Reykjavik: Along the Water

After spending some time in the church and losing myself in various streets and shops, I check my phone and then an actual paper map (it’s nice to switch). It looks like I can easily walk to the Harpa concert hall from where I am and make it in time for the next guided tour. It’s an architectural landmark visible from any point of Saebraut and another useful orientation point for walking around. Cloudy skies greet me when I arrive, but every pane of glass of the box fitted atop the staircases inside still reflects and catches the light differently.

The building is still young and our guide tells us of the massive amounts of attention and effort that went in to the acoustic design of the various halls of the Harpa. Wood, felt, moving panels – everything has a role. Each hall has a name inspired by Icelandic nature and while our guide talks, it strikes me once again how patriotic and protective locals are about the unique landscapes and natural wonders in the country. At the end of the tour the meaning behind the name is disclosed. Also based on votes from citizens,  Harpa means “harp” in Icelandic, and it’s also a common female name or surname. Finally, harpa is a month in the old Nordic calendar, and the first day of that month meant the beginning of summer, a time of brightness and awakening. A poetic combination.

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After glimpsing the rocky coastline and the water from one of the Harpa’s many windows, I can’t wait to get there myself. Taking a closer look once I reach the walk, masses and masses of small stones piled straight up meet the eye, each resting in the middle of an enormous rock. The effect is both amusing and impressive. While I do see some tourists attempting to carefully clamber further out and leave some art of their own, I know that most of these must have been left by local trolls in the night.

Walking further down along the water, I eventually catch my first glimpse of The Sun Voyager. I’d guess that most people recognize or have seen the image even before they knew what it was. The sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason is arresting from any angle and it’s fascinating to see it change depending on the light and time of day. What I like most about the concept is that it’s open to interpretation and that there is no single answer to the question about what it actually is.

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On another day I take a peaceful stroll around the Old Harbour area – there’s just something about water that I can’t resist. I’m lucky to catch the harbour in different light and spend some time joyfully snapping, then stop for a delicious meal in the Höfnin restaurant not far away. It’s been a good day.

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Reykjavik: Downtown

Hamburg is two hours ahead of Reykjavik, so I wake up very early and then legitimately laze around. Eventually the smell of bacon starts wafting in from downstairs and I go to breakfast. The City Park Hotel is a busy one. Everyone is tucking in to their food, clearly with a plan for the day, either preparing to leave or close to catching a bus for their next tour.

There’s multiple bus stops nearby, but I’m itching for a long walk, so I set off. At first glance the hotel seems further away from the city center, but in reality it’s extremely easy to go downtown from here. Either walk down to the water and mountains you see on your right and then along the shore on Saebraut, it’s easy to pick a turning point to the left, basically any of them takes you to central Reykjavik. The other way, which I opt for, is to go the short distance down Hallarmúli, then turn left on Suðurlandsbraut, which eventually seamlessly gives way to Laugavegur, one of Reykjavik’s main streets. It’s easy to branch out from there.

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I’m not very different from many others as I make my way to the Hallgrimskirkja. It’s visible from my hotel as well and I take the elevator up to the observation deck. It’s just under the roof, a circular space with barred windows slightly above my head. Underneath each window there’s a sturdy wooden box with discreet foot markings. I grasp two window bars and pull myself up a bit to stand on the box. Then I carefully angle my phone between the bars and snap the views I want to capture from up here. Needless to say, they are breathtaking.

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Getting lost in the surrounding streets afterwards is easy, then it starts to rain and I get hungry. Le Bistro catches my eye – clearly French inspiration in terms of food, but with an Icelandic twist, and inside it’s cluttered and decorated with all sorts of things that make you think of a Parisian cafe with history, albeit slightly exaggerated. Every inch of space is taken up by pictures, plaques, bowls, baskets, postcards, bottles, and there are even postcards in the bathroom – my kind of place! It’s amusing to find this slice of France on my first day in Reykjavik, but my cheese platter is local and so is the melt-in-your-mouth salmon.

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Getting to Reykjavik

“What about dimensions?” – “Dimensions are INSANE.”

I’m standing in line to check in my suitcase (this hasn’t happened in ages, I’m a determined hand luggage girl every chance I get) for my first ever trip to Iceland and experiencing my very own little slice of The Big Bang Theory, only these dudes are showing off more. “I work in intel, so I can’t talk about what I specialize in,” one of the guys says in response to a question, then repeats “I work in intel” three more times during the conversation. But otherwise, they are right, dimensions can be TOTALLY insane and somehow the statement cloaks the images of Iceland swirling around my brain after all the reading I’ve done.

Time passes quickly and before I know it, the plane starts to descend in Keflavik Airport. Brown and green mountainous terrain embroidered by silver-white river threads is visible below, followed by what looks like splashes of mirrors reflecting the clouds I see from the plane.

Shortly before landing our captain says it’s very windy on the ground and to please be careful when we go down the stairs to the airport buses. As soon as I take the first step outside the cabin, I realize that this wind means business. Airport staff around us is wearing gloves, hats, and sweaters. I’m thankful for my layers and promptly feel just ever so slightly smug about being prepared.

Making my way through the airport on the way to baggage claim I basically start learning the language from reading signs, as you do, and two important words enter my vocabulary: komur (arrivals) and  snyrting (toilet). There’s enough going on, but everything seems to be ticking like clockwork, and thankfully I arrive early at the Airport Direct desk (reassuringly orange and impossible to miss) in the arrivals terminal. There are still seats on an earlier bus and within minutes I board one, then off I go.

The transfer industry is extremely well developed in Reykjavik, and while renting a car is definitely an option, for those who don’t drive or just want to sit back for a while after their flight, there’s a wide range of transfer types to choose from, all of them listed on the Keflavik Airport website.

The wind is so strong that I can see the long grass on the ground being flattened by it. I also hear it whipping against the bus. But the road is as smooth as can be and I find myself thinking that if I did drive, I’d love to drive here. And having Russian roots, the feel of the motorway from a passenger perspective is definitely something I’m attuned to. It’s also one of the first indicators that this country is doing well. The landscape outside changes, going from mixed mounds of rock, earth, grass and moss, to mountains in the distance and then blue water, neat houses and apartment buildings along the shoreline.

Our somewhat taciturn, weather-beaten driver suddenly becomes more talkative right towards the end of my journey, by which point there are only two passengers left on the bus. I say thank you and wish him a nice day when I disembark at my hotel, to which I get a “Thank you, lady!” He sounded like Fezzik in The Princess Bride.

After getting something to eat (it turns out the hotel serves a comforting dinner buffet, clearly geared towards strengthening its guests against a windy climate), I pop outside and make my way to the clearly visible Hilton Hotel nearby. Because it’s just what I do. Everyone I see walking outside is dressed in practical outdoor clothes and not one single woman is wearing heels. The Hilton is immediately warm and almost festive inside, and that’s all very nice, but I have a purpose. Here you can buy the Reykjavik City Card, and I get mine so I can g0 to all those museums with a discount and not have to think about tickets on the bus.