This is the Part 4 in a series outlining my family’s exploration of Iceland during the summer of 2019, pre-COVID. It was a mostly outdoor experience, exploring the wild and natural sights of a beautiful country during the height of summer. For the full journey, and notes on places to go and things to see, check out the other posts in this series.
- Part 1 – Grundarfjörður
- Part 2 – Snæfellsnes
- Part 3 – Golden Circle
- Part 4 – Roaming in Reykjavik
- Part 5 – Landmannalaugar
- Part 6 – Southern Coast
- Part 7 – Jökulsárlón
- Part 8 – Departure and Epilogue
Full of ice cream, we’d been slow to get to sleep. Reykjavik’s streets were noisy under the (almost) midnight sun, as the bar scene came to life. Our windows stayed open in the unseasonably warm weather, so we found ourselves enduring the sounds of the streets, attempting to get a breeze into our room, and trying to black out the brightly lit sky, all at once. On the bright side, we watched a beautiful sunset at 11:45pm – almost due North, realizing that the shortest distance to the Sun from this far north was to peek north, over the tilted pole.
We wound up sleeping late, continuing our routine of alternating a night of too little sleep with a night of too much. Today, that was fine. We’d gotten word that, against all hope, Iceland Air had actually FOUND David’s phone! That forced our schedule to accommodate a side trip to Keflavik, and so staying around town today – something we wanted to do at some point – made sense, as a day to rest and try to reset our schedules.
Recovery of the phone was straightforward, but it put us in the small town of Reykjanesbær at lunchtime. We made a quick visit to Bonus, a common grocery store chain, and confidently stocked up on food while trying to follow self-checkout instructions in Icelandic. At the time of our visit, a US Dollar was equivalent to about 125 Icelandic Krona. So we’d gotten pretty good at thinking in pennies, and reducing by about 25%. An item listed at 300K was about $2.40, for example. Not terribly hard math, once we got used to it.
We had lunch at a great, quiet spot, Fernando’s Keflavik Cafe, where seafood again dominated the menu. I asked the waiter to bring me a good beer that matched the color of the polished wood table – not lager-yellow, and not a stout, and he nailed it. A nice deep brown Viking Rökkr which suited my tastes well (I’m not a big fan of IPA’s unlike, seemingly, most of the world).
While in the neighborhood, we made our way to an out of the way spot on the end of a peninsula next to a deep, rock-lined harbor where stairs mounted on wheels gave a clear indication that the tidal range here was pretty significant. I had been surprised at how blue the ocean was here – almost a Caribbean turquoise, though much cloudier. Pretty.
Out on this peninsula lay Skessuhellir, the Giantess Cave. We had read that this was…um…. strange. Quirky. And it certainly was. An art piece, if you could call it that, where someone had chosen to build a wooden structure around a natural cave and give it a distinctly odd occupant – a large, unattractive woman, at least fifteen feet tall, with enormous buck teeth and bare feet sat in a rocking chair, uttering periodic recorded grunts to let visitors know she was not one to enjoy being disturbed. Thankfully, she was behind a closed door in a sitting room, and not an immediate threat to us. Outside her room stood her enormous bed and a small tree covered with children’s pacifiers. Our GUESS (and unfortunately we had to guess) was that this was basically a trophy collection, all that remained from the babies the troll had chosen to eat. On one hand, we wondered why anyone would build this…. but on the other, here we were, laughing at the absurdity of it.
Having had our fill of giants, we drove back to Reykjavik and parked in a garage downtown. This gave us an opportunity to walk through Old Harbour and admire the various ships and boats – as well as take note of the fishing boats and the whale watching tours, something that was on our maybe-to-do list for later in the week, if we could make the time for it.
We climbed away from the water, heading generally toward Hallgrimmskirkja, the iconic church square in the center of town. On the way, we stumbled across the Alþingi Parliament building. Proof that this was a capital city! The northernmost capital in the world. The building had some architectural gravitas, but it was a small little building, befitting the small little country of roughly 350,000 people.
We moved through the gardens, wandering almost aimlessly, and found ourselves on the shore of Tjörnin, a large lake and park filled with pigeons, ducks and seagulls. We admired the monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat – a life-sized stone statue of a man whose head and torso was an immense uncut block of granite perched upon the legs of a businessman. His arms hung below the block, and his right hand gripped a briefcase. I somehow felt that my life, in some part, was represented by this block-head.
We made our way along the lakeshore, pausing briefly as a wedding party emerged from a beautiful church along the water. We joined the cheers for the happy couple as we moved to avoid the photography session that ensued, and moved east uphill, to find ourselves in what appeared to be embassy row. Each embassy was marked with the name of the nation represented – in Icelandic, unfortunately – but in most cases, the national flags made it clear which countries were represented. We made a game of it, trying to identify flags and correlate them to foreign names. European countries were fairly easy, but other flags were hard to positively identify. We did see Canada, and the US representing North American interests.
Beyond the embassies, we found ourselves in an outside sculpture garden in a small park adjacent to Hallgrimmskirkja. The church had been our destination, but the sculptures drew us in, and we wandered the ground admiring the works. I was particularly taken by one called “Thor Wrestling With Age”. At the time, I was completely unaware of the myth to which it alluded, but was taken with the imagery of the sculpture itself, in which the mighty Thor seemed to struggle against an undefeatable foe. According to myth, this encounter is but one of the impossible challenges that Thor and his companions faced in the halls of the immense giant Skrýmir, disguised as a king named Útgarða-Loki. When challenged to wrestle anyone in the castle, an old woman was summoned to fight him, and the old woman did humiliate, and defeat him. It was only revealed later that the woman was in fact the god Elli, “Old Age”, an opponent that eventually defeats everyone.
Hallgrimmskirkja is a beautiful church, standing alone in a wide public square. Its single spire flows into curved buttresses built to resemble the volcanic, hexagonal basaltic columns that occur naturally all over the island. Instead of volcanic black, the church is a gleaming white. Inside, the church’s ceiling soars to a high, vaulted ceiling over an altar surrounded by enormous windows, facing an ornate pipe organ that hangs two stories up. It is a gorgeous space, and though popular among tourists, the echoes of voices within are those of hushed reverence.
In front of the church stands a statue of a sterotypical Viking warrior. It is a monument to Lief Erikson, recognized as the first European to reach North America. The statue was given to Iceland as a gift from the United States in 1930, in celebration of Iceland’s thousandth year under parliamentary rule.
We left the church, now clearly in the part of town frequented by tourists. Rather than governmental buildings, we moved down a street lined with restaurants and various shops, and the occasional museum (including the Icelandic Punk Museum which was situated, appropriately enough, down a flight of stairs and underground). We did a little browsing and a little shopping, but we were also in a mood to start searching for dinner. Near the bottom of the hill, we found an area where there were lots of people and diners at streetside tables, and several street musicians playing guitars in the park across the street, and we decided to pull up an outdoor table at the Sæta Svinid (translation – the “Cute Pig”).
Aside from seafood and lamb, one of the must-try foods in Iceland is, believe it or not, hot dogs. Aside from a different meat combination than we’re used to in the US (they are predominately Icelandic lamb, with pork and beef mixed in), they come loaded with things like barbecued pulled pork, crispy onion straws, pickle, relish, red cabbage, and mustard, or all of the above. We enjoyed our dogs greatly, even though, with all those toppings, we had to give up and use forks to finish them off.
After dinner we walked another short block to Stofan Cafe, a coffee house where we were able to get sliced cake and pie for dessert while still enjoying the bustle of the crowds outside.
Satiated, we made our way back down toward the harbor to close the loop we’d been working on all day, and retrieved our car to return to the hotel. It had been a long day, a totally different day from the outdoor-focused exploration. But we got some exposure to the culture of urban Iceland, even though Reykjavik is a small city by most standards.
Up next — Back to outdoor adventure. We had plans to drive into the wild Icelandic interior, using the unimproved F-roads to reach Landmannalaugar, and the mountains of southern Iceland.
Get Out There!