Thursday 13 October 2011

Reykjavík: little big city

It could so easily have been an Icelandic anticlimax. After a voyage around the glacier-topped volcano of Snæfellsjökull, one of the most impact-ful things I've ever done, and a glimpse into the interior, at least as far as the Hraunfossar waterfalls, might not the capital - previously only driven around in a nightmarish hire-car starter experience - be a bit of a disappointment?

That it turned out anything but was partly due to insights into musical life and people gleaned from the doyenne of the new Harpa Concert Hall, Steinunn Birna Ragnarsdóttir (that's to say, simply 'Steinunn' to all), and partly because our big full day there saw half the extra-Reykjavik population of Iceland - not large, about 300,000 - flood into the city for the annual giant open house, which included the official inauguration of Harpa (the reason I was invited in the first place). Plus the fact that this really does feel like a friendly small town with domestic architecture to reflect that, but also offering food and museums of world-class city standard.

Why now, by the way? Because a colleague has been writing up Harpa's Björk extravaganza, running at the moment (wouldn't have minded seeing that); and because I hadn't intended to let the Iceland experience - the biggest impression of the year - slip without amplifying what I've already written about the musicfest on The Arts Desk.

I reckon that even if you only had the conventional package weekend, you'd get a sense of this extraordinary country. The very fact that the journey from Keflavik airport lands you straight in one of the various lavafields is a good start. And even the Blue Lagoon, our only obligatory experience of mass tourism on the way back and a monstrously overpriced if well maintained set-up, is still quite something if you haven't experienced better. Though the current Mayor of Reykjavik, comedian Jón Gnarr, promised - and took pleasure in breaking that promise, I heard him laconically say on the World Service - to make all hired towels at thermal baths free of charge, which would save you over £10 for a start (no doubt this wouldn't have applied to tourist traps anyway).

The location itself in 'smoky bay' - like all place names in Iceland, the city's means something - would also give a flitting visitor intimations of what's beyond. We even saw our beloved Snæfellsjökull glowing in the sunset from the swish Harpa restaurant on the first night.

The big day began with the 29th annual Reykjavik marathon, caught as we strolled towards Harpa for a morning meeting with Olafur Eliasson and the acousticians.

All the work-y stuff I'll leave you to read about on The Arts Desk, but we ought to see a few more shots of this incredible building with its basalt-imitating 3D glass front and sweeping staircases

with the windows offsetting a couple of new premieres open to all in the foyer, featuring Iceland's flotilla of harps

a couple of carefully-placed trombonists

and, outside, the campest Chinese acrobats I'm ever likely to see.

The whole arts-centre experience is on the kind of scale any city would be proud of (and indeed a group of Manhattan architects were there to see if they could achieve a similar, viable riverside project). Yet Reykjavik's choicest central living-spaces are intimate indeed, rather like village London (but nowhere near as expensive, relatively speaking, or so I'm imagining). Take the street in which our splendid Hotel Holt was situated, Bergstaðastræti. It really merits a blog entry of its own, but since I can't say more about the little corrugated-iron, wooden and stone houses along it other than to draw your attention to Reykjavikaners' love of little things in the windows - Moomintrolls from Finland seem especially popular - there's nothing to do except to show and contrast.

On open day, the street was out in bring-and-buy sales. In some little pockets you'd find music thrown in too, though perhaps I should use inverted commas since the likes of the incredible amplified screaming and drumming which broke a quick afternoon rest wasn't exactly that. No matter; it was all offered up with love, and the likes of Pollianna ('Let me sing and I'm happy' it says on the front of her card) karaoki-ing 'I am what I am' while pancakes were served had undeniable charm.

Elsewhere games of giant and portable chess were rife

and don't ask me what these mummers intended.

There was, in short, too much to catch on festival day. Would have loved a hug from a policeman in the main drag and a dance to an accordion band, less sure about 'Surface Appearances' in which 'a well-dressed couple panhandles and collects bottles to recycle'. But I did think I ought to see at least one museum in 24 hours - a tour of medieval manuscripts in the Þjóðmenningarhusið had to bite the dust - and so I crossed the fields of cars and negotiated endless barriers to reach the Þjóðminjasafn Íslands - that's National Museum of Iceland to us - which in addition to medieval and Renaissance treasures was hosting an exhibition of carved drinking horns

and then past another residential district with odd taste in door plaques

to the compelling horrors of the Einar Jónsson Museum next to the big church on the hill.

What was going on in the mind of Iceland's best-known sculptor (1874-1954) I know not, and perhaps you don't need to grasp the meaning of his allegories; but 'Rest' this isn't.

Jónsson designed the ugly but striking building to house his giants with Einar Erlendsson. It's a fine situation on the hilltop, with an intriguing, narrow spiral staircase the only link between the different levels, and the sculptures in the garden seem happiest; here a crowd of international students were busy pavement-chalking (again, oh, don't ask why). In the even more imposing white concrete Hallgrimskirkja, congregation and choir were well in to a six-hour marathon of psalms. I do like the building both without and within, which reminds me a bit of Guildford Cathedral, though less hospital-clinical.

The chaos of Icelandic organisation turned our evening somewhat pear-shaped, though we forged our own itinerary by making sure not to spend too long at the reception hosted by comedian-mayor Gnarr in the 1909 Höfði on the harbour, famous for the Reagan-Gorbachev summit of 1986.

Our little function was less ambitious, though there was a rather charming ceremony in which native American Indians from Seattle presented the mayor (pictured below) with something significant in wood.

Whereupon we swiftly retired to eat in Harpa, and watched the sun finally sink below the horizon at about 9.30pm.

Happy memories of a near-Utopian city, or so it seemed on a day everyone seemed to enjoy in late summer. I can't wait to go back and see the volcanoes of the south coast.


Will said...

I looked in awe and envy at the virtually cloudless skies of your Iceland visit-- several years ago when Fritz and I spent three days there in summer, there was constant, stinging rain, heavy leaden skies and some really nasty winds. Nevertheless, we did it all--the Museum, the blue lagoon, the geysers,the Icelandic horses, the lava fields and the waterfalls. Nevertheless, we had a very good time and had much fun with the Icelandic people.

David said...

Oh, bad luck. You might be amused by part of Mayor Jon Gnarr's facetious but funny 'Welcome to Reykjavik' address in the excellent Grapevine paper:

'Nowhere in the world has better summers than Iceland. It might snow in the month of June, however. This is called "a spring snowfall". July is the hottest month. When it comes around, you better have a t-shirt handy, because the temperature can reach up to 20° often states a temperature followed with a "feels like" temperature. When the heat in Reykjavik reaches 20°C, they will often say it "feels like" 15°C. This is probably due to something known as the "wind chill factor". No Icelander understands this. If we had this "feels like" feature in our weather reporting we would say that it "feels like" 40°C whenever the temperature reached 20°C, without exception. This demonstrates the importance of "mentality" and "attitude" '.

He also begs the tourist to spend lots of money and not to visit the Salvation Army or Red Cross shops...

Halldor said...

You do get all the best gigs, don't you? And you even got to meet Georg Bjarnfredarson! Green with envy; would love to stay at the Holt some time. On the other side of Tjornin is the Old Cemetery (as hymned by Halldor Laxness in "The Fish Can Sing"), and it's an extraordinarily atmospheric place to spend an hour wandering; almost an open-air museum of 19th and early 20th century Nordic memorial sculpture, huddled beneath bent, moss-covered trees. I think it'd appeal to you.

The lovely think about Reykjavik is that it's good at any time of year; there's something particularly special about the deep winter, with candles flickering in the windows of all those little tin houses. When we were last there in December, we made our statutory trip to the Blue Lagoon after nightfall, and it certainly feels rather more like you're getting your money's worth when you're the only couple in the pool and a blizzard is blowing in off Flaxafloi bay!

David said...

Sorry, Halldor, you'll have to explain 'Georg Bjarnfredarson', as I didn't knowingly meet a person of that name...

Can't recommend the Holt too strongly, and the funny thing is that the rates they were offering were less for a double room than the very basic B&B we stayed at in Stykkisholmur (where I suspect there was a near monopoly).

Looking forward hugely to returning - I have umpteen galleries, various recommended coffee bars and other curiosities to explore in Reykjavik alone. And by that time I'll have read 'The Fish Can Sing', though I apologise if my pile of Laxness is still sitting waiting while I take a few diversions.

Halldor said...

Sorry about the confusion - this may help clarify things!

I've heard that the Hotel Holt has a rather fine art collection; did you see much evidence of it? We've looked rather enviously across town at the glowing pink letters on the roof, hitherto, but will certainly give it a try next time, if it's as good value now as you say. And that's a charming neighbourhood, too - you've captured it so well!

David said...

Ah, I see - worth getting? I've only seen 101 Reykjavik and a few brooding films set on remote farms way back in the Tender is the North Festival. But I loved the Icelandic actors who performed so valiantly in English when they brought an amazing adaptation of Peer Gynt to the Barbican Pit (went twice).

As for the art, some fabulous natural scenes in the lobby looked enticing,but we really did rush in and out so quickly in that one action-packed day, which was chaotic as I've implied in true loosely-organised Icelandic style. My New Best Friend 'Hilla' Finch is going to take me in hand re Icelandic artists, as the ones I saw I wasn't impressed by except for the colourful collection in the Höfði.

ornleifs said...

Einar Jónsson the sculptor was very influenced by Theosophy so most of his works are about spirituality and the struggle of the soul incarnate.

David said...

Indeed, ornleifs, I gathered so. The sculpture is technically fine, certainly, whereas the paintings leave something to be desired in terms of spiritual representation...

Susan Scheid said...

Beautiful the way the Harpa hall echoes those gorgeous basalt formations you've shown earlier--and now on the Artsdesk. To think that, because of the economic downturn, it might not have been makes its opening all the more thrilling.

Unknown said...

I wish to use the picture of the windows of the red little house on Bergstaðastræti for an assignment for my folklore course at Háskóli Íslands. It might be posted on if you don´t mind.

The house is my grandmothers and I will be writing about my experiences of Reykjavik downtown concerning her house. I see from your blog that you´re into music, theaters and opera. my grandmother used to be in the choir of the national theatre of Iceland and has, as well as you, played a few operatic roles. This was long time ago but she was born in 1930. Funny coincindence that you actually have this in common.

Thank you,


David said...

Delighted to provide a meaningful link through a photo, Asthildur, though if you wouldn't mind providing the credit and link if at all possible, I'd be grateful. I think of Iceland a great deal and can't wait to return.

Unknown said...

Yes ofcouse I will. It is required that we cite any information we use at school.

I´m glad you liked Iceland, reminds me not to take it for granted though it´s cold.

Thank you so much, the photos you´ve taken are really good.