When the first settler arrived in Iceland, his decision to set up shop in Reykjavik was based on the random tossing of logs from his boat and the even more random act of letting wherever these logs washed up on shore be the pace to hang his Viking hat.

Either it was a very good throw or some very smart logs because as the fates would have it, the gentleman found Reykjavik. Depending on which history you believe, the name hails from this said same sir either from his witnessing volcanic smoke from Mt. Hekla in the distance or the steam rising from the numerous geothermal hot spots in the area, hence the name of Europe’s most northern capital, Reykjavik: “smokey bay”.

In the grand manor of most major airports, to say you fly into Reykjavik is really to say you are flying in Keflavik about 40 minutes southwest conveniently located in the middle of a lava field. This means of course, should your airplane crash; there will be precious little for you bounce off of.

Personally, I dig this airport. Keflavik follows in the typical tradition of Scandinavian design. Polished metals, pale wood floors, and black tiles abound. Everything is tidy, everything is clean, the bathrooms are immaculate, and everything has its order. About the only complain I could utter would be the odd practice of having to go through airport security after getting off the plane. Seriously, shoes off, belts off, coat through the x-ray machine. I don’t get it. Particularly when nearly everything else in Iceland makes such damn smart sense. Maybe this is the exception to prove the rule.

So you do your security, do your customs check, and before you can leave the airport, you are cleverly guided through the duty free shop. Brazen, I know, but this is a good thing and here’s why: booze. Booze in Iceland is horrifically expensive, along with everything else, but booze? Damn. Do yourself a favor and pick up a few bottles of wine, a tankard of whiskey, and a pint or two of Brenevin because you will be mortgaging your fingers and toes for the stuff out in town. I believe Sailor Man nearly choked last year when we paid $15 for a beer. One beer. A good beer, but not that good.

And while on the topic of money, skip the cash exchange. The fees are horrendous. Iceland is largely a cash free country anyway and you can use a credit card everywhere and for everything. I researched my credit card exchange policies and just brought the card with the lowest transaction fee and who has the best negotiated exchange policy. Should you actually need cash for something like the bus, ATMs abound so just withdrawal your cash there and for as much as you need. Trust me on the credit car thing though, we saved a lot of money of exchange fees this past trip.

Onward through the airport and you will dead end at the Flybus station. If you do an Iceland Air package, they typically include pick-up and drop-off to your hotel. Some hotels will also have this complimentary service. As Sailor Man and I were winging it, we had to pay, but no matter, at 7am in the morning, I’m willing to let someone else do the heavy lifting. Whatever your plan, just get on the bus, tell the driver where you need to go, grab a cup of Kaffe, relax and enjoy the 40-minute ride through the lava fields. It’s fascinating to say the least.

The first thing you will notice about Reykjavik (or maybe you won’t, maybe it’s just me) is the utter lack of power lines. Anywhere. They’re underground. And traffic lights? On the side and middle of the road where they should be. Of course, what I truly adore, which is weird because I’m American and thus should be inherently confounded by these things is the Roundabout. There is simply nothing more civilized on this planet than the Roundabout. And anyone who brings up National Lampoon’s European Vacation can kiss my ass! I love Roundabouts and I’ve been swearing at traffic lights ever since our return.

downtown-bldg2.jpgThe other thing about Reykjavik, there aren’t a lot of tall buildings. Some apartment complexes here and there but really, everything is low to the ground. One would assume this is because the area is volcanically active and prone to earthquakes, but I like it in that you have a good sense of perspective about the town. Rolling streets with views to all sides. Another blessing to the low building structures is that all throughout town everyone has incredible views of Mt. Esja to the north on the other side of the bay.

**apparently double-clicking the picture will enlarge them, at least it does on my computer.

city-view2.jpg

I wasn’t prepared last time for the housing and building types in Reykjavik. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what we saw. Charming old buildings, intermixed with modern, and fantastic houses that are sided and roofed in galvanized corrugated steel painted the most beautiful colors. I know that the steel (maybe aluminum?) part sounds rather odd, but trust me, it’s simply amazing. It gives the houses such interesting texture and depth. Some houses are well appointed with traditional scrolling and other finery.

house2.jpgYou walk around just admiring the charm and then turn a corner onto a street with what I can only describe as Soviet-style apartment housing. Mostly cement or mortar, pale, so many new buildings that have sprung up since last year are adding dashes of color. And again, everything is clean, clean, clean, but with the lack of trees and other shrubbery (more about that later), you feel for moment like you just lost Reykjavik, like losing your brother at the shopping mall, only you haven’t. The overwhelming sense of orderliness is astounding and inherently Icelandic. I wonder if Icelanders notice this themselves? I have to say, returning to Erie from Iceland makes everything feel like a whirling mass of entropy.

cathedral2.jpgThe main structure that dominates Reykjavik, however, is the Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church built on one of the highest points in town and fronted by a majestic statue of Leif Erickson which was a gift to Iceland by the United States in 1930 marking the 1000th Anniversary of the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament. This is not a misprint. Iceland has one of the oldest parliamentary systems in the world. The construction for this church began in 1945 and was not completed until 1986. You can go to the top of the church tower and experience one of the best views of Reykjavik. organ2.jpgThe inside is equally impressive with astounding accoustics and a pipe organ larger than your living room.

inside-chruch2.jpgThis is very obviously the church of a reformed Christian faith as no Catholic Church I know of would ever consent to such fabulously luscious and comfortable seats as are installed in this structure. It’s light, it’s airy, and quite simply, is one of the most joyous works of architecture I have ever seen. Truly, the serenity of the space will bowl you over. The church is also used for concerts of all nature and is a favorite recording venue due to the pipe organ. Unfortunately, Sailor man and I missed our one chance to hear a concert while in town and when we return to Iceland in the future, we definitely plan on making that a priority.

art-arch2.jpgWe strolled around town, a little shell shocked from sleeplessness, drinking coffee-a lot of coffee-and just taking in the sights. One thing that eventually comes to you if you walk around long enough is that Reykjavik has a great deal of public art. Unfortunately, a lot of it does not have any signage and what signage it has is in Icelandic. No matter. It’s beautiful and well placed and I like a city where you can turn a corner and not know what you’re going to run into. Of course, some of what you can run into is a bit disconcerting.

art-statue2.jpgSailor Man and I ran into this random piece last year and it has made regular appearances in my nightmares ever since. I’m not exactly sure why as I really like this statue and constantly wonder what the hell the story is behind it (no sign). For a country of only 313,000 people, Iceland has a great deal of museums and particularly for art in Reykjavik. Let me tell you, this is a class of people who really know how to do a museum and do them well. 2 visits to this city and Sailor man and I have only managed to hit half of them. Mostly because they do an excellent job of inspiring you to linger and take your time.

art-ship2.jpgAlongside the Hellgrimskirkja church, the other main tourist attraction in Reykjavik is the Sun Voyager. A modern art sculpture made in 1971 that occupies prime waterfront property overlooking the bay. We must have passed this sculpture a dozen times in our visits to the city and at any time of day, you can expect someone to be the taking a picture. Can hardly blame them it’s a hell of a view.

Even though we’d basically pulled an all-nighter through traveling, Sailor Man and I decided not to nap upon arrival. I knew if we did, we would have zonked out for the whole day, so we opted to hike into town and see where the day took us.

Facts to know: most Icelanders speak English and Icelanders love their coffee. Tea not so much, but they are married to their coffee and anything else, like say a real human spouse, is really just a second husband or wife. You can’t turn left in Reykjavik without running into a coffee shop. But that’s okay as the coffee is very dark, very strong, and exactly how I can not find it in America. Hence, I made mad passionate love to my first spouse, the local coffee, all throughout the trip. Right in front of Sailor Man. I know. I’m bad. But I went through horrible caffeine withdrawal upon return, so I guess we’re even.

Our first order of business was to visit an exhibit we tried to see last time but was closed. The Settlement Exhibit or as it is really called: “871 ± 2”, are the remains of a longhouse constructed during the Settlement Period sometime in the 800’s. What’s s extraordinary about it is that is right smack-dab in the middle of town and the extraordinary lengths that were gone to not only to preserve it, but to exhibit it as well. The longhouse was found during the expansion of a downtown hotel. Instead of just uprooting the ruins and taking them elsewhere, the hotel was raised and the exhibit is in the basement.

871.jpgWhat’s also really interesting is that technology had to be invented to preserve the remains. The longhouse would have been made of turf and turf is a living organism that eventually dies. So a modified alcohol solution that is used to preserve stone structures is also being used to preserve the remains of the house. It makes for a slightly smelly exhibit, but in a good favorite-drunk-aunt kinda way. The walls surrounding the exhibit try to represent what Reykjavik would have looked like during this period. The exhibit is simple, interesting and very well done, just like Icelanders know to do. I apologize if the picture just looks like a pile of stones, but it is hard to get perspective without hanging from the rafters which I’m sure the museum would not appreciate. But you’ll go see it for yourself and know what I am talking about.

We left the museum and immediately sought out an Icelandic delicacy: a hot dog. I have no idea why, but Icelanders (and Swedes apparently) love their hot dogs. And while we failed to get a picture of it, next to the arch that is in a picture above, has got to be the best designed hot dog stand, architecturally speaking. I know we in Erie are partial to our Smiths hot dogs, but sorry, these are better, and so is their mustard. I don’t think we visited a single town that did not have ready access to these dogs.

We hiked back to the hostel and decided to indulge in the Icelandic national pastime: hot-tubbing. Reykjavik has at least 7 or 8 (someone correct me if I am wrong) pool facilities that are heated with their lovely treasure of geothermal water. For convenience sake, we went to the Laugardarlur pool next to the hostel. It’s a massive facility with both indoor and outdoor pool, kiddie pool, steam bath, and numerous “hot pots” which are tubs of varying degrees. All pool facilities are very particularl about cleanliness, no shoes in locker rooms, everyone must shower thoroughly before entering the pool (and the locker room wardens are not shy about reminding or instructing you about this).

While there are the unfortunate occasions of the ill-advised speedo (they are a privilege not a right), it’s an excellent opportunity to go and mingle with the natives. Just make sure you do not pick the spot next to the teenage couple making out or the youngsters learning to use water wings. The recommended “system” for the hot pots is to start with the least warm pot and work your way up to the warmest pot (they vary from 36-42 degree Celsius). Follow with a steam bath, a quick swim and your health with be golden. I had always heard that Icelanders were reserved and not very talkative to strangers, but I really have not found that to be the case. The pools are an excellent way to socialize and no, not in a creepy, cheesy, 70’s, “schvitzing” kind of way either. Just go, you’ll love it, trust me.

Given Iceland’s location on the planet, twilight is unusually long. It was fairly light out by 7 am although the sun did not rise until 9am. Likewise, the sun set at 6pm but twilight lasted almost until 8pm which is way better than we get here in Erie this time of year. The dinner hour in Iceland is much like that in most of Europe, it starts late in the evening (or late for an American) around 8 or 9 pm and dinner out is a leisurely event. Also, Iceland waiters and waitresses are professionally trained for fine dining. To become a fine dining server, your schooling lasts for 3 years and believe me, it shows. The two evenings we partook of fine dining were not only some of the best food we’ve ever experienced, but the service was impeccable.

That first night we ate at Laekjarbrekka in the main shopping district. It’s situated in a traditional style house and the interior is warm and lush, cozy and intimate. They serve an excellent traditional European style course meal and I recommend the endangered smoked Puffin and mountain lamb. I don’t know the full particulars about the issue, but this is a small island nation with limited internal food resources that has been eating these birds for over a thousand years. Who am I to judge?

Sailor Man and I managed to stuff ourselves silly and as dog-tired as we were, we hiked half-way back to the hostel and took the bus the rest of the way. I’m happy to say I slept like the dead that night. Something I don’t do well in foreign environments. But while it was long, it was a very good first day and the next morning we were leaving for our western adventure.

Next Chapter: Egil’s Saga and Geir the Loquacious


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