Simian Substitute Site for May 2024: Maypole Monkey Gnome Ceramic Ornament
Simian Substitute Site for June 2024: Kai's Monkey Business

Circumresurrecting Iceland part 2

Whenever I see this picture, in my head I'm hearing one of those bits from Monty Python & The Holy Grail where they're shouting 'Run away! Run away!' With all the coconut shell noises, obviously.Thursday 28th March (continued from here)

It’s Good Thursday in Reykjavik. Not just because it’s the day before Good Friday – it’s a tradition they have on the last Thursday of every month, when the city’s art galleries and museums all do something special. Some reduce their entrance prices, others stay open late. The House Of Collections (a name I keep accidentally misspelling like it’s some sort of bondage dungeon) is doing both, and one of their exhibitions appears to be ridiculously topical.

Flight from volcanic eruptions – sketches and paintings by Ásgrímur Jónsson does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a collection of 50-60 images – paintings, watercolours and sketches – all on the same theme: a volcano going off, and people and horses running away from it. The promotional material for the exhibit is a bit deceptive, as it makes it sound like Jónsson made pictures of nothing else, like the art equivalent of that guy who only ever wrote stories about Roy Orbison wrapped in clingfilm. In fact, the House has cherrypicked these images from Jónsson’s wide-ranging oeuvre. Also, because much of what’s on display is in sketch form, the whole exhibit fits in a single room.

Still, at least I now know what the first picture on this page is going to be.

We’re a little ahead of ourselves here, so let’s go back to the end of part one, where The Belated Birthday Girl and I had just been dropped off outside the Hallgrimskirkja. It’s mere seconds away from our hotel for the next four nights, the Leifur Eiriksson. It’s a mixture of the old and the new, where the most irritating aspect of the old is the lack of a lift. But once we’ve dragged our suitcases up one flight of stairs, we’re rewarded with a room with a perfect view of the Hallgrimskirkja out the window.

We drop off our bags and immediately head out for the evening. Dinner is at one of the few places in this city that could be said to offer value for money, 101 Reykjavik Street Food. Lots of cheap variations on the traditional format of Wet Stuff Served In A Bowl Made Out Of Bread, with the haddocky and potatoey Fisherman’s Favourite being the standout. Then it's off to House Of Collections before they close at 10pm. Aside from the aforementioned volcanoes, the rest of the building is a collection of Icelandic art sorted into the broad categories of Water, Earth and Air. Some delightful examples of Icelandic whimsy – for example, Sigurður Guðmundsson’s Mountain – are undercut by massively pretentious notes: “it’s interesting to consider this work of art in the context of the pyramids of needs introduced by the humanitarian psychologist Abraham Maslow...”

It's been three days since we were last in a BrewDog bar, so we decide to grab a nightcap at the Reykjavik branch. Initially the place is rammed, because we’ve arrived at the tail end of a Brooklyn Nine-Nine themed quiz night. We’re looking forward to exploiting their Hoppy Hour, which unusually for this city kicks off at 10pm. But they’ve changed the rules since our 2022 visit: the discount only applies to a small selection of the dullest, most generic beers (Neck Oil, Brio and Gull Lite), rather than the wide range of guests they used to offer. We console ourselves with a full priced can of something naughty from Malbygg.

As if to prove Dagsson's point, his website is selling a mug with this design for nineteen quid plus P&P.Friday 29th March

And so to Good Friday, which up until 2019 was a day when Reykjavik officially shut down, and the only entertainment available was a series of illegal bingo games. (Really.) By comparison, things here today are positively buzzing, though inevitably a bit quieter than usual. We take it easy with a slow mooch around the harbour area, ending up at the Harpa concert hall for a planned event and an unplanned one.

The planned one is a light and sound installation called Circuleight. It’s a 30 minute loop of elemental imagery screened across all four walls, but there’s more going on than that - it becomes apparent that the images are motion sensitive, so walking past some projected fire results in you leaving a trail of sparks in your wake. Well, I say it becomes apparent, but while The BBG and I are running all over the place watching the pictures mutate, most of the other spectators are just sat on the floor vegging out.

The unplanned one is an interesting throwback to Iceland’s history of banning fun on Good Friday: a five-and-a-half hour reading of Hallgrímur Pétursson’s Hymns Of The Passion, taking place for free in the foyer. That’d be a bit of a strain even if we did speak Icelandic, but thankfully it’s arranged as the sort of event people can just dip in and out of. Halldór Hauksson seems to be doing a fine job reading them, and gets to go for a wee while the Consortico ensemble fill in with a nice bit of Purcell. At the other artistic extreme, in the Harpa shop I discover the massively fucked-up worldview of local cartoonist Dagsson. His books and merch are far too expensive to even consider buying, but it looks like later this year we may have a cheaper alternative.

Reykjavik bakery Sandholt has been taunting the internet today with images of its hot cross buns: sadly they’re all gone by the time we get there for lunch, but they have plenty of other cakes to give us ballast for our plans for the afternoon. Because once again, we’re going to do one of the most stupidly expensive things you can do in this city: a bar crawl. On our previous visit, we used the Appy Hour app provided by listings magazine Reykjavik Grapevine to find the cheap deals: sadly, they’ve failed to maintain the back end, so it no longer works. Still, as a substitute, the Reykjavik Grapevine magazine (available for free everywhere, along with its invaluable Best Of Reyjkavik special issue) has a decent set of listings of bars and their happy hour times.

So with the magazine open at the relevant page, we revisit three bars from our last trip to see how they’re getting on. Skuli still has a solid selection of local beers, backed up with an excellent music policy: we end up leaving the bar seven minutes later than planned because The Waterboys’ We Will Not Be Lovers has started playing. (Two of the finest chords Mike Scott ever wrote.) Session is a little more sterile - its location in the upstairs of a branch of Subway doesn’t help - but it’s fun watching Untappd beer scores appearing on their large screen display in real time. And Kaldi is still the closest thing to a proper pub we’ve seen here, rammed full of drinkers, offering all their beers at happy hour prices in pints, and featuring a beer garden with the best mural in the world.

We gather our thoughts at the hotel, and then head out again for dinner at Messinn. It’s primarily a seafood place where the speciality is fish pans: a hearty collection of fish and veg served up in the pan it was fried in, as warm and cosy as the room you're eating it in. Yes, it may look like it’s almost all been eating and drinking today, but it’s still more activity than you would have got in Reykjavik on Good Friday a decade ago. And to wrap it all up, because we booked the hotel direct rather than through, they offer us a free glass of wine each before bed.

Íslandsvarðan by Jóhann Eyfells (picture by The BBG)Saturday 30th March

This sort of thing happens when you plan holidays the way that we do: we have an underengineered first half of the day, followed by an overengineered second half. The first part of it barely counts as engineering, to be frank: we take a bus out to the Skarfabakki ferry terminal, and then make our way along the coast taking in the sculpture walk installed there. The first part’s familiar from our previous visit – the still-closed Sigurjón Ólafsson Museum and the glorious chaos of Recycled House – but then there’s a long stretch of sod-all before the artwork starts up again. Still, it’s a lovely day for the walk, although we do feel the need to stop off at Harpa at the end for coffee because we’re too cold and knackered to go any further.

Luckily lunch is close by at the excellent Flatey pizza, which positions us close to Marshall House in the Grandi area. Marshall House is a bit like the nearby Grandi Matholl we visited on Monday, but for art rather than food: four independent art galleries, each with a small exhibition. Like a food court, it’s a mixed bag. The exhibition at Kling & Bang – apparently the most experimental space of the four – is closed without any explanation, which is a bit too experimental for my liking. Of the rest, i8 has Andreas Eriksson creating one new picture during each month of 2024, plus a limited edition calendar for you to buy while you wait for the other nine: The Living Art Museum has a colourful but slightly banal installation by Anna Hrund Másdóttir: and Þula comes off best with Lilja and Ingibjörg Birgisdóttir’s fascinating floral studies.

And so we get to the part of the day with too much stuff crammed into it. First off, we’re inside the Hallgrimskirkja for a nicely traditional Easter concert, centred around a lovely performance of Arvo Part’s Stabat Mater, plus various other bits of Icelandic sacred music. This is followed up by dinner more or less over the road at Rok, which The BBG will tell you is the best meal we have during the whole week. It’s a small plate specialist, which would probably describe itself as Icelandic tapas if it was pushed to do so. We end up sharing five plates from the dinner menu – two mushroom-based, two fish-based, and a side of fried asparagus – and are delighted that not only do the five plates fit perfectly onto our relatively small table, but they’re also utterly delicious and surprisingly reasonably priced.

From there it’s off to the Bio Paradis cinema, which was frustratingly closed when we were here in 2022. Well, it’s open now, so we get to have a beer in its cosy café bar, and then follow it up by finally catching up with Koji Yakusho’s excellent performance in Perfect Days. We have the choice of Icelandic or English subtitles, but we’ve already done our Monoglot Movie Club for this trip, so English it is. And we wrap the day up with a return visit to Lemmy, the dive bar whose USP is a DJ playing a combination of rock and cheese while a live drummer hammers away over the top of it all. This time round, there’s a lot less Abba and a lot more rock, but The BBG and I are determined to get in our Saturday night dance by any means necessary. This climaxes with us taking on the almost impossible task of bopping along to Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love, even that bit in the middle where it sounds like Robert Plant's having a wank. We eventually make it back to the hotel around 2.30am.

A nice view to look at from the window of Cafe Loki while you're trying to keep down your fermented shark.Sunday 31st March

It’s Easter Sunday, so once again we’ve given ourselves the task of watching a film set in our current location. The obvious choice would be 101 Reykjavik, but it appears to be impossible to get hold of. Mind you, the film we do go for is complicated enough, because it’s only available on streaming in the UK and the hotel wi-fi isn’t really up to the job. I have to set my phone up as a 5G hotspot, connect my laptop to it, and then use a VPN to convince YouTube I’m in London and thus entitled to watch what is, let me remind you, an Icelandic film.

That film is Cop Secret (which we first viewed at LFF 2021). First time around I remember being thrown by its crunching gear changes between comedy and action - this time, they didn't seem quite as jarring. (But on that topic, have a look at the international trailer, which almost completely hides the fact that it's mostly a comedy.) And once you've got past the initial surprise at the relationship that ties the whole film together, you realise that it could have been played for sniggering laughs, but is taken completely seriously by everyone concerned. A good one for Easter Sunday, with quite a few shots where we could point and say 'been there' (we wouldn’t have recognised them back in 2021).

With our key bit of seasonal admin out of the way, we leave the hotel only to discover it’s snowing. Not our first White Easter – we’ve also had ones in Tallinn and, surprisingly, Oxford – but it’s only a small flurry and doesn’t linger. The drop in temperature does linger, however, and the weather will stay ridiculously cold for the rest of our trip. Luckily we’ve got lunch booked in another cosy restaurant, Old Iceland, which does a tremendous traditional Icelandic Sunday roast, a three course set with the choice of either cod and lamb at the centre. For a set menu, though, it’s jawdroppingly expensive, which shows what an outlier last night’s dinner at Rok was.

By the time we get out of there, the snow’s stopped, but we’re now hit with a freezing cold wind that isn’t going to let up for what will be our last 24 hours in the city. So I think whatever The Settlement Exhibition had to offer, we would have loved it simply for being indoors. Actually, it’s a fine piece of work in its own right. It spans the history of settlers in Iceland from 871 (+/- 2, as they keep saying) to the present day. At the centre of it all on the ground floor are the remains of a tenth century longhouse, which the museum was literally constructed around. As you make your way from floor to floor you see displays showing how the area has changed from century to century, allowing them to rebrand their lift as a time machine.

We stay in the Settlement Exhibition until closing time, and then don’t have any firm plans for the rest of the day, so it’s back to the eating and drinking. The freezing wind drives us off the streets and into the Ægir Taproom (it’s the wind’s fault, honestly). It’s a brewery we haven’t really paid much attention to until we realised that all the beers we had at Lemmy last night came from there. It’s one of those bars that feels like it’s been there since the beginning of time, but has a fine selection of Ægir’s own modern brews, plus a couple of ones on cask too.

We drink enough to eventually realise that the brewery logo has its name hidden in it (check out the beard), and then head down the road for dinner at Café Loki with its collection of traditional Icelandic foods. We steer clear of the fermented shark, but I do risk the Þór platter with its sheep head jelly on the side. After that, it’s back to the hotel for the night – we’ve picked up a couple of hints for places which might be dark enough to catch another glimpse of the Northern Lights, notably Landakotstun Park by the Catholic cathedral, but it’s too cold, windy and cloudy to be worth considering.

Hopefully they won't have to redraw this badge to show the bottles floating in a pool of molten lava.Monday 1st April

Last days are always tricky. We have to check out by 11am, but our plane’s not till 4pm, meaning we’ve got a couple of hours to kill before the Flybus back to the airport. We end up spending most of the time wandering up to lake Tjörnin and back, not being entirely surprised that a lot of it’s frozen over. We end up nearly as frozen ourselves, and grab a highly welcome hot chocolate at Grái Kötturinn to conclude our time in Reykjavik. Still no sign of Bjork there, no matter what they say in all the tourist guides.

Once we're at the airport, aside from lunch at the incongruously Danish diner Jómfrúin, we also pay a rare visit to the duty free shop, attempting to right an injustice from two years ago. On our 2022 cruise, we tried to make sure we spent some money in every town we docked at: the one exception was Bakkagerði, where everything was shut, including the recently opened KHB brewery and distillery. On a whim, The BBG asks if we can check out the duty free spirits section... and we find a bottle of Landi, KHB’s version of 38% traditional Icelandic moonshine. So Bakkagerði finally has some of our money after all! I mean, two months later we’re still too scared to drink it, but anyway.

On the plane, we also get to tie up a loose end from yesterday, as I fire up the in-flight entertainment to look for local films and... ah, so that’s how you get to see 101 Reykjavik. Sadly, it's a bit meh. It's got the air of a national cinema discovering the themes of depression and sex for the first time, and still having to fly in the latter from abroad courtesy of Victoria Abril. Nice to see some recognisable locations from our Easter holiday, and the freezing hell of Reykjavik at Christmas is well depicted, but it's still the third best of the three Icelandic films I've seen this week.

As I open a Gull Alcohol-Free to accompany the film and our flight home, my Untappd app awards me with a Brew Lagoon badge for having drunk 30 different Icelandic beers in, alarmingly, the last seven days. Well, on this holiday we've seen a weak display of Northern Lights and an underwhelming volcano, so I guess I'll have to take that as my main achievement of the week. Being a monkey, and all.


Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)