Girls on Tour: a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland

Thermal springs, music festivals and more beards than you can shake a stick at: Jemma, Fran and The Sheilas head to Iceland to check out the hottest city on the edge of the Arctic Circle.

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Words by Fran Tehan

Day 1  Reykjavik

It’s early doors to catch the red-eye from Luton. The journey from our fair isle to another, chillier island is relatively short (about 2.5 hours) but it’s as if we’ve traversed through space and landed on the moon. The forty minute drive from Iceland's Keflavik airport cuts through a bizarre, almost post-apocalyptic landscape: undulating fields of black lava stretch to the horizon and a peculiar sulphuric odour wafts on the breeze. We pass a golf course set in amongst the lava, apparently run by elves (according to our taxi driver), as well as cruising past the promising Blue Lagoon thermal springs, which is definitely on our list of Things To Do.

Once in Reykjavik, we settle into our accommodation - two small apartments, basic and very central (www.stay.is). We are based on Gretisgatta, where much of the action happens. The heart of the city is small, in fact there seem to be only two main

 

drags with vaguely unpronounceable names, hosting a number of uber-cool Scandi shops, cafes and restaurants. Nearby is the extraordinary Hallgrímskirkja church, one of the main attractions here. The design, based on volcanic basalt (a favourite motif amongst nationalists at the time, apparently) is less volcano and more vulcan; a spaceship about to launch. It really dominates the cityscape and is a joy to behold, in all its concrete glory.

We spend the afternoon wandering the streets, enjoying the view of the mountains across the water and checking out sound bites from behind half-open doors as the cult Airwaves music festival is underway. From hip hotels and bars to the Salvation Army headquarters, the eclectic sounds are omnipresent. No problem that we don’t actually have tickets, there’s a free off-venue line-up so no-one feels like they’re missing out. They’re a thoughtful bunch these Vikings.

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Reykjavik houses by Jemma Watts Photography

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Airwaves Festival 2014 by Jemma Watts Photography

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Later we get ready for the evening, G&T in-hand (best to BYO and have a few before going out, otherwise total bankruptcy will ensue in a matter of hours – it’s a pricey city), which should also help us brace the evening chill factor. We’re off to meet a local friend at Grillmarket, an upmarket restaurant with a super stylish interior (and clientele to boot). Thorunn is tall and blonde, a Viking goddess true to her name, full of charm and insider info. She’s keen to show us both the current Nordic foodie scene as well as the more traditional ‘heritage’ aspect of Icelandic cuisine, which we’ll be trying out on our trip. For now, we chow down on duck salad, lobster soup, a platter of puffin and elk burger bites…and some shark carpaccio thrown in for good measure. It’s all extremely tasty and beautifully presented.

It's been a long day and the Sheilas are still suffering the hangover of jet-lag from the Melbourne-HK-London trip. They call time, but Jemma and I are keen to get a flavour of the nightlife so we head back to the centre to check out the scene. We notice a small bar called Kaffibarrin, with an eclectic, international crowd as well as many effortlessly cool, hirsute locals. Turns out it’s part-owned by Damon Albarn and is one of Reykjavik’s old-school bars, a trusted destination for a party-loving crowd - an ideal find!

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Iceland scenery_Jemma Watts Photogrpahy

Day 2  Waterfalls, landscapes and lobster

The first thing to do this morning is pick up our 4WD, and setting off with map plus (strong) coffee in hand, we are ready for a road trip to explore the southern region around Reykjavik. Our main mission is to try and locate the best vantage point for the Aurora Borealis, however no local will commit to giving any advice on the matter. Apparently cloud, temperature and luck all dictate whether the elusive lights will put on a show in the sky for us later, or not.

In the meantime, it seems that all roads lead to Selfoss, a town which later we find out is Iceland’s equivalent of Basildon. And just about as exciting, it transpires. So we don’t stop for long, just for a surprisingly tasty lunch in a local café. We then continue on through the wild ebb and flow of hills and valleys, playing spot the Icelandic horse, of which there are many, as well as spot the ‘foss’ – there are a number of small yet impressive waterfalls in this region (the ‘foss’ in Selfoss). There is a real sense of isolation as we pass the occasional wooden cottage or lonely church, often miles from anywhere. 

There is always a story though, and one particular church we happen upon (Hlíðarendi) on Road 261 was built on the Brennu-Njáls Saga site, the longest and most celebrated Saga in Iceland. It's impossible not to marvel at the immense panoramic views, with glaciers shimmering in the distance, nestled amongst the volcanic peaks. We are convinced we’ll eventually come across Jon Snow as this is true - actual - Game of Thrones territory. With that in mind, we hit the road and locate a watering hole in the form of Hotel Ranga, a venue which ends up offering the perfect vantage point for a spectacular sunset as well as for befriending a real, giant polar bear (well ok, a dead, stuffed one). After a wine or two with our fearsome friend, we then head to Stokkseyri, a small town by the coast and indulge in a divine lobster bisque at Fjöruborðið, known for serving (probably) the best lobster in Iceland.  We still hold out hope for the lights, but tonight’s not our night. Still three more to go so we're not too despondent. For now, we make our way back to the city for a few more drinks and then bed.

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Trip to Iceland with Fran Tehan in November 2015, by Jemma Watts Photography

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Day 3 The Blue Lagoon, Skata and Dill

We wake up optimistic for the lights as the sky is clearer this morning. First on our agenda of Things To Do is a dip in the milky blue waters of the Blue Lagoon. Some say it’s too touristy, but get there early and you won’t be disappointed. Floating around in superheated seawater, rich in algae and mineral salts while the outside temperature is below zero, is an other-worldly experience not to be missed. Indeed we looked particularly other-worldly with white silica mud masks on our faces and steam clouds rolling around our heads. Note to self: next time, do not wear contact lenses in geo-thermal water; stumbling out of the lagoon blinded by salt-eye is not a good look.

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Blue Lagoon_Iceland_Jemma Watts Photography

After fourteen rounds of hair conditioner to get rid of the salt, we’re ready to go and meet Thorunn for the ‘heritage’ meal she’s promised us – the rotten skate moment...hooray! Kæst skata is traditionally fermented then eaten on the 23rd December. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea however, even the stoic Icelanders are divided, but it is the most traditional of dishes and we feel it would be churlish not to give it a try. We meet in a restaurant next to the harbour called Sægreifinn, a place renowned for its skata apparently. Our friends watch with mild amusement as we eye up our putrid plates of skate. It looks fairly anodyne upon arrival, but once you get a whiff of its fragrance you’ll realize it’s anything but (read: unpalatable). Ammonia from the fermenting process dominates both mouth and nose, but we call upon our inner Vikings for strength and politely attempt a few forkfuls. Eventually there’s a collective cry for something, anything to mask the pungency. Certainly an experience, but not one we'll be repeating anytime soon. Now, where was that hot dog stand....

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Later on Jemma and I continue our culinary adventure and head over to Dill restaurant, Reykjavik’s finest New Nordic foodie destination, as we’re lucky enough to have scored an interview with Gunnar Karl Gislason, the head chef/owner/kitchen genius. We’re keen to better understand the forage to fork philosophy underpinning the New Nordic manifesto he subscribes to and generally talk food and heritage (the full interview is on the blog and it's also definitely worth checking out his recently published cookbook, 'North: The New Nordic Cuisine of Iceland'). Gunnar is charming, hospitable, softly spoken with a cheeky twinkle of eye and endearing turn of phrase. We are already looking forward to our meal that evening where we’ll get to experience his cooking first hand.

Dinner at Dill later on does not disappoint. Snacks (and fizz) arrive first, including dried fish, cucumber, angelica and cumin cheese - little morsels of deliciousness - something of a leitmotif for the rest of the meal. From arctic char to red fish and rutabagas (turnip) this New Nordic cuisine tantalises the senses, teases the taste buds and pleases the eye in its artful aesthetic.

Dill Restaurant_Reyjavik_Iceland_Jemma Watts Photography

Dill Restaurant_Reyjavik_Iceland_Jemma Watts Photography

Day 4....and 5  The 3 'G's' - Golden Circle, Geysers and Gulfoss

The next morning it's fair to say we're feeling a little worse for wear, after some extra dance floor action post-Dill the night before. Inspired by Gunnar's passion for waffles we decide that breakfast at the highly recommended Mokka is the answer. We've got a big day ahead - a road-trip around the Golden Circle, to see Pingvellir, the country's most important historical area, some Geysers and the King of Fosses - the mighty Gulfoss.

 

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The journey to the Golden Circle takes us through a vast and rather desolate landscape, which stretches out endlessly. The first stop is the World Heritage national park of Pingvellir, where the Vikings established the world's first democratic government in AD 930 ('ping' means justice). Set around a lake and inside a giant rift valley, it is apparently dominated by shifting Eurasian/North American tectonic plates...but all this is a bit too technical for us this morning, so we concentrate on the impressive surrounds of this Saga site and try to stay warm (difficult).

By the time we get to the geysers, we are really feeling the chill. The temperature has dropped considerably and our fingers are on the verge of dropping off, whilst we patiently point our cameras in the direction of the largest geyser, slightly nervous in anticipation of what Big Daddy might produce. This attraction clearly does what it says on the tin and eventually we witness a series of giant eruptions. It's certainly impressive and somehow quite exciting being so close

to these unpredictable pools of boiling water, with just a flimsy rope to protect us. At the point of becoming cryogenically frozen (and still a tad green around the gills) we shuffle to the Scandi chic canteen for some warming soup and greasy chips to heat our bones and fuel us onwards.

Final stop: Gulfoss. Fashion definitely doesn't come first at this location; the wind chill must be about -30 and it's quite normal to wear a balaclava. We lament our lack of appropriate attire, however putting aside our extreme-weather gear envy, the main attraction is truly a sight to behold. Gulfoss is a mighty, roaring waterfall apparently more powerful than Niagra Falls, with horsepower soon to be harnessed to fuel the whole of Southern Iceland. We behold it for the shortest time possible before sprinting back to our 4WD and relative warmth.

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Pingvellir_Iceland_Travel_Jemma-Watts-Photography

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We've decided to head to Gunnar's quirky, kitsch pizza joint for our last supper, housed in the building next door to Dill; some hearty carb action with imaginative toppings coupled with fine wine gets our energy levels up a few gears after our big day and we're ready for the final fandango. Kaffibarrin here we come!

It’s not worth writing any more about the following morning of our departure; suffice to say we're feeling pretty fragile, although somewhat comforted by the sight of other merrymakers looking far worse than us. There is a sense of community as we all board the plane homeward bound, bleary-eyed but elated by an unforgettable trip. From hipsters to geysers, we’ve covered a lot of ground - literally. Bring on Airwaves 2015….

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