Today was Christmas present day 🙂 After skyr and hot dog sausages for breakfast (served separately), we bought a kit kat at the hot dog kiosk down the road to get some change for the 11.58am bus into town.
Our first port of call was the Tourist Information Centre – our Reykjavik street map was by now looking a bit bedraggled. After a brief stroll around streets we’ve come to know quite well over the years, we prepared ourselves for part one of my Christmas present from the ever thoughtful Rich – lunch at Þrir Frakkar, my favourite restaurant in the whole wide world!
Þrir Frakkar means ‘three overcoats’, and we’d first discovered this small but perfectly formed restaurant in the summer of 2010. It looks like a ‘normal’ house from the outside, and in fact even inside you feel as if you’re sitting in their living room, but it’s chock-a-block full of character, and the food is divine. The head chef is well known within Iceland, and has even written a book about Icelandic home cooking. Which I keep forgetting to buy. As it’s not on the main shopping streets you do have to go out of your way to find the restaurant, but plenty do as it’s always full in the evenings, and yet still close to Hallgrímskirkja church. That magnificent building on top of the hill.
The restaurant was quiet but this meant that we could choose a table in a little alcove right next to the window. The waiting staff as always were lovely and friendly without being in-yer-face. Whilst the dinner menu can be a tad expensive, the lunchtime menu is considerably less so even though the portion sizes are as generous, and the food as delicious. Soup is included as part of the meal and today’s offering was a very refreshing vegetable broth. I followed with pan fried halibut, langoustines and a langoustine sauce, new potatoes and salad; whilst Rich had cod in a sweet and sour sauce served with rice and vegetables. The fish portions are undoubtedly larger than those you’d be served in a UK restaurant, and so you certainly don’t go hungry. Especially when there’s skyr brulee on the pudding menu.
We left just after 2pm and walked, literally on thin ice, round the corner to the Einar Jonsson sculpture garden, where Rich almost came a cropper and slid head first into the hedge. When someone tells you that all of the streets in Reykjavik are geothermally heated and so don’t get icy in Winter, don’t believe them. Yes the main ones are kept ice free, but the side streets aren’t, and the area around Hallgrímskirkja can be lethal without spikes.
We then walked down to Volcano House, close to the harbour. Watching the two volcano films wasn’t cheap at £11 each, but it’s certainly cheaper than a lot of tourist attractions and trips in and around Reykjavik, and we weren’t sure that we’d get access to the films otherwise. This mattered to us, as recovering geologists. The first film was about the 1973 eruption on Heimaey in the Westman Islands, which we’d been lucky enough to visit on our last summer trip. It was fascination to learn all about the rescue and salvage operation. Icelanders certainly haven’t had it easy, but they just get on with doing what they need to do.
The second film was about the infamous Eyjafjallajökull eruption, which bought flights in and around Europe to a standstill in 2010. I always remember thinking “I wish we were there now!” when everyone else was cursing the volcano, and we seriously considered trying to reach Iceland by ferry! Admittedly though, whilst it was a beautiful sight from a geological perspective, it caused havoc for local farmers and residents. Livestock was lost, and glacial floods destroyed roads. The volcano is quiet at the moment, but both Katla and Hekla are overdue an eruption. Having written a dissertation on how the 1159 BC eruption of Hekla affected Bronze Age populations in Scotland, if Hekla blows, we’ll know about it. Still, I’ve always said that I’d rather die in an eruption than any other way. That’s what reading books about volcano’s since you were a child does to you. Similarly with Rich. Whilst the films weren’t subtitled, as a former geochemist he was able to get the gist of what was being said, and really appreciate the stunning footage.
After a quick look and feel around the lava and tephra (volcanic ash) exhibition, we then headed over to the Harpa Concert Hall for Christmas present part two – a one hour concert of Icelandic folk and festive songs. We’d deliberately arrived early so that we could look around all five floors of the award winning building. I’m not often a fan of way out there architecture, but Harpa really is a magnificent building. It feels almost as if you’re inside a big crystal geode. With the light reflecting on each window pane and stairway, in Rich’s words it “feels like you’re in a David Bowie music video”. It complements the harbour landscape perfectly.
As the concert was subtitled in English, Rich could appreciate it more than we’d thought he would. It was held in the smallest chamber hall – Kaldalón, and whilst it wasn’t full there were an equal number of locals and tourists. Throughout the performance they explained what each song meant, who composed and translated it, and so we felt as if we were learning something a little unusual about Icelandic culture. All of the artists were talented, but I found the bass – Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, and pianist – Matthildur Anna Gisladottir, especially so. When the soprano – Lilja Guðmundsdóttir, sang Ave Maria at the end, and was joined by all the other artists, it bought tears to my eyes.
After all that excitement, we made our way through the biting wind back to the bus stop and headed for what some tourists call ‘the big pool’ – Laugardalslaug. By 7pm we were immersed in the 38 degrees C hot pot. Rich braved 42 degrees but it makes me feel as if I’m being boiled alive. Eventually we ended up in what we’ve affectionately come to think of as the ‘fat baby pool’. In the shallow water you often get chubby babbies using your legs to heave themselves up and out of the water, and every now and again you have to scoop one up if they’ve accidentally submerged themselves.
By 8.30pm we were yak trakking our way up the hill, heading home for a supper of leftovers, and the pickled herrings from Isafjordur. Anticipating a quiet evening to plan our last two nights, we were surprised when the landline rang and an anxious sounding Kiwi asked why I wasn’t at the flat to meet him. Eventually we established that he’d rented another apartment that was owned by the same person, but as she had also gone on holiday he didn’t know who to contact and had had to ask a passing stranger to make the telephone call. I was able to get a message to the owner’s daughter and the poor guy eventually got let in from the cold. I know how he must have felt as there’s always a slightly anxious moment that your airbnb booking might fall through at the last minute, but touch wood, we’ve been extremely lucky so far. Unfortunately the apartment we stayed in during this trip no longer seems to be available to rent, but there are plenty more offerings, and it’s always good to explore other areas.