06 Aug 2014

Icelandic Adventure by alexkrook

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There was a toddler on our flight that everyone was about ready to murder in cold blood by the time we landed with a thump close to midnight. Keflavik airport is a maze of neon lights and people in woollen sweaters, but somehow we're now crawling down the motorway with the Icelandic planes stretching bleakly (and invisibly) to one side and the water to the other. Reykjavik's twinkling skyline swims in and out of view through our rain-lashed windows, and a cheerful voice-over with questionable grammar is telling us all about our transport and entertainment options in this land of elf-lovers.

I'm not sure what possessed me to make the 20 minute march between the central bus station and my hostel at 1am dragging my 26kg bag behind me, but it is a thing that happened which I cannot bring myself to regret as taxis, like all things here, are truly extortionate. I saw not one other human in the first fifteen minutes of my stride, and the eery chill of the industrial area preceding the city centre made me walk so fast that by the time the epic mass of the Hallgrímskirkja Church loomed before me I was in a light sweat. Despite 15 degree temperature and my summer playsuit and straw boater. The centre of the city was equally quiet but dotted with more familiar and welcoming Scando features; brightly coloured buildings and spacious interior design shops, warmly wit windowfulls of candles and fairy lights, and a friendly black cat. I made my way down to the waterfront and the Kex Hostel where I cannot quite describe the horror of four flights of stairs with a bag tagged as "heavy" by people who lift bags for a living.

The hostel is incredibly trendy (it has its own barber), but more on that later. I passed half an hour chatting to a pair of blondes convinced of their stomach poisoning from Icelandic pizza, before collapsing into bed amidst the glares of my roused dorm companions. Until tomorrow, Reykjavik.

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Today I slept in gloriously and awoke to blue skies and only occasional drizzle (and laughed in the face of a forecast of four days of downpours. Hahahaha.) Unfortunately however, the first half an hour of my afternoon was spent frantically googling and then locating a hardware store in the opposite direction of anything interesting, in search of a European adaptor and some new camera batteries. The omnipresent geometric spire of the Hallgrímskirkja is how one usually orients oneself around Reykjavik, but in this direction a new double-pronged church became the compass. I can't resist a good church (and this city seems full of them), and the inside was a pleasingly modern and practical affair not unlike the ecclesiastical equivalent of Ikea interior design. #scandinavia. I have certainly not been here long enough to make bold claims about what a "typical Icelander" entails, but I would hazard a guess that it's personified by the owner of the hardware store I eventually found - teasing manner, round glasses, excellent English and all.

This tedious mission accomplished, I set off back West and towards the Saga Museum. Icelanders seem adept at dressing their windows very beautifully, be it with vases of roses, a snoozing dog, figurines of Wallace and Gromit, or shelves of plants and coloured glass bottles. Or an angry cat. People smoke pipes and read quietly in the parks, and little planes roar overhead towards the internal airport. (And it didn't rain too much.)

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I do love a good historical waxwork. Pictured below is a famed Icelander who travelled to America to terrorise the natives with her breast/weapon action. The Saga Museum gives a brief overview of Icelandic history in the form of audio guides and waxwork figures, and my guidebook warned me not to be alarmed if I saw some of the characters wandering around town; apparently many Reykjavik residents lent their faces to the models. They're lifelike to a scary level, a case-in-point being the graphic installation of the gruesome execution of one of the few female witches to be burnt at the stake in Iceland's male-dominated age of sorcery. Grim. The exhibition rather abruptly ends at 1550 which is a shame - but you do get to dress up as a Viking at the end of it! Which I of course did, alongside a TERRIBLE British gay couple that refused to relinquish the gear to waiting children until they'd taken a thousand Instagrams.

I moved on to the so-called Reykjavik Museum of Photography which is in actuality just an exhibition room at the top of the public library - but free, so no one is complaining. The featured work was the fantastically-named Ragnar Axelsson's documentary shots of Greenland and its vanishing landscape and peoples, with a truly excellent video installation involving the stories behind the photographs exhibited and extended interviews with the man himself. A real treat, glad I nicked someone's abandoned Lonely Planet guide to Iceland from my room or I would have missed it.

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The Old Harbour in Reykjavik isn't that much to look at. Lots of lumbering ships old and new, and an admittedly scenic view out over the water and towards the cloudy mountains. On my wanderings towards the city centre I of course came across another church I couldn't resist, this one apparently attached to a convent as I stumbled in on some nun worship that involved positively sinister singing (whose source I could not locate), and an awkward priest lighting candles and tripping over his robe.

LGBT flags are all over the shop here. Literally all over every shop, be it selling ceramics or teeny tiny Viking figurines. They're more omnipresent than the Icelandic flags which pop up every so often in gardens or on restaurants. Perhaps Iceland's last Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, openly gay and married with kids has something to do with this - can't knock that.

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Even for someone of my EXTENSIVE CHURCH EXPERIENCE it is impossible not to be impressed by the Hallgrímskirkja. Angular and incredibly ominous against a background of grey clouds, it stands alone atop the highest point of the city and visible from all across it. It's especially impressive when walking up the steep approach from downtown, with the trendy shop-filled sides of the road that runs up from the harbour to the doorstep framing its oh-so-symmetrical bulk. A huge iron statue of Leif Eriksson stands in front of it, gifted by the USA (who loves to claim him) on the millenium anniversary of the founding of The Thing. Although it seems like it must have existed since the dawn of time and the city simply grew up around its vast stature, Iceland's 6th largest building was in fact started at the end of WWII and only completed in 1986! You really need to stand at the bottom and just stare up for a while.

Once I'd got that out of the way though, I do make a point of climbing every European cathedral I possibly can, and although this one had a lift (booooo) it did not diminish the view from the top over Reykjavik's brightly-coloured roofs, and out into the harbour and beyond. Particularly pleasing to the eye are these vistas through the huge circular stained-glass windows right at the top - not particularly beautiful in and of themselves, but very lovely as a coloured lens to the city below. A real-life Instagram filter if you will. The huge church bells clanged in a most heart-stopping manner while we were up there, and on descent the sound of the organ filled the typically puritanical interior. It's a very impressive specimen, and the acoustics of the place are phenomenal (even if its gut isn't quite as spectacular as the outside view).

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Cafe Loki is famed for its Icelandic specialities, and I stepped in to try their taster platter of "fermented shark". Surrounded by small blonde children in the typical knitted pattern jumpers of this country, and murals of some of my favourite Norse myths, I was lulled into a false sense of security. I may have only had to eat four bites of it, but that dish was horrible. Just horrible. The fermentation produced a most unpleasant nasal tingling akin to accidentally inhaling water up your nose, and Loki's dreadful children Fenrir, Jörmungandr and Hel cackled down at my distaste in cartoon form from the walls. HIDEOUS.

I headed back towards home and the water, stopping to admire the view and the Sun Craft sculpture and glare at the Italian tourists clambering all over it. I'm now at my hostel with a Viking beer, surrounded by travellers and Icelanders alike and listening in to the Free Gaza concert happening on the patio. Although it's nearing 10pm the sun is only just beginning to set over the mountains, staining the clouds and the sea a delicious pink that I just cannot be bothered to photograph but take my word for it: it's very nice.