Return to Iceland, Pt. 12

A Day in Reykjavik

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Our last full day in Iceland began with a famed Brauð & Co cinnamon roll pastry and fresh coffee. From there, we walked down to the shore in the crisp air with the sun occasionally peeking out from behind the clouds. It felt nice to be in the city as a way to ramp down from our time in the country and re-orient mentally for our eventual return to San Francisco.

The big rocks stacked along the walkway had pools of water in them; I experimented with putting these in the foreground with Mt. Esja in the distant background. The view over the fjord was fantastic. We came across Sólfarið, which we’d seen before, but the sculpture’s shining silver finish took on a different character thanks to the morning light. I always find its shapes evocative of both Scandinavian runes and ancient longships.

According to the artist Jón Gunnar Árnason, “The sun ship symbolizes the promise of new, undiscovered territory.”

Our walk along the shore ended by Harpa, the iconic glass-clad concert hall. It was very busy inside due to some kind of conference. This made wandering around a little difficult since we didn’t have a conference badge. Instead, we picked up some souvenirs at the gift shop. The cashier kindly offered to send our postcards for us.

viking statueFrom Harpa, we walked through Arnarhóll square, pausing at the statue of Ingólfr Arnarson. He was the Norse settler who, upon arrival at Iceland, famously threw his high seat pillars into the ocean. His servants searched the coast for the pillars and found they had washed ashore at what would become Reykjavik. This being the will of the gods, Ingólfr settled there.

We continued into the neighborhood in search of the Icelandic Punk Museum. It was founded and organized by Svarti Álfur, a veteran of the European punk scene. He welcomed us warmly to his “own personal heaven” and let us know he accepted paper money, marijuana, nuclear waste, and of course plastic cards for admission – “how about a metal card?” I asked, pointing out the “do not shred” warning on mine.

The Icelandic Punk Museum opened on November 2, 2016, with Johnny Rotten on hand for the occasion thanks to the Airwaves festival.

The museum occupies, perhaps appropriately, a defunct public washroom, complete with fixtures still installed. It tells the story – and conveys the spirit – of punk music in Iceland and how it was influenced by the evolution of punk around the world. The descriptions, peppered throughout newspaper articles, videos, and graffiti, were informative and humorous, and chronicled the rise and fall of Iceland’s most notorious punk artists. Headphones hung from the ceiling which could be pulled down to listen to music samples.

As we exited the museum, I couldn’t resist plugging in the bass and plucking out some notes. Of course I forgot all the basslines I know – guess I wouldn’t last long on stage! In this area, visitors could also show off their best punk looks in heavy, authentic black leather jackets festooned with patches and safety pins. I’d recommend the Icelandic Punk Museum to anyone, but particularly to fans of music history. It was one of our favorite stops!

Lunch consisted of top-rated pylsur at the historic Bæjarins Beztu hot dog stand, where Icelanders, foreigners, and celebrities alike have enjoyed the Icelandic food staple since 1937. Our visit to hot dog mecca accomplished, we walked down the street to the Reykjavik Museum of Photography.

The main exhibit was about one of the first high-profile murder cases in Iceland that took place in 1974. Given that there was no physical evidence and that the confessions were induced under duress by police, the disappearances related to the case remain unsolved, and the case itself has spawned its own network of conspiracy theorists. Photographer Jack Latham retraced all steps of the case, creating images that “stand on their own aesthetically from the case, yet exist only because of the case.” I certainly found that his work highlighted that locations related to the case are in fact “just regular places” without the context of the case. The portraits were striking as well, which seemed to focus on the eyes, showing vulnerability, and perhaps, as an extension, fallibility. A side exhibit showcased photographs by Yogan Mueller in his Hraun series. I particularly liked his shots of a smooth, stone orb set among jagged lava rocks.

Next, we revisited Hólavallagarður, one of the largest and oldest cemeteries in the capital area. We wandered among the graves. The earliest birth we saw was something like 1786; the most recent death, March 2017. Many trees were growing in the cemetery in contrast to the mostly treeless countryside.

Hólavallagarður was consecrated in 1838 and is the resting place for many generations of Reykjavik residents.

Some headstones were actual chunks of columnar basalt while others emulated it as part of the turn-of-the-century Icelandic romantic style. There were some interesting bas reliefs as well; an oft-repeated motif was the clasped hands, signifying fellowship. A groundskeeper came by and gave us brochures describing the history of the cemetery and the many styles of headstones. It was nice to wander in a quiet place among trees in autumn.

holavallagardur cemetery by katelyn mueller
path through icelandic cemetery

We exited via the south entrance and headed back toward town along Skothúsvegur where we watched ducks feeding in Tjörnin pond. Our last stop was Kaffitar for a cup of coffee. We discussed how we felt about returning home and our anxieties about the state of things in the U.S. My feeling was that we could only take steps to protect our own psyches, and focus on what we can do near home (just a week or two after we returned, Katelyn volunteered some of her time at a food bank to help Sonoma wildfire victims).

tjornin pond reykjavik
reykjavik street cola advertisement

We planned to rest at the AirBnB until just before dinnertime, when we could take another walk for sunset and blue hour. Unfortunately we never got to do that. We were both laid out with symptoms of food poisoning. Mine started with chills – I couldn’t seem to stay warm and was ultimately driven under the covers as a result. I began to feel very achy. After about an hour, I vomited, and while I felt better afterwards – and didn’t vomit again – I would endure cramping and feverish symptoms for the rest of the night.

I tried my level best to rest. It was all I could do to stare at the television and try not to think about it, alternating between feeling too cold or too hot. Katelyn, feeling less affected than I, ventured out to the convenience store to get some broth and noodles. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat anything substantial. The broth was heaven sent.

I was upset about missing our last evening in Reykjavik while also being extremely thankful this was happening at the end of the trip and not in the beginning or middle. Our AirBnB host appeared to be unreachable – my hopes of pushing back the checkout time were dwindling. I resolved to try again in the morning.