coming full circle: return to reykjavik

Wednesday, August 24:  We arrive back in Reykjavik at 3:00.  After our amazing circular 11-day trip around Iceland, we’re back to the beginning.  When we first arrived, we had gray and dreary weather; today we’re blessed with impossibly blue skies and crisp but comfortable weather.  What a perfect way to end our trip.

We missed Jón Gunnar Árnason’s The Sun Voyager when we were here before, so this is our first stop.  The work is constructed of quality stainless steel and stands on a circle of granite slabs surrounded by so-called “town-hall concrete.”  It sits along Sæbraut Road, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Sun-Craft
Sun Voyager

It is commonly thought that The Sun Voyager represents a Viking ship, sitting ashore as it does in the land of the sagas, but this was not the artist’s original intention.  It was essentially seen as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light, hope, progress and freedom (Wikipedia: The Sun Voyager).

Jón Gunnar Árnason was ill with leukemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location.

We do enjoy the sculpture, but there are so many tourists posing in every manner possible – climbing on the sculpture, hanging up side down on it – that I can’t get one decent photo without people.

Sun-Craft
Sun-Craft

We then drive directly to the OK Hotel/K Bar to check in to our apartment.  It’s right in the center of busy Reykjavik along Laugarvegur, and, oddly, has an automated check-in system.  A doorphone to the left of the front door is connected to a remote reception.  They buzz me in through the K-Bar restaurant, closed and undergoing renovation (without a person in sight), and then check me in from a phone in the lobby.

Our room is fancifully decorated in what looks like old American encyclopedia pages.  An angel is drawn overlooking the beds with the words: “Does an angel contemplate my faith?” written among the folds of her robes.

our quirky room at OK Hotel
our quirky room at OK Hotel

You can see some close-ups of the encyclopedia pages by clicking on any of the images below.

Mike finds a parking spot, surprisingly, right outside the door of K-Bar.  We have to pay for parking until 6:00 and it’s free after that.  It seems too good to be true. Because of this unlikely good luck, I worry all night that we’ll wake in the morning to find our car towed.  Of course, all my worries are for nothing.

After dropping our stuff in our apartment, we go out for a walk.  Immediately we come across a Bonus market, where we buy some breakfast food and some snacks for our flight home tomorrow morning. After returning to our room and depositing our food in the refrigerator, we sit on our balcony and enjoy the rooftop views and a glass of wine.

view from the balcony at the OK Hotel
view from the balcony at the OK Hotel

After our wine, we head out again for a walk.  I’m excited to find a shop full of puffins.  This is my one and only close-up view of puffins in Iceland!

puffins in a Reykjavik shop
puffins in a Reykjavik shop

We’ve already seen many of the sights in Reykjavik, and as it’s late in the day anyway, we simply enjoy walking up and down the shopping street, Laugarvegur.

streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
Rekjavik street art
Reykjavik street art
artsy building in the city
artsy building in the city
quirky Reykjavik
quirky Reykjavik

I’m so excited to get some beautiful views of Hallgrímskirkja with a blue-sky backdrop.  We saw this amazing church on our second day here (exploring reykjavík: hallgrímskirkja & old reykjavík), but it was gray and spitting rain on that day.

view up the street to Hallgrímskirkja
view up the street to Hallgrímskirkja
approaching Hallgrímskirkja
approaching Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
statue of Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
statue of Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
Hallgrímskirkja & Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
Hallgrímskirkja & Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
Hallgrímskirkja & Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
Hallgrímskirkja & Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson

We want to take home some Icelandic music, and luckily we happen upon the perfect music store, where we can sit in comfortable chairs and listen to various CDs.  The owner recommends a couple of CDs, which we buy to take home.

a stop in a music store
a stop in a music store

Reykjavik is such a quirky town with great street art, decorative and artsy shops, and cute houses.  I’m charmed by all of it.

streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
if you're not SHAKING you need another cup of COFFEE
if you’re not SHAKING you need another cup of COFFEE
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik

I love this admonishment to forget the Wi-fi and to actually “Talk to each other and get drunk!”

SORRY NO WIFI - TALK TO EACH OTHER & GET DRUNK!
SORRY NO WiFi – TALK TO EACH OTHER & GET DRUNK!
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
bicycle in Reykjavik
bicycle in Reykjavik
tying a necktie
tying a necktie
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik

After our walk, we stop at Salka Valka fish & more, where we enjoy a great yet simple meal accompanied by beer. We have a long chat with four young Scandinavian ladies, who have done some major treks, glacier hikes and camping.  They are treating themselves to a restaurant meal tonight.

me having a beer
me having a beer

I have really loved our Icelandic fish dishes on this trip.  This one is Traditional Plokkfiskur: “Our signature dish, oven-baked plokkfiskur (haddock and cod mixed with potatoes, onions, spices and herbs in a casserole like fashion) topped with béarnaise sauce and served with root vegetables, Icelandic sweet bread, butter, Basmati rice and our in-house red sauce.”

fish + more
fish + more

After dinner and drinking a beer, we go out to walk some more, but of course, after a beer, I shortly need to find a bathroom.  As finding a bathroom anywhere in Iceland is like finding Waldo, we walk around in vain with the situation getting increasingly desperate.  Finally, we find a pub where the only available restroom is a men’s room.  Mike checks it out to make sure it’s empty and then guards the door while I find some relief!

Back at our hotel, we enjoy another glass of wine on our balcony and then pack up all our stuff.  We have an 10:30 a.m. flight tomorrow.

Total steps today: 15,986, or 6.77 miles.

Thursday, August 25:  We get up at 6:15, eat breakfast, shower and drive our rental car back to Budget at the airport. Luckily, there are no extra charges on our rental car.  We’re relieved as we were never clear as to whether our rental included insurance!  Our flight back is uneventful, with less turbulence that we’ve encountered on many flights, arriving back in Washington at 12:30 p.m.

All told, we drove 2,700km around Iceland’s Ring Road, with many detours along the way. 🙂

I loved Iceland!  I would love to go back again on the Icelandair Stopover because there was still so much we missed that I’d love to see!

 

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iceland: driving the ring road through west iceland (vesturland), with a few (too many) stops along the way

Tuesday, August 16:  This morning, we meet a young Chinese lady and her mother in the breakfast room at Freyja Guesthouse.  It turns out they’re going to pick up their rental car in Reykjavik today and then head around the Ring Road (Route 1) north to Akureyri.  We’re doing the same today, but as we already have our rental car, we can get an earlier start.  It’s nice to chat with them about our shared experiences in China; the daughter, Wang Wang, can speak fairly decent English; her mother can speak very little.  This is the second time I’ve met a Chinese mother and daughter traveling together.  The first time was in late July of 2015, soon after I left China; at that time, Mike and I met my student Christine and her mother in Washington as they were traveling down the East Coast.

When we leave Reykjavik it’s raining. So far, we haven’t had luck with the weather. We pass ponds, streams, harbors and rivers all over the pastoral area known as Hvalfjörður.  We find farms tucked into the flat areas at the bottom of rumpled and fuzzy green mountains.  They’re usually isolated places, set alone on a plain with a mountain backdrop.

Route 1 north of Reykjavik
Route 1 north of Reykjavik

Not too long after we leave the city, we go through a 5.7km long tunnel under Hvalfjörður.  Before the tunnel was built in 1998, drivers had to spend an extra hour going around the fjord.  The tunnel seems to be made of solid stone and runs 165m below sea level.

Route 1 north of Reykjavik
Route 1 north of Reykjavik

I love the treeless mountains of Iceland.  Covered in moss, they look like behemoths covered loosely in a blanket of velvet .  Everywhere we see bales of hay, wrapped in white or black plastic wrap, lined up neatly atop green fields.  The farmhouses and barns are often white-walled with red roofs, and when rays of sunlight hit them at the right angle, they glow like beacons from another world.

pretty farm
pretty farm

And then of course there are the Icelandic horses. These horses, bred in Iceland, may look the size of ponies, but they are actually registered as horses.  Long-lived and hardy, in their native country they have few diseases.  Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return (Wikipedia: Icelandic horse).

Icelandic horses
Icelandic horses

The horse displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly displayed by other breeds. The first additional gait is the four-beat lateral ambling gait known as the tölt.  The second additional gait is called a skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace.” It is used in pacing races, and is fast and smooth, with speeds often reached up to 30 mph (Wikipedia: Icelandic horse).  Not all horses have this latter gait.

a friendly fella
a friendly fella

I have been a horse lover since I was a girl; because of this I’m always urging Mike to pull over when I see them standing near the road.

Icelandic horses
Icelandic horses
Icelandic horse
Icelandic horse

As a matter of fact, I’m constantly asking Mike to pull off the road so I can take pictures of everything.  I love the farmhouses and barns, the sheep, the horses, the sweeping and strange landscapes that change around every turn.  It will take us forever at this rate to get to Akureyri, 242 miles from Reykjavik.

farm north of Reykjavik
farm north of Reykjavik
farm north of Reykjavik
farm north of Reykjavik

We decide to fill up with gas at the N1 at Borgarnes, a tiny town that has one of the original settlement areas and sits on a scenic promontory at Borgarfjörður.  It costs us about 5,300 Icelandic krona, or around $46 to fill half our tank!  It’s expensive to rent a car in Iceland, and even more expensive to drive it!

While I’m in the gas station getting some coffee, I chat with a woman who’s from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.   She and her husband are heading west to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Western Iceland.  It’s known as “Iceland in Miniature” because many national sites can be found there.  Sadly, we miss this area of Iceland, which boasts the volcano Snæfellsjökull, the setting for Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth.   In addition, scenes from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were filmed on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  The woman asks if we went to the Kaldidalur Corridor, which skirts the edge of a series of glaciers, and the Langjökull ice cap.  Of course we have to respond in the negative to this too.

There simply isn’t enough time to go everywhere and do all the activities we want to do without being rushed. 😦

The name Borgarnes means “Borg peninsula” and refers to a farm of that name, Borg. Borg was the home of Egill Skallagrímsson, the titular character of Egil’s Saga (Wikitravel: Borgarnes).

We drive into the town and climb up to the sculpture called Brákin, memorializing a dramatic moment from Egil’s Saga.  It’s named after Egil’s nursemaid who saves Egil’s life by jumping into the sea to escape Egil’s enraged father.  Sound confusing?  It is – that is unless you know the Icelandic sagas.

Brákin in Borgarnes
Brákin in Borgarnes
Borgarnes
Borgarnes
Borgarnes
Borgarnes

While standing atop the hill at this overlook, the skies open up.  Mike has seen it coming and has run to the car.  I’m too late, and I get drenched!

View of the harbor at Borgarnes
View of the harbor at Borgarnes
Harbor view, Borgarnes
Harbor view, Borgarnes

We leave the cute little town and continue our drive. My jeans are soaked and it will take some time for them to dry out.

Although we don’t see many trees while in Iceland, there is apparently a lot of native birch woodland that is protected by The Iceland Forest Service (IFS), established according to the forestry and soil conservation act of 1907.  There are also cultivated forests of various species, experimental forests and arboreta, according to an article Forestry in a Treeless Land.  We come across this small forested spot along our drive, with a sign indicating it is managed by the IFS.

The Icelandic Forest Service - a rare spot with trees
The Iceland Forest Service – a rare spot with trees
some of Iceland's flora
some of Iceland’s flora

We pull off the road when we cross a bridge over a small scenic canyon; we want to have a look and stretch our legs, take in a breath of fresh air.

When I see farmhouses set in idyllic spots, I ask Mike to please pull over.  It’s not always easy to pull over on Iceland’s roads as they are two-lane highways, one lane going in each direction, with no shoulders.  The highways sit atop elevated beds so if you pull off, you will tumble down an embankment about 8-10 feet.  We often try to pull off onto farm driveways or small gravel pull-offs along the roadside.  On some stretches it is impossible to pull off.  Every so often, when we don’t see anyone behind us, we stop the car in our lane; inevitably another driver appears out of nowhere barreling down the highway at 90km/hour.  We can’t count on another driver seeing us in time to stop; they’re probably oohing and aahing at the scenery just as we are!

The total length of the Ring Road is 1,332 kilometres (828 mi). The road is paved with asphalt for most of its length, but there are still stretches in eastern Iceland, about 32km, with unpaved gravel surfaces (Wikipedia: Route 1 (Iceland)).  We are surprised by this because we thought we’d read the whole road was paved.  We were misinformed.

Many smaller bridges, often constructed of wood or steel, are single lane, especially in eastern Iceland.  There are no signals at these one way bridges; drivers are expected to look across the bridge, if possible, and yield to whoever arrives first. On some of the really long bridges, where we can’t see the other side, there are shoulders where drivers can pull over to let people pass by.

pretty farmstead
pretty farmstead
pretty farm along the way
pretty farm along the way

As we’re zipping by on the highway, Mike sees a place where people are hiking.  As we’ve already passed it, we stop to take pictures of the bizarre volcanic landscape.

Mike is looking back longingly in the direction of the hiking spot we passed.  At his request, we decide to turn around and do the hike.  We’re glad we do.  We find these are the Grábrókargigar craters, protected as natural monuments in 1962.  The goal of protecting the craters was to preserve the beautifully formed scoria cones that formed in “modern” times and are remarkable natural formations.  The area’s vegetation, particularly moss vegetation, is vulnerable.

climbing up Grábrók Crater
climbing up Grábrók Crater

There are three craters within the protected area.  Litla (small) Grábrók has mostly disappeared due to mining operations before the area was protected.  The crater we are climbing up is Stóra (big) Grábrók, which rises up near the main road.

We climb up the well-maintained wooden walkway and steps, enjoying the views of the surrounding landscape.

a climb up Grábrók Crater
a climb up Grábrók Crater
view from Grábrók Crater
view from Grábrók Crater

Beneath us, we can see some settlement ruins.

settlement ruins below Grábrók Crater
settlement ruins below Grábrók Crater
settlement ruins
settlement ruins

We continue up the wooden walkway to the rim of the crater.  We can see down into the crater.  Of course, the crater is asleep these days; there is no gurgling lava, no rising steam, no ash, no gaseous sulphur smell.

The Grábrókargigar craters are part of the Ljósufjöll volcanic system and are the most easterly craters in the system.  The Ljósufjöll volcanic system belongs to the Snæfellsnes volcanic zone, which is a peripheral zone (i.e., not a rift zone).  The volcanic system extends far to the west on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It is believed to be somewhat younger than 3,600 years.  The lava, alkali olivine basalt, from the craters covers a large portion of the Norðurárdalur valley.

As we walk around the perimeter of Grábrók Crater, we can see Grábrókarfell, another crater within the protected area.

Grábrók Crater
Grábrók Crater

We also see some settlements ruins near the base of Grábrókarfell.

settlement ruins near Grábrók Crater
settlement ruins near Grábrók Crater
settlement ruins beneath Grábrók Crater
settlement ruins beneath Grábrók Crater

All over Iceland, we see campers like the one below, rented from KúKú Campers:  “DON’T STINK AND DRIVE!”  You can check their website to see costs for renting different types of vehicles. As there is no shortage of campgrounds throughout Iceland, this is an economical option for an Icelandic road trip.  During what KúKú calls the “Sexy Season” (June 16-August 31), prices range from 135-279 euros per night.  As we are spending around $100/day to rent a car + gas + hotel rooms averaging around $180 per night, it would have saved us money to travel this way. 🙂

Don't stink and drive
Don’t stink and drive

As we pass by the pretty farmstead we saw from the rim of the volcano, I have to ask Mike to pull over again for another picture.

hotel near Grábrók Crater
hotel near Grábrók Crater

We continue our drive into North Iceland, and we still have a long way to go till we reach Akureyri.

reykjavík: the colorful shopping street laugavegur, a bizarre museum, icelandic tapas, and an ice cream treat

Monday, August 15:  After leaving Reykjavík 871±2: The Settlement Exhibition, we continue our walk through Old Reykjavík.

Old Reykjavík
Old Reykjavík
Old Reykjavík
Old Reykjavík

The pyramid form of Water Carrier (1937), by Ásmundur Sveinsson, suggests strength and stability, which is important, since the image depicts the women who carried water year-round to every household in town, whatever the weather (Reykjavik Grapevine: Statues of Reykjavik).

statue in Reykjavík
Water Carrier (1937) – Ásmundur Sveinsson
Old Reykjavík
Old Reykjavík

A statue of Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson (Ingolfur meaning royal wolf), reputed to be the first Icelandic settler, sits atop Arnarhóll. He and his wife Heilveig built their home in Reykjavik around 874 AD.  The sculpture by Einar Jonsson and shows the settler standing by his high seat pillar which is decorated with a dragon’s head.

memorial to Ingólfur Arnarson
memorial to Ingólfur Arnarson

After leaving Arnarhóll, we head up the colorful main shopping street, Laugavegur, where we see a lot of quirky and charming buildings.

Laugavegur
Laugavegur
characters on Laugavegur
characters on Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
bicycle gate on Laugavegur
bicycle gate on Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur

We are in route to an unusual museum recommended by Lonely Planet Iceland: The Icelandic Phallological Museum.  It is probably the only museum in the world to contain phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammals found in a single country.  We can’t help but be bowled over by this unusual collection.

According to the museum’s website: The Icelandic Phallological Museum contains a collection of more than two hundred penises and penile parts belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland. Visitors to the museum will encounter fifty-five specimens belonging to sixteen different kinds of whale, one specimen taken from a rogue polar bear, thirty-six specimens belonging to seven different kinds of seal and walrus, and more than one hundred fifteen specimens originating from twenty different kinds of land mammal: all in all, a total of more than two hundred specimens belonging to forty-six different kinds of mammal, including that of Homo sapiens.

famous celebrities
celebrities

One sculpture memorializes the Icelandic men’s handball team, who won a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics.  According to a 2012 article in Slate: “The sculpture consists, basically, of a bunch of silver penises pointing at the ceiling in a kind of wild-mushrooms-waving-in-a-field effect.”

There are numerous specimens of whales, dolphins, walruses, horses, giraffes, reindeer and even one Homo Sapiens, that of former Icelandic explorer and notorious womanizer, Pall Arason, who died at 95.

After visiting the museum, we walk down to the waterfront where we have a view of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Harpa Concert Hall.

Looking out at the North Atlantic Ocean
Looking out at the North Atlantic Ocean
waterfront with Harpa Concert Hall
waterfront with Harpa Concert Hall
IMG_0846
Mike at the waterfront
IMG_0845
Reykjavik waterfront
IMG_0850
me at the waterfront

We had passed an Icelandic Tapas spot earlier on our walk and now we decide to stop here for an early dinner as we’re going to the Blue Lagoon this evening.

Icelandic Tapas
Icelandic Tapas

Across the street is a bright blue music store.

blue music store
blue music store

Inside, we sit at tall bar tables on wooden benches and order tapas served in jars.  This is something new for us both as we’ve never had tapas in jars before!

Inside Icelandic Tapas
Inside Icelandic Tapas

The walls have drawings of some of the wildlife found in Iceland.

We order beers, me a white pale ale.  We enjoy homemade bread with wild mushroom spread and pesto.  The tapas jars are these: smoked lamb salad on flatbread, Icelandic fermented shark, sweet potato soup with ginger, coconut milk and chili, blue cheese and poached pear salad, and Acras, or deep-fried salted cod fritters and marinated red onion.

Icelandic Tapas
Icelandic Tapas

All tapas flavors are delicious, although I have to say it’s not a very satisfactory dinner; we’re both left hungry afterward.

Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
Laugavegur
street art on Laugavegur
street art on Laugavegur
street art on Laugavegur
street art on Laugavegur
looking down the street to the North Atlantic Ocean
looking down the street to the North Atlantic Ocean

We continue our walk through the city until we come to Joylato, where we order fresh-made ice cream.  We try to order scoops of two different ice cream flavors to share, but this is very confusing to the staff as the ice cream is homemade and they make one flavor at a time.  This helps fill us up after our not-so-filling tapas dinner.

Joylato
Joylato
pink brick road
pink brick road
characters met along the way
characters met along the way
Baluga
Babalu
fish & more
fish & more

Finally, we make our way back up Skólavörðustígur, with me jumping out into the busy street to take some parting shots of Hallgrímskirkja.

Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
last view of Hallgrímskirkja
last view of Hallgrímskirkja

We go back to our room to relax for a while until we drive to the Blue Lagoon for our 8:00 timed entry.

reykjavík’s old harbour, the roman catholic cathedral, & reykjavík 871±2: the settlement exhibition

Monday, August 15: After lunch, we continue our walk around Reykjavík, heading toward The Old Harbour and the glittering Harpa Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre, designed by Olafur Eliasson, Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið Architects.

Harpa has won multiple awards for architecture including Mies van der Rohe in 2013, Best Public Space – Arkitekturmassan Awards 2012, and the World Architecture Award 2010. (About Harpa)

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre
Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre

According to the Harpa website, the name Harpa has more than one meaning. It is an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year and is in fact a month in the old Nordic calendar. The first day of that month is celebrated as the first day of summer and marks the beginning of a brighter time where nature comes to live and the colours of the environment sharpen. Harpa also refers to the instrument that refers to the activities and operations within. To some people, Harpa looks likes a drawn harp from a certain angle. 

A statue of Danish cellist Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (March 8, 1932 – June 6, 2013), by sculptor Ólöf Pálsdóttir, sits atop the reflecting pool in front of Harpa.

statue in front of Harpa
statue in front of Harpa

We walk along the Old Harbour, built from 1913 to 1917.  Previous to its construction, which was the largest project to date in Icelandic history, most ships dropped anchor well offshore and transported goods in by rowboat.  Today, most boat traffic has moved east to Sundahöfn port (Frommer’s: Old Harbor (Hafn)).

The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour

We spot the Óðinn, a grey Coast Guard vessel with a blue, white and red diagonal stripe. The Coast Guard ships “defend the country’s territorial fishing waters. They were sent out to slice British fishing nets in the so-called ‘Cod Wars,’ which date back to 1432 but culminated in the 1970s, when Britain broke off diplomatic relations” (Frommer’s: Old Harbor (Hafn)).

The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour
The Old Harbour

After walking around the Harbor, we walk back up hill into Old Reykjavík, where we pass more colorful street art and buildings with funky rooftops.

Old Reykjavik
Old Reykjavik
street art
street art
buildings in Old Reykjavik
buildings in Old Reykjavik
Old Reykjavik
Old Reykjavik

We stumble upon Dómkirkja Krists konungs, or the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King.  Though Iceland is primarily a Lutheran country, the number of Catholics during the 20th century grew slowly. In 1960 the members of the catholic congregation constituted about a half percent of the population (897). In 1994 the number reached 1% (2535) but is now about 3% of the population (about 11.500). These are mainly immigrants from Catholic countries, especially from Poland (Brief History of the Catholic Church in Iceland).

The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King
door of The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King
door of The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King
inside The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King
inside The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King
candles in The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King
candles in The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King

Mike wants to see Reykjavík 871±2: The Settlement Exhibition.  We find the building and go inside.  Though I try to take pictures, none turn out because it’s too dark.

Reykjavík 871±2: The Settlement Exhibition
Reykjavík 871±2: The Settlement Exhibition

This exhibit about life in Viking times showcases archaeological remains excavated in 2001 in Aðalstræti.  These have turned out to be the oldest relics of human habitation in Reykjavík, with some of the fragments dating to before 871 AD. A  longhouse from the tenth century was also discovered. The hall and a wall fragment are now both carefully preserved at their original location at this museum (Visit Reykjavik: REYKJAVIK 871 +/-2 THE SETTLEMENT EXHIBITION).

The name of the exhibition is such because a layer of tephra was deposited all over Iceland around 871 AD from an eruption in the Torfajökull area, about 400 km to the east; this layer has made it possible to determine the exact dates of many archeological finds in Iceland.  The tephra layer has a possible two-year, + or -, range of error (Wikipedia: Reykjavík 871±2).

Across from the museum, we see the attractive Salvation Army building as well as an interesting statue surrounded by flowers.

Salvation Army
Salvation Army
statue near the exhibition
statue near the exhibition

We continue our walk through Old Reykjavík, up the main shopping street Laugavegur.  Our destination: a very strange, and risqué, museum.

exploring reykjavík: hallgrímskirkja & old reykjavík

Monday, August 15:  We wake up to a rather gloomy day in Reykjavík, but at least it doesn’t seem to be raining. We’ve slept rather late, as we’re existing now in parallel universe with a four-hour time difference from home.  My friend Beatrice had earlier recommended potassium and magnesium to help us sleep, and, after taking it last night, I slept like a dormant volcano (snoring away of course, as Mike complains).  The fog I’m in and my resistance to get up could be from  jet leg, exhaustion from walking nearly 7 miles yesterday, or just being in a comfortable bed under a cozy comforter. 🙂

We find, to our surprise, that there is food in the common breakfast room.  We didn’t know that breakfast came with our Airbnb reservation. Quite a spread is laid out: ham, cheese, bread, butter, jelly, yogurt.  There is a carton of eggs, an egg steamer, and stainless steel egg cups.  It takes us some fumbling to figure out how to prepare and eat the eggs using these contraptions, which are not a normal part of our lives.  A cappuccino machine also proves to be a bit of a challenge, but we finally figure it all out.

Our Airbnb hosts, Páll And Gunna Palsson, are welcoming and friendly.  Looking out at the gray skies outside, I ask Gunna if she knows the forecast for today.  She replies cheerily: “I don’t know. I don’t keep track of the weather.  Whatever I get, I get. I just live with it.”  That’s a good attitude to take, especially when you only have a limited time for a holiday.  It doesn’t do any good to wish for blue skies and perfect weather, because whatever it is, it is.  You have to go out and enjoy your holiday no matter what.  Later, we hear a radio announcer say, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes.”  We find that is also good advice, as the weather here is utterly changeable. 🙂

Freyja Guesthouse with Hallgrímskirkja in the background
Freyja Guesthouse with Hallgrímskirkja in the background

Finally, after breakfast and showers, we head down Freyjugata, with Hallgrímskirkja as our destination.  Purely by accident, we stumble into The Einar Jónsson Sculpture park, the garden of the Einar Jónsson Museum, home and studio of Iceland’s first sculptor (1874-1954).  According to the museum’s website, Jónsson drew inspiration from Icelandic folklore heritage, but he also used mythological and religious motifs.

We can actually see Hallgrímskirkja from the Freyja Guesthouse and from the sculpture garden, as we’re only one road over from the immense white concrete church that dominates Reykjavík’s skyline.  When we get up close, the Lutheran church stands before us; a sculpture outline of the building before us.  I take pictures from different angles, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s still dark and gray.  I’ve seen postcards and pictures with blue skies, and it looks so much more beautiful against a blue backdrop.  No worry though, I’ll have one more chance on our last day, August 24.

First glimpse of Hallgrímskirkja
First glimpse of Hallgrímskirkja

The church is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674), who wrote Iceland’s most popular hymn book: Passion Hymns.

sculpture superimposed on Hallgrímskirkja
sculpture superimposed on Hallgrímskirkja

It took 41 years to build the church. Construction work began in 1945 and ended in 1986; the landmark tower was completed long before the church’s actual completion. Apparently its size and unique design were controversial.

Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja

The columns on either side of the church were designed by the state architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samúelsson (1887-1950), to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape. It wasn’t completed in his lifetime.

Standing proudly in front of the church is a statue of Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson (c.970 – c.1020), the first known European to discover North America before Christopher Columbus; the sculpture was done by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945) and was a gift from the United States in honor of the 1930 Alþingi Millennial Festival, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament at Þingvellir in 930 AD.

Sadly, it’s hard to get a decent photo of it on this light-challenged day.

Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja

We pay for an elevator trip up the 74.5m tower.  We have to wait in a short line, but eventually, we enter the elevator with its odd sign: “Have you done your push ups?”  At the top, we see fantastic views of Reykjavík.  Even though it’s cloudy and gray, the colorful rooftops and buildings add a bit of cheer to the landscape.

view from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja
view from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja
view from Hallgrímskirkja
view from Hallgrímskirkja

One view shows Tjörnin, the lake , or pond, at the center of the city, with its pretty reflections of the lakeside homes.

view of Tjörnin
view of Tjörnin

Hallgrímskirkja is fairly plain inside.

stairway in the tower
stairway in the tower

The most interesting feature of the interior of the church is the 5275-pipe organ at the back of the church, completed in December, 1992.

the 5275-pipe organ
the 5275-pipe organ
candles in Hallgrímskirkja
candles in Hallgrímskirkja
fish relief sculpture
fish relief sculpture

We head down the central street leading away from the church, Skólavörðustígur, with Old Reykjavík in our sights.  I keep jumping into the middle of the busy street between cars, hoping against all odds that I’ll get a decent parting shot of Hallgrímskirkja.  It’s simply not meant to be today.

leaving Hallgrímskirkja - the dark view from Skólavörðustígur
leaving Hallgrímskirkja – the dark view from Skólavörðustígur

As we head to Old Reykjavík, we come across colorful houses that catch my eye in the gray atmosphere.  I find it interesting that, though many houses are made of timber or have a small stone or shell sand finish, many houses are covered with corrugated iron.  Maybe the iron holds up best under Iceland’s harsh weather.

some color on a dreary day
some color on a dreary day
villa
villa

There is plenty of great street art to be found in the city.  I like the artistic fence below, made of stone and timber, that depicts an Icelandic village.

Click on any of the photos below for a full-sized slide show.

We continue our stroll through Old Reykjavík, charmed by the cute houses, some in stone, others in the corrugated iron that’s so common.

house in Reykjavik
house in Reykjavik
colorful door in Reykjavik
colorful door in Reykjavik

We also come across a number of bicycles that have seen better days.

abandoned bicycle
abandoned bicycle

One place, with its red domes, looks like it was plucked from a Russian city and planted here.

house of domes
house of domes
Reykjavik homes
Reykjavik homes
Reykjavik abandoned building
Reykjavik abandoned building
Reykjavik homes
Reykjavik homes

Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík, The Free Church in Reykjavík, sits along the lake, Tjörnin. Established in the autumn of 1899 with 600 members, it didn’t spring from any doctrinal dispute with the national Lutheran church, but arose from objections to certain aspects of the national church’s organizations. The Free church wished to bring the church closer to the people, much like churches in Norway and North America (Wikipedia: Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík).

church near Tjörnin
church near Tjörnin

The postmodern City Hall, Ráðhús Reykjavíkur, stands in the northwest corner on the edge of the lake. It houses the offices of the mayor of Reykjavík.

City Hall on Tjörnin
City Hall on Tjörnin
Tjörnin reflections
Tjörnin reflections
IMG_0828
Tjörnin reflections
IMG_0830
Tjörnin
a burst of color
a burst of color

Near City Hall is a sculpture honoring the anonymous job of the bureaucrat: Óþekkti Embættismaðurinn, The Unknown Bureaucrat, 1993. The 1994 sculpture by Magnús Tómasson depicts a man in a crumpled suit holding a briefcase, with his head and shoulders subsumed in a slab of unsculpted stone.  Oh the thankless burden of being a bureaucrat!

burdened office worker
burdened office worker
City Hall on Tjörnin
City Hall on Tjörnin

We pass by a cute cafe with outdoor seating that beckons, but I think I’d rather go inside on such a chilly day.

cafe that would beckon if warmer
cafe that would beckon if warmer

Austurvöllur is a public square in which stands a sculpture of Jón Sigurðsson (1811 – 1879), the leader of the 19th century Icelandic movement for Independence from Denmark.

statue
sculpture of Jón Sigurðsson

Domkirkjan, a church bordering Austurvöllur, played an important part in Icelandic history.  Here independence was first officially endorsed by the Lutheran Church of Iceland.  Though a church has been on this site since around 1200 AD, the current church was built from 1788-1796.

church
church

At around 12:30, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch.  We hunker down in Hraðlestin  Indian Restaurant, which is quite a festive place with its posters of Bollywood movies on its walls.

Inside Hraðlestin
Inside Hraðlestin

We enjoy a delicious lunch of vegetable thali and lamb samosas.  I love the poster of “An Ideal Boy – Good Habits” I find in the decorative bathroom.

After lunch we walk down Lækjargata toward the Harpa Concert Hall, situated on the edge of the Old Harbor.

Continuing on our way after lunch
Continuing on our way after lunch

iceland’s golden circle: gullfoss & geysir

Sunday, August 14:  We drive next to the stop furthest afield along the Golden Circle: Gullfoss. It is proclaimed as Iceland’s most famous waterfall.  Brown sediment from the Lángjökull glacier, about 40km north of Gullfoss, flows into the glacier lake Hvítávatn (“white river” lake) and then into the river Hvítá (“white river”), where it falls in two magnificent cascades into a 32m deep narrow ravine.  Apparently on sunny days, the mist creates rainbows, but as today isn’t sunny, we don’t experience any color at all!  At least, thank goodness, it’s stopped raining.

The waterfall is quite a sight when we first get a glimpse of it.

First view of Gullfoss
First view of Gullfoss

We walk down a long path to a ledge overlooking the first drop. Lots of people are walking around taking pictures on the slippery rocks and I can’t help wonder if anyone has ever fallen in.

Gullfoss
Gullfoss
Mike at Gullfoss
Mike at Gullfoss
Gullfoss
Gullfoss

It’s overwhelming to watch where the second drop thunders into the ravine.

Gullfoss and its mighty mist
Gullfoss and its mighty mist

It’s also quite heart-stopping to watch where it tumbles down a three-step staircase to the second drop-off.

from the top of Gullfoss
from the top of Gullfoss

Gullfoss and the surrounding area were made a nature reserve in 1979 to give people the best possible opportunity to enjoy the wonder of nature.  The area’s ecosystem is also protected, and its vegetation remains untouched.  Attempts are made to minimize man’s footprint, to keep man-made structures to a minimum and not to disturb the land and geological formations.

the power of Gullfoss
the power of Gullfoss

I look like a little round barrel with my multiple layers of clothes on.  Here I have on leggings and rain pants on the bottom and a denim shirt, a cardigan, a rain jacket and a vest!

me at Gullfoss
me at Gullfoss

It’s difficult at first to see the depth of the ravine because of all the mist, but finally we get a glimpse.

Gullfoss - the second drop
Gullfoss – the second drop

I try to mess with my shutter speed and get this shot.  I can’t believe I still am no good with my manual settings!

Gullfoss
Gullfoss

As we walk back to the top again, we see a memorial to Sigríður Tómasdóttir, born in 1871, the second eldest of 13 children.  Only seven of those children reached adulthood.  She quickly became the leader of the siblings.  Of average height but strongly built, she had thick blonde hair and was considered good-looking in her younger years.  She was hard-working, and early in her life mainly worked outdoors.

Tourists started to visit Gullfoss in 1875.  The waterfall at that time was hard to reach because of rough terrain and impassable rivers.  Sigríður and her sisters often guided visitors to Gullfoss, building the first trail that led to the waterfall.

Sigríður is memorialized here because of her heroic struggle for the waterfall’s conservation.  In 1907, an Englishman wanted to harness the power of Gullfoss for electricity generation.  Sigríður’s father declined to sell the land.  Later, the waterfall was leased to foreign investors by the government.  When Sigríður tried to have the rental contract voided, her attempt failed in court.  She spent many hours fighting her case, even walking barefoot to Reykjavik to “protest;” at one time she threatened to throw herself over the waterfall if the development went ahead.  Luckily, the rental contract was canceled due to non-receipt of payments.  Sigríður has often been called Iceland’s first environmentalist.

She died when she was 87, in 1957.

Sigridour
Sigríður

After our walk down to the waterfall’s edge, we hike up to the lookout over the falls.  In the distance, we can see the glacier Lángjökull nestled into the jagged mountains.  This is our first glimpse of many glaciers we’ll see in Iceland.

Langjökull - Iceland's 2nd largest glacier - is nestled in the mountains
Langjökull – Iceland’s 2nd largest glacier – is nestled in the mountains

Langjökull is the second largest ice cap in Iceland.

Langjökull in the distance
Langjökull in the distance

We have a nice view of the waterfall from the lookout above.

Gullfoss from above
Gullfoss from above
view overlooking Gullfoss
view overlooking Gullfoss

In the distance, we can see another mountain with a cloud hat.  I make Mike pose sideways in front of it because their hats match. 🙂

a mountain with a hat
a mountain with a hat
Mike and his hat / mountain with hat
Mike and his hat / mountain with hat
Langjökull in the distance
Langjökull in the distance

We go into the visitor’s center at Gullfoss because they’re reputed to serve a famous organic lamb soup made from locally sourced ingredients.  We share the soup and some bread as a snack because we’re looking forward to eating a hearty dinner in Reykjavik tonight.

the gift shop at Gullfoss
the gift shop at Gullfoss
food at Gullfoss
food at Gullfoss
Lamb soup and bread
Lamb soup and bread

We leave Gullfoss and head toward the third famous tourist attraction along the Golden Circle.

landscape on the way to Geysir
landscape on the way to Geysir

Geysir, which literally means “gusher,” is the original hot water-spout after which all other geysers are named, according to Lonely Planet Iceland.  The great Geysir has been active for some 800 years, and at one time gushed water up to 80 meters.  The geyser has been going through a period of lesser activity since 1916 and thus is now more undependable.

Geysir
Geysir

Luckily the more reliable geyser, Strokkur, which sits nearby, erupts every 5-10 minutes in a 15m-30m plume.  We stand around the edge with other tourists until we hear it gurgle and heave like a whale, erupting suddenly with surprising force.

Strokkur
Strokkur
the more dependable Strokkur
the more dependable Strokkur
Strokkur
Strokkur

We walk around the field looking at the other geysers and then we’re ready to be on our way.  I’ve seen a lot of impressive geysers at Yellowstone National Park, so these don’t thrill me that much!

at the Geysir site
at the Geysir site
at Geysir
at Geysir
Strokkur erupting
Strokkur erupting
Strokkur errupting
Strokkur errupting
another hot pool at Geysir
another hot pool at Geysir
landscape at Geysir
landscape at Geysir
landscape at Geysir
landscape at Geysir

We finally leave Geysir and head back to Reykjavik on the Golden Circle loop, going through Selfoss, which doesn’t have much to speak of.  We stop for a couple of scenes along the way: sweeping plateau-top mountains, white farm houses with red roofs nestled cozily against the mountain slopes, strange desolate landscapes covered in bulbous, moss-covered rocks.

The Golden Circle on the way back to Reykjavik
The Golden Circle on the way back to Reykjavik
the surreal landscape of Iceland along The Golden Circle
the surreal landscape of Iceland along The Golden Circle

We set the Garmin to go  directly to Nora Magasin, a hip bistro-bar in Old Reykjavik.  There I have a wheat beer with citrus in a Viking glass and we share a delicious dinner of mushroom risotto topped with baby spinach and a large appetizer platter of warm Camembert with blueberry compote on bread, accompanied by corn on the cob with a sweet-sour sauce.

me at Nora Magasin
me at Nora Magasin

Then we go to our Airbnb room at Freyja Guesthouse where we get cozy for the night.  Our plan is to explore Reykjavik tomorrow and go to the Blue Lagoon tomorrow night. 🙂

our room at Freyja Guesthouse in Reykjavik
our room at Freyja Guesthouse in Reykjavik

Fitbit step tally for today: 16,453 steps, or about 7 miles. 🙂