Iceland, the Land of Ice and Fire is a dream destination for me, active volcanoes, Reykjavik, Vikings, glaciers and the visible mid-Atlantic rift it cannot fail to excite!
It may come as a surprise to some to learn that most of the country is actually located outside of the Arctic Circle with only the far Northern islands within it! Sandwiched between Europe and Greenland it is one of the planets youngest ‘countries’ being less than thirty thousand years old. Geologically active with volcanoes and geysers, and is the meeting point of two continental tectonic plates all of which provides an extremely dramatic landscape.
I was hoping that a chance to see the firework display of the Gods; the Aurora Borealis may arise. Aware however that it may still be a little early in the year to see this spectacular display. Eternally optimistic, I went anyway. The other main highlight for me would be a chance to see some whales, swimming gracefully in the sea and not in oil on a dinner plate!
Flying into Iceland itself was a little surreal, only glimpsing a small part of the island, but it appeared to be mainly large expanses of barren landscape, punctuated with the odd lake or hill. There were features that from the air appeared to be small fissures and rock outcrops, but on the ground were major fractures in the Earth’s surface with cliffs probably several hundred feet high.
Landing at the airport was reminiscent of some other airports Mount Pleasant on the Falkland Islands and Thumrait in Oman, equally bleak!
The coach trip from the airport to Reykjavik was uneventful, and again the barrenness of the landscape was striking. If it wasn’t for the short carpet like grass everywhere it could have been the surface of the moon! The small hillocks jutting randomly out of the flat land were even more stark and remote when viewed from ground level.
There were also clusters of uniform box-like industrial buildings with multi-coloured roofs, and there also seemed to be a lot of development, new roads and buildings sprouting just about everywhere.
Several days were spent wandering around the Icelandic capital city. There is plenty to keep most travellers occupied; museums, sights, cosy and modern coffee shops, plenty of other shopping options for those so inclined and it is well known for its late night drinking culture.
Hallgrimkirkja Church is one of the main attractions but unfortunately at the time of my visit extensive renovations of the famous tower were underway and the view was not much to boast about (it really does look like a space ship though!). A trip up the tower provides some great views over the city however and well worth a small donation to the church. Looking over the rooftops towards Mount Esja and the municipal airport, it was ideal for taking some photographs.
It is easy to get around Reykjavik on foot, and although built on a slight hill, a very pleasant stroll around downtown. Several very enjoyable, chilled out days touring were spent exploring this lively city walking and making use of the bus service. A Tourist Card is a great investment; it entitles the user to free journeys on city buses, entry to the seven thermal swimming pools, the zoo and to various museums and galleries.
Due to this the Reykjavik Art Museum/Gallery warranted a visit. I am not an art critic so nobody should be offended to hear the display did not impress much. There seemed to be a lot of contemporary and abstract type paintings and it just didn’t appeal to me whatsoever, although in its own right the artwork is very accomplished.
An intriguing piece by a lady architect called ‘The Path’ was quite interesting however. Consisting of a walkway beyond a door, once the door is closed there is the effect of an enclosed, semi-dark maze. Continuing through until it is impossible to go any further, although I did attempt to squeeze through the gap that seemed to be at the end but then it is just a case of retracing back to the start. There is a warning that it can be mildly claustrophobic as you enter but it can definitely be described as a “walk of art.”
The weather was playing a little game, it would start to rain and my umbrella would come out, so it would stop, once it was away again the rain would start. This was the pattern for several days, no matter how sneaky the umbrella concealment, the rain was always one step ahead. Obviously a great deal more practice was required on my umbrella deployment skills.
City of nightlife
A visit to Reykjavik would not be complete without sampling the nightlife too. My favourite bar turned out to be called “The Dubliner;” an Irish bar playing live music and selling Guinness, could hardly go wrong could it? Larrs from my hostel introduced me to it, having adopted it as his local. A pleasant evening was spent chatting and enjoying a drink. All of them were students, including the only girl in our happy little band Anna. She was from Germany and would be studying in Iceland for eight months as part of her final semester, when she would then likely go travelling around Central America.
During my visit the almost all conquering heroes of the Icelandic silver medal winning Olympic handball team were given a civic welcome home. A large civic reception celebrating their impressive success was hastily arranged, but almost as soon as they had received their huge pat on the back and the whole party fizzled out to nothing in a matter of minutes.
These modern day Vikings are the current heroes of an adoring population but evidence of their fearsome forebears is scattered all over the City. There is the iconic ship situated near the harbour with the haunting Mount Esja as a backdrop dominating the view from anywhere in the City. The National Museum and smaller Saga Museum provide an insight into their culture and are well worth a visit, with plenty of interesting exhibits and a number of interactive displays.
I visited before the great crash of the Icelandic economy so there was not much in Reykjavik that could be described as cheap but I did find a small place in the downtown area selling great value, basic but tasty pasta. I enjoyed a simple but enjoyable meal at “The Deli” on a number of occasions. If you are ever there it has my recommendation almost as good as five Michelin stars.
Reykjavik is a great base for exploring with plenty of excursions from with the bus station and internal airport. It is definitely worth a visit in its own right with plenty of attractions but exploring the rest of this amazing destination beckoned and it was time to go find some more adventures.