Located just south of the Arctic Circle, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland welcomes us with ice on the roads and drizzling rain as we pull into Reykjavik. The darkness is velvet, the air is crisply cold. It is well past midnight by the time we get into our accommodation – we are given an entire house to ourselves, three bedrooms, a lounge area and a kitchen. The decor is cute, kitsch. A pair of old roller skates sit underneath a wooden dresser, blue and white china plates adorn the kitchen walls. There are wooden sculptures and old dolls displayed on shelves.
The next morning we are awake well before sunrise – at this time of year, the sun rises at 11am, and we troop over to the main hotel for breakfast. The hulk of Hallgrimskirkja, literally “Hallgrim’s Church” sit across from our hotel. Completed in the 1940s, the structure is supposed to represent the basalt volcanic rock that forms the foundation of Iceland. The choir is practising for Christmas and we sit for awhile inside the stark grey hall. The sound reflects beautifully off the tall Gothic arches and the austereness of the church suits Iceland to a T.
Our first full day in Reykjavik is spent exploring the town. Rugged up against the cold in layers, we wander in and out of the grey rain for most of the day. There is a starkness in Reykjavik, the town has the spirit of a frontier town, especially in the older parts where there are still original, tin clad wooden houses standing. The buildings are painted in different colours – red, black, blue with bright white window frames. Everywhere we go we see Advent candles lit.
Our first stop is the viewpoint at Mount Esja, looming across the harbour. Later, as the sun sets and the clouds are blown away, the mountain is brushed in liquid gold and we revisit the view point in a different light. We eat in the very cool Cafe Paris, its walls decked with canvases of comic book heroes. We go shopping, but even with the Kronur’s devaluation, things in Reykjavikare still eye-wateringly expensive. It is raining again as we queue up at Baedaris Beztu for “pylsur” or hotdogs – delicious, hot mouthfuls of mystery meat encased in a soft white bun doused with remoulade, crunchy fried onions and tomato sauce. The boys have two, then three each.
We spend awhile by the water, getting colder by the minute, then walk along the foreshore to “Sun Craft” a sculpture that evokes a Viking ship, or whale bones, both appropriate symbols of Reykjavik. The light is perfect, soft golds reflecting off the greyness of the water.
There are tons of vintage shops in Reykjavik, beautifully appointed, lovingly decorated, more boutique than second-hand. There are also the less upmarket Salvation Army stores, filled with hip young ‘uns and old mamas looking for bargains. Iceland goods are high quality, with matching price tags to match. Like the rest of Scandinavia, it is design that Iceland excels at, and we see examples of that famous, pared-down, sexy Scandinavian aesthetic everywhere, expressed and translated into clothes, jewellery, household items and furniture. I am on the hunt for a “lopi” or traditional Icelandic yoke knit top and I find one that has traditional design with modern colours – grey, red and white.
We eat well while in Reykjavik – lobster, perch, lamb. The produce is fresh and delicious, but the lamb was a stand out. Our first night we sit down at a table at the Lobster House and after, head on home. The bars open late in Reykjavik. Our crew is tired from the cold and a day of walking so we spend the night chilling out in our comfy little house instead.
It’s been a long day. Surprisingly it hasn’t been as cold as we’d expected – the severe snow storms that occurred just a week before we got there had melted into grey snow or ice and there were glimpses of green vegetation around. We had come prepared and wore a thin, light thermal layer next to the skin, followed by two thin cotton tops, a cashmere and lastly a water proof down jacket. The others wore ski pants, which kept them both warm and dry – I layered two thermal leggings underneath regular jeans and wore thermal and wool socks with hiking boots, which seemed to work, though were not wind proof. Just getting dressed in the morning took a while.
Dinner was Laekjarbrekka, where the lobster soup was legendary. There was also Christmas buffet on offer, an Icelandic tradition. We sampled horse, puffin, and reindeer amongst other Icelandic delicacies. We didn’t, however, try the hakarl, or rotted shark – culinary adventurers we were, but not that brave!
On our walk home to rest up before our Northern Lights tour, the streets of Reykjavik were lit up in festive colours. It was quiet, and the shop windows were locked down. Like many Scandinavian countries, Iceland goes into hibernation mode in winter, but come summer, when the country gets two hours of darkness at its maximum, the party never stops here.