Fiercely Independent Cultures

  • 16/12/2014

In a world that is increasingly homogenous, fiercely independent cultures and places are especially intriguing. Likely a result of it's geographical isolation from both mainland Europe and North America, Iceland has always taken it's own unique path. Icelandic architecture and fashion is a reflection of it's unusual geography, the Icelandic palette is most comfortable when quality local ingredients are cured, cultured, fermented, or pickled, and the Icelandic people revel in self sufficiency and environmental sustainability. Iceland has always been deeply rooted in nordic liberal sensibilities, but unlike any other nation, they refused to bail out their banks after the 2008 recession, in 2009 they elected the world's first openly gay female prime minister and in 2010, Reykjavik elected John Gnarr, punk rock singer, comedian, and self proclaimed anarchist as their mayor. The physical landscape is as striking and unique as the culture itself; an island covered in black volcanic rock, lush green fields, geothermal vents and dramatic volcanoes. It was with this in mind, that Dennie, Henry and I boarded a plane for Reykjavik over Easter holidays, where we would spend 9 days swimming in hot pools, driving through fjords, and eating delicious Skyr (Icelandic yogurt). 

Iceland is expensive. As 
Hiking near EyjafjallajökullHiking near Eyjafjallajökull
Hiking near Eyjafjallajökull
a way to mitigate the costs our plan involved renting an old, rusty but mainly reliable car from Sadcar (a 2002 Yaris with 280,000 Kms), cooking 2 out of 3 meals a day at our rental apartment with Bonus brand groceries and doing as little shopping as possible. Upon walking through customs I began to have some minor reservations about our plan to be budget oriented when we were greeted by what I assume is one out of the two Sadcar employees who took us to a quonset in a field 10 minutes from the airport. When we inquired about a carseat for Henry, they directed us to the back of the auto body shop/rental car graveyard where 3 very used and slightly broken carseats sat amongst mufflers and cooling fluids. Dennie chose the most functional of the lot, we loaded into our Sadcar and took off towards Reykjavik through a minor snow storm. 

Our little Ikea apartment was perfectly located down the street from Hallgrimskirka, the spired Lutheran church that provides a compass for travellers exploring the city. This was a great location to have as home base, as most of our mornings were spent wondering the streets 
Hank and I inside the HarpaHank and I inside the Harpa
Hank and I inside the Harpa
of the old town where colorful terraced houses with main floor commercial space provide a vibrant and walkable downtown dotted with record shops with comfy couches and free espresso (12 Tonar), Icelandic design and furniture stores, vegetarian cafes, pubs, clubs and curry houses. We visited all three locations of the Reykjavik Art Museum (Hafnarhus, Kjarvalsstadir, Asmundarsafn) where the post modern works of Erro and the cubist and abstract landscape paintings of Kjarval hang next to rotating exhibits from contemporary Icelandic artists. We stumbled upon an Easter egg hunt in the Einar Jonsson Sculpture Park, played cards in the sprawling lounges inside The Harpa, and took in the Reykjavik Museum of Photography (inside the public library), the Viking Saga Museum, the Reykjavik Children's Park and "zoo" (more of a petting zoo) and took the elevator to the observatory at The Pearl. The city is surprisingly cosmopolitan yet retains a small town hospitality that acts as a reminder that there are only 120,000 people within city limits. 

Despite the high cost of bars and restaurants in Reykjavik's centre we managed to find a number of reasonably priced eateries serving delicious and fresh food. Here are some of our recommendations: Babalu (grilled 
Easter Egg Hunt in Einar Jónsson Sculpture GardenEaster Egg Hunt in Einar Jónsson Sculpture Garden
Easter Egg Hunt in Einar Jónsson Sculpture Garden
Hallgrímskirkja in the background.
cheese and tomato soup), C is for Cookie (homemade soup and sandwiches with great cheesecake), Laundromat Cafe (lake trout with root vegetables was outstanding and the children's play area in the basement is something to behold!), Austur India Fjelagid (delicious vegetarian Thali), Graen Kostur (Eastern inspired fusion veggie food with two lunch options daily). For drinks, Microbar has a lot of local craft beers on tap (Happy Hour from 5-8 pm). The Labowski Bar also seemed like an amazing place but they were having pub trivia when we walked in so we didn't stay for a drink. 

Our Sadcar managed a number of day trips from Reykjavik; we drove north through the Hvalfjorour (Whale Fjord), stopping for a picnic near some rapids. We drove to the geothermal town of Hveragerði and onto the famed Eyjafjallajokull volcano which erupted in 2010 causing flight cancellations across Europe. We drove the Golden Circle with stops at Geyser, Pingvellir National Park and the Gulfoss waterfall. Once you leave Reykjavik the geography is stark but majestic with green fields punctuated with black volcanic rock, rolling hills, steep mountain passes and steam rising into the air from thermal vents dotting the landscape throughout. 

Outside of the Blue LagoonOutside of the Blue Lagoon
Outside of the Blue Lagoon
and I have fast come to the realization that when travelling with a baby, the experience is more fun for all if all planning revolves around the baby. And while Reykjavik's legendary nightlife may have called my name once or twice, parenting with a hangover certainly did not. As such, we spent a good deal of our time in Iceland immersing ourselves into the thermal pool culture. With 122 thermal pools and 17 in Reykjavik alone, we made it our mission to swim in a new pool each day. In Reykjavik we swam at Laugardalslaug, Sundhollin, Arbaejarlaug, Grafarvogslaug, Sudurbaejarlaug, and Asvallalaug. During our day trips around the Icelandic country side we also had the opportunity to swim at the beautiful pool at Hverageroi, naked in the deserted Seljallalaug located in a mountain valley surrounded by waterfalls, and on our last day at expensive but amazing Blue Lagoon. 9 pools in 9 days. The water in all public pools is chemical free, heated through geothermal, and nearly all have a number of "hot pots", saunas, lanes for swimming, kids pools, and water-slides. I got the impression from my time sitting in "hot pots" chatting with locals that thermal pools are important 
Enroute to the Seljvavellir hot pool Enroute to the Seljvavellir hot pool 
Enroute to the Seljvavellir hot pool
gathering places for members of the community. Old and young alike move between the various pools and openly converse with strangers and friends. In moments where Henry was grumpy or tired we always knew we were within a few minutes from a pool where he would immediately be transformed back into the smiling Hank we have become used to. While the pools certainly made travelling in Iceland with a baby much easier, it is the Icelandic people who really make Iceland a child friendly locale. Almost every restaurant we went to had a children's play area, there was signage that encouraged breastfeeding, and all bars and pubs allow children. Icelandic people were warm and outgoing but not loud or obnoxious and no matter where we went, it seemed they had thought about ways to welcome children. 

On our final morning in Iceland, I walked down the street from our apartment to pick up a couple cd's at Tonar 12. I sat on their comfy couches listening to FM Belfast and Seabear while Henry rummaged through the stacks. Without asking, the man running the shop brought me an espresso. I picked up a Reykjavik guidebook from a coffee table and 
Dennie driving our Sad CarDennie driving our Sad Car
Dennie driving our Sad Car
opened the book to the first page to read the mayor's welcome message for visitors. Jon Gnarr (the mayor) foretold his version of the country's origin. I read, 

"But how can it be that such a warm country came to possess such a frigid name? Yes, the explanation is simple: MISUNDERSTANDING. Ingólfur Arnarson, the first man that found Reykjavík, wasn’t on his way here at all. He was en route to the United States of America, to buy grapes and other fast food that grew wild there in those days. He was very interested in food. And also homicide. On his way he noticed a cloud of smoke ascending to the heavens from an unknown country. His curious nature got the best of him, and he changed his course and set sail to Reykjavík (Reykjavík literally means “smoky bay”!). 



As he disembarked his ship, he saw that the smoke was in fact steam rising from Reykjavík’s many swimming pools. He was therefore quick in tearing off the suit of armour that he had worn in case he’d encounter some Native Americans while picking grapes, and jumping into some swim trunks. After swimming a good 
Hank test driving Indie music at Tonar 12 in ReykjavikHank test driving Indie music at Tonar 12 in Reykjavik
Hank test driving Indie music at Tonar 12 in Reykjavik
500 metres he sat in the hot tub and relaxed. After a fun chat with the locals he had forgotten all about America. Who needs to travel all the way to America to pick grapes when there’s a shop on Laugavegur called Vínberið (Vínberið literally means: “the grape”)? Ingólfur decided to settle here. He rented a small apartment along with his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir, who many claim was the daughter of Frodo from ‘Lord Of The Rings’. Nothing has been proven about that, however.

One day Ingólfur and Hallveig were taking a stroll around town. They were walking their dog, who was called Plútó and was a Great Dane. It was a sizzling hot summer’s day. It was long before the t-shirt was invented. They were both dressed in full suits of armour, with swords and shields and helmets and everything. They stopped by at Ísbúð Vesturbæjar in Hagamelur to get some ice cream and cool down. The story goes that Ingólfur asked the clerk whether she knew what the country was called. 

She thought it was called Thule. Ingólfur felt that was a stupid name. 

“No country can be called Thule”, he said. 

Outside the 
Henry inside the eyjafjallajokull theatreHenry inside the eyjafjallajokull theatre
Henry inside the eyjafjallajokull theatre
ice cream shop, a crowd had gathered. They had heard that foreign visitors were in town. A lot of those people were elves. Ingólfur then approached the crowd, raised his ice cream cone aloft and shouted: 

“Henceforth this country will be called Iceland, because one can get the world’s best ice cream here!”. 

Today we have a statue of Ingólfur. The statue depicts Ingólfur dying of heat, leaning on his dog. 

Don’t be a stranger, be like Ingólfur! " 

Only in Iceland! 

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