Saturday, 11-07-2015. Day 325.
Endless Days, Statues, Hot Dogs.
We were flying Icelandic Air from London to Montreal, Canada, but first, we were taking a long layover in Reykjavik. Icelandic Air offers a program where travelers can stop off at Iceland for a set number of days (we were staying for three, but I think you can stay for up to seven) without booking an additional ticket. It's a great program, and if you ever travel to Europe, one worth looking into.
Our plane landed at Iceland's Keflavik airport right around 11:00 in the evening. By the time we cleared customs and retrieved our luggage, it was close to midnight. Despite the late hour, the sun was still hanging low in the sky. In fact, the sun never really went down the entire time we visited.
Around 1:00 a.m., the sun would dip just below the horizon, but by 1:30, it was climbing back into the sky. This was a little disorienting. Although we never had problems sleeping, we never quite knew what time it was because for most of the day it looked like Noon.
The airport is a good 45 minutes from Reykjavik, so we took a FlyBus into town, which is a pretty good value for around $25 USD per person. A lot of other people had the same idea, because the bus was packed full. The bus dropped us off at a large terminal on the outskirts of Reykjavik. From there, we took a different, smaller bus into town.
We were staying in an Airbnb a fair distance from the center of Reykjavik, so we had this second bus drop us off at Hlemmer Square (where we'd also pick it up three days later).
By this time, it was past 1 a.m. and we were pretty tired. Finding an apartment in the wee hours of an Icelandic morning after a late night three-hour flight and 45-minute bus ride was proving to be a challenge for us—especially as the apartments were not labeled. We finally managed to figure it out which apartment we had rented without waking anyone else in the building up, which we considered a major victory. We had no problem grabbing a few hours of sleep, despite the now-rising sun.
When we woke up later that morning, we walked a few blocks to the local grocery store and picked up a few essentials. We ended up paying about $60 US for a small bag of groceries containing some cereal, milk, yogurt, bread, and a few snacks. Iceland is rather expensive.
Reykjavik Walking Tour
Throughout Europe, we had enjoyed Sandeman's Free Walking Tours, and while Sandeman's doesn't have an Icelandic presence, there is a free walking tour of Reykjavik that starts in Austurvöllur, a city square across from Parliament House. So after breakfast, we walked down there to join up with the tour. Reykjavik is not a big town, and we made the walk in about 20 minutes. Of course we had to make a brief stop at Don's Donuts, a food truck near Hlemmer Square serving up little sugar-coated nuggets of goodness (and coffee).
After meeting up with the tour, which was jammed full of travelers from many nationalities (even Russian), our guide Eric (Eiríkur) started by telling us about Parliament House—Alþingishús (the Icelandic þ character is pronounced sort of like an English th) in Icelandic—which was built in 1881.
Parliament used to be held at Þingvellir (which we'd be visiting the following day) until about 1800. Then there was a lapse of 45 years when Iceland was part of the Danish kingdom (okay, so it's a lot more complicated than that, but I'm going for broad strokes here). But that changed in 17 June 1944, when, in the wake of World War II, the Icelandic people voted to kick out the Danish roayls and establish Iceland as a republic. Today the Icelandic Parliament consists of 63 members elected from six different political parties.
Eric told us that the square at Austurvöllur is the heart of the city. It's where the city is thought to have started, and it's where people come to attend public protests. Apparently Icelanders like to voice their opinions, especially regarding politics, and protests are quite common.
Looking out over all this protest in the center of the park is a statue featuring Jón Sigurðsson, a gentleman known as "John the President" because of his role in the independence movement.
The tour left Austurvöllur and wandered over to the oldest part of Reykjavik. Eric showed us a Rowan Tree that is the oldest tree in the town, then we strolled past an old pump for the city's well that was in use until 1909 before we walked through the oldest neighborhood in Reykjavik.
As we walked, we learned about the history of Iceland's tourism, which only really took off seven years before we were visiting after the value of the krona (Iceland's currency) dropped in the wake of the Icelandic financial crisis. Today, tourism continues to be strong and, according to Eric, brings more money into the country than fish exports.
We left downtown and walked up Arnarhóll (Eagle Hill), where the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson looks out over the town. As legend has it, Ingólfur was the chief of the first group of people to settle in Iceland. When he first sighted land from his ship, he threw two timber blocks overboard, stating that he'd build a settlement wherever they washed ashore. And, although it took three years to find those blocks, that's why Reykjavik is where it is. He's also credited for giving Reykjavik its name (it translates roughly to smoky bay) after seeing all the geothermal activity in the area.
When we were visiting, enterprising individuals had given him pink lipstick (Eric told us this happened every summer) and drawn a large phallus along the inside of his leg (I'll spare you the image).
Ingólfur is far from the only statue in Reykjavik. The city is filled with a great many works of public art. Our favorite, called "The Unknown Bureaucrat," is located next to Reykjavik City Hall. It's a sculpture of a businessman holding a briefcase, but the top half of his body is encased in a large stone.
A Uniquely Icelandic Problem
Before our tour ended, Eric told us about a particular challenge facing Iceland's young people. With their small (only around 330,000 citizens) and relatively isolated population, it's highly likely that when you meet an attractive person of the opposite gender, you'll end up being related to them. This could prove to be an uncomfortable situation if things take a romantic turn. This is only compounded by the country's naming convention, where the surname of the children is based on the first name of the parent. So a child named Jon born to a father named Thor would be Jon Thorsson. And when Jon Thorsson sires a male child, he will be named Thor Jonsson (daughters are given the suffix dóttir instead of son). This system isn't designed to make lineage obvious, so some thoughtful Icelandic programmer created an app that, using a resident's national identification number, will inform would-be paramours of just how closely they're related. Go technology.
After our tour ended, we were hungry, and there was only one place to go: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. This small stand right near Reykjavik harbor is known for legendarily delicious Icelandic hot dogs, and—at around $4 USD a piece—it's one of the best food deals in the city. The dogs are made from lamb, pork, and beef and are dressed up with any combination of fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, mustard, and remoulade. I recommend asking for "one with everything." Or maybe two. They're quite tasty.
On our way back to the apartment, we thought about visiting Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic Lutheran church that's one of the tallest structures in the whole country. But we were tired from walking all around Reykjavik for a few hours on top of our late night travels the day before. So instead, we just headed back to our apartment.
We had an early start for the next day's big adventure, so we wanted to get plenty of rest. We turned in relatively early, not at all bothered by the bright light streaming in through the windows.