Heathrow – a vast, sprawling dystopia full of bizarre luxury excrescences designed to extract the most possible renminbi. Is expected to burst its banks and swallow Berkshire soon, adding Windsor Castle to the tourist funhouse.
Gatwick – Heathrow but smaller and slightly cleaner.
Luton– an indescribable hellhole, hands down the grimmest and most miserable London airport, a permanent building site infested with people whose job is to fine you £70 for not printing off a physical boarding pass. Doesn’t have a railhead and is not walking distance from one; instead a shuttle bus takes you to “Luton Airport Parkway”, which is itself one of the worst railway stations in Britain. The airblade antlers on the taps are pretty cool though.
Stansted – a perfectly adequate midsized airport which handles three times as many passengers as it was built for. Integrated railway station gives it the best ergonomics of a London airport.
City – only really big enough to fly Spitfires.
Southend – so old-fashioned it probably still flies Spitfires. Dismissed as “not really in London”, as if Stansted is any closer. Often eerily empty.
Biggin Hill – genuinely does still fly Spitfires. Our last, best hope should the mighty Luftwaffe return. Surprising fact: is actually still a functional aerodrome.
Croydon – no longer has a runway or flyable aircraft but is otherwise still the most enjoyable airport in London.
A picture-light road trip episode as we spent almost eight hours driving from Wroclaw to Zakopane. I have said from the beginning that this is a bloody stupid way to get around.
Onto the road south from Wroclaw, clogged as they all, always, seem to be. A lunchtime servo did a rather bony kielbasa with chips for 8zl. The land still flat, but gradually getting less monotonous. The roads are well-maintained; this is presumably funded by the regular tollbooths which make this an expensive as well as stupidly protracted way of getting around. A few hills, some mineheads and heavy industry around Katowice; more dilapidated and Iron Curtain-ish industrial buildings, like memories of Romania. Every so often I recognise the name of a battle or a massacre on a road sign.
On one side of the road, the first sign pointing to Auschwitz. On the other, the surreal sight of an American-themed leather clothing outlet with a fence made of motorbikes. Regular churchyards, with so many fresh flowers on the graves (and people laying more as we passed) the vast proliferation of flower shops suddenly makes sense. Crossed the Vistula again, much narrower than at Warsaw, between high levees. More Soviet spacey-looking architectural leftovers: a cantilevered bus station, a leisure centre with cool flying buttresses. Big empty factories, the vague shadows of potential mountains on the horizon.
Suddenly, a proliferation of theme parks: roller coasters and fibreglass dinosaurs everywhere. Mud-coloured hayricks, little old tractors, bored teens on their phones waiting for the bus. Here and there, among the gradually increasing hills, huge quarries and cement works. Here and there, clusters of pretty little buildings with brightly painted corrugated steel roofs. The huge marching concrete legs and piers of a new motorway, ready to render this slow, winding road and its surrounding villages to oxbow-lake irrelevance.
Untilled land, bus stops that looked like stave churches, huge adverts for plastic surgery, painted plaster saints under delicate wrought iron roofs. The Tatras began as wispy blue shapes, but by Nowy Targ they’re hard dark outlines, striated with snow. The houses have changed again, less generically Eastern and more distinctively Slavic, wooden houses with tall, steep roofs sporting downward eaves and extra folds in their shingles like complicated paper planes. We’ve been running alongside a single-track electric railway, a very Soviet piece of expenditure: who goes to the extra capital costs of an electric line for a tiny minor branch rather than running a diesel? A planned economy mass-stamping pylons and electric trains by the thousand, that’s who. At Poronin a train went by, a handsome old red piece with boxy pantographs that needs a lick of paint and probably has done since 1990.
Zakopane, our final destination, is a charmingly incoherent sprawl of ornate wooden lodges, wooden fences, wooden churches and woodsmoke. At the base of the high street, wooden stalls sell wooden charms. They also sell a kind of grilled sheep’s cheese thing with cranberry sauce, which is fantastic. We arrived at the Sanctuary Church as a service finished – the last strains of incense and organ music, and the last nicely dressed parishioners, came out as we went in. On the outside it’s a standard handsome stone Polish church, with the inevitable plaque from Jan Pawel II’s visit (is there a single church in Poland he didn’t hit up at some point?). But on the inside, it’s quite an unexpected treasure, with the usual beautiful but ludicrous Victorian painted murals of hardy mountain folk praying, a priest taking confession in a shedlike mobile booth, gilt flowers and mournful rainbow-winged angels on the arches. An ancient white-bearded man, bent over like a shortbow, knelt before the altar in a traditional Polish waistcoat embroidered with flowers.
The forecast said that Wednesday would be overcast and grey. It lied; the same baking sun beat down all morning. The crest of Wroclaw has a tiny miserable severed head in the middle of the shield (presumably John the Baptist?) which once you notice it is everywhere, and quite upsetting. I preferred the mermaid and the goats. The ornate curly stonework of the rathaus is absolutely full of nesting sparrows, feeding their cheeping babies.
One of the “Things to Do in Wroclaw” highlighted on Tripadvisor was the Racławice Panorama, a gigantic painting of Kosciuszko’s failed 1796 rebellion against the Russians. I’m embarrassed that I’ve still not seen one of these 19th century propaganda IMAX presentations, and this seemed a good opportunity to have a look at the 114-metre painting in its purpose-built rotunda. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the day:
“What? Why? Are you not open?”
“Will you open later?”
“Tomorrow no ticket.”
So I took off back down the riverbank, a wrecked Prussian bastion on one hand, a shiny new shopping centre on the other, and down to the waterfront, which felt like a fancy modern regeneration but somehow without the windswept wipe-clean quality these things have back home. I’m warming to Wroclaw: it feels like a Proper City, neither as twee as Poznan or as Stalinist as Warsaw, with nostalgic pre-war echoes. It has everything a Proper City should have: electric trams, riverboats puttering up and down, variety and grandeur in its big, handsome buildings but without one era dominating. In other words, a well preserved early 20th century German city… which it essentially is. I ducked into one huge redbrick railway-station-looking edifice to work out what it was and found an amazing covered produce-and-flower market. Rather than the interior ironwork I expected from the Victorian facade, it was supported by great spans of elliptical reinforced concrete arches, very modern-looking even now.
Market hall (exterior.)
Market hall (interior.)
Wroclaw is scrappier, too, than Poznan or the parts of Warsaw I saw: more graffiti, some of the riverside palaces derelict, some of the tram tracks filled in with tarmac. A Thirties hydro station had a stylised river god on its gate, summoning lightning with turbines. I found the arsenal, which is a military museum of the old style, basically just racks of weapons and meaningless to anyone not me. But I am me, and the collection was incredible: swords used at Leipzig, bent-barrel machine guns for fortress purposes, a cutaway of a DShK action, an anti-tank rifle claiming to be bound for Uruguay (an interwar ruse, Dan informs me), a mad helmet collection ranging from Portuguese WW1 lemon-squeezer helmets to NATO gas masks, with Viet Cong pith helmets in between.
The tower of the Garrison Church had a great many steps, and its interior too was concrete, a result of one of its many rebuildings (most of the church was covered in scaffolding.) Eighty metres above Wroclaw, I could see the chessboard red-and-green churches, the stripy chimneys of power plants, a splendid duck/salmon ladder by the hydro plant, multicoloured accommodation blocks on the edges of town, the huge cylindrical Wroclaw Sky Tower.
We came to the Ostrow Tumski (another one), the cathedral district, full of sparrows and fragrant flowers. A pretty iron bridge was creaking under the weight of those awful couple padlocks, an information board told us about conservation efforts in the Oder and the floodway system, including the incredible line “the river is primarily water”. The quiet cobbled streets of the church district had more of an Old Town feeling than the actual old town, full of signs with Polish words for “basilica” and “archdiocese”. The Catholic Church of the Holy Cross was noisy with boy scouts and spare of detail, a couple of glorious side altars standing out oddly among the redbrick and whitewash. The Archcathedral of St John the Baptist was cut from the same cloth, but darker, busier, more atmospheric, lined with shadowy little reliquary altars and stained glass in riots of glorious colour. Priests in smart black cassocks and violet stoles crossed the square in front of the huge German Empire seminary.
We rode a tram out to the huge park in the east of the city, finding late lunch at a pizza shack opposite the zoo, where disused tram lines trailed intriguingly into the woods. 24zl bought a pizza simply too big to eat: I didn’t need dinner, or much breakfast. The Centennial Hall nearby was a amazing building, a sort of modernist Albert Hall finished in 1913 to commemorate the centenary of the battle of Leipzig (this being Breslau in the German Empire, of course). We didn’t get inside, but interior photos showed the same vast concrete ribs as the market earlier, and it had the same sense as the seaplane hangars at Tallinn. I can imagine it being shockingly modernist in its time, but now it’s wonderfully of its era, with a grand pergola of concrete Doric columns supporting leafy arbours around a “multimedia fountain”.
North of that is a true oddity for Poland, a Japanese garden, also from German Empire times. The lake was a little scummy and the plants a little busy compared to the ones in actual Japan, but it was entirely serene and quite beautiful, and we spent a good while sitting and chilling. Dark clouds crowded in from the north, and a sudden wind set all the leaves shivering and clouded the air with blown dust. Little falling things pattered down all around as we ran the pergola back towards the tram stops, but not rain, seeds knocked by the wind. The Polish flag on the dome streamed out, fully extended. We made it under a bridge and grabbed a no.10 tram back to town as the rain, at last, streaked down.
In Poznan, they keep the front doors of museums closed, which is something that reduces Rog and I, as Englishmen, to paroxysms of polite self-doubt. Fortunately, Misha lacks our compunctions and goes straight in.
We found time to get pictures with the brass goats (which were warm and quite pleasant to sit on), before heading to the amazing ratusz (yes, Rathaus with a Polish accent), a 16th century Italian confection. The 7zl fee got us the expected (though still wonderful) guild artefacts – lovely painted targets from the shooting clubs, masterpiece silverwork, a heavy whip used for encouraging good manners in apprentice printers – but also a delightful look at Posen under Prussia, complete with a detailed map of the Citadel-as-was and a model of the grand synagogue built shortly before the Great War. Best of all was the original, somehow un-destroyed plaster ceiling with marvellous (which is not to say artistically very good, but marvellous) high reliefs of a tiny David smacking a huge Goliath, Hercules (unusually not in his usual club-waving, lion-pelt-wearing aspect smacking a hydra, but toddling off with pillars on his shoulders like a jobbing builder), mythical creatures such as the griffin, chimera and an imaginatively razor-backed “renocrvs”, and heraldry including a snake eating a baby which Rog recognised off the Alfa Romeo marque – sure enough, it was the Sforza crest.
Out in the square, in the blazing sun, clouds of schoolchildren and cynical-sounding American tourists were beginning to gather for the noon goats. But I had 30 minutes so ducked off to the Museum of the Wielkopolska Uprising, a fun-size collection of early nationalistic sentiment, replica uniforms and photographs of earnest young Poles crowding around machine guns as the idea of Poland frantically tried to assert itself as the state of Poland in the general turmoil of the late Great War. I still need to learn more about the Polish-Bolshevik War, but I’m getting there.
The crowd was now filling all the shady and comfortable parts of the square, and at the stroke of twelve the doors opened – unnecessarily slowly – and the metal goats, with a ponderous sense of absolute drama, creaked out (it must have taken almost a minute), assumed their positions (the suspense!) and clicked heads together a dozen times. Some people clapped. Some people videoed it. Some made sarcastic comments.
The Royal Castle is a 1249 tower with 2014 brickwork, wonderful but confusing. It’s free on Tuesdays, so we went up to the top and enjoyed views of the town – the true immensity of the Citadel district evident by tall buildings a very long way past it, a coal-fired power plant fuming smoke through its lollipop-stick chimney. We felt we didn’t have time for the Museum of Applied Art, or the National Museum (despite its excellent stonework and enticing “classical milfs teaching naked youths various arts and crafts” mosaic motif), so instead went to the cathedral where Polish Christianity and, possibly, the Polish state were born; a surprisingly austere, cold redbrick behemoth, with a splendidly shining golden room on the purported sacred spot.
Ostrow Tumski (old.)
Royal Castle (new.)
The two-lane road to Wroclaw is utterly inadequate for the volume of traffic even early afternoon on a weekday; it took an hour to get to the outskirts of Poznan. Then, open country, fields of green grass and yellow rape under a cloudless sky. Flocks of shiny new Japanese earth movers were cutting the yellow subsoil and stacking aggregate for the foundation of a new road. We moved onto a previous section of their work, a serious motorway, with railways and bicycle lanes – both in some use – running parallel under the frequent wide wildlife bridges. An enormous white stork flew overhead.
Wroclaw appeared eventually. It is much better known for most of history as Breslau, and while until the nationalist chaos and general slaughter of the 1920s-40s it had – in common with most towns between Moscow and Munich – a multiethnic population with a strong Polish contingent, it’s very obviously a German city.* We arrived into a dense tangle of rivers and industry, blue trams and massive redbrick edifices. It had a vibe of Berlin, or Manchester – cool and youthful but inhabiting the buildings of a previous, more confident age.
From our rented flat – sharing a mixed-use-ish office block with enterprises including two escape rooms – we went out for dinner and exploring. A bear with a big brass tongue stands in the shadow of the rathaus/ratuzs, a collection of bronze gnomes infest corners and have their own gift shop. We found a brewery-pub and had cherry beer under the stars (other patrons were being accosted by a man dressed as a swamp, who didn’t bother us) and watched as some hippie-looking street performers got out their xylophone, double-ended flaming torches, hula hoops with fiery bits and a device that can really only be called a pyrobrella, and managed to perform a bunch of tricks without serious injury. That earned them a few zlotys. * The (surviving) Germans were forcibly evicted en masse by the Russian occupiers as part of the wholesale move of Polish borders westward, and a new Polish population shipped in from the eastern Polish provinces they’d themselves been evicted from. One of the craziest things about the mass postwar gunpoint resettlement is that nobody these days seems to remember that it happened. But perhaps it’s for the best that modern Europe is content to break the cycle of recrimination, and focus on weakening divisions and borders rather than redrawing them.
We headed for the airport, not to fly but to pick up the hire car (I would have very much preferred to get a train or coach between cities, but I was outnumbered). Warsaw’s huge glossy glass buildings look surprisingly good with a bit of breathing space, rather than the awkward clusters in London. At rush hour, the trams queue up by their stations in big yellow chains. On the road to Chopin Airport, the splendid Aviator Monument stands on his plinth, his face set in brassy contempt for death and gravity.
Eventually, our car hire man arrived and drove us over to a dusty bit of waste ground full of sheds and cars (some burned out), where he offered us forms in a freshly painted office with two new Ikea desks; it had something of the seedy, improvised atmosphere of a low budget porno set. But the car (some sort of “crossover” thing which manages to be both grotesquely huge on the outside and quite uncomfortably cramped inside) was new and functional, and it whisked us away through the universal modern sub-suburbia, where the big box superstores stand, cultural and architectural vacuums sucking money from the town centres and into the dividends of venture capitalists.
We went onto a motorway, which, in common with all motorways in all countries, was boring, not helped by the largely flat and featureless Polish plain. Eventually, we arrived in Poznan, and found our “ApartHotel”, excellently furnished and very cheap in a lovely location on the edge of the old town. Highly aware that our museumable hours were cut down to about two, I grabbed a town map and directed everyone straight to the nearest attraction, the church of St Stanislaus.
St Stanislaus is pure, overwhelming Jesuit Baroque, vast columns of red and green marble capped with finials of white stucco and gold leaf, sacred hearts and winged baby heads everywhere. Outside, piano music came through the windows of the ballet school, and two brass goats – two goats being the symbol of Poznan – butted heads. The town square was exquisite, with a terrace of multicoloured houses below the town hall reminding me somewhat of Bristol. Buildings here are decorated with an interesting sort of inch-deep relief cut into their external stucco.
Up the hill, near the brand-new replica of a 13th century castle that now houses a Museum of Applied Art, we tried to find the next thing on my attractions map, a historical model of the town. We found the Franciscan church above it – one which went all the way over the line from “baroque splendour” to “completely tacky”, with iridescent metallic accents on the pulpit that recalled a bunch of Quality Street wrappers. Underneath the church, in a musty-smelling crypt, a stroppy woman totally failed to communicate that the Makieta show would only work in one language at a time (Misha heard her say “Russian”, launched into Russian, and met with total confusion.) So, we wandered off past a violinist in a tracksuit, a equestrian statue of an uhlan with a bolt-action carbine spearing a dragon, and dozens of brass plaques of noble Poznanites. After 45 minutes by an interesting novelty fountain, enjoying the sun and the general atmosphere of this summery, studenty city, we headed back to the Makieta, where the huge model of Poznan was accompanied by an Audio-Visual Experience, a loud, weird commentary that slewed breathlessly through centuries of being wrecked by Swedes and Prussians to strobing lightning-flashes and slightly plausible fire effects.
Largely out of curiosity, we went to a workman’s café, a “bar mleczny” (milk bar, originally). Interesting history behind these things, serving basically as work canteens for people who didn’t have canteens at their actual jobs. It was cheap, but also very, very bad, with a despairing Iron Curtain vibe to the venue, service and especially the food. My cutlet and chips were merely on the level of bad school dinners, but the spinach blinis Misha and Olga bought had a factory-stamped sense to the pancakes and a lake-bottom quality to their contents. I felt bad sneering, as cheap cafes doling out hearty food is something I am ideologically and practically in favour of. But… it was really pretty heinous. Olga cried a bit.
The Russians wanted a proper dinner, and Rog wanted a proper sit-down pint, so I took the opportunity to head north to the Park Cytadela, at Justyna’s recommendation. I tried to get one of the bike-sharing stations to work, which would have turned a long hike into a delightful wheeled bimble, but although I could get the app to sign in and recognise me, I couldn’t get it to take my money or speak to me in English.
The gigantic Prussian Fort Winiary, keystone of “Festung Posen”, was built big enough to drop the Old Town into three times: one of those genuinely insane 19th century citadels where unprecedently powerful states responded to unprecedently powerful artillery by building fortresses of almost inhuman scale. The fortress was violently and comprehensively reduced in 1945, and is now a hundred hectares of park. The parts that remain are too overgrown and too individually massive to make much collective sense of them, and it takes a good map to work out the original layout, but the artifice of the thing is inescapable: a stand of trees grows out of a half-buried set of massive brick arches, a natural-seeming gully is suddenly lined by a gunported brick wall ten metres high and a hundred long. There are birds everywhere, and it’s beautiful and quiet; fully enjoyed by young Poles with dogs, bikes, rollerblades and children, but much too big and open to feel at all busy. One of the surviving above-ground parts is a museum (closed when I arrived) with a standard set of Soviet killing machines sporting the red-white chequer of Definitely The Polish People’s Army, Not A Russian Catspaw.
On my wander back, hunting for a sculpture I never found, I ended up completely alone in the military cemetery on the southern glacis. It’s thoroughly overgrown, feeling as natural as the rest of the park, and the names are barely decipherable on the older stones; it’s come about organically, generation by generation, with rows of graves from different wars. Some are ornate, some plain and coffin-shaped, some cruciform with red and white ribbons; most name individuals, some bear the names of whole families of brothers, many are simply marked NN. The citadel itself was one of the last, and fiercest, battles in a theatre which mainly regarded the Polish as irritants and obstacles.
I found a bus, and went back to the Old Town as the sun set.
I had elected not to pay Ryanair an extra £5 for a window seat, so my first actual look at Poland was from the cramped middle-seat view about fifteen seconds before we landed: a wide, flat landscape of strip farms and large numbers of small, regularly spaced farmhouses, like an ultra-rarefied suburbia. Our Polish fellow travellers (who made up probably 90% of the flight) clapped upon the inept, bouncy landing. Modlin airport is a tiny little thing: our plane was the only one on the tarmac, outside a stainless steel single-span building like a glorified Anderson shelter. The border control was direly undermanned (just like back home!) and several Hilarious Misunderstandings ensued regarding transport, but after three hours and various motor vehicles, we made it to the flat the Russians had booked on the northern edge of Warsaw’s Old Town.
The Old Town mostly isn’t very old, because it – along with the rest of the city – was more or less completely erased in the Second World War, and although the reconstruction of 17th and 18th century buildings with 1950s materials and craftsmanship is faithful and appropriately decorative, it’s not quite convincing. But it’s clean and cheerful and full of life, with a Monastiraki-like vibe of happy people of all ages having fun into the night, and for dinner we found a restaurant doing astonishingly reasonable sausage and pierogi (although for some reason our waitress kept creasing up with laughter.) In the Old Town itself there was a monument to, of all people, Herbert Hoover, who I learned was a key part of the American relief effort to the fledgling Poland after the Great War and is regarded as something of a national saviour around here. We walked past the replica royal palace and a statue of King Sigismund III on a column, and back around the rebuilt red brick city walls. A statue of a child, perhaps ten or eleven, wearing a helmet with a red-and-white stripe and carrying a German submachine gun, was made all the more heartbreaking by knowing it wasn’t imagined.
Breakfast on the same Old Town drag as last night’s dinner – a “sausage breakfast plate” included many kinds of ham and cheese along with the sausage for really not very much money. Misha inexplicably stirred some butter into his latte and claimed it was called a “bulletproof coffee.” On Sunday, the churches are actually full in this very Catholic country; bumper stickers in the foyer of the church we passed declared that God hates abortions in English and Polish. The Old Town was filled with sparrows and tree fluff.
The Old Town museum, subtitled “The Things of Warsaw,” was in the process of being refurbished, but the 30% of it currently operating was still deeply impressive. In the cellars, modern infographics cheerfully doled out intriguing and hideous facts about Warsaw and quite how much it’s changed (and been knocked around) over the years; demographic charts with deep, deep cuts were accompanied by maps of modern Poland being overlapped by various sprawling forms of German and Russian empire, its modern boundaries bearing no relation to any of them.
The museum was one of those excellently constructed Museum of London style setups which provides the exact right balance of artefacts and information to make quite mundane facts interesting and relevant; the audioguide was superb. The buildings themselves – some of their fabric was original, and had survived 1944 – took centre stage at points. Highlights of the collection included some absolutely gorgeous silverware, some quite bad portraiture and dozens of different stylised portrayals of the Warsaw mermaid, which I didn’t know before today was the city’s emblem. When we emerged into the light, the barrel organ man with a real parrot had been replaced by a pair of puppeteers rather desperately jiggling their papier-mache Beatles to random rock music. Also in the Old Town are an externally gorgeous but internally austere (which is surely the wrong way round for Jesuits) Jesuit church, and the glorious raw gothic Bazylika Archikatedralna, a wonder of redbrick and whitewash, filled with memorials to WW2 squadrons and a big, furious wooden eagle freed from its chains. More anti-abortion propaganda filled the lobby.
Down by the river, Warsaw University Library was an utterly unexpected, utterly delightful creation and one of those rare modern buildings which is both aesthetically and functionally perfect – a huge complex of tarnished copper and pale green paint carefully constructed so the gardens of its grounds almost flow over it, with trellis and wire arches built to encourage greenery around the louvred AC vents and over the glazed domes. It doesn’t feel natural, not in the least, but like a very careful combination of nature and artifice bringing out the best in each other. The grounds were full of dust-bathing sparrows, glossy starlings and big grey crows, and through the peepholes and skylights we could see students at their desks.
We wandered down the bank of the Vistula, looking briefly at the Copernicus science museum – it looked fun, but it was at this point 5pm, and we have science back home, so we instead headed through the Old Town towards Saxon Park, apparently the oldest public urban park in Europe. The big open expanse of Saxon Square has housed various buildings from various oppressors: a magnate’s palace, a Prussian headquarters, a Russian cathedral (only completed in 1913, looted and burned during the war and pulled down five years later). Now there is, very pointedly, nothing, except a small bit of surviving colonnade, which houses Poland’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Two soldiers guard an Eternal Flame, and grey granite panels are lined with places and dates; most of the places within Polish territory, most of the wars either existential struggles, or fought by Poles for a Poland which didn’t then exist.
Not that Warsaw lacks occupation buildings. The Palace of Culture, a giant Stalinist skyscraper much like the Seven Sisters in Moscow (it’s as high as Moscow State University, although looks smaller) looms over a downtown area unmistakeably Soviet in its vast open spaces, grid pattern and monolithic, regularly spaced tower blocks. The building itself is, of course, gorgeous in the Stalinist style, its interiors filled with electric chandeliers, glaming brass fittings and off-white marble cladding. A lift whisked us up to the observation deck the on the thirtieth floor, where three facts became absolutely clear: this ancient city genuinely has no old buildings; Poland is very, very flat; and Warsaw is huge. The Old Town, which hitherto had been our entire point of reference, was a tiny cluster of red roofs lost in square white tower blocks, which themselves faded out into a wooded horizon.
A tram took us back to the Old Town, where we had various Polish meats at a restaurant with swinging seats, and a Russian family brought their own KFC next to us to round off the evening in surreal style.
Downtown Reykjavik isn’t exactly humming: a high street of hideously expensive hipster boutiques and tourist tat floggers, almost all in that earnest modern “artisan” style. Iceland is a curious example of how a country can have reasonable prosperity and opportunity for all without… actually producing anything. I mean, they have basically limitless free lava energy, but also they’re in the Arctic Circle and need it. But a side effect of this is that their currency is hilariously overvalued (and this from an Englishman). The first thing I saw in the window of an average-looking restaurant was bread, for £13; mains started at about £50.
We parked at Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s chief church, whose perforated spire looks somewhat like a decorated Christmas tree from a distance. The cathedral is a handsome, interesting piece of postwar architecture, with a bell-shaped dome at the southeast end of the nave, and buttresses that look like Giant’s Causeway basalt columns propping up its sides and sweeping down from the spire to give it a very distinctive silhouette. Amnesty International had some stalls in the courtyard and were projecting the names of donators onto the front of the church – it reminded me of nothing more than a video game livestream. THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT!
The most distinctive thing about Reykjavik is that there’s nothing really distinctive there. There are basically no old buildings, no trademark style or trademark substance. They’ve managed to keep the chains off their high streets (mostly; there was a Subway, charging £9 for subs) but the less obvious components of globalisation are still everywhere. There’s almost nothing uniquely Icelandic about the rest – corrugated buildings, an ugly set of “Yule Lads”, stuffed puffins for a hundred thousand ISK. Take away the weird letters and the lakes you can walk on, and it could honestly be Islington.
The National Museum is a pleasant place (though on the outside, an unfortunate combination of decently inspired Art Deco form, and vile grey pebbledash) and holds an extremely attractively put together collection. There are convincing reasons why, for most of its thousand-year habitation, Iceland hasn’t had much in the way of wars or architecture; life was so impossibly hard that simply living took up most people’s time and productive capacity. The museum’s collections are mainly wood carvings: communion dials, Christs and kings with long, mournful faces. Churches were built and maintained by farmers and chieftains, rather than an independent priesthood; a doughy-faced bishop and his three wives took up the frame of the only old painting. There were fish hooks ranging from “small” to “gigantic”, scrimshawed horns, a chalice made of a polished coconut shell which must have been impossbly exotic little brooches of bronze and gold. On one wall was what the museum half-proudly claims is the only weapon ever invented by Icelanders: a hook for cutting British trawl lines, like a many-armed nautical box-cutter.
We drove a little way past Thing to the edge of a semi-frozen lake, in hopes of the aurora. We were not disappointed. Long camera exposures showed it as the familiar bright luminous green, but to the naked eye it’s a little less impressive – gobs of washed-out grey-green ectoplasm, more like clouds behaving in weird ways than the emerald nebula it’s generally portrayed as. There’s a hint of green, but also a general vague chromatic uncertainty to it, like a half-seen waterfall haze. It moves in the most startling ways – whole sections suddenly drizzle into sight, like dust trickling through a projection; a great wheel of particularly bright light whirled and swirled around in an entirely random way; at one point a whole long section appeared and half-disappeared, like a curtain drifting in and out of reality. Less beautiful and less defined than the photos make it seem, but entirely unique and absolutely unsettling.