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Iceland: Reykjavik, Capital of the Far North

Iceland: Reykjavik, Capital of the Far North

Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2010-11-08

A stopover en route to the Americas or the first port of call on Icelandic terrain, Reykjavik is a large fishing port with all the amenities and services of a capital city. Two or three days are enough to discover the essentials here, unless you’re also looking for the unrestrained nightlife of its bars and nightclubs...

A visit to Reykjavik has an inevitable starting point - the fourth floor of the Pearl, built upon Mount Oskjuhlid. Its shining glass dome encases reservoirs of naturally hot water in 70 wells at depths of 500 to 3000 metres that are used to supply the town. The Icelandic people greatly appreciate their natural resource of inexhaustible, cheap and environmentally friendly geothermal energy.
 
The panoramic open air terrace gives a great vantage point over Iceland’s tiny capital, where you can observe its every nook and cranny, like a giant sitting on a hill inspecting the territory to be explored in the day ahead.  Spread out below and surrounded by mountains is the port, its trawlers, the ocean and its whales (from May to October.) Opposite is Faxaflói which is more of a large bay than a fjord. When the sun shines and the sky is blue they say the Snaefellsjökull volcano can be seen on the Snaefellsnes peninsula 90 miles away. But before you attempt to spot it, try pronouncing it!
 
In the warmth beneath the Pearl’s glass dome there is a bar. In Reykjavik you are never far from a bar, where you can enjoy a coffee, a pastry or a sausage to snack on before setting off again. The best sausages (and make a note of this, it might come in handy) are found down below, in a stall opposite the market place. Whilst the island’s capital seems miniscule, it isn’t as tiny as it appears.  120,000 inhabitants (a third of the entire nation’s population) live in a sizeable area of 168 square miles - compare this to the 66 square miles that over 2 million Parisians have to share. So you won’t step on anyone’s toes here, nor will you be able to visit the town on foot, except for the centre which is somewhat more compact and village-like.  
 
Everything here begins with a story – the Icelandic Saga, the Landnamabok, the Book of Colonisation tells the legend of the first colonists who arrived in Reykjavik in 874, brought over by a Norwegian named Ingolfur Arnarson.
 
So from Oskjuhlid we descend to Tjörnin, a lake in the middle of the town. The Town Hall and the National Museum of Arts are situated on its banks making it an excellent place for setting out to visit the town centre. The port is easily accessible from here by walking along the Laekjargata. The streets lead to a lively shopping area where shops line the walkways of Austurstraeti, Bankastraeti, Laugavegur and Skolavördustigur, leading to the Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran Church made of concrete and built between 1945 and 1986. This is Iceland’s largest building and one of Reykjavik’s main landmarks. It was designed by the architect Guojon Samuelsson and the guide informs us that its façade was inspired by the basalt organ pipe formations seen throughout Iceland, such as those at Svartifoss waterfalls, near to Skalfatell in the south east of the island. Opposite the Church is the statue of Ingolfur Arnarson, looking as triumphant as ever, watching over the port and town he founded.
 
On the other side of Tjörnin stands Landakot Church recognisable by its cube shaped bell tower. This is the only Catholic cathedral in this Protestant country.
 
It is impossible to get lost in Reykjavik’s town centre. It consists of nothing more than a small square, a few streets intersecting at right angles, and Kolaportið, the covered Market. You reach it without even noticing the residential districts. There are scarcely any tall buildings in Reykjavik, just a few modern apartment blocks on the outskirts and along the boulevards, or wooden houses and houses with wooden façades without shutters. Letting the sunlight in (whenever there is any) is absolutely vital here to provide warmth during the polar nights.
 
On Saturdays and Sundays at Kolaportið you find second-hand clothes, records, books, fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, not to mention the hakarl, cubes of fermented shark meat. They smell so bad that when you eat them, they have to be washed down with a glass of Brennivin, a caraway scented aqua vitae!  Bæjarins Beztu, on the other hand is something you shouldn’t miss. It’s a hot dog stand (pylsur) serving the best sausages in town. These are real Icelandic hot dogs made with mutton sausages, grilled onions and sweet mustard. Truly delicious! In the market you can also sample wedges of dried fish that are spread with butter as if it were bread, and haddock on sweet or rye breads.
 
Iceland’s climate isn’t as cold as one might imagine. However even in midsummer it rarely gets hot (which is why the thermal springs are such a godsend.) The country enjoys a Sub-polar oceanic climate thanks to a tributary of the Gulf Stream. The average temperature is 4.4 °C (or 40°F) which ranges from -0.5°C in January to 10.6 °C in July when night no longer exists!
 
In Reykjavik you can roam happily from museum to museum, passing from the National Museum (Icelandic history) to the Museum of Icelandic cultural heritage, to the National Gallery (with its 5,000 works of art by Icelandic artists) to the Flokagata museum (for the works of painter Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval) to the Asmundarsafn (for the works of sculptor Asmundr Sveinsson),  to the Einar Jonsson Museum (the Icelandic sculptor Einar Jonsson, just opposite the Hallgrimskirkja); the Arbaejarsafn Open Air Museum (30 houses decorated in 19th century style with guards wearing period costumes) finishing off with the Natural History Museum!
 
You can also stroll from restaurant to restaurant and fortunately there is more on offer to bite into than hot dogs and rancid shark! In the port, Saegreifinn – The Sea Baron, a kind of fisherman’s shack with prompt service, has very fresh fish soups and skewers of lobster, shark, whale and skate. For something more elaborate try the aptly named Panorama. Situated beneath the roofs of the Hotel Arnarhvoll it has an exceptional view over Faxaflói, with its snow covered peaks and boats drifting by. Its menus, ranging from £18 to £30 or £40 à la carte, celebrate the sea, lamb and lobster.
 
The Gallery restaurant at the Hotel Holt has a renowned chef:  Fridgeir Ingi Eiriksson who in 2007 obtained the Bocuse d’Or, the Nobel Prize of cookery, with his menu L’Invasion islandaise, and his recipe for Bresse Chicken in the new Icelandic Tradition, rethought in 10 stages. The dining experience at The Gallery is divine with delicate local cuisine that has been revised, refined and Europeanised (the chef learnt his trade at the Domaine de Clairefontaine, home of Philippe Girardon, a starred chef from Isère, France.) At lunchtime it is simply the Hotel’s restaurant serving delicious cuisine but the evenings are devoted to gastronomy.
 
The day is rounded off by open air bathing in the thermal waters of Reykjavik’s Blue Lagoon situated 35 miles from the town at the end of Reykanes peninsular. You can take a dip here all year round (from 10am to 8pm or 9pm in the summer) in water at 38°C which comes directly from the bowels of the earth. A bus connects the town centre to the Lagoon and another links up with the international airport so you can enjoy the soothing benefits of Iceland right up to the very last minute of your stay!
 
 
USEFUL ADDRESSES
 
Icelandic Tourist Board
 
Reykjavik Tourist Office
 
The Pearl, Oskjuhlid
 
Restaurant Gallery
Hôtel Holt
Bergstadastræti, 37
Reykjavik
Tel: 00354 552 5700
 

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