In Reykjavík Walks, Icelandic historian Guðjón Friðriksson guides you around the streets of downtown Reykjavík, covering both the well-tread turf of Laugavegur and Austurvöllur, as well as lesser known paths and passageways. Great attention is given to architectural details and the walks take you along some hidden gems of Icelandic design, such as the house at Bárugata 16, Norræna Húsið (The Nordic House) as well as through the clustering of corrugated iron buildings known as Grjótaþorpið. If you like the idea of a guided walking tour of Reykjavík, but would prefer to do it at your own pace, this might be the book for you.
The introduction, a short and concise summary of Reykjavík’s history, which is informative even for natives such as myself, sets the book’s historical tone. The six walks are outlined in a simple and easy to follow format, with descriptive names such as The Old City Center and Around Laugavegur. A small map with the route marked in colored ink is at the beginning of each chapter for easy navigation. Buildings and places mentioned in the book are illustrated with well-lit, attractive photographs so they can effortlessly be identified as you traverse the city.
Over all, little reference is made to contemporary or cultural events, with the focus predominantly on the architecture and history of the city. The history provided is thorough with a smattering of interesting little stories associated with buildings and about the people who lived there. For instance, the author recounts the interesting origins of the 1919 sign on the Radisson Blu 1919 hotel on Pósthússtræti, which hides the swastika-like former logo of the shipping company Eimskip, which constructed the building in 1919. Eimskip replaced their logo when the swastika became associated with the Nazi party but because of historical building preservation laws, the altering of the building was not allowed. A compromise was made when the building was converted to a hotel, and the swastika covered with the 1919 sign, which the hotel adopted as part of their name.
At certain places in the book I found myself struck by unwarranted grandiose statements. At one point when describing the gymnasium Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík or MR (Reykjavík Junior College, or Reykjavík High School) Guðjón says that “all of the most prominent members of Icelandic society have attended” the school. While many notable people have attended the school, particularly those of the older generation, it is far from being the exclusive alma mater of Iceland’s jet setters. To be fair this statement could very well be made with tongue in cheek as it invokes the infamous MR hroki, the term for the arrogance often attributed to the students of the school which is said to consider itself far better than all others Icelandic gymnasiums.
More problematic is the reference to Björgólfur Thor Björgólfsson in reference to a house in his possession at Fríkirkjuvegur 11, where he is referred to only as a “prominent Icelandic financier.” Björgólfur Thor owned a large share of the bank Landsbankinn, through his holding company Samson ehf, and the investment company Straumur which were at the center of the 2008 financial collapse and he himself has been heavily criticized for his part in the crisis.
Guðjón also refers to Tjörnin, literal translation The Pond, as a lake, which is a bit of a stretch, and any mention of the city’s less glamorous aspects is generally avoided. For instance nothing is said of Hlemmur, the bus terminal at the top of Laugavegur, being known as gathering place of the city’s less fortunate.
Considerable space is dedicated to the various restaurants, museums, cafés and boutiques along the way. This has the obvious advantage of allowing the reader a glimpse into the contemporary use of many of these historical buildings, but at the same time the book inevitably risks becoming dated faster. One restaurant referenced in the section on The Old Harbor, Icelandic Fish & Chips, has already moved to a different location (across the street in the same building as the Volcano House museum, also mentioned).
Datedness, however, is inevitable and the foundation of the book, the history of the architecture, sculptures and structures of Reykjavík provides an excellent basis for a walk around town. The book pays particular attention to the permanent artwork which dots the city landscape and frequently makes note of celebrated artists, poets and writers and their former haunts. It speaks to my overall favorable impression of the guide that I intend to use it as a baseline guide when I show my American friend the city later this month.
Reykjavík Walks is published by Bókaútgáfan Hildur. It is available at all major booksellers, such as Eymundsson and Mál og Menning and online here.