Iceland: Festival Time in Reykjavik

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Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland. Stuart Wickes, The Family Adventure Project Photos.
Gullfoss Waterfall in Iceland. Stuart Wickes, The Family Adventure Project Photos.

Iceland: Strange is The New Normal in Reykjavik

By Kirstie Pelling

Man walks his cat in a basket of balloons in Reykjavik and no one bats an eye.
Man walks his cat in a basket of balloons in Reykjavik and no one bats an eye.

It’s oh so quiet
It’s oh so still
You’re all alone
And so peaceful until….. (Björk)

For a far-flung place with a tiny number of residents, Iceland makes a make a very big noise. It has a vibrant nightlife, a colorful history and a culture as wild and untamed as its weather.

And it all starts with the family, as Kirstie Pelling found out when she took her three children to Reykjavik for the annual Children’s Cultural Festival.

Evening in Reykjavik

It’s early evening in Reykjavik and across the bay, the sun is setting on a glacier. Pulling coats around chilly bodies, locals are heading home from work while visitors duck into comfy bars for drinks.

No one bats an eye at restaurants offering tourist platters of whale steak and puffin tapas and no one pays much attention to the man in the suit with the balloons. A big bunch of balloons, perhaps hundreds of them strung together, with a basket at the bottom and a cat in the basket.

They just smile and continue on with their business. A man taking his cat for a walk may be an event elsewhere in the world, but here, it’s just part of city life.

A land where strange is normal…

Things that might seem odd elsewhere are normal here. Tectonic plates pull the country apart in a visible rift. Volcanos smolder and threaten to blow on a daily basis. Water is a shapeshifter; spouting from the earth in super-hot fountains, and freezing into white icing on the barren rock.

Elves form part of both folklore and road planning. Although paved roads hardly exist in the highlands, cars breed faster than humans. You can take lunch in the dark and party at 3 a.m. in broad daylight. After a week in Iceland’s capital city, I’m not surprised they produced the singer Björk.

Contemporary music making with members of Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra, Reykjavik Children's Festival.
Contemporary music-making with members of Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra, Reykjavik Children’s Festival.

The people seem to take creative energy from their landscape and translate it into something tangible. From the ’70s styled Volcano House Cafe where you can buy dust from troublesome volcanos along with your latte, to the elegant Laundromat Cafe where you can do your washing whilst relaxing with a book from the shelves, there are countless imaginative places to hang out.

Reykjavik is packed with weird and wonderful museums and galleries including the famous Phallological (animal penis) Museum . The glass paneled concert venue Harpa stands on the bay like a challenge to the Sydney Opera House, and despite an economic crash that still haunts them, locals are big on celebrating.

People spend their weekends doing the rúntur pub crawl that begins midnight Friday and stretches into the early hours. They have a vibrant music scene. And Icelanders love festivals.

A festival of happiness and creativity

The Reykjavik Children’s Cultural Festival is free to locals and tourists. It gives ordinary families the chance to visit big and small venues, get under the skin of Icelandic culture and learn how to ‘do’ creativity.

And you couldn’t pack more into a week in any European city. Over five days we transmitted pulses of happiness around a circle; walked into the pages of a giant library book and played board games en-masse. We made fairy trees, pink-faced rod puppets, and colored boxes to welcome Spring.

We practically lived in an ‘adventure palace’ that became the focal point for the city’s creative workshops. And almost everything we did has that Icelandic left field spin.

Puppets made at Reykjavik Children's Festival.
Puppets made at Reykjavik Children’s Festival.

Contemporary music for curious children

“I’ve had my lunch, I don’t really want a carrot, thank you,” says Hannah, my six-year-old. But the carrots aren’t for eating, they’re for playing. ‘Laur and Karaoke’ is less a concert and more a gate-crash through a school canteen.

Musicians gargle water in plastic cups strapped to their noses by elastic bands, scrape matchsticks along sandpaper and squash oranges into a pulp with their fingers, while the audience crunch carrots in time to a music score that looks like a computer game.

Yet still, it comes together as a surprisingly good and catchy piece of music. It should do; the musicians are the respected Reykjavik Chamber Orchestra!

Family Adventure Project at Gullfoss, Iceland.
Family Adventure Project at Gullfoss, Iceland.

Families throw themselves into it. But then Icelandic people really value family time. There is a culture of parents doing simple things with their kids here. They may have created the Blue Lagoon hot spa complex to keep the tourists happy, but the community is built at the affordable geothermal swimming pools in almost every village.

The biggest theme park of all

Dora Magnusdottir, Marketing Manager for Visit Reykjavik says although there may not be big theme parks in Iceland, world-class family attractions are everywhere, and many of them are free,“You have to embrace what you see. The core idea for family tourism is simplicity.”

At the Gulfoss Waterfall, there aren’t queues, fast food outlets or rollercoasters, but there is the rush of a double cascade and the thrill of the semi-permanent rainbow that curves over the rocks.

Which child wouldn’t want to clamber into a huge crack in the earth at Thingvellir National Park? Who wouldn’t be entranced by the humpback whales that frequent the bay? And as for the elves…

A roller coaster ride in creativity and nature

As a family, we do the simple stuff. Along with festival activities, we ride sturdy Icelandic horses , we walk around the rim of a crater, we visit Nautholsviik geothermal beach. And we have a roller coaster ride in creativity and nature.

About the only thing we haven’t fitted in is a Björk Biophilia workshop that combines these two themes. But while the musician may be the most famous Icelandic creative, a week at the Children’s Cultural Festival leaves me with the feeling there may soon be others snapping at her heels.

The Family Adventure Project is about families getting out, getting active, and having fun together. To date founders, Kirstie Pelling, Stuart Wickes and their three children (aged six, nine, and eleven) have cycled more than 12,000 miles, across more than 20 countries, but they are just as happy seeking out adventure in their own backyard. Their blog and website are filled with ideas and inspiration about nurturing an active, healthy family lifestyle. You can also follow them on Twitter @familyonabike and Facebook.