In the early years of the new millennium, Iceland got carried away with some good financial times revelling in its prosperity and flashing its cash. Of course, the party was broken up in 2008. Why did Iceland party like a high school kid in a Katy Perry song (“Last Friday night, Yeah, we danced on table tops, And we took too many shots…”)? Historically, the country was dirt poor and the population eked out a living from the harsh land through farming and fishing. For example, in the early 20th century, 96% of the population were farmers. You can get a really good look into how Icelanders lived historically at Glaumbaer, a traditional Icelandic farmhouse, that is now a museum.
You can see how small the doors were because my daughter is a not very tall 9 year old.
Glaumbaer is made in the traditional way with turf layers laid in a herringbone pattern. Traditional Icelandic houses were made of turf because the Vikings had decimated the forests to build ships and then allowed overgrazing by sheep.
At Glaumbaer, the roofs of these houses are turfed as well, the front is wooden and there are little wooden windows set into the turf. Although one house, each little section is made individually in order to support the weight of the turf roof. There are 13 little sections that are attached together by a long hallway to create the manor house. The rooms included a guest room, kitchen, pantries, store rooms and sleeping quarters.
A museum guide in traditional clothes stands in the main hallway.
Although other farmhouses could be made from stone, there is very little stone at the Glaumbaer farmhouse because there wasn’t enough stone on the land for building. The stone is mostly at the bottom of the house to prevent rising damp.
The current buildings date from the mid-18th century. It was occupied as a farmhouse until 1947 when it became a conservation site.
Although this farmhouse is considered one of the grander farmhouses, it is a good representation of what other farmhouses would have looked like. They would have been similar in construction and rooms but smaller.
The History of Glaumbaer
There has been a farmhouse at Glaumbaer since the Settlement Times (the 11th century). The first owners were Thorfinnur Karlseffni and his wife Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir who were returnees from Vinland (the Icelandic settlement that was started by Vikings somewhere in North America). Their son, Snorri Porfinnson, who later inherited the farm, was actually the first European born in the Americas.
There is a modern statue to Gudridur and Snorri in the church near the farmhouse. Incidentally, the first church built near the farmhouse was built by Snorri when his mother went to see the Pope in Rome on a pilgrimage.
I am completely impressed by the courage and hardiness of Gudridur. She not only returned from Vinland with a baby but then set across Europe to Rome and back to Iceland in the 11th century. That is quite the trek even today with modern transportation. Of course, the family story is told in the Icelandic sagas.
Gudridur and her son Snorri
Many of the other owners of Glaumbaer were pastors. For example, in 1845, records show the house had 24 people – the pastor, his family, lodgers, labourers and servants. The pastor would have taught local boys out of the home as well. They would have been given a basic education in reading, writing, math, science, geography, history, Danish and Latin.
It’s interesting that Icelanders were traditionally very poor but they were relatively well-educated. This fact helped propel them from a mainly agrarian society to a modern European country in the 20th century.
A Photo Gallery of Glaumbaer
This is the kitchen where meals for up to 20 people were cooked. The fuel used to heat the pots was either peat or dried sheep dung. Smoked meat was hung from the ceiling to dry.
Most of the kitchen utensils and implements were wood and carved at home. The landscape was inhospitable to trading conditions – you couldn’t just nip out to the store as we are used to.
Kitchen utensils including the churn to make skyr
You made food and stored it in barrels, such as black pudding, skyr etc.
The beds were lined in a long room against each side. The women had the side with the windows because they would need light to spin and sew. Most people would have had to share a bed. Although there was hardly any privacy, what you kept under your pillow was considered sacred. No one would look at what you put under your pillow.
Each person had a wooden bowl with a lid that was their own dish that they kept above their bed. The housewife would serve food into this dish and then everyone would eat on their own bed.
At bedtime, people (in pairs) would snuggle under blankets to stay warm. Labourers couldn’t get married until they could afford their own farm. So many of these labourers never married because they couldn’t afford to.
This bed is the equivalent of the master bedroom because this bed is where the master of the house and his wife stayed.
The master bedroom
Turf buildings kept their heat very well which is a good thing because the interiors weren’t heated. The wool clothes that people wore were generally enough to keep them warm.
clothes hung to dry
Little dormer windows in the roof
Ice-skates carved from a long horse bone
a beautiful storage chest
Glaumbaer is easy to spot off Route 75 (off the main Ring Road) in the North of Iceland. In all likelihood, you will spot the church first as it is more striking that the manor house. In addition to the main museum house, there are separate houses that contain a gift shop as well as a charming tea room.
Do you believe in elves and magical people? My daughter definitely still does. So, when we heard about the Elf Garden in Hafnarfjordur in Iceland, of course, we had to visit.
Searching for Elves in Hafnarfjordur
Hafnarfjordur is believed to be one of the areas with the most magical people in Iceland. It is a short 15 minute drive from Reyjkavik. Frankly, it is hard to know where Reyjkavik finishes and Hafnarfjordur starts. The town has an organised hidden worlds tour which we missed, unfortunately, because it is available only twice a week.
The Elf Garden is set in a lava landscape in Hellisgerdi Park, a small park set amongst residential homes in Hafnarfjordur. It is a short drive from the visitor’s centre in Hafnarfjordur, and the other main attraction in town, Viking Village. The park, itself, is not very big but so well landscaped that it feels bigger.
The Elf Garden has a centre for Icelandic Elves and Huldufolk (Hidden People) which was not open when we visited. We couldn’t find signs for when the opening hours are either. Apparently, its got great Elf Tea. I really wanted to try Elf Tea! Very disappointing.
The centre for Elves and Huldufolk
We also didn’t see any Hidden People or elves during our walk around the park, much to the children’s frustration. We asked them whether they wanted to go to The Elfschool in Reyjkavik itself but anything with the word school in its title got an immediate negative reaction.
Despite our disappointment over missing any sightings of magical people and missing out on the Elf Walk/center, we had a beautiful walk in a place that felt magical. The children had a blast climbing up and down hills and peering into crevices searching for elves. Even the Elf Cathedral was empty but, to be fair, it wasn’t a Sunday.
Nope, no elves in the elf-sized waterfall.
A Photo Tour of an Elf Garden In Iceland
If this isn’t idyllic, I don’t know what is.
We think this crevice was the Elf Cathedral we were given directions to find.
Mossy steps and flowers
Morning dew on the flowers
The elf garden was fairly deserted of humans. Elves, we weren’t sure about.
Two roads diverged in an Elf Garden. Neither of them lead us to an elf.
Even when we hid behind the trees, those magical people were too smart for us.
If I were an elf, I’d definitely live here.
The Strength of Beliefs
Over 80% of Icelanders surveyed by the University of Iceland survey in 2007 refused to deny that elves and magical people exist. On the other hand, most of these people were not willing to say they definitely existed. They were hedging their bets just in case.
Why do Icelandic people believe even in the possibility elves and hidden people still? Traditionally, life in Iceland was brutal and full of hardship. The Hidden People had a much better life which helped fill an active fantasy life. People were also very isolated in their rural environments and maybe the feeling that they weren’t alone with that active volcano in their back yard gave them comfort. After all, the Icelandic winters are long, dark and cold.
Today, the Hidden People embody a nostalgia for the old ways (which frankly was terrible in reality for most people). After all, the magical creatures were mainly farmers and fisherman just like many Icelanders in the old days. Nothing like a rural fantasy of the good old days, right?
The belief in elves and hidden people has an effect on real life as well. For example, sometimes roads in Iceland are rerouted so that they can avoid certain specific areas. Lots of people also have a little wooden elf house in their garden in case any magical people stop by. So, if you don’t have time to visit THE Elf Garden in Iceland, just check for local elves in some back gardens.
We fell in love with Iceland on our recent July visit. The landscape is stunningly beautiful in the summer with its Icelandic horses roaming wild, rocky fjords, thermal spas and colourful houses. Would I live there? No. A month of warmish sunshine in the year would not cut it for me. I would spiral into seasonal affective disorder faster than you can say Seydisjjordur.
I noticed though that we kept being served by American waiters in Iceland. Clearly some people really did emigrate to Iceland in search of Nordic lovers and socialist utopia. Just in case you are tempted by an outdoorsy life in a small town masquerading as a country, I would like to share some tips on how to be Icelandic with you.
How To Be Icelandic in 60 Minutes
I would suggest that you start off with an overview of what to expect with the fabulous comedy show How To Be Iceland in 60 Minutes at the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. A one man comedy with Bjarni Haukur Porsson, he relies on physical comedy (perfect for children) and multi-media for laughs. Porsson had a lot of fun with the Icelandic language in particular.
The Icelandic language has a lot of peculiarities. For example, the words are long with a minimal of vowels. Somehow it always sounds much shorter than what you see written on paper. You also need to speak Icelandic without much of an inflection, i.e., in a flat, monotone voice. Or, as Porsson says ‘talk like you are dead’.
Apparently cute little kids are greeted by adults with this phrase (and it’s direct translation). My kids thought it was hysterically funny.
Just from a general observation of Icelandic life though, I’d like to add some non-language tips of my own.
1. Be practical with a dash of romance.
Believe in fairies, trolls and elves. According to a University of Iceland survey, over 80% of Icelanders refused to deny the existence of magical creatures. But, only less than 10% were prepared to go out on a limb and say magical creatures definitely existed. So, everyone else was hedging their bets.
2. Be respectful of nature.
At any time, Mother Nature can go from being pretty to one mean mofo. People in Iceland are aware of this thin line between normal life and catastrophe. For example, the entire island is divided in half by the two tectonic plates that make up Europe and North America. These tectonic plates drift apart a couple of centimetres ever year.
Slightly more time-sensitive, a volcano can erupt at any time. Iceland has 35 active volcanoes and 10 of these volcanoes are classified as very active. For example, Mt. Hekla, Iceland’s most infamous volcano, erupts on average once a century.
Steam blowing off from a geyser in Geyser
3. Be prepared to drink. A lot.
The Icelanders really like to drink. You got to appreciate any country that has Beer Day (March 1st) which celebrates the end of prohibition on the brewing of beer in 1989. They love their beer so much that they even have a Beer School run by one of the local breweries.
You can have your cake with something stronger.
A very happy hour
No reason Happy Hour can’t start at 11pm.
This interesting article from the Reyjkavik Grapevine looks at why people in Iceland prefer to drink themselves silly as opposed to other countries that enjoy sipping a glass of vino as part of a social gathering. Apparently for a long time, it was socially acceptable for Icelandic men to drink themselves into oblivion and get into fights. For some reason, this type of social life reminds me of the caricature of Viking life portrayed in the movies, How To Tame Your Dragon.
A Viking ready to fight and drink
How would you like to taste Black Death?
4. Embrace New Christmas Traditions
At Christmas, Icelanders don’t have a jolly old fat man in a red suit married to a Mrs. Claus (equally warm and fuzzy) with a lot of happy little elf helpers. No, they have Gryla, an ogress with 13 children (the Yule Lads). Every Christmas Gryla goes searching for children who have misbehaved to be boiled alive. Slightly less gruesome, the Yule Boys leave sweets and candy every night starting 13 nights before Christmas. And, then there is the Christmas Cat. If you don’t get new clothes at Christmas, the Chirstmas cat will eat you. A nice family pet for Gryla and her brood.
We weren’t in Iceland for Christmas obviously. But we did get to drink their Christmas Ale which can now be drunk all year round. Christmas Ale is a half and half combination of a malt drink that is combined with Appelsin (an Icelandic orange soda). My children loved Appelsin (it’s very similar to Fanta) but hated the Christmas Ale combo.
Some sort of fish dish which showed up at the hotel breakfast buffet.
On the other hand, we have had some fabulous meals in Iceland. Reyjkavik is quite the foodie destination from the world-famous hot dogs at Boejarins Beztu Pylzur stand at the Reyjkavik waterfront to New Nordic cuisine in posh restaurants. Apparently 70% of Icelanders have eaten a hot dog at the Boejarins stand. It’s reputation for premier hot dog quality was sealed by a visit from former US president Bill Clinton post-heart surgery.
Icelandic yogurt, Skyr, is delicious.
6. Be prepared to like licorice.
I feel you either love liquorice or you hate it. I personally find the stuff vile. Icelanders, on the other hand, seem to have an obsession with the stuff. You find it everywhere – mixed with chocolate, added to salt, mixed with alcohol etc. It’s hard pressed to find a sweet in the candy aisle that doesn’t have licorice.
One of the many types of licorice candy
Icelandic candy collection – lots of licorice!
So many choices for salt, including that old favourite – licorice.
7. Don’t beat around the bush.
Icelanders are very direct in their speech. Porsson, the comedian described it as being rude. I don’t think it is necessarily rude, but just very direct. It is pretty much the opposite of some countries (ahem! England) where things are couched in a certain way so that you don’t even know what people actually mean.
Clever advertising, but they are not kidding.
I’ll give one example from my life that I had ‘translated’ by my English husband.
The headmistress at my kid’s school was retiring. I asked a teacher (the headmistress’s daughter and right hand person) if she would take over for her mother since she’d clearly been undergoing training to do so. Her actual response to me is below, and I’ve imagined her response in either the USA or Iceland.
England: I could never do as good a job as my mother did. (I took that to mean no but my husband said that was very much a ‘yes’).
USA: I’m considering the options.
Being direct in your speech isn’t such a bad thing in my opinion. At least you don’t get lost in the nuances of an answer.
8. Get Used to Hipsters
When I was in Reyjkavik, I had the odd feeling that I could be in a college town in the pacific Northwest of the United States. Practically every man had a luxuriant beard. Everyone drank gourmet coffee. A lot of the people in the city did not actually seem older than 30. So be prepared to show up on Icelandic shores with an open mind and to like artisanal food, vintage clothes and anything/everything liberal.
Woo Hoo! Iceland is for me!
Think you can do all of the above? And, live for months on end in a harsh winter without any real sunshine? Iceland may be the perfect country for you. You can thank me later, but please, no Icelandic food baskets.
The critics questioned why the £90 million Harpa concert hall was being built in Rejkavik, the capital of a country that had gone spectacularly bankrupt in 2008. Construction of the Harpa was started in 2004 when Iceland was riding high as the new financial whiz kid on the block. Unfortunately, the financial market turmoils of 2007 had a seismic effect on Iceland. Iceland owed the world trillions in Icelandic Krona or mere billions if calculated in Euros, US dollars or British pounds. In any currency, the amount was staggering.
Iceland had a choice of abandoning the building of the Harpa. The hulk would stand in the harbour forever as a testament to their hubris, or plodding through to the end. You have to be pretty stubborn to live in Iceland though. So the decision was made to double down and carry on with construction. The result is a stunning venue with four concert halls and a testament to Icelandic grit.
Design of the Harpa Concert Hall
Situated in Reykjavik Harbour, the building is a crystal beacon and immediately recognisable landmark. The building looks like it a giant iceberg washed onto shore but with added glittery, light effects. Sort of like the winner in a Pimp My Iceberg contest.
A whole lot of bling probably is an appropriate relic from a very capitalistic period in Iceland’s history.
The Harpa is a collaboration between an Icelandic-Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson, and an Icelandic architecture firm, Henning Larsen architects. You can see the artistic element wherever you look in the building. I’d say that Eliasson had more input in this partnership of equals.
A play of light and shadow.
The mirrored ceiling reflects light back into the building.
The outside of the Harpa sparkles and glitters in the unique Icelandic light. In the space of one day you can get light that is bright and clear, translucent and grey, or murky and dark. The adage that Iceland can have all four seasons in one day is true. It’s the only country I’ve ever been in where we needed turn on the heating and the air conditioning both on the same day.
All that glitters is glass.
That same weather reflects beautifully in the glass facade. The hexagonal glass tubes are inspired by the basalt columns resulting from tectonic activity on the island. These shapes remind me of the basalt columns from South Dakota’s Devils Tower National Monument although that structure is located in another country on another continent.
Some of the hexagonal windows are made of coloured glass.
The dark grey concrete inside of the Harpa is reminiscent of the bleak lava landscape of the island. The inky hue though is perfect for reflecting shadow and light from the glass facade.
Gold and silver shadows on the floor are all that’s left of Iceland’s boom years.
Visiting the Harpa Concert Hall
When you fly Icelandair, they like to inform you on the seat-back television screens that 60% of Icelanders have been to see something at the Harpa. Of course, you need to realise that about 60% of the population of Iceland lives in the Reyjkavik area. To be fair though, the Icelanders love their music and art. The Harpa is the culmination of a national dream of an arts venue of their own.
Interesting angles from any view.
We went to see the one-man show How To Be Icelandic in 60 Minutes by comedian, Bjarni Haukur Thorsson at the Harpa. I thought it was amusing but my kids were in stitches of laughter. They loved Thorsson’s impressions. He demonstrated how the Icelandic wind hits you in the face or how to walk like locals over lava fields.
You don’t need to take in a show to visit the Harpa concert hall in Reyjkavik. The interiors are open to the public and there are a couple of restaurants as well. They also have very comfortable seats and sofas where you can just hang out for a while. Quite handy if your flight arrives early into Reyjkavik (as they usually do) and you can’t check into your hotel yet.
My kids loved lying back on the seats and watching the shadows on the walls and ceiling move. It’s an urban version of lying on the grass and watching cloud formations. By the way, there are occasionally food trucks in the plaza in front, sailboats and ships in the harbour and a nice park and playground across the street. So, the whole expedition can be made interesting for children with little effort.
Clearly Reyjkavik doesn’t have hobos who think this would be a great place to catch some zzz’s.
The Harpa is located in the old Harbour at Austurbakka 2, 101 Reyjkavik. They have extensive underground parking if you are driving. (You should have coins though because the machines in the parking lot are having issues accepting foreign credit cards). The Harpa also has regularly scheduled backstage tours of the venue in English every day.
Usually you think of corrugated metal buildings in the United States as an industrial cladding – something cool and urban for a modern house or a practical shed in the country. When I was in South Africa, the townships had a lot of corrugated metal houses in the townships. Once again, the metal was a utilitarian material devoid of charm or quaintness.
Nowhere except in Iceland have I seen corrugated steel building look charming with their bright colours and occasionally fancy design. Who knew corrugated steel could be made to look Victorian?!
Victorian-style corrugated steel cladding
Reasons for Corrugated Steel Construction in Iceland
Corrugated metal was exported around the world in the mid-19th century to put up quick, cheap housing. In the 1860’s British ships would trade the local sheep for corrugated steel which turned out to be an excellent building material for the harsh weather in Iceland. Although first used to clad the roofs, corrugated steel soon became a wall cladding as well.
Blue steel roof for a a blue sky.
Thanks to the Vikings, Iceland has a shortage of timber for building homes. The Vikings had razed the existing forests to build ships and then allowed sheep to graze on the land preventing the trees from growing. Corrugated steel protected the timber building underneath from the harsh elements extending its life by many years.
Corrugated Steel with a Scandi dragon twist
Following a massive fire in 1915, city officials in Reyjkavik ordered all houses to be covered in fire proof materials to prevent future fires. Corrugated steel once again proved to be the best solution because it was strong, lightweight and cheap with excellent insulation properties.
A view over the colourful steel architecture of Reyjkavik
The Diversity of Corrugated Steel Buildings in Iceland
These buildings are traditionally painted in bright colours which must really help brighten the gloom in the dark days of winter. In the sunshine, the light bounces off the metal making it sparkle, like on this church roof.
It’s not just the homes either. You get offices, restaurants, supermarkets and churches with the corrugated steel shell. And this log cabin… which somehow mixes up rustic with industrial and still makes it cool.
Log cabin chic with a steel roof.
This little black house is the Icelandic Emigration Center at Hofsos and stands as bulwark from the wind blowing off a fjord in North Iceland. Although we went in summer, we were still buffeted by the wind. Note the little windows which help with the insulation. The bench was pretty against the black siding but no one was brave enough to actually sit there!
Imposing in black.
Here are some photos of the beauty of corrugated steel architecture in Iceland. The steel colours are varied and individual such as light, dark, pastel and bright.
Flowers to soften up the steel.
More flowers to soften the industrial look
I love the weathered red of this steel roof.
An orange steel roof that has seen better days.
These last three photos of buildings are located in Seydisfjordur, a town known for its prefabricated wooden houses that the herring barons imported from Norway. These kit-houses are mixed in with the usual corrugated steel architecture to give the town a very unique look.
A traditional blue & white colour combo is just as pretty in steel.
Industrial steel married to a gracious front porch.
You can see how the wooden windows show much more wear than the steel.
Wits have described Icelandic wrestling (or Glima) as sumo wrestling for skinny men. Glima, the national sport of Iceland though breeds strength and agility. The word Glima comes from Old Norse and means ‘flash’ which technically is what you are supposed to do to your opponent. You throw him so fast to the ground he has no idea what happened.
The Rules of Glima
In Glima, the wrestlers wear this special belts around their hips and thighs to get a grip on each other. The point of the contest is to try and throw each other from a standing position. A thrown wrestler though can land on his feet and then the fight is not over.
The wrestlers circle and try to outmanoeuvre each other. You have to keep moving in a circle and look over each other’s shoulders. So no visual intimidation. Nor can you body-slam your opponent on the floor. For such big men, the actions appear very graceful and ballet-like. In still photos, though it does look like they are trying to give each other giant wedgies.
It wasn’t always so civilised though. In historic times, even ‘friendly’ Icelandic wrestling wasn’t so friendly. Your opponent could throw you on top of a giant rock called a slaying slab. If you were slammed onto the slaying slab you either broke your back or your ribcage. By the way, this really was the ‘friendly’ Glima – there was another type of Glima where you were fighting in earnest to kill (as opposed to merely maiming).
Luckily, the Icelandic Glima Association has changed the rules so it’s no longer so violent.
The History of Glima
Like a lot of Icelandic traditions, Glima was brought to the country by the Vikings thousands of years ago. Vikings needed to fight on sea and land, with and without weapons. Glima was a way of having fun fighting while building strength, reflexes and strategic decision-making. I mean, of course, Viking fun involved picking up and hurling each other around. Nothing peaceful like a good game of golf as per the Scots.
Glima made it to the 1912 Stockholm Olympics as a demonstration sport though. Unfortunately, the first world war intervened and the next 2 Olympics were postponed and any buzz generated around Glima on the world stage died. Glima though has a history almost as old as the Greco-Roman wrestling which is recognised as an Olympic sport.
The Vikings prized strength which has been handed down to the Icelanders. Never mind the Olympics, strength-training comes in handy nowadays in strongman competitions. For example, two different Icelandic men have won the World’s Strongest Man competition 4x each. They are second only to the USA which has won 9 World’s Strongest Man titles. So not bad for a country with only 320,000 people.
The Glima Display at Geysir
We didn’t even know Icelandic wrestling was a thing until we stopped off at the visitor’s centre in Geysir. The centre had sculptures and photos explaining this Icelandic sport.
The top Icelandic prize for men’s glima is the Grettisbelti which is on display at the visitor’s centre. The Grettisbelti or Grettir’s Belt is named after Grettir, one of the heroes in the Icelandic Sagas, who killed an undead giant. Of course, Iceland’s zombies had to be giants as well.
This is Grettir, Icelandic zombie warrior
The women’s version is the Freyjumenio or the necklace of Freyja. Although the Grettisbelti was established in 1906, the Freyjumenio has only been around since 2000. I never hope to come across an Icelandic woman who is strong enough to throw me over her head.
Anyway, the silver Grettisbelti has a round shield in the front showing the mighty old Saga warrior Grettir. The other shields are engraved with the names of the winning champions and their year. Each year the winner gets their shield added onto the belt and the oldest gets removed and placed on the shelf. There have been 34 winners of the Grettisbelti. One champion, Armann J. Larusson won it 15 times between 1952-1967. Pretty impressive.
Bouts of Glima are conducted during the winter months from September through April. Unfortunately, the website for the Icelandic Glima Association is only in Icelandic so I have no idea how to get into see a match. You can also catch matches at the Viking Festival in the city of Hafnarfjordur (only a 10 minute drive from Reykjavik itself) held annually in June.