Doing the Rounds in Reykjavik

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It’s not all like this, but quite a bit is.

Reykjavik’s architecture is varied. The dominant material is corrugated iron, often painted a wild array of colours to distract from its utilitarian nature, but there are areas of the city where efforts have clearly been made to ignore the local climatic realities and try to be a bit more adventurous. Hallgrímskirkja, for example, is a massive concrete church, and the concert hall is a honeycombed glass confection on the waterfront.

One other thing to notice about Iceland in general is the water: hot water is easy to get on a volcanic island, but one thing that Iceland has in abundance is sulphur, so that hot water comes with a definite smell of rotten eggs. It doesn’t linger, but it’s hard to miss.

On this Saturday, Reykjavik was slower to wake than I was, possibly because I’d been earlier to bed than most of it. In an effort to save money, I was out gathering breakfast essentials, grateful that despite the grey clouds it wasn’t raining. When we were finally fed, we headed out the door, aiming to climb the steeple of Hallgrímskirkja and get the best view in the city. Unfortunately, we timed our arrival to coincide with a morning concert, so the church was put on the backburner.

Instead, we headed down the hill and across the Tjornin pond to the National Museum, where the next two hours were spent examining the history of Iceland. As Dr. P remarked at an end, the problem with Icelandic history is that the Scandinavians are so reasonable. Once the era of settlement and sagas was over, Icelandic history is mostly bereft of major conflicts, progressing to independence without a huge amount of fuss. (Icelandic readers may not agree, but that’s the impression given.) Still, the museum is well laid out and worth a visit.

From the museum, we followed Suðurgata past the Hòlavallagarður cemetery, which is beautifully overgrown, with trees planted not just beside but in many graves. At the end of this walk, we came to the 871±2 museum, where an entire longhouse is preserved (the name refers to the estimated date in which the house itself was built). Even more so than the National Museum, it’s a fascinating recreation of the earliest days of settlement on the island, though seeing the multimedia recreation of the longhouse blue-screen out on when Dr. P tried to use it raised a smile.

871±2 was just around the corner from the harbour, so once again we took a stroll by the water’s edge, dropping in on the flea market there and checking out the Sun Voyager sculpture (a symbolic viking longship) as we did. Then it was back up the hill to the Hallgrímskirkja, where once again we found our entry plans blocked, this time by a shiny vintage Buick the car of choice for the couple getting married within. Luckily, we had to wait no longer than fifteen minutes to effect an entry.

The view from the steeple of the church is easily the best in the city, and on a clear day you can see for miles. Sadly, the day was grey at best, and fuzzy around the edges. Still, it had been worth the wait to get up there, and on getting back to the bottom in the cramped lift, we found a massive queue, suggesting that our timing hadn’t been as bad as all that.

Iceland’s not a cheap place though, so instead of eating out, we did some shopping. Back in the apartment, we divided up the chores in the kind of equitable fashion that has marked our various travels together: Dr. P did the cooking and I did the cleaning. Afterwards, he got to snooze some more while I once again caught up on this writing and the escapades of the rest of the world. Outside, the rain came down heavy for the first time since we’d arrived, but luckily it was just a brief downpour.

There was one last task for the evening. The Kex Hostel was holding a 12-hour concert of indie performers, from noon to midnight. We’d already heard some of it as we strolled around the city. Now we were going to catch the end of it. After a short stroll down Baronstigur, we could follow the sound of music to the yard behind the hostel, where a crowd was gathered, bouncing along to a white-dreadlocked chanteuse belting out indie pop as though her life depended on it.

For the next couple of hours we enjoyed the scene. The crowd seemed to consist of Iceland’s entire population of hipsters, but perhaps they were enjoying themselves too much to qualify for ironic detachment. The highlight was the last act, a Hawaiian-shirted funk band with a full brass section, a bongo player in a fez and a wooly-hatted bandleader. The best way to describe how they sounded is to direct you to the climactic sequence of this video. Seriously funky stuff, and we barely noticed the return of the rain.

Still, at midnight it all had to wrap up, possibly to the relief of nearby residents. We grabbed a consolation pint in Dillon, but an early start kept us from straying too long. Time for exploration, in the manner of the Viking settlers of old…

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First Day in Iceland

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The Hallgrímskirja and Leif Ericsson, discoverer of America

The takeoff from Copenhagen airport saw more sideways motion than any airplane should indulge in that close to the ground. I’m normally okay with these things, but I couldn’t restrain the urge to grab hold of the seat ahead of me. Luckily that was all the drama that the flight offered (Les Miserables was my choice for inflight entertainment, whereas I should have been watching the wonderful Journey’s End documentary about the Icelandic sagas).

We chased the dawn north west for three hours, above a solid bank of grey cloud, crossing two time zones, making that three zones in one day for a total of −1 on my personal total. For an actual sight of Iceland, I had to wait until the last few moments of the flight, as the clouds were thick and low, and the mist heavy. At around 11.30pm local time, I did what Viking explorers and Celtic missionaries did more than a thousand years ago and set foot on Iceland.

Whereas Copenhagen had been mostly empty when I arrived and left, Keflavik Airport was jammed. I shouldn’t have been surprised. By virtue of its northerly position in the middle of the Atlantic, Kelfavik makes for a great pit stop for long-haul flights crossing the Atlantic. That and the lack of a true sunset this close to the Arctic Circle in summer (I’d never been this far north either) means that even at midnight, the airport is full of people who’ve just landed or are just leaving.

Long story short though: I was tired. So I nipped outside, thankful once more for sticking to cabin baggage only, and found a taxi driver. A few minutes later, I was in the nearby town of Reykjanesbaer, at the A-10 guesthouse. Despite arriving past midnight, I was welcomed without fuss and shown to my small, tidy room. Thin walls couldn’t keep me from sleep for long.

Next morning, I awoke to find a message from my next travelling partner, Dr. P. He was already in Keflavik, so I arranged to meet him there. After a shower and breakfast, the hotel owner gave me a lift back to the airport, providing an swift example of Icelandic friendliness.

Dr. P and I have travelled together several times before: Istanbul, Paris, San Diego and New York. This time though, he was on the homeward leg of an epic journey that took him all the way to the Bering Sea. So once he’d been suitably caffeinated, having flown direct to Keflavik from Anchorage in Alaska, we found a bus that to take us somewhere we can relax: a pit stop at the Blue Lagoon.

As a lump of still-active volcanic rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland is justly famous for its geothermal spas. The Blue Lagoon is one of the most famous, and being halfway between the airport and the capital, it’s a favourite of tourists. Early in the morning though it was (and Keflavik is far less crammed than it was at midnight) the bus was packed.

Keflavik itself stands at the end of a peninsula extending west into the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a mostly flat expanse of volcanic rock, old lava flows eroded into jagged lumps and covered with moss and a patchy layer of soil and grass. There’s nothing to stop the wind, so there are no trees to be seen, and the houses that we see have a hunched look designed to survive Atlantic storms.

We spotted the steam coming from the Blue Lagoon long before we see the site itself. The cloud turns out to emanate from the geothermal power plant next door (another benefit of living here). The lagoon itself is housed in a low-slung building nestled amid volcanic outcroppings. The pools are a startling milky blue colour, steaming gently in the chill summer air.

It’s not a cheap experience, but I’ll say this for nothing: if time wasn’t so limited in this trip, I’d give serious thought to going back for another go. Dr. P and I were ushered through the changing areas with Icelandic efficiency and spent two hours bobby gently around the pools with the rest of the crowds, enjoying a waterfall shower than delivered an effective head and shoulder massage, a sweat lodge of a steam bath, saunas and a facial scrub made of the silica that coats (and smooths) the volcanic rocks of the pool. We also enjoyed smoothies made from the local delicacy skyr and beers from the poolside bar. (Everything, including lockers, is controlled using your wrist tag, and it’s all paid before you leave.)

Sadly, we couldn’t stay all day, and after a couple of hours we hopped out of the pool and caught one of the buses that leave every hour for Reykjavik. The road from airport to capital was clearly one of the beneficiaries of the now-gone boom times, as it’s new, smooth and swift, and as the bus followed it, the landscape shifted from volcanic semi-wilderness to something a little more hospitable to humanity.

Dropped off at the BSI bus terminal, we found our way to our apartment on Liefsgata in the shadow of the hilltop Hallgrímskirja. For all that Dr. P was starting to feel the effects of jetlag, we didn’t linger longer than it took us to deposit our luggage. (To be fair, I was feeling snoozy too – two hours of quality soakage inclines the body to recumbency.) A tour of Reykjavik was the plan, with food the first goal.

From the outside, Vita Bar looks like a corner shop, but it’s actually a cosy little cafe, and its burgers are among the best in the city. Just the kind of fuel we needed to keep us going as we circled the city centre. We geeked out a little on Baldursgata (if you don’t get why, you probably wouldn’t anyway), then circled around to the main shopping street of Laugavegur. We weren’t looking to shop though, just to check out the sights, and our circle took us past the conference centre and concert hall on the dockside, as well as the nearby statue of Ingólfur Arnarson, first settler of Reykjavik.

Back on Laugavegur, we actually dropped into a few shops, noting the dry, absurd sense of humour that marks Icelanders: one tourist souvenir was a tub of Eyjafjallajokutll ash, with a warning not to use near jet engines. However, at this stage Dr. P was fading fast, so we aimed back for the apartment, where he could have a snooze in an attempt to reset his body clock.

Doing so gave me a chance to catch up on a few things too, and when he arose from the dead, the plan was to round the evening off with a few drinks in town. First a little more food though, so we dropped in on Cafe Loki near Hallgrímskirkja, where we both opted for the descriptively titled “Meat Soup”. Thus fortified, we went in search of a drinking establishment or two.

First up was the Lebowski Bar, which was decorated just as you’d expect and showing E.T. on the big screen. Whether we would have stayed beyond one pint, I can’t be sure, but the arrival of a large stag party suggested to us that moving on was the better part of valour. So we headed down the street a ways and found ourselves in the Dillon whiskey bar, which proved even noisier, but seeing as the noise was in the form of live rock music, it was much more to our tastes.

Also to our tastes were the selections of beer and whiskey, and we whiled away the remainder of the night propping up the bar. The intervention of an aggressively friendly and very drunk young Icelandic Chelsea supporter eventually sent the evening into a tailspin, but by that time we were both well oiled and ready to move on. Past midnight, the locals were only getting started, but these two weary travellers were only going to recharge.