Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital city and also one of it’s smallest. A home for dreamers and individuals, neither Scandinavian, nor European but Icelandic and proud of their Viking past and their ultra-modern city.
The home to puffins, geysers, volcano’s, strong coffee, trolls and elves, Europe’s largest glacier and biggest desert, geothermal and hydroelectric power, Hermann Hreidarsson
, the world’s cleanest air and purest tap water. It’s also bloody expensive.
Modern architecture and trendy boutiques sit next to surreal natural beauty. Only 300,000 people live in Iceland, two-thirds of whom live on the Atlantic coast in Reykjavik. People walk the streets with ridiculous hairstyles and cheekbones so high they could pierce the low clouds in the sky.
The people initially come across as a bit rude but they warm up very nicely hurriedly talking about what you must see on your stay and what bars you must visit if you want to see Bjork
or Eidur Gudjohnsen, and how they come to London because “it is cheap!”
As I mentioned earlier, this is not a cheap place. The Icelandic’s have one of the highest costs of livings on the planet. In a supermarket we bought two apples, two bananas and two drinks. Cost £15. Recent economic problems
involving some of the countries biggest companies has seen the exchange rate improve though.
However what does not cost any money is the countries unbelievable unique natural beauty. The lava fields, hot springs, fjords and tectonic plate where the earth is divided in two, not to mention the famous Northern Lights
, which unfortunately due to the weather we were unable to witness. The best time to see the dazzle of lights created by the Aurora Borealis is said to be in the Spring and Autumn, but the sky needs to be clear and not too cold.
Call me naïve but I was taken back by how cold it was in Reykjavik. Their springs and all-day long summers are supposed to be quite mild but I was knocked back by Artic winds blowing of the Atlantic. Cue expensive purchasing of gloves and balaclavas.
The city itself can pretty much be wandered around in a day. The main centre with its harbour is small. The trendy boutiques and cool looking bars and restaurants may take a bit longer to explore but this is a holiday with two distinct attractions.
On our first day I ticked one of my “things to do before I’m 40 boxes.” The Donkeys at Blackheath aside I had never ridden a horse before and what better than to be led by a striking Icelandic horse
, introduced by the Vikings, through the lava fields. The freezing wind made the afternoon very liberating.
With another box having to remain empty after we were told we couldn’t dog sled due to the season, we decided on a whole day visiting what is called the ‘Golden Circle.’
Sat in a jeep with humungous tyres, we battled through snowstorms, twice having to be rescued as our jeep became stuck (glad we didn't take up the recommendation of a rental car!) to travel west firstly to the Þingvellir National Park
. We fought blizzards to watch in awe the dramatic rift in the earth where the American tectonic plate tears away from the Euroasian plate. We were told that Iceland is actually growing by 2cm each year as new land is created by the expanding fracture, neither American nor European.
Þingvellir is also the site of the Viking government from AD930 until 1271 and the National Park is home to a diverse wildlife including European and American birds meeting in the middle so to speak. The visibility was such the day we were there that we could hardly see our snow-covered jeep let alone any birdlife. Another strong cup coffee was very welcoming.
From here we drove to Geysir
, a place that gave its name to the rest of the worlds hot springs. The air is heavy with the smell of sulphur and only fellow tourists make you realize that you are not on another planet. There are a number of geysirs here but the main one is called Strokkur
, which spouts hot water 35m up in the air about every 4 minutes. Check which way the wind is blowing though!
All around here are bubbling little pools of water, often above boiling point, mixing with layers of thin ice on volcanic rock. Not something you see every day.
Next we drove onto a breathtaking expanse of water and mountains called Gullfoss
. Half frozen with a tiered effect. You could walk, or actually slide on the ice nearer to it to be able to almost look inside. A wonderful sight in the snow, which probably changes dramatically in the summer with it's famed rainbows.
Finally after earlier being told that the weather was too bad to drive up to the glacier to skidoo, the late afternoon had cleared just enough to allow us to. In the middle of nowhere in a scene reminiscent from Star Wars. 20 skidoos lined up for us and other groups to use. We were led in convoy at speeds upto 100kmh flying through the icy mountains at times witnessing incredible scenes and at others hardly being able to see 10 metres in front of us. If the horse riding was liberating then this was absolutely exhilarating.
This day trip was expensive but if you find yourself in Reykjavik do nothing else but the Golden Circle trip, it's like nothing you have seen.
On Saturday afternoon we went to Iceland's most popular tourist spot, the Blue Lagoon
disturbingly situated next to a powerplant, this milky blue oasis is the stuff of postcards. The distinctive bluey-green hue comes from the minerals and the algae that have dissolved in seawater, which has been proven to be good for the skin.
It was slightly freaky to be walking around in my shorts in below freezing temperatures. The water is kept at a bubbly 39oC all year round and the silica mud that you smother over yourself is said to be the reason why the Icelandic's look so young! There were massages available too but we missed out on them as it seemed churlish to get out of the water until we were completely wrinkled.
Swimming is Iceland's national sport and everyone must be able to swim before they leave school. Football
is also huge too with the national stadium being at Laugardalur, just outside the capital. They were expanding the 7,000 capacity when we were there.
Reykjavik is not a shoppers city, but more of a browsers. Trendy boutique and art galleries line the main shopping streets of Laugauegur, Skolayoroustigur and Huerfisgata alongside coffee shops and cool looking bars.
The Icelandic's are known to like a good time and at weekends the locals don't go out 'til gone midnight (the bars close at 8am!). On the Thursday everything was pretty quiet but on the Friday the opposite was true as the streets were packed with people lining up to enter bars at 3am, at what point I was heading back to the hotel. One word of caution though. Don't be taken in by the hip and cool tag the locals afford the club scene. Not unless you still find Lionel Richie and Witney Houston hip.
Damon Albarn has a stake in Kaffibarrin
, but the clientele resembled a sixth form common room, Cafe Oliver
was an older crowd but lively and friendly. Vegamot
was also worth a visit for a people watch and Thorvaldsen
was a good place to start off in the lively area of Austurvollur Square.
A couple of people watching observations. The whole blonde thing is a myth. The majority have black hair looking like it was cut by a blind hairdresser. Almost everyone smokes and smoke-free bars are about a 100 years away. Everyone is either very young or those silica face packs work wonders.
The hotel bar where we stayed at Hotel 101
was very cool and busy. I was disappointed in the hotel a little bit as I thought the service could have been better but it is a walking modern art gallery and is bang in the middle of Reykjavik postcode 101 and the cities busiest area, hence the name.
Icelandic food wasn't easy to find, although saying that the delights of Puffin, picked ram testicles, raw whale meat and reindeer were not high on my diet! However I did sample some cod chins (I'm told that the locals prefer to eat the fish heads as opposed to the fillets) in Þrir Frakkar
one night. Puffin, which I promised I would order, was thankfully off.
Whaling is a hot topic here as many see it part of their cultural heritage, however as tourism increases the pressure is on to just watch them and not eat them.
The restaurant named after chef Siggi Hall
, who is supposedly Iceland's answer to Jamie Oliver, was very good if not a bit quiet. However for a cheaper option, well they don't really do cheap options but try Naestu Grosum
, which was an excellent place for lunch. I didn't sample the famous Hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu
, but the 'pylsur'
do come well recommended.
Places to look out for on walking around Reykjavik's streets should include Hallgrimskirkja, which you can see from every vantage point. The church sits high up on a hill and resembles a volcanic eruption. Opposite is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson
, the first known European to discover America. The City Library
and the Harbour House Museum
are close to the harbour, which we had an extremely brisk walk along.
The harbour has a not too unpleasant waft of fish, to remind you of the cod chins you ate the night before but the view of Mount Esja which looms over the harbour and the wonderful Solfar viking boat sculpture more than make up for it though. One of many sculptures that line the roads and pavements of the city.
The town pond (Tjornin) was created at the end of the last ice age and at one end of it you can find the City Hall
. Huge colourful houses surround the lake on both sides and looking from the City Hall you can see The Pearl
(Perlan) in the distance, an amazing modern glass building which hosts an observatory, art exhibitions, cafe and one of the cities best restaurants.
The cities oldest street is Aoelstraeti. On this street under a new hotel have been found remains of a Viking settlement dated AD 874-930. Beyond 101 are tiny streets packed tight with colourful corrugated iron clad houses huddled together from the winter and I'd imagine that in the summer this place looks completely different. Reykjavik even has its own beach at Nautholsvik. Completely man-made with a hot tub.
In the summer the sun rises at 2.40am and sets at 11pm but in the winter Reykjavik's does not get light until close to midday. Can you imagine having to work like that?
Two last quirky things that make this country so fascinating. Icelandic people actually believe in trolls, elves and ghosts. If you don't believe me ask an Icelandic. They also have a patronymic naming system, which explains why all their names sound the same.
It works roughly like this. An Icelandic surname is made up of a fathers first name, say Hreidar plus either sson if a boy or dottir if a daughter. Therefore a son would have the surname Hreidarsson and a girl would be called Hreidardottir. Charlton's very own Viking's son would have the surname, if his parents are true to their roots, of Hermannsson. Got it?