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BrewDogging #77: Reykjavik (or C.I. part 1)

Still Life With Board Games. (You'll have to translate the neon for yourselves, I'm afraid.)Sunday 5th June 2022

The last trip we made to a BrewDog bar outside the UK was Hamburg, which was two and a half years ago. The last trip we made to a BrewDog bar outside the UK by plane was Seoul, which was over three years ago. It's quite possible that after all this Covid nonsense, we've forgotten how to travel.

It's certainly the case that we've forgotten how to book Heathrow Express tickets three months in advance to knock them down to an acceptable price - we didn't realise that until it was too late to do anything about it. Still, it means that we start this adventure with our first ever go on the new Elizabeth line, which is currently just a rebranding of the pre-existing slow trains between Paddington and Heathrow (but will eventually connect fully with central London and the East End badlands). The trains look nice, though they're really just Overground carriages coloured in purple.

We get to the airport long before our flight's due, because you've heard the stories - aviation is broken now, and Heathrow is in a permanent state of chaos. But once we've got there, we whizz through check-in and security at a satisfyingly high speed. Our bags aren't so lucky: the baggage conveyors break down literally as we're checking in, and appear to be down across the entire airport. "Just leave the bags on the floor there, they'll get on the plane," we're told. It's a less than reassuring start, both to our journey to Reykjavik, and to a travel article that mysteriously has the words 'part 1' in its title.

Initially, we're told the flight will be 20 minutes late. We realise that's an underestimate when we reach the scheduled departure time, and our plane is still having bags unloaded from its previous flight. As we're eventually let on board, The Belated Birthday Girl is worried that there's still no indication that our bags have been loaded on yet. We end up leaving 90 minutes late, but the good people at Icelandair manage to make up half an hour of that delay with some speedy flying. The flight itself is okay, although it concerns me that like most Nordic region airlines, Icelandair still show censored versions of movies. The lowpoint is Matt Damon's big line in their version of The Martian, where he announces "I'm gonna have to science the spit out of this."

When we arrive at Reykjavik airport, it's wet and horrible. Our Flybus from the airport to the city's BSI bus station is pre-booked and works exactly as planned: our bus from BSI to our hotel only runs every half hour and we've just missed it, but at least the Klapp app makes buying the tickets a doddle. We eventually get to R13: A Townhouse Hotel and are greeted by... absolutely nobody. R13 isn’t the first self-service hotel we’ve stayed at, but it’s certainly the most deserted – there's no help available at all as we struggle to print out our own door keys, and no-one to warn us that the numbers on the lift buttons bear no relationship to the floor numbers. Still, the room is nice in a boutiquey way, which means that it looks pretty but there's no place in it where you can store or hide anything, just a bench and a single coat rail.

It's also a little way out of town, so it takes some agility to drop off our stuff and get back into central Reykjavik before the 75 minute time limit on our Klapp bus ticket runs out. We just pull it off in time, and soon find ourselves sheltering from the rain in BrewDog Reykjavik. Like a lot of the international bars, it's a mixture of old school trappings and elements that are wholly unique - you know, like the UK bars used to be before they were hammered into identical formats. This one's surprisingly busy for a Sunday night, with most of its tables occupied by groups of generally young people (including a hilariously pretentious and loud quartet in the corner opposite us).

In a throwback to a couple of years ago, one early surprise is that it's a table service bar. This may be because there's quite a focus on food, and it's not the standard collection of burgers and/or pizzas you'd expect from a BrewDog menu. I go for one of their 'sammiches', my first exposure to Icelandic lamb in situ, while The BBG goes for the smoked mushroom 'pastotto': they're both terrific. On top of that, there's a 'secret menu' that isn't promoted in the bar itself, only on Facebook, where they have a couple of even fancier dishes that change on a fortnightly basis. There's also beer, of course - a mixture of BrewDog's own headliners and selections from various Icelandic breweries. It's eye-wateringly expensive, but we knew that was coming. It all makes for a delightful first night in town, capped off with the eerie experience of walking home along the shoreline at 10.15pm, with daytime levels of sunlight but nighttime levels of traffic and pedestrians. This is something we're probably going to have to get used to.

Erró giving the New York art scene the kicking he thinks it deservesMonday 6th June

It takes us a large part of the day to work out why BrewDog was so crowded on a Sunday night. Sunday was Whit Sunday, meaning that today is Whit Monday, which is a public holiday in Iceland: a detail that completely escapes us until I see a guy mowing his lawn on a weekday and put two and two together. Happily, although a lot of the shops in the city are closed for the day, it doesn't impact any of our plans, which start with a relaxed breakfast at a branch of Te & Kaffi because R13 hasn't really decided whether their limited service runs to breakfast or not.

We have a plan for the day, one that we hope will save us some money in this massively expensive city. Reykjavik Art Museum is split across three separate buildings: you can visit them individually, or get a single cheap ticket and visit all three within a 24 hour period. We get to see loads of art, and explore the city on foot too. It's a plan that collapses at the first hurdle, as we're informed at the first building (Ásmundarsafn) that the second one (Kjarvalsstaðir) is closed most of this week while they change over exhibitions. Still, the two museums we're left with out of the three are rather fine. Ásmundarsafn is dedicated to the sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson, and is built around a lovely sculpture garden featuring copies of his most famous works (the originals of many of them can be seen in public spaces around the city). Technically, you could just walk around the garden for free, but a ticket gives you access to the extraordinary house cum studio that he designed, and (until August 14th) a joint exhibition in which his sculptures play off against those of a more recent Icelandic artist, Rósa Gísladóttir.

En route to the second and final stop of our gallery tour, we do the touristy thing of visiting the Hallgrímskirkja church - taking pictures of its stunning exterior, riding the lift up to the top of the tower, being deafened by its church bells and looking out over the whole of Reykjavik. From there we grab a splendid lunch of a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with soup at Svarta Kaffið, which when accompanied by a beer becomes a decent value meal deal for this city (i.e. twenty quid a head). Then to Hafnarhús, whose current exhibition showcases the work of Iceland's most famous pop artist, Erró. Like many of his international contemporaries, he stole and collaged images with the best of them, but with the added twist that he then repainted his collages in his own hand without the use of a projector. There's a huge amount to take in, but you learn to spot his repeated themes: lots of screaming faces in his early work, heavy use of comic-book imagery in the later years. There's also a hard political edge that you don't normally see in pop art, although for me it's his satirical takes on the art world that are most effective.

We spend the evening in the harbour area, having a fish supper at Reykjavik Fish, and then visiting Reykjavik's magnificent concert hall Harpa. We're keen to see a show there - any show - which is how we end up at a gig by singer Lisa Ekdahl. She sets my hackles on edge from the start by opening with two songs with fake endings, so that she can milk the applause. She's a bit too quiet and twee for my liking, reminding me of nothing so much as that Arabella Weir character from The Fast Show who lapses into baby talk around men, and I find myself wondering if it's a language thing: she could be saying "I see that fucker Johnson’s got off again" and we wouldn’t know. But then we get to a covers section where she switches into English, and manages to drain every trace of drama from Stop In The Name Of Love. Still, as we reflect over a couple of post-gig beers in Session – a craft beer joint hiding on the second floor of an apartment building – given that all the bars we’ve been to so far (including this one) are playing largely British indie or classic rock, Lisa Ekdahl is the most ethnic music we’ve heard to date. (Except I have literally just discovered that she's Swedish, not Icelandic.)

Don't go chasing waterfalls, let Reykjavik Excursions take you there insteadTuesday 7th June

We're gradually making our way through the city's major cafe chains, so this morning's breakfast is at Reykjavik Roasters: though we don't realise till we get there that this particular branch is also the Ásmundarsalur gallery cafe, leading to the surreal image of huge tapestries being carried around past us while we're eating our croissants. We're here because today's mostly dedicated to one of the classic Reykjavik visitor activities - a bus tour of Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon, taking in several of the city's biggest tourist traps in one go - and this is the cafe closest to the BSI bus station.

It's a tour of two halves, Brian. The first six hours is a round trip around the Golden Circle, the collective name for three of the most spectacular things to be seen just outside Reykjavik. Daggi is our guide and driver for this, and about four of those six hours is him just driving and talking. Luckily, he's got that splendidly downbeat Nordic sense of humour, and tons of stories and facts about each area we pass through, even though it's largely huge stretches of bugger all. Our first stop is the Geysir, the one which gave all other geysers their name, where you're guaranteed one massive waterspout every 4-8 minutes. Our decision to bring bagels for lunch from Reykjavik Roasters pays off handsomely here, because if you don't do that you'll have to spend most of your hour queueing up at the inadequate number of on-site restaurants. From there it's on to the Gullfoss waterfall, which is equally spectacular but has less of a risk of drenching you in water (unless you're really committed to the idea). By comparison, the Thingvelleir National Park is merely impressive, but you feel there's a rule-of-three thing going on here that has to be fulfilled somehow.

We get a one-hour slot between returning from Golden Circle and leaving for Blue Lagoon, which only really allows time for a slab of Sbarro pizza to be inhaled at the bus terminal. The journey to the Lagoon is a more impersonal one - less driver commentary, much more listening to drivetime radio - and that feels about right for the big tourist experience we're taken to. It's our first exposure to Iceland's sitting-in-outdoor-hot-water-pools culture, which at least we've had some preparation for thanks to a couple of decades of Japanese onsen bathing. Some of the rules are similar to Japan (no chlorination in the water, so you have to wash thoroughly before getting in), while others are different (mixed bathing means everyone has to wear a swimsuit, which is the first time in a couple of decades for me). It all takes place in one huge pool, which is a little intimidating for non-swimmers like The BBG and myself, but we slowly get used to the idea by staying close to the handrails.

We're back in Reykjavik by 9pm, after 11 hours of touring, so we feel it's time for a drink. We take advantage of Taco Tuesday at the splendidly named Bastard Brew & Food, where The BBG is delighted to be offered her choice from a dozen different hot sauces, and declares Marie Sharp's 'lava hot' Red Hornet is her new favourite. Bastard is a lively example of a proper pub, while the nearby Microbar - owned by the Gæðingur brewery, and showcasing the beers of it and many of their other microbrewery mates - is the perfect craft bar, with a dozen or so taps and helpful staff. As we grab a nightcap beer there, I struggle to remember when we first stumbled across Microbar, and eventually realise it was a mere 24 hours ago. Being abroad for the first time in two and a half years hasn’t instantly fried my head like I thought it would, but it’s certainly messed with my perception of time.

Say what you like about Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, at least he never made a film with a three-minute dick-twanging sequence [citation needed]Wednesday 8th June

Today's cafe is Brauð & Co, another chain with branches all over town. We're planning to spend today exploring the eastern side of town where we've been staying, so we check the map to see where the nearest branch is to the R13. Hilariously, it transpires that we've walked past it at least half a dozen times without noticing: it's hiding inside the cute art deco Shell petrol station that we've been admiring every time we've walked up (or down) Laugavegur to get into (or out of) central Reykjavik.

After the usual coffee and pastries, our first port of call is Grasagarður Botanical Garden. It’d be far too harsh to compare it to our regular horticultural hangout at Kew Gardens back home. This is a much smaller scale affair, free to enter and nicely laid out with lots of interesting sections, including a herb garden that’s good enough to have a sign telling people to stop stealing herbs from it. In a neat touch, the greenhouse doubles as a restaurant, so that's our lunch sorted. We follow that up with a short walk to Laugardaslaug, the largest swimming pool in Reykjavik city - the tourists all go to Blue Lagoon, but the locals go to the much cheaper municipal alternatives such as this. This works out much better for us, consisting as it does of a large outdoor swimming pool surrounded by four or five examples of what they call 'hot pots', smaller hot tubs running at different temperatures (the hottest at 44 degrees, the coldest at a suicidal 6-8 degrees). We hop from one hot pot to another and have a seriously relaxing time, apart from at the end when I find it impossible to unlock my locker, and am told by an attendant that this is because I never locked it in the first place.

We have a strictly timed agenda which says that our next stop will be the Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum, dedicated to the sculptor of the same name. Sadly, we haven't really got the time to visit it, but have to go past it anyway to get to the stop after that. And that's how we make the most astonishing discovery of the day, as just next door to the museum we find the Recycled House. We assume this open-air collection of junk-based sculptures has something to do with Olafsson, but there's no connection at all: it's all the work of film director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson, and rumour has it that he lives inside the biggest one, though we don't see him on the day. It’s a glorious piece of outsider art, and even more so when you learn the story behind it.

In retrospect, we should have spent more time at Recycled House. Instead, we run to the Laugarásbíó cinema for an early evening screening of Allra Síðasta Veiðiferðin (The Very Last Fishing Trip), because it's ages since we were last disappointed by a local comedy movie with no English subtitles. Three pairs of guys – two dodgy geezers, a gay couple, and a possible father-son duo – go out into the countryside for a four day fishing trip, where very little actual fishing takes place. Most of the time they’re drinking, arguing, or – in a sequence that’s now burned into my retinas forever – taking their clothes off and miming to a bouzouki duet on their stretched foreskins. (It should be noted that according to the Icelandic film classification system, this was worth a 12 rating.) It's impossible to work out what the deal is with the policewoman character who’s conducting a crazed vendetta against one of the men, which includes rape, kidnapping and forced attendance at a baptism. The BBG has a brilliant hunch that turns out to be correct – this is the sequel to a 2020 film (Síðasta Veiðiferðin, or The Last Fishing Trip), so there's a whole level of backstory that we've missed. Unfortunately, this also suggests that the post-credits sting is actually the setup for The Very Very Last Fishing Trip in 2024.

We attempt to clear that bouzouki duet out of our brains with nice food and drink back in central Reykjavik. The old bus station in Hlemmur has been converted into a trendy multi-vendor food hall, with Skál! providing us with the perfect combo of excellent local food and decent Icelandic craft beer. We cap it all off with a return visit to Microbar - it’s busier than last night, but still very enjoyable. This does, of course, make it the only bar in Reykjavik that we’ve visited twice. Don't worry, we'll get back to BrewDog eventually.

But not yet.

[to be continued]

[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, Dog Eat Dog/Angel, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton, Berlin, Warsaw, Leeds North Street, York, Hong Kong, Oxford, Seven Dials, Reading, Malmo, Tallinn, Overworks, Tower Hill, Edinburgh Lothian Road, Milton Keynes, Canary Wharf, Brixton, Paddington, Dalston, Aberdeen Union Square, Peterhead, Itaewon, Le Marais, Outpost Manchester, Perth, Edinburgh Airport, Carlisle, St Pauli, Old Street, Cambridge, Ealing, St Andrews, Chancery Lane, DogHouse Manchester, Bath]


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