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Circumventing Iceland part 4

[previously: June 5-8, June 9-12, June 13-16]

Friday 17th June 2022, Reykjavik

The restaurant breakfast service closes at 7.00am this morning: our slot for getting off the ship is at 9.15am. That gives us a bit of time – conveniently for the structure of this write-up – to have a few thoughts about the cruise that’s just happened. And I keep thinking back to something that one of the Hurtigruten expedition staff said during the briefing for, I think, Grimsey: "if you only get off the ship once during this cruise, you should get off here." Was that just a rhetorical flourish along the lines of "if you only see one film this year...", or are there people on board who really did that? Treated the Fridtjof Nansen as nothing more than a great big hotel where the view from your window changes every day?

If that’s the case, I’m sorry for either their mobility issues or their fear of small boats, but that's just wrong. Because this has been an absolutely glorious trip. The ship itself has been lovely – the sauna and hot tubs easily being the one bit of decadence I could get used to – but all the activities on and off it have been terrifically well organised. At the start the expedition leader Erin warned us that the schedule we’d been given was potentially just a plan A, and weather conditions could at any point force us into a sudden detour into plan B. But that never happened – maybe we were just lucky, but every place we were told we’d be going to, we got to. We experienced all possible aspects of the Icelandic coast, from bustling cities to microscopic islands. We might do another cruise in the future: we will almost certainly get back to Iceland one day, if only because as I write this (two months after the holiday) I’m getting kind of fed up of people asking "so, did you see the Northern Lights?"

And as you can see from the size of this page, we’re not done just yet. Bang on time at 9.15am, we walk off the Fridtjof Nansen for the last time, and back onto dry land at Reykjavik harbour. We’ve got a couple of days before we fly back to London, and the plan is to chill out in the capital after a very busy week. At least that was the plan, until we realised that we were going to be arriving back in the capital on Icelandic National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the republic in 1944.

Plan B, then.

What does being in Iceland’s capital on their national holiday entail? Well, we’re not entirely sure. We know there are celebrations we’d like to catch, but we’re also aware that parts of the city may be closed down. So there’s an element of belt and braces to a few things we do today. That’s my explanation of why we have two breakfasts, anyway: one on the ship to get our last bit of value out of our ticket, and then a smaller one at Reykjavik’s oldest running restaurant Kaffivagninn. Part of the reason for this piggery is because Kaffivagninn is just down the road from the Reykjavik Maritime Museum, which we’d like to visit but aren’t sure if it’s open today. A quick check confirms that it is: however, we can’t really be wheeling our suitcases around a museum, so we get a bus over to our hotel, drop them off at reception, get a bus back, get off at the wrong stop, walk for ages and eventually get there. It’s worth the effort – far too often, maritime museums are aggressively about conflict and national defence, which all gets a bit dull. This, splendidly, is a museum entirely about fishing, and the only war mentioned here is the cod war (which is a bit awkward for British visitors). The interactive elements are more enjoyable than usual – The BBG and I play a videogame where we’re small fish trying to feed on smaller fish while avoiding plastic bottles – and there’s a gratifying willingness to see the process all the way through to its conclusion, as the final display offers you lots of interesting fish recipes.

But where’s the National Day happening? We try walking towards Hljómskálagarður, the park in the centre of town, and start hitting street closures, so we know we’re going in the right direction. And then we turn a corner and find ourselves perfectly positioned to see the official parade – an entire military marching band playing Smoke On The Water, several people in troll costumes, and then most of the population of Reykjavik carrying a touching mixture of Icelandic and Ukrainian flags. See video above. (The BBG thinks the choice of music is a pun on the original meaning of the city’s name, ‘smoky bay’, whereas I think they chose it because that bassline rocks like a bastard when played on tubas.)

We tag along at the end of the parade, and it takes us into the park, where we find a couple of dozen food trucks, an entire empire’s worth of bouncy castles, and a stage. The food trucks are relentlessly busy – more than an hour elapses between us having the thought ‘let’s get some fish and chips’ and actually having the fish and chips in our hands. They’re worth the wait, though. As for the live show, it looks like it’s largely aimed at the kids in the audience – apart from the opening outlier of rap duo JóiPé x Króli, it’s a largely female affair, with kiddie entertainers Ronja Ræningjadóttir and Ávaxtakarfan (possibly both characters from local children's stories), creepy Sparkle Motion vibes from the dance schools of Brynja Péturs and Birna Björns, and some nice tunes from indieish boy/girl duo KUSK. The headliners Reykjavíkurdætur are enjoyable enough, but their normal 8 woman configuration is today knocked down to 5, which just emphasises their similarities with other girl groups – they have a ginger one, a slightly butch one in sportswear, you get the idea.

By 5pm the celebrations are all over, and we’re ready to go back to our accommodation, retrieve our suitcases and check in. Whereas our previous Reykjavik base, R13, was a hostel pretending to be a hotel, Kex Hostel – located inside an old biscuit factory - is perfectly upfront about what it is, although it does have a few private ensuite rooms like the one we’ve booked into. Reception is next to the bar, where a band is having a very loud soundcheck as we check in. We can still hear it from inside our room, where it’s battling with the sound of an impromptu barbecue being held on the street below. The room is the very definition of shabby chic, and shabby to the extent that we have to go to the local Kwik-E-Mart to buy shower gel. But there’s no denying it feels fun.

That’s definitely the case with Kex's bar, where we decide to spend part of the evening planning how our final full day in Reykjavik is going to work. To continue the comparison from a few days ago, Bastard is a great pub and MicroBar is a great Craft Beer Wanker joint, but Kex is just a great bar – buzzing from the word go, and never feeling uncomfortable with it. There’s a slight disappointment that though it’s famed as a brewpub, the lager is the only thing of theirs available, the other taps being occupied by the usual suspects like Borg and so on. But those beers work well with the pizzas they make on site, and that band who were soundchecking several hours earlier – it looks like they might have been Superserious - are pretty darn good.

We don’t want to spend the whole evening there, as we’ve got another bar that’s crying out for a return visit. But on the way we peek into MicroBar once again for a swift one, seeing as The BBG likes it so much. Then we pay that much-delayed return call to BrewDog, where we learn a few interesting things. 1: the group that goes in just before us leaves as soon as they hear the kitchen’s closed (it’s after 10pm), so the food obviously has some sort of reputation. 2: after 10pm BrewDog does something it calls Late Night Punk O'Clock, its own version of a happy hour (unlike most other places in town that sell cheap drinks before the evening rush), offering a few beers and other drinks at lower than usual prices. 3: none of the beers on their happy hour list are BrewDog’s own. 4: this leads us into the realisation that on both of our visits, we’ve drunk entirely from their excellent guest list and had none of the BrewDog beers, which may be some sort of first. Anyway, the Ölvisholt 9.4% monster stout we finish off with is a perfect nightcap beer, and makes us a little more tolerant when we get back to Kex and discover a big noisy party happening in the venue next door – though to be fair to them, it does shut down at bang on midnight.

With a bit of rock music everything is fine, you're in the mood for a danceSaturday 18th June

That rigorous planning we did last night over beer and pizza (and a copy of Reykjavik Grapevine) pays off in spades. To start off with, we head back to the Kjarvalsstaðir gallery, the bit of the Reykjavik Art Museum that was closed when we were last here, having now learned about the artist it’s named after - Jóhannes S. Kjarval - from our time in Bakkagerði. (Sermon on the Mount with elves. That guy.) There are two temporary exhibitions on display till September 18th, and – with perfect timing – one of them (Heads From Clouds) is about Kjarval himself, displaying a hundred or so of the portraits he painted. They’re an interesting mixture of personal takes on his friends and family, and more warped views of the rich people who commissioned pictures from him. He seems to have invented power dressing several decades early, with various executives depicted in a variety of oversized suits – the head of the electricity board looks like David Byrne at the end of Stop Making Sense. The biggest surprise is a touching portrait of a teenage boy who used to hang around his studio and dabble with his paints: he eventually grew up to be Erró, the pop artist with his own exhibition currently in town. The other exhibition is Stitches and Threads, a collection of modern textile work: there are some incredibly witty embroidery pieces on display, as well as a couple of rather fine examples from Bjork’s mask maker James Merry.

Continuing to tidy up unfinished business from the first half of our stay, we return to Hallgrímskirkja to get some more pictures of its exterior and finally see its interior, which is nearly as stunning. We have lunch at Cafe Loki over the road, going for a couple of the local plates (though we're not prepared to risk the fermented shark). Interesting to note that after two weeks in Iceland, Loki is the first place that’s touristy enough to try and rip you off by charging you in your local currency. At least that’s the offer they make to the American guy in front of me – when it comes to my turn they’re all "just click ISK, that’ll be fine…"

It’s a late Saturday afternoon in an expensive Nordic city, so there’s only one way we can finish off this holiday – pub crawl! We start off by walking back in the direction of R13, to call into the RVK brewery taproom which we walked past twice each day during our time in the east of the city. We burst in not too long after its opening time of 4pm, only to find the place is empty apart from the guy serving at the bar. It stays that way for most of our two-hour stay, except for one other customer who comes in for a beer flight towards the end. But the beers are nice, the music is cool (the barman proudly displays each vinyl record as he’s playing it, starting with Sly and the Family Stone's Greatest Hits), and the wifi is solid enough for me to be able to check in for tomorrow’s flight.

With that bit of admin safely completed, we leave the laptop back at Kex, to reduce the risk of us accidentally leaving it somewhere else during the rest of the crawl. Our next stop is Kaldi, which thanks to the Appy Hour app we manage to get into just in time for cheap pints. It’s a fun old-fashioned bar, with a beer garden (sadly closed at the time) centred around a mural of Einstein and Tupac having a pint together. From there it’s on to Skúli, another one of Reykjavik’s specifically craft bars, although again it’s largely serving the old favourite breweries we’ve come to know and love. We’ve also chosen to have dinner here, which we order online and have delivered from Fish Market over the road, and their various seafood nibbles hit the spot beautifully.

Our final stop is meant to be Kaffibarinn, which by all accounts is the happening dance spot of the capital, but it shows no signs of getting going in its tiny main room by 11pm. (To be fair, it’s apparently open till 4.30am, so maybe we just got there too early.) So we add another bar to the list for our final drink, and it turns out to be perfect. Lemmy has no connection to the man himself – the quote from him on the door is "I wish I was alive to see this place" – and when we go in they’re playing Country Roads, which wasn’t what I was expecting. But in every other aspect it’s a delightfully seedy rock bar, and they have a not-so-secret weapon: the entertainment is yet another DJ, but accompanied by a live drummer. As he thrashes through songs by Metallica and AC/DC, you can see how it’s a genius way of giving a bit more oomph to the records. Amusingly, when they play a couple by Muse the whole dancefloor clears, because everyone hates that shit. Even more amusingly, they then start playing Abba and the whole place kicks off – it’s hard to express the joy at watching a huge tattooed bloke smashing the snot out of a drumkit to Gimme Gimme Gimme. The switch to Abba is a stunt they’ll pull three or more times in the hour or so we’re there, but it works every time, so you can see why they do it. If those holograms in London aren’t accompanied by some sort of quasi-metal holocaust, I'm going to be very disappointed.

Emilie And The Damp Kids, more likeSunday 19th June

For the first time since, oh, exactly two weeks ago, it’s raining in Reykjavik. So I pull the Suitcase CondomTM over my unnecessarily porous luggage, lug it down two flights of stairs out the front door of Kex, and we run like buggery to Emilie And The Cool Kids - a French cafe franchise with a single branch in Iceland, which is odd but their breakfast bagels are most welcome. From there we get one last bus out to the BSI terminal for our pre-booked coach to the airport, during which I confirm something even more odd I thought I’d hallucinated during the journey in the opposite direction two weeks ago: they have branches of Iceland in Iceland.

With a couple of hours to kill in Reykjavik airport following a massively uneventful bag drop, we have a look around the departures section. The main things of note are a camera that can email you a picture of yourself standing in front of a balloon version of the Iceland flag, so we do that. There’s also a gigantic mural by Erró, which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if not for the various exhibitions where we’ve seen his work. And there are restaurants, allowing us to get an open sandwich for lunch which will hopefully keep us going till we arrive home.

It doesn’t. The flight itself is okay, apart from the inflight entertainment system being down – not a problem, as I’ve been downloading podcasts throughout the holiday and have a stash ready and waiting on my phone. (Amusingly, for a couple of weeks after this I keep finding all my podcasts have Icelandic adverts embedded in them.) The problems start when we get into Heathrow at 7.45pm, which is nice and early. It then takes us over two and a half hours to get out of the airport – long delays getting off the plane, then going through passport control, then waiting for our bags. By that time we’re forced to stop off at Terminal 2’s Caffe Nero to grab some toasties just to keep us sane. Once we’ve eaten those, it’s so late that we can’t really risk the Elizabeth Line (which is already up the spout due to engineering works), so after all our attempts to avoid it we have to fork out the £25 for the Heathrow Express anyway. Bah.

Still, there's one memory I can take away from all that: as we’re standing in Caffe Nero, I look out the window and see a rather lovely sunset over the Heathrow terminal buildings. And I realise that this is the first time I’ve seen night-time in about a fortnight, and suddenly appreciate the two weeks worth of midnight sun we've just experienced. It's a bit like the holiday as a whole, really. For the last couple of years The BBG and I have been watching our friends going nuts at not being able to get out of the country: and we've been slightly baffled by that, as we've not been in any great hurry ourselves to go away until things get a bit more safe. But now that we've been on our first big holiday in three years, it's like I've suddenly remembered "oh, yeah, this is why we used to do this sort of thing". I'm hoping we get to keep on doing it now. Being a monkey, and all.

SKÁL! One of the nicest former bus stations we've ever eaten in.Bonus Feature: The Belated Birthday Girl on eating in Iceland

Given that we were on a cruise for most of the trip, the majority of our meals were provided by the good people at Hurtigruten, whether buffet or a la carte (and on one occasion in the posh restaurant), and all was generally of a high quality and variety, with good wine choices included in the deal (the included beer was more basic, and is one thing where I think they could improve). However, we did have time in Reykjavik either side of the cruise, and that gave us some good opportunities for sampling what the city had to offer in terms of food.

Planning the holiday and looking up eating options, it quickly became apparent that eating, as with most other things in Iceland, can be very expensive, but one of the better value options seemed to be Icelandic fish & chips. Now, as fish & chips is a very British food, it’s not something I would normally have when travelling to other countries, but give it the adjective “Icelandic”, and I felt justified. We partook of two examples in Reykjavik, one either side of the cruise. Before the cruise we had a very good sit-down meal of fish & chips at Reykjavik Fish. They have 2 restaurants, and we ate at the Tryggvagata 8 branch. Although there were other options on the menu, such as arctic char or fish soup, we both just went for the fish & chips, accompanied by a big glass each of Boli lager. The fish itself was fresh and perfectly cooked, and the fries tasty, although my personal preference is for the thicker cut chips we have at home. Our other Icelandic fish & chips experience was after the cruise, on National Day, when we wanted to get something to eat at the festival in the park, and the options for a non-meat eater were limited – that is, I think fish & chips was the only option! So we grabbed a small portion of fish & chips each from the fish & chips van, and again, the quality was excellent. The beer option on this occasion was a 2.25% ABV Arctic White Ale from Einstok, which was nicely refreshing.

Coincidentally, there was another food type we had either side of the cruise, although this was less traditionally Icelandic. Wanting somewhere we could get food and some decent beer after our evening trip to the Blue Lagoon, we hit upon Bastard Brew & Food, who brew beer on site and do a wide range of bar meals, including a rather fine line in tacos, and seeing as it was Taco Tuesday, it seemed rude to pass them up. So we had 6 tasty tacos between us, and the Solveig Wheat by Borg and Bastard’s own Amber Bastard to wash them down. And then after the cruise, for our pub crawl Saturday night, the one bar we knew we could eat in on our schedule was Skuli Craft. There we didn’t eat just tacos, but a tuna taco was part of our meal, the rest being some mango and habanero cauliflower “wings” and king prawn tempura: all tasty bar food to accompany the beers of Randy by Bol Brewing and Skuli by Borg.

The absolute highlight meal of the trip was in a food hall. OK, Hlemmur Matholl is no ordinary food hall, and SKÁL! is no ordinary food vendor. To quote from Hlemmur Matholl’s site, “SKÁL! is an experimental bar & restaurant with a focus on foraged Icelandic ingredients and local traditions.” The menu is divided into smaller and larger, and we shared 2 of the smaller dishes of salt baked beets and roasted sunchokes. Both were excellent, with the sunchokes particularly good. For the larger dishes, we diverged, with Spank choosing the skirt steak, while I plumped for the baked arctic char. Both dishes were inventive, wonderfully presented and beautifully cooked, with the advantage of our counter seats being directly in front of where the chefs were preparing the dishes, giving us added entertainment. We accompanied our meals with a glass each of Borg’s Snorri Icelandic Ale. We finished off with a rhubarb dessert, which we paired with Kysstumig, a cherry and vanilla sour (more fruity than sour) from Borg.

A few other meals deserve a mention. For a hearty and down to earth lunch, Svarta Kaffid’s soup-in-a-bowl-of-bread is recommended, with one meat and one veg option per day, and a decent deal to wash it down with a Gull beer. Kaffi Loki’s Icelandic plates give an excellent example of more traditional Icelandic fare. I chose the Icelandic plate Baldur, with two rye bread slices, one with mashed fish, the other with egg & herring, and Spank went for Icelandic plate Freyja, which was a trout tarte with salad. Both plates included Loki’s rye bread ice cream. All very tasty and decent value. Another good lunch was at Floran, at the botanical gardens, where good food (a chicken salad for Spank, a beetroot soup for me) is served in the lovely surroundings of the glass house. One good breakfast option was Emilie and the cool kids, a French chain with for some reason a branch in Reykjavik, selling interesting bagels and coffee, but the best breakfast we had was at the Klambrar Bistro at the Jóhannes S. Kjarval art museum, where we had stunning French toast with poached egg, blueberries and strawberries, hollandaise, soured cream and bacon (Spank) or smoked salmon (me): beautifully presented and perfectly executed. And Spank has already mentioned our first night dinner at BrewDog Reykjavik, which gave him probably the best Icelandic lamb of the trip.

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