18 October, 2010


"The best of small-town Norway with the best of small-town Nova Scotia, all together on the surface of the moon." That's how my friend Richard describes Iceland. Speaking solely on first impressions, i'd add that it has a distinct "outback" flavor to it - which is to say, the ethos of a place whose identity turns on remoteness and a rugged, iconic landscape. Rugged dirty-blond denizens tend to add to that impression. 

Island, as locals spell it, has a reputation for being expensive. What that means, in practical terms, is that the killer french toast i got at Prikið cost, with kaffi, 1100 krona (about US $11). Later in the day, when i'd grown hungry walking around the city and found myself on the corner of Burgerjoint street, a burger, fries and small soda - free refills - at Búllan ran 1390k (there are cheaper options elsewhere). At budget grocery chain Bónus (bright yellow sign with a pink pig), a box of Special K cost 698k, though domestic -say, cheese - prices were closer to what i'm used to.

That outback image, plastered everywhere thanks to Iceland's soft, photographic light, supports a burgeoning tourist industry - 13% of foreign currency earnings, second after fisheries with regard to international trade. This means information on shoestring travel is buried in a slowly-creeping glacier of tourism promotion and pricey inclusive bus excursions; as much as i'd like to check out Isafjórður or another place far afield, the brief domestic flights run around $200 round trip. The two fellows flipping burgers at Búllan gave me a couple pieces of information. Check out The Grapevine - the weekly local digest - and Bakkus has cheap beer until 11. 

One of the key differences between traveling in a place like Iceland with well-developed tourist sector and a place like Iraqi Kurdistan with none is the availability of cartographic information. In RVK, maps are everywhere. There are also thrift stores to be found among the expensive boutiques - i found the Salvation Army store on Gardastraeti - but even that proved pricier than home. Meanwhile, graffiti - like tourism promotion images - is everywhere, though it doesn't serve the marketing expression a sprawling photograph of fjords or dramatic geysir would. Abundant and (mostly) sanctioned murals convey in a different, perhaps more accurate way the cultural spirit of the place - one equal parts spirited and edgy.

As i savored the morning's french toast at Prikið, little did i know i the character-heavy eatery boasts being Iceland's oldest (it's on the sign out front). This town has its reputation for nightlife, and if the number of bars tucked among the boutiques and hotels didn't clue you in, the emptiness of its streets at 9 am on Monday might. For 2150kr, Prikið offers the "hangover killer": a Hangover sandwich, "Bruce Willis" shake with Jack Daniel's, and a painkiller tablet. (Here's the menu.)

I was more aware at Búllan, voted best burger in Reykjavik, where quirky music and film posters add to the place's eclectic decor, and a miniature disco ball spins overhead. I'd heard Reykjavik has a great music scene (alas, it was last week that 252 up-and-coming bands converged here for the Iceland Airwaves festival) but i wasn't prepared for how visible this music culture is. The eateries have serious speakers. As for how i stumble into these best-of places without a guidebook, good question. Like bargain wool sweaters at the Salvation Army, it's hit or miss. The latter was a definite miss. The Grapevine, though, turns out to be a useful resource - for example, this online review of the local gyms. The sort of information you're not necessarily going to get in a guidebook or from the tourist office. 

Harald, a German grad student i'd met online and spent the evening talking with, offered a trove of more such resources. For example, Samferda.net is a simple site for those seeking or offering long-distance rides - the hitchhiker's answer to couchsurfing. This is the way shoestring travel can take you far.