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“They’re self-sufficient in bananas in Iceland,” I learned when I told some friends down the pub of my forthcoming long weekend away. Something to do with geothermal energy, apparently. The hot water comes bubbling out of the volcanic earth, the Icelanders heat their greenhouses with it, and hey presto, it is large yellow ones all round.
Everyone, it seems, is an expert on Iceland. “Beer was illegal until 1990,” another friend told me, “And a round of drinks now costs the price of a small family car,” said another. “It’s illegal to eat cheese on a Tuesday,” someone else chipped in.
As it turns out, only the last of these “facts” is untrue, but Iceland, despite being only two hours flying time from Glasgow, seems so alien to us, so utterly and completely different, that one is prepared to believe almost anything about the country.
I must admit, though, I found it hard to credit the stories about Reykjavik becoming a clubbers’ paradise, a sort of glacial Ibiza, a playground for the young and fashionable.
Being sadly neither of those things, I am probably not best placed to judge, but felt I ought to investigate, which is how I found myself in Damon Albarn’s very trendy bar in downtown Reykjavik. The Blur frontman is actually only a part-owner of the Kaffibarrin, just off the Icelandic capital’s main shopping street, and nobody I spoke to in the bar could recall ever seeing him in there, but that is not the point.
The enthusiasm of Albarn and fellow Icelandophile Jarvis Cocker of the band Pulp, together with Reykjavik’s successful year as European Capital of Culture in 2000, has significantly changed the nature of tourism to the city.
Where it used to be a haunt for birdwatchers, or nature lovers needing a base from which to explore some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe, or for the well-off middle-aged wishing to soak their ageing and aching bones in the mineral-rich spa baths, it is now the ideal venue for doing what young people, I am reliably informed, call “just hanging.”
Admittedly, there was a holiday report on TV recently in which Richard Whiteley visited Reykjavik, which may have lowered its fashionability quotient a notch or two, but it did not seem to have affected custom in the Kaffibarrin, where no detail has been spared in a bid to give the place a Bohemian look.
Damon’s bar is not unlike a fashionable London media hang-out, with its carefully haphazard mix of straight-backed wooden chairs and distressed leather sofas and armchairs, and wide selection of newspapers and magazines strewn around the place, mostly young slackers’ mags like Dazed and Confused.
In one corner, pale young chaps in overcoats and heavy-framed specs were playing chess, while elsewhere another young man was typing furiously – his latest poem, probably – on his Apple laptop. The bar is unattended while the barman sits at a table abstractedly blowing smoke rings, and talking to three young girls.
The laid back look and relaxed atmosphere of the Kaffibarrin, a two storey timber-framed building with a pastiche of a London underground sign hanging outside, is typical of Reykjavik, where hanging around in bars is not an activity underscored with desperation - or menace even - as it sometimes is in capital cities elsewhere.
Despite the fact that the Nightlife section of Reykjavik’s tourist information guide is extraordinarily specific about the target age groups aimed for by the various bars, neither myself nor my photographer friend Tony was once spurned for being too young, too old, too unfashionable, or for any other reason.
Having discovered that the only venue specifically aimed at our age group was the Radison SAS Hotel Saga, we opted instead for bars where the approved demographic was 19 – 27 years old, 22 – 28, and 20 –32, and nowhere did we encounter anything other than friendliness, warm smiles, and glasses of beer - although if I were charging five pounds a pint, I should probably be smiling as well.
Iceland is expensive. There is no getting away from it. The information guide has a list of items that will cost you more in Iceland than at home, which consists of pretty well everything, and a corresponding list of things that cost less; which takes in hot water, central heating, and….er that’s it. The hot water is piped out of the volcanic rock, which is great for the Icelanders but does not help your holiday budget much.
Iceland is worth it, though, providing a warmer welcome, and more in the way of fresh air and fun - in Stanley Holloway’s famous phrase - than anywhere else I have visited recently. If you calculate holiday value in terms of pounds per smile, Iceland rates well. You would not think we were waging cod war against them as recently as 1973.
Younger visitors, I expect, may wish to economise on accommodation costs rather than essential nightlife expenditure, so in the spirit of investigative journalism I pretended I was one, and stayed in the friendly but basic Centrum Guest House in Njalsgata, a short walk from the bars and nightclubs.
For twenty-odd pounds in the Centrum you can crash out in your sleeping bag, while for fifty-odd you get a comfortable enough bed for the night, an all-muck-in-together breakfast in a little room off reception, but little else.
As my normal modus operandi on arriving in an hotel room is to put a pair of trousers in the press to cook, stretch out on the bed, pop the free chocolate mint in my mouth, and check out in which fine hotels CNN is available, this was, as you might imagine, quite a shock to the system.
It was like rolling back the years to backpacking days, reliving that middle-of-the-night dilemma, when you wonder whether to wander down the corridor to the shared toilet, exercise extreme self control, or – and this is something I am sure readers of this newspaper would never have contemplated even as students – use the washbasin.
But, hey, this is Iceland. The literature promised it would have a rejuvenating effect, and it was working already. Why not complete the process of revitalisation – and limber up for another night of bar crawling - with a trip to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most visited site, and focus of numerous so-called stress-busting holidays?
To reach the famous geothermal pools, about 40 minutes from Reykjavik, you drive through a bizarre lunar landscape created by thousands of years of volcanic activity. Nasa apparently sends its trainee astronauts here to get a feel for the lunar terrain. The steam rising from the water only adds to the ethereal atmosphere.
The sky was grey and a light drizzle was falling as we approached the pools. Disappointingly, the changing rooms and lockers, while spotless and well appointed, are not substantially different from those in a municipal pool. I don’t know what I was expecting; some new age music maybe, and hand maidens to help you into your trunks?
The water itself contains a cocktail of naturally occurring minerals and blue-green algae said to relax and stimulate body and soul. The temperature is around 37 deg F, although as you wallow – which is about all you can do in water that warm – you will hit real hot spots that make you jump.
Bobbing around in the steaming waters with hundreds of others, against a backdrop of snow-capped volcanic outcrops, is a strange other-worldly experience and rather sexy, although I reserve judgment on the claims that the waters are a remedy for all sorts of ailments. “Not cured you of your scepticism, then?” said Tony.
What really busts the stress in Iceland, I found - more than the Blue Lagoon - is parking your hired car. Parking for pleasure is the order of the day in Reykjavik. We parked where we wanted, when we wanted. There must be some rules, I suppose, but we never came across them.
Driving around was similarly hassle free. The sheer emptiness of the country is tangible. The population of Iceland is around 280,000, 150,000 of whom live in Reykjavik. This is a capital city with all the buzz that entails, yet the size of Huddersfield or Preston. Mind you, you try parking in Preston.
We enjoyed virtually empty roads, driving to the South coast towns of Eyrabakki and Stokkseyri, peaceful, deeply atmospheric, end-of-the-line places with a wealth of beautiful timber-framed houses and churches dating back to the 18th and 19th Centuries, but mercifully without a branch of MacDonalds, or indeed a shop of any sort as far as we could see. Both were formerly trading centres with busy harbours, but these days there is little to ruffle the peace of the sand dunes.
The Pingvellir National Park is another ocean of solitude, a handy drive out of Reykjavik. I should have loved to have had the time to explore this fascinating area on foot. Its chasms, ravines, gorges, and the largest lake in Iceland, combine to make it like no other landscape I have seen. If I had concentrated more in geography lessons I might be able to explain what caused this spectacular display of geology, but I believe it is something to do with the North Atlantic Ridge.
Pingvellir has a rich history as well as geography. It was the centre of government in Iceland from 930 until the late 18th Century, and as recently as 1994, 80,000 Icelanders gathered there to celebrate their parliamentary democracy, the oldest in the world.
Iceland likes to celebrate its heritage, sometimes in strange ways. In Grindavik, a fairly bleak fishing village, we visited the Icelandic Saltfish Museum, whose motto is, “Life is saltfish,” which is a point of view, I suppose; while around the corner from our hotel in Reykjavik was the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which proudly claims to be the only museum in the world housing a collection of the reproductive organs of all the various types of mammal found in a single country.
I will not go into detail over the Sunday breakfast table, but should you visit the collection, the self-styled Director of the Icelandic Institute of Phallology, Sigurdur Hjartarson, will, with little prompting.
The museum is a labour of love for Sigurdur, a teacher for whom the collection of private parts is a strange hobby. He opens the museum for a few hours a day, while still keeping his teaching job.
Like most Icelanders we met, Sigurdur loves to talk about his homeland. I was curious to know how Iceland kept body and soul together, since the only commercial activity I could find solid evidence of, apart from the fishing, was selling each other expensive beer and four-wheel drive vehicles.
But no. According to Sigurdur, there is more to Iceland than that. Farming thrives in the fertile plains, and thanks to the hot-houses Iceland has to import little food, he said. In any case, he revealed, Icelanders, including the Government, are fairly relaxed about running a high level of debt.
Life expectancy, the keeper of the phalluses continued, is the highest in Europe, not least because the air and water is the cleanest, and levels of pollution are among the lowest.
And still the amazing Iceland facts kept coming. The English word “geyser” comes from Iceland’s Great Geysir at Haukadalur, the distinctive tiny Icelandic horse, of which you see herds while out driving, is able to carry up to eighteen stones, and the Icelandic sagas are the oldest written literature in the world. He was also happy – wouldn’t you know it – to confirm the banana story.
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