The plane descends on what appears to be the moon. The old taxi man that takes us from the airport tells us Armstrong spent time here to practice the moonwalk before he did the walk of last century. The landscape is volcanic and gigantic.
Fresh from the airport, we’re dropped off at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal lake in the middle of nowhere, and then suddenly, we’re at the bar drinking carrot juice with volcanic mud on our faces, submerged in 42 degrees of turquoise blue water as the fresh northern air freshens the post flight head. This is the first time I’ve been here during the summer…when the sun barely sets and you have to wear your Ray Bans to bed if you want to get any sleep.
Reykjavik is a small town of red corrugated roofs and iconic contemporary architecture, sitting majestically on a most stunning expanse of water and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Its main artery is Laugavegur Street, which is a catwalk of Icelandic cool. The Icelanders themselves have tired of this street but for us visitors it still has a deep hold. We stayed just off the main drag in a series of apartments called ‘Home’. The apartment is fresh, quirky and contemporary. The mattresses on the beds are made of ‘memory foam’, which was first developed by Nasa for its space shuttle programme. Galcier, the owner, sits with us and chats when we first arrive. He tells us
what’s newest and coolest in town and talks of his school days with Bjork. This typifies your normal welcome chat from an Icelander.
Reykjavik can only be described as a hybrid of Scandinavia and Portland Oregon with a little bit of Brooklyn NYC thrown in. It’s a uniquely evolved, fiercely independent little spot of 340,000 people. Its people are warm and full of humour, and are obsessed
with drinking, knitting and creativity. It’s these lauded qualities that make the Irish and the Icelandics so uniquely similar.
I was here to run the Icelandic Half Marathon - to experience running in the freshest air and crispest landscape in the world. It was a fantastic, easy run, with Icelandic children at every corner in pyjamas and clouds of white blond hair cheering us on. The day was stunningly bright in an almost supernatural purity. The marathon was the start of an exceptional day, August 21, the cultural day of Reykjavik and what a day it was to be. After a post marathon feed of trucker breakfast and American pancakes in the retro cool basement café of Grai Kotturinn, we hit out to the madness that was unfolding on the streets of this crazy town. The post-run abdominal dip was lifting. Jon Gnarr, the hilarious new mayor, was opening the cultural events at the new Harpa Centre down by the harbour. The black glass mausoleum is perhaps not too fond a nod to the pre-crash days, but it was, for me, a hugely memorable space as the sun glistened on this perfect day. We were there to see a concert of 20 of Iceland’s harpists play. The day continued with a skate boarding competition, with DJs set up on rooftops. Performance art took
place on every street, and we went to a poetry reading in an old bank.
Later, we had some rest from all the creative madness in Hostel Kex down by the sea.
Hostel Kex is housed in an old biscuit factory and is designed by Halfdan Pedersen, a movie-set-designer. The design is all to do with recycling and reusing up as many old things as possible. Its design makes you feel instantly at home and comfortable.
With old blackboards, found objects, leather beaten chairs and tables and old children’s toys throughout, the huge open area of the hotel is abuzz with people. Rooms are industrial and up-cycled, with found, framed, off-shot photos to lend some warmth and familiarity. The most surprising element of Kex though is its kitchen. Iceland, for me, is not at the forefront of a food movement and although I eat well there, I don’t get challenged in a food context. This is where Kex is so different - they are totally on the pulse of food. Breakfast of pilsner jar preserves, cold meats and cheeses served on vintage plates is simple yet perfectly pitched. Lunch and dinner are a delight with salt cod, roast beef with new carrots and jus, chicken cooked in lemon with herbs, skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) brulee and Johnny Walker chocolate mousse. It’s all so simple; the
fewest ingredients are used, but it’s clever and served by the most exceptional staff. Needless to say, I moved out of Home and into Kex at the next opportunity. With its built-in barber unit and its plugged-in staff, it’s a space of endless possibility. Dragging myself away from Kex, I had some wonderful food in two places down by the harbour. Saegreifinn, an almost glorified fish shop is a place of legend. It serves the best lobster
soup and fish (whale, monkfish, scallop - you name it) on a stick with Viking beer, all on plastic plates and cups. Cheap and unpretentious, bustling with people, zero interior design, disaffected uninterested staff…all this results in creating one of the best meals I’ve ever had. Around the corner is Hamborgara Bullan, aka burger joint. It is rammed with people and serves burgers and chips in a basket with coke. With music blasted from a 1980s getoblaster, it’s cheap, not chic, but brilliant. It was my pre-marathon last supper and boy, I enjoyed the calories.
Spend a few days in Reykjavik or the rest of your life - it’s up to you. But here is what I like to do when I am there - take some knitting classes and learn how to make the Lopi traditional sweaters; visit Kling n Bang - the crazy art space; read ‘The Grapevine’, the local cultural weekly in one of the cosy bars like Kaffibarinn; sit in Hallgrimskirkja the Lutheran church and then go to its peak and look out on the local 1940s airport; sit at City Hall and watch the ducks; take a trip to the Harbor House Museum where you’re likely to be the only person there looking at the art. Around the corner, visit the best gallery in the world…I8 gallery; maybe you’ll be lucky enough to see a Roni Horn exhibition, do a harbor walk and sit at Solfar, a breath-taking Viking ship sculpture. Dress up really cool and brave the coolness that is Boston Bar. Oh, and on Saturday night, head out out out and party anywhere, shop in Kron Kron, tonar 12, Sputnik and for the best antique shop in the world, Frioa Fraenka. Put on a 1950s swim hat and go to one of the main public pools - my favorite is Sundhollin, all 1930s cool and social
inclusiveness and all of that. This is just the tip of the iceberg - there’s everything outside of the capital to explore too. Glaciers, the library of water in Stykkisholmur, horse riding on the Icelandic ponies, golfing by the midnight sun, monumental landscape, hot springs and unending beauty.
Spending a long few days in Iceland is essential…try to stay at one of the many eco-hotels and feel the true extent of the nature. I don’t understand why so few people go to Iceland but that suits me fine because I want to be the only person in a room full
of Roni Horn’s stunning art pieces entitled, ‘You are the Weather’. As the back of my neck tingles, I realise how lucky I am to know this country just a little bit and to feel its power. It is this power that has led it rapidly and independently out of a recession and back into the glowing light it belongs in.
Home apartments: www.homereykjavik.is
Harbour house museum: wwww.artmuseum.ie
Saegreifinn: www.saegreifinn.is Boston, Laugavegur 28b
Grai Kotturinn, Hverfisgata 16
Hamborgarabullan, Geirsgata 1
Kaffibarinn, baergstaoastraeti 1
Kronkron, Laugavegur 63b
Sputnik, Laugavegur 28b
Frida Fraenka Vesturgata 3
Blue Lagoon www.bluelagoon.com
The Wallpaper guide to Reykjavik
For a taste of what’s extraordinary about Iceland, check out Bon Iver music video Holocene http://vimeo.com/27307766
Icelandic indie band Seabear, album ‘The ghost that carried us away’.