20 December 2016
Walking away from the sea with its threatening looking clouds, we headed towards the rosy light of the breaking dawn. We’d seen a tower of some kind between the houses and curiosity made this our next aim. With no real idea where we were or what we were heading towards we followed a trail of interesting graffiti upwards. The tower disappeared and reappeared as we wove and turned until, finally, it revealed itself as a church.
This, we discovered, was Landakotskirkja, or Landakot’s Church, known locally as Kristskirkja, or Christ’s Church, the cathedral of the Catholic Church of Iceland. The tower that had lured us was the flat topped spire and, with the pink clouds behind it, it seemed worth the climb even though the door was shut.
Originally this was a farmstead, Landakot. When the first catholic priests, Frenchmen Bernard Bernard and Jean-Baptiste Baudoin, arrived in Iceland in the early nineteenth century, they bought the land and, in 1864, built a small chapel. A few years later a wooden church was built nearby in Túngata. After the First World War the number of Catholics in Iceland swelled and a larger church was needed. In 1929, when Guðjón Samúelsson completed the new church, it was the largest in Iceland.
Once we’d satisfied ourselves that the door really was closed and stopped for a while to admire the frieze above and the wonderfully ornate hinges, we turned our attention to the jumble of low buildings beside the church. The central building with its pointed spire and beautiful fish scale tiles looked more churchlike than the church itself but it seemed a little strange to have two churches so close together.
As we looked a little closer the basketball hoops gave the game away. This was not a church at all but a school. In fact it’s the oldest private school in Iceland, established in 1896. Originally the school was run by the Catholic Church of Iceland but, in 2008, after the death of the priest, it became a non denominational school.
Two hundred pupils attend this pretty little school and we could see their work in the form of snowflakes on some of the windows although there was no sign of the children themselves. Momentarily the pink clouds and the moon in the sky fooled me into thinking it was too early for school to have started. Then I remembered this was Iceland and it was actually half past twelve. Perhaps the children were all safely tucked inside the warm classrooms or maybe the Christmas holidays had already started?
When we turned back towards the church an interesting sculpture caught our attention. The bronze figure of a woman stood beside the church, seemingly in quiet contemplation. As we came closer a curious greenish glow in the shape of an upside down cross seemed to be emanating from her chest. For a moment or two I thought I was imagining it but, when I got closer still, I could see it was made of glass, running from her nose to the middle of her breasts and between her shoulders. Whether the light was a reflection or something within I couldn’t tell but there was something quite ethereal about it. The sculpture, I later found out, was created by Icelandic sculptor Steinunn Thorarinsdottir.
The chilly air urged us to keep walking but, now we’d solved the mystery of the tower, we were at a bit of a loss where to go next. Then we spotted another spire beyond the line of trees edging the Landakotskirkja field. This, I was fairly sure, was Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures in the country. Although it seemed quite distant we decided to head towards it and see where the journey took us. It may not have been the most detailed of plans but it served us well.
Leaving the tower behind we ambled down the hill in the general direction of the sun that didn’t quite seem to want to rise, trying to keep sight of the spire as we walked. It wasn’t long before we lost it amongst the houses but we kept going forwards, sure we’d see it again soon. Many of the houses we passed had trees and gardens entwined with fairy lights and I had to stop meyself taking photos of each one for fear I’d have no space left on the camera for the church if we ever reached it. Decorated trees seem to be quite the thing in Iceland.
Just as I was telling myself I really mustn’t take any more photos until we got to the church, we stumbled upon a lake. There was a small bridge crossing the edge of it and the dark water was daubed with swirls of peach from the reluctantly rising sun. How could I resist? This was Tjörnin, a lake formed from a lagoon, once part of a reef, around which the city was built. Between the bridge and the modernist City Hall, Ráðhúsið, with its gently arched roofs there were swans and ducks swimming about.
While I was busy looking at the swans, Commando was looking at the building. Designed by architects, Studio Granda and built in 1992, it houses the mayor’s office, a cafe and a 3D map of Iceland. This was not what had captured Commando’s attention though. He’d spotted a ghostly figure in one of the windows and it appeared to be dancing. Intrigued, we crossed the bridge to get a better look but, as we got closer, it suddenly disappeared. If I hadn’t captured it’s shadowy outline on camera I might have thought we’d both imagined it or it was a trick of the light. What it was is a mystery. It could have been some kind of exhibit, although I couldn’t find anything about it anywhere, or maybe it was one of Iceland’s famous trolls, elves or ghosts?
Feeling slightly spooked we didn’t go inside the building but turned back to the lake and the birds. The swans that had captured my attention were not the mute swans I’m used to seeing on the River Itchen. These are Whooper swans with their shorter, thicker necks and black bills with yellow markings. The lake is home to up to fifty species of water birds although many are migratory. Today there seemed to be mostly swans, ducks and the odd grelag goose but it seems the pretty little houses lining the banks of the lake would be a good place to live for a bird watcher.
Across the lake we could see the spire of the Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík, the Free Church in Reykjavik. Founded in 1899, as an alternative to the national Lutheran church the Free Church aims to bring the church closer to the people. The church itself was built in 1903. Since then, the growing population and the popularity of the Free Church has seen the building enlarged twice. Whilst we were admiring it and the sun hiding shyly behind a cloud in the distance, we spotted the tower we’d been heading towards earlier. It was time to get moving again before we froze to the spot.
As we turned to leave we came across one of the strangest sculptures I’ve ever seen. It depicted a man in a suit carrying a briefcase, or at least his legs, the top half of his body had been replaced by a large block of granite. Googling told me this was The Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat by Magnús Tómasson and the sculpture was a metaphorical comment on bureaucracy and bureaucrats. Created in 1993, it originally stood on a pedestal behind Hótel Borg. In 2012 it was moved to the route most council officials take to get to work. Whether they see the joke as they pass by remains to be seen.
Typically, once we got back to the road, we found we’d lost the spire again but, by this time, we were fairly sure we knew which way to go. We might have even headed in the right direction if we hadn’t been completely distracted by all the sculptures we found. The first was Motherly Love by Nina Sæmundsson. It was also the first statue in a public space in Iceland to feature a woman. It depicts a mother holding a baby and stands in Mæðragarður, the Mothers Garden, on Lækjargata, the road we were on.
At the bottom of a grassy slope close to the road we stopped to look at a huge abstract by Ásmundur Sveinsson called The Face of the Sun, an ode to the sun’s precious warmth, not that we could see the actual sun or feel its warmth at all right then.
After a bit of a laugh at a sign advertising the ugliest pizza in town another sculpture caught our eye. The huge, slightly grotesque figure, also by Ásmundur Sveinsson, is called the Water Carrier and represents the women who once carried water to all the houses in town. It’s hardly a flattering portrayal and was quite controversial when it was unveiled in 1948 but it’s certainly eye catching.
By this time we’d been led so far off course by the statue trail we had almost come full circle. The sight of the Harpa concert hall and conference centre told us we were almost back at the sea front. If we wanted to see Hallgrímskirkja, it was time to turn around.
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