Preparations and expectations are as much a part of journeys as arrivals but it was a trial to face mundane considerations of what to pack for my short stay in Reykjavík.
Most bloggers, tweeters and travel guides recommend winter wear even when traveling in the summer months. They are not wrong. At this time of year it is light all day but this does not mean there is constant sunshine.
Temperatures rarely exceed 23◦ C and are often much lower. The evenings are cool and it also rains a lot so waterproof clothing is considered essential. Dressing as you would for a typical Autumnal day in Northern England is a good rule of thumb guide. While I was there the temperature was a little chilly at an average of around 17◦ C (I needed a hat!) but the air feels so good and pure.
Soon after arriving, I experienced a prime example of the pragmatism of the Icelandic people when I asked a tour guide if I needed rainproof clothing for a day excursion to The Golden Circle. She replied: “If it rains, yes!”
I can’t remember exactly when I began to get obsessed about the idea of going to Iceland but the wealth of amazing music coming from this small country was certainly a major factor. For this reason I has to pinch myself when the co-owner of the apartment I had booked turned out to be named Sigurrós. This is akin to a foreigner visiting Liverpool for the first time and being greeted by a John Lennon.
In just three full days I could only get a fleeting impression of the city. My sole out-of-town experience was confined to a memorable eight-hour excursion (with commentary in English & Scandinavian) to Geysir hot springs, the Gulfoss waterfall and the National Park (the Golden Circle).
Still, I’m happy to say that my spectacles remain as resolutely rose-tinted as they were before my trip. I’d love to return with more time and money to explore the whole island.
So, without further ado, here are some of my impressions :
The people are universally kind, friendly and nice. I saw an middle-aged man looking for a CD of local music being helped by a young female shop assistant who patiently explained what Indie music is without a trace of condescension.
I saw one drunk being gently removed from the bus station by two police officers. He shouted to complain but looked so ruggedly handsome that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was an actor employed to show that a less savoury side of the city does exist.
No mean streets are visible, however. The police are unarmed and crime is, like pollution and unemployment, practically non-existent.
English is spoken everywhere and the natural way the locals switch from their mother tongue is a tribute to the island’s language teachers. It’s something of a shock to encounter anyone who is not bilingual. I imagine there are more who stick resolutely to their native Icelandic beyond the capital but since over a third of the Nordic island’s 332,000 population live in or near the city this doesn’t affect most visitors.
Apparently, the ‘youth’ like to party hard although the extended pub crawls on Friday and Saturday nights were just one of many activities recommended in my pocket Rough Guide that I didn’t experience first hand.
The cost of living.
As most people are aware, prices are very expensive, at least 50% higher than those I’m used to in Italy. For example, rental cars start from around 150 euro ($167) a day and paperback books average 18 euro ($20). As even the smallest purchases can be made by credit card you can survive easily without cash, thus delaying the shock of how much you have spent!
I saw grilled puffins on one menu but it’s a myth that most of the population eat whale meat and I saw many signs condemning this practice.
Fish and chips is a gourmet meal and even as a vegan I have to admit that the locally caught fish, like the home produced creamy Skyr yogurt, look very tempting.
Vegetarians are adequately catered for (nothing special but you won’t starve!) and I can personally vouch for the high quality of the Gló restaurant in the centre (one of four in the greater Reykjavík area). This is not 100% veggie but as it is run by an award-winning raw food chef (Solla Eiríks) there are plenty of clearly labelled options for vegetarians and vegans.
The coffee culture.
I admire any city that takes coffee drinking seriously so Reykjavík immediately rates high. There are refueling points at every turn. Most book stores have great coffee shops. In Tónar record store I was immediately offered a free espresso as a further encouragement (which I hardly needed!) to use the comfortable listening stands.
The black stuff is priced at a fairly steep 3.75 euro ($4.18) a cup though refills are standard.
I treasure the memory in Reykjavík Roasters of a big man in multicolored latex trousers on the day of a Gay Pride rally knitting near to the bar’s turntable where a vinyl edition of Tame Impala’s ‘Currents’ was playing, a cool factor on a par with the hippest joints in Portland, Oregon.
Culture in general.
There are quite a few museums of art and local history but even for a culture vulture like me it seemed a pity to be stuck inside buildings when the settings and the surrounding landscape are so astoundingly beautiful.
Nevertheless, a walk around the Harpa concert hall on the harbour-side is a must not just for the superb views of the coast but to experience the stunning effects of shadows and light in this amazing piece of modern architecture. It’s also worth paying to go in the lift up the tower of the Hallgrímskirka church for great views of the coloured houses in the city.
Penises and pools.
If I had more time, or if the weather had been worse, I would probably have visited the Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn (the world’s only Penis Museum) for the novelty value alone. However, if you are male and want a glimpse of local genitalia then I’d recommend a trip to one of the many outdoor pools and hot pubs in the centre. This is also a good way to see how Icelanders unwind before or after work.
Strict rules of hygiene apply so you are obliged to shower in the nude and scrub yourself thoroughly before setting foot in the pool. Being accustomed to changing rooms in Italy where most men guard their privates rigorously being confronted by the full frontal nudity came as something of a culture shock.
In the pool I went to (Vesturbaejarlaug) there is a standard 25m swimming pool ringed by 6 steaming tubs of varying temperature levels . The most popular, and relaxing, is around 38◦ C while one exceeding 40 ◦ C is not one to linger in. I wimpishly skipped the lone cold tub option.
A unisex sauna rounded off an experience that left me feeling glowing and extremely clean.
There are no railways in Iceland. From Keflavik International airport it’s a 45 minute coach ride. Once you are downtown, it takes just half an hour to walk across the whole city centre so all you really need is stout shoes. I’d say buses are only needed if you want to explore the suburbs or if it’s really peeing down. There’s one of those hop-on-hop-off open top bus tours you find in every major city but in Reykjavík this strikes me as a complete waste of Krona.
A sobering conclusion.
Tourism is so massive that it seems highly likely that it will overtake the fishing industry as Iceland’s main source of income. As Johnny Rotten sagely noted “tourists are money” and surely the global companies will not be slow to note that the country is on the up again after recent financial crises. McDonald’s shut down all its three branches on the island in 2009 but, after initially being snubbed, a Hard Rock cafe looks set to open in the centre of Reykjavík and surely more restaurants and chain stores will follow.
To date, Iceland has resisted Vikings and volcanoes but it remains to be seen if it can also withstand the invasion and eruption of global forces. My advice is to go now before the corporations beat you to it.