Reykjavik is the only city in Iceland and is also the world’s most northern capital. Metropolitan Reykjavik has a population of 200,000 all told. It was here that the first permanent settlement was established about 870 AD, but it was another 1,000 years before anything one would call urban development occurred.
A Norseman, Ingólfur Arnarson, employed an age-old Viking method of deciding where to settle. He threw a set of pillars into the sea near the coastline, and built his home where they washed ashore. A nearby hot spring spouted steam into the air, and eventually the name Reykjavik was chosen because it means ‘the bay of smoke’.
It was the Danes who developed the area, constructing buildings to house the wool industry they were keen to promote. Eventually, other industries took root, fishing, agriculture, shipbuilding and sulfur mining. However, it wasn’t until after 1880 that other nationalities were allowed to trade in the region.
Iceland’s climate is moderated by the Gulf Stream and temperatures rarely drop below -15C. Reykjavik’s position on the western coast makes it prone to the wind and gales are very common in the winter months. Though the sun doesn’t set during the late spring and early summer, the temperatures usually hover between 10 – 15C, and occasionally cross 20C.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Our flight was due to depart in the evening on the 10th anniversary of the terrorists’ attacks of 9/11. I won’t go into all the reasons why we ended up booking our flight out of JKF in New York on that particular date, but we did feel that security would be particularly tight and it would probably be the safest day to fly from that airport.
Once we had completed our packing, we spent much of the day watching the memorial service on the television and it was very moving to watch the friends and family members reading out the names of the people who died at Ground Zero, Washington and Pennsylvania. A lot of people voiced the hope that this memorial would put and end to the annual ceremonies, that it was time to look to the future and focus on making the country strong again in light of the current serious economic problems facing the United States and the rest of the world.
Puneet was kind enough to give up part of his Sunday afternoon to drive us to the airport and it was clear he had to put some thought into what route to take in order to avoid passing through Manhattan. There were many road closures because of the memorial service and we didn’t want to get caught up in any gridlock.
We asked to arrive at JFK quite early, not only to avoid the lineups at the check in counter, but also because our ‘economy-comfort’ class tickets with Icelandair provided us with access to the British Airways business-class lounge. We felt it would be a nice atmosphere to relax in prior to our over-night flight, and we were more than pleasantly surprised at just how posh it was. Anil settled himself into a comfortable leather chair, poured us both glasses of red wine and later went off to watch the finals of the Women’s U.S. Open tennis. Heaven.
No one could have been more surprised than we were when we took our seats on our flight. We had so much legroom, even more than the business-class passengers seated in the rows ahead of us. Go figure. Our tickets provided us with meals on the flight, as well as more wine, and though we didn’t have the white linen napkins on our trays, we felt pretty pleased with our decision to take a step up from economy.
Apart from all the perks that I have mentioned above, I have to admit that one of the deciding factors for our decision to fly economy-comfort was the fact that we could change our tickets without penalty, should the need arise. We were pretty sure that the dates we chose for our flights to Iceland and then on to Amsterdam would not require alterations, but when we booked our ticket, we had to choose our return date.
Seeing that we plan to be travelling overseas until the end of May 2012, we wanted the flexibility to return earlier if need be. We chose May 29th for our return, without a stopover in Iceland, and selected Seattle for our destination in the US. Who knows, after touring for a week in Iceland, we might want to stop again on our way back and see the island at a time when the sun never sets?
Our flight landed just after 6:00am local time and we picked up our rental car at the airport. It was far too early to head to our guesthouse, so we stopped for a light breakfast at the airport. It was also too early for our fuzzy heads to wrap around the Icelandic language, so we were very pleased that most young people speak fluent English.
Last year when we set off on the start of our fifth year of retirement travels we arrived in Ireland and rented a car as well. This time we were so happy that we didn’t have to drive a manual car on the left hand side of the road. Driving in Iceland seemed like a piece of cake in comparison. We opened the detailed map provided by the car rental agency and the well-marked Lonely Planet that Adia and Geoff had used on their three week trip to Iceland two years earlier, and off we went.
It was clear almost immediately that we were in a landscape like no other we had ever visited. The airport is over an hour away from Reykjavik and there is almost nothing between the two except desolate, black lava fields and the odd tiny village here and there. Some people may describe the barren landscape as bleak, but we were enthralled and excited. We hadn’t ever considered visiting Iceland until Adia and Geoff announced that they were going there to celebrate the 8th anniversary of their first date, on June 21st, the longest day of the year.
We had no problems getting into Reykjavik as there is really only one main highway in from the airport, but once we got ourselves into the residential neighbourhoods it was another story. Just as we’ve experienced in other countries we’ve visited, we had to learn to decipher the names of the streets and signposts.
It takes a little while to learn to see the natural groupings of letters that indicate syllables, and when the names are long, it’s almost impossible to try and read or pronounce them. I was trying to read the map while Anil was driving and I kept ending up saying we had to exit the highway onto the street that started with an ‘E’, proceed to the intersection with the street that starts with a ‘K’ and then drive on and turn left on the street that begins with an ‘S’. The fogginess of jetlag didn’t help one bit.
We liked the guesthouse very much; liked the fact that we could get into our room immediately and liked it even more that we were the only guests. We put away our belongings and then settled ourselves into bed for a few hours sleep. There was no point in pressing on into the city in the state we were in. Besides, it was a Monday morning and we couldn’t imagine that the locals were in any better shape than we were. Who likes to face an early start at the beginning of a new workweek?
After a cup of tea around 2:00pm, we set off to explore Reykjavik. We had been very impressed with all the modern buildings we had seen on our way in from the airport, and the fine state of the highways and city streets. We had the impression that the suburbs had all been constructed in the past ten years, everything looked so fresh and stylish.
We chose a route that took us along the water at the northern side of the city center and when I realized that we would be passing one of the most historical buildings in the city, I suggested we stop for a quick look. The building was the site of the famous meeting between Presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in October 1986. It was here that the decision to end the Cold War was taken.
We drove the short distance into the historical center of Reykjavik and found ourselves driving up narrow streets that ascended quite dramatically towards the towering cathedral. It was a Monday afternoon and there were very few people about, most of those we did see appeared to be other tourists. We parked the car on a relatively flat bit of street and walked towards the church.
The architect who designed the cathedral took the tall basalt pillars that formed naturally along the south central coast as his inspiration. “Hallgrimskirkja’ an unforgettable building with a statue of Leifur Eirikssson, the Norse explorer, near its main entrance. It is the exterior of the building that is the most dramatic, but visitors are able to take an elevator into the steeple for stunning views of the city.
After studying the landscape from above, we decided to walk a loop through the neighbourhoods, down towards a small lake, known locally as ‘The Pond’. It was a beautiful, sunny fall afternoon, with a light breeze, and it was great to stretch our legs after our long flight. We took note of the various kinds of construction used in the residences and office buildings and especially appreciated the colourful walls and painted metal roofs.
We ended our first day in Iceland with a short drive to an inner harbour where we had read that a beach had been constructed using sand hauled all the way from Morocco. The natural beaches in Iceland are all formed from black lava, so of course the sand is black too. We’d seen a similar beach in the Canary Islands years ago, also made using Moroccan sand, but the Canaries are thousands of miles closer to the coast of Africa compared to Iceland.
The beach house was closed when we first arrived, but the attendant told us that it would be opening at 5:00pm. This seemed a little strange to us, we thought that it would be closing in the late afternoon, not opening. We went for a short stroll and when we returned we saw people arriving with bathing suits and towels and heading into the icy waters. They didn’t hesitate to get wet and we finally figured out that they were members of a club who come regularly, probably after a long day at the office. Brrrr!