Our flight from Amsterdam arrived around 11:30pm into Keflavik, the international airport that serves Iceland. By the time we picked up our rental car it was after midnight and although it wasn’t bright out, there was still some natural light. From Keflavik to Reykjavik is about a 45 minute drive, so it was well past midnight by the time we got to our hotel room and our body clocks, still on Central European time, made it feel like two hours later still.
The room was small, but comfortable, with everything very white, Scandinavian style.
After a decent night’s sleep we had a great breakfast buffet the next morning which, aside from the usual fare one might find in the US, included smoked salmon as well as pickled herring and also skyr, the extra thick, creamy yogurt that is a staple in Iceland.
Following breakfast, we walked around the city center a bit looking at the shops on Laugavegur, the main shopping drag, as well as going to the flea market by the old port where I tried some different jams, sauces, smoked salmon, dried haddock, etc. Flavored salt seems a popular item for sale here – a small jar sells for $10-$20 depending on whether you buy it at the flea market or in a high street shop.
We stopped by the tourist information office to find out a few things, including inquiring about visiting the Blue Lagoon next weekend (more about that in a later post). At the nearby library we saw a small photo exhibition of daily life in Iceland over the last century and a half and then had lunch at a place called Icelandic Fish and Chips, which seemed expensive at the time, but later came to realize was actually pretty inexpensive by Icelandic standards. I also just discovered that Icelandic Fish and Chips now seems to have a location in New York.
I had their signature “fish and chips” while Kelly had a different dish. Icelandic fish and chips turned out to be totally different from fish and chips in the UK or indeed anywhere else I have had it and I am sure it must confuse a lot of people. Options for the fish itself included cod, pollock, or wolfish (a non-kosher species that seems to be related to catfish) – I went for the pollock. What came on my plate was two pieces of fish battered in something like a very thin tempura batter and served with small roasted potatoes and some skyr based sauce. Not bad, but not quite what I was expecting. I can only imagine the legions of British visitors who visit must leave very perplexed saying the Icelanders don’t know how to make “proper” fish and chips!
Reykjavik doesn’t really feel like a major capitol city and part of that is probably due to the low population (about 120,000, which is actually more than 1/3 of all Icelanders). But architecturally if feels different – there are not forts or castles or other fortified buildings. There are a couple of striking modern buildings, such as the prominent landmark Hallgrimskirkja church at the top of a hill and the Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre by the harbor, but overall, I would say that the downtown area still feels very much like a fishing village, with the suburbs pretty similar to modern suburbs one might find anywhere these days.
After lunch we walked to the National History Museum, which was very well done and gave us a good overview of Icelandic history and culture. The admission price was US20 per person, which as we would learn in our travels around the country is about average for entry into any museum. It makes me realize what a bargain the National History Museum in Dublin is (that’s free!). The National History Museum of Iceland does a good job of not just displaying artifacts, but also providing excellent interactive multimedia display that really bring the history to life and which give a strong foundation of the history of Iceland from the earliest settlers through modern times.
One of my favorite artifacts was one of the first things you see walking into the museum – this seated statue from around 1000CE is of …? Well that’s the point. Is it Þór with his hammer? or is it Christ with a cross? Or maybe it is both.
The item was found in 1816 and the answer is still not clear. Most early Icelanders worshiped Norse gods, Þór being chief among them. However, some early Icelanders were Christians and eventually the parliament decided that everyone would become Christian, but could continue to practice the old religion in the privacy of their own home. Immediately this made me think of Game of Thrones (parts of which are filmed in Iceland) where characters talk about “the new gods and the old”.
Another artifact on display is the Valþjófsstaður door from the 12th century with intricate Romanesque carvings. Originally the door would have been one third bigger and included another roundel.
The last image of an object from the Museum’s collection that I have included is St. Nicholas’s chalice from the pre-reformation times, around 1500CE. What caught my eye about this item was that it was made from a polished coconut shell, which must have been very exotic at the time.
But we aren’t in Iceland to spend much time in Reykjavik, so we headed out in the late afternoon northwards, stopping at a supermarket to pick up the makings of a picnic dinner before we drove on to Grundarsfjordar on the Snaefellsness peninsula. Drive time was about 3 hours travel, avoiding the toll tunnel to take the scenic drive around the fjord, which afforded incredible views such at the one above.
The scenery throughout the drive was spectacular and right by the town where we are staying was a particularly magnificent vista of a steep mountain, Kirkjufell, apparently the most photographed mountain in Iceland. I can see why.
Not bad for just day one of our Icelandic travels!