I had no expectations of Reykjavik or Iceland. This is not a criticism – far from it. It’s just that I was in possession of very little knowledge about the country – save for its location on a map; a very vague knowledge of its settlement; the fact that it was volcanic; the name of its capital city; and that Bjork hails from this North Atlantic island. When WowAir did a last-minute flash promotion from Dublin to Reykjavik, I booked on a whim.
I arrived at lunchtime on Thursday. We had little expectation of adventure on that day, as by the time we had found our apartment it was already 3pm. We’d have only about ninety minutes of daylight left. Research indicated that in late November the sun rises at 10am and sets about 4.30pm – an adequate but none too generous window of daylight.
Our wanderings started with a lift to the top of the massive Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral near the house. Built in the 1940s, it is named after the Icelandic composer of religious music. From the summit you get a panoramic view of the city. What immediately struck me was how spacious it is – buildings have plenty of ground and are not densely packed together. It makes sense I suppose. Reykjavik is a city of about 140,000 people (40% of the total population of the country). Geographically it is larger than Paris. This is a very large, but sparsely populated city and country.
We’d also heard tale of how expensive a place it is – thankfully we’d sourced a bargain on the flight and apartment. It was happy hour in the Apotek bar on Austurstræti – the main shopping street. We repaired there for a half price beer. A steal at the equivalent of six euro. We followed this with dinner in a cottage restaurant called Laekjarbrekka. We agreed that the city was in the Christmas spirit already, with decorations and lights glistening everywhere. To get into the festive mood I had a Rudolf beer and reindeer burger (reindeer is a big delicacy in Finland. The animal is not native to Iceland, but was imported by the Viking settlers after they first occupied the country in the ninth century.) It was very tasty.
The following morning, we had an excursion booked at 8am – the Golden Circle tour. This takes in many of the geographical wonders of Iceland in a handy day trip – geysers, the majestic Gull Voss waterfalls, lava fields, volcanic craters, and Icelandic horses – the horses are not native to Iceland as they were imported by the Norwegian settlers; for several hundred years there has been no interbreeding with horses from elsewhere which gives the Icelandic horses a distinctive look. The tour ended at the national park where the world’s oldest parliament – the Alþingi – first met outdoors in the year 930. This park is situated in the gulf that lies between the tectonic plates. Half of Iceland is on the North American plate; half is on the Eurasian plate, which explains why volcanos and earthquakes are so frequent here. It was very massive and grand.
That night we had another tour booked to see the aurora borealis – or northern lights. This beautiful sky display occurs in northern countries. I was curious to witness it first-hand. Sadly, thanks to cloud cover and low magnetic activity, the lights remained hidden. Luckily it wasn’t too cold – hovering at about 2 degrees Celsius – this year has been unseasonably warm, and during our stay it was only sub-zero on two occasions.
Saturday was a day with no agenda. We decided to visit the Vesturbaejarlauf geo-thermal baths in Reykjavik city. It is difficult to imagine anything lovelier than being in a naturally warm outdoor swimming pool when the temperature is barely above zero. It was most relaxing. The country’s electricity and hot water supply is provided by volcanic energy – the greenest form of energy (although the sulphur smells a little bit like rotten eggs).
Afterwards we walked from the waterfront to the National Museum of Iceland for a dose of culture. It so happened that there was an exhibition opening on that day showing drawings and photographs of Icelandic churches. To make sure I earned my complimentary glass of wine, I looked at every picture. Before making my way upstairs to see the permanent exhibition ‘Making of a Nation: Heritage and History in Iceland’. This gave an interesting account of how Iceland was settled by Vikings over one thousand years ago, and its journey to independence from Denmark in 1918, and the formation of the Republic of Iceland in 1944. I availed of the Rainbow Thread guide – an audio guide of the gay and lesbian contribution to the nation. While I applaud the museum for its attempt to be inclusive, it was a frustrating experience as it seems to be trying to artificially install a narrative, that simply doesn’t exist in the recorded history. Grade A for good intentions though.
Onward to the harbour where we visited the interactive ‘Aurora Reykjavik’ exhibition about the northern lights we had failed to witness in person the night before.
That evening we had planned to see a comedy show called ‘Northern Lights’ at the Secret Cellar. It was aptly named as we couldn’t find it. After a quick bowl of lamb soup at a street-food eatery (don’t judge me – it was reasonably cheap) we instead went to the Hard Rock Café for the show ‘Story Party’ – a stand-up comedy show about the perils of the dating scene. The comedians were an American man and an Australian woman called Elena Gabrielle. Her show was reasonably funny in a generic type of way as she detailed the trials and tribulations of her dating life. Until she got to the part about meeting a man on a website called sugar daddy-dot-com – a website where older gentlemen meet younger women. Now the age profile of the audience was mid-twenties to mid-thirties, so a few years younger than I. When Ms Gabrielle pointed me out to the audience as the type of man you’d find on this website, I assumed it was a mistake (despite people turning and looking at me). The second time she did so there was no mistaking her intention. Now I know she was joking, and I am probably being hyper sensitive but, to be pointed out and laughed at as the ‘old guy in the corner’ felt quite horrific. In her desperation to get a laugh (and to be honest her joke at my expense did raise a laugh) it seems that Ms. Gabrielle never received the comedy memo advising caution when picking on an audience member. Laughing at someone because of their age (when I was just sitting politely enjoying the show) is not emblematic of an immense talent at work. She had spoken about her cocaine habit earlier in the show, so maybe that explained it.
Sunday was another early start and another trip to a different geo-thermal, outdoor heated swimming pool close to our house. After a fish and chip lunch we made our way to the harbour, where we boarded a boat for our whale-watching excursion. The trip did not disappoint. We witnessed a pod of dolphins and a pair of humpback whales having lunch. They were awe-inspring.
On arrival back in the city we went underground to the Icelandic Punk Museum which details the history of punk music in Iceland. Located in a renovated gents’ toilets, it was a museum with an interesting content and location. The man working there was friendly and he informed is that he was of 25% Irish ancestry – as apparently many Icelandic people are. I never asked him if he was involved in any of the bands that were on display in the museum.
Our final evening was spent at the Blue Lagoon – a sea-water lagoon heated by the volcanic activity. It was very serene. I had my complimentary beverage along with 2 complimentary mud-masks to try to rejuvenate my clearly haggard appearance. A magical place.
Rising at 3.30am for our 4am pickup for our 6.55 flight was as appalling as it sounds. On autopilot we made our way to Keflavik Airport.
Imagine my surprise when I boarded the plane to witness, three rows behind me, none other than Elena Gabrielle, also on her way to Dublin. Now you might think that I ought to have spoken too her, but I didn’t see the point. She’s a comedian on a pub tour. With her acknowledged drug habit, and rent to pay, I guess anything goes with her onstage. I had a quick glance in her direction. The mean-girl smugness was visible on her face even from three rows.
All in all, I would highly recommend a trip to Reykjavik. I had a marvellous time – and having had no expectations before going, they were utterly smashed. I’ll be back. Maybe a summer visit the next time.