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How to fall in love in a weekend

March 25, 2013

Iceland trip, July 2012

(notes drafted during a 2 hour delay at Reykjavik airport: I don’t do duty free, and needed to kill time; and finished off on the plane home with a few changes (including checking Icelandic spellings ūüôā ) done afterwards)

( I sent this note to friends last July; but a colleague told me today that she was soon off to Iceland, and now that I am committed blogger, what more excuse do I need to post this online)

How to fall in love with a place and its people in a weekend…

We had an amazing long weekend in Iceland; it really couldn’t have been better. Arrived mid afternoon Friday 20th July, departing very early on Monday 23rd July, 2012. But in those two and a half days we did a lot, enjoying it immensely.

We arrived in Reykjavik late Friday afternoon, just in time to settle in and walk down to the harbour, to the new (2011) Harpa Concert Hall, for dinner at the fabulous Kolabrautin restaurant, with views over the harbour.

harpa2

The sun was still high in the sky at 10pm, even 11pm; and when we went to sleep some good time past midnight, it was still light. We were later told it never gets dark at this time of year.

Harpa

Dinner at Harpa Concert Hall: late evening, but broad daylight

Saturday was an early start with http://www.superjeeps.is on a Jeep tour of the ‘Golden Circle’ of attractions, plus a drive into the highlands, and some serious ‘off-roading’. Whilst the weather forecast had been for rain from mid morning onwards, in fact we had near perfect conditions: not sunny, but warm and very pleasant for touring. First stop was at Thingvellir, the seat of the ancient Icelandic Parliament, the Althingi, but also where the American and European continental plates meet: we saw the two crack lines, and walked round the historic site in lovely sunshine.

crack

From there, we went to Geysir, which I think for Jane and I was the highlight of the trip. Geysir itself has been near dormant since 1916, but another one, Strokkur, erupts every four minutes or so. It was great to watch it from afar, and also to get soaked by it. The other abiding memory of the Geysir site was the smell of sulphur: in fact, that was the smell of Iceland; that and the fresh air.

geysir

Next, and the last visit on the Golden Circle trio, was Gulfoss, which our guide, Borgpór Stefánsson, told us was the largest waterfall in Europe. Certainly the largest falls we have ever seen.

waterfall

Then, and we didn’t know this was in the itinerary, we drove up north, eventually going off asphalt roads onto gravel tracks; which sometimes became what I would call off road, but were shown on the GPS as routes. The bouncing, jostling and turning made this part of the day great fun. Eventually, we reached the Langj√∂kull and Hofsj√∂kull glaciers: from quite a distance, but still very clear to see. To see volcanoes, waterfalls, geysers and glaciers in one day made Saturday special, but for me there was more to come.

jeep

I had asked Borgp√≥r whether we went near Selfoss, to be delighted to be told we would not just going near it, but actually would be driving through it, on our return part of the journey. I therefore asked him, and he asked the rest of the people in the jeep (a lone Swedish guy, Anton, a single Canadian geologist, Marie, and a Boston couple) and they all had no problem with taking a detour to see ….Bobby Fischer’s (9/3/43-17/1/08) grave.

Fischer

Borgp√≥r didn’t know where it was, but some googling and calls to his colleagues, tracked it down, and it was only perhaps a 5min each way detour from the main road, to the church at Laugard√¶lir, but one I shall remember for ever. Everyone liked it: the gravestone was a beautiful marble, with newly laid flowers by its side; the church was small, Lutheran, Scandanavian yellow, and by chance open, so we all liked seeing inside it.

church

The church at¬†Laugard√¶lir, where Bobby Fischer’s grave is

For me, though, I was surprised how moved I was by the experience of being at Fischer’s resting place. It was an enormous moment for me, with mixed emotions about the man himself (arguably, the best ever chess player, though Garry Kasparov might pip him to this title) but in the second half of his life a bigot with despicable views about religion and the US; but it was because of him that I came into chess, because of him that it has given me a life’s enjoyment and endless pleasure, intellectual pleasure, enjoyment, challenge, friendship…. It may only be a game played with 32 pieces on a 64 square board, but for me it a massive source of happiness.

Had I not been ten in 1972, at a good age to be receptive to it, when Fischer played Spassky in Reykjavik for the World Championships, I may not have found chess. It was Fischer, not Spassky, being the first Western player to have a serious chance of challenging a Soviet player, who brought publicity and prominence to the game. I am one of the Fischer boom players. Standing at his grave, I couldn’t help but think of Mum, who would have loved to have known where I was.

Whilst not the highlight of the trip, being there was certainly a highlight.

From there, we headed back to Reykjavik, but this time for some serious off-roading- though yet again, following a road marked on the GPS. At speed, we went across and along countless rivers, flew over bumps, spun round bends, climbed up a volcanic ash mountain, sped down it…for someone like me, who hates big dippers, this was fantastic, and I managed to be more excited than queasy. High up, we were right next to one of the vents out of which steam booms night and day, and then we travelled by the side of the thermal water pipes which powers Iceland. Borgp√≥r told us that all the power in Iceland is geo-thermal; no carbon burning, and (it occurred to me) certainly no solar power.

That evening, Jane and I dined at Fiskif√©lagi√Ķ (Fish Company), one of the finest restaurants in Reykjavik (though we later learned that the capital is a gourmet’s paradise, with diners spoilt for choice). I think it is fair to say that both Kolabrautin and Fish Company were amongst the best restaurants I have ever been to.

fish

If Saturday was great, could Sunday be as good? It was. Again, the weather forecast turned out to be entirely wrong- strong storms were predicted, throughout the day, with heavy rainfall. As it was, we had light rain in the morning, but it didn’t matter, because we were in the Blue Lagoon; if anything, the cool rain added to the experience, contrasting with the deliciously hot water and steam; by lunchtime, the rain had stopped, with even some sunny spells.

Lagoon

Not being a strong nor confident swimmer, I was delighted to find out that the Blue Lagoon is never more than chest high, and the water very buoyant, so I can frankly say I think the hours in the pool, particularly lying on my back dozing, were some of the my most relaxing moments ever. I don’t know if the Blue Lagoon is a ‘wonder of the world’ but it is certainly a wonder of my world.

Blue lagoon

If this note sounds like one superb thing after another (or, at least, superb for us) Sunday had a further highlight. When Jane told me she had booked for us to go to Iceland, I emailed the office of the Icelandic Chess Federation (chess is big in Iceland, maybe because of the short day light hour for much of the year). I was staggered that the recipient of my email to the office was the current chess federation President, Gunnar Bjornsson, who remembered me from 2004, when England played Iceland at the Olympiad in Calvia, Mallorca. I had bought small silver pocket chess sets as gifts for the captains of each team we played against (and for my players, and for my family) and Gunnar treasured his: he also told me that we had had coffees together during the match, and he remembers the friendliness of the chat we had. Anyway, as a result, Gunnar organised a GM tournament (blitz, seven rounds of seven minute per player per game) at the old Opera House, to which Helgi √ďlafsson, one of Iceland’s strongest ever players, and seventeen other top Icelandic players came, including three of their top juniors. Gunnar told me that in winter months they tend to have weekly blitz tournaments, but having one in the summer, and on a Sunday, were special, so they had hired a grand venue for the occasion, the first time they had played in such great surroundings.

Gunnar used his PC for running the seven round tournament: the tournament name was Reykjavik Afmælismót [birthday tournament] Allan Beardsworth 22 July 2012: I hope none chess players reading this note can imagine the enormity for me of playing against their top players in the city which I have wanted to visit for all of my life (or at least all my adult life).

Round 1

Start of round 1: at the end of the game, which I won, Black said, with a lovely smile “this is happy birthday from all of Iceland”

I had brought a copy of one of Kasparov’s books as a prize, inserting a frontispiece showing the scoresheet of game 6 of the 1972 match, a game which was played on 23 July 1972, forty years (less a day) to when we were playing: game six was, arguably, the finest game of the match- so good, that (and this is unheard of in chess) Spassky joined in the applause for Fischer- something which the Soviets criticised him for, but he has always been a sportsman. I also stuck in what for chess players is the most famous position of the match, when Fischer played the inexplicable Bh2 in game 1, losing when he needn’t have. I gave a speech at the start of the tournament, thanking Gunnar for organising it, and for the players for turning out for me.

Presenting Prizes

Presenting prizes: a small talk, and a great deal of happiness. Gunnar behind me

Then the tournament began. It was actually surreal, I was in a different mood to what I have been before, being the star of the event: I suspected everyone tried double hard to beat me, because I was the visitor, not from their crowd. Jane watched my first game, and I will remember it for ever, because I won a nice, solid game- I played to opening in quite a boring fashion, not trying for too much, just wanting to play sensibly; but soon I realised I had the advantage, and could easily pressurise black; which I proceeded to do, playing a succession of simple but powerful moves, which, as sometime happens in chess, led black, Hrafn Jokulsson to crack and blunder. Game over, I had won my first game in Iceland. That was actually all I wanted to do: my pre-tournament ambition was to win at least one game, and maybe get a draw or two more- in short, not to be out-classed. My first game was the first to finish, and a confident victory. I wonder what Hrafn said (in Icelandic) to his friends? I will though remember forever what he said to me: with great kindness and charm, he said I should regard his blunder as a birthday present from him and from Iceland. Magical. (Hrafn also took several photos of the event, I am delighted to say).

Next game, Helgi brushed me aside. I wasn’t pleased with how I played in that game, but wasn’t surprised with the result. The remaining five games were generally good, one loss which is going to annoy me for a long to come, but one draw, and three wins, one a very strong game against one of their very top players, another a squash of the top Icelandic girl. So, I ended up in fourth place, out of eighteen, with 4.5/7, or ‘plus two’ (two more wins than losses): because I am annoyed with how I lost my second defeat, at the time of writing I am a bit upset about 4th (a draw would have made me second, and a win, first) but of course I was in a tournament with some very strong players. One of the pains of chess (maybe of all sports?) is that some defeats really hurt.

And what about Jane, who hasn’t been mentioned in the last paragraphs? I’m delighted to say, that after watching my first game, two of the other spectators, Andrea Margret Gunnarsdottir and Arora Hronn Skuladottir, mums of two of the juniors (Andrea is also vice president of the Icelandic Chess Federation), offered to take her out into Reykjavik, which they did, showing Jane some of the sights, and also going to a bar with her.

In truth, perhaps the best thing about the Reykjavik Allan Beardsworth tournament was its sheer friendliness. The Icelanders were super hosts, chatty, warm and friendly really made us welcome. At the end, I gave another speech, and presented the winner with Garry’s book, and was delighted that Gunnar had prepared a surprise for me, namely a selection of chess magazines and a souvenir book of Iceland in photographs. They couldn’t have done more for me.

We said our goodbyes, and then went to the favourite restaurant, Tapas Barinn, of one of the ladies who had taken Jane out; a tapas bar, hidden away, with a very nondescript front door, but inside, a great spirit and super food. Super food except for the puffin, that is: neither of us wanted to eat Minke whale, which was on the menu; I didn’t like the puffin, either.

Monday morning, up early ( I can’t say before dawn, because it never goes dark), back to the airport, to return to reality. A good test of the weekend was that even those things which went wrong didn’t matter, or turned out to be positives. The paperwork from our (UK) travel agents wasn’t great (I won’t be using them again) but Gray Line (Iceland) sorted matters out speedily and without stress to us; and our jeep lost its drive shaft, but only a few hundred yards from our apartment, so we were able to go to a coffee shop and grab an early breakfast; such was our good fortune.

I couldn’t have asked for a better 50th birthday. A brilliant party at home, breakfast with Tom with Garry Kasparov, followed the next day by the afternoon with him, then a trip of a lifetime to Reykjavik.

What will Jane plan for my 60th? Another trip to Iceland, perhaps, or lessons in how to say Eyjafjallajökull, perhaps? (the volcano which erupted in March 2010). At least I can say the Icelandic for chess, skák.

Post script: the Icelandic players have added a piece about the tournament, together with some photos, to their website. http://www.tinyurl.com/bnmlgbp for the pictures, or http://skak.blog.is/blog/skak/ for the story (or http://www.tinyurl.com/c9bry5x), together with some further pictures, including a very nice one of me and Jane. For me as a chess player, though, the fact that the tournament is on the official listing site chess-results.com (at http://www.tinyurl.com/c2j8hy6) means that the tournament, Afmælismót Allan Beardsworth, is recorded for posterity.

Birthday tournament

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