Flights from Vancouver, Canada, to Iceland arrive in the wee hours of the morning. Luckily, we had ordered a driver to take us to downtown Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital. An hour later we were wandering up Laugavegur (“Water Road”), one of the City’s oldest shopping streets. A portion of this street has been painted in rainbow colours in support of gay pride. So early in the morning, few tourists were up and about. Later in the day, it would be teeming with visitors frequenting cafes and restaurants or shopping for local merchandise and souvenirs.
At the top of the hill we entered the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church. Constructed of concrete, its architecture was designed to resemble the basalt lava columns of Iceland’s landscape. We rode the elevator to the viewing deck atop the 74.5 metre tall observation tower. From there we enjoyed sweeping panoramic views of the City and its surroundings. Back at street level and just in front of the Church, our steps led us toward a statue of Leif Ericson, the first European to land in North America in the year 1000 and a hero of Iceland’s Viking Age. Nearby the country’s red, white and blue flag fluttered in the wind. Later our guide told us that the blue background represents the sky, the snowy white cross the icy glaciers and the red the fiery exploding lava. We topped off our first day with the best fish and chips in town.
The following morning we visited the Saga Museum. Here, historically costumed figures of both famous heroes and infamous villains bring the Viking age to life. We learned about the history of the Viking settlement, the epic clan feuds and the founding of the world’s first parliament. Of particular note was a representation of Ingolfur Arnarson, the first permanent Norse settler in Iceland. He arrived in the country in 874 AD and later built a farmstead in Reykjavik. According to legend the City’s name was inspired by steam rising from the region’s hot springs. In English the name means “Smoky Bay” and comprises two Old Norse words: reykr meaning smoke and vik meaning bay.
Next we popped into the adjacent Aurora Museum where we watched a narrated movie explaining the history and science behind the Northern Lights. This natural phenomenon isn’t visible during the summer but we happily marveled at the show’s magnificent cinematography.
Continuing to explore the Old Harbour area, we found ourselves at the Whales of Iceland Museum. It houses a life-sized collection of 23 cetacean species including gray, blue and humpback whales. There was a fascinating documentary about the many species of whales including their interactive experiences and underwater footage. The commentator advised that water is a brilliant medium for sound and enables the whales to communicate with each other over distances of up to 3,000 km. Sadly the innumerable ships traversing the ocean at any one time interfere with these whale songs. For our gourmet dining pleasure that evening we were offered a choice of tender locally-raised grass-fed lamb shank or the delicately flaky native Arctic Char.
Next on our agenda was a 15-minute boat ride across the Old Harbour to view the Atlantic puffins on their island refuge. These loveable little creatures with their black and white plumage and colourful beaks weigh around 650 grams and stand about 20 cm. high. We loved watching them zoom across the water, their wings flapping a mile a minute. Then they’d plunge down head first searching for sand eels, their primary source of food. To our ears, their strange growling call blended the sound of a cow mooing with that of a chain saw screeching. Our guide furnished us with many facts about puffins. In 2018 they were categorized as a vulnerable species. They are excellent little swimmers but their clumsy landings have earned them the nickname “clowns of the sea”. They spend the winter months on the open ocean. About 30,000 puffins arrive on this island in the springtime to mate. They build their burrows in rocky cliffs close to the shoreline. Puffins choose a lifetime soul mate and together generally nurture just one solitary puffling. For us, a dismaying detail was that some Icelanders still enjoy the gamey flavor of smoked puffin.
Finally we joined a guided tour of the Harpa Concert Hall. Home to the Opera and the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, this architectural masterpiece is sited on the riverfront. After a few financial hiccups, the building was completed and opened in 2011. Our docent was full of information. Its innovative design was inspired by the arctic lights and the dramatic Icelandic scenery. It has a steel framework which holds 714 multi-coloured glass panels. These geometric facades are illuminated with LED lights at nighttime. What a magical sight to see. The word “Harpa” was chosen by the Icelandic people. It refers to a Spring month in the old Norse calendar as well as the musical instrument. Before heading back to our hotel, we relaxed at the Harpa’s restaurant “Hnoss” which means jewel or treasure. Both the lamb tartare with garlic sauce and crispy chips and the bruschetta with wild shrimp were delicious. A short walk along the waterfront brought us to a striking landmark that was created in celebration of the City’s 200-year anniversary. This gleaming steel sculpture called the “Sun Voyager” resembles a Viking long-ship and represents the promise of undiscovered territory and a dream of hope, progress and freedom.
There are many other sites to visit in Reykjavik. These include: the Settlement Museum, the highlight of which is a 10th century hall excavated in 2001; and the Perlan, a unique glass dome sitting atop a hill which hosts the exhibit “Wonders of Iceland”. We enjoyed watching two films: one about Iceland’s dramatic lava eruptions; the other featuring the Aurora Borealis. Finally we donned our warm jackets and toques for a quick trip through a simulated ice cave. That was certainly a cold experience.
Our three activity-filled days in Reykjavík were an enlightening introduction to this country of fire and ice. Tonight, we’re full of anticipation. Tomorrow we’ll embark on a small group tour to travel this geologically intriguing country.