Am Bratach No. 306
April 2017


Graeme at large
by Graeme Mackay

Iceland is the place to be. A small island of fire and ice anchored between tectonic plates in the north Atlantic, this country is the one to watch. It has been seven years since I last visited on a trip back from the United States, arriving into a snowy Reykjavik on a cold November morning. My latest trip was very different. I travelled with Mam, Dad and my eldest sister Rachael for a long weekend in surprisingly mild February weather to explore the Icelandic capital and surrounding villages.

It is clear from the increase in flights to Reykjavik from the UK alone that Iceland’s popularity is growing. The capital is buzzing with visitors and although it’s not a cheap destination, people are fascinated by Iceland’s natural wonders. We rented a car and made our way to the capital from Keflavik airport to our Airbnb property in the city centre. Reykjavik is surprisingly large, and an eclectic mix of buildings, from traditional colourful corrugated homes to post war concrete cathedrals. Towering seventy-three metres above the city, the Hallgrímskirkja church is an impressive expressionist piece of architecture that took over forty years to build, taking its inspiration from the glaciers and geology that formed this fascinating landscape.

On our first night in Reykjavik we treated ourselves to a traditional Icelandic meal at the restaurant Lækjarbrekka, plucking up the courage to try the local speciality of fermented shark — which is just as hideous as it sounds. It is served in a small Kilner jar to keep the pungent smells at bay, then you take a small cube of the fermented fish and regret every second! It’s like eating pure ammonia — an interesting flavour and an experience never to be repeated. We also tried dried fish with butter, smoked lamb’s meat and gravlax — some more tasty than others.

The next day we followed in the footsteps of TV chef Rick Stein and followed the route he made in a recent Icelandic programme of his. Our first visit was to the small town of Hveragerði where, everywhere we looked, the land was leaking steam from punctures within the hillside. This place is a geothermal hotbed: it’s surreal to see steam billowing through ground and rocks. We then travelled on to the coastal village of Stokkseyri to try their famous langoustine soup and lava bread — the most expensive bowl of soup I’ve ever tasted! But it was delicious. With our stomachs full, we continued on to Gulfoss — an amazing and popular waterfall on the Golden Triangle tourist route — and Strokurr Geyser, taking time to watch it eject hot water high in the sky every five to ten minutes. The scenery in south-west Iceland is both breathtaking and stark: unfolding before your eyes is ever-changing scenery and light that throws shadows far across the landscape. The sun was setting for our final stop at the Secret Lagoon (not so secret now!), a natural outdoor hot-spring that was pure bliss and a fantastic way to end the day and relax under a sky of stars.

Day three and we decided to stay more local to Reykjavik and explore the Hvalfjörður fjord near to Akranes. The fjord literally translates as whale fjord and this might in part explain the presence of whaling stations along its shores. Although not nearly as popular, whaling still takes place in Iceland with much of its product being exported to Japan. In 1998 a tunnel was completed below the fjord to shave an hour off the car journey to the capital. The tunnel is impressive and reaches a depth of 165 metres below sea level. We drove through the tunnel to Akranes, a small industrial town on the west coast of Iceland — not necessarily the prettiest of places but its coastline and lighthouses were stunning. The sun was trying hard to break through the heavy clouds and howling wind, but to no avail.

Now no trip to Iceland is complete without a visit to its top visitor attraction, the Blue Lagoon — a geothermal outdoor heated pool that glows with an attractive milky blue hue. I must say that having been there seven years ago the place has changed and basically it has become too busy and too commercial. They are extending the complex to include a hotel, but that means more people, so I’m not sure how that will ease the congestion. However, it’s still an incredible place and relaxing if you can find a spot away from all the people. Fortunately by slapping some thick silica mud on our faces (it was like a scene from Shrek!), we Mackays fairly scared others away and found a nook to call our own.

Reykjavik is definitely one of my favourite European cities, not only because it proves a multicultural and eclectic city can exist on the edge of nowhere, but also because it is architecturally pleasing and naturally pretty. Bustling streets with tourist traps, hipster gift shops and Icelandic wool stores line the network of one-way streets. My favourite building sits on the harbour front — “Harpa” Music Hall and Conference Centre. An impressive steel and geometric glass shaped building, it looks like basalt columns spiralling out from deep within the ground to form this impressive concert hall. Iceland’s famous symphony orchestra and opera company are based there. I’ll be back to Reykjavik but next time it will be in the summer. I want to experience the land of the midnight sun and travel to more rural locations around this quirky island.

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