Iceland’s Cool Capital

Reykjavik isn’t just all about geysers, springs, rumbling volcanoes, lava flow and elfin-faced Bjork. The nation’s capital is an ice-cool travel destination if you’re looking for the quirky and off-beat.

There’s something otherworldly about Reykjavik – the world’s most Northerly capital – and Iceland generally. Its shifting light patterns will confuse your body clock especially over a short stay. In December, two hours of daylight are all that separates the city from 24-hour darkness, while during the peak holiday season – June through August – daylight is constant.

Aside from its physical quirks, Reykjavik has something of a split personality. A trawl through the city centre will reveal plenty of major European brand names, yet wander slightly off the beaten track and traditionalism kicks in, evidenced by time warp architecture, a native language that remains faithful to the Viking and the otherworldly aura of a city that’s deliciously oddball and at times jaw-droppingly expensive (Knightsbridge meets Fifth Avenue).

At the weekend, the city – framed by the majestic Mt. Esja and the blue waters of Faxafloi Bay – transforms itself into 48-hour party central. You can’t leave town without doing the ‘runtur’ – the legendary Friday and Saturday night pub crawl. Icelanders traditionally sink a few drinks at home before heading out around 11pm. Between 3 and 4am is generally when the locals call it quits and mosey off to their homes or friends’ homes to party further. All this unfolds peacefully. Culturally, Icelanders may have over-developed party genes, but rarely does that topple over into anything other than good-natured drunkenness. Clichéd as it may seem, even car doors are left unlocked in a city that trusts its people not to take liberties.

Even Iceland’s Parliament the Althing – one of the oldest in the world and located in central Reykjavik – remains oblivious to concepts of security and terrorist deterrents. Anyone is free to pop in and listen to debates at their own convenience.

Iceland itself lies on a very thin part of the Earth’s crust. The new island of Surtsey was born as recently as 23 years ago. Visitors can see and touch living proof of the ongoing volcanic activity when they visit the Geysers – some 50km outside Reykjavik. It’s plain weird but captivating at the same time as you watch natural hot springs bubbling up from the interior of the Earth. Imagine standing on the snow with ice-capped mountains in the background and looking down into the crystal clear water knowing that what lies beneath it is at boiling temperature!

Every few minutes the silence is broken by the sound of one of the Geysers going off, throwing jets of boiling water and steam high into the air. The Strokkur (Butter Cask) is known to spit a 20m fountain into the air every five minutes. Be careful!

The same maxim could apply to food. Reykjavik offers braver souls a bewildering menu that will sit uneasily with the more conservative. Puffin is a local delicacy served with milk. Burned sheep head – where the sheep’s wool is removed by blow torch, halved, boiled in water and served with potatoes – is another. These are more extreme examples and ‘normal’ fare – especially based on fish – is readily available.

There are experiences on offer in Reykjavik which are literally priceless and for an off-the-wall vacation that offers a cocktail of spirituality (the scenery), spirits (the bars) and sheer wow factor, Iceland’s capital is as cool as they come.

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