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Iceland is cool – even without puffins


Puffins became my enemy in Iceland, and yes I’m speaking of the cute little seabirds with their strange colourful beaks full of fish they have diligently captured for their young. Iceland is famous for the birds, but despite my very best efforts, I didn’t see a single one, and neither did I get the chance to eat one of the little bastards either. Puffins, it seemed, were not on the menu for me in Iceland.

Reykjavik was the first stop on my fourth solo adventure, a trip that would see me visiting some parts of Europe that I’d never been to. Icelandair delivered me punctually into Keflavik airport and I was soon aboard the Flybus heading into the city centre.

The countryside was rocky and mossy, at least from what I could see through the window of the bus. Later I learned that the rocks were in fact lava deposits, a legacy from the island’s volcanic heritage. The more I looked, the more the scenery reminded me of Scotland, especially with the dramatic and jagged mountains in the distance, but then I spotted something worrying. A large plume of smoke seemed to be escaping from one of the peaks, summoning alarming thoughts I’d be stranded because of another ash cloud, something Iceland had become famous for. In the end it turned out to be a false alarm.

I began to read a tourist newspaper that had been left by another passenger and came across an article written by the Mayor of Reykjavik, Jon Gnarr. As I read it, I decided I liked the sound of the man. The mayor was making a plea to tourists. ‘Spend a lot of money throughout your stay’, he stated plainly, no doubt thinking of the strife his country’s economy had endured since 2008. ‘And please do not visit shops run by the Salvation Army or Red Cross because they are inexpensive. Instead spend your money in shops that charge a lot.’ Fair enough I thought. My British pound now bought me almost a third more kronur than it would have done before the crash. It was one of the reasons I’d decided to visit the country.

Another money spinner for Iceland was its prime location halfway across the Atlantic. Icelandair had made great moves into cornering sections of the market dedicated to passengers flying between Europe and the United States making Reykjavik a popular transit point. On the plane over from Manchester, the amount of American voices was actually quite disconcerting. Indeed the elderly couple seated next to me were from the US city of Minneapolis. I knew this not because I’d spoken to them, but because I secretly read the ticket stub of the wife. I had no desire to speak to either of them because of what had happened when I’d boarded the plane.

I was one of the last passengers to board and when I reached my aisle, I noticed the golden oldies immediately. The husband was sat in the aisle seat eying me balefully. His wife was sat snugly in my seat (the window seat) leaving the middle empty. After making it clear that the good lady was sitting in my seat I decided to offer a morsel of niceness. Addressing the husband, I offered to sit in the aisle seat so that they could sit together.

The old goat’s reaction surprised me. After grimacing, he wobbled a pair of large red lips over his gnashing teeth. “No son!” he snarled. “I’m not moving! I’ve got a bad leg! I’m staying right here!” He then sat back and folded his arms, satisfied that he’d sorted me out.

Well fuck you, I thought silently. With a full aircraft, I shrugged and gestured that I was waiting for my window seat and stood my ground until the pair of the old gits moved into the aisle allowing me entry. As I settled down, I mentally crossed Minneapolis off from the list of places to visit in the US.

Reykjavik was sunny and pleasantly warm by the time I arrived at my hotel. Wasting no time in seeing some of the sights, I left the hotel and found myself in a small square known as Ingolfstorg frequented by teenagers and steam vents. The teenagers were mostly on skateboards and the vents were where some of Iceland’s geothermal energy found its escape from below. I wandered towards the sea, enjoying the warm crisp air of the most northerly capital in Europe.

The Sun Voyager was one of the most photographed sculptures in the city and it wasn’t hard to work out why. Made of steel, the skeletal Viking ship had been placed in a prominent position overlooking the harbour and it looked incredible. The sculpture was surprisingly large and I spent a good while wandering around, marvelling at the way sunlight caught it from certain angles. Eventually I headed away towards another symbol of the city – the almost unpronounceable Hallgrimskirkja Church.

Reykjavik so far had surpassed my expectations. I’d not expected it to be so quaint and picturesque, a place my wife would have loved. The shops that lined the main street in the city centre were exactly the type that my better half would have enjoyed. Luckily for me, I could ignore them all as I headed up a slight hill to the church.

It certainly stood out, jutting up at 75 metres; meaning it could be seen from miles around. It looked like no other church I’d seen and just in front of it was a large statue of Leifur Eiriksson, the Icelandic Viking who was said to have discovered America five hundred years before Columbus. After snapping off some photos I headed inside and bought a ticket to the top. The views were stunning, covering the entire city and beyond. But suddenly the peace was broken by an almighty racket from above our heads. The bells were chiming for 7pm and everyone on the viewing platform scurried for cover.

The next morning was grey and drizzly, the exact opposite of the evening before. A small distance from the hotel was a nice little square which contained a statue of the first settler of Iceland, a man called Ingolfur Arnarson. Mr Arnarson had built his home in Reykjavik in 874 after leaving Norway following a blood feud. Later, his son was said to have founded the first parliament of Iceland and appropriately enough just opposite was the Parliament building, a splendid 19th century structure that was completely devoid of security guards. I could have gone over and smashed one of the windows had I been so inclined.

Despite the weather, a tour group was in attendance, mainly made up of over 60s, and when I approached the statue I got the impression that the lady in charge was waiting for me to leave before she began her spiel. I decided to hang around on purpose, making a show of taking a photo of Arnarson’s statue until the lady was forced to speak. Too bad it was in German.

Next to the Parliament building was Reykjavik’s oldest church, the Domkirkja, and I stood looking at it until I became distracted by a God-awful stench. The large drainage truck parked in front of it seemed to be the culprit. With the lovely aroma of fresh sewage being sucked up from the city’s bowels, I decided to move on.

After passing by the exceedingly ugly Radhus, I came to a nice lake filled with ducks and seagulls. A couple of boys were running along one edge of the lake, scaring the birds, but apart from them, I seemed to have the whole place to myself. Across the lake I could see a fine church, topped with a green roof and stately steeple but it was at that point that the rain began in earnest, forcing me to move onwards.

The harbour area was the oldest part of the city and it was here that fishing boats and yachts vied for position along the jetties. Working men of Reykjavik looked busy as they toiled among them but I walked straight up to a booth offering puffin boat tours. I’d always been intrigued by the strange-beaked seabirds and had read that a one-hour tour was possible in the summer months.

“I’m sorry, sir,” said the woman on the other side of the hatch. “The boat has just left. But you probably would not have seen the puffins anyway…maybe just one in the sea if you were lucky. However if you like, I could book you on this afternoon’s tour?” I shook my head, not wanting to tie myself to a boat trip that would probably see me getting soaked as well as disappointed at the lack of puffin. I thanked the lady and wandered away, cursing the puffins. And then I had an idea; I would order boiled puffin at the next restaurant I came to and that would serve the little bastards right. And I’d follow it up with some seared seal, hopefully with a bit of flipper still attached.

After a rain-drenched two kilometre hike I came to Perlan, a strange domed structure that housed a special museum. Despite loathing museums, I thought a visit to a Viking-themed one should be interesting enough and besides, it would keep me safe from the deluge. Before that though, I browsed a gift shop and a small area full of historical artifacts before and heading upstairs to a viewing platform.

The views were good, even with the rain splattering my camera from every direction. Taking position at a lookout point I stared across at the Atlantic which looked pleasingly foreboding and brooding. The mountains filling the horizon also looked vivid, precisely the type of location I could imagine ancient Vikings battling with lynx and wolf.

Back on the lower level I bit the bullet and paid the entrance fee to the Saga Museum. It was darker than expected and I got a shock when I turned the first corner and came face to face with an evil Viking. Thankfully he was made of wax and so I moved on, allowing my eyes to adjust to the lack of light. The makers of the museum had made lots of other wax people, all kitted out in Viking attire and one in particular caught my eye because it featured a Viking woman with her boobs out. According to the information placard, the woman had been under attack and in desperation had bared her chest. This apparently had made her attackers flee.

Everyone else in the small museum was wearing headphones, listening to their audio guide telling them about everything. I sidestepped them, pausing to look at a woman about to be burned at the stake and an old man about to have his head chopped off. Suitable sound effects had been made available with the exhibits, including screams and burning, which I was pretty sure everyone else couldn’t hear. Further along was a display of a Viking family inside their hovel. One of the figures was a real man. His movements were almost imperceptible, but I noticed them nonetheless. He was clearly one of those actors who waited until he had collected a sizeable audience before jumping out at them causing panic and hilarity. I waited for this to happen but he was not obliging. After a minute more, I gave up and left, exiting the museum precisely nine minutes after entering.

Clinton's famous hot dog van

Feeling quite peckish, I decided that instead of gorging on puffin, I would sample another gastronomic highlight of Iceland – the hotdog. After some hasty map reading in the rain I found myself joining the queue at Baerjarins Beztu Hotdog Van. Unlike most other hotdog stands, this one was actually a tourist attraction with people actually taking photos of themselves in the queue. The reason was that Bill Clinton had once enjoyed one of Reykjavik’s finest from this very van. To prove it, a photo of him eating one had been placed on a nearby wall.

“600 Kronur,” said the woman inside the van, the very same woman who had served Mr Clinton as far as I could tell from the photo. I ordered two hotdogs and after paying the lady I took them to a place that protected me from the worst excesses of the rain. I soon took a bite, tasting the familiar taste of hotdog and ketchup. It was quite nice and I quickly took a second bite, wondering why these particular hotdogs had acquired an almost legendary status. To me, they tasted like any other hotdog I’d ever eaten.

That evening I paid a visit to the appropriately named Icelandic Bar. The menu offered puffin, but the price put me off, coming in at a whopping 4000 kronur (£22). Instead I ordered a starter comprising of cured and smoked minke whale, an animal I’d never sampled before. When it arrived I had been hoping that I wouldn’t be put off by the fact it was whale meat, but I was. As I cut into the deep red smoked meat, I couldn’t get rid of the image of a whale swimming about in the sea, all intelligent and caring. I took a sip of my Viking beer and forked a bit into my mouth. The texture was rather like salmon, albeit a bit tougher with a taste that wasn’t that dissimilar either. The cured meat was darker, chewy in the mouth, but it was no good, my appetite had gone.

Whale meat, anyone?

A young waitress who had been hovering by my table asked me what I thought of it. With large amounts of whale meat still in front of me, I decided to tell her the truth. “There’s nothing wrong with it. And I’m glad I’ve tried it, but I wouldn’t get it again.”

The girl nodded and smiled. “Perhaps next time you will try puffin?” I nodded and told her I would love to try puffin, thinking of how I’d particularly like to chew on that colourful beak. “It is a dark meat,” she said, “A bit like beef and not like chicken as you might have expected. But it’s rather tasty.”

My short time in Iceland had come to an end and I’d not even had time to visit the world-famous Blue Lagoon. Despite this I had really enjoyed my visit to Reykjavik; it reminded me of an upmarket British seaside town. It even had the same seagulls! The weather had let me down on my second day though, pelting down virtually nonstop for the whole time. And as for the puffins, well they had won the battle this time. But I headed to the airport for part two of my European adventure: Oslo.

Strengths:
-Very picturesque
-Very safe
-Everything is within walking distance
-Everyone speaks English
-Exotic meats!

Weaknesses:
-The rain!
-Not that much to actually do in Reykjavik
-Puffins

Jason Smart has now published The Red Quest, an excellent book about his travels through the ‘Stans, now out on Kindle – where it appears to be free.

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