Iceland Virtual Tourist Meet, day six
29.05.2018 - 30.05.2018
But plenty of wind!
Street art near Hlemmur Square
Today some of us had booked a whale-watching trip, which I had been look forward to eagerly, especially after seeing photos taken by my friend Regina on a similar trip. Although I have been whale watching many times before, it is of course unpredictable and different every time, so I always like to take any opportunity for another trip wherever I find one. But unfortunately, this one was so unpredictable that it was cancelled - not through any fault of the company but because of very strong winds. Credit though to the company through which I had booked, Guide to Iceland, who had processed a full refund before I was even due to be back on shore at the end of the afternoon.
A morning in Reykjavik
In a Reykjavik souvenir shop
So the morning’s exploration of Reykjavik which Isa and I had planned became more or less a full day, but luckily there was more than enough here to keep us occupied. We made a leisurely start, meeting for coffee at Reykjavik Roasters opposite the apartment block. From there we walked slowly along the main street into town, Laugavegur, chatting and looking out for good photo opps as we went.
Reykjavik street art
The photos I took seemed to fall mainly into two groups - street art and architecture. And by the latter I don't mean anything ornate or imposing, but the simple but often colourful traditional corrugated iron houses found in Reykjavik's older districts. The pleasing geometry of vertical lines, rectangular window frames and contrasting roofs seems to reduce the structures from three to two dimensions, creating almost abstract forms.
Reykjavik building details
More Reykjavik building details
Einar Jónsson Sculpture Park
Part way along Laugavegur we turned up towards Hallgrimskirkja in order to visit the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Park nearby, which had been recommended by our tour guide yesterday, Matthias. This lies behind the museum dedicated to the artist and his work, in a building that was formerly his studio.
Colourful shop on Frakkastígur, on the way up to the sculpture park
Einar Jónsson was an Icelandic sculptor working in the first half of the twentieth century. I had never heard of him and it seems that is not so surprising as very little of his work has ever been seen outside his home country.
We walked around for some time, both really taken with the sculptures. Although all different, there seemed to us to be common themes running through them, of protection, encircling arms, safety. You can see the influence of Icelandic folklore too. The figures are for the most part not large (all these works stand on plinths) but have a solidity about them.
Prayer, and Protection
Light and Shade
Thor Wrestling with Age, and Earth
Back outside the gardens we spotted an unusual small art work on a plinth near the Hallgrimskirkja - a jagged metal shape which, viewed from the right angle, provides an interesting frame for the church, echoing its form.
Hallgrimskirkja through a frame, and in silhouette
From here we walked down the hill, taking more photos as we went.
More building details
Lunch at the Old Harbour
We headed for the Old Harbour, where we had arranged to meet others from our group for an early lunch before the whale watching trip that was not to be. We confirmed this with the company’s office there and all agreed that in the (we thought) unlikely event that they were able to reschedule for 17.00 we would not take them up on the offer as we felt the waves would still be high and the whales elusive at that time of day. It would also interfere with our plans for what would be, for most of us, our last evening here.
Old Harbour, Reykjavik
Building near the harbour
Mind the banana skin!
Decisions made we went for lunch at Reykjavik Fish and enjoyed their fish and chips while we planned our afternoon.
Fish and chips at Reykjavik Fish
VTers at lunch
We then split up, with Kirsty joining me and Isa in a visit to the nearby Saga Museum. We took a circuitous route however, through a nice residential area and past some more interesting street art on the walls of the Loftkastalinn building.
Street art by Guido van Helten
These are the work of Guido van Helten, an Australian artist who undertook a residency in Reykjavik in 2014. He based his designs on photos from the Reykjavik Museum of Photography Archive which depict scenes from the Jean-Paul Sartre play ‘Huis Clos’ (performed here in 1961) – an existentialist play in which the characters Estelle, Garcin and Inez are locked together in a room for eternity.
More street art in this part of the city (by other artists)
The Saga Museum
Once reached the museum proved small but fascinating and very well done, with lifelike (and life-size) figures depicting key scenes from that period in Iceland’s history. Before going into the main exhibition area, we took some photos outside, and inside had fun posing with some weapons provided for that purpose (along with costumes which we didn’t use) and a rather threatening Viking!
At the Saga Museum
The displays cover the period from before the settlement of Iceland through to the Reformation, in a series of seventeen scenes. Here are a few I found especially interesting and/or photo-worthy. My texts in this section of my blog are taken from signs at the museum and information on its website - everything in italics is a direct quote. Feel free to skip if you're not into history, but I found these tales fascinating!
Papar – the first inhabitants
The oldest Icelandic record of the papar can be found in Íslendingabók written by Ari Þorgilsson, better known as Ari fróði or Ari ‘the Learned’, in the period 1122-33 AD. In that work he writes that ‘there were Christian men here, whom the Norsemen called papar, but they left because they did not want to share the land with heathens. They left behind them Irish books as well as crooks and bells.’
… this short passage from Ari the Learned provided the basis for the belief in later times that the papar were the first settlers of Iceland. The word papar means ‘fathers’. These fathers appear to have been hermit monks dedicated to a simple and frugal existence. They sailed to the Hebrides and other small islands off the British coast in small hide-covered craft called currachs in search of new uninhabited places where they might settle and devote themselves to their faith, undisturbed by any intruders. Even though no actual remains have been found in Iceland there are a number of place names that appear to suggest their presence.
Hrafna-Flóki – the exodus from Norway
Flóki Vilgerðarson was the first Norseman to think about settling in Iceland. In 870 AD he had his ship loaded up with his belongings, including what livestock he could get aboard and made his way to Iceland. Navigational technology was primitive in those days for example there were no compasses and the Vikings kept directions by the position of moon and stars. They also knew a good deal about the flight paths of birds and for that reason they mainly sailed during the migration seasons of spring and autumn. Flóki went one step further than this and took three ravens aboard with him for which he asked the blessings of the gods. En route he released the ravens in the hope that they would help him find the way to Iceland. The first raven flew towards the Faroe Islands, the second flew up into the air and then back down to the ship but the third flew forwards and thereby led Flóki to the coast of Iceland. From that time on he was therefore known as Hrafna-Flóki or Raven-Flóki.
Hrafna-Flóki settled in Vatnsfjörður on Barðaströnd. But things did not go well for him. Instead of storing fodder for his livestock, he neglected the farm and spent the entire summer fishing and hunting. The following winter was especially harsh and all the livestock that he brought with him perished. Flóki left Iceland for good the following summer and it is to him that we owe its present name after he claimed he had seen a fjord completely covered over with ice floes in the middle of spring.
Ingólfur and Hallveig
The first Norseman to settle in Iceland and live here for the rest of his life was Ingólfur Arnarson, who came to the country with his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttir in the year 874 AD.
When Ingólfur Arnarson saw Iceland rise up out of the sea he decided to let the gods decide where might be the best place along the coast for him to settle. He then threw the carved pillars of his high seat overboard and swore that he would build his farm wherever they came ashore. These pillars, or öndvegissúlur as they are known in Icelandic, were carved with the family name and special emblem along with representations of the gods, but prominently featured the god to which they believed they owed the greatest allegiance. After having thrown them into the water, Ingólfur came ashore at what was subsequently known as Ingólfshöfði, where he raised a house and spent his first winter. He sent out two of his slaves, Vífill and Karli, to look for the carved pillars. They searched along the coastline for three years before finally locating them in a large bay in the southwest of the country.
When Vífill and Karli found the pillars they returned immediately to let Ingólfur know. They were not impressed with the place and said that, ‘there had been little point in their having travelled far and wide across fertile land if they were going to end up settling in this out-of-the-way place’. Ingólfur paid little attention to their complaints and moved to the place where the pillars came ashore. He called the place Reykjavík (literally ‘steam bay’) because of the large amount of steam that rose from the nearby hot-springs.
My friend Regina has a fantastic amount of information about Ingólfur and Hallveig, and Ingólfur’s blood brother Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson, in her blog on the Guide to Iceland website: https://guidetoiceland.is/connect-with-locals/regina/hjorleifshofdi-cape?a=135. Excitingly, she can trace her ancestry directly back to Ingólfur and Hallveig, the first settlers!
In The Saga of Eric the Red we learn how Freydís accompanied her husband to Vinland on an expedition led by Þorfinnur Karlsefni and his wife Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir. When they reached Vinland they soon encountered the native people and begun to trade with them. However, during such an exchange of goods a bull owned by Þorfinnur went on a rampage and the natives who had never seen such a beast before immediately took up their weapons. A skirmish ensued in which natives appeared to have the upper hand and Þorfinnur and his party begun to flee. Freydís reprimanded the men in no uncertain terms for their cowardice and tried to encourage them to make a stand but they ran as fast as they could into the cover of the forest.
Freydís eventually followed the men but since she was pregnant she soon begun to slow down and lose sight of them. She ran past the body of a certain Þorbrandur Snorrason who had been slain by a blow to the head with a rock, and then saw the natives preparing to attack the Viking party with a battery of rocks and stones. As they pursued the Vikings the natives suddenly came across Freydís and surrounded her. Fearlessly, she seized hold of Þorbrandur’s sword which lay beside his body, opened her tunic to reveal one of her breasts and held the sword tightly against it. This bold gesture seems to have frightened the natives and they ran of terrified by what they apparently thought was an evil omen.
Towards the end of the settlement period the Icelandic chieftains decided to base their legal system on foreign prototypes. To this end a man named Úlfljótur, a farmer in the east who had many years of legal experience, was sent to Norway to learn all he could of the legal system there. The suggestions that he returned with were endorsed by the Icelanders but there was no writing tradition in the country at the time so the leaders of the legislature therefore undertook the extraordinary task of learning all the laws by heart.
While Úlfljótur was travelling in Norway, his foster-brother Grímur Geitskór travelled all over Iceland looking for a suitable place to hold the national assembly. The location he finally selected was at a place called Bláskógar by Lake Ölfusvatn, but which was later named Þingvellir and the lake Þingvallavatn. In 930 A.D. the Alþingi (Althing) or general assembly met for the first time and after that each summer and was in session for one or two weeks …
The only member of the Althing to receive payment was the law speaker whose task it was to commit to memory the entire body of laws, recite in front of the assembly all the laws that were in effect and further to preside over the meetings of the assembly. With the appearance of recorded laws in book form, the role of the law speaker changed dramatically and his title changed to lögmaður which meant something like chief lawyer. In time, men who were well versed in reading and writing took over the office of chief lawyer, such as Snorri Sturluson, Styrmir Kárason and Sturla Þórðarson. Even so, when the first book of laws known as Grágás appeared the chief lawyer probably required the assistance of scholars since he would not have had the literacy needed to carry out the task alone. The role of the law speaker and later chief lawyer was not only to stand at Lögberg the ‘Law Rock’ and recite the laws but also to keep a record of all the important dates on the annual political agenda for the proceedings and assemblies during the following year.
Snorri Sturluson – a poet and a politician
Snorri Sturluson was the son of Sturla at Hvammur. … In the year 1215 Snorri was chosen to the office of law speaker at the Althing. … Snorri had promised King Hákon he would bring Iceland under the power of the Norwegian throne, but when he returned home he evidently laid these plans aside. Snorri was elected Law Speaker for a second time in 1221 and kept that office for a further decade.
By 1230, Snorri had indisputably become one of the most respected and influential chieftains in Iceland, but his lack of interest in bringing the country under Norwegian rule soon prompted his downfall. In 1235, Snorri’s nephew Sturla Sighvatsson arrived from Norway under the appointment of King Hákon to carry out what Snorri had failed to achieve. He drove Snorri out of the country and set about his royal task by entering a bloody power struggle with the rest of Iceland’s leading families.
Snorri was in Norway when a disagreement arose between his friend Skúli and King Hákon. Skúli was in favour of allowing Snorri to return home and reclaim his lands but the king stubbornly refused his permission and prohibited Snorri from leaving Norway. … The king [sent] Gissur Þorvaldsson, who was by then the most powerful chieftain in Iceland, a letter requesting that Snorri be declared a traitor and that Gissur was either to bring him back to Norway or have him killed.
In the summer of 1241, Snorri’s sons-in-law, Kolbeinn the Young and Gissur Þorvaldsson met up on Kjölur, the mountain route across the Icelandic highlands, and devised a plan. It was on the eve of the 23rd September that same year that Gissur and his men broke into Snorri’s house and searched the premises for him. When they had him cornered they squabbled about which one of them should deal the final blow, when Snorri well over sixty years old repeated constantly: ‘Eigi skal höggva’, literally ‘Do not strike’. Gissur’s men paid no heed to Snorri’s words and together struck him down and killed him.
With that ended the life of one of the most prominent politicians in the history of Iceland. He was not at all famous for his prowess as a warrior but rather for his financial exploits and for his prolific output as a writer.
With seventeen such displays in all you will see that I have left out much more than I have included. You can read all the accounts on the museum website if interested: https://www.sagamuseum.is/overview/. Together they form a vivid picture of centuries of Icelandic history.
Leaving the museum Kirsty went shopping while Isa and I started to walk back to the apartments, still on the lookout for photo opps - more windows and street art!
On the streets of Reykjavik
We made a detour to visit the Roman Catholic cathedral. Its proper name is Landakotskirkja, but it is usually referred to by its former name of Basilika Krists Konungs. It has a design which, like that of Hallgrimskirkja, seems to have been influenced by the island’s geology, in particular the basalt columns found in several places – and indeed, both churches were the work of the same architect, Guðjón Samúelsson.
Detail of church door
When it was finished, in 1929, it was the largest church in Iceland at that time. Matthias had told us yesterday that it was this church, or rather its impressive size, which had prompted the building of Hallgrimskirkja, as the Protestant community were determined that the Catholics should not have the city’s largest church!
In the churchyard here we saw a striking statue, Kollun - a bronze figure of a woman with a glass cross embedded in it. Isa explained that on the sunny December day when she was last here the cross was gleaming and even today it was possible to see the intended effect.
At home in Reykjavik
We then walked back through the city to our apartments where I used the spare time to start packing and check in online as well as sort photos. In the evening we ‘last survivors' were invited to visit the Euromeet hosts Jón and Regina in their home. Jón picked us up in town and drive us to their lovely apartment which isn’t far from the centre and has views over the city and even of the sea!
At dinner chez Regina and Jón
There were five VTers invited plus Jón’s father and his partner, and their 10 year old granddaughter Thalia (Þalía), Jón’s niece, who was visiting from London. We ate Chinese takeaway and chatted about all sorts of things. Later Thalia and Jón did a mini magic show before she and her grandparents left.
A mini magic show
We VTers talked a while longer, speculating about next year’s meeting (we will vote on the location next month) and, truth be told, gossiping just a little as old friends will. Marit and I broke up the party a little early however as we both had to be up promptly the next morning for our respective flights - she to Norway and me to London. Goodbyes were said, and promises to meet again soon, then Jón drove us back to our city centre bases.
The Euromeet was properly over for me.
The journey home
The next morning I woke to rain. My pre-booked transfer to the airport went smoothly. I was picked up on time at the apartments in the shuttle bus and taken to the main bus station where I changed to the airline bus. As we drove south to Keflavik the clouds broke up a little and I was able to see a little of the passing landscape, although this is perhaps not the most scenic part of Iceland.
At the airport I had a muffin and espresso before heading to the gate. The plane boarded quickly and was not quite full. I had an empty middle seat next to my window seat and by pure coincidence found another VTer, Jowatani, and her friend sitting in the same row. They live in Seattle but are extending their trip with a tour of several European cities.
At Keflavik Airport
Thanks to the quick boarding we were able to take off about 10 minutes early. I couldn’t help but think with sympathy of my friend Lorraine, with whom I had travelled to Iceland, who yesterday was delayed for several hours at this airport by the same winds that had prevented our whale watching trip.
View after take-off from Keflavik
Farewell to Iceland
Skies were clearing as we left so I got a few photos of the south coast as we took off. Later I took more, as we flew into the UK over the Outer Hebrides, bathed in sunshine. We landed an impressive 25 minutes early at Heathrow and as I hadn't checked my bag this time I was fairly soon through the airport and on the Tube home.
Flying over the Outer Hebrides
It had been a fabulous Euromeet – thanks to the hard work of Regina and Jón, and to the strong community spirit that defines VT. Here’s to many more!