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.
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.)
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.
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.
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).
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.
More sleeping in from me, and another late start. I spent the first couple of hours of my day yawning and writing in the various rooms of Kex Hostel. Hostels in Reykjavik are numerous (and cripplingly pricey), but Kex was recommended by friends and the internet alike and it's not hard to see why. Its refreshingly trendy and well-photographed website is a good starting point. The place is full of retro decor and wide open communal spaces, and its bustling bar and dining area are clearly a draw for everyone from middle-aged tourists and 20-something travellers to the local hipsters and ageing families. When getting directions from the bus station I was told to "just ask someone - everyone knows where Kex is." It's situated centrally with beautiful views out over the water, and every night I have been here the place has been hosting some sort of concert or event for beautiful and trendy people to congregate at. Comfy seats and old-school maps cover every surface, and there's no shortage of vintage decorations and reading materials. And a very excellent selection of beer - so there's that too.
I set out on a new route towards the buzzing old town, with the destination of the Reykjavik 871+-2 in my sights. It's a museum housing a journey through Reykjavik's early history, built around the excavated remains of a Viking longhouse, and so-named after the volcanic eruption in 871 from which most of Icelandic settlement is dated. I studied the Vikings last year and so spent quite possibly too long enthralled by the mixture of real-life archaeology on display and the space-age technological aids employed to EDUCATE YOU. Holograms and touch screens for days. I particularly enjoyed a cartoon representation of the Great Auk, hunted to extinction centuries ago which is a real shame as it resembled a flightless and overgrown budgie (and apparently sounded like a hippo).
During my wanderings into town I was also forced to purchase something to throw over my exclusively summer wardrobe for my enterprising trip into the Icelandic countryside tomorrow, and settled on a plaid garment from a vintage store. I was also confronted by the incongruous sights of three children petting a disgruntled pigeon, and a man wearing a T-shirt of a giant pug's face. I finally worked out the source of the preponderance of LGBT flags and stylish men - it's pride week. Nordic style.
The day was grey but I forced myself around some of my guide book's recommended hot spots. The Alþingishúsið, Iceland's National Parliament, housed in a depressingly empty 19th century building as the government is on a summer break. The National Cathedral, by no means as impressive as the Hallgrímskirkja to the east but rather more cosy inside with its delicious blue light from a central stained glass window. The Tjörnin lake, filled with ducks and seagulls and looking more like Barnes pond under the depressing weather. I do love that every road you turn down in the old quarter is so close to the coast that waves and mountains peak out from behind the stream of cyclists and pedestrians. (If only it was a bit sunnier.)
I hung around outside the penis museum wondering whether I could stomach the extortionate entrance fee (and the contents), before deciding to wend a scenic route back to Kex for a coffee. I remarked on some new window dressings on the way, including a glass dog pooping, some ornamental brasswear, and a stuffed animal of unidentifiable and presumably disturbing provenance. A weirdly lifelike pair of ogres grace the main shopping street, and someone had charmingly draped a wreath of dandelions on the head of the female.
I whiled away the rest of the afternoon finishing my book over an "Arctic Berries" ale, feeling slightly more trendy in my vintage store acquisition. While waiting at the bar I spotted the delightful specimen of a man in a t-shirt stating "I am not your cousin". This is no flippant fashion choice; with an incredibly inbred population of 320,000, consanguinity is a danger faced by all Icelanders who want to reproduce - or even just have a good time: an app has been created from the millenium-old Landnámabók (Book of Settlements) to avoid accidental incest. When Icelanders meet someone in a bar they can now simply whip out their iPhones and check that they're not actually first cousins before heading home together, instead of getting a nasty shock at the rehearsal dinner.
I got so lost in Maya Angelou that I did not notice the hours slip away before my stomach did, and I made a rather miserable meal of pasta and whatever I could find on the free food shelf. The evening was greatly improved, however, by a cheerful Canadian and a French girl with a perfectly picturesque accent moving into my dorm, and we all headed downstairs to investigate the music video launch in the "gym and tonix" space of the hostel. The event was full of blonde people in large frames and long coats, and we arrived just in time for two glasses of free beer and the viewing of the video itself. Artistic nakedness involving shrill vocals and a very beautiful Nordic woman in lacy suspenders and nothing else. Plus a whole lot of paint. It's called The Backbone, by Rökkurró, and it's actually a fairly good song if you get past the soft porno part. The band were all present and we later realised that two of its members had been serving us beer - they were pretty big in Iceland a couple of years ago and are making their comeback. Tell your friends, y'all!
I haven't spoken French in a while so was self-congratulatorily proud of acting the translator for the evening. Felt suitably smug for the rest of the night, and then felt suitably horrified by my bank balance after booking a trip to the Blue Lagoon - but it can't be missed, apparently. This country will be the financial death of me.
Today I had booked myself a hideously expensive but well-worth it bus tour around the Golden Circle, Iceland's most popular tourist day trip from the capital. I woke up an hour too early at hideous o'clock, leaving myself more than enough time to eat a pot of instant porridge abandoned in my dorm and catch the bus from outside the hostel. The Icelandic tourist industry works like a well-oiled machine; shuttles pick everyone up from their various hostels and deposit us all in front of the coach at the main bus station, on which there is wifi! WIFI! However I was forced to remark again at that constant phenomenon of how American tourists always manage to identify each other instantly and cheerily share their life stories with an enthusiasm undampened by the glares of every other nationality present. It was hard to hate the particular selection on our bus as they were all elderly couples celebrating anniversaries and making new friends much more effectively than us youth at the back, but as Europeans we felt we should try hard to disapprove nonetheless.
The drive towards our first destination took us through a bleak landscape of volcanic hills wreathed in clouds so low you could almost pop them with a pin. Houses cropped up colourfully across the planes, as did the swishy-tailed Icelandic horses that look more like Shetland ponies than anything else, and we all craned our necks to look at the smoky islands lining the horizon. Sulphurous fumes snuck through the windows on the way through a moss-covered lava field. Apparently one third of the world's lava flow in the last 10,000 years has taken place in Iceland, a country where when a volcano erupts "we run towards it, not away from it!".
The countryside is perfectly picturesque. Puffs of steam prick the mountainsides and crystal clear little streams wind down the slopes. We pass a fishermen thigh-high in a rushing fjord, and the deep red of an earth path cuts through the endless green towards a little log church framed so perfectly against the blues and greys of the sky and a sunbathing mountain that it might as well be an oil painting. We skirt a lava hillock inconveniently positioned in the middle of the road, and our tour guide tells us that road construction had to proceed around it as it is said to be home to elves. 55% of Icelanders believe in them.
Our first stop seemed to be purely a vehicle to advertise Iceland's vast superiority to the rest of Europe when it comes to energy generation; no fossil fuels or nuclear power used on this island, and in fact much of the country's power is appropriately produced by geothermal energy. This is certainly the case for Friðheimar, a predominantly tomato-based farming operation housed in greenhouses that suck up as much as electricity per day as 3000 average Icelanders. Run by an almost offensively Nordic-looking family of gorgeous aryans, a cafe is housed in one of these cosy glass longhouses that serves deliciously fresh tomato soup with poppyseed and sugar and cinnamon breads. I gave in to my more luxurious instincts and bought myself a mug and a roll because you definitely wouldn't get this stuff out of tin (although maybe you would in Iceland), and it was so filling that I have actually yet to eat since.
Giant bumble bees bustle around the green houses pollinating everything, and workers plugged into their iPods and balancing on ladders line each row, poking and prodding the still-green tomatoes. Every plant has to be replaced every 9 months - what a faff, especially since the greenhouse we got to peek around is only one of many. Lucky for Icelanders, courtesy of the geothermal energy at their fingertips the natives have little need of importing anything. It's Europe's largest producer of bananas (what an accolade) and has even tried its hand at coffee and oranges - although "just for fun" according to our tour guide. Just for fun.
As we cruise into the Geysir area we all ooh and ah at an enormous spout from afar - hastily reassured by our guide that there'll be another one within fifteen minutes. The eponymous mother of all future geysers unfortunately no longer erupts so regularly after getting blocked up with rocks thrown by the hooligan tourists of the 50s; in her hey day in the 19th century her plumes would reach up to 170m, and although recent earthquakes have helped to revive her somewhat she was sulking underground for our visit. The big performance nowadays is from Strokkur. It stayed silent for half an hour before erupting in three massive plumes of water and steam in quick succession, the smell of sulphur spraying out over the crowd before the water retreated back into the rock as if down a gigantic plughole. I can well imagine the hot springs as a jacuzzi for one of the Giants of Norse myth, as radioactive blue pools bubble away like cauldrons of potion and steam floats menacingly across the rocky landscape.
The geysers are all well and good if you're into steam and furious fumes, but what I enjoyed most about this stop was climbing to the top of the mossy peaks that survey the area. The summit overlooks a lush green valley on one side and the hot springs on the other, and was teeming with tourists (and myself) taking egregious amounts of panoramas (and selfies). The view of the geysers erupting was admittedly great from up at the top, but I sat for a while on a tuft on the cliff face and GAZED CONTEMPLATIVELY out over the fields scattered with horses grazing and little red cabins, and bisected by the archetypal babbling brook. The landscape in this country really does belong in the illustrations of a fairy tale.
The Gullfoss waterfall is one of the largest in Iceland, consisting of two separate shelves that combine to make it a whopping 30m high. No Victoria Falls, but an impressive place to be able to visit on a "city break". As we descended to get a closer look, a mist of vapour rose up rather like the steam from the hot springs, and left me raw and red in the face. The water pounds down so hard that it rises out of the narrow gorge in clouds, and roars thunderously until your ears ring with the torrents. It's very spectacular, and quite hard to believe that the waterfall has had to survive several attempts at its destruction. A century ago an Englishman (ugh, obviously) wanting to harness its epic power was foiled by a simple farmer, and then decades later his daughter threatened the Icelandic government with hurling herself into the waves if they did not stop contractors from constructing a hydroelectric dam. Another local myth tells of a shepherd and a maiden living on opposite sides of the mighty river before he finally braved the flow to wade across and produce "many well-thought of descendants". It's an awesome sight, nature at work etc etc; apparently on sunny days a rainbow arches through the spray. Curse the weather.
As well as the magnificent waterfall, Gullfoss boasts a view out towards the glacier from whence it flows, packed in by black mountains streaked with snow. I do wish that the day had been sunnier, as the whole view was wreathed in the mists of cloud and rain - which sounds romantic but was in fact just irritating.
Þingvellir was probably my favourite stop today. A National Park that "straddles two continents" as my leaflet so dramatically tells me, between 930 and 1798 it was home to the gatherings of Iceland's general assembly (the Alþingi). Its steep crags and location on the edge of the country's largest lake (Þingvallavatn) give it the perfect acoustics for oratory and loud law-making, which is exactly what would happen when the parliament gathered there back in the day. Also what happened when Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000AD, and when it declared itself a republic independent from Denmark almost a millenium later; it's still a pretty relevant place in the national mind. Other exciting things it played host to were countless gruesome punishments and executions! Many of Iceland's male sorcerers were burned at the stake here, and women were drowned for crimes like incest and fornication.
The main pathway that leads up to the summit and the parliamentary site itself is flanked by jutting rock-faces and mossy crags that start to morph into troll faces if you stare for long enough. A mini waterfall appears halfway through the ascent, a picture-perfect blend of greens and blues whose depths are lined with hoards of glittering coins tossed in by patriotic Icelanders and lemming-like tourists alike. Þingvellir's position across two tectonic plates means that the crags are littered with cracks and fissures and nooks and crannies that create pleasant little pockets of silence away from the buzz of the tour bus masses, and from the summit you can look out over the lake itself and an angular church surrounded by streams - on the very same spot as one of the first religious buildings in the country all those centuries ago. I wish we'd had more time here, as it's very beautiful.
We wend our way back through the countryside as our tour guide fills us with tales of doom and gloom about climate change and electricity bills. We pass a tiny field of delicately balanced piles of rocks, and multiple clusters of sheep shouldering through tall grass and brush. Apparently sheep are specially cut to signify who owns them and then allowed to roam across the fields at will for the summer months. We rumble over a dark blue fjord with a shimmer on its surface from the sun that has finally decided to appear, and a grim-faced cyclist battled against the wind alongside us for a while. Clusters of pines appear around the base of the hills shielding hidden log holiday cabins with all the mod cons - I can't wait to return to this country.
I wish I could come back to Iceland with a car, a tent, and a salary. Hitch-hikers line the roads looking rough and ready to go, and I spy a beautiful blonde couple stopping to smooch and fill up their water bottles at a brook running alongside the ring road. Hostel tales of driving for hours along that one road that loops around the whole island and only seeing perhaps one or two cars maximum really sound like a dream to me; being able to pull over and stand and stare out at the glaciers or the smoky mountains (without craning to see over that fat Australian woman in front) would truly be bliss.
As we roll towards Reykjavik our guide tells us that the Icelandic language is really just undiluted old Norse - spoken by most of Scandinavia at one point before mass abandonment and becoming unique to Iceland. A pointy church appears at the end of a tree-lined path, where the lead player in the famous Egil's Saga was laid to rest. Perfect.
After collapsing onto my bed for some reading and writing, my chirpy Canadian roommate persuaded me downstairs for beers and bar snacks and failed attempts to remember how to play any form of card games. We were eventually enticed out to The Laundromat by a selection of other ladies from the hostel, one of Reykjavik's trademark hip bars with shelves of colour-coded paperbacks and a wide selection of Icelandic beers. Some of us decided to take on the vibrant nightlife marking the start of gay pride weekend, but I shuffled home to my bunk just past midnight, exhausted of energy (and cash).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My last day in Reykjavik was an eerily deserted and quiet affair. Perhaps everyone was hiding from all light and noise after a riotously gay evening on the town, or perhaps that's just what Sunday afternoons are like in this city. Either way, my wander up the hill into town was soundtracked by nothing but the bouncing of a lone basketball, and some muted children flitting around a playground under the shadow of the Hallgrímskirkja. The Einar Jónsson Museum is not a particularly exciting place and I'm glad my wily ways got me in for free. Constructed by the artist himself as "his greatest sculpture yet", it was one of the first buildings to grace the "desolate hill on the outskirts of town" (as the now bustling Skolavorduhaed was known back in 1914). It contains plaster versions of many of his later bronze works, and a reconstruction of his study and library which is all rather perfunctory as the real gem is the sculpture garden outside. Picturesquely framed against the Soviet-esque museum structure and the peeping spire of the Hallgrímskirkja, his beautifully symbolic bronzes thrive in the open air just as the plaster versions inside fail to really connect - definitely worth a visit.
I popped into an analogue photography store I'd been eyeing up on the hillside, run by a cheerful Irishwoman who sold me a polaroid and talked about the full moon with great gusto. Next stop was Reykjavik Roasters, a cosy little cafe full of armchairs and the sound of vinyl, that has been listed by Buzzfeed as one of the top 10 COOLEST coffee shops in the world! I could certainly see the appeal as I sank into an armchair and a novel, and it is patronised by both the young and hip and the old and moustachioed. I whiled away an excessive amount of time with the aid of a heavily spiced Chai tea and an Icelandic cinnamon scone, served with butter, jam and, more incongruously, two slices of Swiss cheese.
I'd promised myself some Icelandic cinema before I left, and on the way I detoured along the coastline to catch my last glimpse of some of the sculptures that line the seashore east of the harbour. The wind direction today meant that the smell of the ocean assaulted the nostrils in waves, something that always takes me back to childhood holidays at the beach. Old men were perched on the rocks by the sun-craft getting in some late-afternoon Sunday fishing, and the whip and whistle of their lines filled the air (along with the smell of their buckets full of bloody and gasping mackerel - if only murder wasn't so gosh darn tasty.) Sunday evenings mean happy hour at the cinema, so I headed into the screening of the Year 2000 classic 101 Reykjavik with two bottles of beer in hand and very few expectations of Icelandic cinema in mind. And I was not to be disappointed, as the film itself is fantastic. Touching and hilarious - sort of like a cross between Submarine and Bridget Jones's Diary with an Icelandic thirty-something protagonist and an enormously 90s vibe. I was very pleasantly surprised, and the best part was that the film takes place across all the churches, streets and bars that I've explored in this city, which makes one want to clap at the screen with delight and feel simultaneously very smug. I'm fairly sure that some of the nuns that appear in a church scene are the very same whose prayers I interrupted on my first day.
Sarah and I headed to a noodle place on the hill for delicious chop suey with a view of the Hallgrímskirkja bathed in evening light. We couldn't resist our now-favourite ice-cream shop on the way back to the hostel, so packed for the evening that we had to take ticket numbers and wait to be served. I've now sampled kiwi, white chocolate and bubblegum, but green apple has to be the fave.
The Kex bar was as buzzing as usual, and we scooped up an American friend and some new British ones with whom to enjoy our final night in the city. The sun was setting peachily over the ocean as we wrote postcards and discussed coming back to Iceland to work after graduation, which is not an uncommon proposition for foreign travellers and one that has been looking more and more appealing to me by the day in this country. My sights are now set on the Blue Lagoon tomorrow and my near-and-yet-so-far homeland, but my long distance vision is already formulating my next trip to Iceland armed with more time, money, and waterproofs. Until next time, Reykjavik.
My last day in Iceland was blessed with absolutely glorious weather. Barely a wisp of cloud in the sky and the gentlest of breezes as I enjoyed Kex's sun-drenched comforts for the very last time and chugged towards Keflavik and the Blue Lagoon. Someone last night described the Icelandic landscape as otherworldly, and the scenery floating by the window during the drive would certainly attest to that. Someone told me that Neil Armstrong and co spent a whole lot of time in the Icelandic planes before shooting into space - it's the closest you can get to walking on a real-life lunar landscape, and the rocky lava fields stretching on towards bare and barren mountains do bring the moon to mind. Everything was simultaneously glaring and hazy under the cloudless sky, with one side of the road harsh and bare as a desert with the other dropping straight off into ocean. Occasionally we rounded bends in the road and green sloping hills burst into view along the coastline, almost reminiscent of Cornwall, and it wasn't long before the steam clouds of the lagoon came into view, blaringly white against all that black rock, and its neon blue itself crept into our sights.
Icelandic law requires a full and thorough swimsuit-less shower before entering the lagoon, and I charged through all the faff of wristbands and towels and lockers to burst out into the sunlight and plunge into its deliciously warm and stupidly blue depths. The water is pale and almost opaque to the point of your body becoming invisible more than an inch below the surface. It's warmer than a bath, and sometimes uncomfortably so. The lagoon is so stuffed with minerals that it's easy to float along blissfully almost entirely above the surface of the water, totally oblivious to how far your drifting takes you - to the displeasure of all the other bathers around you and the pain of whacking into the rocky surroundings. I swam in and out of the puffs of steam from the bubbling geothermal pool, was pummelled by the artificial massaging waterfall, and struggled for breath in the close and dripping steam baths - one carved right into the rockface to resemble a dark and misty lava cave and the other with moist white walls like the silicon mud everyone scoops from vats and plasters across their face and body. I wish I had had more time here as I could easily have whiled away an entire day in the lagoon's milky waters, but my flight and the state of my straw-like salty hair prevented more than a couple of hours of carefree floating. A wonderfully relaxing experience. Don't miss it.
Reykjavik has been a novel and incredibly unique European experience for me. It's a buzzing city full of cool places and cool people, culture and wonderful aesthetics, and I would love to spend more time here some day. Or maybe live and work here for a while - it's full of young and restless foreigns soaking the city up for a few months while they work out what to do with their lives. The landscape around the capital (and, I'm sure, beyond) is ethereal and begging to be absorbed, and I promise to be back to explore the what lies to the south and the far West. Goodbye Iceland. It has truly been a pleasure, and I'm already planning my return.