Posted by: nmancini04 | August 18, 2011

Wilderness & Civilization

Ideally, I would be doing these updates at the end of the day, but we’re EXHAUSTED having (practically) pulled an all-nighter on the plane. I got about an hour, Maggie got only a little more. So I don’t trust that I’ll be able to write coherently (translation: “not pass out in a heap”) when we get back from dinner, so I’m seizing my chance while I’m at least semi-coherent. Maybe.


On the first leg of our trip, we braved a strange and unsettling wilderness: JFK Airport.

We saw a man with long grey hair and beard dressed entirely in flowing white linens and looking more than a little like the leader of a suicide cult. We fled, and I’m happy to report that we will not return from this trip worshipping a rain god or a star-spanning alien emperor. Probably. We saw a man with a U.K. passport wearing a C.C. Sabathia jersey and an enormous, brand new black cowboy hat. Now there’s a man who knows what America means. We saw the shopping mall that is JFK Terminal 7 — Cartier, Tag Heuer and Hermes are just a few of the names on the shops and the Best Buy vending machine spits out iPods, digital cameras, Nintendo DS systems and Bose headphones — and we feasted on stomach-churning nachos and $10 pints of Samuel Adams at Sammy’s Beach Bar & Grill, apparently owned by Sammy Hagar. The walls were lined with alleged gold and platinum records and a prominently displayed guitar was signed and inscribed, “Let’s rock this place.” Nothing I just wrote was made up.

I’m tempted to launch into an essay about what the sights and sounds of JFK Airport say about American iconography and the way we present ourselves to the outside world, but let’s be honest…I can barely type “iconography” right now.

We spent an uneventful and calm flight fighting for sleep — and mostly losing — until at 5:45 local time (1:45 am in New York) we touched down in Keflavik International Airport. Keflavik sits on the Reykjanes peninsula and from there it’s a scenic 45 minute drive east to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. To the north is a beautiful bay with distant views of towns and hills. To the south, is a barren, treeless, rocky lava field, stunning in its flat, emptiness and ending in a breathtaking mountain range which rises ominously in the distance. At one point, we passed a spooky looking mountain separated from the rest. The whole scene reminded me forcefully of the Desolation of Smaug.

The Desolation of Smaug

But soon enough we were making our way through the winding streets of Reykjavík.


Reykjavík is not only the capital, but it is by far the largest city in Iceland. The city proper is home to over 120,000 residents and the Greater Reykjavík area population reaches over 200,000, comprising more than 60% of the country’s entire population. The second largest area in Iceland, Akureyri, has a population of 17,000.

We made our way to our hotel, the Hotel Leifur Eiriksson, which we knew to be centrally located. We did not know that it is literally right across the street from the city’s most famous and distinctive building, the Hallgrímskirkja, the famous Lutheran church pictured below.


We dropped our bags off, were treated to a continental breakfast we were not expecting and then went out to take 47 (or so) pictures each of the Hallgrímskirkja. The church is named after Hallgrímur Pétursson a 17th century Icelandic poet, clergyman and the author of a collection of hymns, which the plaque inside the church claims to be the best-selling book in Icelandic history. It’s one of the tallest structures in the country and it’s built at one of the city’s highest points, so we were excited to go to the viewing platform, but we were too early and the church was still closed.

The church took about 40 years to build, starting in 1945. Our guidebook alleges that this is because the construction was handled by a small family firm, one that consisted of just a father and a son.

Two guys built that??” Maggie said and frowned that frown of hers that conveys a feeling of superior knowledge of architecture and building. “I’m dubious.”

Leifur Eiriksson statue in front of the Hallgrímskirkja

Outside of the church is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson (or Leif Eriksson as he’s known in the U.S.), looking imperiously down the Skólavörðustígur (that’s a street, by the way). According to the inscription, which is in English, the statue was a gift to Iceland from the United States in 1930 to commemorate the 1,000th birthday of Iceland’s parliament, the Alþingi (or Althing), the world’s oldest parliament. Half of today’s congress couldn’t find Iceland on a map and half of them would think it was un-American to even try. Can you imagine us giving a gift to another country to commemorate a remarkable achievement we had nothing to do with? Me neither.

That's our hotel in the background. That's how close we are.

We walked down the Frakkastígur to the waterfront to look around while waiting for the Hallgrímskirkja to open. Reykjavík was and is a port town and the harbor is one of the central features of the city. We were amazed by how quiet everything was, despite the fact that the time was nearing 9 am on a weekday. At the waterfront we were struck by the remarkable, picturesque views of mountains across the bay, wild and unapproachable looking despite their proximity to a European capital.

Sólfar sculpture

One of our favorite waterfront spots was the Sólfar (Sun Voyager) sculpture, pictured above, a sleek, modernized representation of a Viking longship. I have something of a weird fixation with longships, in that, I think they’re awesome and I couldn’t say why. I probably took too many pictures of the Sólfar sculpture, including this candid one of a cute couple we saw, relaxing by the water’s edge.

A couple relaxes by the Sólfar sculpture

We then made our way east along the water to the Höfði, a smallish, 100-year-old wooden house that is historically significant in many ways. It was built as the home of the French Consul in 1909, later served in a similar capacity (my sleep-deprived brain forgets what capacity exactly that was) for the British government and hosted Winston Churchill, and finally, it was the site of the Reagan-Gorbachev snap summit in 1986.

The Höfði

After that, we headed back to the Hallgrímskirkja and went inside. It’s quite impressive, but the most impressive aspect is definitely the organ. I took this video while the organist practiced. The viewing platform was also not to be missed, affording panoramic views of the entire city. It’s right below the bells, too, we discovered…

The Hallgrímskirkja's BHO (Big Honkin' Organ)

The view from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja

After that we walked around to various places, mostly downtown, including the touristy shopping areas to get a look around. But I think I’ve gone into enough detail for now and I’m afraid I’m about to start drooling on the keyboard, so I’ll just leave you with some of our favorite buildings and street scenes (there are many to love). After this we’re off to dinner. Maggie has been pushing “Indian Mango,” which, improbably, has been called the #1 Indian restaurant in Europe by Lonely Planet, according to the book in our room. But being in Iceland, I kind of feel like we should seafood, no? Tomorrow we head on the road for a week and the internet may be difficult to come by. I’ll post if I can along the way, but at the very least I’ll post a bunch of stuff when we get back to Reykjavík on Friday.

Until then…

A pretty building


Allegedly one of the most popular culinary spots in the a hot dog stand. We tried them. They were good.

The site of the Alþingi (or Althing), the world's oldest parliament

Maggie looks disapprovingly at the re-pointing at the Alþingishúsið ("Althing House," basically)

The oldest surviving building in Reykjavík, a wood house dating back to 1762.

A pretty street scene (and a pretty Maggie, in the distance)

The travelers, down by the harbor



  1. Off to a good start you guys! Can’t wait to read more and see more bearded Nick in Iceland photos. (Maggie, any way you can photograph a tan bearded Nick amidst the blonde masses?)

  2. surprising that the oldest building in Iceland is dated 1762 considering the place has been settled for a thousand years +/-. Come to think of it, they left no architectural footprint in Vineland either. Maybe Vikings build sturdy boats & flimsy houses.

    • Sorry, that should have said, “oldest surviving building in Reykjavík,” not Iceland. Errors galore because we’re so tired.

  3. Your pix are phenomenal and your writing highly entertaining. Mom and I are on Fire Island and finally caught up with your blog. We feel like we are there with you.

  4. Hi Nick,
    Reading your posts in the warmth of Fire Island and I love all the descriptions and pictures. Your writing is so clear and direct. Keep having a great trip. I love that Maggie is inspecting the mortar joints.


  5. […] She was less fond of the church, which was designed by the same architect who designed the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík and which she derided as “chunky.” The new Akureyri culture house, across the main road […]

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