Reykjavík — At One With Nature

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The road to the Snaefellsnes peninsula just outside of Reykjavík.

Amid lava fields and the endless twilight of an Icelandic summer, the sheer wildness of the landscape, the quirkiness of the people and the bohemian city, Reykjavík is a unique destination.

The sky above Reykjavík is rose-gold, with the evening sun gleaming off the Harpa concert hall’s glass honeycomb façade, lighting the old harbour and snowy mountains beyond. Walking along the waterfront, I watch the sailboats and seals bobbing in the inky-blue North Atlantic, the exotic seabirds overhead. The beauty of Reykjavík, which means smoky bay, is its access to nature.

What’s equally amazing is the amount of culture crammed in this compact, colourful capital. At its heart, downtown Reykjavík’s main drag Laugavegur is a hive of bohemian glamour, blazing with Pop Art murals, hip boutiques, vegan cafes, vinyl record shops and late-night bookstores along its cobbled streets. The city is easy to explore in a couple of days while squeezing in an excursion or two. The futuristic hilltop church Hallgrímskirkja, soaring above the skyline, serves as a useful compass. This iconic landmark, inspired by Iceland’s volcanic lava flows, is an architectural wonder that took four decades to build.

In the summer, when there’s almost constant daylight, the streets fizz with the energy of a carnival: the parks and picturesque Austurvöllur square outside parliament heaves with people and concerts, and bistros and bars hum late into the night. While it might be the latest international party hub and hotbed of creativity, Reykjavík has a small-town sleepiness and feels authentic: brightly painted metal and timber houses with cats in every window; stoops with gnomes and geraniums; and intriguing courtyards with people chatting over coffee and cards.

Part of the lure of this tiny, largely uninhabitable, island lies in its otherworldliness and the unexpected. Icelanders are known for their quirks — they have offbeat national events such the International Silly Walks Day in homage to the famous Monty Python sketch and many believe in fairies and elves, otherwise known as hidden people, with supernatural powers that are used to explain many of the country’s otherworldly formations.

Considering it’s proximity to the Arctic Circle, Reykjavík’s climate is quite mellow but unpredictable. As the searing sunshine turns to savage winds in a flash, I duck into a kitschy café and chat to the owner Einar, a sprightly middle-aged man, who, like many residents, is disenchanted with the carving up of the city, where half the nation lives. “It’s the Wild West.

Everything’s up for grabs,” he says, gesturing outside at the jumble of construction sites for new hotels to cater to the skyrocketing numbers of visitors. Tourism now eclipses fishing as the country’s biggest industry.

“To understand the people and the culture, you have to see the land,” says Einar, and then, along with my espresso, offers a snapshot of Icelandic history: enduring centuries of feudal wars; Norwegian and Danish rule; natural disasters; famine and, later, British and US occupation. I learned, among other things, about the end-of-summer puffin rescues of locals collecting lost chicks to take them out to sea and centuries-old horse round-ups when farmers gather their untamed herds from the mountains and home to the stables for the brutal winters.

Soon after leaving the city, I am plunged into the wilderness. The coastal road that circles the entire country in 830 miles of surreal scenery shifts from black cliffs and silvery sea to volcanic desert and velvety-green moors. Passing through the town of Selfoss, I stop to pat the sweet Icelandic horses, with furry little foals at their side. With their sweeping manes waving in the breeze, these wild-looking but gentle beauties are descendants of the herds the Vikings brought from northern Europe over 900 years ago.

It’s still light at 9pm when I reach Thingvellir National Park, where the first existing parliament assembled in 930AD, down twisty mountain roads past alpine lakes and valleys and geothermal plants. Wandering through this moonscape of mossy lava fields, smoking geysers and hissing mud pits, where nothing grows and everything feels alive, has a whiff of danger, like stepping across a sleeping giant. One of the fascinating things about Iceland is the freedom and lack of rules — all its natural wonders are free and wide open to everyone.

Walking back to my hotel amid lava fields, at that endless twilight of an Icelandic summer, I’m struck by the sheer wildness, the quirkiness of the people and animals of this extraordinary place, already dreaming of returning.

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