So Reykjavik is a funny little place. And I’m being literal about the little. Perhaps my expectations of a European capital city have been mis-managed after jaunts to Berlin, Istanbul, you know, Paris, but Reykjavik, as I suppose naturally befits the capital of a country where there are more sheep than people, is small, kooky, quiet and strangely, wonderfully contradictory.
|Inside Harpa, Reykjavik|
|The Reykjanes peninsula on a sunny day (not while we were there...)|
We’d been warned by LB’s mum that driving into Reykjavik from the airport out on the Reykjanes peninsula was a bit like driving through hell with its endless, rough-hewn, post-apocalyptic lava fields and eerily wan midnight sun. Which was about right, really. Though it’s worth noting that in this Icelandic version of hell it’s cold and it also rains a lot.
The inclement weather dogged us for the entire trip but didn’t in any real sense ruin our time there. It just added to the odd factor. And I mean odd in a curious, complimentary way. Even now I still can’t put my finger on Reykjavik. It has no discernible CBD, no crowds, most of the buildings have a fabricated layer of corrugated iron to them, the whole city feels subdued, muffled even, and yet the mornings are littered with the detritus of clearly wild nights before. There’s a sense perhaps, and I still can’t quite articulate it, that something is happening only its happening somewhere else maybe. It’s like you’re missing something.
And yet. And yet. They have built the most staggeringly beautiful, confidently poetic, enormous music hall, with a facade by Olafur “sun in the Tate” Eliasson that makes you almost want to weep. They serve world-class, eye-poppingly good food in unassuming buildings that play to their strengths of lamb, fish and slow food and in small but incredibly stylish stores all the way along the main street Laugavegur, they sell interesting, brilliantly thoughtful, beautifully crafted works of design, art and fashion (albeit at considerable prices.) Like I said, it’s wonderfully contradictory.
Having arrived late on the Friday night, Saturday was our first real chance to explore the city and after a great little breakfast we wandered off to poke about Harpa, the aforementioned music hall. It was only half-built when the 2008 global financial crisis decimated Iceland’s economy and the building was consequently – and controversially – finished using government funds while the rest of the plans for a redeveloped harbourside were abandoned.
And so it sits at a scruffy end of the harbour, this lone, truly magnificent jewel. It’s a testament to the vision of Eliasson and the Danish architects Henning Larson that it’s resolutely not a glimmering beacon of financial folly but something so much more subtle, beautiful, poignant and stand-alone impressive. Clad in reflective geometric glass in opalescent shades, inside the roof consists of mirrored tiles and strong lines that use staircases to clever visual effect. I have no clue what the acoustics are actually like but if the outside is anything to go by, the actual concert hall must just be unreal.
Across the road from Harpa is Reyjkavik’s famous flea market, which is in reality a total and utter disappointing dump – all made in China plastic tat, fermented shark meat and itchy jumpers. I’m all for fossicking but the straggly miserable clothes and cheap repro jewellery scattered about had the despondent air of being not even special enough for the inside of a charity bin. Epic fail on the flea market front, Reykjavik.
From here we went to the Reykjavik Art Museum which was, well, just not great, before spending the rest of the day idling along Laugavegur, poking our noses in all the shops and admiring the city’s strikingly Nordic cathedral. Dinner that night was a Tori recommendation, which was, as ever, on the money. A mini-degustation around Iceland that was just so good. And then it was home to our little apartment – which was a great little place but for the glass bathroom door – why? I mean, really - WHY? – and to bed. Despite the 24 hour sunlight sleep was not a problem.
Sunday was spent rollicking out on the sea in search of whales, dressed in heavy red suits to keep the wind whipping at bay. We sailed past a Puffin colony and out far enough to no longer see Reykjavik, we chanced upon a couple of Minke whales. Trying to get a decent photograph of one of them proved near impossible so you were really just left to contemplate these incredible animals from a distance.
LB and his mum were like pirates – swinging gleefully from the front of the boat from the moment we left the harbour. LB’s dad and I were a little less gleeful and a little more green, taking refuge after a while at the back of the boat hoping against hope that there’d be no need for the seasick bags. Others weren’t so lucky.
Returning to the harbour and scoffing hotdogs for lunch, LB and I opted for a nap while his parents took in the Settlement Museum before another great meal and another early night. A well-rounded sort of day really – the perfect precursor for a VERY stressful Monday at the Blue Lagoon…
I don’t think anyone has been to Iceland without visiting the famous geothermal spring and having spent a good half-day floating around in warm blue waters, covered in silica mud getting massaged under cloudy ambivalent Reykjavikan skies I totally get the hype. Leaving aside the fact that your hair turns to knotty concrete after a dip in the silica rich lagoon (despite litres of pre-emptive conditioner...) we all walked away very pruney, very floaty and very, very relaxed.
The lagoon is out on the Reykjanes peninsula, not far from the airport actually, and smack in the middle of an expansive lava field. Unlike other geothermal springs around Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is in fact man-made – the pooled water heated by the nearby geo-thermal power station, which looms strangely in the not-so-distant distance.
Dinner was another ridiculously good meal, this one at Fredrik V, which was another degustation using ingredients sourced almost entirely from around the island (oh for a local pepper producer…) What was so lovely about this meal though, was that each course and ingredient came with a story or explanation – in a low key, contextual, not theatrical sense. I didn’t taste the beer, but knowing that the brewer was a fisherman who had an accident that left him unable to fish so he decided to brew beers instead, well, it just added to the rich tapestry of delightful quirks that seems to be Iceland.
The trip back to London the next day was an early start – a 4am pick-up no less - but because the sun was out it felt strange more than just simply exhausting. And it was blazing when we got back to the UK which made high tea and a wander through Hyde Park that much more civilised. And our Reykjavik weekend feel all the more surreal.
We’ve had a really lovely few days with LB’s parents here in London. They’re off back to Sydney tomorrow and LB and I, in the spirit of extravagance, are off to Paris, to see my aunt and uncle. The first world problems continue at a pace it seems.