Hot springs? Tick. Midnight sun? Tick. Ice and snow? Not so much.
I’m a big fan of careering off on illogical adventures at relatively short notice, so when my housemate James asked me about a fortnight ago if I wanted to come to Reykjavik for a free Bjork gig I mightily hit the “YES” button with mahoosive portions of enthusiasm.
The first thing to hit me about Iceland upon landing was the sunshine. Not because I live in England and there is none, but more that there was a late-dawn/early-dusk level of light about and our plane had landed at 1:30am. As our hostel literature suggested check-in closed at 10pm it seemed in our best interest to get to it as swiftly as possible, and the transport option therefore was a taxi. Hence, the 2nd thing to hit me was the expense of the place. Without wanting to harp on incessantly about it, the cab ride from the airport was 10,000 Kroner. 10,000! I steeled myself for a weekend in a country where anything routine could cost 10,000 of something. Checkin was pretty painless, and it could have been a trick of the light on my exhausted eyes, but the girl who checked us in seemed to do so without moving her lips at all.
On Saturday, being my birthday, we ambled down the main drag for coffee, a spot of t-shirt buying, and a look around the centre of Reykjavik. It was a clean, friendly place, with not too many people around and loads of statues (I thought). I’d say that there was a disproportionately large number of statues & sculptures about for the size of the city, but then maybe we’d inadvertently found ourselves in the statue district.
For a special birthday treat James & I decided to go to the restaurant across from the tourist centre. It looked a nice place, and it offered an “Icelandic Feast”, comprised of salmon, lobster bisque, and lamb entree, then a main course of whale and puffin. We found out later that it’s also one of the priciest restaurants in the city. Ah well, you’re only 32 once, right?
For the evening we made our way down to the park for the event which was in fact the reason we were in Iceland – a concert by Bjork & Sigur Ros. The event was to raise awareness of environmental issues, and specifically to protest about the increase in aluminium mining which is going on in Iceland at the moment. Many of the people are upset that their unique and beautiful ecosystems are being harvested for mining, and clearly Iceland’s two biggest musical exports were right behind the cause. The gig was heaving, with an estimated turnout of 30,000 – 10% of Iceland’s population! The wind was whipping up a fair gale that evening as well, but we huddled in there like penguins (which only served to remind me of our afternoon meal) as Sigur Ros took stage. One girl appeared to be suffering from particularly horrific windburn, or perhaps she worked in a spraybooth – very hard to tell from our vantage point.
One slight disadvantage to not speaking Icelandic was that we had little/no idea what anyone on stage was saying, however we periodically showed our commitment to the cause by shouting “Down with smelting!” at moments we felt were probably appropriate. We weren’t thrown out, so it can’t have been too far from the mark. And in spite of our lack of Icelandic, all Icelanders apparently speak English, so we were a bit exposed there. They speak Danish too. And some speak German as well. 4 languages – not bad for a small island… the “no land borders” defence that we tend towards in Australia really doesn’t hold up after seeing this.
The night finished with Bjork’s set, and it was nothing short of exceptional. She started to a bombastic trumpet fanfare and was led on by a brass band, and absolutely owned that stage. As the wind whipped around she looked every inch a sorceress, gyrating and waving her hands as the sub bass thundered and echoed around us. The gig reached a brief hiatus as Bjork encouraged the crowd to sing Happy Birthday in Icelandic to one of the brass players – I know they weren’t directing it at me, but I can honestly claim that I had 30,000 Icelanders singing on my birthday.
We hiked back into town after the gig and went in search of tucker, finding a pizza place which had taken the unlikely decision to surface the floor of their shop with bitumen! Why not, eh?
(You may have noticed at this juncture that I’ve omitted any kind of detail about the music played at the gig – the chief reason for this is I’ve no idea what any of the songs were called. Even if I did, I’ve no idea how to make the weird viking characters appear on the screen, so NME can do the hard yards for me.)
Sunday morning called for some breakfast, and after pottering around about 6 cafe’s of which none had any food (although one had the best latte I’ve had in years) we resigned to asking at the tourist centre where a nice/cheap breakfast place was. Now, when asking a place name in a foreign country, it’s often advisable to get the direction-giver to write the name of the place down (and preferably scratch out a map of some sort) in order to give you a ghost of a chance of finding the place. She probably didn’t even tell us a place name – she probably just said “f*** off” in Icelandic knowing full well we’d have no idea or recollection of what she’d said. With the help of 2 more tourism offices we eventually found what amounted to a soup kitchen in the dock area – assuming that our low-rent appearance had precipitated our being directed there. The soup, however, turned out to be the most flavoursome lobster soup, as well as a shishkebab of halibut to share. Not bad for £14 each!
Returning to the city, we popped in to The Culture House museum: I’ve long been interested in Viking mythology, and this museum housed the Elder Edda – the 13th century text containing much Norse legend. I was quite caught up in the whole thing, having read about this thing since I was about 17. The opportunity to see firsthand the actual ancient texts made me giddy with excitement. My joy was shortlived however, as I looked at the pages and the reality that I can’t speak a word of Old Norse really set in. As well as the ancient sagas, the museum also housed an exhibition about the protected volcanic island of Surtsey – an island which formed as a result of volcanic eruption in 1963 and is now being studied by scientists as a model for bird & plantlife progression.
That evening (although really it was only the clock that gave away the fact it was evening) we went on a bus tour with possibly the world’s most introverted tour driver. High point of the trip being where he dropped us at a roadside cafe and said “Grab a bite and in 40 minutes I’ll pick you up at the bottom of the stairs”. James & I had a ham & cheese sandwich each & chatted with the dudes working at the place, then made our way down when there were 5 minutes to go – discovering only then that at the bottom of the stairs was Gullfoss – one of Iceland’s most beautiful and popular waterfalls! The bloke never even mentioned it…
We also stopped at a geyser system, which provided a naturally occurring way to spray thousands of litres of hot sulphurous water into the air every 6 minutes or so.
Upon our return to Reykjavik and with the sun still well & truly up we thought we’d grab a pizza. When the bitumised pizza shack proved to be shut, we thought maybe beer was the option, but then found our favourite bar on the trip (where James fancied the girl who worked there) was also shut. Throwing caution to the wind we bowled into the first remotely open-looking place we could find (not VERY open – there were only 4 people there, obviously involved in a private soiree). Never ones to be constricted by social convention, we got chatting to the people in the bar, and wound up drinking & chatting with them til about 2:30am. You can’t imagine the mix of guilt & confusion one feels when one sees the sun peeping in around the pub curtains, only to realise that it’s not actually breakfast time after all.
Finally on Monday morning the time to relctantly set off was upon us. We were way cleverer this time though: rather than spending ISK10,000 on a taxi to Keflavik Airport, we spent ISK4000 each on a bus trip & admittence to The Blue Lagoon – a geothermal spa & generally cool place to chill out & relax. I haven’t got any photos of this, primarily because I didn’t want to risk drowning my otherwise indestructible camera, but also because I found myself in the unenviable position of having to rent a pair of shorts for the afternoon. I suspected the shorts were too tight when my testicles shot up and settled behind my ears. A nice relaxing place to spend a couple of hours though – lounging around in the 40 degree nutrient-rich water, as well as getting a back/neck massage from the waterfall, and availing ourselves of the sauna & steam rooms as well. Seemed a shame to have to leave the place.
So that was Iceland. Beautiful place, would love to go back.