Iceland: Reyjavik


Wednesday night in Reykjavik, 11.45pm. I was sitting in a bar overlooking the city centre’s main drag, the backbone for Reykjavik’s network of bars, clubs and cafes, when the possibility hit me. I had been duped: this must be a different Reykjavik.

In fact, bereft of any activity or atmosphere whatsoever, Reykjavik was doing a pretty good impression of a small, nondescript Scottish coastal town – big, blue bay; nice snow-capped mountains; all very pleasant. The city was, as expected, bathed in daylight (in fact it was a lovely sunny night), but there any resemblance to anywhere with a reputation as bizarre and as drunk and depraved, as Reykjavik’s (sadly) ended.

Everyone had, admittedly, warned me that nothing much would happen before 11 o’clock. With the shops closing at 6pm, it was as if by leaving it so late to go out, the locals were trying to convince themselves it was dark, night. More rock ‘n’ roll. The wait leaves visitors with a dilemma about how to fill the time though: either a leisurely dinner (very leisurely – five hours), or a couple of hours in the cinema (where – luckily – films are shown in their Original Language.

At least it gave me chance to reflect on the numerous travel pieces that had been written portraying Reykjavik as an energetic, if expensive, party-town populated by alcoholics and nymphomaniacs and over-run with young swingers.

The person responsible for all this, I decided, was obviously Bjork, Iceland’s cool and kooky, heroically hedonistic, young pop goddess. But pretending everyone in Reykjavik looked, or behaved, like Bjork, was a bit like suggesting the people of Minneapolis were all like Prince. It was a fantasy (or a nightmare).

The most exotic thing about Iceland as far as I could see, besides the spectacular, virtually impregnable lunar landscape, was the climate, which from May to early August offers more or less 24 hour daylight.

It was obviously tempting to think that a city where the days and nights rolled into one, meant the potential for drunken debauchery was endless. There was no Morning After and no About Last Night.. You couldn’t crawl home shamefully at dawn, because there was no dawn. You could literally Party Like There Was No Tomorrow.

And anyway, what else was there to do ?

Having only two TV stations (one of which seemed to broadcast nothing but the Icelandic Parliament), Icelanders (apparently) read 20 times more books than Americans – but then, who doesn’t ? They play so much chess, it can only be bad for them.

As for outdoor activities, ask anyone if he or she likes camping/ hillwalking/swimming/sailing/skiing, and they always simply answered, “of course”. But surely, after all that activity, you NEED a drink.

Having assumed that they had survived the permanent darkness of winter by staying in and drowning their depression (their skammdegispunglyndi) in alcohol, I’d expected they would be out celebrating the daylight by drinking so much they blacked out anyway.

But no. From where I was sitting, it seemed on Wednesdays and Thursdays, permanent daylight presented the perfect opportunity to go jogging at funny hours of the night and then more reading.

By the end of my first night, having checked out the yuppie hot-spots (Cafe Reykjavik) and art cafes (Salon Islandus), the money I had budgeted for the whole trip had gone – and without even pushing the boat out. (Without even knowing where the boat was).

Iceland is so expensive, I would suggest the Icelandic Tourist Board follows Miami’s example and starts handing out tourists warning leaflets – not against car-jacking but about shopping. Before they can pass through customs, visitors should be forced to take an oath – one that prevents them from saying the following phrases: (1) “What the heck – let’s just jump in a cab”.
(2). “Let’s hire a car and get out into the country”.
(3) “I’ll get this round”, “more champagne”, and so on.

My 25-minute cab ride from the airport to the city cost £ 60. (The buses were on strike.) A local paper cost £ 1.50 and a cafe lunch of pasta (£11.00) and glass of house wine (£ 5) cost a fortune after the VAT. Fish restaurants are so exorbitant, you can’t actually afford to go to them.

So I spent the next day wandering round, trying not to buy anything. Disconcertingly, it was such a grey, cold day, the weather had actually been nicer and brighter the night before.

Reykjavik’s Parliament and Cathedral, set beside one another, looked like toytown buildings, like ‘The Little House On The Prairie’, but otherwise, alot of the shops were just like London, with kids everywhere wearing Kookai dresses, Diesel jeans or Destroy t-shirts. An alarming number of teenagers had obviously spent more time staring at fashion shoots in ‘The Face’ than was good for them. The boys had gone the other direction – listening to East Coast hip-hop, wearing ‘Fuct’ baseball caps and Adidas tops, and talking as if they had grown up in the Bronx – “ooh yah, it woss rilly dope, man”.

With clothes, magazines and records from Britain and the USA coming out in Reykjavik more or less simultaneously, the people are obviously proud of the contemporary and cosmopolitan nature of the culture, but equally sensitive to any criticism of Iceland. They seemed friendly, but not warm. Self-confident but not exactly happy. What cheered them up most seemed to be relating the misfortunes that had afflicted certain tourists, notably visitors who couldn’t resist putting their hands into geysers to see how hot they were just as they erupted – like people drawn to touching wet paint. (They’re 110 degrees.)
NOT RICH ENOUGH to hire a 4 wheel drive Range Rover, and having only limited interest in the museum’s stuffed bird exhibits and rock collection, I spent Friday on the ‘Golden Circle tour’, an 8-hour coach trip that takes in the Gullfoss waterfall, some geysers and the Pingvellir National Park, though, as the tour guide pointed out, they consider the whole island to be a national treasure, asking tourists to carry their cigarette butts with them.

Driving across the flat, cracked lunar wastes, you could see why Neil Armstrong and co. had trained here. Road conditions are so primitive and dangerous, several tourists are injured each year though a video in my hotel had, in any case, put me off exploring the countryside unguided.

“If you arrive at an unbridged river where you cannot see the bottom”, warned the narrator gravely, “do not drive into the river without carefully examining whether it can be crossed”.

Cue tourists throwing rocks into the water and then driving the car straight to the bottom of the lake. I still have nightmares about seeing so many hire-cars skidding/overturning/ breaking down/running out of petrol/running into sheep/ploughing over ravines etc.

Above all, worse than serious injury, the video emphasised the astronomical cost of having to pay for the damage afterwards (for the sheep as well as the car).

BY 10.30pm ON FRIDAY NIGHT, a file of cars as far as the eye could see was cruising down Laugavegur Street, like a wagon train invading town. Each car was full of revellers, already plastered, screaming and shouting and throwing their empties at passers-by.

The streets were full of so many scantily-clad, blonde girls, it was as if Mariella Frostrup, Amanda de Cadanet and Cindy from ‘Eastenders’ had staged some sort of genetic coup d’etat. They were all, in both senses of the word, staggering.

They milled around, from ‘Bar 22’ to the ‘Bio Bar’, from ‘Cafe List’ to the tiny ‘Kaffi Bar Inn’, Reykjavik’s equivalent to London’s Bar Italia, where Reykjavik’s hipsters were chilling out to songs like ‘Billy, Don’t Be A Hero’ and ‘I’ve Been To Paradise But I’ve Never Been To Me’. (Alcohol can do terrible things to you.)

At the Internet Cafe ‘Siberia’, I was making a concerted effort at catching them up, downing Brennivin, Iceland’s local schnapps, made from potatoes, caraway and 42% alcohol, with alacrity.

I was blearily taking in the cafe’s mural, a chain of naked human beings with seagulls’ heads (all, needless to say, getting drunk) when a man called Wolf seized me by the arm and told me, “this is Iceland. You just have to cope with that. Tonight, if you are weak, you will be very weak. But if you are strong, you will be satisfied.”

Falling out of ‘Cafe Opera’, after what seemed like several hours and several Brennivins later, the light was the sort of light you might find at 6 or 7 in the morning in England, when the birds start singing.

Here, though, you had none of the usual remorse – mainly because you had not finished. It was still only 1am.

By now things had deteriorated quite seriously: a man was beating up a traffic light. Grown men were mooing like cows or doing elephant walks. 14 year-olds were lying in the road with their trousers down, covered in beer or vomit – and that was just the females. It was as if a rugby players’ convention, a stag party and an American proms night had collided.

As the bars closed, down the hill they came, like zombies – heading for the ‘clubs’ (large bars with dancefloors).

With no admission fee, you could stumble from the swisher ‘Skugga Bar Inn’ and Notting Hill-styled, maze of rooms and dancefloors that was the ‘Ingolfskaffi’, out into the rougher, younger ‘Rosenberg’, where a young drug dealer was bemoaning the high price of his product and the high penalties for possession in Iceland. I wondered how many young British ravers would be prepared to pay the same for dodgy speed as they would for cocaine back home.

By closing time at ‘Tunglid’/‘Tunglio’ (3.30am), the gangs of blondes were so smashed, you could stand at the bottom of the stairs and watch them fall, like lemmings.

Male tourists could perhaps be forgiven for assuming their merrily debauched condition meant they were a push-over but you could tell they’d gone sailing past the Sleep With Anyone stage, straight into Too Drunk To Do Anything.

Shielding their eyes from the light, outside, several were in tears. Most were walking with the hesitancy of people blindfold wondering where the steps were, swaying as if we were all on board a ship somewhere. It had been a rough night.

Still…we had put the ‘wrecked’ back into ‘Reykjavik’. It wasn’t winter, but when I closed my eyes, I could see the Northern Lights. It was only after several glasses that anyone had told me the locals’ nickname for ‘brennivin’ was ‘black death’. Bloody marvellous.

The following day, the most I could manage was the famous ‘Blue Lagoon’, a pool of warm geo-thermal seawater in the middle of a lava field, out near the airport.

My enjoyment was hampered only by having heard constantly about how wild and debauched the lagoon used to be when it was still a natural, uncommercialised, pool. That, and my taxi-driver’s detailed description of how the lagoon had cured his piles (“you know, up here”).

In the water, I chatted to an old man about the contradictions of Iceland, how in order to make the most of it, visitors had to be either very rich or very poor (campers, hikers), and how its society could be so prudish and censorial about porn, stripping or prostitution and so hedonistic about drinking. Mind you alcohol is taxed so heavily, not even they can afford to drink at lunch or on weekdays – saving their money, and their livers, for the weekend.

When I asked him why they got so drunk, he said, matter-of-factly, “it’s fun. It’s fun to be drunk and wild”, as if he was revealing to the world one of Iceland’s innermost secrets.

He advised me to make the most of the relaxation, and in the sun and the steam, it was, for a moment, quite idyllic, until, he added, with a smile, four words that I had forgotten, the last thing I wanted to know.

“Tonight is Saturday night.”