Wednesday, 19 February 2014
Seltjarnarnes: to the lighthouse
It was light by 10am in Reykjavík but only a tourist or two seemed to be up and about on Sunday morning. I was determined to excurt in my only extended time free of the many admirably mixed events in the Dark Music Days Festival - report imminent on The Arts Desk - but had been thwarted in a desire to see the tectonic plates at Þingvellir, the site of the old Icelandic parliament which we hadn't visited in the summer of 2011: road possibly too icy, taxi too expensive. Fortunately the wonderful Hilla, aka a gem among fellow critics, Hilary Finch, who's been coming to Iceland for 30 years now, had a few recommendations, one of which was a bus to the peninsula at Seltjarnarnes.
I wanted to walk, and the extremely helpful, friendly folk at my waterfront hotel furnished a big map which would enable me to do so. Daftly, this excursion isn't in the usually dependable Rough Guide; in fact the Ness, with the lighthouse at Grótta on its northernmost tip, isn't in their city plan at all, even though Seltjarnarnes is a suburb of Reykjavík.
So I struck out for the harbour, so very different from its summertime incarnation. The wind was furious; I was glad of the reindeer-patterned hat and gloves J had bought in Oslo the previous week, even though the ear-flaps wouldn't stay down. I walked out to the jetty, with views across to Harpa and the city skyline, with what looked - and continued throughout the day to look - like a sunset or sunrise behind it.
The whalewatching kiosk was open, but would there be any takers? It seemed unlikely. Nor were any of the bars open, so I just started walking. There's a proper path for walkers, cyclists and joggers, though the impression was one of ribbon-development desolation on the left, with uniformly ugly new housing. You just have to avert your gaze and look out at the beaches, the Atlantic and the snow-capped cliffs beyond.
Soon the city is just a series of silhouettes on the far horizon,
the apartment blocks become low-level houses and signs of the seafaring past, the wrecks and the shacks, punctuate the route.
At last you're on the peninsula, with 360 degree views of nothing but sea and mountains. To my left there were fresh, even more sunsetty views - at 1pm - of the Reykjanes peninsula and the ridges beyond.
Tides mean care in crossing to the old lighthouse at Grótta
but I was clearly fine. I stepped down on to the beach, alone with the local birdlife (the area is closed to the public in the nesting season).
Eiders male and female were bobbing and making their peculiar cooing/sighing noises (I took a little film, but the sound can't be heard against the tearing of the wind). This isn't the sharpest of closeups (there's a better eider shot - mamma and babies - here) but you can see the markings well enough.
From what I can make out, Grótta is mentioned in mid-16th century accounts. A colossal storm changed the landscape dramatically in 1788. A lighthouse was built here in 1895, dismantled, rebuilt after the Second World War and soon abandoned. I understand it and the adjacent building are used as local schoolrooms. What fun to have all the marine life of the Ness at your feet.
This all felt especially desolate. I was liable to be spooked out because I was reading the latest thriller of the masterly Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, I Remember You, about a couple and their friend who go to a deserted village in the West Fjords to renovate an old house, with disastrous consequences. We'd also been talking the previous evening about angelica used in soups, when I remembered that one of the characters in the book gathers it. I think this is a dried-out remnant of angelica flower.
I did a quick circuit of Grótta,
rejoined the mainland and walked south west along the edge of the frozen inland lake, the Bakkatjörn,
gaining views across to the conical Keilir which you see very clearly en route to Reykjavík from the airport.
Whooper swans - the lazy ones who decided not to overwinter in places like Welney in Norfolk - were gaggled around the frozen lake's south-eastern corner.
And now the low-lying suburban houses reappeared and, with no sign of a bus for at least half an hour, I retraced my steps as briskly as I could back to the city centre. Which on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps because the weekend package tourists have left, was more or less deserted. I walked past the Tjörnin, where the swan and duck feeding frenzy was continuing as usual
past my favourite part of town
and up to Skólavörðustígur, the street that climbs to the cathedral. I'd had my eye on a fish place the previous day when I sat in Babalú opposite, the quirky cafe recommended by Hilla, waiting in vain to be served (the boy playing chess with his mother at the next table turned out, I think, to be the son of the waiter, who appeared after 20 minutes, by which time I had to leave for a lunchtime concert; no problem, I'd enjoyed sitting there).
The Fish Cafe's freshest cod melted in the mouth; its accompanying salad was amazingly good. And Iceland is no longer the money-sink for tourists it was when we first visited: this was lower than London prices. So to a late-afternoon nap in the hotel, then on to three more concerts to open my ears and eyes on the closing evening of the festival. I had had my vision.
On which note - vision, or not, the film Blue referenced here - 19 February can't end without my commemorating Derek Jarman's death 20 years ago today (I'm sure the gay owner of Babalú, who came to Reykjavík to marry his Icelandic boyfriend, would join me). This is more of a holding notice until I gather my thoughts together, and perhaps see the films of his I've so far missed (The Last of England and Caravaggio, chiefly). Peter Tatchell reminded me. He's written an eloquent tribute in the Huffington Post UK, which serves us nicely for now.