The Displaced Nation

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CAPITAL IDEA: Reykjavík: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Reykjavík

Oh God, don’t even think about doing it. What?

You know what I mean — I can read you like a book. I’ve no idea what you’re referring to.

You’re going to try and lead off with the “my mum’s gone to Iceland” gag, aren’t you?  Really, you think that little of me?

Yes. Charming. The very idea! My gags are expertly crafted, and besides most of our readers have no idea about Iceland, the British frozen goods store, and their longstanding tagline — so there!!!

Okay, okay, let’s get this over with.  Blimey, you’re a bit glum today.

Isn’t that appropriate if you want to talk me about the land of the midnight sun? I thought most people ended up depressed or mad. Please, let’s leave the ridiculous stereotyping to me.

You’re normally very good at it. Stop trying to distract me. Reykjavík, you may be interested to learn, is the northernmost capital in the world.

So I’d need to pack my thermals? Yes.

Guessing this isn’t a beach holiday? No. At least, not in the conventional sense.

I normally like going somewhere hot for my vacation, somewhere I can relax. Then you’d be missing out if you dismiss this sort of vacation out of hand, you’d be visiting a truly wonderful city. But, hey, if you like relaxing in a hot pool, you could still give Reykjavik a try.

Hardly sounds like Club Tropicana. Think about it. Iceland is only there because it’s a mass of volcanic activity. Remember when Eyjafjallajökull grounded all transatlantic flights a few years ago?

Yes, still struggling with this. You’re suggesting I relax by the side of an active volcano in Iceland rather than my plan to relax by the side of a pool in Hawai’i? No, even though I may at this precise moment be tempted to push you into an active volcano. What Iceland does have is plenty of geothermal springs. You must visit the Blue Lagoon.

Is that the one with the creature or with Brooke Shields? Neither. It’s a geothermal spa located in a lava field outside of the city. Even if it’s a freezing night, the water in the pool averages around 100 °F. And there’s plenty of supposedly healing minerals that you can cover yourself in. It’s quite the experience.

Sounds it. Have you done it? Yes, and very enjoyable it was too. A little bit of wind chafing around the neck though. Your body might be enjoying the pool, but your head is still battered by the elements.

Okay, I’m definitely intrigued, but I think I need a little more than slapping mud all over myself and wandering into a geothermal pool. What else can I do? Well, from the centre of Reykjavík you can get a daylong bus tour to the Golden Circle.

I hear their cashew chicken is wonderful. No, the Golden Circle is a popular tourist route that will allow you to see the Icelandic countryside. You will see the stupendous Gullfoss (Golden Falls); Þingvellir (Thing Fields), a national park that was the site of Iceland’s first parliament in 930AD; and Geysir — the first geysir to be recorded in printed material (if Wikipedia is to be believed). Certainly, when it comes to geysers accept no substitutes. If you’re lucky, you might also see a pack of Icelandic ponies.

Aurora Borealis? I beg your pardon?

The Northern Lights. Will I see that during this bus tour? No, this is a day tour. There are night tours that will take you out in the evening in the hopes of seeing the lights. If you’re away from the city and the light pollution, your chances improve. Of course, nothing is guaranteed that you’ll see anything so don’t get too downhearted if you don’t see the lights. However, if you want to try and stack the cards in your favor then you could stay at The Northern Lights Inn.  One further advantage of this hotel is its convenient location to the Blue Lagoon.

And Reykjavík itself? What should I do there? No pun intended, but it is a really great place just to chill. Wander the streets. Take a walk by Tjörnin, a delightful lake in the center of town. As you wander the city, you’ll notice plenty of public art in the city. Walk down towards the harbor and check out Jón Gunnar Árnason (The Sun Voyager). Visit Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s impressive Lutheran church, and at all times keep yourself caffeinated. So many good coffee shops in the city for you to sample.

But what about the food? I hear fermented shark is popular. You mean hákarl. If you find it, you’re more than welcome to try it. Good luck with that. I think Icelandic cuisine has moved on from the shark and puffin stereotypes. Not surprisingly, you’ll be able to try some amazing seafood. If you really want to dine out, Siggi Hall is the most famous Icelandic chef, so you may want to try and get a reservation at his restaurant inside the Hotel Odinsve.

What should I read before I go? It’s Iceland, you should give some Icelandic sagas a try. They detail the early colonization of the land. Penguin has an anthology if you want to dip your toe in. Halldór Laxness is the only Icelandic winner of the Nobel prize for literature (nothing lax about him there). He won the prize in 1955, and as a result a lot of his work has been translated into English and remains in print. The Fish Can Sing and the two-part epic Independent People are easy enough to find. Mál og Menning is a bookstore in downtown Reykjavík has a good selection of Icelandic literature available in English translations. More recently, Hallgrímur Helgason’s 101 Reykjavík has probably been the most successful novel to come out of the country.

Wasn’t that made into a movie? Yes, back in 2000, so you could check that out if you so wished.

And I should listen to plenty of Björk? And don’t forget Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men, and Bjork’s original band, The Sugarcubes. If you happen to be visiting late October, you could go to Iceland Airwaves, the country’s biggest musical festival. It’s certainly a great city to scour record stores.

If only the beer were cheap. Well, you can’t have everything.


STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post tomorrow.

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Image: awindram

One response to “CAPITAL IDEA: Reykjavík: A quick guide

  1. ML Awanohara April 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Interesting! I particularly enjoyed your recommendations of Icelandic books and music. In that same vein, I wonder why you didn’t mention Icelandic film? I went to Iceland for the first time, very briefly, last September, when we took Icelandair from NYC to Stockholm, Sweden, for a wedding. We stopped in Reykjavík (on the way back, for long enough to nip out to the Blue Lagoon — which, truth to tell, was a bit nippy as it rained the entire time!). While on the plane, I became obsessed with watching the collection of Icelandic films (which were subtitled in English, of course).

    For instance, I really enjoyed Volcano (2011, dir. Rúnar Rúnarsson), a coming-of-age love story of a 67-year-old man: brilliant!

    Another one I found compelling: Brim (2010 dir. Árni Ólafur Ásgeirsson), about a tightly-knit crew aboard a fishing vessel whose comradery is disrupted when a woman is hired and tragedy strikes.

    It was my first exposure to Icelandic cinema, but I wonder if — because of their dramatic landscape, their love-hate relationship with nature, their love of colorful sagas — they are naturally inclined towards the cinematic mode. (I also feel this way about Korean cinema, btw.)

    What do you think? Or perhaps my assertion should be applied to Scandinavian cinema more broadly? Also on Icelandicair, I watched Troubled Water (2008, dir. Erik Poppe), a Norwegian film about redemption that I think is a tiny masterpiece.

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