Greeting, teeming millions! To those who correctly guessed Iceland as my super-secret international vacation destination, I commend you. And your knowledge of a place where you’re the most likely to discover a land where the shark is rotten (see hakarl) and whale burgers abound.
You may still be wondering a question I’ve heard a few times since coming back. Iceland? In January? WHY?
It all started with an October email from my college friend, Lara. I had just started a trial and was mired in all of the associated misery of witness prep and evidential issues, wishing myself anywhere else in the world, when her message blew into my mailbox like a cool breeze from the Pacific northwest. The subject line was simple: Want to meet in Iceland?
Never mind that all I knew about Iceland was that it was warmer than its deceptively named neighbor, Greenland. Its unknown qualities were part of the allure.
Where exactly was Iceland? What were the people like? What did you do in Iceland besides gaze at the Northern Lights? Were there going to be polar bears? Would I get frostbite? Would I like it? (Iceland, not frostbite.)
A Brief, Brief History of Iceland:
Iceland is said to have been settled around the year 871, plus or minus two years, and popular lore says that Ingolfur Arnarson was the first settler. High taxes and overpopulation in Scandinavia are widely believed to have driven Arnarson and others to set sail for Iceland’s volcanic shores. The country is the site of the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy, with the formation of the Alþingi in the year 930. We were traveling to a country the size of Ohio but with a population of only 318,000.
None of this historic information prepared me for the brutally cold wind that assaulted my (borrowed) ski jacket and sliced in through any openings as I turned my back to the wind and waited in vain for the bus that would take us to our hotel. Fortunately, things looked up from there, after a brief seven hour nap in the world’s most comfortable hotel bed. I awoke to discover that Reykjavik is a mixture of quaint nordic village, cosmopolitan European capital, and Viking austerity.
We spent the first day or so getting acquainted with the city, and planned on taking a few excursions into the countryside later in the trip. The first thing I noticed about Reykjavik is that there just aren’t that many people. Anywhere. The streets are rarely crowded, there was almost never a line anywhere, and it was a bit eerie initially. Eventually I got used to the space and the quiet, and it actually made the whole trip far more relaxing. Culturally, we started with the 871 ±2 Settlement Exhibit, so named because researchers can trace the settlement of Reykjavik to that time period.
The Settlement Exhibit features the remains of a Viking long house that were discovered while the foundation for a hotel was being excavated. If you peer through the glass, you can catch a glimpse of the intact hearth that still survives from the house. The exhibit provides a glimpse into the way Iceland looked to those early settlers and how they lived.
The rest of Reykjavik proved to be a little bit more modern. The city is very picturesque, and reminiscent of a maritime New England town. There was a Celtic presence in the early Settlement days, so perhaps that explains a certain similarity. Or maybe it was the surprising amount of Irish pubs. (I counted at least four. Possibly five. I don’t remember.)
There were also hearty, long-haired Chihuahuas in Iceland. Bowie didn’t believe it when I told him.
My favorite part of Reykjavik was down by the harbor.
The water was beautiful, with Mt. Esja looming in the background.
Although there have been fishing quotas imposed in recent years, this is still very much an active harbor.
We took a brief swing through the Kolaporti∂ flea market, which is like a weekend-only gigantic yard sale circa 1986, with lava bead jewelry thrown in.
These days, Leif can be found in front of the Hallgrimskirkja. The Hallgrimskirkja is the dominant feature of Reykjavik’s skyline, visible from nearly anywhere in the city. It is a Lutheran church, which is the official Church of Iceland, and took over 40 years to complete.
The best part, however, was taking in the views from the tower.
But that’s another story for another time.