Iceland Virtual Tourist Meet, day two
25.05.2018 - 25.05.2018
Reykjavik old town architecture
Despite my fears there was only a little noise in the night to disturb my sleep, and I slept well although woke early. I’d bought a couple of yoghurts yesterday evening to eat as breakfasts during my stay, but with a relaxing programme today I decided instead to try out the coffee shop opposite the apartments, Reykjavik Roasters. There I enjoyed an excellent espresso and a croissant.
In Reykjavik Roasters
After this leisurely start to the day I met up with Lorraine and Isa, who arrived last night and was staying in the same apartment block. The latter decided to walk to our meeting point but Lorraine and I headed for the bus stop where we bumped into Carol and Peter, who like Lorraine are from Australia. We caught the bus together and alighted at Lækjartorg where the VT crowd were gathering.
Soon we set out on our city walk, led by one of our hosts, Jón. He gave us a really informative tour and as a bonus the weather, which had been grey and rainy at the start of our walk, soon started to improve, so I had some blue skies to enhance the many photos I took.
On the VT city tour (taken by Regina)
Tour guide Jón, and co-host Regina
On the VT city tour
Some Reykjavik history
Our route took us around the oldest part of Reykjavik. As we went Jón told us about the early Viking settlement here and how the city grew up from that. The first settlers in Reykjavik were Vikings, Ingólfur Arnason and Hallveig Fróðadóttir, who made their home here in 874 after the former had chosen the site by throwing the pillars that marked him as a chieftain into the sea and observing where they came to shore, here in a bay he named ‘Smoky’ after the steam he saw rising from the many hot springs that surrounded it – Reykjavik means Smoky Bay.
Plaque on the statue of Jón Sigurðsson (independence struggle leader), Reykjavik
For several centuries Iceland was governed as a commonwealth under the Althing, one of the world's oldest functioning legislative assemblies, established by Ingólfur and his descendants. But after a period of civil strife it came under Norwegian rule in the 13th century and later under Danish rule. During the 19th century Iceland struggled to achieve independence. In 1874, Denmark granted the country its own constitution and limited home rule, which was expanded in 1904. However it remained in a union with Denmark until World War Two, when the latter was occupied by the Nazis. There was some relief here, we learned, when Iceland was invaded not by German troops but by British, and they surrendered peacefully. The British later handed over to the United States. It was during this wartime period, in 31 December 1943, that the Danish–Icelandic Act of Union expired, and the Icelandic people voted overwhelmingly to end the union and establish an independent republic, which was formally set up on 17 June 1944, with Reykjavik as its capital.
City tour sights
Among the sights we saw on our walk were:
The Stjornarrad, which houses the offices of the Prime Minister and was built as a prison in the mid-18th century. Outside Jón pointed out the two statues - one of King Christian IX handing over the constitution in 1874, and the other Hannes Hafstein, who became the first minister of the country in 1904 when it was granted home rule by the Danish.
King Christian IX on the left, Hannes Hafstein on the right
The famous hot dog stand where Bill Clinton once ate, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, and the bank, Landsbanki, where the crash of 2008 began
The former pharmacy Apotek, now a hotel and restaurant - I liked the gargoyle-like carving on the corner of the 1917 building, the design of Guðjón Samúelsson, former State Architect of Iceland
Starling at the hot dog stand, and gargoyle on Apotek
The city's Lutheran cathedral, built in 1787-1796 (we didn't go inside however). Interestingly, if you search online for Reykjavik cathedral, I have discovered, most of the results you get will not be for this building but for the more famous Hallgrímskirkja, which is in fact ‘just’ a parish church, despite its impressive size.
But more of that later …
The statue of Jón Sigurðsson, considered the founder of modern Iceland, who led the country to independence from Denmark in 1874. This stands in an open space, Austurvöllur, opposite the cathedral and parliament building, the Alþingi. The square is a focal point for any protests that take place in the city, because of its location opposite parliament, and Jón told us a number of interesting accounts of protests that took place here during the time of the banking crisis.
Statue of Jón Sigurðsson
The 19th century building housing the Alþingi, where the four protectors of Iceland, the spirits of the land or landvættir (dragon, eagle, bull and giant), are carved in relief above the windows.
Parliament building, Reykjavik
Jón recounted the story of the Danish King Harald Bluetooth Gormsson who wanted to invade Iceland. He sent a wizard in the form of a whale to scout for possible landing points. As I couldn’t easily capture Jón’s words I will quote from Wikipedia:
King Harald Bluetooth Gormsson of Denmark, intending to invade Iceland, had a wizard send his spirit out in the form of a whale to scout it out for points of vulnerability. Swimming westwards around the northern coast, the wizard saw that all the hillsides and hollows were full of landvættir. He swam up Vopnafjörður, intending to go ashore, but a great dragon came flying down the valley toward him, followed by many snakes, insects, and lizards, all spitting poison at him. So he went back and continued around the coast westward to Eyjafjörður, where he again swam inland. This time he was met by a great bird, so big that its wings touched the hillsides on either side, with many other birds large and small following it. Retreating again and continuing west and south, he swam into Breiðafjörður. There he was met by a huge bull, bellowing horribly, with many landvættir following it. He retreated again, continued south around Reykjanes, and tried to come ashore at Vikarsskeið, but there he encountered a mountain giant, his head higher than the hill-tops, with an iron staff in his hand and followed by many other giants. He continued along the south coast but saw nowhere else where a longship could put in, ‘nothing but sands and wasteland and high waves crashing on the shore.’
Landvættir, by the way, are spirits of the land.
Outside the parliament building is a statue of the first woman to sit in the parliament, Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason, who was elected to the Alþingi in 1922.
Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason
Another statue stands in a small square just down the road from here, this one of Skúli Magnússon, the so-called ‘Father of Reykjavík’. Until the middle of the 18th century the land currently occupied by Reykjavík was devoted to farming; meanwhile trade was monopolised by the Danes. Skúli Magnússon founded a company here, Innréttingar, which changed all that. The company started by producing woollen products but soon expanded into other industries. Magnússon went on to build sixteen facilities and trained his workers in new industrial skills. The resulting business boom led to the urbanisation of Reykjavík and the granting of its city charter in 1786. It is still the only city in Iceland.
Statue of Skúli Magnússon
We passed, and I photographed, various old buildings at the heart of the city, including the one where I first met Regina, on my last visit to Iceland in 2012.
Old town architecture, Reykjavik
I also enjoyed seeing the signs of spring arriving here, somewhat later than at home in England, but no doubt even more welcome because of that.
Signs of spring in Reykjavik
We stopped briefly by the City Hall and Tjörnin Pond, which on that last visit was frozen solid enough to be walked on but today was full of ducks and gulls.
Feeding the ducks at Tjörnin Pond
I will include in this blog some photos taken on that 2012 visit, for comparison between the seasons ...
A very different Tjörnin Pond in the winter of 2012
We were now back near where we had begun, and Jón pointed out a modern statue depicting the water carrier who brought water from the hot springs to the city. We also got some different angles on the statues we had seen at the start of the walk of King Christian IX who gave Iceland its constitution and of Hannes Hafstein, the first minister.
The Water Carrier
King Christian IX, and the Punk Museum
We finished our tour with a walk (past the Icelandic Punk Museum!) up to Hallgrimskirkja, the huge white church that dominates the horizon in this part of the city. Despite its size and prominence in the city this is not, as I mentioned, Reykjavik’s cathedral but simply a rather over-sized parish church for this neighbourhood. The story goes that local Lutherans, as the biggest religious group here, were affronted when the Roman Catholics built what was at the time the largest church in the city, so determined to outdo it with this one – and outdo it they did! The design (by state architect Guðjón Samúelsson) was inspired by the landscapes of Iceland – its basalt cliffs, glaciers and mountains. It took 41 years to build the church: construction started in 1945 and finished only in 1986.
Here Jón declared the tour over, but not before we had taken plenty of pictures here in front of the church. The space here is dominated by the statue of Leif Erickson, who was the first European to discover America. Unfortunately, as Jón told it, he then lost it, so Christopher Columbus had to discover it all over again!
Statue of Leif Erickson, from the front and behind
Here our group scattered. Some went to shop, others to visit museums. I joined Isa, Cecilia, Dao, Sylvia and Rick on a visit up the church tower. I had done this on my last trip to Iceland but I thought it would be worth seeing the view again, at a different time of year, which it certainly was.
City and harbour view from Hallgrimskirkja
Perlan and mountains from Hallgrimskirkja
The bay and distant mountains from Hallgrimskirkja
We spent some time up here taking photos and once back at ground level decided it was lunch time. Isa recommended a nearby café which she been to on a previous visit - Salka Valka. There I had an excellent fish soup, perfect for this chilly weather. And talking of perfect, how appropriate to have a map of the world on the wall where our multi-national group chose to eat.
In Salka Valka
After lunch we went our separate ways. I checked out a few shops, but prices here are high and I managed to restrain myself despite almost falling for a very pretty necklace. There were more old buildings to photograph and some interesting street art just off Laugavegur, the main shopping street.
Street art in Reykjavik
Old town architecture
I turned off past the old French Hospital, which a sign told me was built in 1902 to serve French mariners who were fishing for cod off the Icelandic coast. At that time 150-200 French ships fished these waters each year, and there were two other hospitals built to care for them elsewhere on the island. This hospital closed in 1927 and since then the building has been used as a secondary school and more recently a music school.
The French Hospital
I walked down to the waterfront to visit the Sun Voyager sculpture where I bumped into more VT friends, Karl and Cindy. The Sun Voyager or Solfar is the work of Icelandic sculptor Jon Gunnar Arnason. Constructed in gleaming stainless steel, it is intended to represent a sort of dream boat or ode to the sun (not, as many think, a Viking longship).
After taking quite a few photos here I strolled back beside the water, enjoying the views of the mountains and the seabirds, especially the terns swooping down to fish and also this eider duck. There was another interesting sculpture along the way which made a perfect frame for the mountains across the bay.
Along the waterfront
Then it was back to my room, via the supermarket to buy instant coffee as we will be leaving too early tomorrow for me to get my fix from the coffee shop across the road.
First 'official' VT dinner
This evening was the official start of the meeting. Registration took place before dinner at the Jörgensen Kitchen & Bar in the Center Hotel, just a couple of minutes’ walk from the apartment. I walked down with Isa to find Regina and Jón super organised, with all the payments handled quickly and lots of information about the plans for the meet and our various options given out in return. It was happy hour so I was able to buy a glass of house white for ‘only’ 600 ISK (my second glass later would cost me 1,400 ISK - almost £10!)
Our hosts, Regina and Jón
Lorraine, Hansi, Yvonne
Co, Gillian, Ali
Cindy, Karl, Holger
Sonja and Teresa
Of course there were loads of greetings to be made, old friends to talk to (some not seen for several years) and news to exchange. After an hour or so it was time to take our seats at the long tables to eat.
My table (taken by Jowatani)
There was good crusty bread to start, with a pesto spread, followed by a choice of chicken or lamb. I had the latter and it was excellent, though could have been served warmer for my taste. But then it must be hard serving so many people at once. Dessert was chocolate cake with strawberries and blueberries. Then there was more milling around and conversation.
But I, like quite a few others, decided not to stay too late as we have an early start tomorrow for a day tour of the famed Golden Circle. Despite the forecast of rain I am looking forward to it!