Checking out Reykjavík, walking where my characters walk

 

Reykjavík street with Mount Esja in the background. Photo by Michael Ridpath, author of the Magnus series of crime novels.
I checked out Reykjavík. I was looking for places people might live, places people might meet, and the odd place someone might get stabbed or shot. It’s a bit morbid, but it’s my job. 

I was to revisit all the spots I saw on this first trip many times over the following ten years. In May 2008, the global financial crash was just beginning its downward lurch. It was to hit Iceland particularly hard over the following twelve months.

Parliament Square

I started where Ingólfur Arnarson started, in Austurvöllur Square, which is a couple of hundred yards south of the bay and in the middle of what is now known as ‘Downtown’. 

Austurvöllur is a bit of a mouthful, so let’s call it the Parliament Square, since Parliament is on one side. If you think Reykjavík is small for a capital city now, this is where you realize how seriously small it used to be a hundred years ago. 

The square is a patch of green with a statue of a politician in the middle, some scrappy grass and daffodils and a few benches. The parliament building itself looks like the town hall of a small Yorkshire town, complete with blackened stone. And, of course, a hundred years ago Reykjavík was the same size as a small Yorkshire town.

The square has seen some action. A year after I visited for the first time it was the site of the ‘pots-and-pans’ revolution, when five per cent of the country’s population would crowd into the square and bang crockery to demand change. It worked: the government toppled and fell.
Parliament with Cathedral behind

On the side of the square is the Hótel Borg, which was for a long time Reykjavík’s only posh hotel. It was built by a famous Icelandic strongman in the 1930s — when they say that I assume they mean he financed it, but maybe he used his own hands. It’s grand in an understated art deco way, and a perfect place for my wealthy Tolkien-besotted American character to stay while he is visiting Reykjavík. 

On a third side of the square is the Café Paris, which is a place to see Iceland’s great and good, and an excellent place for lunch and a coffee. Politicians are frequent patrons, although, given the scandal I mentioned in a previous post, you may want to avoid listening in too closely to their conversations.

The Tjörnin

Just to the south of the parliament square is the Tjörnin, a large pond about a kilometre in length, access to which presumably attracted Ingólfur to this spot. (By the way, although I call it “the Tjörnin”, I really shouldn’t, since the “-in” at the end of “Tjörnin” already means “the”, so I am calling it “the the Tjörn”. It’s just one of those little things I like to do to annoy Icelanders). 

This is not a man-made municipal water feature, but an important natural international transport hub. There is Keflavík International Airport, there is the City Airport in the middle of Reykjavík, and then there is the Tjörnin. It is the westernmost body of freshwater in Iceland, and hence a popular stopping-off point for birds on their migration. Swans, geese, ducks, terns, seagulls and a host of complicated species known only to twitchers paddle and fuss, refuelling for the next leg of their journey.

The modern Reykjavík town hall leans out over the lake. It’s worth a quick visit, especially on your return from a trip around the countryside, which you can trace on a massive model of a relief map of Iceland inside.

To the north-west of the parliament square is the Old Harbour, which used to be the only harbour until they built a new one for freight further east, but is still used by fishing boats. Reykjavík is still a serious fishing port and there is always a lot going on.

The Harbour and the Hot Dog

Tucked away near the water, in a patch of land which has been under intermittent construction for the last ten years, is Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a red hot-dog stand with a picture of Bill Clinton stuffing his face outside it. It is just a hot-dog stand in a car park, but there is usually a queue, and although I think it’s a bit overblown to claim that the hot dogs are the best per-capita hot dogs in the world, they do taste good. One way or another, whenever I go to Iceland I seem to stop there. For the truly authentic Reykjavík experience it should be drizzling lightly.

The stand had a narrow escape recently. A nearby crane fell, just missed the stand, but destroyed a bench nearby a few seconds after two girls had just finished their hot dogs and left it.

Harpa

As I walked along the edge of the bay eastwards, I passed a massive construction site. This was a planned concert hall, which cost a huge amount of money and was nearly cancelled during the financial crisis, but fortunately wasn’t. 

It’s now finished, it’s called Harpa, and it’s beautiful. It’s like a large cubic jewel, gleaming and glimmering in greens, yellows, blues and purples. The façade was designed by the Icelandic artist Ólafur Eliasson, and is made out of glass bricks that reflect and refract sunlight so that the interior is always changing during the day, and at night is stunningly illuminated. Go inside and gawp.


Harpa

Faxaflói Bay

The bay itself is known as Faxaflói and faces north. To the north-east loom the flanks of Esja. Far to the north, and I mean a hundred kilometres away, is Snaefellsnes, a peninsula that juts out to the west of Iceland. At the very end of this stands the volcano Snaefellsjökull, a perfect cone topped with an ice-cream glacier. On a clear day, you can see it from Reykjavík, hovering above the water in the distance.

Along the edge of the bay stand a row of tall apartment blocks. In 2008 they were only half-built, and construction stopped for a few years during the crash. The area is known as the ‘Shadow District’, and I decided it was an ideal place for a yuppy banker in my second novel to live. And there were some deserted narrow streets running between the buildings which would be great places for him to be attacked. Very useful.

Police Headquarters

The police station is close to the bay, and in fact, there is a good view from Magnus’s desk over to Snaefellsnes. The National Police Commissioner’s office is right on the bay too. But the area around the police station, known as Hlemmur, was a bit scruffy: bus station, tattoo parlours, dodgy shops, needles in back alleys.

During the crash, there were squats around here, and if you were to meet a strung-out junky in central Reykjavík, it would probably be around Hlemmur. It would be inaccurate to suggest it feels unsafe; all city centres have their scruffier parts, and this is, or was, Reykjavík’s.

Reykjavík Police Headquarters

Höfdi House

Walking further east along the bay, I came to the Höfdi House. This is a white mansion standing in its own lawn by the side of the water. Icelanders don’t really do mansions, even rich people’s houses are small by international mansion standards, as indeed is the Höfdi House. 

It was the smartest house in town in the first half of the century, and was nabbed by the British government for their consulate. The house had a ghost, named Sóley, who drove the British out and they sold the place in 1952. 

Thirty years later it became the site of the famous disarmament talks between Reagan and Gorbachev. Apparently, the Russian delegates enjoyed watching Tom and Jerry cartoons in the basement: Russians didn’t get Tom and Jerry in Moscow in those days. It is now owned by the city, and is used for official functions.

Seemed to me a good spot for my characters to choose to meet.

Borgartún

Further on to the east, I came to Iceland’s equivalent of Wall Street, Borgartún. This is a straight road running parallel to the bay, lined with modern office buildings of glass and red and black stone a few stories high. Vanity Fair describes the style as ‘Asshole Capitalist’, but I think that’s a little harsh. Every capital city needs somewhere to put its banks, and with its views of Mount Esja and Faxaflói Bay and its manageably sized buildings, I suspect this would be a pretty good place to work. And for Magnus to meet a hotshot lawyer.

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