I may just have uncovered my newest favouritest port, and that is Reykjavik. From the moment we stepped off the ship into the visitor’s centre at the wharf, I knew I was going to fall in love with this place. Just reading the clever legends on the souvenir T-shirts demonstrated that this country possesses a great sense of humour.
We were met by local friends – a university lecturer with a strong interest in my own research area, cruise tourism, and her husband. Our first stop put Reykjavik in focus as a city which has played a bigger role in world events than you might at first remember – a relatively unremarkable white house near the water. And indeed, Höfdi is where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 to discuss Glasnost. A quick stop at the city’s soaring cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja, which dominates Reykjavik’s skyline was next, a building which took 40 years to build.
But it was Harpa which I really wanted to see, and which took my breath away. Controversial and expensive, imposing and welcoming, complex and simple. Our friends were not originally in favour in the construction of the new, world class, award-winning concert hall – how could Reykjavik afford it in the midst of the economic crisis? Would it destroy the waterfront? Quite the opposite: it has become a much-loved building already in its new existence, and has been an important part of the gentrification of the city’s harbour.
It is the design of this building which is so exciting – in addition to its ability to attract internationally known performers to its 1,000 seat concert hall and other rooms. Two joined different sized, asymmetric cubes, whose facade is an intriguing web of hollow, glass tetrahedons, none of which is the same size as the other, and which display a slightly irregular and slightly disconcerting honeycomb effect. The ‘cells’ were manufactured in China and shipped to Reykjavik, but unfortunately, some were not manufactured to specification and had to be returned to be re-made. Inside, the glass ‘wall’ of the facade gies the already soaring proportions of the building an airiness that I reckon can only be described by the music played within these fascinating walls. Climbing up the cathedral-proportioned atrium is a long stairway, with terrace like steps, and sitting alcoves at intervals along the steps. Look up to the ceiling and there is an Escher-like pattern of reflective cubes staring back at you. I took perhaps my best photograph ever – of those cubes, but I am going to be very, very mean and not include it here – not yet, anyway. Throughout the building are restaurants, cafes and shops. Harpa is more than a concert hall and conference centre. It is a remarkable hub in this remarkable city.
I was reluctant to leave, but of course there was more to see in this fascinating city. Much more. We had a good walk along the waterfront with its explosion of restaurants, whale watching tour operators, bike and segway tour operators, ships and shipyards, yachts, Iceland’s only train (or more accurately, what’s left of it) and visitors and Icelanders enjoying a very warm summer afternoon.
Parts of the watefront reminded me of the New Jersey seashore with its lobster shacks, including the famous Seabaron restaurant which would not be out of place back in NJ.
For us, our choices included fish and chips, and so we did and happy we were. Somehow, two cruising New Zealanders just fancy some plain, good, fish and chips from time to time and we were not disappointed – not to mention the wonderful conversation with our friends, learning more about Iceland, Reykjavik and the Icelandic cruise tourism industry. Of course, the conversation turned to Iceland’s economic crisis. Prices have doubled, confidence in the government has tanked. Will Iceland recover? Our host hesitantly thinks that it will, reporting that there is a sentiment of being on the cusp of a new boom, but no one is quite sure where that boom will come from. Tourism is a front-runner, but no one is sure where the investment will come from. After lunch, we walked into the Icelandair Hotel, a boutique style hotel with a sense of humour (the gym aptly named The Boiler Room and on full display in the lobby with its glass walls); a hotel constructed of 6 or 8 adjoining town houses and therefore preserving that block of Reykjavik’s city centre.
But the really fun attraction was yet to come, and that is Reykjavik’s Flea Market. I walked in, and I thought I was in the Sample Road Flea Market in Pompano Beach, just off I-95 in South Florida – the only big difference is the much smaller size. Stall holders selling all sorts of stuff from clothing to sovenis to jewellery – to just about everything. Tucked away in one part of the Flea Market is the Fish Market where we had an opportunity to taste dried fish and local seaweed. Also on display was a wide range of Asian foods – all fun to see.
More of a wander through one of the shopping streets and the Library, Reykjavik’s famous hotdog stand (dating from 1937) which has fed more than one famous politician, and ending up in one of Reykjavik’s pub and restaurant-lined squares, with its gardens in the middle, and Parliament Building on one side. We sat outside, sipping our Viking beers, enjoying the friendship, the sun and the people-watching.
Time to say a very sad farewell, but I suspect not for long. My academic colleague and I will be in good touch about our common interests, while a return trip to Reykjavik next year might just happen. Reykjavik may be half-a-world away from New Zealand, but we aren’t really all that different, and our bonds are strong. Maybe that’s a product of living in two scenically magnificent countries – and also the countries with the northernmost capital in the world – Reykjavik, and the southernmost – Wellington, NZ.