Reykjavík: Menningarnótt (Culture Night)

A couple of weekends ago, Reykjavík had its annual Menningarnótt, or Culture Night — a bit of a misnomer since actually the (mostly free) events go on all day.

Outside Harpa at night

{as always, click on photos to enlarge, or mouse over for description}

I always have a little bit of trouble coping with huge arrays of choices, like buffets (thanks for the metaphor, Sherry!). I suppose our brains probably aren’t wired for that many options, and my enthusiastic personality (and fondness for checklists) doesn’t help. I went a little crazy wanting to see everything on offer during Menningarnótt, and I dragged Erik all over the city in my attempt to cover as much ground as possible. (The PDF schedule was 3 pages!) We never found the free waffles, and we saw a few lackluster shows that shall go unnamed, but we did explore new areas of the city and get free chocolate cake at a gallery. It was a good, if tiring, day.

We began close to home, with a little confusion: one of the markets in the brochure wasn’t actually there, and a venue for all-day live electronica turned out to be a tiny second-floor space tucked behind the main street, Laugavegur. Another exhibit was not as noteworthy as advertised. But then we found an outdoor flea market and I perked up a bit. It reminded me so much of markets at home in the Bay Area: very similar vibe.

Outdoor flea and craft market

From there it was only a short hop to Hallgrímskirkja, the famous church (and one of the highest points in the Reykjavík skyline, so that it becomes a kind of North Star wherever I am in the city). We walked over there and found the lawn teeming with families and Viking reenactors. Heh. Vikings.

Viking tent

Inside the church, someone was playing the organ, so we sat and listened for a few minutes. It is a beautiful, lofty, reverent space, but there were tourists going in and out, taking pictures, and even talking — so it didn’t feel like much of a concert. We soon left.

Inside the church, Hallgrímskirkja

The famous church, Hallgrímskirkja

From there we continued on until we were the furthest east we’d ever been in the city. I was looking for another outdoor market, and it turned out to be a multi-household backyard sale in a neighborhood that reminded me strongly of the East Bay: mixed apartments and houses, a little shabbier perhaps than the downtown core, but homier-looking because of the colored plastic playsets and laundry hanging in the yards.

We walked from there to a very crowded art gallery (the one with the free cake) which was celebrating its 20th anniversary. There were artists giving demonstrations, contests and raffles (alas, we couldn’t participate since all the forms were in Icelandic), a flower-bedecked woman pushing a baby buggy through the crowds, and a male opera singer whose voice rolled forcefully around a room that wasn’t big enough for it. Sensory overload at its finest! We side-stepped our way out and walked back toward home. At the bus station a couple of young women were giving a dance performance, so we stopped to watch.

Dancer in red outfit outdoors

We stopped at the apartment to drop off purchases (my flea market books!) and get a drink, and then went looking for waffles. (Turns out I wrote down the address as 12 instead of 21, which is why we never found them. Bah.) I was getting tired of walking around in the sun, but I cheered up when we got to Austurvöllur square and they were handing out free candy bars and sodas. They also had special telescopes set up so we could look at the sun (it looked like a blurrier, shinier version of this).


We sat on a bench for awhile and drank our sodas. I don’t know why it is always so hard for me to recognize that crowds make me tired, and I should take care of myself accordingly. I guess my inner checklist fiend gets on the warpath, and since Erik is mellow, he goes along for the ride (but reminds me to stay hydrated). So we only sat a short while before I said, “Okay, let’s get going,” and we walked over to Harpa concert hall. We passed Ingólfstorg — another square — on the way, and that too was packed.

Outdoor dancers on a stage with a giant inflatable KFC bucket of biscuits next to it

I had hoped Harpa would be a little less crazy — classical music? soft carpet and elegant lighting? — and yes, the atmosphere was slightly more calming, but there were still something like four events going on, and of course the requisite swarms of people. And Harpa itself, at least in the daytime, is not the most quieting of places — all that glass and metal and so many shadows and reflections.

Performers on an outdoor stage outside Harpa concert hall

Young musicians performing in an atrium in Harpa concert hall

Inside Harpa concert hall

Young musicians performing in an atrium in Harpa concert hall, seen from above

Inside wall of Harpa concert hall

So we continued our quest for peace and escape from the crowds, backtracking past Austurvöllur to the city pond, Tjörnin, where we watched ducks and ate our free chocolate bar.

Ducks on Tjörnin, the city pond

I think Erik could have sat there for much longer, but I had to pee. The city hall — the Ráðhús — is right on the edge of Tjörnin so we ducked in there and used the restrooms (also crowded), and on our way out I noticed that there was a cafe too, overlooking the pond. One of these days I’ll go there and do some writing.

From there we went across the street to the giant outdoor chessboard, where accordion players had set up and people were dancing. We were intrigued by one of the dances because it looked like some of the steps we’d learned at the ceilidh in Edinburgh.

There was actual chess going on in this area too: a drop-in outdoor tournament, with local kids and grandmasters ready to take on new players.

Outdoor chess tournament

As we crossed Austurstraeti — one of the main streets of downtown — Erik said, “You have to take a picture of this,” so I did. Reykjavík has a population of something like 100,000 and I think they were all out on the streets that day.

Young man with his young son on his shoulders

Crowds on Bankastraeti

We really should have just gone home and rested, but no, I still wanted to see everything. So we walked to the end of the Old Harbor and watched Czech folk performers at the Maritime Museum.

Czech folk singers at the Maritime Museum

After that we wandered a bit, buying some snacks, checking out a performance that we quickly abandoned, then braving the crowds on Bankastraeti and Laugavegur, in search of dinner. This effort made us crankier than anything, but we were lucky enough to get a table at Frú Berglaug — by the window, too. I sat sipping my water and looking out at all the people on Laugavegur, and I suddenly felt very tired and lonely and foreign. My long day was catching up to me, and so was all the sugar I’d ingested. But the food was good and I felt much better after our meal.

Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and salad on toast

We thought we might go home after that, but somehow we didn’t, and we wound up back at Hallgrímskirkja, where there was a choir singing hymns.

The famous church, Hallgrímskirkja, with its statue of Leif Eíriksson

This was the quiet and calm I wanted. This time there were no talkative tourists: the audience was attentive and respectful, and apparently religious as well. (FYI: The Lord’s Prayer is instantly recognizable even in Icelandic.) I took out my sketchbook and pens and let the voices and the language sink into me. (Click the link if you like choral music. They’re good.)

Sketch of choir performing inside Hallgrímskirkja

When the concert was over it was 9:00 and the sun was low, the dusk spreading like a drop of ink in a bowl of water. After the brightness and crowds of the afternoon, the evening quiet of the neighborhood around Hallgrímskirkja was like walking into a shaded garden from a busy street. We crossed the street to the Einar Jónsson Museum, which used to be the sculptor’s house.

Inside the Einar Jonsson Museum

It is a funny building — we thought it was only one room at first, until we found the tiny spiral staircase leading upstairs and downstairs — and since many of the sculptures had spiritual themes, it felt very appropriate after the hymns. On the upstairs balcony we found more steps leading up to the roof; from here, we could see the city.

View of the city from a rooftop

We stuck around the museum until 9:30, when there was a concert of Icelandic folk songs by a soprano and a cellist. The whole program was in Icelandic so we didn’t know what any of it was about, but it was lovely, and we were very pleased to recognize a couple of the songs from the Ensemble Úngút performance in Toronto! I read somewhere that the Icelandic musical tradition was largely vocal for a very long time, since most people couldn’t afford instruments. I thought I saw one woman in the audience wiping her eyes after some of the more mournful-sounding tunes.

We left the museum when the concert was done, and made our way leisurely back home, where we had just enough time to put on warmer clothes before heading back out to Harpa for the climax of the night, a fireworks show. (The £20 coat I bought from a charity shop in Edinburgh has been serving me well!)

I had thought downtown was crowded earlier, but wow, that was nothing compared to this. People were everywhere, and yet somehow there were still clear passageways to walk on. We threaded through the masses on Arnarhóll and staked out a spot next to Harpa.

Very crowded downtown at nightVery crowded downtown at night

Very crowded downtown at night, with Harpa

We didn’t know where the fireworks would be coming from — the program just said “Old Harbor” — so we planted ourselves next to a bunch of other people on the southwest side of Harpa. Erik observed that we were not seeing too many “people with big cameras” and suggested we try the other side of Harpa, but I thought we might as well stay put since we didn’t know for sure.

Outside Harpa at night

Outside Harpa at night

Shortly after 11 the first burst sounded and we couldn’t see a thing. They’d launched the fireworks from the other side of the concert hall, and Harpa was in our way. Everyone jumped up and started yelling, and so did we, joining the spontaneous, frenzied group run to the other side of the building. I laughed the whole way. It was so ridiculous and so much fun to be racing along the water’s edge in the middle of the night with all these other people. Most of them were trying to get to the water but I spotted one of those metal boxes poking out from the front concourse (what are they: electrical boxes? gas? also, am I using “concourse” correctly?) and made my decision. I put my camera on the end — it was already on the “fireworks” setting — and leaned over it, pressing the button again and again.

Fireworks outside Harpa concert hall

Fireworks outside Harpa concert hall

Fireworks outside Harpa concert hall

Fireworks outside Harpa concert hall

Fireworks outside Harpa concert hall

Fireworks outside Harpa concert hall

Fireworks outside Harpa concert hall

It took us quite a bit longer than usual to walk the six short blocks home, since there were so many people everywhere. Every street seemed to be packed, and the few drivers who’d unwisely ventured out for the fireworks now found themselves blocked by pedestrians at every side. When we finally reached our street we were happy to slip into the apartment and get into our pajamas and call it a day.