A Week in Reykjavik (2013-07-28/08-01)

Creative Commons License
A Week in Reykjavik, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

After I had attended a conference, I had a few days free before I was to meet a group from Ramblers for a walking holiday. I used the time to explore the sights of the city of Reykjavik.

The name Reykjavik means in Icelandic Smoky Bay from the many steam emitting hot springs in the region. The land from the town along the peninsula to the airport at Kevlavik stands on 6 active seismic areas. The Icelanders know that and use the Earth's heat to provide hot water to heat their homes. After that service, the water is piped under the streets and footpaths to keep them free of ice in the winter, so not much heat is wasted. In fact 95% of all houses over the whole island are heated that way. The remaining 5% by electricity subsidised by the government.

One of the boreholes which supplies the hot water to Reykjavik lies in walking distace from the centre, and is called Perla, or the Pearl, sitting on the top of a low hill. From there one has a good view across the whole town. While walking round it, you notice some low mushroom shaped things with white caps. Going past them, you can feel the hot air coming from them.

Next to the entrance there is the obligatory sculpture, this one called the Danco and created by Þorbjörg Pálsdöttir in 1970. I know that only because a plaque is affixed to the ground nearby. On the roof there is a telecope for tourists among other things placed on a steam vent. More evidence of what goes on underfoot is given by the geyser in the garden.

The building which seems to dominate the town from its place on the central hill is Hallgrimskyrkja, the church of Hallgrim. It is the largest church in Iceland, even bigger than the cathedral. When I first approached it, the spire almost disapperared into the clouds. The weather suited the statue of Leifur Eriksson, who founded the first Icelandic settlementon Greenland, and according to Icelandic history was the first European to put a foot on North America before the year 1000. Afterwards in the sunshine he was wearing too many clothes.

Inside the church the space is large, like a cathedral, but unlike a cathedral bright and airy due to the white concrete construction and clear glass windows. It was designed in 1945, but then they gave the job of building it to a family firm of father and son. They finished it in 1986.

Over the entrance stands the proud enormous organ with more than 5000 pipes completed in 1992 and new console in the nave in 1997. It sounded excellent when I attended a concert one day, either filling the space with sound or whispering delicately when every note could be heard.

From the top of the spire you can see across the town over the colourful roofs of the houses. From inside the clock you can look at the glass pictures through the clock faces.

Before I left the weather had improved greatly giving me a view of the whole thing.

Near the harbour there is a monument dedicated to the seamen, who lost their lives around the coast. Behind it the noticeboards show lists of all the known shipwrecks across the centuries together with how many perished. It is a strong reminder of how important the sea is for them. Their fishermen value the fish so highly that Iceland went into battle in the so-called "cod Wars" between 1958 and 1976 to drive away the British ships which were trying to in the rich grounds around the island.

At that time, they had only one coastguard ship, the Oðinn, whosae usual tasks were search and rescue among the remote fjords and villages, but had to become a warship with a secondhand weapon and shells. Now they have more ships to defend themselves and the Oðinn floats in the harbour as part of the Vikin marine museum, where you can look round the inside of it, including the galley.

Of the many museums in the town perhaps one of the most important is the one which describes how the first settlers came and supported themselves in the early days. Outside it appears quite ordinary, but the demonstrations are underground in the dark under strongly focused lamps which makes photography difficult. There one learns that the first Icelanders arrived in 871, about the same time as Hekla erupted, which we can date by means of dust found in ice cores from Greenland.

Another house they are proud of, is Höfði where the presidents of the USA and the Soviet Union (Reagan and Gorbachev) met in 1986. The house had been built for the French ambassador in 1909 from parts made in Norway and carried to Iceland to be put together. Now it belongs to the town council for use in various events.

In front of it stand one of the many public sculptures, which are found all over the town; they are everywhere, adding to the atmosphere of the place, e.g. a shippoet who is relaxing, boy and girl (called Piltur and Stúlka, from the first Icelandic novel by Jón Thoroddsen), donation from the USA from an American to remember 50 years of friendship between the two countries, archway, abstractions, horses, the first mayor Skúli Magnusson. Not all are found in such spaces, some are in the art museums and gardens, e.g. heroes and lovers. A low building about two kilometres east along the coastline holds the work of Sigurjón Ólafsson, where near the door sits a stone animal reminding me of those of the Aztecs in Mexico.

The national museum is located in three buildings, one at Kjarvalsstaðir a single storey building, where you can get a good lunch, another at Ásmundarsafn in the artist's studio designed by the sculptor himself, and the third near the harbour in a converted warehouse the Hafnarhuis, next to an old customs house which has a colourful  mosaic on a wall.

Near Hallgrimskyrkja there is a museum dedicated to the work of Einar Jonsson. In its garden are several art works, for which the designs and models in plaster or bronze can be seen inside the somewhat looming house.

In the space between Reykjavik and the suburb of Kópavogur you will find a version of the popular boy with dolphin. I saw it in the summer, so I don;t know whether it still sprays water in the winter. In Kópavogur they put sculptures on roundabouts, and have built interesting church with a separate belfry.

Perhaps the most surprising is the “Black Cone”, a small black cone used to make a crack across a large boulder, which is found in front of the parliament house the other side of the park “Austurvöllur” (eastern field). In January 2012 the artist Santiago Sierra broke the rock right in front of the parliament house and named his work a Monument to Civil Disobedience, recognising that the people of Iceland had demonstrated against the government after the financial collapse and forced them to change direction.

The inscription on it is taken from clause 35 of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1793. A possible translation is:

“When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is, for the people and for each portion of the people, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.”

It's laudable that the rock is still standing so close the seat of power.

Saying that reminds me that the parliament in Iceland, Alþingi, is one of the oldest in the world, and first convened on the plain Þingvellir in the area between the two continental plates of Europe and America, before transferring to Reykjavik, where its permanent home was built in 1880.

Near to it the town hall stands in the water of the central lake, Tjörnin, and where water provides the theme everywhere.

Also in the lake arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) can be seen flying around the fountain. They nest during the northern summer in the Arctic, and typically more than 50 pairs can be found on the islands here.

The following week I saw more of the country, which I will describe as soon as I can.

Andy Pepperdine


Creative Commons License
A Week in Reykjavik, and all the linked pictures, by Andy Pepperdine is made available under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.