09 Aug 2014

Icelandic Adventure by alexkrook

4/6

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Sleeping-in seems to be a theme of this trip for me. I didn't manage to leave my hostel before the afternoon had begun, perhaps because of the uninviting sound of the wind whistling through the corridors and the sight of white-capped wavelets rushing in from the sea. Perhaps because I'm lazy. Despite the bracing breezes the sky was cloudless and gloriously sunny, and the locals were out en masse for the start of Reykjavik's Pride Weekend. Everyone and their mother had dressed in rainbows in this most LGBT-friendly of countires; an eight-year-old in a rainbow bow-tie scurried past me on a scooter, drag queens in platforms and wigs tottered down the middle of all the central roads closed to cars today, and two girls dressed as nuns rocked rainbow leis and knee-high socks. Or perhaps they were real nuns - in this city where all businesses from banks to book shops fly pride flags in their storefronts there may well be no limit to tolerance.

I had some time to spare before an agreed meeting point in front of "that scary grey building by the hill" (the city theatre), so ducked into the charmingly-named Cafe Bort for its comparatively cheap coffee and cake deal. It was deliciously sunny under the skylights, and I finished my book over a blueberry muffin soundtracked by a band warming up out back on one of the many temporary stages littering the city today. An absurdly attractive gay couple and their absurdly well-behaved small child slurped soup at the table next to me, and a constant stream of invariably cool and multi-coloured revellers flowed on through. This city has a habit of making one feel very unattractive and very under-dressed.

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Sarah and I headed in the direction of the general throng downhill towards Arnarhól, where a huge flag-draped stage was occupied by a band singing indecipherable Icelandic rock. The crowd was heaving, relaxed, and colourful (obviously), the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson covered in spectators and sporting a traffic cone hat, and there was a general air of happiness and human rights. We took advantage of the weather and wandered through town, remarking at everyone's excellently themed outfits and excellently squidgy dogs, and some of bars' sort-of-excellent happy hour deals. Reykjavik under sun is a city transformed, and even the gulls constantly circling the centre became ideal framing for the silhouette of the Hallgrímskirkja in the distance. I had yet to view Lake Tjörnin under anything except oppressive cloud so we did the full loop. Officially a lagoon (how exotic), Wikipedia describes it as an "integral part of the urban environment", and I'd have to agree; it offers picture-perfect views of both town and mountains - and a whole lot of ducks. Ideal.

We dropped in on the end of the weekend flea market (although failed to purchase anything more than an iron-on Icelandic flag to help decorate my currently pitiful hiking backpack), and Sarah showed me to an Icelandic institution that served me the national dish: hot dog with all the toppings. Baejarins Bestu appropriately translates to "best hot dogs in town", and has stood by the harbour since 1937. It serves your standard frankfurter smothered in fried onions, raw onions, and remoulade - a sweet mayonnaise with relish - and is v. cheap and v. delish.

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Grey and miserable on Thursday, the harbour in this weather is transformed into a blue and glittering delight. We headed first into the Harpa concert hall, a giant block of thousands of panes of clear and coloured glass that glints under the sun and offers a magnificent view out over both the city centre and the sea itself, with its backdrop of green and brown mountains. Harpa was destined to be a much larger World Trade Centre affair before the Icelandic financial crisis hit like a tonne of bricks in 2008, but now its sole purpose is to house a purpose-built concert hall plus egregiously vast gift shop and cafe. We climbed right to the top to enjoy the scenery, and spied multiple yachts and one tiny boat chugging through the choppy water with its cargo of suited-up tourists bent on whale-watching. I must say that I wouldn't have want to be out on the high seas today as the wind and waves were only getting stronger - and who wants to see a whale when you can eat one at the restaurant downstairs?

The harbour front is dotted with neon yellow lighthouses that provide excellent viewing platforms out towards the ocean - and also into it. A mass of glassy pink jellyfish was floating ethereally just beside the boardwalk, and sea birds periodically dived and plopped into their midst, casting flickering shadows across the water and inevitably coming up empty-beaked and squawking. Rather distracting from all the nature was the almost impossible to ignore photoshoot happening further down the harbour involving two identical and identically-dressed blondes standing in profile and looking contemplatively out to sea, while two men with very unprofessional-looking photography equipment leered on. Sarah and I have both admitted to having trouble telling Icelandic women apart, being universally fair, stylish and beautiful. This was something else entirely.

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According to various friends and food blogs, an unmissable Reykjavik speciality is its ice-cream, which the locals enjoy come rain or shine. Our hostel sits a convenient couple of blocks away from a new addition to the booming Reykjavik ice-cream scene: Parlour Paradis, run by a typically blonde and beautiful woman who apparently "mastered the art of ice cream-making at the Gelato University in Bologna, Italy". It serves enormous triple scoops for the eye-poppingly meagre some of 370 krona (less than £2!), and is staffed by a selection of typically blonde and beautiful women. Perhaps they all mastered the art of ice-cream making at the Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. I tried both the kiwi and bubblegum flavours which really were delighfully gelatoey, and Sarah had a neon pink milkshake. We wended our way home just as the sky began to cloud over, and encountered some more window dressings of delights such as rowdy dogs, piles of books, and an enormous silver trophy. Probably for being a member of the most delightful country in Europe.

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I left Kex to join some friends out and about at the perfect moment to catch the late night sunset. The houses down the Hverfisgata all blushed a deep pink, and their windows bounced the glow of fading sunlight back out over the street below as fairy lights snapped on in the upper storeys. I caught the last minutes of a fab local band's set on the patio of trendy Bar 11 (they're called Kaleo, check em out), and we sipped Tuborgs surrounded by a selection of the city. Pale gothic teenagers and stubbly sk8er bois rocked alongside a group of middle-aged women in grey trouser suits and rainbow ties moshing harder than anyone. Love pride.

We moved with the crowd downtown to settle in the upstairs of a whiskey bar promising live music and local beers. Their attic room filled up with heavy blues from another local group, and I couldn't help but think how perfect the scene would be in the dark and freezing winter months; the softly lit panelled interior of sloping ceilings and shelves of booze, a tumbler of liquor and a pane of glass away from the snow and stars on the street. But it was pretty nice in August too. In the queue for the loos at the next bar an Icelandic woman asked me if I thought there was "hanky panky" happening in a particularly slow cubicle - where on earth did she pick up that phrase? What textbooks do they use for language learning in this country?

We ended our night at a queer club full of shadowy corners and Whitney Houston, followed by chicken wings at the Chuck Norris restaurant downstairs. Very authentic.