Icelandic Whimsy

Troll head

Icelandic whimsy seems to come from some part of  the national character that appreciates absurdity combined with a dollop of humor. We observed certain delicious bits of unexpected whimsy in subtle ways throughout the country.

For a number of years I lived in northern Alberta, which has a very severe winter climate, low temperatures and lots of snow. But the Canadian response to long hours of low light for many months of the year is more one of earnest endurance. So I’m curious as to how the light-hearted whimsy entered Icelandic culture. There’s no hint of it when reading the Icelandic Sagas, which are relentlessly grim.

Whimsy on Reykjavik’s streets

Take for example the blockhead-with-a-brief-case sculpture (L). Placed somewhere else, say in a city park, the sculpture would still be startling. But it resides in a small plaza right beside the city offices in the capital city of Reykjavik. A culture that takes itself seriously would never allow such an obvious comment.

Then you turn a corner and the exterior wall of a modern office building is covered top to bottom in turf consisting of grasses and small water-loving plants (R). You can see from the photo that this was a very rainy day!

Part of whimsy is the unexpected. And that’s what happens as you’re walking up the street in Reykjavik and you happen to glance to the side. There on a black iron gate is the Single Gloves installation and a sign explaining it’s the Icelandic version of speed dating.

Single Gloves

Single Gloves

The huge trolls on main street, Reykjavik, have probably been photographed as often as Gulfoss or the Blue Lagoon. They look almost jolly, though, which is definitely not their role in folk literature. Gotta be that Icelandic sense of whimsy again.

Many design stores in Iceland feature the hand-knitted woolen sweater. They’re beautiful to look at, but for me, owning one would be similar to wearing a hair shirt. Nevertheless, they are ubiquitous to Iceland and immensely popular with tourists (of thick skin). With that visual in place, during a stroll in downtown Reykjavik I discovered a bicycle knitting sculpture in the big window of a children’s store along with clothing and dolls. Parts of several child-sized bicycles had been combined into a knitted art-piece that encased several sizes of tires, a set of handle bars, chain, seat, and even the spokes of the tires. The sculpture struck me as a droll comment on the Icelandic knitting phenomenon as well as the preoccupations northerners have for bundling up children against the cold weather.

Bicycle knitting

Bicycle knitting

Then there’s the Phallological Museum of Iceland dedicated to the preservation and display of all penises large and small. Want to donate yours? They’ll probably take it! The displays are presented in this earnestly scientific way that strikes me as being very, very funny. I didn’t photographic any of the exhibits for you, sorry. But you can probably get a sense of it at all at the museum’s website.

Cellist at Harpa

Cellist at Harpa

Harpa Hall is architecture in a monumental way (I’ll talk about that in a later blog), but take a look at this lonely little cellist (L) in a reflecting pool outside the building.

Visiting a friend

Visiting a friend

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One hotel features a life-size wooden sculpture (R) that is so approachable I couldn’t get a picture without someone in it.







Whimsy at Lake Laugarvatn

To find our B&B in the Lake Laugarvatn area, we followed directions along a very unpromising route that twisted and turned into even less likely places. When at last we came to a parking lot, wondering where on earth we were, the first building we saw was not the inn, but the pole building below (L). What does it look like to you? A troll house with little windows for peeping?

Would you have guessed it had an entirely prosaic purpose — the laundry? We continued on up a tree-lined path, and the next little brown wooden building we saw (R) was less fanciful. It turned out to be the sauna. At last we came to the Nature-Spa Guesthouse, which we’ll remember as our favorite B&B. Made all of wood, it creaked whenever someone climbed up or down the stairs. But I love the freshness of a wood scent, inside or outside. Equally lovely, they also served an excellent breakfast in the morning. We’d happily return and stay longer.

Whimsy in Gerdi

Have you ever seen the side of an inn painted to look like a set of encyclopedias? When I saw this guesthouse in Gerdi, what a double take I did!

Encyclopedia wall of a Gerdi hotel

Encyclopedia wall of a Gerdi guesthouse

Whimsy in Helnar

Marker for the Hellnar hike

Marker for the Helnar hike

What do you make of this huge sculpture that opens the hiking path from Hellnar to Anarstapi on the south coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula? Do you see a troll in it?

Is the passageway that seems standard victory arch at first glance, actually the opening between his legs? Are the black basaltic columns near the top his beard? And what about that peaked hat? And how about the club leaning on his right side?

Gotta love that Icelandic sense of whimsy!

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Whimsy in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Probably the most stunning whimsy of all, though, is found in the architecture of the futuristic churches that dot the island [below]. But that’s got to be the topic for a blog on its own.

Whimsy in architecture

Whimsy in architecture

2 thoughts on “Icelandic Whimsy

  1. From the first through the most recent of JM Bryce’s travel blog posts, I have enjoyed seeing her comments on her enviable array of destinations. Now, with the shift to focusing on one element of the “Destination,” I am finding her insightful and often wry comments on topics like the sagas and the influence of landscape on architecture even more entertaining — and motivating! Thanks, JM!

    1. Thanks so much, Linda. I’ve found the topical approach rather than the chronological to be a lot more interesting to write. Takes me a lot more thought and time, though, so I’m delighted that you’re enjoying it. Right now I’m learning about SEO, so let me know if that helps clarity.

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