FOR xAV JUDD, ICELAND HAD A LOT TO LIVE UP TO – AND FROM REYKJAVIK AND BEYOND IT DID JUST THAT
It’s hot, hot, hot up in Iceland
I’m not going to lie, I’m an unabashed lover of everything Nordic. So when it came to visit the only country in that region I hadn’t been to, Iceland, it had a lot to live up to. Especially if one considers that Norway, with its captivating fjords and plethora of enticing winter pursuits is a dream destination, and how the moonlit-meadow pretty architecture and bonhomie vibe found in Stockholm make it a home away from home.
Iceland is like a single pearl that’s slipped out of a lady’s brooch and got lost in the pile of an enormous navy carpet; an island adrift in choppy waters between the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. As its urban area contains nearly two thirds of the country’s population, a great place to base oneself is in Reykjavík. The world’s northernmost capital, this welcoming, cosmopolitan holiday haven is on the southwest coast.
Divided into ten districts, Reykjavík is actually quite a small compact city, which means that the majority of the trendiest shops and bars are within ten minute’s walking distance of each other. Many are situated in and around the main drag, Laugavegur, literally translating to “wash road”. In the past, it was the route to the hot springs where the locals took their clothes to launder. And if you want to clean up in the stores, KronKron (Laugavegur 63b, kronkron.com) does international designers such as Marc Jacobs and Vivienne Westwood, plus Scandinavian brands like Acne Studios and knitwear specialist, S. N. S. Herning. Or, to doff your cap to yesteryear, swing by Spúútnik (28b), as it’s the spot for hip retro apparel.
Just in case all that browsing’s worked up an appetite, try Sandholt (Laugavegur 36, sandholt. is). Five generations of the family have operated this homey bakery since the 1920s, so one can be sure their cakes, pastries and ice cream will eradicate the munchies. Breads are a particular forte - delve into their quinoa, sourdough and smoked pumpkin seed varieties - in an establishment that also serves a top-notch lunch and dinner.
At the other end of the road, what gay man doesn’t fantasise about a huge pecker? Well, you might encounter a lot more than you bargained for in the Icelandic Phallological Museum (Laugavegur 116, phallus.is/en). Surely one of the oddest collections of anything ever assembled anywhere, you’ve guessed it, this tiny gallery deals with the diversity of the schlong in the animal kingdom. To be more precise, the 200 or so “members” and penile parts are those of land and sea mammals native to the island, including some super-duper endowed whales.
Still on Laugavegur, occupying the same corner building (22), is where you’ll find the capital’s pair of gay venues. Bravo is a quaint, cosy mixed bar where one can chat with the laidback, mainly-English speaking locals and get sloshed on the delicious native alcoholic brew, brennivín (schnapps) - nicknamed “black death”. Above this premises is the only LGBT club in the country, Kiki (kiki.is) - open Thursday (happy hour all evening), Friday and Saturday nights. Its exterior is rainbow-coloured corrugated iron (bárujárn) – many of the older houses in town, which are often made of timber, are similarly covered in pleasing shades of the sheet metal. While in the delightfully kitsch interior – visualise pink wallpaper, a Judy Garland Wizard of Oz picture and mirror balls – patrons move their feet to a mixture of chiefly pop and electronica on the dance floor. Upstairs, there’s a small sitting space and a second bar.
Of course, Reykjavik’s Lilliputian gay scene is down to its size rather than any homophobic sentiment. Indeed, Iceland is one of the most progressive nations on the planet when it comes to LGBT rights. Same-sex activity was legalised way back in 1940, and it was the first country to have an openly gay head of state, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir (2009-2013).
Pride (hinsegindagar.is/en) is held every August – expect quite moderate temperatures with an average of just 11C At this time, over one hundred thousand individuals from all over the world rock up to the capital for this übercelebration. During the event, a major focus of which is to promote visibility, inclusiveness and courage, look forward to a heady mix of parties, politics and culture. The culmination of this six-day jamboree is an exhilarating parade; typically, a host of participants – some on fabulous floats - make their way from BSÍ bus terminal to Arnarhóll, in front of about 40,000 people who have flocked into the downtown area to get a glimpse of all the action.
Started just over 10 years ago, another unmissable happening based in Reykjavik is Bears on Ice (bearsonice.org). It’s a four-day, friendly social event for these cuddly heavies and
“You might encounter a lot more than you bargained for in the Icelandic Phallological Museum”
their admirers, occurring every September. As well as a couple of parties, they run two excursions from the capital to places that I would recommend for everyone.
Firstly, the Golden Circle tour is a day trip that involves a visit to three of Iceland’s natural wonders: the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall; the eponymous Geysir, which has given its name to all spouting hot springs; and the Unesco World Heritage-listed Þingvellir National Park, an entrancing rugged landscape, where one of the globe’s oldest extant parliaments, the Althing, was set up in AD930.
The other amazing jaunt entails a 50-minute drive from Reykjavik – or a 20-minute one from the other major departure point, Keflavík International Airport – to the iconic Blue Lagoon (240 Grindavík, bluelagoon.com). The near-by Svartsengi Power Station provides this large geothermal spa with mineral-rich water that is heated to a soothing 38C. A soak in its milky aquamarine hot pool, while your face is caked in revitalising silica mud, is a slice of heaven.
According to Landnámabók, a medieval chronicle, in AD874 the first settler arrived in Iceland, the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson. Over the next couple of centuries, many of his compatriots and a few other Scandinavians also became permanent residents. An institution that offers a complete overview of these events and brings one up to the present day in respect of this country’s engaging history, is the National Museum of Iceland (Suðurgata41,thjodminjasafn.is/english). Situated in the city centre close to Lake Tjörnin, some of the coolest exhibits include a carved 13thcentury wooden church door, the Valþjófsstaðir; the over one-millennium-old Eyrarland Statue (it’s generally presumed to be the Norse god Thor); and various hoards of ancient silver.
If there’s one journey out of Reykjavik that highlights the mesmerising, almost mystical Icelandic countryside, then it’s the 6-hour roundtrip to the Thrihnukagigur volcano (insidethevolcano.com). It’s not so astonishing that it’s here, because this nation sits astride the MidAtlantic Ridge, where the Eurasian and North American plates are drifting apart, so seismic activity abounds. However, it is a surprise that a human can descend 120 metres into a crater - don’t worry, it’s been dormant for over 4,000 years, so you won’t get as scorched as charcoal – and then explore its fascinating, lit-up interior. On the way to this gigantic landmark, it’s necessary to undertake a moderate 50-minute hike. That’s when a person will develop a real feel for this barren – to the extent that NASA astronauts used it as an approximation of the moon’s surface during training – yet extraordinarily beautiful terrain.
In fact, Iceland’s breathtaking scenery has played a role in the design of Reykjavik’s most identifiable attraction, Hallgrímskirkja church (Hallgrímstorg 101, hallgrimskirkja.is/english). Constructed between 1945 and 1986, although this white concrete edifice somewhat resembles a retro spaceship, it’s actually modelled after the basalt lava flows that so characterise this intriguing country. As this temple is 73 metres tall, it has an observation tower that peers down over the capital.
I must confess, I didn’t even know how to spell (let alone pronounce) Reykjavik before my sojourn here. Nonetheless, her amicable people and a raft of interesting museums has meant that this Nordic city has made one hell of an impression.
THIS PAGE CLOCKWISE: HALLGRIMSKIRKJA CHURCH; GEYSIR; THE NORTHERN LIGHTS; GRAZING SHEEP IN SUMMER
CLOCKWISE: REYKJAVIK SKYLINE; GEYSIR; INSIDE THE THRIHNUKAGIGUR VOLCAN (PHOTO © EVELINA KREMSDORF)
THE HIJÓDAKLETTAR CLIFFS IN THE JOKULSARLJUFUR NATIONAL PARK