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Taxi Noir: Reykjavik

ICE-old-town-2
ICE-old-town

A short holiday to New York, with a stopover in Reykjavik: what could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot actually: Covid restrictions, visa applications; plus the usual anxiety of making it to airports on time. My project management skills would be tested on this one, and no mistake.

Sunday May 1

No EU or American nonsense at Keflavik Airport: my wife and I walked straight up to Immigration and were stamped in. It’s the quickest I’ve ever been through an airport. I changed up £300 and made for the airport transfer bus for the 45-minute journey (I don’t know why the airport is so far out, there appears to be plenty of space in the 45k between here and Reykjavik). The driver put his shades on, turned on the air-conditioning on, and we were off. The sky was blue, as was the sea. Looking out of the window I thought we’d arrived in Alicante. It was quite cold outside though: a crisp and fresh 10 degrees.

For a lot of the journey the landscape reminded me of Dartmoor. As we reached the suburbs of the world’s most northernmost capital, there were soulless neighbourhoods and modern apartment blocks. After driving through Milton Keynes for a bit we were deposited at the bus station on the edge of town.

ICE-Cathedral
ICE-Cathedral

Using a map we picked up at the bus station I negotiated Mo and I towards the highest building in town, the cathedral, then towards the main shopping street of Laugavegur, where the Hotel Fron was situated. It’s fairly basic, but adequate for our needs. We’ll talk prices in a bit, but the room was surprisingly good value for £76 per night.

ICE-old-town
ICE-old-town

Straight out to sample the action. Laugavegur is a pleasant street of shops, bars and restaurants; but it’s quiet. It’s basically Reykjavik’s High Street, but there were few vehicles on the single carriageway (two-way, with passing points). There were more cats than cars. There were few people in the gloomy-looking bars the hotel, so we looked at the side streets. We were in the city centre, but it was immediately suburban, with smart houses and gardens. It felt clean, modern and spacious. The weather was fresh. The people were friendly without being in your face. With a population of 120,000 it certainly felt more like a provincial town than a European capital. Most places you want to visit are in walking distance. There are no trains, and we saw few buses.

At this time of year there are only a few hours of darkness (in the winter it’s the opposite). You’ll see a photo taken from our hotel balcony at 10pm.

ICE-Laugavegur-10pm
ICE-Laugavegur

“Said I should go for reindeer, I say No, No, No!”

We presented ourselves at Rok over an hour early. We were booked in for a 7pm dinner, but asked for an early table so we could drink ourselves silly. A nice bottle of Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc cost about £50, but at the time I didn’t know it. I try to think in local prices, and not worry about it. I didn’t convert things until I left Iceland. Prices weren’t out of step with other fairly high-end restaurants, but a big chunk of the £300 I changed at the airport disappeared in the next couple of hours.  You need a drink to help you forget the prices.

It’s a nice place: confident and upmarket, but in a low-key, shabby-chic, hipsterish, way. Many people sat outside in their coats, and others were turned away. It’s a good job I booked well in advance.

Rok serve small tapas-style plates. They weren’t small though. We ordered five, and that was plenty: about £14 a pop though. The langoustine in a creamy sauce was my favourite. There was a nice duck dish, and a Moroccan-style chicken kebab. The remaining two dishes were more problematic: beef tenderloin (possibly pickled) in a vinegary sauce, and cured reindeer. I wanted to try something local like reindeer, but we didn’t like it, and just picked at it. I think it was the cured bit I didn’t like. It was too rare for Mo anyway (most black people like their food cooked to buggery). The staff seemed impressed we’d taken on a couple of their more challenging offerings (I told the waitress I’d been living at Pizza Express all my life). Other restaurants offer puffin, whale and fermented shark.

So, we had five small plates, two cheesecakes, a bottle of wine, one beer, and one cappuccino. With tip, we paid about £180, which is our most expensive meal ever, by some distance. We still had Keen’s Steak House in NYC to look forward to. We were visiting two of the world’s most expensive cities, anything could happen in the next week.

Monday

Caught Schindler’s lift down to the restaurant for a perfunctory buffet breakfast (Mo still doesn’t get my Schindler’s List joke).

It was now grey outside, and it drizzled for the best part of our remaining time in Iceland. There was more commercial activity at the western end of Laugavegur, with some nice looking bars and restaurants. There are few familiar chain places: McDonald’s never made it work in Iceland. A £1.49 pint at Wetherspoons – forget about it.

Pub Crawl

That evening we met our tour guide for a beer walk. We were the only two on the tour, so had the female guide’s full attention. We grilled her thoroughly on Icelandic culture, though it was hard to get a word in edgeways. At first I found it a bit stressful: I’d rather it be just Mo and I; but after a few beers I got into the spirit of things. I asked about the time Iceland beat England in the Euros. I was told there were huge celebrations; bigger than their national day, or whatever.

Skuli Craft Bar was presided over by a big-bearded hipster. It was all dark wood and old-fashioned: the sort of places I seek out in any town. Mo doesn’t really like beer, but there wasn’t much else she could drink (I get the impression beer is the drink of choice in these parts). Iceland had prohibition, and beer was outlawed until 1989. I guess they’re making up for it now. We were each presented with a paddle of small glasses of beer. We had a selection of intensely sour and intensely bitter beers. Surprisingly, Mo drank all hers.

The second bar didn’t look like a bar, so we would never have found it. It was basically a cube of glass on the first floor overlooking an Asian supermarket on Laugavegur. It was deathly quiet, but it would be nice with a few people in it. The third and final bar was another woody traditional bar, and with a cosy locals feel.

Mo and I went for a meal at the Lebowski Bar afterwards. It was about 9pm and quite lively, with a mostly young, studenty, crowd. I intended to save the burger until New York, but that’s about all there was on the menu. The burger was up to American standard, as were the milkshakes. I had a beer too in order to keep my energy topped up. Mmm, we only spent £38: so there are cheaper options in this town.

ICE-Skolavoroustigur
ICE-Skolavoroustigur

Tuesday

We had serious business to attend to after breakfast. We walked in the drizzle to the HARPA concert hall complex to present ourselves for Covid tests. It was as unfussed and dignified as having a bloke stick chimney sweep brushes up your nose as it could be.

About twenty minutes later the results came through by text and email on my phone: we were going to America!

Not wanting to walk in the rain we celebrated with a beer and a lemonade in the concert hall’s café. Bars seemed happy to serve beer for breakfast. Most civilised.

Punk

ICE-punk-museum
ICE-punk-museum

We passed the Icelandic Punk Museum yesterday (there’s also a Penis Museum, but enough of that filth). We dithered, then decided that if we didn’t have a look, we’d wonder about it for the rest of our lives. It’s a museum housed in an old subterranean public toilet block (it’s common to have bars in toilet blocks in London). Our host was an ageing punk bloke. The toilet walls are adorned with photos and commentary: humorous stuff on the history of Icelandic punk. From my memory something such as: “1945: on account of Hitler’s small penis, Britain occupied Iceland. Then the Yanks came. But still no punk rock…”

Punk came late to Iceland. I suspect it was a pretty small concern; probably consisting of our grey-haired curator and his mates. A small movement, but pretty hard core and counter-cultural, if the imagery and the music playing was anything to go by. What a life, sitting all day in a public toilet listening to that racket.

Next, the cathedral. The exterior is wonderful, but the interior’s 1980s modernism is underwhelming. There’s too much light wood, not enough gloom, and only a small amount of stained glass. A cathedral needs a musty atmosphere and intimidation. This felt like a conference centre in Basingstoke.

Our final meal was taken in Reykjavik Fish Restaurant. £42 bought us fish & chips and a soft drink each. They weren’t British fish shop chips, but the usual frozen French fries. The cod was superb, coated in a light and crispy batter.

A fairly long walk in the drizzle to the bus station, and almost an hour to wait for the bus to the airport.

I’d been wanting to go to Iceland for several years. I knew I’d like it. I think I’m becoming attracted to remote, edge of the world places as I get older. New York would offer quite a contrast. I’ll say more about this next time.

ICE-old-harbour
ICE-old-harbour