Road Trip Through History: Reykjavik

My Own True Love and I started and ended our Viking history adventure in a city no Viking ever saw: Reykjavik, literally Smoky (or perhaps steamy) Bay. It is fundamentally a grey city, built of concrete, stone and glass in an array of textures and shapes that save it from bleakness and livened by shots of pure color in the form of small houses made of corrugated metal,* lavish flower beds, and brightly colored rain-gear.

A modern Icelandic take on Smoky Bay

A modern Icelandic take on Smoky Bay

The thing that struck me most about Reykjavik is how modern it is–literally.

According to the party line, Iceland was settled in the 9th century by refugees from Norway, where Harald Fair-Hair had made himself the first king and was busy claiming all the land for the crown.** But the early settlers didn’t build towns. They came together each spring in the great gathering known as the Althing to settle disputes and define the law. In later centuries, Icelanders formed temporary settlements along the coast during the fishing season. But all of these settlements scattered when their purpose was done.

Reykjavik the city–as opposed to Reykjavik the chieftain’s manor–was founded in 1751 by a representative of the Danish crown, making it the first permanent town in Iceland. (Just to put this in context: Boston was founded in 1630.) As late as 1845, the city’s population was no more than 1000. Like all colonial cities, it was based on trade. In the case of Reykjavik, that meant cod, first dried and later salted. ***

And speaking of cod, here are some of the highlights of our time in Reykjavik:

  • The Maritime Museum focuses on the fishing industry in Icelandic history, from the days when Icelanders built six-oar boats from driftwood and fished with individual lines to modern freezer trawlers. I was particularly taken with an exhibit on Icelandic seawomen from the medieval period to the present. Fascinating stuff.
  • 871 +/-2 –a small museum based on an archaeological site that deserves (and will get) its own blog post
  • A city-walk led by a self–defined “history graduate”: the tour guide was smart, informed, opinionated, and funny. I highly recommend this even for those with no particular interest in history. (Not that this describes any of the Marginites, but you  might travel with anyone like that.) They also run a tour called Walk The Crash, led by an economic historian (we really wanted to take it, but we couldn’t make the schedule work) and a pub crawl.  Here’s the link for anyone planning an Iceland trip:
  • Licorice. I am not a big licorice fan, but Icelandic licorice is good stuff. And a good thing, too, because the chocolate is forgettable.

*I was astonished to learn that the corrugated metal buildings date from the nineteenth century. I think of it as a modern material. Shows how much I know.

**As always with foundation myths, you have to take this one with a “yes, but”. It is clear that explorers from Norway reached Iceland once or twice before Ingólfur Arnarson established himself on the future site of Reykjavik. Even more interesting from my perspective, there is some evidence that monks from Ireland or the Scottish islands were already in Iceland when the Norwegian settlers arrived, presumably having traveled overseas in their coracles– small round boats made of willow covered with skin and tar that make Viking longboats look like ocean liners. It is not clear whether the Vikings killed the monks or simply drove them off.

***Fishing is still important in Iceland, but tourists have replaced cod as the country’s primary industry.

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