Thursday, 26 April 2018

A Land of Ice and Fire - Day 1

Stepping out of Keflavík airport in Iceland, the first thing I'm aware of is a very faint scent of something like egg.

Iceland is a young island, relatively speaking.  Younger than Scotland, and igneous almost down to the roots.  It is the result of lava pouring up out of a crack between the American and European continental plates, eruption after eruption forcing land up out of the sea.  It feels like it too, as we drive the hour to Reykjavík - me, my parents, and my youngest sister Emma.
It looks a long way on the map, but takes us only an hour, which gives you some idea of the size of the island.  It's big, a similar mass to England, but still not as big as I assumed, and startlingly spare in terms of foliage.  The wind whips across moorlike spaces that would seem bleak if not for the sun rolling out every so often to spotlight particular parts of it.

Across the bay towards Mount Esja
The Solfariđ (Suncraft) sculpture.  I love the shapes in this thing, and immediately had to go climb on it. 
It's public art, you're clearly meant to do that.

This emptiness is new too.  Iceland used to be treed with birch until the Viking arrived and scoured the place for firewood and timber.  Now the landscape is mostly thick tussocks of wiry grass, and tumbles of small boulders with moss thrown over them like blankets. 

They're very fond of sculptures here.  Along the road from the airport are lots of them, often large upright stones with a small one balanced on top, resembling a head.  It isn't exactly ominous, but certainly disconcerting, especially considering that some of the locals still believe in elves.  Not that they'd admit to it, you understand, if you asked them.  They'd just smile coyly and say something non-commital, and very deliberately not disturb the 'fairy mound' at the bottom of the driveway.
We can't get into our apartment until the afternoon, so instead we go to Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland's biggest church, and perched on a hill above the city.  It was built between 1945 and -86, and although it's made of concrete it feels light and airy, with smooth lines, and one of the biggest pipe organs I've ever seen.  The design of the exterior is smooth and modern, and modelled after the basalt columns on the south coast.  It rises up in a long sweep, culminating in a bell tower that gives a great view over all of Reykjavík.

Tracked down this Redwing in a bush.  Not hard to do as he was a very noisy singer!
The city's buildings are largely very recent, sitting brightly coloured, crisp and clean and so obviously artificial against a landscape of heath and sea, shifting weather, and the ever-present loom of Mount Esja and Skálafell across the water of the harbour.  

It's not a mark against it, rather part of the resilient charm of the place, to plop itself stubbornly in the wilderness like that.  Happily, I find I am in another liminal space, a civilisation perched on the edge of the wild.

While we're up the bell tower the bells ring, the sky clears, and a rainbow arches over the harbour.

We head into central Reykjavírk and soon hit Laugavegur, a street full of restaurants, tourist info and some pretty funny souvenir shops.  Want to buy yourself some reindeer fluff slippers and a model of Thor's hammer Mjolnir?  Just look for the shop with a massive wooden statue of Thor in the window.  Then again, perhaps that's him over there, playing guitar on the street corner...

We found the cycle trail that runs along the coast, and set off North for a walk.  Despite cloud and strong wind there were beautiful moments of sparkling blue sea, textures and light and colour in the headland, and yet more rainbows where a haze around the base of the mountains captured the sunlight.  

The natural coastline, where the harbour wall leaves off.
We got as far as the (closed) Siguejon Olafsson sculpture museum, but looked round the ones outside, as well as those of this neighbour.  This turned out to be a private house built like a fortress with welded scrap metal figures haunting the ground around the house like something from a dystopian sci-fi.  

Looking North from the coastal cycle path - with rainbow!
We were trailed around by a black cat.  It had two eyes, but we called it Odin anyway.

After over 14 hours of being awake after our 2:45am start that morning, and roughly 5 hours of walking in one way or another, we finally headed to our neat little apartment.  It's not far from the centre but pretty quiet.  Even at rush hour there's very little traffic. Reykjavík reminds me a lot of Inverness in that sense.  It's a relatively small place on the edge of the world.
I'm amazed that people ever decided to settle here after discovering this cold place where I can't imagine much farming beyond crofting is possible.  But it was the Vikings.

Of course it was the Vikings.

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