As we turned toward Reykjavík, a tangible sense of trepidation filled the car. The thought that we would be able to successfully navigate through an unfamiliar city and its inevitable traffic mayhem, without a detailed street map to assist us, and on to the hotel we had selected from our trusted Lonely Planet book seemed to be naively optimistic.
Our apprehension was fueled, in part, by our experiences in Zagreb earlier in the year, when our attempts to negotiate around pedestrian areas, tram lines and “no left turn” signs assured our place in Croatian folklore. (Read full story here)
However, arriving in Reykjavík, we soon found any trepidation to be misplaced; there wasn’t a hint of traffic mayhem or a wrong turn. Consequently, when we arrived outside of the Icelandair hotel near the marina, our sense of pride in this small accomplishment was complemented by an equal serving of sheer astonishment at the ease with which our destination was reached.
Surveying the scene from the balcony of our room, the lights of the city began to glow as the daylight retreated. The vibrancy of the city had yet to be revealed to us but, even if it had none, the backdrop provided by the snow-capped mountains beyond the harbour, the onyx-black sea of the Faxaflói Bay, and the cleanest, freshest air, combined to deliver a near-perfect location. A city here could not possibly be boring – and we couldn’t wait to explore it.
There was a definite spring in our step as we left the hotel and headed into the centre of Reykjavík. An evening in a new city would serve as the perfect ending to our last day in the country; a day that started only 40 kilometres away, but could have been in a different world.
That morning, starting at the Northern Light Inn and continuing the theme from the previous day, we had decided to head anti-clockwise around the Reykjanes peninsula (which forms Iceland’s south western limit) before a brief stay in the capital would bring an end to our first Icelandic adventure.
The first brief stop of the day was a quick return to the Blue Lagoon. The darkness of the previous night and the biting cold that limited our view to about a head’s height above the water had combined to conceal the full extent of the site.
Daylight gave us a fresh perspective, both inside and out. The late morning sun was reflecting beautifully off of the series of light blue lakes outside of the complex, with the lower water temperature in this area ensuring that no steam rose to obscure the view. As we gazed upon the scene, the frequency of camera shutter clicks became almost musical.
Inside, and feeling as over-dressed as formal dinner guests at a beach party, we wandered among the steam and patrons for a short while as the full extent of the site and its surroundings was revealed. The proximity of visitors in multiple layers of winter clothing wandering along the boardwalks as barely-dressed bathers floated and waded through the waters below added yet another surreal twist to our experiences of the previous evening.
After bidding farewell to the Blue Lagoon, other than finally getting to see the desolate green and black lava field landscape through which route 43 passes (we had already travelled the road twice in the dark), there were no significant attractions requiring our attention until we reached the western coast of the Reykjanes peninsula south of Hafnir.
Just beyond the Hafnaberg Cliffs, we arrived at the Bridge between Two Continents. As we stood on the bridge that purports to span the gap between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, I couldn’t help but consider the folly of building a bridge between two objects relentlessly moving away from each other.
It won’t happen any day soon, of course, but ultimately the gap must become wider than the bridge’s length, sending the bridge crashing down into the sand a few dozen feet below; unless that inevitable fate is hastened when it buckles under the ever-increasing weight being added to its side by padlocks publicly pronouncing myriad examples of never-ending love. Either way, the outlook for the bridge isn’t promising.
Leaving the bridge behind we made our way through the aptly-named 100 Crater Park. The landscape in the far south west of the Reykjanes peninsula is dotted by power stations tapping into the geothermal heat below, feeding Iceland’s national grid with – as near as makes no difference – all of the electricity needed to power the country.
But these aren’t the power stations that would have spawned 20th century environmental protests. There are no sky-piercing smoke stacks; no sprawling masses of ugly concrete construction.
Iceland’s power stations appear to be participants in a futuristic design contest. I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a high-end car showroom within one of the pristine, clinically clean structures.
We were shortly slaloming down a dirt road beyond the Orkuverið Jörð power station toward the impressive Valahnúkur cliffs, which plunge into the Atlantic Ocean and bring an abrupt end to Iceland’s south west extremity. As we travelled back along the dirt road, the inescapable smell of sulphur that filled the air only intensified as we were guided to our next stop by the plumes of steam announcing the Gunnuhver hot spring.
Here, a fellow visitor, heavy with camera but light on common sense, had decided to venture into the area beyond the fences and warning signs in an apparent, foolhardy attempt to repeat the fate of the ghostly witch Gunnuhver who, legend has it, was tricked into walking across this geothermal field and fell into the boiling water to her death.
Back on the main road, we stopped for lunch at the Bryggjan Café nestled among the warehouses by Grindavík’s harbour front before heading toward the Reykjanesfólkvangur (wilderness reserve). Despite its proximity to the capital and the attractions it boasts, we saw fewer people here than we’d seen during the almost private tour we had enjoyed since arriving.
Turning north toward Reykjavík on route 42, we stopped at Seltún and wandered alone among its hot springs, steaming vents and bubbling mud pots. It’s a fascinating place. In my forty eight years, never before had the immense power of the earth beneath my feet – or my insignificance upon it – been so blatantly exposed. It was a strangely refreshing and uplifting experience.
Beyond Seltún, the road briefly deteriorates as it skirts the edge of the Kleifarvatn Lake. The lack of tarmac actually seems to accentuate the desolate remoteness of the area; an unexpected feeling in a place no more than 20 kilometres from one of the world’s capital cities. It was our final stop before turning the car toward Reykjavík.
Reykjavík reminded me of everything I love and miss about living in Europe. The world’s most northerly capital city is as captivating as it is unexpected. A medium-sized town by most standards, Reykjavík’s population of 120,000 is approximately equivalent to those of Santa Clara, California and Chester, England. It’s not a big place – and it is proudly and unmistakably European.
In our post-Schengen world, we don’t need elaborate border crossings – or even the discreet signs that replaced them – to know we’ve just crossed into another country. One glance at your new surroundings instantly tells you something is different. Although arriving in Iceland by road would be quite an achievement.
But it is not merely the architecture, the geography or the people that set a European city apart from its peers; that make it immediately and uniquely recognizable. For me, it has always been the smaller things; the things that are part of everyday life; the things that generally go unnoticed but yet are integral to the fabric and character of a city.
The road signs that are familiar enough to understand, but just different enough to make you look at them twice (perhaps that’s the point?) The street art, whether painted on the side of a building or represented by random bovine sculptures or by impromptu exhibitions of single gloves. The ever-so-slightly unfamiliar way to buy and validate tickets for public transport. The fact that there is public transport.
The evening in Reykjavík did not disappoint. After dinner at Vegamót, we adjourned for drinks to Kaffibarinn. It was Monday night and the city’s inhabitants appeared to be nursing a collective hangover caused by the Iceland Airwaves festival of the previous weekend; only the most resilient, most dedicated to the cause were out tonight.
As it happened, Kaffibarinn delivered the perfectly fitting conclusion to our first Icelandic Adventure. The past few days had revealed a country full of contradictions; the juxtaposition of power and purity; the simultaneous steam-bath heat and biting cold; the forbidding terrain and the warmest hospitality.
Tonight, sitting in a corner of the bar, enjoying a glass or two of Einstök beer, the Icelandic techno-pop playing over the speakers downstairs was accompanied from upstairs by a local choral society practicing for the upcoming festive season. Somehow, the combination didn’t surprise us at all.
As our plane rattled down the runway, lifted into the air and my new favourite destination tilted suddenly away, I thought back to our ominous first step out of the airport at the beginning of our adventure – and then to the majestic waterfalls, magnificent glaciers, mesmerizing ice fields, and the awe-inspiring power of the earth that had accompanied each step that followed.
Above all, Iceland had finally given the lie to Robert Browning’s assertion,
Never the time and the place
And the loved one all together!
I’ll always remember that.
4th January 2015