Reykjavik was about a fifty-kilometre drive from the airport and it was across a barren lunar type landscape with black granite rocks and no vegetation at all except for the vibrant green moss that was clinging stoically to the boulders. This was an unfamiliar terrain unlike anything that I had seen before and it reminded me of a tray of freshly baked muffins that had risen quickly due to the heat and had split and cracked as though some mighty force from below and heaved them up through the earth’s crust, which of course it had.
We found the Hotel Bjork and it was only a short walk to the seafront and we found our way to the promenade and walked along to the Sólfar suncraft, which is a stainless steel 1986 sculpture of a Viking long boat that occupies an impressive spot overlooking the bay and Mount Esja on the other side. Iceland is proud of its Viking heritage because the country was first colonised by Norwegians in the ninth century and the first permanent settler was a man called Ingólfur Arnarson who landed here in 871 and named the location Reykjavik, which means smoky bay, on account of the plumes of hot steam that were coming from the nearby hot springs.
After an expensive snack we walked up a steep hill to the Hallgrimskirkja, which is the city’s Lutheran Cathedral and at seventy-three metres high dominates the skyline. Outside the church is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson who was an Icelander born about 970 and who explored the oceans and the lands west of Iceland, establishing colonies in Greenland and Newfoundland and who according to legend reached America long before Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucchi.
The statue was a gift from the American Government in 1930 to mark Iceland’s 1,000th anniversary and October 9th is commemorated as Leif Ericson day in the United States. The date is not associated with any particular event in Leif Erikson’s life, it was chosen because the ship Restauration sailing from Stavanger in Norway, arrived in New York Harbour on October 9th 1825 at the start of the first organized immigration from Norway to the United States.
Nearly a thousand years after Lief Ericson many Norwegian immigrants went to the United States primarily in the second half of the nineteenth and the first few decades of the twentieth century. According to the most recent United States census there are more than four and a half million Norwegian Americans and most live in the Upper Midwest and Norwegian Americans currently comprise the tenth largest American ancestry group.
In Minnesota 868,361 Minnesotans claim Norwegian ancestry, 16.5% of the population of the State. No wonder then that in professional football the team from Minneapolis was officially named the Minnesota Vikings on September 27th 1960; the name is partly meant to reflect Minnesota’s importance as a centre of Scandinavian American culture.
In actual fact there is no real evidence that Eiriksson discovered America but his statue faces to the west as though in expectation of belated recognition for his achievement. Today he looked out over Viking skies full of Nordic drama with mountainous clouds as big and as grey as a medieval cathedral.