The wintry tundra of Reykjavík

As we flew into Reykjavík we saw an expanse of ice and rock that was both a wonder and intimidatingly desolate. I expected Iceland to look cold but I didn’t expect it to appear so flat. When we arrived at the airport we were conveyed by coach towards the city and all we saw outside the window were dark rocks and hardy tufts of grass peeking under snow across a flat landscape. For the remainder of our weekend in Reykjavík however, beautiful mountainous terrain surrounded us. First impressions are not correct when it comes to Reykjavík!

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Iceland is not the most popular destination in this part of the world but that is not to say that it doesn’t have a booming tourism industry; we heard more US accents than we have anywhere else. It is a little further than we have travelled in Europe so far, taking about 3 hours to fly there. Iceland has a population of around 330,000 people with about 120,000 of them living in Reykjavík. You may know that Icelandic is considered one of the hardest languages to learn. I think the locals understand that outsiders find their language difficult and probably their small population makes translation of pop culture such as movies and TV uneconomical, so everyone speaks English.

What I found most remarkable about Reykjavík was how it reminded me of New Zealand. Reykjavík is an island of volcanic rock with hot springs, geysers, mud pools, and every now and again, the faint scent of sulphur. Does this sound familiar to any Kiwis? Both Richard and I were happy to be in contact with proper ocean air again – the wild kind where you know that there is nothing but deep blue for a thousand kilometres.

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Due to its position, Iceland had around 4-5 hours of daylight per day during January. By the time we made it to our hotel in the late afternoon, it was already dark. Our first expedition was a stroll alongside the water to find the Viking Ship Monument. The monument is a striking sculpture sitting on a circle of granite. The granite looks fantastic but is ridiculously slippery. The first time we saw it, we were the only people there but when we returned the following day, quite a few people were there taking photos. We witnessed one guy step onto the granite and then fall spectacularly, landing with a distinct thud onto the ground. This happened to him twice, and nearly a third time! I clutched the sculpture and took great care to avoid the same fate in the photo below – I’m happy to report that neither of us fell down but it definitely is a hazard to watch out for!

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We were fortunate that the weather was mild when we visited but ‘mild’ is a relative term. For us, it was very cold with temperatures ranging between around -3 to 2 degrees. The wind coming in from the ocean cut through layers so it was important to wear thermals, wind-proof jackets, gloves, scarves and hats. I also happened to have a cold during this trip which was a little inconvenient. After we had walked along the water and inspected the Viking Ship Monument, we were thoroughly freezing so we turned inland to search for dinner. There are several good dining options in Reykjavík and our first choice was actually fully booked for the whole weekend. We wandered the main street in town and came across another highly recommended restaurant called Old Iceland Restaurant. It is a small establishment with great service and simply impeccable food. The best part of my meal was the starter where I ordered an Icelandic meat soup. When the wind outside is cold enough to make you forget you have lips and a nose, it was amazing to slurp a bowl of warming broth punching with flavour from vegetables and lamb. The rest of our meal was a great example of fresh seafood including salmon, ling, and cod. We finished with indulgent chocolate brownie and affogato. This was not a cheap dinner but I would recommending forking out for a nice dinner during Icelandic winter; warm your core and strengthen your resolve to step back outside!

 

Snow had recently fallen across Reykjavík and we let loose our inner child on the way home, hopping into fresh mounds of white powder and throwing the odd snowball at each other. Once inside the warmth of our hotel room, we discovered Iceland has TV channels in many languages, and settled down to watch Madagascar in German. It’s still a great cartoon even when we can’t understand it all!

 

We rose on Saturday morning and had an early breakfast at the hotel which included a local dairy product that I promptly became obsessed with over the weekend – Skyr. Skyr is a traditional cultured dairy product which has been part of the Icelandic cuisine for over a thousand years. These days it is made with pasteurised skim milk although the original is made with raw milk. The consistency is like yogurt but with a mild slightly sour flavour. The aftertaste is quite sweet however. Later in the weekend I had berry flavoured versions as well which were also delicious. Some of my friends are already aware that I discovered I am lactose intolerant since arriving in the UK! It appears to be geographically restricted to the UK however because I am able to enjoy dairy products in Scandinavian countries and as we have established, Iceland. Part of my infatuation with Skyr is because I miss being able to have yogurt! It is a lovely product though, and I would recommend you give it a go if you’re in the area. It’s sold everywhere and often served as part of dessert at restaurants.

 

We stepped out at 9am which is about two hours before sunrise which was a little weird. We were waiting at the bus stop in the dark!

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Our first stop was Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran parish church. This was very different to the grand Catholic cathedrals we have visited in the past. It had soaring pillars with a domed ceiling but very little ornamentation. As we went through it was basically empty and solemn organ music was playing creating an eerie feeling of being in an ancient cave. This church also had tickets available to go up to the bell tower but since it was still quite dark, we decided to return later in the day to do that. As we exited the Church some light was beginning to tinge the sky.

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Our next stop was the National Museum which consisted of two main floors detailing the history of Iceland from early Viking settlement to gaining independence from Denmark in 1918. The museum is relatively young, being established in 1863. It was also quite empty which allowed us to enjoy the detailed audio guide and information boards. One of the oldest items and a recurring theme in souvenirs was a tiny sculpture of the Viking god Thor. It is widely speculated however, that this is an example of the change to Christianity as the figure appears to be holding a cross and may in fact be an early representation of Jesus.

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We had an average lunch at the museum café before moving onto the Cathedral of Christ the King. This was a smaller cathedral which was not open but was a good example of the architectural style evident across the city; sturdy stone-like structures with little ornamentation that give the impression function (keeping out the cold) preceded form. Many of houses we saw had similar themes with small windows to keep the warmth in.

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With the end of daylight approaching, we quickly went to catch a few landmarks. First was the National Theater building which is by far the most modern building we saw and it had more glass than everything we had seen before combined.

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After revisiting the Viking Ship sculpture, we returned to Hallgrímskirkja and went up to the bell tower. Just as we reached the top of the stairs, the bell chimed for 2pm. Everyone, including us, jumped a foot and a nervous laughter filled the tower. The clanging was intense, reverberating into your bones! All that excitement gets some adrenaline rushing which is good because it’s pretty darn cold up there. Through the gaps in the stones, we got an excellent view of the city and simply captivating snowy mountains in the distance.

 

Something we have learned from travelling in cold places is that you need to take into account the extra energy required to keep warm. By this time, both of us were feeling quite tired and the sun was setting, so we headed for a highly recommended café for pastries called Bakarí Sandholt. It was very full of people at tables and those seeking take away treats. We secured a table and ordered tea, a pain au raisian and French chocolate cake. It was alright although I admit I was a little disappointed since I had heard it was amazing. Cake and tea is a good precursor to a nap however, and we did in fact return to our hotel room for a quick rest.

 

At 5pm, we went for an early dinner at a gourmet burger shop which was only a short walk from our hotel, Hamborgarafabrikkan. The burgers were excellent and portions of fries incredibly generous – neither of us finished them. It was a good meal to fuel up for our Northern Lights tour.

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We were picked up from our hotel and taken to a main station to be transferred onto the coach which would take us to Þingvellir (or Thingvellir). The site is important because it was the site where the first Icelandic Parliament was established in 930 and it is has been a World Heritage Site since 2004. Once we reached Þingvellir we stayed for an hour and a quarter to see if the Norther Lights would show up. It was ridiculously cold. I shivered constantly for 10 minutes with Richard as we set up the camera and took a few photos. Despite being completely suited and layered up, soon my fingers began to ache and my insides felt like mush from all the shivering. It was certainly the coldest I have ever been. It was an incredible landscape that looked like it could be the setting of an alien planet. Being far from towns and cities meant the sky was filled with stars which I didn’t realise I missed until that moment. I am not great with constellations, being able to recognise the southern cross and Orion’s belt only, but even I could notice that the night sky was different in the northern hemisphere. Both Richard and I thought that was pretty cool.

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After those first 10 minutes, I retreated to the bus but Richard braved the cold for the entire time, finally returning to the bus in the form of an ice block (that’s an ice lolly, for my British friends). Unfortunately for us (and especially Richard!) the Northern Lights did not show up that night. We did not have another night to try it again but the company is considerate enough to let you book onto another tour until you get to see the lights within a two year time frame. We may still return to see them yet!

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Sunday was a day of pure commuting. We got up at 5:30am to pack and have a quick bite to eat before getting pick up from our hotel and taken again to the main bus terminal where we transferred onto a coach which took us out to the airport. The airport was surprisingly well stocked and this is where I purchased my last pot of Skyr to enjoy on the flight home.

 

Reykjavík is the first place we have visited with a decent amount of snow so when we walked through Hljómskálagarður Park on our way to the museum, we were unable to resist the temptation to step into the fresh powder and frolic – for lack of a better word. We also quickly made a silly little snow man, complete with wonky eyes. At one point I didn’t even realise I walking across a frozen lake, although once I realised I quickly hightailed it onto regular ground. We need not have worried though because the area was frozen solid.

 

The people in Reykjavík are so lovely that you get a sense of being part of a close-knit community even as a visitor. Our weekend was chilly but fun and filled with excellent snow for us non-snow dwellers to enjoy. Despite the Northern Lights being a no-show, we still had a great time. My recommendation for visiting Reykjavík or Iceland in general would be to allow for more time than other European destinations in terms of travel time. We needed three days to accomplish this trip with the final day being just travelling. It would probably have been better to visit for 4-5 days to fit in all the tours and to give us a better chance of catching the lights. Please accept my new-found travel wisdom!

 

We’re still going strong on the travel front so look out for the next post soon. Also, a very happy Chinese New Year to everyone from both of us!

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