The pressurized door opens with a hiss and a rush of frosty air. The scent of seawater fills my nose, with hints of sulfur and a few other scents I don’t recognize. The sky is blinding. Glasses on, pack strapped, I get on my way to the transport.
The horizon is stark and bizarre High sloping hills and piercing snow-capped peaks stretch across my view. Before me an endless expanse of black lava fields dotted with brown and green lichen, behind me muddy plains fall to black-sand beaches.
I can see my destination gleaming in the distance, spires of blue-green steel shining like lighthouses on a distant shore. The natives scamper all around me. They whisper to each other in an ancient tongue, incomprehensible to my ears.
I haven’t arrived on some other planet. I’ve traveled to the edge of this one. This is Iceland. A place of opposites and extremes. Blazing hot and searing cold. Old language and hip culture. An island that is young, yet seems primordial. After a week seeing as much as I could, I’ve come to believe its the most wonderfully strange, bizarrely beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to come back.
I arrived in the skies of Iceland early Monday morning, the 25th of march. Before I even touched down, I was greeted by the famous Icelandic hospitality. Even in economy class, the cabin of the plane was spacious and comfortable, and the sharply dressed attendants were at our beck and call if we needed anything at all. Nearly every surface had simple words in Icelandic with their English equivalent; a cool idea that I think more airlines should follow through with.
They really try hard to make sure you have a pleasant journey to their homeland. Like ridiculously. Icelandic lullabys were stitched on the pillows for gods sake.
I caught my first glances of the country though the clouds. I was immediately struck by how different it looked. The beaches were flat, black and muddy brown; a dark bleak moonscape. No sign of green in sight, but not as much snow as I was anticipating either.
Once off the plane, I grabbed the shuttle to the capital city, Reyajkavik. We were about an hour or so away, in the middle of an endless lava-field. If you’ve never seen one before, it’s weird.
Black volcanic stone rising in mounds across the plain under a thin layer of brown/green lichen. The lack of snow was accompanied by warmer temperatures then I expected. Like 40 f. Tropical. Roslyn had just gotten a fresh coat of snow a week earlier…
On the bus I sat next to a friendly young Canadian student named Penelope. After watching lava fields for an hour we turned out to be headed to the same hostel, KEX, near the city center.
A sidebar about KEX: I’d never done the hostel thing before. Before my solo adventures had been confined to b&bs and bargain hotels. But when I stayed in Edinburgh a couple years ago, I ended up feeling like I was missing out not hanging with all the trendy young travelers in the hostels there. Apparently Kex isn’t a good example of a hostel. Its too nice.
The place is set up in a remodeled biscuit factory. Its all newspaper walls and well lived in furniture with book shelves covering a third of all available wall space. Its also clean, cheap and has a bar in lobby. With free music most nights too.
The desk workers were all incredibly helpful with everything we needed, but we couldn’t get into our rooms until 2pm. It was 8am. So, tired as we were, we decided to venture into the sleeping city.
The capital was eerily silent, practically every door was locked, every shutter closed. Apparently Icelanders open up late and stay open even later. My kinda people. The first street we happened down was a sketch introduction to the city. Long lines of graffiti-ed concrete buildings, empty streets, two erotic stores and one strip club. Nice. In Soviet Iceland the land Ices YOU!
One street up and things got much nicer. Apparently the main street was right next to the skuzy street. The buildings cleaned up, the road widened and there were shops and cafes a plenty. They were mostly closed of course but it was a nice preview of places to check out later.
Penelope and I finally found a small coffee house to perk ourselves up. We pulled out a map and decided to try and track down a couple museums to pass the time. First in line was the Reykjavik museum of Photography that was a couple blocks away. However after getting confused by that damn viking writing they use, we decided to try our next destination rather then end up in the Icelandic welfare department. I think thats what it said.
Next door was the modern Reykjavik Art Museum. A bit artsy fartsy for my taste. Not really my thing but there were a couple interesting exhibits, like this thing on drops of paint as art. Kinda cool. Reminded me of “The Fountain.” Cool movie, you should check it out. Shut up Nathan Wright.
The men at the front desk gave us the low down on a couple more museums, including the one we had just spent fifteen minutes trying to get in. Some cool photography comparing the city now and twenty-five years ago(more commercial, less stark) and a cool art-show in another national art museum. They basically emptied out their storerooms and showed off all the paintings that don’t usually see the light of day. Kind of overwhelming.
Back on the main drag. Reykjavik’s character was revealing itself to me as the doors started to open and the people came out into the sun. It’s rough around the edges, but there’s a warmth here that made me feel at ease. The look of the city was starting to grow on me too. What at first had seemed like simple concrete square houses slowly grew into a pastel rainbow. Shops and houses were plastered in red, blue and yellow paint. Roofs of tin and tile followed suit.
There is an emphasis on function here. Concrete and steel cubes fair much better against the wide range of natural forces these people have to contend with. Like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, blizzards and a raging sea. All in a days work. That’s why there are so few skyscrapers in the city as well.
As we reached the top of the street, one of the city’s crown jewels issued forth like a frost giant on the horizon. Hallgrímskirkja, the largest cathedral in the country. This monolithic structure definitely puts it’s Nordic roots on display. Strange, elegant, beautiful. I’m seeing a pattern here. Penelope called it a lego rocket ship.
The cathedral’s interior was much like its outside; large, impressive but not extravagant. A stark beauty, much like the country itself.
There was another spaceship present in the massive organ, being played by a gentleman rehearsing for a concert. Very foreboding. It was a fitting background as we two travelers ascended to the top of the clock tower. After a brief elevator ride, the skyline of Reykjavik opened up to us. I’ve been in some scary church towers in my time, but this one was tame. Good views and steady stairs. A great way to get our bearings on the city at large.
The two of us were feeling quite peckish by this point. As we walked back in the direction of our hostel, I noticed a cafe I had heard of before. Cafe Loki, known for traditional Icelandic food. We jumped in and found a seat upstairs. The cafe was noisy, but the food was excellent. We decided to play it safe and have lamb on flatbread with traditional meat soup.Almost tried the rotted shark…maybe another day. The owner of the cafe was a woman I had seen on one of the travel videos on the plane ride over! A kindly Icelandic grandma! Should have asked for her autograph!
After that good meal, a wave of fatigue hit us both. In the face. Luckily it was nearly two by this point. We staggered back to our hostel. I fell asleep on the couch while waiting to check in, then got to my six bed dorm room and conked out. Blissful rest at last.
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Thanks for reading!
Onward to sleep…I mean glory!!!