is the moon.
So here’s what happened: it turns out that on Friday an unexpected large flare (coronal mass ejection) happened on the sun but it took until Sunday to reach Iceland, and the forecasts hadn’t been adjusted. It arrived during the daytime, unfortunately, but fortunately we caught them just as darkness fell, so we had the maximum time available to see them, which turned out to be only a couple hours, before they faded away. We talked to some folks the next day on our travels up north who described an incredible display, illustrating that the further north you go, the more intense. But I’m just pleased as the fruitiest, sweetest punch that I got to witness them at all. Mission accomplished.