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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Reykjavik

Earlier this year, after watching a documentary about Jon Gnarr, the Mayor of Reykjavik, I impulse bought a ticket to Iceland. Such is the luxury of living in Europe: plane tickets are so cheap, impulse buys usually don't dent your wallet too much. One week later, BOOM, I was in Iceland, which is a place I only ever thought of as snow and Bj√∂rk. Turns out there's plenty more to it!

You know how people always say that Iceland and Greenland are misnamed, and that Iceland is actually super green, and Greenland is all ice? Well by the crippling cold and snow that I faced walking out of the Reykjavik airport when I arrived, I would not believe that at all. It was nice not to have to use a real winter coat in London's mild winter, but I was so glad to have it in Iceland. 

The first thing I did once in Iceland was take an hour long bus ride to the center of Reykjavik from the airport. Usually these types of rides are just boring highways with nothing cool to see. Iceland, however, was full of beautiful mountains to look at, as well as lots of little cairns (little stackings of rocks), which according to Icelandic myth, are where elves live. Every now and then we'd also see a cute little house in the middle of nowhere



Once we actually made it to the center of Reyjkavik (after passing a KFC and a Taco Bell), I had a few hours to kill before I was able to check into my hostel. Not realizing how small Reykjavik is, I accidentally saw pretty much all of it in those few hours! I first went to the bay to check out the mountains in the distance, as well as the Harpa concert hall, which had a very interesting design. I later found out that at night it flashes lights to mimic the northern lights, which was really cool to see. 

Did you think I was going to go all the way to Iceland and not take a mountain-in-the-distance selfie?
One thing I didn't expect to see in Iceland was graffiti! There was lots of it, and a very small amount of it was just tags; most of it was art that seemed to have been either commissioned or at least tolerated. I didn't get a chance to take a picture of the best pieces as my hands had frozen by then, but here's a little tasting of the art and color around town. Even without the graffiti, Reykjavik is a city bathed in color. After the concert hall, I went up the tallest church in Iceland, called Hallgrimskirkja, and got a better look at all of the colorful houses.


Exhausted after a day of travel and walking in the cold, I was finally able to check into my hostel. It was the nicest hostel I've stayed in so far, and everyone in my room was really friendly. I met two friends, Liz and Leroy, who were visiting from London, who needed a third person to join them on a helicopter tour, and I gladly volunteered! 

The view from my hostel
Even the Icelandic currency was colorful and beautiful!

I asked the hostel about northern lights tours for that night, but was told they were all cancelled due to clouds. The next morning I talked to Liz and Leroy who had found a tour that was still going, and I was so jealous when they showed me their photos of the beautiful northern lights.

The next day I had a nice relaxing time at the Blue Lagoon geothermal hot springs. Besides being visually stunning, the lagoon's water is said to have great effects for the skin because it is so rich in minerals. All around the edges of the pools there are big crates of mud from the water that you ladle out and put on your face. My skin felt amazing for weeks afterwards. 


Once I got back to the hostel that night, I made my first attempt at seeing the northern lights. I joined a tour group and hopped into a bus that was driving as far away as it could from Reykjavik, which is known for having an incredible amount of lights and being very bright, especially during winter months when there is little sunlight during the day. When we finally reached a spot far enough away that was relatively cloud free, we all jumped out and started snapping away with our cameras at what we thought was a northern light. It was absolutely FREEZING. Turns out that thing we were all oohing and ahhing at? Not even a northern light. Our guide only thought to tell us this after we had all turned to ice and were back on the bus. This, however, meant that I was able to go on another tour the following night for free.

The next day was my final day in Reykjavik, but the most action packed. Liz, Leroy, and I wandered on over to the Kolaportio flea market by the Reykjavik harbor. It took us a while to figure out where it was, but once we found it, we had no clue how the stench of fish had missed us. Half of the market was your typical flea market fare, except with loads more sweaters and knitwear, and the other half was fish. The mixture of old stuff and fish smell was truly unique. 

Finally having our fill of olfactory stimulation, we headed over to the Reykjavik Art Museum, which was modeled slightly like a prison. Our helicopter lift off time rapidly approaching, we quickly grabbed a hot dog at the famous Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. I've always thought of hot dogs as an American thing, but let me tell you, the Icelandic could give us a run for our money. Bill Clinton even went there once!


Finally, the moment we'd been waiting for: the helicopter ride! Leroy was kind enough to freak me out before the trip by talking about how planes are safer because when their engine cuts out, they can glide, but helicopters just drop. Luckily, our trip had no such bad luck. It was so cool to see the city from above, and we went into the mountains, momentarily touching down on a volcano, and then landed by some hot springs high up in the mountains. 





I obviously had to make a snow angel.


The last thing I had to do in Reykjavik was to try and find the northern lights one last time. This second trip was only mildly more successful. We did see some very, very faint shimmerings for a few seconds, but the best part of the night was looking up at the amazingly clear stars that seems to completely envelop us. 


All in all, Iceland was a very unique and surprisingly beautiful place that I'm so glad I had the opportunity to visit!