I slept longer than I meant to (after an overnight flight,
landing at Keflavik airport at about 6:30 a.m.), so I
didn't get to downtown Reykjavík until 3:00 p.m. On the
walk from my hotel to downtown, I passed the Icelandic
Phallological Institute, a.k.a. the penis museum. It's
like the Mütter Museum crossed with Spencer Gifts -- one
side of the small, one-room museum contains jars of
dismembered members floating in formaldehyde; the other
has various penis-related tchotchkes that range from a
joke 3-foot-long condom to handcrafted items that could
nearly be called art.
The "scientific" side has 100
"penises and penile parts" from Icelandic mammals (no
human specimens yet, although three are pledged, and
one future donor thoughtfully included a cast of his
donation for display). Many of them are so decomposed
that they're barely recognizable. Others -- like the
whale penises mounted on the wall -- are downright
scary in their extreme pointiness. The museum's
brochure mystifyingly notes that "phallology is an
ancient science which, until recent years, has received
very little attention in Iceland, except as a
borderline field of study in other academic disciplines
such as history, art, psychology, literature, and
other artistic fields like music and ballet."
Phallology is a field of study in ballet?
Visitor tip: Certainly a worthwhile stop, especially since
it will take you about 15 minutes to view the entire
collection, and that's if you read all the little
identifying cards. Besides, telling people you've been
to the penis museum generates envy and amazement the
likes of which few other attractions can provoke, except
possibly South of the Border.
Though I held out little hope that anything the rest of
this trip could top the penis museum, I continued to the
downtown area. Reykjavík is a very walkable city. Not
only do they provide walking paths everywhere, even along
highways, but it's on a small, intimate scale. Plus, when
you push the button at a traffic light that triggers the
"walk" sign, it changes almost immediately. People I'd
spoken to made it sound as though my hotel was miles away
from downtown, but I walked there in about 20 minutes.
The city has a fine municipal bus system, which I rode
frequently, but you really can walk everywhere. At first
blush the city looks confusing, but it's quite easy to
get your bearings.
Visitor tip: Stop by the tourist information center and buy
a "Reykjavík card" -- it gives you free admission to most
of the museums around town, plus free rides on the bus
Iceland's Government House (the prime minister's office),
ridiculously small, sits across from the tourist information
center. Further down the main road, Lækjargata, is the
Tjörn, a small lake ("tjörn" is Icelandic for "lake") that
the tourist brochure describes as "bird-infested," which I
thought was a strong term until I actually saw the swarm
of ducks, swans, and geese. The city hall is a modern
building cantilevered over the north end of the lake.
It was not open.
I walked down to the natural history museum. It was closed
for renovations. Over to Norse House, a building designed
by Alvar Aalto, meant to recall a Viking ship. Closed. On
to the Árni Magnússon Institute, said to have an amazing
collection of the ancient saga manuscripts. Closed 15
minutes before I got there.
Visitor tip: Get to all the museums you want to see before
4:00 p.m. Most places seem to be open 10:00 to 5:00 at the
latest, at least during the off season.
So I headed up the hill to the Hallgrímskirka, the giant
cathedral that dominates the city. It's meant to evoke
the basaltic lava columns you can see all over the country,
but it comes off a little too Albert Speer for my taste.
Out front is a heroically posed statue of Leifur Eiríksson,
who discovered (and, some claim, settled) North America
centuries before Columbus. The elevator to the spire of
the cathedral was -- you guessed it -- closed, but as I
walked through the church, a wispy young woman in scruffy
jeans started singing underneath the impressive organ
pipes, played by her accompanist. She had an amazing
voice, and it lent a marvelous atmosphere to the church.