Iceland’s history is inextricably bound with that of fishing, for sustenance as well as for export. As these two paintings hanging in our hotel depict, while the men fished, the women processed — dried cod in earlier days, salted herring later.
On our last day in Reykjavik, we headed for Vikin, The Reykjavik Maritime Museum to learn more about Iceland’s fishing culture. Situated at the furthest edge of the harbor, it’s easy to overlook this gem of a museum. The museum traces Iceland’s relationship with the rich fishing grounds surrounding it through an engaging array of artifacts, dioramas, and videos. We allowed only part of the morning to spend there, and could have easily spent the rest of the day absorbing this living history.
The story of fishing in Iceland wouldn’t be complete without including that of Þorskastríðin, the Icelandic Cod Wars. As we toured the Coast Guard Vessel Óðinn, one of the museum’s main exhibitions, we heard of the Óðinn‘s illustrious history. It was the first ship built specifically for the Coast Guard, which was founded in 1926. With no standing army, Iceland relies on a defense agreement with the U.S., with the Icelandic Coast Guard responsible for coastal defense, and maritime search and rescue.
The Cod Wars were a series of confrontations primarily with Britain, as Iceland sought to extend it’s fishing limits. The first occurred in the 1958, when Iceland, out of concern for overfishing, increased their territorial waters from 4 to 12 miles. The limit was again expanded to 50 miles in 1972, then to 200 miles in 1974. Each time these restrictions were met by hostility; Britain continued to fish within these zones while the Icelandic Coast Guard actively enforced the boundary against them.
This history came even more alive when we encountered the last captain of the Óðinn, who happened to be onboard ship. He told us stories of boats deliberately ramming one another at sea, and showed us their secret weapon — the trawl cutter used to cut British fishing nets. He spoke also of the Coast Guard’s other duties, of icy rescues that gave us an appreciation for how much remote communities rely on their presence.
Next, with the sun still high in the sky, we joined the throngs for lunch at Cafe Paris, which had the particular advantage of an outdoor patio. We continued on afterwards to the concert hall and conference center, Harpa. Noted for its architecture, the facade was designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist, Ólafur Elíasson. Though its design clearly bears the influence of Buckminster Fuller, it was serendipitous to find a photo of drying cod juxtaposed in-camera with that of the pattern pattern made by the building’s windows.
Located in an isolated position on the waters’ edge — the rest of the plan for the area remains undeveloped — Harpa stands as a symbol of Iceland’s recovery after economic collapse. This modern edifice is meant to be enjoyed from the inside, and it was a pleasure to see it alive with those populating the cafes within, taking a tour, or attending a conference. “I think what is highly unique in Iceland is that the light is not just a little bit different compared with the rest of the world: it is incredibly, extremely different, partly because people here developed a life in twilight.” — Ólafur Elíasson
Just a few blocks from our hotel, we came across Frú Lauga, a shop specializing in locally-produced food. We were informed that use of agrochemicals in Iceland is still low, with the cool climate keeping it relatively free of plant and animal disease. As a protective measure, imports of live animals, raw meat, and plants are strictly limited or forbidden. There’s demand though, to a certain degree, the shortage of organic fertilizers hinders the growth of organic production.
What there’s plenty of is geothermal heat, which is employed in greenhouses to produce mostly cucumbers, tomatoes, and red and green peppers. These serve to supplement the potatoes, cabbage, carrots, turnips, and rhubarb more commonly grown.
With the exception of berries, fruit is mainly imported, as were these Cox apples from England — a little tired from the journey but as flavorful as their reputation makes them out to be.
Passing through the central city on our way to dinner, around 8 pm — it’s the night before a national holiday, and streets are beginning to fill with the revelers. Surprising how fast one adjusts to long days and to wearing sunglasses at night.
Down by the old harbor, the restaurant Höfnin featured summer dishes on their menu. Sumardagurinn fyrsti, or first day of summer, traditionally begins the first Thursday after April 18th, and is based on the old Norse calendar containing only two seasons, summer and winter. It was pointed out to us, in a display of sly Icelandic humor, that it often snows that day.
For starters, we had the bowl of lamb soup (above, right), which was a more dressed up version of what we had in Gullfloss. The roasted langoustines with pickled celery root and oranges (below, left), was served on a homey crocheted doily.
A bowl of beer-steamed mussels (above, left) was accompanied by home fries and a herb sauce packed with dill, while a summery platter (right) featured cured salmon, smoked mackerel, apple-curry herring, smoked lamb and the Icelandic flatbread, flatkökur.
The Blue Lagoon overshadows the fact that Reykjavik is home to seven public thermal pools. Our 48-hour city pass, Reykjavik Welcome Card, included free entry to them all, a rather different way to experience daily life there. Remember to bring your bathing suit, it’s a quite wonderful way to start off the day.
By our third visit to Mokka Kaffi, we were beginning to feel at home. Opened in 1958 as Iceland’s first coffeehouse, the lack of wi-fi is more than compensated by our berry muffin. We were more than delighted to be offered the option of whipped cream with it.
Any conversation about eating in Reykjavik eventually touches on Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a roadside stand with a name that translates to “The Best Hotdogs,” and is more popularly known as “the place that Bill Clinton ate.”
Definitely worth seeking out, this all-Icelandic hotdog is made partially of lamb, and is piled high with condiments — a creation of textures and flavors deserving of its own postage stamp.
True to their Nordic roots, Icelanders know how to make a great sandwich. We were able to squeeze in one more meal by picking up a couple of them from the bakery Sandholt to take with us on flight.
While heading out, we met up at the airport with the Gardener’s ski touring chums, Matt and Helen. They pass through often on their way to Greenland, and it was a treat to spend some time with them, however brief. In answer to your lovely question, Matt, the most special thing about Iceland was all of the personal encounters we had there. As much as Iceland is about nature, from the captain of the Óðinn, to the twinkly smiles of recognition that greeted us at Mokka Kaffi, what we remember most were the people and a culture very much shaped by place.
On the flight out, we binged on Icelandic movies, and thought about the many things to see, do and taste the next time around. As they say in Iceland, bless bless!
• Vikin, The Reykjavik Maritime Museum
• Cafe Paris
• Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
• Bakari Sandholt
• Reykjavik, Part 1: Icelandic Daze
• Reykjavik, Part 2: The Golden Circle
• Reykjavik, Part 3: Settlement Life