It has been decades since our first and only trip to Iceland. We decided to return this past September to:
- Re-explore Reykjavik and the Golden Triangle and discover a few other areas around the Island’s south and west coasts that we have not previously visited; and
- Capture our first ever views of the aurora borealis without taking a bone-chilling wintertime into the arctic region.
We took a direct flight from San Francisco to Reykjavik. Our flight, like most of the flights from the US, all seemed to land at 6-7 AM (see our separate blog on our experience of flying IcelandAir). Most people who land early morning start their exploration at the Blue Lagoon which is not far from the airport. We put this at the end of our trip. After flying all night, we needed some exercise to wake us up, not a warm bath. Instead, we started out with a walking (tourcitywalk.is/tour/free) with our engaging guide, Nanna.
The pretty pond-side setting of City Hall, with its large, scale, topographic model of the island, provided an opportunity for an overview of the island’s geological history and how its unique location at the base of the Arctic Circle and most ominously, at the intersection of the North American and Eurasian plates, created and will continue to shape the future of the country.
The island’s location makes for some very cold weather, especially in the island’s interior and along its north coast. Winter temperatures, for example, can reach 20 below Fahrenheit in winter and has led to 11 percent of the island being covered by glaciers. Global warming has resulted in the disappearance of 56 glaciers since 1912.
The island’s southern portion of the island is warmed by relatively warm water and moisture-laden air of ocean currents. Like southern, coastal Alaska, these currents help moderate temperatures throughout the year. The island’s subsurface magma contributes to this warming by heating the groundwater and the land. The magma also makes Iceland one of the planet’s largest sources of geothermal energy. This combined with the hydropower created from the island’s waterfalls, makes for a very clean, not to speak of inexpensive source of energy.
The island’s place at the intersection of two tectonics plates has an even greater impact on the country. First, Iceland wouldn’t exist were it weren’t for the volcanos that created it. These tectonic forces continue to shape the country. It has one of the highest rates of geothermal activity in the in the world, which produces continual tremors, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Indeed, 56 of the island’s countless volcanos are still considered to be active and five of these are showing ominous signs of forthcoming activity.
One, Eyjafjallajokul, created worldwide aviation turmoil in 2010 with a month-long eruption that blanketed Europe in ash. A 1973 undersea eruption, meanwhile, created Surtsey, one of the world’s newest islands. Scientist are using the island as a laboratory for exploring the emergence of flora and fauna on newly-formed volcanic rock.
Reykjavik’s Historic Core
The story of the islands habitation begins in the center of downtown Reykjavik where two stone pillars (and two, geothermal steam pipes) mark the spot of the first Viking settlement in 874 AD. These Vikings were very different from those who plundered what are now Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and then left. Iceland provided few plundering opportunities. Instead, the island was more likely to attract farmers and fisherman and, like Australia, free spirits and criminals looking to escape the constrains of society or the law.
This, in addition to the spot of initial settlement, the site of an ancient cemetery (long since moved) and the Settlement House Museum (a subterranean museum, built around the 9th-century remains of a Viking longhouse) and a stop at the Einar Jonsson sculpture of Ingolfur Aranson, the island’s first settler, pretty much ended the historical portion of the tour.
Reykjavik’s Main Square
The nearby Austurvollur Square is the city’s main square. In the center is a monument to Jon Sigurosson, who initiated the island’s independence movement. It is fronted by the country’s Parliament Building and Catholic Cathedral.
From there, a walk through the town’s pretty commercial district brought us to the base of the huge, 240-foot, concrete Haligrimskirrrkja Lutheran church that is intended to look like a volcanic formation and is home to a 5,275-pipe organ.
The tour ended at artist Olafur Eliasson’s beautiful Harpa Concert Hall, whose glass panels elicit the same hexagonal basalt-like volcanic components as used in Haligrimskirrrkja. But while the church’s are in concrete, Harpa’s are in glass some of the panels of which are in colors that shimmer in different light conditions.
Our guide also provided an overview of Nordic family naming conventions (based on the father’s first name), tax structure (multi-faceted and high) and the island’s popularity with tourists (2.3 million in 2018—compared with a permanent population of only about 350,000).
Reykjavik City Center
From there, our own tour explored the center city and visited a few of the city’s more important artistic sites including:
- Listasafn Islands National Gallery is the country’s premier art museum. Its permanent exhibit, Treasures of a Nation, highlight works through several styles of Icelandic art, from traditional landscapes, through the early- to mid-20th century’s European Nationalist style and increased levels of abstraction through the latter 20th century. An interesting temporary exhibit Hulda Hakon’s “Who are your people?” has a large series of sculptures and paintings that examine the identity of individuals within groups and among their surroundings. A smaller gallery represents contemporary art, currently in the form of a few videos.
- Einar Jonsson Sculpture Museum. The top floor is a home and studio of the early 20th-century European nationalist-style artist whose dramatic works range from unusual, representational religious pieces to enigmatic busts.
- Studio Olafur Eliasson. We took an independent walk through the studio of the artist (who designed Harpa’s exterior and a large exhibition of whose work we subsequently saw at London’s Tate Modern). The same building also houses the Living Art Museum. While the exhibit was closed, we saw a tiny portion of a life-size sculpture of a personage hanging from the ceiling of the floor below! Both museums are in the increasingly hip Grandi neighborhood. The main street of the area is lined with long blocks of former fishing sheds that increasingly house boutiques and specialty food shops. One area, next to a still operating fish storage area (visible through a large picture window) housed the Grandi Food Hall, with a half-dozen small stalls.
- Lobsterhouse, which showcases the island’s iconic crustacean (actually langoustines, rather than lobsters). We sampled three types of langoustines: langoustine soup, croquettes and seafood pasta with langoustines, shrimp and scallops in a tomato-based sauce. None were particularly memorable, although the moderately-hopped Einstok Arctic Pale Ale was tasty.
- Fiskfelagid is a seafood restaurant where we had a delicious meal. We began with thyme and cherry-marinated reindeer carpaccio with pureed cepes, crispy oyster mushrooms and frozen foie gras. The main dish was a combo plate of fresh fish—pan-fried arctic char, deep-fried plaice and our least favorite of the three, pan-fried ocean perch. These came with buttermilk squash puree. The amuse bouche—smoked haddock with avocado puree and crumble bread—was as good as our primary dishes. Wine was a 2018 Vina Maipo (Chilean) chardonnay.