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Getting the tourist willies

Published Feb 18, 2014


Reykjavik - At 1.7m tall, yellowish in colour and floating in a glass case of formaldehyde, the bulbous, pickled specimen in front of me wasn’t the sort of star attraction you’d normally expect to encounter at a museum.

I was standing in the world’s only penis museum, tucked away in the “rougher” end of Reykjavik’s main shopping street, and was looking up at its biggest, most impressive exhibit: a sperm whale phallus.

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I’d heard many things about the Icelandic Phallological Museum from various travellers, and it was top of my list of things to check out in Iceland’s capital city.

The whale’s appendage is the museum’s most infamous artefact but apparently only the tip is on display: curators had managed to pickle and display just one third of it.

The attraction was founded by retired teacher Sigurður Hjartarson 16 years ago and now boasts specimens from 93 Icelandic species – including human, from a 95-year-old donor.

It claims to enable “individuals to undertake serious study into the field of phallology in an organised, scientific fashion”.

Or allows tourists a chance for a good nose around and a bit of a giggle. Photography is allowed and – deep breath – they have a gift shop.

If gawping at animal sex organs doesn’t take your fancy, you can opt instead to take a dip in the serene and otherworldly Blue Lagoon: I spent hours soaking in its milky 35°C elixir.

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Meanwhile, some brave fellow troops of mine opted for quad biking in -15°C temperatures. Armed with a driver’s licence, outdoorsy daredevil types can drive a 4x4 quad bike on snowy lava rock terrains at high speeds. But pack extra gloves as the sub-zero chill will turn your knuckles blue, I’ve been told.

The newest and most distant Nordic nation to Europe, this land of volcanoes and icy waters is full of wonders.

Icelanders – all 320 000 of them – are mostly tall, blonde, chiselled and model-looking, with the odd few who are just reasonably pleasing to the eye. It’s quite unnerving.

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The cold, the dark and the scarcity that their beautiful land brings means Icelanders embrace a hardcore, stylish nightlife and a wickedly sarcastic sense of humour at all times.

Kaffibarrin is an unmissable go-to spot. The “Coffee Bar” still markets itself on the fact that Blur frontman Damon Albarn is a shareholder and it’s popular with trendy locals – but only from about 1am. The party lasts all night, and the drinks flow accordingly. There’s talk of £8 pints but I opted for £6 (R108) Cuba Libres – a fair price in my books.

The deals are there if you seek them out.

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The next day, the breakfast buffet at Hotel 101 was piled high with eggs, bacon and smoked salmon, but true Icelandic dishes will seemingly only appeal to tourists with strong stomachs and wildly adventurous tastes.

We headed to Sægreifinn (The Sea Baron) and were greeted with a national delicacy: rotting shark. The toxic beast is kept underground for months to decompose and is then cubed and served with Iceland’s potato vodka Brennivin – dubbed “Black Death” due to its potency.

I ducked out of that tasting session after seeing volunteer after victim try the “hakarl” and proceed to wretch, turn green, and beg for more Brennivin.

But our foodie tour guide Ingi, from Icelandic Mountain Guides, loves it and serves it to her two young children. She explained that she really had no choice when she was growing up – she was 18 before she tried her first pizza.

Curiously, I see Italian bistros everywhere now and yet Icelanders still indulge those ancient tastes. Ingi guided us through Reykjavik’s offerings of whale, puffin, horse, chopped ram’s testicles and sheep’s head gelatine cubes – none suitable for the squeamish.

But while traditional Icelandic kitchens may hark back to times of short supply, fine dining is slowly establishing itself on the island. On my trip I tried some dreamy fish broths (Fish broth? Dreamy? I know!). Their signature dollop of mousse cream is a welcome addition to an already-tasty clam and prawn soup, and Icelandic bakers craft fine artisan bread to go with it.

The country gets just six hours of daylight in the peak of winter so, when I’d eaten my fill, I headed straight to Hallgrímskirkja to take in the sights before the sun set. Those in the know and short on time can pay just 700ISK (about R63) for the best view of Reykjavik from the top of the organ-shaped church.

In 1937, state architect Guðjón Samúelsson started work on the building, citing the basalt lava flows of the country’s landscape as his inspiration for the church’s exterior. Slick and gothic, Hallgrímskirkja soars 74m into the sky, while inside clean lines and blank, off-white walls leave believers with nothing to focus on but the sense of greatness around them.

The Lutheran church is regarded as one of the world’s most spectacular, modern places of worship, representing both the values of the country’s religion and also classic Nordic architectural style. It’s one of Reykjavik’s most impressive buildings, along with the newly opened Harpa concert hall, which boasts genius acoustic systems and fine art around every corner.

The next day we jumped on a Iceland Excursions bus for the full Classic Golden Circle Tour. At a cost of R900 for the day, it seemed well worth it to sample the breathtaking views and natural wonders just outside of Reykjavik.

And if you’re a fan of fantasy series Game of Thrones, you may encounter some familiar scenes as you meander through the Mars-like terrain.

We also stopped off at the mighty Gullfoss Waterfall – where they filmed the opening sequence of sci-fi movie Prometheus – and then savoured the steam-pumping sights at Geysir, where huge towers of boiling water are thrust up into the air.

Along the way, we learnt about Iceland’s origins and history from our engaging guide Svanur G Þorkelsson; a story so fascinating that our weary, chilly group stayed fully engrossed until drop-off back at the hotel nine hours later.

Heading inside, our last hopes of seeing the Northern Lights lay in the dark of night. But alas, the sky was overcast and it wasn’t in the stars for us. Perhaps if we’d managed to stay for longer than our three-day taster, the clouds might have parted.

For now we’d just have to be happy to return home with tales of our record-breaking sperm whale phallus. – Daily Mail

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