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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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