Iceland 3/9/2019 - 3/17/2019

Monday, March 11, 2019 - Exploring Reykjavik: Settlement Exhibition, Kattakaffihúsið Cat Cafe, Berlin Wall, Sun Voyager

After managing to stay up all day yesterday, we got a good night's sleep (11 hours) and woke up feeling great. It was flurrying snow, which looked beautiful out our hotel window as it settled on the surrounding metal roofs and cupolas.

We went downstairs to the breakfast buffet before heading out to explore the city some more. The snow was sticking to the sidewalks but not the streets, which made us wonder if the geothermal heating runs under the streets to keep them clear in the winter.

We started off at the Settlement Exhibition, a subterranean museum built around the excavation of a 10th century Viking longhouse which was discovered in 2001.

The date of the Viking settlement of Iceland has been determined to officially be "871 +/- 2" A.D. How do they know this? All archaeological ruins found in Iceland are atop a layer of tephra (volcanic rock fragments ejected during an eruption) which corresponds to an eruption of Torfajokull in 870 A.D. This "Landnamslag" ("Settlement tephra") layer was also found embedded within the Greenland ice cap. By counting the annual layers of ice which had accummulated above it, they correlated the date to 871 +/- 2 A.D.

The first settlers of Iceland are thought to be Norwegian Vikings. Iceland was a 7 day sail from Norway's closest point. The Islendingabok (Book of Icelander) circa 1130 A.D., says that the Norwegian settlers chased away Irish monks who had come to Iceland previously, but there is no archaeological evidence of this. The book says that Ingólfur Arnarson was the first Viking settler, and that the settlement period lasted from approximately 870 to 930 A.D.

The reason for settlement is disputed. Historically, it was thought to be an escape from the tyranny of King Harald Fairhair of Norway. However, the sentiment is growing that perhaps they were just seeking adventure and opportunity.

The Reykjavik area was good for settlement due to proximity of fishing, forests, grazing land, fresh water, driftwood, eider down, forests, peat, and bird life. Iron deposits in swamps leached from the water forming naturally occurring bog iron, which could be smelted.

Legend has it that the earliest settlers threw two high-seat pillars were tossed from ther ship, and decided to make landfall wherever the pillars washed ashore. This was a way of allowing Thor to choose for them by influencing where the pillars would land. Reykjavik was one such location.

The population of Iceland is thought to have been between 40 to 100 thousand people in 1095 (an extrapolation made from the census data on the number of landowning farmers).

From the street above, we could look down a skylight into the excavation. It was discovered in situ in 2001, as they were digging to do some construction. It is below today's street level, as volcanic eruptions and constructions have raised the ground level in the intervening 1000+ years.

We walked another block and entered a building. We went down the stairs and purchased our entrance tickets. It was like stepping into the pages of National Geographic.

The excavated longhouse was 20 meters long and 8 meters wide and encompassed 915 square feet. It was the home of a farming family, perhaps 10 people. There was a long hearth in the center, and was surrounded by turf walls. Timber perlans once supported a turf roof (as depicted in an interactive multimedia exhibit).

There were walrus bones embedded in the western wall. Walruses do not visit Iceland much these days, but it seems that they were more plentiful in the days of the Settlement.

The longhouse was abandoned around the year 1000, perhaps due to a natural spring which we could still see today, bubbling up through the foundation.

In the days of the Settlement, the shoreline was closer to this longhouse than it is now. It was located at Hafnarstraeti (where the Konsulat is located...halfway between the Settlement Exhibit and the current shoreline). The area was also surrounded by birch trees, but deforestation caused them to be all but gone a century later. The settlers cut down trees to clear grazing land, and they used wood for carpentry, charcoal, and fuel.

Along the perimeter of the room were display cases showcasing artifacts unearthed at the site. These included:
  • crucible
  • tongs
  • bog iron slag
  • bronze brooches
  • glass beads
  • shards from a glass drinking vessel (probably from southern Europe)
  • a blown glass bead that probably originated elsewhere in Europe
  • clothing pins made from bone
  • iron knives, rivets, nails
  • plough blade
  • axes
  • iron keys
  • arrowheads
  • fish hooks
  • wooden nails
  • game pieces
  • an anthropomorphic figure thought to be a doll or an idol
  • rune sticks
  • scale weights
  • spindle whorls
  • soapstone imported from Norway
  • a few wooden items which happened to be preserved by the wet soil
  • grindstone
  • door weight
  • flint
  • stone fish-oil lamp
  • silver bracelets
The exhibit used technology in interesting and interactive ways. It was a very interesting intersection of archaeology and cutting edge musem technology.

There is also a temporary exhibit space adjacent to the main exhibit. The current exhibit is Journeys Between Worlds, which explores the role of animals in pre-Christian belief systems of Iceland. Like the Vikings themselves, Norse gods and goddesses used animals as food and to make work easier in their daily lives:
  • Norse god Óðinn's eight-legged steed Sleipnir carried him between the realms of the living and the dead
  • Horses pulled the sun and moon across the sky
  • Norse goddess Freyja's chariot is pulled by her cats
  • Óðinn's two ravens, Huninn and Muninn (Thought and Mind) fly around the world each morning and dawn and report their observations back to him
  • A pig was killed each night in Valhalla only to be reborn to be eaten again the next night
  • The goats who pulled Þorr (Thor)'s chariot were killed each night in Valhalla only to be reborn the next day
The line between human and animal was somewhat ambiguous as well:
  • Berserkers were believed to transform into bears when they fought
  • Óðinn could shape-shift and take animal form
We spent about an hour exploring the museum, and then headed out in search of Kattakaffihúsið. I had learned of this cat cafe on the Culture Trip web site, and we really wanted to visit. We had since started following it on Instagram and Facebook.

The cafe just celebrated its first birthday. It was opened by two cat-loving women as a place for folks to enjoy a coffee and a snack while hanging out with cats. The cats live at the cafe and are in search of forever homes, so if you particularly bond with one, you may be able to adopt it. No cover is charged, they provide free wi-fi...what's not to love? The place has pretty high turnover in terms of cats, too. They have placed 27 cats into forever homes within the past year.

I got us a bit lost trying to get there (I blame two streets with very similar names). It was actually only a 10 minute walk from the hotel, but we went via a VERY roundabout route.

A white picket fence and gate attempts to keep the cats from getting too close to the front door. The walls are painted a cheerful pink, with a cat mural on the largest wall. There were crystal chandeliers and eclectic furniture. A neon sign proclaimed "Mjá!" (Meow in Icelandic). Above the tables and chairs hang wooden shelves and ladders for cats to get a birds'-eye-view of the place.

Being early afternoon, the cats were all feeling pretty lazy, except for the new arrival, who was feeling a bit nervous. There are four boys (Spartacus, a 4-year-old ginger, Oliver, who is a smoky gray 6 year old, Hugo, 4 years old and buff-colored, and Toothless, a black 2 year old). Just last night, they had acquired Rós, a 6 month old female kitten. She was still getting used to the place, and had gotten into the underside of the couch through a rip in the upholstery. The cafe workers were trying to lure her out with Party Mix treats. Craig and I laughed because our late cat Brownie used to love those treats, and I always sang her a little Party Mix song when I gave her some. They finally extracted her and plugged up the hole with a blanket. Rós then just hid between the back of the couch and the wall.

We each ordered a capuccino and a snack (I got a small iced lemon pound cake, and Craig got a cookie). They had some cat-themed books including a cat encyclopedia and T.S. Eliot's cat poems. I browsed through Artists and their Cats by Alison Nastasi, and was delighted to find a blurb about Patti Smith and a photo of her with a cat.

Everyone was really friendly, employees and customers alike. Cats have that effect on people. One young lady was able to lure Rós out from behind the sofa for a moment, but then she retreated back there again. A guy who worked there excitedly drew our attention to the restroom, which featured Eastern-inspired gold leaf cat murals, and where Oliver was taking a nap on top of the cabinets.

I bought a shirt and a notecard, both of which were artistic and whimsical, designed by Helga Björnsson. As I mentioned before, everything is expensive in Iceland. The shirt was expensive even by these standards, but it was a nice, quality, long-sleeved shirt with an adorable cat motif, and I considered the money to be somewhat of a donation to this admirable establishment.

We each got a hot chocolate before heading back out into the weather. We had really enjoyed our time in this cozy, friendly coffee shop. All in all, we had spent about 2.5 hours there, enjoying hot drinks, snacks, and cats.

We decided to walk along the waterfront. On our way there, we passed a small park on Hverfisgata. We could see a circle of volcanic monoliths. We approached to check it out, and noticed an inscribed metal plaque. The stones also had Icelandic words carved into them. It looked to us like it was a monument celebrating 50 years of Icelandic independence from Denmark (1944-1994), while also mentioning Alþingi, the national parliament of Iceland which dates back to 930 A.D.

It was incredibly windy this afternoon, especially along the ocean, and we nearly got blown over. With 38 mph winds and gusts up to 60 mph, we were happy that we had our hats, scarves, and gloves. Fun fact: in Iceland they talk about wind in terms of "meters per second," which is very difficult for me to work out in my head.

We walked as far as Höfði House, site of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. To commemorate this historic occasion, a segment of the Berlin Wall was gifted to Iceland in 2015 to celebrate 25 years of German reunification. The 4 ton wall segment is painted with images of Easter Island moai. We have been to both Berlin and Easter Island, and it was quite surreal to find this in Reykjavik! But we had come to expect the unexpected from this unique city.

We walked back toward the city center and stopped to view the Sólfarið (Sun Voyager), a statue by Jón Gunnar Árnason. This was the winning statue in a 1986 competition to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the modern city of Reykjavik. The sleek stainless steel minimalist sculpture depicts a boat and pays homage to the sun. The stainless steel blended perfectly into the color pallet of whitecaps on the cool blue frosty ocean, with bright white mountains in the background. We watched as waves bashed against the rocky shore. Sea birds were suspended in the air, not making any progress as they tried in vain to soar into the wind.

When we walked past the Harpa Center, the small reflecting pool also had whitecaps, and water was blowing onto the sidewalk. What a difference from the calm sunshine of yesterday.

We stopped back into the hotel to check e-mail. We were supposed to go for a Northern Lights tour tonight, but we suspected that the overcast weather would cause the tour to be canceled. We were right, and the e-mail gave us instructions for rescheduling. We rescheduled for tomorrow night, hoping that the weather will be better. We had scheduled it for tonight on purpose, as it is a late night activity and we could sleep in tomorrow morning. The same would not be the case the next day. Best laid plans...

On researching places to eat and drink in Reykjavik online ahead of the trip, we became aware of the Smokin' Puffin. Its logo was a puffin in a captain's hat smoking a pipe. Craig and I have a thing for puffins, so we had to try this bar. Yesterday it had been closed. Today the shades were open, and so I tried the door. It was locked, but then someone promptly unlocked it and let us in. Night life in Reykjavik starts late, so our 6:30 p.m. arrival meant that we were pretty much the only ones in the place.

We loved the vibe immediately, as we saw that the chalkboard read: "Free beer, Topless waitresses, and False advertising." They were playing aplaylist of Scott Bradlee's Post Modern Jokebox and similar artists performing: Bad Romance, Welcome to the Jungle, Sweet Child O' Mine, Royals, Oops I Did It Again, Happy, Wonderwall, Ain't No Rest for the Wicked, and Hello.

We each tried a shot of Brennivin, a caraway flavored schnapps which is "Iceland's signature spirit." Then Craig ordered a Kaldi IPA and I ordered a Reykjavik mule. While I was asking for the wi-fi password, A.J., who is the manager of their sister bar, asked if he could do some card tricks for us. At home, should someone have asked us this, we would have questioned their motives and wondered how they were trying to scam us. But A.J.'s motives were pure, he wanted to practice his magic skills, which turned out to be pretty solid. We had fun chatting with him and being an audience for his tricks.

Craig and I each had another round of drinks. Since the Puffin doesn't serve food, we reluctantly decided that it was probably time to seek out some dinner. But where? As we sat in the pub we could see street signs blowing back and forth a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It was frigid and blustery outside, so we didn't want to have to walk too far. I had amassed some tourist brochures during the course of the day, so I perused them for ideas.

We decided to head to the nearby Icelandic Fish and Chips restaurant. We bundled up and braced ourselves against the wind and walked a few blocks to the restaurant.

First we ordered drinks. I had a cranberry soda and Craig had a Snorri Ale (No.10) by Borg Brugghús. They describe it as containing "Icelandic barley and arctic thyme."

The restauant has an a la carte menu where you choose a type of fish, a side, and a dipping sauce made from skyr (the versatile Icelandic dairy product). We chose cod with chili roasted pepper skyr sauce. Craig had crispy potatoes and I had onion rings. Everything was delicious, and we enjoyed it very much.

Behind Craig was a book of photographs, and the photograph on the back made for a great photobomb of sorts. The black and white image, photographed by Ari Sigvaldason, showed an elderly woman with a crutch, standing next to graffiti that reads "Pussies Beware."

On the chilly, windy walk to the hotel, we noticed that the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand was still open ('til 1 a.m.), and there was still a line, even in the harsh weather.

Another great day in the city!

The Settlement Exhibition

Höfði House

Snow Flurries from Room #317, Konsulat Hotel

Snow Flurries from Room #317, Konsulat Hotel

Great hearth, Settlement Exhibition

Great hearth, Settlement Exhibition

Braud og Co. bakery

Brauð & Co. bakery



Oliver and Hugo, Kattakaffihúsið

Oliver and Hugo, Kattakaffihúsið

Höfði House

Höfði House

A segment of the Berlin Wall in Reykjavik

A segment of the Berlin Wall in Reykjavik

Sun Voyager

Sun Voyager

A.J. shows us some card tricks at the Smokin' Puffin

A.J. shows us some card tricks at the Smokin' Puffin

Dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips #PussiesBeware

Dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips #PussiesBeware

See all photos from March 11

Settlement Exhibition

Settlement Exhibition

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