(Dedicated with love to Elle)
It started with a delicious breakfast Dunville’s whiskey in Belfast International Airport and the pair of us laughing like a pair of children.
I’d told a friend I was off to Iceland and my phone pinged with the response: “Aurora?”.
My reply: “Couldn’t afford to take a lap-dancer, so Elle is here instead”.
And so it continued on the easyJet flight: Elle threatened to ask the pilot to do an about-turn after seeing puffin mentioned in the in-flight magazine as an Icelandic attraction for diners as opposed to twitchers.
Impatient to arrive, a decision was made at that to spend our four days in Rehyjavik without the benefit of anything as sensible as a guide book, map, tour, hire car or anything remotely approaching a plan. We aren’t shoppers or fans of tourist pubs either so we couldn’t wait to see what else Iceland’s capital had to offer.
And it responded with plenty: from a random, remote birthday party with locals to a very long cold, heavily-layered walk to try to catch the Northern Lights.
We touched down and promised our 4am-awoken selves the 10am lunch our stomachs believed they were owed.
– Supplies: Well, we did think about picking up food for our main street apartment but we we couldn’t wait to see the city. We did have a bottle of excellent Northern Irish Ruby Blue vodka from the airport though.
– First impressions: Rehyjavik has the look of a fashionable, urbane city but in the morning has a strange feel due to the streets being fairly dark, the open shops keeping their lights turned low indoors. We later found that the heating inside shops is usually turned to an Equatorial setting.
– Apartment not hotel: Being January, it wasn’t expensive and meant we had our own kitchen to take a break from eating cheap stodge or very expensive non-stodge for four days. Watch out, though, as ‘kitchen’ might not include an oven. Oh, and McDonald’s left Iceland (apparently during the recession) and haven’t been back.
– Old records and vintage clothes: A bit of wandering around the city brought us to Lucky Records, a superb and huge record shop, near the centre. There are any number of vintage clothes shops too.
– Stocking-up at last: A trip to a Polish supermarket and a main street grocer meant we found out the unusual licensing laws in Iceland mean only ‘light’ beer is available from a grocery shop. The reminder comes from officially-sanctioned off-sales which seem to close at 6pm.
– No oasis for gamblers: Iceland has no casinos or bookmakers. The closest things are slot machine shops similar to the UK ‘Oasis’ arcades.
– Birthday with a difference: We met with a local I already know who kindly talked us into taking a seat in a 4×4 packed with his friends to make our way, charging over piles of show, to a party in ‘an apartment’ outside town. The apartment turned out to be a very large rental venue with a high-end band (including the birthday boy). They even played Van Morrison for us, or so we liked to think.
It was the first chance to answer the question: what do Icelanders in the capital wear at night? The guys were dressed like Conor McGregor and the girls like they have stepped out of modelling for a knitwear catalogue. Us? Shirt and jeans. my shirt even had a pocket, practically formal wear by Belfast standards.
– Barry Bru!: A corner shop off the main street sells the biggest collection of fizzy drinks from around the world you’ll ever see and will arrange a quick and cheap burger and chips. We spotted Irn Bru, always a welcome taste of home. Apparently the shop does a roaring trade selling can after can to hungover UK visitors.
– Flea-market: Could be a Marmite place, especially if the plentiful posh shopping is more your thing. But we chatted to sellers of old books who were passionate about their stock and about local history, even picking up a stunning 1930s postcard which was written by a traveller to his young son at home in the North of Scotland. Vinyl is plentiful too.
– ‘Liquor store’: These are the government-approved places but watch out as they seem to close at 6pm. Again, the beer you buy in corner shops etc is light beer at around 2% alcohol. Best to stock up at the airport in any case.
– A shopping speciality: The rows of upmarket bags and boots and jackets didn’t hold our attention but the choice of local silversmith shops did. These workshop outlets have a range of unusual and beautifully-crafted items which are often made on the premises. An exception worth seeing even for non-shoppers. Our favourites were ‘Gudbrandur Josef Jezorski’ and ‘Orr’ on the main street, both had beautiful stock and were extremely friendly.
– Street art: It is stunning and it is everywhere. We saw some incredible works of art wherever we went.
– Lights the thran way: We decided to walk, layered up and faces near-covered (if we ever go for a career-change to become burglars we’ll be well-equipped) for an hour out of the street lights to try to catch the Northern Lights. After a few wrong turns around a very dark harbour – the western obsession with health and safety doesn’t seen to have reached this, a country where more than a little determined drinking can be seen being done – we found the right path and eventually the shadow of a lighthouse far from the city along the shore.
And the lights? They began just as we sat down with a hip-flask, snapped us from our enthralled viewing by fading away and then starting again with green streaks across the sky just as we stood up to leave. It was even an emotional experience to share such a remarkable phenomenon together.
Afterwards, thrilled and giggling (“I could see some red in the lights too”, “yeah Elle, but you’re a bit peshed”), it was a joy to see the city’s streets late at night.
– The bells!!: Sunday morning bells in Rehykavik seem to go on for the entire, well, Sunday morning. It seems a cruel punishment for a city famous for all-night partying by the younger locals but it doesn’t seem to deter anyone.
– Breaking the rules: Well, we would have if we’d have set any rules to our ‘plan not to plan break’. So we jumped on a tour bus to feed our new-found Northern Lights addiction, this time going further from the city lights and armed with a iPhone app to capture the moment. Amused on the way by a local host (try it in a local accent…”I will tell you stories about Iceland but the truth often sounds very close to it being that I am telling lies to you”) we heard tales like the development of an app local people – many being related – can use if they meet a potential mate in a pub to check that the family lines don’t cut too close.
The guide, just outside the city, was launching into his schtick about the uncertainty of the adventure and the night of lights-hunting ahead being full of the joy of the chase when a passenger pointed and said “emm…aren’t those the lights?”. And so, the bus was hurriedly stopped to watch a remarkable display its shimmering and flicking green streaks. Simply breath-taking.
– Force-feeding: Our local friend refused allow us to leave Iceland without trying the national dish of the crunchy, rich hot dog. The weather deteriorating fast, we were even driven to the harbour to the best spot for hot dogs to ‘ohh’ and ‘ahhh’ in delight at their moreish taste.
– Ski hats and topcoats: Back in the (extremely) warm Keflavik airport we loved seeing the huddle of Belfast folk still hugging giant coats and ski-hatted heads making our corner of departures look like a Where’s Wally convention. We spotted a Linfield FC scarf and enjoyed reminding each other that the Icelandic for ‘yes’ sounds a lot like the Northern Ireland-owned official national shout of ‘yyyeeeoww’.
Off, then, for a look in duty free (great for local drinks and Scotch, not so much for Irish whiskey) and a flight home apparently full of Belfast travellers but few – if any – people from Iceland making the trip to Northern Ireland.
Overall, a stunning, fascinating place and not just for the headline activities of shopping, guided tours and tourist bar-crawling.
Ignoring occasionally frosty customer service, we were met with a generally friendly welcome as we took in the remarkable city of Rehykavik.
As an aside, a local friend told us few Icelandic people take advantage of the cheap Belfast flight to explore our city and we hope some day this will change: with cheaper alcohol, clubs with fewer family ties among the clientele, beautiful old pubs and relatively lax gambling laws we have much to offer.
Finally, the two big questions everyone seems to ask: how expensive was it and what to wear.
Cost: Long story short, if you rent an apartment (try to get one with an actual oven), try not to eat out, settle for junk food when possible, drink during the (long) happy hours and leave the shopping bug at home the cost won’t be much different from a trip to London.
What to wear: An easy one…a thermal layer if you are going on a tour or walking lots on a cold day, normal clothes on top and a good big coat with a hat and gloves as needed. It felt just as cold in Belfast when we arrived home as it had done for much of the time we spent wandering the city streets.
Oh, and if you want to start conversation, ask a local how Iceland discovered North America.
Thank you again, Elle, for your part in a perfect trip and random adventure.
To readers from Iceland: we’d all love to be able to show off Belfast to more Icelandic visitors, especially since a direct flight now exists.
You may well find that Belfast has much more to offer in 2016 than you think.