art, travel

Good beer, exposure, and a spa

mural near the waterfront

Pileup: a mural discovered while walking around town on day

Following our return from Iceland, it took well over a week for me to sleep until the alarm clock goes off, on weekday mornings.

It’s winter, here.

So, about our trip to Iceland, just a few weeks ago this year:

This was my second trip to Reykjavik and to the Airwaves music festival; my first, also for both, was in the fall of 2001. What I remember:

  1. The city (the parts we saw) was relatively clean and remarkably designed. Things like curbs in parking lots and street signs were not all uniform but they were attractive and their design was consistent with that of the proprietorship they belonged/were nearest to.
  2. Locals had great style.
  3. The beer sucked.
  4. There was way more live music happening than I could possibly even hope to listen to.
  5. Blue Lagoon was awesome.

Great music & hot soaks

Numbers 2,4 and 5 are still true. And while there was even more live music going on this year, the festival had a wonderful iPhone app that made planning our days easier. What was amazing was that it also allowed us to sample – via YouTube our SoundCloud links – the bands a little, before (or instead of, in the case of simultaneous excellent gigs) going. And most of the features worked even without a wifi connection!

Greta Svabo Bech

Getting our Faroes on with Greta Svabo Bech at the Nordic House

Most memorable, of the music? That’s tough. My judgment may be impaired by proximity: the last gig we attended was a midday show by BYRTA, a pop electronica band from the Faroe Islands, in a pop-up venue run by Nordic Playlist Radio. It’s the only show we got to on the last day of the festival, but it was just so energetic, light, and yet rich. Or maybe we finally figured out a shorter walking route into town, and arrived with a little energy left to bop? At any rate, there were lots of grinning, bouncing-to-the-rhythm people there, including ourselves. Other great gigs included those by PHOX, Greta Svabo Bech, Moses Sumney, Una Stef, Himbrimi, Védís Hervör, and Rósa Guðrún Sveinsdóttir. All good stuff from the USA, the Faroe Islands and of course, Iceland.

We went to the Blue Lagoon, our second morning there. The lockers and cocktail payments still operate on a fancy high-tech bracelet system. I still love this place, with its milky, slippery water, black sand, mists that obscure the crowds, and crowds that are then somehow welcome compatriots in this restorative play date in water.

A day or two later, the music festival had several bands scheduled to play there, but we decided against it, perhaps as we wanted to keep plenty of distance between us and “Viking behavior,” which seemed very likely at a huge hot tub with booze. And yet…

Smooshed by Vikings

Airwaves wristband line

Compfier times in Harpa: in line to get our festival wristbands!

We went to about two dozen shows, including a few sequences of several very short (30 minute) gigs in tiny bars. Most memorable, though not so much for the music, was going to Swedish band The Knife’s “last” show. It’s been awhile since I attended a concert with such fanatical and happy-to-be-packed in like sardines crowd behavior. In fact, it bordered on dangerously full in that hall, but luckily – for the short time we stuck around – everyone was friendly and staying upright.

I like interesting cultural experiences, but The Knife’s music hasn’t resonated with me. Steve digs them. We endured (though couldn’t participate because it involved calisthenics that take up more room than a small mummy) the humorous crowd warmup by a Knife member, then hung around for … let’s just say you could count them on one hand … songs. Then we pushed our way out of the Harpa concert hall for some mental and physical relief. We’d had a long, rich day but the 40-minute walk back to the hotel was about all we had juice left for, by that hour. It didn’t help that a few people near us had lit up cigarettes. It’s been awhile, but I probably could have tolerated the smoke. I was afraid of getting burned, it was so crowded.

That’s about it for the Viking behavior, though the elements there were fairly brutish – in the 30s-40s (˚F) and quite windy on most days. This festival now happens later in the year than in 2001; I don’t know if this was colder than normal for November. We had packed enough clothes, though I wore more layers than expected, every day of the trip. We opted out of most motor transportation, in favor of walking, but in retrospect, it may have been more wise to take the city bus a few times. Our hotel was wonderful, but was about 40 minutes’ walking away from downtown. Still: you don’t go to Iceland in late fall without expectations of … ice. Or at least icy air. The chill wasn’t a big surprise, but we did put off the Icelandic pony ride until we return in summer months to tour more of the country see see more of the outstanding waterfalls. I look forward to riding a horse again – but not to getting hypothermia whilst atop one.

You call that a waterfall?


Gullfoss (Golden Falls)

One day we took the “Golden Circle” tour by coach to some of the nearby extraordinary natural features. Geysers? Check. A gigantic, roaring waterfall that makes Multnomah Falls look two dimensional? Check. A rare above-sea level crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which was also used for Iceland’s earliest parliament gatherings, whose name uses a cool character (Þ: the Þorn, pronouced “thorn”) not used in English? Check. Acres and acres of 10+-foot long indoor tomato vines (and a color spectrum that confounded my SLR camera’s white-balance setting)? Check. Lamb stew for lunch, shopping warm woolens for dessert? Yes, all of it.

Above is a Vine clip I took at Geysir.

What exactly is a spa?

snowy owls

Something to examine while waiting for an excursion bus. Better on the neck than my iPhone!

Steve’s hotel booking included the extra of access to the “hotel spa.” I had no idea what this meant, though I hoped it meant more than “access” to spend more money on something like a massage or pedicure. It only took me three days to investigate. What we’d normally consider to the be the hotel pool was a much more welcoming, soothing, meant-for-stressed-out-adults place than a standard American hotel pool. This was not visible from the lobby or parking lot, nor did it make most of the public area (or any area of the hotel) smell like chlorine. This did not have harsh fluorescent lighting. What it did have: lovely, soft towels. Warm, somewhat dim lighting and a tiny bit of daylight (this spa was just below ground level, with one window). Small pool, hot tub, sauna, steam room. Buoyant swim caps and leg floaties, with instructions for how to use them to enjoy a relaxing float in the pool. A fireplace, a pitcher of drinking water & snack menu, comfy seating. Mellow music. A friendly woman, greeting you as you enter.

Why is this type of arrangement so foreign? I am fortunate. I did pay for an extra pampering session- a lovely hourlong facial with a talented aesthetician names Dagny. Kudos to her and to Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura for a wonderful stay there.

Other nice touches, in this hotel: sculptures in the lobby that looked like people, two wonderful books of hand-drawn bird life and plant species of Iceland, and a well-designed dining space. The lighting and semi-spacial dividers made it welcoming for breakfast but also for cocktails or dining.

Memorable consumables

We enjoyed a few good meals on our 2001 visit, though the awfulness of the beer (whether it was the sulphurous local one or typical-default-for-Europe Heineken) and the uninspired basement hotel breakfasts back then cloud my memory. This time, however: thank heavens we were doing all that walking, because we ate well and plentifully. Hotel Natura’s breakfast spread was very good: an exceptional array of fish, breads, jams & jellies, biscuits, eggs (including soft-boiled) and cereals. As mentioned in my prior post, the coffee was phenomenal, but I also enjoyed the fruit cake, grainy fresh-baked breads and plenty of fresh fruit. Steve was in seventh heaven each morning, with skyr available with good muesli.

tasting menu at Dill

The menu at DIll

We managed to dine at several of the restaurants we’d read about, prior to the trip. My favorites were Dill, the “no name pizza shop”, and Aalto Bistro, though Grillmarkadurinn and Icelandic Fish & Chips were very good, too.

At Dill we chose the 5-plate tasting menu with wine (+ one “lambic” wine – an excellent bitter ale we’d discovered at the fish & chips place) pairings. We got treated to a “mistake” of a 6th plate. What a marvelous succession of great flavors, textures and thoughtful presentation. I don’t know if this qualifies as “molecular gastronomy,” but the unusual forms that mostly familiar ingredients took was beautiful and delicious. The beet dessert, for example. Beets for dessert! That was Steve’s favorite, though the earlier course of beef cheeks thrilled me more.

We found the no name pizza place while trying to find Dill, a few evenings earlier; they are right around the corner from each other. Stumped for where to grab an early dinner, a few days later, we found it again. It offered great, imaginative pizzas & other snacks, some delightful menu art, and a kind of steampunk/Victorian decor that I found very relaxing, maybe because it reminded me of various places in Tacoma and Seattle, where I grew up.

Aalto Bistro too had exceptional food, but it also had charming interior design, most of which appeared to be inspired by its namesake, FInn architect Alvar Allto, who had designed Nordic House, the larger building that housed this restaurant.

The only restaurant we visited that disappointed (on the food front) was Perlan, though its view of the city – Perlan is a revolving restaurant on a hill, with 360˚ windows – was remarkable. The wild game buffet dinner lived up to typical expectations for dinners served on a buffet: too much volume to allow for high quality or appropriate temperature, and too little information on each dish to allow you to make decisions that won’t make your plate overflow. Which resulted in simply too many flavors on the palate.

It was still very much worth the visit: the service was thoughtful, and we did get to try a few meats that we’d never had before: minke whale, cormorant, moose, and reindeer meatballs. The latter was by far the most interesting, as it was flavored with an interesting herb, perhaps angelica.

Jola Beer

Festive aluminum

In addition to the breathtaking view of all of Reykjavik at night, the experience entering was impressive. We walked there – braving treacherous and dark paths around the hill the restaurant sits atop – but upon arrival we realized, with a huge, almost Hollywood-gala lit front entryway. Getting there via car (fancy car, if possible) would have been far more fashionable! Was this place ever used in a Bond movie? Ah well – the food would have been more disappointing, if that had been the case. We were bundled up like winter campers, too. We’re not in Duluth any more, Toto.

I mentioned bad beer here, in 2001. Not so, this time, though of course we paid heartily for it. Available at all venues were some good winter or white ales, and often we’d find what we thought was best: the Borg brew Úlfur No. 3 IPA. I also really enjoyed the Einstök Ölgerð Icelandic White Ale. In all cases, the label design was delightful.

The urban plan

Oddly enough, the style and layout of Reykjavik, this time, didn’t stand out, though perhaps it’s because we were in a hotel on the other side (and kind of outside) of town. There did seem to be more biking and walking paths – and more people then I expected on bikes, in 30-45 degree weather – out where we were. The path into town that we walked each day was wide and quite protected from traffic, but it was still alongside major motorways, which I found a bit unpleasant, especially as the moving vehicles added to the wind chill factor. I did enjoy our daily walks past Tjörnin pond, on the edge of downtown where a nice variety of ducks, geese, swans and starlings gathered & poses for photos (bread).

I also enjoyed the volume of public art, be it in murals, sculpture gardens, or fascinating architecture. The Harpa concert hall has been added to the waterfront since 2001, and it’s really quite amazing, both inside and out. I loved this space! Both dark and light, strong and weightless, colorful and yet serious.

The locals were still very stylish; certainly more stylish than me. Once again, while my clothes kept me warm and relatively acceptible, I found it hard to pack for a trip that includes a wide array of activities: outdoors, fancy, casual, nearly naked, dressed for Siberia. Maybe I just need to shop for more luggage.

What a trip! If you’d like to see more of my photos from the trip, visit this Smugmug page. Enjoy!

whooper swan

Whooper Swan


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