Sleepless in Iceland

Travellers often say that one of the best ways to know a new place well is to get lost in it.  On my first and only visit to Reykjavík (thus far), that phrase rang true for me more than ever. Now – I never did lose my sense of direction, and the Icelandic people spoke perfect English so I was hardly in the same state as Bob Harris in Tokyo – but I happened to swing by very close to Midsummer’s. In June, the sun hardly fully set. Most of the night time photos you will see in this post were taken between midnight and 3am. The second thing which contributed to my sense of being somewhere truly foreign was how the country simply flung me into the arms of its untampered, raw and glorious natural surroundings.

1. The city centre of Reykjavík

You couldn’t go to Iceland and plan to stay put in Reykjavík (the “j” sounds like a “y”). It’s a small city that as a tourist, you could cover in a day. The capital city only has a population of approximately 120,000 people and has often been touted as one of world’s cleanest and safest cities. But you simply could not afford to miss out on having a look around. I arrived at midnight, parked my luggage in my rented room (actual hotels are situated away from the city centre) and set out to explore by foot. The streets were quite obviously, deserted. It was a lonely trek, with no company. But the experience was magical, and the sights were fantastical. Every new street I turned into bore a name I could neither pronounce nor understand, but I studied them carefully nonetheless. I took of photo of them so that I could look back upon snapshots of wondrousness, when time and the world seemed to have stood still. I would admire each residence longingly, wishing hard that it was a home I could call my own. Many a time I could have just abandoned my adventure in the city and stayed put, because I grew attached to each new scene I found myself in.

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2. Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja is iconic of Reykjavík for me in many ways. Firstly, it is a landmark after all – the largest church in Iceland and one of the highest structures in the country. Construction of it completed in 1992. Secondly, it served as my directional guide, for the room I rented was on this street:

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As it towered over all the other buildings in the city, I would always look to the skyline and find home. During the day, the church is open and I highly recommend a visit. The inside of the church is nice enough, but it is what you will see from the observatory deck at the top that will leave you in awe:

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I might point out that the photo above shows you the west, north-westerly part of the city, with Hallgrímskirkja positioned somewhat centrally in Reykjavík. In my time here I explored this part (as opposed to the eastern side) more thoroughly by foot. To me, things just seemed more quaint, interesting and accessible here. The Eastern, Northern and Southern directions are also observable from the top of the church too, but I liked this view best. Another tourist attraction, Perlan, can be seen from the south-facing window.

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3. Find Sólfar and Harpa as you walk along the northern sea path (Sæbraut)

I have always been curious about Nordic history and Vikings, and I am equally curious as to the reasons of my curiosity. But when I was researching on what I would do and/or see in Reykjavík, Google produced an image of a sculpture that I could not imagine being any more Viking-like. The Sólfar (The Sun Voyager) . As a layman, to me it looked very much like the structure of a Viking ship. It was mysterious and elegant and seemed to me to capture every essence of what I believed to be Viking. You can read more about it here.

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Harpa is a newly built addition to the architecture of the city (opened in 2011). It’s a concert hall and conference centre. It’s special and stands out because it’s a nod towards the city’s march towards contemporary, modern architecture. It’s also worth a wander inside. There was a show going on when I was there – judging by the informational brochure which said “100% English” and “not starring Björk”, it seems to me that I would quite enjoy the Icelandic sense of humour!

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If you walk all the way to the end of Sæbraut, just next to Harpa, you’ll get to the pier. It’s a quaint spot to enjoy a perfect moment of serenity.

4. Jökulsárlón

Let’s venture out of the city. With the limited time I had, there were choices to be made. I had whittled down my options to two. The first was going to Jökulsárlón, and the second was picking what looked like a tourist’s rite of passage when visiting Iceland, known as the “Golden Circle“. Both options were going to be a full day trip. If you get the chance, do both. For me, I went with what was the more difficult journey, and the one that was only available during summer. In winter, Jökulsárlón would be frozen over and the drive out to it would be significantly more hazardous (if you could find a tour company to take you there in the first place).

Getting from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón, a large glacial lake, is about a 3 hour drive. You are essentially travelling from the southwest of the country to the southeast. The lake is just situated at the outskirts of the expansive Vatnajökull National Park. The scenery along the way was overwhelmingly dominated by nothingness; and for the first time ever I was awed by how nothing could seem so much like everything. We drove past Eyjafjallajökull too – this was the volcano which caused havoc with air travel in Europe when it erupted in 2010. The tour guide/driver told us that they wouldn’t construct anything here other than basic infrastructure i.e. a road, because the volcano had erupted so frequently in recent times. The magma from the eruptions flowed freely towards the North Atlantic Ocean; pushing out and destroying all in its path, resulting in the extremely flat geography here – where on one side of the road was black volcanic soil and on the other was the grey sea. At one point, the road veered so close to the sea, I could imagine how frightening it must be to traverse this terrain in winter – with unobstructed wind gusting ferociously across the land, threatening to topple or blow any vehicle out to the sea, and the freeze turning the road into one giant black slide.

When I arrived, what I saw left me floored:

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The curious thing which baffled me was that these blue giant rocks of ice were floating on a lake (not the sea!), in summer. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how this wondrous vision came about. I just enjoyed it. Apparently the ice has been here for thousands of years, but are at risk of melting due to global warming. I wish there was something we could do to protect this. A fun fact: Jökulsárlón has appeared in various Hollywood films too!

I even tasted a piece of ice which the tour operator handed out to all of us (I didn’t verify if the block of ice really came from one of the icebergs before my eyes).

On the way back, we made a few more stops; one at a waterfall named Seljalandsfoss and another at a tiny stop which sold souvenirs. By the way, if you’re wondering about the tour I went with, it was Reykjavik Excursions. The company operates many tours around the country and their website provides a comprehensive list of things to do, very useful if you are fortunate enough to be planning a trip here.

5. Blue Lagoon

One of the most visited tourist attractions of Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is a geothermal hot spring recreation centre. They charge per entry, and offer extravagant packages with price tags to match. Many stop by on their way to the airport as they head home. What’s not to like about a carefree soak in milky blue hot spring water? Dotted around the rock pools are buckets of silica mud, where guests are invited to slap on as much (or as little) white goo on their faces and bodies. The benefits are well documented. Please do yourself a favour and go if you ever find yourself in this part of the world.

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6. What to eat and what to buy?

I’m sure many will have varying experiences and anecdotes to offer here. Mine involved the following:

Stopping by “Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur” – literally “the best hotdog in town”. Bill Clinton had eaten here too! I had not one, but two of the “ein men öllu” hotdog. It came with the works: lamb-based hotdog, ketchup, mustard, fried and raw onion and remoulade. I don’t know if it was the mustard or the remoulade (the brown sauce) which tasted rather sweet! It’s really just a hot dog stand and offered a cheap and filling dinner, especially at a time when all the restaurants had closed:

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Kæstur hákarl i.e. fermented shark (I saw it, took a photo, but no, I didn’t try any):

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Reyka, Icelandic vodka. I have yet to taste the bottle I bought at the airport, but it looked to good not to buy:

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Skyr. Iceland’s most iconic and absolutely famous dairy-based snack. You should try it too, it’s really good. Smoother and less acidic than yoghurt, but of a thicker consistency:

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On a future visit I might try some proper dining. Trip Advisor gives a comprehensive list of places to eat at, and I’m sure Icelandic cuisine would give one further insight into the country’s culture. I already have a place in mind, one of this I’ve read great things about: Dill. It’s head chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason has written a cookbook, entitled “North“, which apparently is very challenging to cook from but provides another way to the roots of Icelandic culture and cuisine. You might have noted that the link I’ve provided to the review of North is to a website called The Reykjavik Grapevine. I found a printed version of their paper at the airport and have been following it ever since for my Icelandic fix. Have a look there, it’s great.

Another thing you could consider acquiring here would be Icelandic wooden jumpers. They were everywhere and featured a distinctive design. I found the wool slightly too rough and thick to be worn in places where the cold didn’t ever get quite as extreme as it did in Iceland.

A word on eating and shopping in Iceland. Things are pretty pricey here and proper planning could save you from breaking the bank account.

***

I left Iceland still barely believing that I had spent the past few days (yes, no nights) there. It occurred to me that I had actually travelled so far from home, and had set foot in a place that seemed more likely to be a part of my dreams. Indeed, this was as far north in the world I had ever been. I met strangers who were so friendly and welcoming. One of them even stopped to pose in a photo with me, and another two waved in my direction as I tried to capture as much of this lovely city lest my memory should fail. I was thoroughly worn out from seeing and doing as much as I could in the time that I had. And yet I had barely scratched the surface; I simply cannot wait to be back to chance witnessing the Northern Lights with my very own eyes.

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