Reykjavik, the capital of cool
My girlfriend and I are in Iceland for a bit of quiet away from the urban crush of London. We’ve been told that this is one of the cleanest and greenest destinations worldwide. I wonder if we’ll see a clean-living elf recycling his rubbish by the side of the road.
I chuckle at the guide and turn to look out of the window at the bright northern sun rising over this scruffy lunar landscape just outside Reykjavik – it’s the very first glimpse of Iceland visitors get as their plane lands at Keflavik International Airport. We’re crossing the volcanic black Reykjanesskagi Peninsula at the south-western tip of Iceland to immerse ourselves in the country’s most famous tourist attraction.
The fact that a country’s most famous tourist attraction is a bubbling cauldron of geothermal energy says a lot about modern Iceland. This is a place where, the occasional aluminium smelter notwithstanding, the environment really matters. The natural world is literally the heart and soul of the island. The Icelanders realised long before green issues became fashionable in the 1990s that it was essential to protect their land to ensure their very survival. Now they use it in their tourism marketing too.
We screech into the empty car park of this volcanic Disneyland – the Blue Lagoon. It’s early and we’re the first tour bus in town. Lately, Iceland’s tourism has been promoting this isolated country at the very tip of Europe as a green utopia. They’ve whipped up sleek TV adverts showing hot Scandinavian couples paddling in bubbling geothermal pools; all of it backed by a stirring soundtrack of Sigur Rós – but more on the island’s music scene later.
Kitted out with trunks and towel, I strip off and wash myself down – getting into a pool in Iceland while dirty is like farting at the dinner table. You’ll be castigated for it. Cleaned up, I brave the icy wind blowing across the alfresco complex and make a dash for the hot spa pool. I wade in and feel the warm water cover me like a blanket.
The Blue Lagoon is not like anywhere I’ve been before. You won’t forget the blue-tinted, mineral-rich water heated to 40ºC by the earth’s magma, the steam clouds rising from the pools, the chilly breeze and the modern wooden pavilion where tourists buy souvenirs, eat lunch and get changed. My girlfriend rubs the famous silica mud onto my face and I wonder how many visits it will take to transform me into a more handsome human specimen, like the macho inhabitants
of the island, who all seem descended from muscular Vikings.
The Blue Lagoon, though thrilling, is in some ways a ruse – the water is essentially the excess outfall from the Svartsengi Power Station next door. But that’s Iceland for you; they make the best of what they’ve got. In much the same way that they ferment dead shark and then sell it to tourists as a delicacy called hakari – despite US superchef Anthony Bourdain saying it was the worst thing he’d ever tasted.
Geothermal power, though, is a green Icelandic trump card. The power station, which slips from view as we head back towards the centre of Reykjavik, is one of five that power a quarter of the kettles in the entire country and provide almost all the house heating, plus hot water from the tap. Most of the rest of the island’s power comes from hydro and wind. Eventually the government wants the nation to be 100 per cent free of fossil fuel power. No other country in our lifetime will ever come close to that.
But no other country is like Iceland. As we shoot through the low-rise suburbs of the capital city, it looks a bit like Oslo or Copenhagen. But fiercely proud Iceland still ploughs its own furrow. Its greatest shame is whaling, totally at odds with the environmental image it wants to portray, and tourism authorities would love to make the fishing lobby pack up and go home. You can take a boat trip out to the bay to watch majestic minke playing and wonder why the country still hunts them. Perhaps it’s partly because Icelanders are so independent.
Before the banking crisis in 2008, Iceland was at full steam ahead in its own weird economic miracle. It was famed for its rich citizens and high prices. Prices have dropped somewhat, but when I hand over a fistful of krónur for a beer, it still sends my pulse racing. “How much?” I mumble in my head. But the same go-it-alone mindset, which caused Iceland to inflate a reckless economic bubble, also allowed it to install kilometres of cycle lanes in the city, promote recycling and resist industrial development to give it some of the cleanest air and safest streets you’ll find. They did things their way, for better or worse. The singer Björk started a fund to help support green industry in the country and the city’s new tourist motto is ‘pure energy’.
Back in the city, we take a stroll round central Reykjavik to explore more. Seagulls flutter all around in the sky above. The streets are so clean you could eat your dinner off them. This small capital of low-rise, slat-panelled buildings painted in primary colours, as if by up-beat school kids, is easy to negotiate. It’s really just a big village. We pass multicoloured recycling boxes everywhere, and clean parks. We swing by the Thermal Beach – open May to August every year at the end of the domestic airport’s little runway, where hot springs heat the sea water and sand is imported from North Africa. There are hundreds of pools and ‘hot pots’ – hot tubs – scattered around this spa-mad city. We skirt the serene Tjörnin, a lake in the city’s centre surrounded by lush green grass. Cyclists and joggers are burning the calories off, a Scandinavian phlegmatic look painted on their faces. Renting a bike is easy and the city produces cycle path maps to get you from A to B. We agree to hire a bike next time we’re in town, but this time take the next best alternative: walking the wide pavements.
Trundling along the city’s main street, Laugavegur, my girlfriend’s eye is taken by a different type of recycling. The many vintage stores on the street compete with up-market boutiques for the city’s fashion-conscious girls. I look up and down the street at the handsome men and beautiful women joking around and speaking in such a deliciously tongue-tangling way to one another.
In view of the monumental concrete church tower of the Hallgrímskirkja, we stop in for a drink at Kaffibarinn – a top little bar that Blur’s Damon Albarn apparently loved so much he bought a share in it. An Anglophile sort of place, its sign looks like a London Underground roundel, but there’s plenty of Icelandic spirit inside. We sample shots of Brennivín (aka Black Death), a fiery, potatoey, vodka substitute that puts hairs on your chest. As the afternoon ticks on, the booze begins to kick in, and a group of local men burst into an impromptu rendition of a traditional sea shanty – a gruff baritone lament for the high seas. It sends tingles up my spine.
Music runs through the veins of Icelanders. It’s a national obsession that culminates each October with the Iceland Airwaves festival. Last year saw the new breed of Icelandic bands such as Amiina playing alongside US, European and Scandinavian talent. For a country of barely more than 300,000 people, Iceland boasts an impressive collection of modern bands like For a Minor Reflection, and the wonderful party-starting pop act FM Belfast, whose songs seem to be on in every shop and bar we visit over our weekend.
There’s an even more famous star in town this weekend though. Yoko Ono fell for the island because of its commitment to green energy and because it doesn’t have an army. On the anniversary of what would have been John Lennon’s 60th birthday, we watch Ono perform a concert with her and John’s son, Sean Lennon, at a concert hall. Ono tells of how much she loves Iceland, and the crowd whoop and cheer “I love you!” at her. The atmosphere crackles. In many ways the concert is as much a tribute to the free-spirited, eco-conscious islanders as it is to Lennon’s memory.
Ono’s other tribute to John and to Reykjavik is a boat-ride away, and it’s our final date with this loveable, liveable city. We take an eight-minute boat ride across the harbour to the tiny island of Videy.
The day is fading fast and the Atlantic wind whips across my face. I look down at the clear harbour water, my eyes straining to see fish or whales, but I’m beaten by the lack of light. Still, out here on the gently rolling waves, the air is as fresh and pure as any I’ve ever breathed. They should bottle it.
After a 15-minute walk over low green hillocks of Videy, and past a charming old priory, we are faced with a pillar of light shooting up into the night sky as far as the eye can see. The Imagine Peace Tower is, aptly, powered by geothermal energy and has become a new icon of green Reykjavik – a constant reminder of peace and love. With the words ‘imagine peace’ inscribed into its stone base in many languages, its light is visible all over the city. And that beam of light stands for peace, for ecology, for friendship and for fun – all the characteristics that Reykjavik has in spades.