I’ve always been a big fan of wandering. Maybe it’s because whenever I try to actually get from point A to point B on purpose, I end up hitting just about every point from C to Z along the way thanks to getting lost or simply distracted by something shiny.
Or maybe it’s because some of the best travel adventures I’ve had are the ones that happen on the way to something else.
So for our Icelandic trip my friend Julie and I had deliberately left our plans fairly loose while in Reykjavik and set out our first full day of walking around the city content to see where our feet would take us. Luckily, Iceland’s largest city is also a very walkable city with wide sidewalks along the two main streets Laugavegur and Bankastraeti. Both of which are lined with an eclectic mix of shops, pubs, restaurants and galleries.
Those same streets are also lined with vibrant and constantly changing art. Unlike many urban centers, Reykjavik loves and encourages street art and graffiti, though there have been moves in recent years to curtail it. No surface, from construction barriers to buildings, is safe from the artists’ brushes and spray cans. If it’s flat, bare and there, it’s fair game. For years, city officials turned blind eyes to the street artists, but over the last five years or so, there has been somewhat of a crackdown with attempts to control the artists.
I’m really hoping they can find a happy medium because there is some real talent on the streets of Reykjavik and it deserves to be displayed.
Strolling up the gentle incline of Laugavegur Street, we popped into a shop for our only established quest of the day: something, anything, of pure Icelandic wool.
Inside the small shop floor to ceiling shelves were stuffed with all manner and colors of sweaters, hats, mittens, cowls and blankets. It was shear sensory overload.
Rummaging through a pile of traditional Icelandic sweaters, I caught the snippet of a conversation between a couple next to me that lead me to believe they were from somewhere in the states. Turns out, not only were they from the Yarmouth area, but once they learned I worked for the BDN, the gentleman whipped out his smart phone to show the BDN News app loaded and ready to go.
We exchanged business cards and I went back to trying to decide between a bright red Icelandic sweater and a lovely green sweater. In the end — and with the full support of my friend — I ended up getting both. I mean, really – who knows if I’ll ever have the chance to get genuine Icelandic sweaters in genuine Iceland ever again.
Parcels in hand, we decided to check out Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church perched at the end of Skólavörðustígur Street on the highest point in the city. Named for the 17th century Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson, it took close to 40 years to build the 244-foot tall building which is considered either an architectural marvel or monstrosity, depending on who you ask.
The inside is quite plain, save for the 25-ton pipe organ on the back wall. Julie and I have seen some impressive pipe organs in our day, but the organ in Hallgrimskirkja is in a class of its own with 5,275 pipes, some of which stick straight out from the wall parallel with the floor.
As we were admiring the instrument, an elderly gentlemen walked up to the organ’s floor mounted keyboard, sat down at the bench and unfolded several pages of sheet music. He spent several minutes fussing with the organ’s foot pedals and stops then, peering at the music, he began to play.
At first, he’d play for a few seconds, stop, fuss with the pedals or stops again or study the sheet music before making notations or changes with a pencil tucked behind his ear. After watching this, Julie and looked at each other wide-eyed, realizing we were watching and hearing the birth of an original composition.
Then came the real treat. The composer turned the sheet music to the first page and began playing from the start. Mesmerized, we were soon joined by other visitors to the church who drifted over to stand next to, or sit in the pews directly behind this composer/musician. I honestly don’t think he realized any of us were there, so lost as he was in his creative process. When the music ended, and as the last pipe chord faded away, we all broke into applause, causing him to blush deeply and give us the barest nod and smile before he went back to his sheets of notes and scribbles.
You can’t visit Hallgrimskirkja without buying a ticket and taking the elevator to the top of the observation tower. From there, it’s a 365-degree view of Reykjavik and surrounding mountains.
Of course, sometimes an observation tower is more than an observation tower. Like, when it’s on top of a church and is a working bell tower. We were enjoying the relative peace and tranquility of strolling around the tower and checking out the views out the windows when, precisely on the hour and with no warning those bells began to toll. My friend was standing on a raised step looking out one of the windows and went flying backward at the first deafening gong. Meanwhile, I was attempting to put my body back into my skin after jumping out of it.
Once the bells finally settled down, we could not stop laughing at ourselves and the mental image of all the horrified and startled expressions on all the selfies snapped the moment those bells started peeling.
Our final stop for the day, once the ringing in our ears died down, was what’s touted as “probably the world’s smallest watch manufacturer.”
Tucked in a small shop on Laugavegur Street, JS Watch Company produces some of the finest handcrafted time pieces on the planet. Lovers of watches, Julie and I were hoping, at best, to peek in the windows of the shop, figuring there would be armed guards and locked doors keeping the unwashed masses away from the watches that start at $3,000 each and can run well into six figures. Many a JS watch is on many a celebrity wrist. Heck, even the Dalai Llama keeps time according to JS.
So imagine our surprise and delight when the shop’s door swung open and we were ushered immediately inside where the owner and watch manufacturer Gilbert Gudjonsson offered us Icelandic chocolates and began draping watch after watch over my wrist so I could “get the feel” of them.
Gilbert, with his omnipresent magnifying loupe cocked over one eye, could talk watches all day. It’s definitely what makes him tick. At one point he took me into the back room where he placed one of the watches on a small machine that amplifies and charts the time pieces’ sound and inner workings, sort of like a teeny-tiny EKG.
“Do you hear that?” he asked just above a whisper. “That’s the soul of the watch.” We departed with one last piece of chocolate for the road and an invitation to return any time, whether we were in the market to purchase one of his watches or not.
Like the entire day of Reykjavic wandering, the whole experience was time well spent.
Next up: I ate a puffin, and I liked it