“There are more things to be thought of by men than money alone.”
En fleira er mönnum til hugganar en fébætur einar.
–The Saga of Grettir the Strong
Iceland wasn’t inhabited until 874 AD and for good reason. Unpredictable volcanoes, earthquakes and the remote location made it unassailable to practically everyone. Everyone except Norsemen. Fearless sailors, plucky farmers, fighters who were well acquainted with harsh foreign environments (see Viking invasions of France, Scotland, Ireland, etc.) they considered the island a lucky conquest despite the fact they didn’t get to vanquish any locals.
These first Icelanders were prodigious fisherman who supplemented their income by extorting “protection money” from England in return for resisting the urge to plunder English cities and ravish English women.
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Skip ahead over 1,000 years and most islanders lived a rather modest existence and spent time knitting those beautiful but scratchy sweaters.
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Today fishing is still the number one source of income, but tourism increases every year with more than 400,000 people coming ashore to scale the peaks and trek the ice caves.
They usually come through Reykjavik. If you’re old enough, you first heard of Reykjavik in 1972 when Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky here in the World Chess Championships. (Fischer won.) If you’re younger, you remember Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev here for a summit in 1986. (Reagan won.)
Reykjavik is a shining example of stylish Nordic design especially at HARPA, the concert hall and conference center opened in 2011 designed by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and Danish architectural firm Henning Larsen. Book tickets to see Björk, Sigúr Ros or hear Beethoven.
NORDIC HOUSE (Nordens hus), not far from Harpa, was designed by Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto in 1968. Sponsored by the Nordic Council, it’s a cultural institution dedicated to furthering the Scandinavian arts in Iceland. It’s a Public Library and Art Library with space for literary festivals and art exhibitions.
Reserve a table at excellent BISTRO AALTO led by talented chef Sveinn Kjartansson seen here wearing one of those beautiful but scratchy sweaters.
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Stop in at Reykjavik Art Museum where the current exhibition by artist Kathy Clark, ‘BEARS; TRUTHS…’ looks like a radical miscommunication between Santa and his Elves.
In 1990 the museum commissioned a site specific sculpture by Richard Serra, AFANGAR, on Videy Island, a ten minute boat trip away. On view is a video explaining his austere “standing stones”.
Artist Magús Sigurdarson’s PROCESS AND PRETENSE is another video currently at the museum. This one was made inside Reykjavik’s most visited landmark, Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran church.
Icelanders have a distinctly different sense of humor than church goers in the U.S.
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For the lowbrow among us there’s Reykjavik’s Phallological Museum, somewhat similar in content to the Toilet Museum in Czech Republic. Below is a piece inspired by Iceland’s 2008 Olympic Handball team by artist Porgerdur Sigurdardóttir, not to be confused with the first openly Lesbian Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir (2009-2013).
Researching a trip to Iceland presents you with a bewildering array of guided tours offering everything from whale watching to volcano watching to northern lights watching, all of it fairly pricey. With only 4 days to see the country, we decided to rent a car in Reykjavik and head out to the south and western regions of the island.
We spent one full day driving “The Golden Circle,” the most popular southern scenic route in Iceland. It includes Thingvellir National Park and spectacular Gullfoss, a waterfall in the Hvitá Canyon. There are dozens of geysers and other geothermal experiences along the way.
We devoted another day to Snaefellsjöekull National Park which encompasses the westernmost arm of the island.
After hiking and photographing we looked for a nourishing reward. We loved APOTEK restaurant in Reykjavik for new Nordic cuisine in a cool Nordic setting.
My dear husband Waldemar believes he is a descendant of fierce Viking warriors. Here he is reclaiming his roots in the children’s section of the history museum.