Published: October 16th 2011May 14th 2006
Reykjavik in the Winter
Reykjavik covered in snow & ice. I was surprised that there was no snow or ice removal in Reykjavik 101
New York is known for many things but not its' Danish. I longed for the inanely decadent mille-feuille pastry I had in Scandinavia, layers of sheer pleasure. Plus a visit to Iceland is crucial to escape the distractions of Manhattan. So this "Lover of the Arctic Circle's" search for ephiphany abroad brought me to the northernmost capital in the world. "Reykjavik" named by the first settlers, the Vikings in 800AD, the "Land of Smoke" (which is actually the steam rising from the ground in underground geothermal hot springs with 300-700 degree F. waters.)
I consulted the U.S. State Dept. website to check for travel warnings before I left. There are no terrorist or crime threats here, but I would have to deal with frequent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and they warn that several tourists per year fall into boiling mud pots, hot springs or stand on fragile ground and are severely burned by erupting geysers. There are no ropes, rails or barriers. This is not Disney World.
I plow through Keflavik airport but no one seems to know where to go, even native Icelanders. They are expanding due to increased traffic. You can't follow anybody as there is usually no
one around and you find yourself trundling down deserted hallways. My trip is off to a disastrous start as the immigration officer refuses to let me in after seeing my U.S. passport. "You are not planning to come into the country are you?" he says. Well yes, for a week, maybe less, I say. "No, no, no, I can't allow it", he is adamant. I plead my case & he grudgingly returns my passport. I ask the Icelandair ticket agent on the way back what is up. She says, we don't know what to do with you. You are the first American we have had in a while.
I didn't just arrive in another country, it seems like I landed on another planet: we land in a lava field and I must travel through a volcanic desert, the largest in Europe, for an hour before reaching Reykjavik. I am miffed that Icelandair lands in Keflavik at the former NATO air base even though Reykjavik has its own airport (it's for domestic flights only and I had the misfortune to come from North America). But it is actually a chance to see the countryside of Iceland, outside the city. There
Reykjavik 101 Street Scene
plenty of streets to explore;
Note: Kaffeebarinn is the brown building on the right.
are volcanic deserts (which look like the surface of the moon), geysers, glaciers, geothermal hot pots, volcanoes, violent storms, and yes, earthquakes. Iceland is somewhat of a bridge: the North American tectonic plate is separating from the Eurasian continent at a rate of 2cm per year, and the two continents are ripping apart here on the site of the first Viking Parliament in Pingvellir.
Reykjavik is small by world capital standards, only 280,000 people in the entire country and 170,000 live in Reykjavik. My hotel, the Nordica, is about 2 km from the very center of town (which is a pond, the Tjornin, that has been there since the ice age). There are 120 bars in this small berg and things get raucous late nights, especially weekends. Locals compare it to Bourbon St. New Orleans when warning innocent Americans. The U.S. State Dept. warns that the city after midnight on weekends is downright dangerous, filled with inebriated Icelanders and Brits who bop over from England. So a hotel outside the city centre is recommended if you value sleep, which is hard enough to do when there is 22 hours of daylight (not sunlight) this time of year (& no
chance to see the Northern Lights). As I enter the city I look for the gaggles of invading Vikings, but they are asleep and come out after 11pm to descend on downtown. I slid into a relaxed & warm welcome at the Nordica, a four-star hotel, the best in the city. Mount Esja looms majestically outside my window. My room is sheer Scandinavian: blond furniture, polished wood floors & beige fabrics. Breakfast in a cold climate is always substantial and for me an imperative. Here it includes: smoked salmon, marinated herring, scambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, Swedish sausage, ham, Swedish pancakes with syrup, 4 types of cereals, 3 types of juices, 5 types of yogurt, watermelon, honeydew & kiwi, the mythic Danishes reincarnated into little square pieces of pastry heaven, & an entire pot of excellent coffee placed on your table. I will clearly need a wheelbarrow to transport my force-fed liver back home.
Bleary from jet lag, I am lucky to get my room at 7:30am. Alas my friends phone at 8:00am & I leaped from my hotel to midtown Reykjavik (Centrum, 101) ravenous to experience all I have read about. I want the moon. The Golden Circle
City Hall on Tjornin Pond
Tour (the Gulfoss Waterfall, Geysir & Pingvellir (site of the 1st Viking Parliament in 930AD & the place where the North American tectonic plate is ripping apart from the Eurasian Continent), a ride on the white friendly Icelandic horses known for their special gait that makes them seem like they are flying through the air, and why not a one day trip to Greenland to see the polar ice cap? My Icelandic pals, are both not very optimistic. "It will use up all your time here" they warn.
So I will do what is doable, I will cover the city. There is plenty for a tourist to see here: Laekjatorg Square (the original center of the city where all roads radiate), Austurvollur Square, the new heart of the city (actually just a tiny grassy square with the Art Deco Hotel Borg on one end, where Marlena Dietrich stayed in 1944), Adalstraeti (the oldest street in town & site of the first farmstead in the 9th Century), Tjornin (the town pond created during the last ice age), City Hall (rising out of the pond), the Icelandic National Gallery, the Old Graveyard (go to see the patronymic naming system: you take your
father's name and add "son" after it if you are a boy or add "dottir" after it if you are a girl), Nordic House, Arni Magnusson Institute (he collected Icelandic manuscripts on 1000 year old calf skins - most Icelanders can trace their ancestors back to the middle ages), Bankastraeti (for the colorful array of iron clad houses and shops), Hallgrimskirka (the controversial rugged church reminiscent of a volcanic eruption that towers over the city-check out the observation deck on top for 800 ISK), the Reykjavik Art Museum, the Old Harbour with its briny smell -there's something fishy about Iceland) and of course the Perlan, a glass domed building that sits over the city's hot water tanks. Here you will find the Saga Museum, where you can learn the colorful saga of the Vikings, worth the 900 ISK price, at least to this Viking -obsessed guy. There's a cafeteria, excellent gift shop and a revolving restaurant on top that is expensive even for Icelandic inflated standards (figure $200.00 per person).
Which brings me to food. A vacation is the perfect excuse for excess. Iceland is proof that the further north you go, the better the food gets.You never know what is enough unless you know what's more than enough. So I throw my arteries in jeopardy. Then the stiff tariffs arrived. If you are eating out in Reykjavik, all restaurants are similarly priced: appetizers $23.00US, main courses $51.00, and desserts a whopping $26.00. Two can easily kiss $200.00 goodbye for 3 courses. Why, when fish can be pulled right from the waters in Reykjavik, was the piece of fish sitting on my plate $46.00US.? Icelandic kronur is mere paper. It flies out of my pocket.
My dinner at Vid Tjornina, an historic & intimate place near the pond, sent me rolling in intoxication. The scallops with tomato & olive oil were heady with flavor (1800 ISK or $25.72 US) the amuse bouche of fish roe cakes was unique under a drizzle of veggies and the Guillemot that my Icelandic chum insisted I order was a very gamy bird similar to a Puffin with dark venison flavored meat, purple on the inside (3100 ISK or $44.28 US) It was repulsive & intoxicating all at once. I thought I couldn't eat it at first bite, but then it was strangely addicting and I cleaned my plate of the potatoes roasted in butter, equally addictive. This unique place seats you in a drawing room to relax with drinks, then you change rooms for dinner, sort of like being in someone's house. After dinner, we went to see Icelandic singer Bjork's pristine white home on the other side of the Reykjavik Peninsula and had stopped by one of her favorite bars, Kaffeebarinn, the hippest hangout for artists & musicians, but I found it quirky with motley old furniture, though the staff is very friendly.
The following night my local guide took me to Vegamot, a stylish popular bar/bistro with international cuisine & an outdoor patio filled with introspective blonds reading, sketching, lying about (almost everyone in Reykjavik is a poet, artist or musician). No one is over 30. As my local guide is 15 years my junior, horrors, that makes me the oldest person in the place. But Icelanders are very tolerant and friendly. Here you can beat the menu tariffs by ordering 2 hamburgers platters with french fries and the check totalled a paltry 2800 ISK (a cool $40.00US). Shallow triumph. After all, we just had burgers.
At dinner, My Icelandic guide tells me about the elves. Many Icelanders believe in elves, faeries, ghosts, hidden people and other-worldly things. (Yes, they are quite serous). The elves love volcanic rock & live in the lava fields and under rocks and are particularly dense in the western suburb of Hafnarfjordur. The country actually operates around them. Careful planning when laying down highways is de rigueur as care must be taken not to disturb the elves under the rocks they reside. Which means that roads go in tiny traffic circles around these small rocks, particularly cumbersome for a bus to navigate, or when they needed to expand their hospital into an area populates by elves, they hired a psychic to communicate with them to ask permission for them to move for a good cause. My Icelandic guide wants to take me elf hunting after dinner. I politely decline. "Maybe next time", I say.
Speaking about building, homes are made of corrugated iron walls & roofs then painted a riot of primary colors creating a colorful town. As usual, I am too late to invest in a vacation home. Prices have tripled in the last five years, one bedroom apartments are now 10 million ISK (about $142,000.00 US) and 2 bedrooms apts. are a cool 25 million IKS ($357,000.00US).
The next day my local chum takes me to the Laugardalslaug Thermal Pool & Sports Complex for a therapeutic swim. There is strange swimming pool etiquette here. You must remove your shoes before entering the locker room (do not even carry them in, leave them in the hall), then you must shower with diagrams on the wall telling you where to scrub (Iceland doesn't use chlorine in the pools but fills it with natural thermal spring water). There are inspectors who make sure you do a correct job. Then you are ready to swim in 50 meter indoor & outdoor pools (the unusual summer weather when I am here means everyone is using the outdoor pool (imagine wearing a Speedo & nothing else outdoors in Iceland, yes it is possible, but I found it a bit chilly for my taste) & hot pots (check the temp readings before jumping in, some are more suitable to boil a lobster). We see everything here from local Icelandic families to two Icelandic football stars who are identical twins.
No visit would be complete without a visit to Nautholsvik Beach, a man-made beach just down the hill from the Perlan. Since the weather is warm, locals are descending to enjoy the day (life is so laid back that people just call in & say they won't be in to work or school, not a problem here-nothing is that pressing here that it can't wait).
Alas, it is time for me to leave my Nordic refuge. I love living in the sleek, modern, clean, stylish digs of my cacoon. Time to say "Bless" (goodbye) to tall, stylish blond people, and my new hangout, the city of Reykjavik, overgrown fishing village that went from unloved wallflower to trendy Euro destination. And I will no longer have seafood on my plate that was swimming in the ocean 1-1/2 hours before. And I won't find people like my Icelandic pals in New York, I basked in their sunny care for my days here and enjoyed summer like temperatures in early May. And thanks to the mystery of Iceland for providing me continuous summer like temperatures at low winter prices. And finally, thanks to all the people in Iceland, who were friendly to me at all times, despite my U.S.passport.
Icelandair 1-800-779-2899 from JFK Terminal 7
Nordica Hilton Hotel: Sudurlandsbraut 2, 108 Reykjavik 011-354-444-5000
Vid Tjornina, Templarasundi 3, Reykjavik 101; 011-354-551-8666
Vegamot Bistro & Bar, Vegamotastig 4, Rekjavik 101; 011-354-511-3040