Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Iceland: Reykjavik Downtown, Harbour

After spending a sunny 25 degrees day in Venice, it was quite the shell shock when we landed the next day in Reykjavik, Iceland to rainy, blustery 7 degrees weather with gale-force winds so strong that the stewardesses struggled to get the door open and I almost got blown off the stairs while lugging my carry-on bags down to the tarmac.  We knew there would be a temperature difference between our two vacation destinations and this made it very difficult to decide what to pack, since I wanted to take only carry-on luggage and had to limit my load.  Rather than bringing really warm clothes that I would lug around for 12 days in Venice, just to wear for 4 days in Iceland, I decided to bring lighter wardrobe and layer. Good thing I brought my ear muffs, gloves and cowl since I needed these for our first 2 days before the temperature warmed up a little.  The Kevlavik airport is 45 minutes from Reykavik.  There is no public transportation into the city, so we took the Grayline coach, which supports dropoffs at all major downtown hotels.  Perhaps it was inclement weather that made it appear so, but as the countryside passed us by, we saw miles and miles of what looked like drab, desolate-looking landscape.

We chose an apartment-style hotel called Apartment K which is right in the heart of downtown Rekyjavik, just off of Laugavegur Street, the main shopping drag of the area.  We always like getting an apartment or hotel room with at least a mini fridge so that we could have cold water in our water bottle and possibly buy fruit or yogurt for a quick breakfast the next morning.  We were given a large airy loft on the top (4th) floor, which we thought was great until we realized that the WIFI did not reach our room.  For the next 4 days, we had to go down to the lobby to check our email or surf the web.  The bathroom was quite interesting as it was covered floor-to-wall-to-ceiling with what felt like smooth pebbles. There was a see-through glass sliding door with the toilet directly behind it and the shower off to one side.  The shower had a nice large rain-head system but also non-adjustable jets that were supposed to spray water at your back.  The only time that I tried it, I realized that I was too short as the spray shot into and over my head.

We rented our apartment for a fairly good price considering that it was right downtown and that night we found out why.  Despite being fairly cold outside, the geothermal heating used in Iceland made the room extremely warm, so we had to keep the windows open any time we were in the unit.  We were visiting in June, which is described as the time of the "Midnight sun" since it does not get dark until after midnight, as opposed to the winters in Iceland where there are only 5 hours of sun between 11:30am to 3:30pm!  I think there are actually is 24 consecutive hours of daylight per day, since I have awakened at 3am, 4am, and 5am and at each hour, it was still not dark. Having been starved of daylight for so long, the Icelanders (and tourists) are out and about on the streets all "night" long.   While we thought it was loud during the week, we didn't know what we were in for until Friday night, when we realized that our apartment was located right next to a youth hostel and at least one bar that stayed open until almost 5am.  There is nothing like lying in bed listening to thumping music all night long, culminating in Justin Bieber's "Sorry" at 4:30am.

Living right by the touristy streets meant that it was a short jaunt to reach our choice of restaurants, coffee bars and gimmicky shops.  The Kaffitar Coffee Shop was a favourite haunt of ours for breakfast since it had free WIFI and unlike many of the other places that opened between 9-11am, it opened at 7am, which I guess can be considered "North American hours".   Since Iceland is an isolated island where most things need to be imported, we were prepared for the prices to be quite outrageous.  But it was still shocking the first time we shared a coffee and two muffins and the total came to almost $20 Canadian!  We did find a few surprising items at prices comparable to or less than what we would pay back home–the smoked salmon and jars of caviar each cost around $6-8 Canadian.  We are not big caviar fans but we bought some smoked salmon to eat for breakfast.  A large part of Laugavegur Street is pedestrian only and is blocked off by barriers made of painted bicycle sculptures.  So many European cities have their main shopping streets turned into pedestrian only avenues.  I wish Toronto could learn from this.

The shops in downtown Reykjavik are rife with stereotypically Icelandic items such as gnomes, puffins, and Vikings, which are found on everything from T-Shirts, hats, mugs, stuffed toys and figurines. Beautiful Icelandic Sweaters, going for around $300-400 Canadian, are so plentiful that it makes you wonder whether every Icelander knows how to knit them.  These sweaters are made of wool from Icelandic sheep and have the iconic design of the an elaborate yoke pattern typically created by two or three contrasting colours.  This pattern is usually repeated on the ends of the sleeves and the bottom of the sweater.  It is too bad that I find this type of yarn (called lopi) too rough and itchy for me, but I have become inspired to try to knit my own version using a less scratchy cotton or acrylic yarn.  I thought it was appropriate that we found a store featuring stuffed polar bears, since I was freezing that day.  You know the old saying that "Greenland is icy and Iceland is green" (relatively speaking)?  I'm not sure about Greenland, but Iceland lived up to its name on this cold June day, and the landscape is more brown than green.

Many shops featured fun and quirky items.  My favourite were the Ryan Gosling or Leonardo DiCaprio socks which formed their entire face when you put the pair of socks side by side.  There were also the set of four cups stacked one on top of the other, where the the art painted across all four cups form a single cartoonish image of an animal in human clothing.  Stacking the cups in the right order almost becomes a simple puzzle or game.  Boogie Bites consists of the figure of a dancing male or female with a spike protruding from the neck where you are to stick a piece of cheese or other hors d'oeuvre to act as the head. In one clothing store was a pair of skinny jeans where one leg was made of lace instead of denim.

I have always loved street art murals and there are many large-scaled examples in Reykjavik that cover the entire sides of buildings or sometimes even multiple walls of a building.  I was immediately drawn to a Gothic rendering of a Dracula-like figure presumably sucking the blood out of the neck of his female victim and the cartoonish image of Godzilla and King Kong attacking the city.  On the wall adjacent to the Hrim Design & Kitchen store, the mural of a descending eagle uses the same the shapes and colours as the patterns on the store window-front, directly tying the mural to the store.  Unlike the graffiti found in many other cities, the graffiti in Reykjavik did not seem to include much use of tagging or stylized signatures.

At the top of the hill up Skólavörðuholti Street, which intersects Laugavegur, you call see the Hallgríms Church with its 244 feet tall steeple, making it the largest church and 6th tallest structure in Iceland.  Completed in 1986, this Lutheran church is named after Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), a famous Icelandic poet and author of a set of religious poems called "The Passion Hymns", as well as being one of the most influential pastors of his time.  Standing boldly with an axe in his hand is a sculpture of the famous Viking Leif Erickson (970-1020), the first known European to discover North America.  The sculpture is created by Alexander Stirling Calder, the father of the Alexander Calder that we know for his mobiles and wire sculptures.  We arrived prior to opening hours so that we could get some photos of the outside of the church and were able to see the impressive pattern formed by the closed front doors.

The inside of the church is relatively plain except for the massive pipe organ built in 1992 that is 15 metres tall and weighs 25 tons.  One of the main reasons for visiting Hallgríms Church is for its observation tower that provides a stunning 360 degree view of the city of Reykjavik, its harbour and the surrounding mountains.  It costs 900 ISK (about $10 Canadian) to ascend to the top via a small elevator, after which you need to climb a series of stairs to get to the observation deck.  I appreciated the little boxes that were provided to allow height-challenged people like me to see the views.

In addition to the scenery of the mountains and ocean, what stands out is the rainbow of colours that grace the rooftops of the houses and buildings.  During a walking tour of the city, I asked whether there was any rhyme or reason for the colours (like in Burano where the painted houses are a tourist attraction and colour schemes are mandated by the government).  As far as the tour guide knew, there was no set plan for the multi-coloured roofs–it was merely a matter of taste and aesthetics.  Intended or not, these roofs have become a tourist attraction in their own right and provide another reason to visit the Hallgríms Church.

On Skólavörðuholti Street leading up to the church are a series of easels that display a rotating selection of art including paintings, drawings and photographs.  The first day that we arrived, we noticed that the current exhibition was of renderings by children who drew their impressions of the church.  It was interesting looking at the church from these innocent young eyes.  Just inside the doors of Hallgríms Church itself is another area where rotating art exhibits are put on display.  Icelandic artist Hulda Hakon presented four new works in an exhibition entitled "Peter" which all relate to Saint Peter.

The beautiful Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre is built with a steel frame supporting plates of blue-green glass which shimmer in the sunlight and whose panes show the relection of the water and the harbour below.  The glass façade was designed by  Danish-Icelandic visual artist Olafur Eliasson, who also created the giant Waterfall installations for New York City. The Harpa almost did not get built since it was supposed to be part of a larger development project which included the new headquarters for the Landsbanki Bank.  When the financial crisis hit in 2008 and the bank collapsed, the project ground to a halt.  It took government funding to complete the concert hall, which opened in May 2011.

The Harpa is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and provides offices for the Icelandic Opera. There are four concert and convention halls, with the largest holding 1800 people in the audience.  As a conference centre, it also offers smaller meeting rooms and state-of-the-art equipment as well as catering services for corporate meetings and functions.  The glass design of the Harpa is as spectacular when viewed from the inside as from the outside, and provide stunning views of the surrounding harbor when you stand up close.  There are two restaurants on the first and fourth floors as well as gift shops.

Tattooing seems to be a big deal in Iceland as we have seen so many tattoo shops in downtown Reykjavik alone.  We happened to be in city during the 11th Annual Icelandic Tattoo Convention, held for three days at the Gamla Bio Convention Centre.  When I first saw the promotional sign for the convention, I thought it was a wrestling match based on the drawing.  It became clear that this was indeed a convention for tattoos when we saw all the "inked" arms of the attendees.  Even the public library got into the act by prominently featuring books like "Inked" which provides photos of creative or humorous tattoos.

Luckily  the day we visited the Reykjavik Harbour, the skies finally cleared.  It was a bright sunny day and the waters glimmered with an amazing rich royal blue hue.  We were able to clearly see the snow-capped peaks of Mount Esja in the horizon.  In addition to accommodating commercial transport boats and pleasure sail and motor boat vessels, the old harbour is the launching point for Whale and Puffin watching excursions.  The Marine Museum is located here, as are a row of shops and restaurants (although most of them seemed to be closed when we were there).

While walking back from the Harbour towards our hotel, we stumbled upon "Embassy Row" on Tungata Street.  Being extremely hot and tired and wanting to rest Rich's sore knee, what better place to take refuge than on a shady bench outside of the Canadian Embassy.  I added another notch to my collection of countries and cities where I have taken an outdoors nap.

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