Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Arriving in Iceland, Impressions from Reykjavik

Arriving in Iceland, my first impression was – surprise. I don’t expect much when I land at an airport attached to a small city, which Reykjavik surely is (I landed at Keflavik, the main hub for international flights to and from Iceland), but this is an exceptionally fine terminal – probably the nicest I’ve seen. One interesting motif: abstract renditions of icicles hanging from the roof of one hall. Full marks for style, and the function is pretty good too.

The trip into the capital gives the traveler a pretty good introduction to the local landscape – the road runs on a causeway above an ancient lava field, treeless, heavy with lichen. Arriving in the capital itself, the mostly modern buildings gave the place (to my eyes) a frontier, “American” feel, a reminder that this is a young country – first settled by humans only 12 centuries or so previously. The heart of the city is does have some examples of older architecture – pretty wooden buildings of a typically Scandinavian design.

The city has almost no stone structures - perhaps uniquely in a European capital, there is no castle. There is at least one very fine church, Hallgrimskirka, sitting high on a hill, facing westward towards Greenland and America. A modern building of poured concrete, I loved the clean lines of the interior – old gothic vaulted ceilings, columns, windows – and the local reference in the exterior wings, hexagonal columns, built in imitation of the basalt formations underlying most of the country, and seen by the visitor at most of the waterfalls.

Walking in the harbour was an interesting experience. There were plenty of trawlers, which I’m used to seeing, but also some more exotic vessels. I saw my first whaler – a big chute at the stern to haul the victim aboard, and a very robust-looking harpoon gun in the bows with a huge trigger. Another vessel which caught my eye was a large French yacht – at least 20 metres in length –steel-built, I think, with a black hull apparently devoid of portholes. It looked like an exceptionally strong boat, and I think it may have spent the summer exploring Greenland (actually, it looked strong enough to winter there too, if the owner fancied a few months of darkness).

The city centre is tiny, and shouldn’t detain any traveler too long. Walking there on a Saturday, we met few people, mostly other tourists – who looked a pretty prosperous bunch, to judge by their cameras and clothes. They would need to be, because a modest lunch for two in a Reykjavik coffee house costs around 30 euros – a reasonable, but not extraordinary evening meal runs twice that. Costs in Iceland are higher than anywhere else that I’ve been.

One pleasure that didn’t cost us anything was the views – inland, dramatic mountains rise abruptly from the plains around Reykjavik, and to the north, standing alone above intensely blue waters, a glacier-covered volcano. To the southwest, rising plumes of steam from a geothermal power station are a reminder of the fiery origins of the land. These sights are easily seen through the cool, clean air – Reyjavik gets its power not by burning coal or oil, but by means of the searing incandescence of the rocks below the Reykjanes peninsula (Reykjavik means “Smoky bay” – but the smoke the Viking discoverer was referring to when he named the area is really steam). The visitor is reminded of source of this energy whenever they shower or turn on a tap, and catch a sulphorous whiff.

Our first full day ended in true Icelandic style – lots and lots of fish, from the “all you can eat” fish buffet in the restaurant below our guest house. Very good indeed.

To be continued…

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alex said...
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