The music festival you have never heard of


Every winter, Reykjavik hosts a music festival across multiple venues—and you can steal away to take in the natural beauty



It is in the middle of nowhere. There is no easy way to get there as there are no direct flights from any Indian airport. But such is the reputation of this island just south of the Arctic Circle that even Schengen visa struggles and lack of direct flights can’t keep it off travel wishlists. Iceland is that kind of a wonderland, indeed. 

You are probably visualising the Northern Lights, volcanoes, geysers, lagoons, hot springs, glaciers and scenes from Game Of Thrones. It is all that and more. I ended up in Iceland in November, not by design but by accident. I was in Europe for Oktoberfest and had to fly to the US. A friend suggested Icelandair, which offers a free stopover for up to seven days when you fly transatlantic with them. Before long I was picking up my backpack from the Keflavik airport baggage belt in Iceland.

That was also the day the Iceland Airwaves music festival began. Unlike Glastonbury, Tomorrowland or Lollapalooza, which all take place in a single expansive venue with multiple stages, the venues for Iceland Airwaves, which has been held since 1999, include bars, theatres, parks and hostels spread across the country’s capital, Reykjavik. There are gigs even at the airport.

The line-up is an eclectic mix of new and upcoming bands, DJs and musicians from across the world. Last year’s headliners were the excellent Bombay Bicycle Club. I heard an Irish band, Pastiche, doing a soundcheck at the KEX Hostel bar while I was washing down a pizza dinner with a beer. I posted a video of the soundcheck and the lead singer slipped into my DMs asking for the original video. Would any artist at any other festival do that?

The festival is designed to let you enjoy all the music while taking in the splendours of Iceland. Acts aren’t scheduled back-to-back, so people can make their way from one venue to the next while finding time to hike to a volcano, visit a glacier, spot the Northern Lights, soak in a lagoon or enjoy the bars in Reykjavik. The festival includes plenty of un-ticketed gigs that are open for all.

One word you will hear often in Iceland is “geothermal”. No matter what you do in the country, geothermal activity will feature prominently—from baking bread and boiling eggs to soaking in one of the luxurious lagoons to taking a hot shower in your hotel. Since hot water is naturally and abundantly available, and there is infrastructure to deliver it to every home, Icelandic people don’t think twice before enjoying long showers that could last up to an hour. Many have hot tubs at home, where they spend time with family and friends, even in peak winter.

Icelandic people love the outdoors and one of their favourite year-long activities is swimming in the sea and alternating it with long dips in the natural hot water that rushes up when you dig the sand on the beach or in the readily accessible hot tubs on beaches. However, if you want to live like a true Icelander, hit a swimming pool. Iceland’s freezing weather cannot stop the locals from having a family outing at a public pool. For less than $10, you can access these pools and spend as much time as you like. Apart from indoor and outdoor lap pools, there are multiple hot dipping pools at various temperatures, hot water fountains, saunas and steam rooms.

Bjork performs at Iceland Airwaves 2016 at Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik. Image via Getty

Then there is the city itself. Reykjavik’s biggest attraction is the big church, Hallgrimskirkja, which is visible from almost anywhere in the city. Iceland produces some excellent gin and vodka, and the city has a bustling bar and restaurant scene.

The main attraction, of course, are the Northern Lights. The best places to catch them are the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, Reynisfjara, Snæfellsnes peninsula and Reykjanes peninsula. Watching the magical dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis requires patience. While the guide can take you to the best possible locations as close to the predicted time as possible, nature puts up a show only when it feels like.

The only thing likely to bother you in Iceland is wind. Sometimes winds are so strong that cars and buses are blown off the roads, which is why the government closes those areas whenever the wind picks up. While in Iceland, don’t fear the cold, ice or snow—it’s the wind that will get you.

HOW TO GET THERE

  • Swiss International Airlines and Finnair offer the best one-stop flights from Delhi to Keflavik International Airport in Iceland.

WHERE TO STAY

  • Iceland Parliament Hotel in the heart of the city.
  • Budget option: KEX Hostel. The building used to be an old biscuit factory and has an excellent bar with affordable pizzas.

WHAT TO DO

  • The Golden Circle Tour (which takes you to Thingvellir National Park where the Rift Valley is, geysers that shoot hot water and steam high into the sky, and Gullfoss Falls).
  • See the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara.
  • Boil eggs and bake bread by burying them in the geothermal sands at the lakeside town of Laugarvatn.
  • A happy hour bar crawl in Reykjavik.
  • Visit the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
  • Game Of Thrones fans could opt for a private tour visiting the sites where the hit series was shot.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer, editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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