The Bear is Back!
After a few months back at home in London, I am back on the road again. This time I have chosen a country that has long been on my “to visit” list – Iceland. What’s more, it is on the UK government’s “green list” – meaning that it is a little easier to comply with all the Covid rules imposed on travelling bears. At least it is on the green list today…….when I am due to return to the UK, who knows what list it will be on.
My journey started with a very early morning start for an 07.45 flight to Keflavik airport. On arrival I breezed through immigration and Covid controls and then sat on a rather long and boring bus trip from the airport into Reykjavik, the capital. I dropped by bags at the hotel – it was too early to check in – and set off immediately to explore the city. First stop was the impressive Hallgrimskirkja, which is visible from all over the city and provided a useful landmark since it is very close to my hotel.
My overwhelming first impression of the city was – it is small. The population of Reykjavik is only 122,000 (all of Iceland has only 400,000 people). The atmosphere of central Reykjavik is like that of a small seaside town. There is a faint smell of sea air, and lots of tourist shops, bars and cafes with seating on the pavement. There are also lots of art galleries, and many of the houses are adorned with interesting murals.
I stopped for a well-needed and rather good and little cappuccino, calculating that it cost 4€. Yes, Iceland is expensive, with most things costing roughly 50% more than Paris or London. Suitably woken up by the caffeine of the cappuccino (and its cost!), I explored further. It was a very short stroll to reach the “downtown”, where I found a collection of bars. Most of these offered happy hours, some starting as early as 14.00 hours. Like most Nordic states, alcohol is very expensive in Iceland and happy hour is the only time when alcoholic drinks are affordable.
Many offer a second happy hour at around 10-11pm until midnight. Reykjavik is a party city and a popular pass time for both locals and tourists alike is the pub crawl, which usually ends early in the morning at one of the hot dogs stands downtown.
After crossing the area where the bars were concentrated I discovered “old” Reykjavik, an area where pretty old wooden houses are concentrated. It was nice but so small that I had walked right through it before I realised I was there. The old town also had a nice lake and central square which houses the parliament building.
After that, I visited the harbour area which had an odd mix of fishing boats and whale watching excursion boats. Finally I headed back to Laugavegur street and sat down at one of the bars. I ordered “happy hour” beers whilst watching people go by.
This is the main street in central Reykjavik and people walk, jog, cycle, skateboard or scooter along it all day long. I saw one person walking backwards– I suppose he was trying to add some variety to the ritual of walking along this unavoidable thoroughfare. After my beer, I bought some food to cook in my hotel and had a dinner of scrambled eggs with some excellent smoked fish.
The next day I woke up and thought hard about what to do. British Airways had cancelled my original flight, meaning that I had had to arrive a day earlier and now had an extra day in Reykjavik. I wasn’t sure how to spend my time – there were lots of excursions on offer to visit Iceland’s spectacular scenery, but they were all very expensive and tomorrow I would have my own car to explore the countryside at my leisure. I had also planned to go whale watching later in my trip, and had been told that from the north coast of Iceland I had better chance of seeing large whales. So I decided to do something typically Icelandic – go swimming in hot pools heated by thermal water. On the way to the baths, I visited some rather pretty botanical gardens with some unique arctic plants
Next I went in search of the swimming pool. Although the pool complex was very large finding it proved surprisingly hard, and I ended up making two circuits of a large Reykjavik park before I found it. Fortunately the pool was well worth the effort, with a huge 50m open air basin filled with pleasantly warm water. A large play pool with slides kept the local kids out of the way as a I completed a healthy workout in the warm water, and then crawled out of the pool to soak in one hot tub with 40C salt water, before trying a second hot tub with fresh water. It was a typically Icelandic experience and I left feeling very clean, and with a pleasant post-exercise burn in my legs and arms.
After that I walked to a little-known museum devoted to the Icelandic sculptor Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum. On the way I found a very strange house, apparently owned by an Icelandic film director. The grounds seemed to be open to the public but were very spooky, straight out of an American horror movie like the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.
I took some photos and hurried on to the museum. I was impressed by the sculptor’s work, and it occurred to me that if he had lived in New York, he would probably have been rich and famous, with his pieces shown in major museums rather than his lonely studio on the outskirts of Reykjavik.
Still, he had inspirational setting to work in, with views back to the centre of the city in one direction……….
And in the other direction, out to the countryside beyond they city, which looked wild and mountainous. It was a foretaste of things to come.