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December 9 2013 Latest news:
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With a village feel but big city zeal and steeped in culture and heritage, Reykjavik is one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe. Karen Bowerman spent a few days in the Icelandic capital...
With a village feel but big city zeal and steeped in culture and heritage, Reykjavik is one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe. Karen Bowerman spent a few days in the Icelandic capital.
Its bleak but beautiful, the girl in the cafe said, serving me a frothy cappuccino as I sat, surrounded by hardbacks, at a long wooden table in the glass-fronted bookshop.
We were talking about Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.
I wrapped my frozen fingers round the steaming cup and looked out over Skolavordustigur, the street leading to Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjaviks modernist, cement church, and the iconic symbol of the city.
It was late morning but the light which is enchanting here, gave the impression that day was only just emerging from dawn. The street, a mixture of traditional timber houses and artists studios clad with brightly- painted corrugated iron, glowed a warm peachy colour.
The girl asked if I were visiting. I nodded. Youll love it, she promised; she was right.
Reykjavik: the city
Legend has it that Icelands capital city was founded by a Norwegian fugitive, Ingolfur Arnarson, who threw his high-seat pillars into the sea and vowed to settle wherever they washed ashore. He named the place Reykjavik (Smoky Bay), after the steam arising from the areas geothermal pools.
Today, Reykjavik, the worlds most northerly capital, is spread across a small peninsula against a backdrop of snow-topped mountains.
Dress up warm, be prepared for rain (a local saying suggests if you dont presently like the weather, wait and itll get worse) and remember that even before the countrys financial crisis in 2008, Iceland was never a cheap place to visit. But dont let any of this deter you.
Reykjavik may be small but it has big city zeal, lots of culture and (an almost) non-stop nightlife.
Reykjavik the cultural sights
The main attraction is Hallgrimskirkja, the citys modernist church which took 34 years to build and was completed in 1974.
Viewed from a certain angle, some say the sweeping columns either side of the entrance resemble two hands, clasped together in prayer. Others claim they represent the countrys volcanic basalt.
The churchs main attraction is the 75m (240ft) steeple. Take the lift, edge round the back of the clock and head on up for a 360 degree view of the city.
Naked bodies curled over in prayerOpposite Hallgrimskirkja is the Einar Jonsson Museum, home of Icelands foremost sculptor Einar Jonsson (1874-1954), famed for his symbolic and largely religious work. The unusual building was designed by the artist himself.
The museums sculpture garden has almost 30 bronze casts including massive angels who guard the Christ child with outstretched curvaceous wings and naked bodies curled over in prayer.
Another intriguing sculpture garden can be found at the Asmunder Sveinsson Sculpture Museum, part of the Reykjavik Art Museum, which is spread over three sites. The igloo-style building was once Asmunders home.
Asmunder (1893-1982) celebrated Icelands working class heroes: look out for the statue of the water carrier (the persons sexuality is unclear although most experts say sculpting a working class person AND a female would have been too controversial, even in 1948!) The museums garden houses an intriguing collection of Asmunders tactile and curvaceous creations.
Archeology and wizardry in one
If you want to brush up on Icelands culture and heritage, head to the citys National Museum, but for a museum which combines archaeology and high tech wizardry visit Reykjavik 871+/-2 part of Reykjavik City Museum.
The date, 871 AD +/-2 (years) reflects the uncertainty over the age of the Viking longhouse thats the museums centrepiece.
We call them the GhostsThe ruins of the longhouse were discovered in 2001 when a hotel began work on an underground car park. Intriguingly, a 12th century legends suggest Ingolfur (the founder of Reykjavik) built his farm on the site.
Look out for the tiny images of settlers who wander across the museums curved outer walls, re-enacting life in the Middle Ages. We call them the ghosts, the woman at the front desk told me, as I watched them spear whales, thatch cottages and bury their dead.
Icelands 13th century sagas
Equally interesting, though in a more cerebral way, are the displays in the Culture House. The building is home to some of the countrys oldest manuscripts, the 13th century sagas that have captivated Icelanders for generations.
I was also fascinated by a display of tiny prayer books, written for women in childbirth, and placed on their thighs by those who thought it would make the process easier!
Hot pots and spasIf you want to relax, head to one of the citys geothermal pools. The largest is the public Laugardalslaug swimming pool complex, which has large hot tubs (known ashot pots) and water slides.
Watch locals chat, flirt and play chess on floating, foam chessboards, but make sure you strip and shower before donning a swimsuit and joining them. Icelanders take hygiene very seriously and are keen to keep their pools clean, especially since theyre free from chemicals.
Wallowing in the Blue Lagoon
Of course the Blue Lagoon, a 40 minute drive from the capital, is the most famous place to wallow. Treat yourself to a mud mask and a cool drink from the Lagoon Bar and take in the surreal setting. Where else can you bathe in six million litres of milky blue geothermal seawater thats also the byproduct of a geothermal power plant?
Theres a poolside steam room and sauna (included in admission price) and an exclusive spa.
The easiest way to visit is to combine your trip with a coach transfer to or from the airport. Reykjavik Excursions Flybus offers free, secure luggage storage and various departure times.
Two tips before you go: remove your jewellery so it doesnt corrode, and take lots of conditioner if you dont want your end to end up feeling like straw!
Whales, ponies and gigantic glacier
For active visitors the area around Reykjavik also has a lot to offer.
Elding Whale Watching runs boats throughout the year and boasts a 95% success rate. I fell into the unlucky 5%, but I did learn a lot about the mammals and managed to spot a couple of porpoises. All those on board also got the offer of a free return trip.
Icelandic Mountain guides offer various hiking, climbing and caving excursions. I opted for the Walk through Ice and Fire day trip, (approx 10 hours) which involved two hikes, one through the Reykjadalur valley and another along the ashen surface of Solheimajokull glacier tongue where we paused to enjoy the sunset.
Theres also pony riding through Icelands lava fields. I set off in pouring rain to experience the stubby Icelandic horses unique fifth gait, or tolt (a sort of smooth run). I returned drenched, but with a complimentary horseshoe!
Stay in: the modern Hotel Klettur, a couple of minutes walk from the city centre. The hotels named after the rocky outcrop incorporated into the building and said to be the home of some of the islands infamous elves! www.hotelklettur.is.
Fly with: Icelandair www.icelandair.co.uk which operates regular flights to Iceland from London Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow.
For more information: www.visiticeland.com