I spent a weekend in Iceland recently, something I’d had pinned near the top of my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Here’s what I made of it:
The second largest ‘city’ in Iceland apparently has a population of less than 20,000, so to say everything is run from Reykjavik is one massive understatement. It’s an interesting place, quite sparse even in the centre, and seemingly based largely around small, localised businesses and an engaging social scene.
The whole thing’s towered over by the angular Hallgrimskirkja, which sits at the top of the hill in the city centre, while the main streets are lively and artsy, with lots of murals and a lodge-like architecture to the place (aside from Harpa, on the harbour, which is a stunning modern venue).
There’s a house down by the harbour that’s supposed to be located where the city was originally settled, and while the place is inundated with tourists, it does seem to keep largely local leaning in its outlook (if you can ignore the restaurants advertising puffin and whale meals, and a couple of overpriced souvenir shops, at least).
I was particularly taken with spots like the harbour-side Flea Market and the little city square (which I’d previously seen in pictures of Iceland celebrating their Euro 2016 win over England last summer), as well as the record stores and abundant coffee shops.
I can imagine it being the kind of place that’s quite intimate, in the sense that the population naturally limits what’s on offer, but given the Icelandic music scene is centred here and (in my opinion, at least), rivals that of places far, far bigger, I can imagine a longer stay being a lot of fun. That and the possibility of running into Bjork on a night out.
I played the proper tourist for a few days, though having my own ‘local guide’ certainly helped to see a few things that I might not otherwise have spotted (a few worth mentioning: the flea market, student bars, some of the street art and a really cool record shop called 12 Tonar).
But let’s do the big stuff. I decided to take the obvious route and do the Golden Circle tour, though I was sorely tempted by another one looking mainly at the south coast. The tour has three main stops, all of which are (unsurprisingly) fantastic natural features, and takes a nice little detour to see where local people bake bread by burying it in hot sand, and to check out some tomatoes (which I’ll come to later).
The first main site is Geysir, which is exactly what it sounds like; in fact it’s the geyser which gave other geysers their name. The place looks a bit like a scene from a dinosaur movie, with lots of boiling, bubbling little sections of water, while the rocks take on strange rainbow shades and the air stinks of sulphur. The main attraction bursts into the air every few minutes in front of hundreds of people, all clutching their cameras as they try to snap the moment. I was more taken with the little bubbling fields and streams myself, which look like they’d make great swimming spots, though that would probably be unwise.
We moved on to Gullfoss, a raging torrent of a waterfall falling down to steps of rock, which comes with a slightly optimistic anecdote about a shepherd who once trekked over after spending a season watching a girl on the other side. Maybe water levels are lower at winter.
Finally there’s Thingvallir, which is the original Icelandic parliament, set in a dramatic valley between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. You can find traces of the original temporary homes built here around the sides, but now it’s better known for its role in Game of Thrones (the side of one of the plates plays ‘the wall’). There’s a great atmosphere to the place: it’s the kind of place I’d love to throw a tent up and hang around in the mossy ground staring at the stars for a few days, and hoping the Northern Lights appear (they didn’t during my stay, sadly).
We also dropped out to the Blue Lagoon on the last evening, a spot I’ve been eying as a ‘must see’ for years (it’s really pricey, but no regrets). It’s almost mystical in the dark, full of underwater lighting and little sections that you can drift between, with natural temperature changes as you make your way around. There are silicon masks to coat your face in, giving a kind of ghostly feel. The lagoon is sea water, which surprised me, and the 20-25 metre walk from the building to the lagoon is a form of quick, frozen torture (but one that’s worth the rewards).
There’s an area outside that has a tiny network of pathways, lit up with tiny lamps in the darkness, where all the silica sticks to the volcanic rocks, and although there’s a hotel (which looks incredible, with little balconies over a volcanic pond outside each room) at one end and the lagoon at the other, it gives a little taste of what the place might have been like before all this went up. There’s probably somewhere elsewhere in Iceland that has something similar to the Blue Lagoon left natural. I’d love to see it.
“I try not to think of the prices so I can enjoy it,” my generous host David told me on the first day. He was kind enough to accommodate me on the floor of his student accommodation, which probably saved me a week’s salary. So yes, it’s very expensive. To give an idea: beer is €6 to €11. A day tour is €80. A bus ride from the airport is over €20 one way. A meal out would start (main only) at about €20 (or €12-15 for fast food), and I found a couple of standard sized chocolate bars on one of my tours priced at over €5. So yeah, not a place to go with a hard budget. I’m not sure it would put me off returning, though.
I expected Iceland to be a kind of sparse, desolate place in many respects, and it is (that’s not a complaint, I liked the feel). What I didn’t expect was that it would carry over so strongly into how people seem to live on the island. There’s a kind of stylish minimalism to the place: while compact for (presumably) warmth, Reykjavik’s busiest streets still find space for art and little patches of grass. People seem less into ‘things’: obviously my experience of the houses for of real Icelanders is verging on non-existent, but what I did feel is that people had a lot less, but used it a lot more. The little coffee shops, for example, were all simply stylish but very utilitarian.
Perhaps that’s not surprising, given everything is so expensive. We’re kind of hooked on a consumerist culture here – I think very little of buying a lot of the things I snap up – while Iceland’s approach seems more considered and more focused. I saw it in the way people seem to buy: less, less often, and with more feeling. Conversation with beers, rather than beers with a side of conversation. Slow, philosophical and fun.
You can take all the above with a pinch of salt, of course. How much can you really know a place in three days? But it’s the feel I got. And I really liked it.
A Few Other Little Things I Really Enjoyed
– I tried fermented shark. Just one cube of it, because it didn’t taste great (though actually it wasn’t awful, either, just quite harsh). I didn’t touch the puffins or whale, though, as I’m reliably informed virtually nobody local does, either.
– The Golden Circle tour featured a tomato greenhouse. That doesn’t sound that impressive until you learn it operates using volcanic water to heat the atmosphere, as well as huge lights charged entirely with green energy, and ships in bees to pollinate from Holland on a weekly basis. They still find time to serve bloody Marys to assorted tourists. They make 20% of Iceland’s tomatoes, which in turn makes them far fresher and more affordable. Oddly fascinating.
– 12 Tonar. The record store I mentioned above, is obviously the heart of a community, with little listening corners, coffee for visitors, lots of local music memorabilia and big notebooks full of drawings people have made sat in the corners. I’d have been tempted to buy heaps of Samaris vinyl, but like everything, it was pretty steep.
Assorted stuff I Feel Like Mentioning
– Iceland has a very, very high level of green energy. A great example of this is the huge pipeline that ships volcanically heated water from the active areas of the island back to Reykjavik. The pipeline from the volcanically active area in the centre-west of the country is so well insulated that the water loses only 0.5 degrees as it travels along it. It then heats all the houses.
– There’s a whole load of stuff you just can’t buy in Iceland. If nobody has set up a business importing something (and it’s not one of the comparatively small number of things made locally), you probably can’t get it here. Think lots of books, clothing brands, types of food etc.
– Iceland has an app, for dating. I heard a bit about Icelandic dating culture over the weekend, most of which was anecdotal but interesting nevertheless (it sounds very different to ours). But this app, that came up a couple of times, is the thing that really had me chuckling. Apparently, it allows people who meet out and about to check how closely they’re related. Small populations have their problems, I guess!
– There are lots of Irish words in Icelandic, and lots of Irish DNA, much of which it’s believed originated on the female side (Icelanders actually know the names of most of the original settlers of the island). The tour guides like to joke that the people who settled the island left Ireland on their boats, a few women got wind of it and decided it was a better option than staying back home. Cue ‘I’m going to repopulate an island’ jokes. They might not be wrong, to be fair.
All of the above with thanks to David, for his hospitality.