- Created: 17 August 2017 17 August 2017
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When the new version of Beauty and the Beast was released, an Icelandic woman sent a message via Facebook to her daughter asking if she would like to see it. Realising she had directed it to the Finance Minister by mistake, she sent a quick retraction. ‘Oh well, I’ll see it later’ came the reply.
Stories like this conjure up the small, friendly Iceland of popular imagination. It is a lot like that but it’s also a country that has undergone a massive increase in tourism. In 2010 there were fewer than half a million visitors. In 2016, there were 1.8 million. Like other city centres, downtown Reykjavik is suffering the Airb&b effect on housing too. This is all nicely illustrated by a series of filmed discussions that you can watch in City Hall. If you stroll around in the centre of Reykjavik, it’s full of us but there are still plenty of places to enjoy and in peace too.
I should justify my “insider” claim here. My partner is Icelandic and we lived in Iceland for two and a half years a decade or more ago. This is a piece about Reykjavik but I’ll start with escapes from it.
Out of town
Among the more famous day trip destinations, Geysir (or it’s sibling Strokkur, as Geysir itself no longer spouts) and the mighty waterfall, Gullfoss are undeniably spectacular but you will share the experience with crowds of people. On the road home from Gullfoss and Geysir (route 365) is a cave that was inhabited a hundred years ago. It’s just restored and opened as a little museum, with entrance by guided tour. It’s signposted as The Cave People. There’s a tent cafe below it which has a nicely nomadic feel about it, as the wind flaps it.
If you have a car, then pretty much anywhere you go will be worth exploring. Krýsuvík is on the Reykjanes peninsula and is a geothermal area that is both prettier and less visited than Geysir. The colours are more vivid and you can climb the hill overlooking the area. It also has the bonus of a beautiful crater lake called Grænavatn (Green Water) which is gorgeous turquoise.
Top tip: Iceland has a few Lost World sites that Professor Challenger would relish. The most famous is wonderful Ásbyrgi, far away in the north east. Closer to Reykjavik, you can walk through a narrow fissure that cuts through a tuff hill called Lambafell. It’s in the middle of an extensive, moss-covered lava field, with steam vents here and there.
Take the road towards Keflavik airport, on the Reykjanes peninsula. Turn off at Vatnsleysuströnd but cross under the road and head inland on a rather poor track. When you reach electricity pylons, turn right and in a few metres pass through a metal gate. The track is now degraded to atrocious, though if you are careful, you can drive it in an ordinary car.
You’ll stay on this road for about ten kilometres as it crawls through moss-covered lava. Eventually, the road will cross a flat, grassy area. Just before it turns sharply to the right, you turn left and park under the red and black remains of a crater that has been quarried.
Follow a track through lava, this time with more vegetation (including blueberries) and skirt round called Lambafell (you can round it to either the left or the right) and there it is.
When Harpa opened a few years ago, I hoped it would be Reykjavik’s answer to the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. With Reykjavik’s propensity for lousy weather, an indoor public space was much needed. Somehow it misses. The acoustics in the concert hall and other rooms might be good but the public area sees people milling between a few shops and a cafe. There’s none of the buzz of the Festival Hall and a dearth of free events.
Harpa provides an extra disappointment. It charges for using the loos and about £2.20 at that. On top of that, most of the building is roped off unless you pay for a guided tour. Harpa describes itself as “Heart by the Harbour” but shows itself to be petty and mean spirited instead.
Meanwhile, Perlan, a cool dome built on water tanks and a city landmark, is about to start charging people to go on its viewing deck. Given that the deck is reached from a busy café and shop, that’s a bit rotten too.
Top tip: For free toilets, stroll down to City Hall on the edge of the pond. It’s a much smaller space than Harpa but with its huge, topographical map of Iceland and other exhibits, it does a better job of providing a welcoming, public space.
That’s enough moaning, so back to the positives. Visiting swimming pools is a national pastime in Iceland. Municipal pools are outdoors but warm, thanks to the country’s supplies of geothermal water. Álftanes, a little outside Reykjavik and site of the president’s residency, has a great pool. It has a massive waterslide, hot pots and sauna and a German-made, wave machine. Typing this more than 24 hours after my last visit, I still have sensations of motion from it. Apart from the wave machine and also being a bit quieter than most pools, the pool is pretty typical, except that this little town of 2,500 people bankrupted itself redeveloping the swimming pool and had to merge with neighbouring Garðabær.
For sea swimming, the usual place in Reykjavik is Nauthólsvík. There is a small, closed-in, warm water pool fringed with beach, changing rooms and a hot pot, as well as the open water of the fjord.
Top tip: if like me you have swimming shorts rather than trunks, take care on the waterslide. My slow speed caused me to be struck on the way down by a solidly-built twelve year old. Luckily neither of us was hurt.
Reykjavik is a city of cafés, with new ones opening all the time. For me, there are two, unchanging greats. Number two is Grái Kötturinn (The Grey Cat) on Hverfisgata. It does a solid croque madame, pancakes or a fry up and usually excellent coffee. I say “usually” because on my last visit, the coffee was decidedly thin. I trust it was just a bad day. That aside, this is a cosily old-fashioned place, with formica tables, dim lighting and a decor of restful greens and browns.
My favourite café is Mokka on Skólavörðustígur. It’s a Reykjavik institution. It opened way back in 1958 and has barely changed since. Inside it’s a series of browns, comfortable, lulling the senses. When I lived in Reykjavik, my special treat was a coffee here, with a book or the weekly Guardian for company.
Both Mokka and The Grey Cat are splendidly old-fashioned. I hadn’t even realised until now that neither offers wi-fi; my perfect cafés.
Top tip: The toasted ham, asparagus and cheese sandwich, with Dijon mustard, and a strong and tasty black coffee.
There is no getting away from it. Eating in Iceland is expensive and eating out horribly so. A bit of picnicking can keep costs down and still be lovely. There are lots of good bakeries for bread and sweet things. Any supermarket or convenience store will sell excellent smoked fish. You can also find home-grown tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers and strawberries. From August you can pick wild crowberries, bog bilberries and blueberries on the lava fields, as well as wild thyme and sorrel.
Vínbúð, the state liquor store, has a good selection of local craft beers. I enjoyed a lager from Kaldi, a toasted porter from Einstök and Ástríkur Nr.51, billed as Belgian Pale Ale and wearing a gay pride livery. The best drink available in Iceland though, is water, straight from the tap. It’s lovely and there is absolutely no need to buy bottled water in Iceland.
Top tip: Hot-smoked trout (heitreyktur silungur) from Reykhúsið Útey is lusciously gorgeous. It comes as a filet, so you’ll need to carve off slices.
Museums and galleries
Reykjavik town centre has a few good places for rainy days. The National Museum is a manageable walk through Icelandic history with some nice quirks. These include a conveyer belt with a collection of objects (toys, crockery, electronics) from each decade of the 20th century.
The bunker-like Kjarvalsstaðir is a little outside the centre but still reachable on foot. The main exhibition is works by Louisa Matthíasdóttir and it's on until 17th September.
The classic Louisa paintings, that adorn Penguin copies of Halldór Laxness’s works, are colour, composition and above all stillness. Sheep, horses, sometimes people, devoid of detail, stand in rich green fields, against sea and sky of blue, sometimes yellow, with purple or brown mountains beyond, red-rooved farm buildings here and there.
By contrast, the interiors and portraits, often earlier works, are more muted with beige and fleshtones. These include a sketchy but instantly recognisable one of the urbane Laxness.
The boat chugging through Reykjavik Harbour or the walking Woman in Reykjavik are as still as the still life paintings. These feature nicely odd arrangements of vegetables, bottles, pestle and mortar and rumpled table cloths. The richly purple aubergines were particularly eye-catching.
The other wing of the gallery has a selection of works by Jóhannes Kjarval. His works make a superb contrast to Louisa’s. Where she is calm, he is tumult. Her detail is blanked out, his runs riot. She painted smooth pasture, he painted every wrinkle of the lava field. Her figures stand quiet, his swirl in the clouds and rocks, superimposed over other scenes.