Less than a week before Christmas, we set off to see the best mid-winter Reykjavik had to offer. We had under 24 hours in Iceland’s capital yet it proved to be more than enough to leave us longing for a return visit.
Iceland Air was a fun airline to fly with. On each of the seats was an Icelandic word translated to English whilst every one of their planes is names after an Icelandic volcano. Ours was Eldborg, meaning The Fire Castle. Our flight was delayed by a few hours (which I settled for given the history of UK flight chaos at christmas and disruption from an Icelandic volcano in 2010!) but chances are it would have been dark whenever we had arrived. Iceland sees a total of 3.5 hours daylight per 24 hours, making for an eerie welcome of gloomy snowscapes and dark, wild tundra.
The efficient bus service was waiting for us when we exited Keflavik airport and took us the 60-or-so minute journey into Reykjavik, with a quick change at the bus station onto a minibus for the final leg. Outside the window I peered upon a winter I had always dreamed of but never truly experienced, coming from southeast England, where it’s always mild and drizzly. The christmas lights lit up the windows wonderfully – it felt like a land where adventures and magic could happen.
Our friendly bus driver – complete with red cheeks, ginger Viking beard and fluffy hat with flappy ears – dropped us around the corner from our hostel so we had to find the way uphill on ice ourselves. The bitter wind whipped my face and took my breath away faster than I could say ‘anywhere round here do mulled wine mate?’
Turning the corner I stumbled upon our dwelling for the night, Loft Hostel, a typically friendly YHA with a nice communal eating area. It was located on a street that reminded me of the winter party town of Queenstown, New Zealand. Locals hollered and sang merrily, the bars in between the trendy winter clothes shops were already full, and further flappy ear hatted Vikings were singing familiar Christmas carols in a very unfamiliar Icelandic tongue. It was charming and the revellers’ cheer was infectious – despite the chill in the air I found myself smiling as I approached a bar and ordered coffees. Not one, not two, but three baristas checked that I had indeed ordered two regular coffees without alcohol in them. The manager himself told me I had ‘shocked them’ with this seemingly unprecedented request. It was after all a Friday night, when the city likes to let its hair down, to say the least.
Cars with chained tyres slid wildly down the icy street as we watched our breath vaporise and waited for our bus pickup to take us to the harbour. The driver, who looked even more like a Viking than anyone else I had met, arrived promptly in another minibus and en route we saw a fair bit of Reykjavik, a beautiful city which already had us planning a return trip in the spring. All the usual Christmas lights were on display, plus a few Icelandic twists including projections on walls of Santa looking down at the people on the street and nodding or shaking his head – a very twee and novel addition that added to the place’s unique festive charm.
The legend of the Icelandic Yule Lads is a brilliant piece of pagan culture that I highly recommend reading up on. Essentially it tells the tale of thirteen mischievous elves that come down from the mountain one by one each day leading up to Christmas Eve, leave gifts or play pranks, and then return one by one in the days after Christmas. They all have brilliant names like Pot Scraper, Bowl Licker, Window Peeper and Door Sniffer! Amazingly, more than half the population believe in elves. What a place!