Reykjavik again: Love is almost enough

How could you not love this city? Reykjavik Cathedral, early morning. Not to be confused in any way with Hallgrimskirkja.

When you’re enamored with someone or something, love is never quite enough, is it? It takes so much more to make you truly compatible, let alone happy.

This is something I am ruminating upon now that I’ve left Reykjavik until I return in February. I love Reykjavik for so many reasons, but that doesn’t mean we’re compatible enough to carry on a long-term relationship, or live together; although never say never is my motto.

Here’s what I love about Reykjavik: First of all, it’s convenient. It’s more than half-way to Europe from Seattle, a mere 7 hour flight east over Canada and Greenland.

As such, it provides a gateway to European cities, and Iceland Air will accommodate you if you’re going on from Reykjavik (as 99% of all travellers must, because with a population of 319,000 people, proportionally few live in Iceland). Iceland Air will take you on to London, for example, practically for free, if you agree to a stopover.

The next thing I love about Reykjavik, aside from the variety of things to see and do in Iceland, is the city itself. Reykjavik’s points of interest are all remarkably walkable, with an eclectic main shopping street, Laugavegur. Off of this thoroughfare are numerous side-streets, and everywhere you look, there are charming and unique jewelry or Icelandic wool stores.

Laugavegur’s main shopping district is notably eccentric, odd and colorful, in interesting ways, from artistic graffiti covering otherwise drab cement apartment buildings, to unpretentious, hole-in-the-wall exteriors of stores or restaurants you’d never know were there if you didn’t read a review ahead of time (which is what I had to do to locate the best breakfast in town one morning).

Prikid-exterior
I don’t think it’s insulting to Prikid to describe its exterior as hole-in-the-wallish. I have walked past this place many times, not even knowing it served breakfast, let alone how good the breakfast is.

The hole-in-the-wall that stands out on this trip is Prikid, which is at the Bankastraeti end of what turns into Laugavegur, one of those confusing shifts in perspective you understand only when you’re walking a town.

Prikid has received well-earned praise for its all-day breakfast, such as the innovative “Breakfast of Champions”, which comes with toast, scrambled eggs, and bacon, as anyone from the States would expect, and slices of Camembert perched on top of slices of oranges, as you’d expect only in Reykjavik.

Then, as though that weren’t enough, a glass of skyr (Icelandic yogurt), God’s perfect food (few calories, no carbohydrates, and a taste that puts off normal mortals, but extremely high in protein) sits on the side, with more maple syrup or whatever sweet thing they’ve got to drizzle over it today. Skyr is my real reason for coming to Reykjavik; that and the views of the volcanic lava mountains covered in snow. It’s got a gorgeous skyline, does little Reykjavik, half-old town fishing village, half-cutting edge postmodernism.

But back to the food, since this is the other reason I love Reykjavik: the variety and quality of restaurants, seemingly open all hours, since the city is dominated by the young, and they stay up all night.

Prikid, also a DJ bar open till all hours, was started by Icelandic natives who lived in New York for many years. Upon returning to their native country, they decided what Reykjavik needed was a restaurant that served authentic American food, and by god, they have done it.

Nowhere else in Europe can you get authentic American-style pancakes, I’ll bet, but you can at Prikid, and they’re drowning in authentic American maple syrup. You also get to hear American music on the speakers, in an otherwise seedy hole-in-the-wall atmosphere I’ve only seen in old down-on-their-luck cafés in small towns in the States. If it weren’t Reykjavik, it wouldn’t be charming, but the atmosphere in Prikid is like the best of Reykjavik: odd, eccentric, and just right, mostly since it’s all so unpretentious and tongue-in-cheek-clever.

Restaurant choices up and down Laugavegur proliferate. You can’t walk very far without finding something to eat, although I’d say you’re more likely to encounter local Icelandic cuisine (mostly fish, but oh-so-fresh, and creatively prepared, usually). Nonetheless, you can find Nepalese food at one end of Laugavegur, to Italian at the other end (romantic Caruso’s), with pizza, kebab, and hamburger joints in between.

This time, I stayed down the hill from Laugavegur, in Old Town, where my clean-as-a-neat-pin hotel, Reykjavik Centrum, on Adalstraeti, the oldest street in Reykjavik, has been reclaimed from antiquated buildings originally brought over from Norway, according to one of my tour guides. On the same block is the oldest house still standing in Reykjavik, which now contains shops, selling Icelandic designs on one side and chocolates on the other.

There are plaques up on all these older buildings downtown, telling you their history, but most of them are written in Icelandic. I don’t know why, since you’d think most of the people reading the plaques are going to be foreigners. Icelandic people already know this stuff, surely?

Inside the Settlement exhibit, looking at a pile of old rocks that are actually the remains of the earliest known settlement in Reykjavik.
Inside the Settlement exhibit, looking at a pile of old rocks that are actually what remains of the earliest known settlement in Reykjavik.

Then, the hotel itself literally sits on top of an excavated 9th century longhouse from the Viking period, which has been turned into the Settlement  museum/exhibition. There’s a reduced rate to the exhibition if you’re a hotel guest, by the way. Since my primary reason for choosing this hotel was to have easy access to this museum, I was gratified to save 20% off the ticket price.

I enjoyed the exhibit, which gives you a comprehensive history of why Reykjavik was chosen by the original settlers from Norway (one of the most important reasons has to do with its natural harbour, always a draw for fishermen of any era). You walk through this underground site, circling around the excavation itself, reading about the history of the area, listening to animal sounds emanating from overhead speakers (such as sounds of the Great Auk, which was, sadly, hunted to extinction right here in Iceland).

The excavation site is lit by spotlights which pop up when you interactively press their buttons, to show you approximately where the hall would have stood, and parts of it, such as an anteroom, or the animals’ pens, which were adjacent to the longhouse itself. The hall would have been built sometime around 871 A.D. (plus or minus 2 years, hence the name of the exhibit itself). The exhibit takes about an hour or so to walk through, while you listen to and read the various sources of historical information about the earliest settlers in Reykjavik.

Right next door to my hotel was the Asian-Fusion, upscale, chic but not too-chic Fish Market restaurant. The Fish Market is usually highly-rated by travellers, for good reason, I thought. The night I ate there, their lobster bisque began in a pitcher as a light, spicy-smoky cream base, and was then poured over a variety of shellfish (a bit of an unnecessary flourish, I thought, but artful). I also had the duck salad, which is smoked and shredded, its meat mingling with mandarin oranges and assorted greenery. I just wish the chairs had been more comfortable and less Eurochic-black and hard as washboards.

Close by is Café Paris (Austurstraeti 14), open from 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., where I had a perfectly acceptable, but not extraordinary, lamb dish. Notable were the proportions; there was far more food served on the plate than I could possibly eat. The atmosphere is bistro and casual, relatively inexpensive, with wood tables and hard chairs, which Reykjavik has too many of, if you ask me; or booths, if you’re lucky; and practical, bright lighting.  When you’re staying down at this end of town, Austurstraeti is also good to know as a street where ATMs and banks are plentiful, which comes in handy when you forget to get cash at the airport.

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