Looking for Lava

Mt Etna erupts and re-ignites my lust for lava.

At the top of Bromo with the sand sea in the background.

In 2008 I came close to achieving my dream of seeing lava. I was travelling through Indonesia and saw plenty of volcanoes in Java and Bali, but at none of them did I have any chance of seeing lava.

Not until Merapi that is. Continue reading “Looking for Lava”

The Golden Circle at New Year

A New Year’s Day trip round Iceland’s Golden Circle.

Having posted my wintry Reykjavik photographs yesterday and having my first Flickr experience, I’ve got a bit carried away and put another album together.

The Golden Circle is a popular day trip from Reykjavik. The 300km loop encompasses Þingvellir (the site of world’s oldest parliament and the place where the tectonic plates that form Europe and America are being slowly pulled apart), Gullfoss waterfalls and the geysers at Haukadalur which include Strokkur and Geysir (the one after which all other geysers are named). The tour also includes Kerið volcano crater, Skálholt church and the small geothermal town of Hveragerði. I chose to visit on New Year’s Day in 2012 when everything was frozen and under a thick layer of snow. The scenery I saw that day still takes my breath away when I think about it.

Click on the picture below to get to the album on Flickr.

The Golden Circle at New Year

Wintry Reykjavik

As there seems to be no chance of a white Christmas this year, I’m reminiscing about whiter times in Reykjavik.

I’ve been seeing so many beautiful, wintry, snowy photos on Facebook recently. Each time I look at them I’m reminded of the snowy New Year I spent in Reykjavik a few years back. Nowhere else has ever come close to the jaw-dropping, fingertip-freezing scenes I saw there. Even ordinary streets and shops looked like something out of a Bruegel painting. Although the sun barely rose above the horizon the light and colours were stunning. I took hundreds of photographs, even though it meant I had to keep taking my gloves off, just because I wanted to capture every last icicle and snow-covered rooftop.

I’m enjoying looking back at those photographs so much I’ve put some of them together in my first ever Flickr slideshow. Unfortunately, WordPress and Flickr don’t seem to like each other and so rather than a smooth link I’ve embedded a link to Flickr in the picture below. Clicking on the picture should take you to the album. If anyone knows a better way of doing this, your advice will be gratefully received!


Wintery Reykjavik

New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik

Bonfires, fireworks, a satirical TV programme and a very strange drink. It’s NYE Reykjavik style.

It’s a month since my New Year’s Eve Reykjavik style. It’s a quite a traditional thing to do to go to a bonfire and there are about a dozen big bonfires at various locations around the city. Luckily when I went for a walk to the animal park from the City hostel I happened to notice a rather large bonfire being built up just at the back of the hostel.

The snowy hostel

New Year’s Eve fell on a Saturday and in the morning I ploughed my way through high piles of snow to walk into town. I’d wanted to go to the flea market but it was closed, so I just ended up having a bit of a wander and then going for coffee. The buses all stopped running early afternoon and I didn’t fancy walking back so I made sure I was at the bus stop in plenty of time. I thought the bus might have been full, but there was hardly anyone on it.

A lazy afternoon with a bit of a snooze followed. In the evening I joined other hostellers in the common area for chat and vodka. We also tried a traditional Christmas and New Year soft drink that is made by mixing a malt drink with fizzy orangeade. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounds. There was what sounded like a Mass in Icelandic being played out over the TV speakers. This in itself wasn’t so interesting, but instead of showing the Mass itself on the TV there was just a very long series of slides picturing lots of wonderful shots of Iceland in winter.

Cosy and Christmassy inside the hostel

At about 8.30pm, through the large living room windows we saw the bonfire start to flame and so, all wrapped up and drinks in hand, we walked over to it. It was huge and wild and hot with great reflections in the puddles of melting of snow. People of all ages were out lighting fireworks and flares and waving sparklers. We could see fireworks all around Reykjavik from where we were so had a great show. Bits of hot ash, some still aflame, wafted from the fire and the fireworks and flares were going off in all directions. It would have been a health and safety officer’s nightmare, but luckily there didn’t seem to be any present.

Bonfire and a view of Reykjavik
Bonfire reflections

As the fire started to die down people drifted away. This was the time every Icelander heads for a TV set to watch the same programme: Áramótaskaup, a satirical look at the year just gone. We watched it and it did seem quite funny, but as it was in Icelandic and as we hadn’t spent the previous year in Iceland, we didn’t get any of it. Apparently this programme will be the main topic of conversation for Icelanders over the next week or so.

Red hot ash flying everywhere

At midnight the sky exploded with fireworks. We went upstairs and got a great view. They were going off all over Reykjavik and went on for ages. Around New Year the law allows anyone to purchase fireworks and around 500 tonnes are imported each year. They are sold in benefit of rescue charities and are a great money-raiser for them. There had been plenty going off ever since I arrived, but this was just practice for the real bonanza.

And fireworks

Once the sky started to quieten I went to bed. There were still plenty of fireworks going off, but they were more random. Some people in the hostel walked into town to hit the bars, but I had an early start as I’d booked on to a Golden Circle tour for the next morning so decided to be sensible. And I didn’t fancy getting all my layers back on to trudge through the snow again.

Eating lunch in Reykjavik

Three places in Reykjavik for a delcious vegetarian lunch.

Swarta Kaffi

Swarta Kaffi must have an owner who has spent time in South Africa. It’s a small place on the first floor of a building on Laugevegur. It’s very cosy inside and has a definite African theme – there are masks and other African artefacts all over the place. What makes me think it’s a South African connection rather than African in general? Well, it’s the food. Swarta Kaffi is famous for serving soup in a bowl made from bread. Each day they have a meat soup and a vegetarian soup – generally cauliflower. The ‘bowl’ is a loaf sized bread roll with the middle pulled out. It is then filled with soup and the extracted bread is served on the side. This is an Icelandic play on the bunny chows of Durban. Durban has a large Indian population and so curry is pretty much a staple. A bunny chow is a loaf of bread hollowed out and filled with curry; the extra bread is also served on the side. I haven’t seen this done anywhere else. I might have thought it coincidence except for the African theme in the cafe. Last time I was here I did ask the waitress about the origins of their main dish, but she didn’t know.

The soup and bread is delicious. The staff are friendly and the atmosphere is welcoming. It’s a bit more expensive than buying soup in some places so it’s somewhere I don’t make a habit of going to, but it’s definitely something to look forward to once on each trip.

Groen Kostur

This place is hidden at the back of a kind of small shopping centreoffice block, opposite a car park and a branch of Bonus (the cheap supermarket chain). It’s only a minute or two walk from Laugevegur. The place is small and modern with small, round, high tables and high chairs. So it’s not the most comfortable of places to sit. A lot of people seem to get takeaway from here so I suppose comfort isn’t the priority.

The food is all vegetarian and vegan and there’s a good choice. There are always several choices of ‘plate’ as well as snacks, cakes, soup and so on. The ‘plates’ are made up of a mix of salads, quiches, rice, potatoes, and so on. They are served with a small bread roll and each type of ‘plate’ has a fixed price. There are a selection of dressings on the counter and a selection of jugs of water. One jug has plain water and the others each have a different fruit such as lemon, orange or apple floating in them.
The food is delicious. Each time I’ve been here I’ve tried one of their plates of food, but the soup served with bread and houmous also looks really tempting.


Gardurin is located about five minutes walk from Laugevegur and is another tiny lunch place. It closes in August each year for holidays so I wasn’t able to come here last time. Each week they produce a new menu with a different dish for each day of the week. This means there isn’t much choice but the food for each day sounded good and so I suppose it saved making a hard decision. The main dishes are served in full or half portions and there are soups and cakes as well. Everything is vegetarian.

The place is very hippie-ish with incense burning and Indian pictures and artefacts. The tables are small but as they are regular height this is a nicer place to sit than Groen Kostur.  It was quite friendly and the food was good, but if I had to choose I think I would go for Groen Kostur (even though it means sitting on a high chair) because although the food here is good, the food at Groen Kostur is even better!

Earthquakes and weather

Iceland has a lot of weather. It also has a lot of earthquakes.

Iceland has a lot of weather.

The local joke is that if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes and it will change. In summer this is true. I would be hot and cold in the same day; have rain, hail, wind, sun and fog all within the space of a few hours.

However, in the winter the weather seems a bit more stable, though as I was only there for a week and a half maybe I didn’t get a true picture. Most days it was cold and snowy with clear blue skies in between the snow showers.

I can understand though, why Iceland would need a pretty good met office with a pretty good website. However, the Icelandic met office website excels itself by also doubling as an earthquake website. There is a whole section of the website devoted to earthquakes and they constantly have a list showing the biggest earthquakes that have occurred in the last 48 hours. Yes. The biggest earthquakes that have occurred in the last 48 hours. There are that many.

One was felt by some of the guests in the hostel whilst I was there, but I didn’t feel anything. So I missed out on adding ‘experiencing an earthquake’ to the list of things I did on my holiday. (I have felt tremors before in Manchester, so I wasn’t too upset to miss out). But this is a cool website for anyone going to Iceland.

Coffee shops of Reykjavik

One of the things I love about Reykjavik is its coffee shops.

One thing I love doing is sitting in a nice coffee shop drinking really good coffee, maybe indulging in a slice of cake, imbibing the ambience and generally just relaxing; chatting if I’m with a friend, reading or writing if I’m on my own. Reykjavik is a wonderful city for this. There are so many little coffee shops and cafes and although they all seem busy, it’s usually possible to get a seat. The decor and atmosphere is very different depending upon where you go, but one thing they all have in common is great coffee.

I don’t like milky buckets of coffee so I tend to avoid Starbucks type chains and rarely drink lattes or cappuccinos. In the UK I’ll usually ask for an Americano so that I know it’s freshly made. Coffee which has been standing around and kept warm for half hour or more (hours in some places) does not taste good. In Reykjavik I drank ‘regular’ coffee. This is usually in a big flask that you help yourself too. Because the cafes tend to be busy and Icelanders seem to drink a lot of coffee, the coffee in the these flasks in replenished frequently and so never has time to get stale. The coffee is dark and very strong which is just the way I like it.

A regular coffee is usually refillable as well, meaning I could sit for ages and have a couple of cups. The price was usually between 300 and 400 kronur(about £1.60 to just over £2). Drinks from the espresso machine are usually more expensive and not refillable. Here are my thoughts on the coffee shops I went to:

Cafe Paris

This is a popular cafe situated on a corner overlooking the square in front of the cathedral. In summer there are tables outside. In winter everyone huddles inside, but as it’s quite large it doesn’t feel cramped. There are pictures of volcanoes on the walls and a bookcase in the middle. It serves full meals and has a bar, as well as selling coffee and cake.

The first time I went in I had an Americano as it was free with my Reykjavik Welcome Card. It was strong and dark and had a little bar of Milka chocolate alongside. I had a piece of apple cake with it which arrived beautifully served with cream and fruit and a sliver of chocolate.

Next time I ordered regular coffee. Instead of being given a cup to fill myself at the counter, the coffee arrived in a silver insulated pot. Very posh. I got two and a bit cups of coffee out of it and still got a Milka chocolate even though it was regular coffee. I thought it would be expensive, but it was only 400kr.

Cafe Paris can be found at Austurstræti 14 and their website is here.

Tiu Dropar

Tiu Dropar is in the basement of Laugavegur 27. It’s a cosy, quirky looking place. To get to the cafe you have to go down steps at the side of the building. The door leads in to a long thin room with a counter at the far end. There is another room at the back. The decor is old-fashioned enough to be retro; there are old teapots and jugs and things used to ornament the place.

I was here fairly early in the morning and so there were only a few other customers. Later in the day it does get very busy in here. The other customers seemed to be having breakfast, whereas I just had a regular coffee and a pancake. The coffee was refillable and good. The pancakes were piled up on the counter and I couldn’t resist. They were thin and sugary and rolled up into tight cigars. It was served cold, but tasted delicious.

The website is here but doesn’t seem to be working very well.

Cafe Haiti

I discovered Cafe Haiti when I was here last time. It was a tiny one-roomed place with a couple of tiny tables. The owner is from Haiti and from what I can make out came to Iceland because she married an Icelandic guy. Her English isn’t great so it’s a bit difficult to talk to her. She imports coffee beans from Haiti and roasts them herself.

In the two and a half years since I was last there, she has moved into much bigger premises in the touristic harbour area. Although nice, her new place doesn’t have the cosy ambience of the old one. It was very quiet when I was there this time, though this could have been due to the blizzard that had whipped up over night and was still going on. In the old place there was a steady stream of Icelanders coming in to buy takeaway coffee. It might be a bit out of the way for them now and maybe she’s relying on the tourist trade instead. But because of the weather it was hard for me to really know.

I had a regular coffee here. It was just as good as last time, but I don’t think I’d bother walking down to the harbour especially for this. Not when there are also so many other good places located more centrally.

Here’s the facebook page for Cafe Haiti.

Te og Kaffi

This means tea and coffee in Icelandic. It’s part of a chain and the one I went in was in the square opposite the Prime Minister’s offices. This was beside my bus stop and so was quite handy. It has a modern look and red cups. I just had coffee here which was refillable and tasted good.

Their website is here.


Kaffitar is also a chain and seems quite Starbucksy. I resisted going in at first as I didn’t expect to like it. But one afternoon I really felt like a sit down and a coffee and I could see a free table here. So in I went and was pleasantly surprised. I had an Americano and a slice of Snickers cake. The cake was amazing (I really must try to find a recipe) and the Americano tasted like real coffee. This was the branch on Laugavegur.

A few days later I went to the National Museum and the cafe in the museum is a branch of Kaffitar. The cafe here is on the ground floor and has plate glass windows looking onto a water feature. I sat by the window with a regular coffee (refillable) and watched the birds bathing in the water and the moon rising over the houses opposite.

It does feel like a chain and I prefer the ambience of the quirky little one-off places, but I certainly can’t fault them on their coffee.

Here’s their website.


This is the ground floor coffee shop and restaurant in Harpa, Iceland’s new concert hall. The concert hall is all glass and reflections, with lots of black. It’s a big open space and the cafe feels like it’s in a cavernous hall. It’s very modern with tables and chairs in rows almost resembling a school canteen. There are also some high tables with bar stools. Behind the coffee area is a formal eating area. The cafe serves meals and has a bar as well as serving coffee and cake.

I had coffee and although it was refillable it was made on the machine. It was good coffee, but I wasn’t tempted by anything else. This place is fine for coffee if you’re already in Harpa, but isn’t worth making a special trip for.

The website is here.

Reykjavik City Hall Cafe

City Hall coffee shopI’m not sure if this cafe has a name, but it’s usually just referred to as the cafe or the coffee shop in City Hall. City Hall has been built at the northern end of Tjornin (the pond) and seems to be half on land and half in the water. The cafe juts out into the water which was frozen solid when I was there. I sat in on a comfy sofa by the window watching the geese slipping and sliding around as they strutted past.

The place is very cosy with sofas, colourful cushions and big candles. The wall onto the pond is all glass so summer or winter this would be a great place to sit and feel part of the view.

I just had a coffee here and as with everywhere in Reykjavik, it was good.

Here’s some information on City Hall.


Babalu is a tiny place upstairs at Skólavörðustígur 22a. Sitting in Babalu is like a cross between sitting in someone’s living and sitting in an Aladdin’s cave. The walls are brightly coloured, there’s a sofa under the eaves, and every bit of available space is taken up with kitsch and what is basically junk. I loved it.

The coffee is refillable and they have nice cakes. This time, instead of cake, I had a bowl of really warming potato soup. There’s a tiny roof terrace which I was able to sit out on the last time I was here and watch everybody on the street below. (It was Culture Night/Day and so there was a lot to watch). This time it was far too cold to sit outside and wasn’t too warm inside either. There was quite a draught coming up the stairs from the open front door. But I love this place so much I stayed for a quite a while anyway.

Kaffi Mokka

I’ll include Mokka here even though I didn’t get to it this time. I did go last time and the only reason I didn’t go back was that I was too busy trying out other places.

Mokka is one of the oldest coffee shops in Reykjavik and was the first to get an espresso machine back in the 1950s. Its decor doesn’t seem to have changed since then. It’s always been a bit of an arty place and now has photo exhibitions on its walls. This cafe serves what are said to be the best waffles in Reykjavik. I had one with my coffee the last time I was here and it was fresh and fluffy. All the locals seemed to be eating them too, which is always a good sign.

Kaffi Mokka can be found at Skólavörðustígur 3a and its website is here.

Follow up to a previous post: As I’ve just been looking up websites for coffee shops I thought I’d check Trip Advisor to see if my review was still the only one on there. It’s not. There are loads. So I’m not famous after all.

Gazing at the Northern Lights

YES! I saw the Northern Lights!

The first three nights I was in Reykjavik there was no tour to the Northern Lights. The two bus companies that run the pretty much identical tours decide at around 5pm each evening whether the tour should go ahead or not. They decide this based on cloud cover, weather reports, and reports on the activity of the aurora causing particles. Each evening I checked with the hostel receptionist, but no luck.

On the fourth night (30/12/11), I asked as usual, fully expecting the answer to be no as there was pretty heavy cloud cover. But the answer was yes. I was a bit sceptical, but the receptionist showed me the cloud cover report on the internet and it was clear to see that from 11pm onwards the cloud was really expected to clear over the Reykjanes Peninsula.

I booked the tour with Reykjavik Excursions as their tour started half an hour later than the one with Iceland Excursions and there didn’t seem any point in hanging around for an extra half hour when it would be too early to see the lights anyway. The tour was 4,900 kronur or about £28.

I got all wrapped up in my layers of thermals and fleeces, made a flask of hot chocolate and packed my tripod. The bus picked me up outside the hostel and then went round a few other hotels and the BSI bus station collecting more people.

Once everyone was on board we headed out on the airport road to the Reykjanes Peninsula. Once we were out of the Reykjavik we began to see the moon and then stars. A good sign as it meant the cloud was clearing. We stopped in a couple of dark places, but had no luck with the lights. We then drove to the end of the peninsula, by the sea and near a small village and a lighthouse. There was quite a big area for parking here and other buses were already parked up, with others arriving after us. Everyone got off the bus and gazed at the sky. There was nothing to see. As it was cold I thought I might as well as wait back on the bus until something happened. I didn’t want the lights to finally appear just as I reached the point of no return with hypothermia and frostbite.

I hadn’t been on the bus for long when I noticed everyone pointing and looking at the same section of sky. I got back off the bus and with difficulty could just make out a patch of sky that was slightly lighter in colour. It could easily have been light from the moon, but the driver assured us it was the beginning of an aurora.

As we watched it began to turn green and spread across the sky. Not the whole sky, just a stripe from horizon to horizon. It would widen and darken, and then fade again. Sometimes fading completely in the middle. It was paler than I imagined it to be, yet on the photos people were taking it looked just as deeply coloured as the photos in magazines and tourist brochures. Maybe the cameras just pick up more light or something.

We watched it for about an hour until it pretty much faded completely. It did do a bit of swirling but mainly stayed as a stripe. So it wasn’t as impressive as I was expecting, but was still pretty cool. I’m glad I’ve seen it anyway and feel quite privileged as I know this is something lots of people dream of seeing for themselves.

As for my photos? They didn’t come out at all. My amazing new camera which has been so good at taking photos so far, including in low light, just wouldn’t pick the aurora up on ‘auto’. I switched to manual but couldn’t get anything to work properly as I couldn’t see the buttons in the dark and I’m not familiar enough with this camera to do everything by feel alone.

Once I realised I wasn’t going to get any good photos I lent my tripod to a couple of South Africans who were sat in front of me on the bus. They got some really good photos which they have said they will email to me. I really hope they do. I don’t know when they’ll be going home to do this, so I may have to wait a while. But whenever it is, I just hope they don’t forget me or lose my email address!

The Killer’s Guide to Reykjavik

This novel set in Iceland doubles as a guide to the country.

This is another book that I read around the time I was last in Iceland. Here’s the review I wrote of it at the time.

by Zane Radcliffe

This is the first of Zane Radcliffe’s books I’ve read. I enjoyed it so much I immediately ordered his other two off Amazon.

The main character Callum is a successful Glaswegian internet entrepeneur. He sells his travel website and moves to Reykjavik to live with his Icelandic girlfriend, her daughter and mother. Both Callum and his girlfriend Birna have skeletons in their respective closets which lead to Birna’s daughter being kidnapped and/or killed (I’m trying not to give too much away).

As well as a great story the book really is a ‘guide to Iceland’. Radcliffe interweaves numerous facts and lots of information about Icelandic culture, geography, food, beliefs and so on into his story. If I’d read this book before visiting Iceland the storyline would have stood out much more than the guide part of the book. But having spent a month there last summer I can really appreciate just how much information he has melded seamlessly within the story.

Get more information on the book and the author here.

Lonely Planet vs Rough Guides (Iceland)

A comparative review of the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet guides to Iceland.

June 2010

I bought the latest Rough Guide to use as a guide book for Iceland on this trip. I was only going to Reykjavik which I already know quite well and so didn’t really need a guide book, but I never need much of an excuse to buy books.

I chose the Rough Guide as it was more up-to-date than the Lonely Planet (ok, only by a month which probably makes no difference at all) and I’d used the Lonely Planet last time and fancied a change. Whilst in Reykjavik I looked at other people’s copies of the more recent Lonely Planet.

I usually like Rough Guides, but have to say that I wasn’t too impressed with this one. It seemed to be lacking information. Places I knew were in the Lonely Planet and just wanted to check my book for the address, couldn’t be found in the Rough Guide. This would have been ok if there’d been alternative places in the Rough Guide, but there didn’t seem to be. Also I noticed a few mistakes. For example, the Rough Guide refers to the Downtown Hostel as the City Hostel, and the City Hostel as the Reykjavik Hostel.

May 2010

When I looked at the more recent Lonely Planet it seemed just as good as the older one I had at home. I didn’t need to use the Rough Guide for travelling around the country, but my impression is that it wouldn’t have been as good as the Lonely Planet for this either. So it’s not that the lesser Reykjavik section is balanced out by a much meatier rest of the country section.

But the best guide book for Reykjavik has to be The Real Iceland by Pall Asgeir Asgeirsson. I bought this whilst I was in Iceland last time and it has lots of quirky information in it, such as the addresses for each of the Sigur Ros band members and the address for Bjork’s mum (as well as for Bjork herself, but it warns her son can be bad-tempered if you turn up on the doorstep). It’s only a slim little book (so nice and light to carry around) but is really informative and I’d highly recommend anyone heading to Reykjavik to get hold of a copy.