Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland: Lögberg (Law Rock)

This is something of an odd place for a flag, but then again it's an odd place for a Parliament.

Iceland's legislative body started meeting in this area in 930, and continued to do so through 1798. It's a rather remarkable story. As settlers moved into the island, some sort of government was necessary. So each year, people would gather here to talk about the political matters of the day. It was an easy trip for most of the population, and the summer gatherings became something a festival in a sense. Temporary structures were set up for business and housing purposes.

Lögberg (Law Rock), which was in the area shown in the picture, was the center of the legislative action. At times, political readers would read some of the laws of the land aloud. There were discussions about the laws, so you could certainly say it was the Supreme Court of Iceland as well. Eventually, the place lost its legislative duties, but it still had a judicial functions. Executions often were carried out at that region. The region became a national park in 1930.

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Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Time for a little geology lesson.

Is Iceland in Europe or North America? Actually, a little of both. The North American and Eurasian Plates actually collide in Iceland. About two-thirds of the country, therefore, is in Europe, which more or less matches the cultural influences of the two continents in Iceland. In other words, the nation feels most European.

The Thingvellir National Park, which is the English version of the name (the natives stick to Þingvellir), is right on the fault line. The guide called it "no man's land," and in a sense you can actually see the split between North American and Europe. It's also led to all sorts of interesting rock formations, such as the one shown here. That's partly why it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's easy to take a stroll along the fault and view the rocks, waterfalls, hills, etc.

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Haukadalsvegur, Iceland: Geysir

Thar she blows!

Geysir refers to the entire area of hot springs in the Haukadalsvegur valley area. Geysir itself is relatively famous as these things go. It's the first geyser that received some widespread publicity through the use of the printed word, and is therefore pretty famous. Yes, the word geyser comes from Geysir, although they are not pronounced the same.

When Geysir does erupt, water can go 70 meters in the air. But it doesn't go off that often. In fact, Geysir has been busy only once in the past 100 years. So don't count on seeing it.

Much more reliable in that sense is Strokkur, located nearby. It will erupt every few minutes. My camera was ready when it blew on one such occasion. There are other little cauldrons in the area, and the area does indeed smell.

There is a hotel across the street for those who want to take a longer look and also explore the area. There's also a big complex of services for tourists - the biggest we saw in a week of touring. There are all sorts of souvenirs for sale, and a couple of restaurants are on the grounds for a nice lunch.

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Gullfossi, Iceland: Gullfoss waterfall

It's two waterfalls for the price of one! And the price is free!

Here's Gullfoss - alert readers know that "Foss" signals a waterfall in Icelandic language. The Hvítá River is responsible for all this, as the water takes a few steps and then goes for a couple of plunges. The second one is relatively narrow and deep. From certain angles, it looks as if the water is plunging toward the center of the earth.

There's an interesting story about the area. Supposedly, investors were interested in putting up a hydroelectric dam in order to generate electricity (and money). However, they didn't have enough money for construction. Besides, early environmentalists weren't happy about the plans. Sigríður Tómasdóttir was the leader of that movement, and is said to have threatened to jump into the waters above the falls unless it was saved. She even led a protest march. It's hard to separate fact and fiction with all of this, but the waterfall was saved when the land was purchased by the national government. We can be thankful for that to this day.

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Selfoss, Iceland: Friðheimar

Friðheimar has a little bit of everything for visitors.

First of all, it's a farm of sorts. Owners grown a variety of vegetables in the greenhouses, particularly tomatoes and cucumbers. We got to see a cardboard box filled with bees, shipped to Iceland for pollination purposes. The box comes with a plastic top, so you can look inside and see the bees, well, buzzing around. There is a restaurant and gift shop in a greenhouse, so you can sample the products.

Then comes a short walk up a road to see some Icelandic horses, which are bred to be a little smaller and stronger than the typical horse. (Just don't call them ponies.) Tourists get to say hello the horses up-close, and then a short show is put on. The horses are steady runners, to the point where someone can drink a beer while riding. This staff member demonstrated that principle, and I actually got a decent picture as they went zipping by.

It's a family operation, and the members fit the part of farmers perfectly - strong and good-looking. It's a different sort of tourist stop, but an interesting one.

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Hekla, Iceland: Volcano

Welcome to "The Gateway to Hell."

At least that's what some Europeans called it when discussing the Hekla volcano, located in South Iceland. It's a little tough to get close to it, and that may not be such a bad idea. Hekla is one of Iceland's most active volcanoes, blowing up every so often.

The last eruption of note came around 2000, but one scientist in 2016 caused a bit of a stir when he said he thought Hekla was getting ready to blow again. We made it past the place without incident in June of that year.

Apparently the eruption of 1104 was particularly big, and it had the advantage of being seen in real time, so the monks of Europe passed the word that this was not a place for a vacation.

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Seljalandsfoss, Iceland: Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss is billed as Iceland's most popular waterfall. My guess is that there are two reasons for this. One, it is relatively close to the center of population, and thus more people get to see it. Two, you can walk right behind it. And how often do you get to do that?

A trail goes directly behind the fall and around the other side. It's an impressive site back there, although quick pictures don't come out particularly well because of the change in lighting - well, at least mine were dark in spot. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't bring a camera.

One warning: it's not a particularly easy hike to the falls and back. My guess is that in America, several lawsuits would have been filed already. There are good-sized steps on rocks and it is all a little slippery because of the spray. You can do it, and it's probably worth it, but some might want to stick to the right side - which is easier.

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Suðurland, Iceland: Eyjafjallajökull

This family farm is greeted every morning with a spectacular view, but it comes with a price. There's a volcano lurking in those hills, and you never know when it might blow. The family has some bags packed at all times, just in case.

The people needed those bags in 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull did indeed erupt. A good amount of ash went into the air, messing up the world's air traffic system for a while. More immediately, the heat of the volcano melted part of the snow around it. That led to flooding, which rushed down the hills and through this property. You can imagine how much fun that is.

What do you do in such circumstances? Make the best of it. First you clean up, and the farmers of the area did that. Then, you open a tourist center. It took a year, but in 2011 the Þorvaldseyri Visitor Centre was ready to go. There's a 20-minute film on what happened that shows what took place on the mountain and on the farm. It's a good job that explains the situation well, and it worth the stop on the road. The Centre has a website.

Meanwhile, volanic eruptions are always fascinating to see ... on video.

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Skógar, Iceland: Skógafoss

You never get tired of waterfalls in Iceland. Here's another good one in South Iceland.

Skógafoss supposedly used to be right on the ocean as part of some sea cliffs, but when the shoreline changed it became part of the dividing line between the lowlands of the coast and the nation's highlands.

This checks in at 60 meters high and 25 meters across. There is a nice walk to the right of this camera view which consists of some stairs going up to the top of the waterfall. The view of the water isn't all of that impressive, but it's a nice way to look at the countryside. Besides, the stairs will get you in shape in no time. There is a hike up the hill from that point, and visitors say the scenery is terrific, but most will have to be content with this sort of view.

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Vik, Iceland: Reynisfjara Beach

Let's get this settled right away. Reynisfjara Beach might be the most impressive piece of waterfront property in the world.

It is absolutely stunning. The sand is black. There are caves that can hold cathedrals, mountains towering over the area, seastacks in the ocean, and - as shown here - stunning endless basalt columns.

Oh, and there are puffins in the area. They nest on the mountains.

It's simply impossible to take a bad picture of the place. You'll want to stay as long as possible and gawk.

But if you do, just be careful. Waves can come in and sweep people away without warning. We lost a tourist that way early in 2016.

One picture just doesn't do it for this place. So watch the video:

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Vik, Iceland

Vik (pronouced VEEK) is a nice little village on the southernmost part of Iceland. There's no natural harbor there, but the waterfront is still quite spectacular. And the mountains on the other side of the village offer some more superb scenery. In other words, how would you like to look out to this sort of view in the morning?

There are a surprising amount of services available in Vik, considering its size. It's a good jumping off point for tours, whether its on the water or in the mountains and glaciers nearby. There's even a golf course.

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Eldhraun, Iceland: Lava field

This next natural wonder can have something of a yuck factor to it, at least in how it looks from a distance.

It's the lava field in Eldhraun, located in Southern Iceland. The Lakagígar eruptions took place late in the 1700s, and had one of the biggest lava flows by a volcano since the Ice Age. (Who figures these things out anyway?) It covered something like 232 square miles.

However, the moss has had more than 200 years to settle on top of the lava. So it's all a yucky shade of green. When you visit now, you can look in both directions and see nothing but this stuff.

Naturally, you should pull the car into a parking lot at some point and take a look at this. Better yet, you should jump on it. The moss is several inches thick at this point, so it feels like you are jumping on a reasonably hard mattress.

It's an odd tourist attraction, but fascinating in its own way.

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Kirkjubæjarklaustur, Iceland: The Church Floor

Say hello to part of "The Church Floor." This has nothing to do with a church, and it's not a floor. But otherwise, it fits.

These are columns of basalt outcrop, which have been smoothed over the years by the elements. As a result, they really do look man-made ... hence, the name. The columns usually have six sides, but one of them had 10 - although we couldn't find it.

The town probably has the longest name of any place I've ever visited for a night's duration. I guess the natives call it Klauster, which is just fine with me. There are only 120 people who live there, but it is close to a national park and has some valuable services such as hotels, gas station, post office, etc. That means plenty of tourists pass through. ]

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Jokulsarlon, Iceland: Glacier lagoon

This might be one of the most popular natural attractions in all of Iceland. It's also one of the newest.

This is a glacier lagoon on the southeast part of the country. The Breiðamerkurjökull glacier has been retreating for the past 90 years or so, and now it is about 1.5 kilometers from the ocean. A lake - now Iceland's deepest - has grown in size over that time.

The main attraction of the place is the icebergs, which split off from the glacier in warmer weather and slowly float toward the ocean as they melt. Therefore, the tourists can either see them from the shore or, for a small fee, go on a tour boat for an up-close viewpoint. The blue colors in the ice are particularly striking.

The area has been used for a handful of commercials and movies, including the James Bond film, "A View to a Kill." I may have to go watch that, if only to see the area.

This one deserves a video:

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Djúpavogshreppur, Iceland: Egg sculptures

Welcome to Djúpavogshreppur, right on the shore of the Atlantic in East Iceland. Things move pretty slow here. No, make that really slow. It's been recognized as a village in which everyone is not in a hurry.

One bit of excitement came in 2009 when a sculptor took the time to recreate giant-sized versions of the bird's eggs of the 34 species that reside in this part of the world. They are laid out (sorry) along the shore line. It is called "Eggin í Gleðivík," and the credit for the work goes to Sigurð Guðmundsson.

By the way, the town has the distinction of setting the Iceland record for hottest day, when the temperature once hit 87 degrees.

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Stodvarfirdi, Iceland: Petra's Stone and Mineral Collection

This stop brings us to the subject of collectors.

People collect all kinds of items, for no apparent reason. In this case, Petra of East Iceland started heading for the hills around 1946 and bringing home rocks. All kinds of rocks. She did it for more than three decades.

And then, after Petra's death, her husband decided to turn much of the house into a museum. "Petra's Stone and Mineral Collection" was thus born. Not only do visitors see the rocks, but Petra also collected key chains and branded pens.

The place bills itself as the world's largest privately owned stone and mineral collection. I have no reason to doubt it, although I do wonder about how much competition there is. There are a variety of stones here, although in hindsight it's easy to wish more of it was labeled. But if you like this sort of thing, well, it's here.

Here's a video look at the place:

Petra's legacy lives on here. Something tells me she'd be happy to hear that.

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Egilsstadir, Iceland

Be careful around the lake in Egilsstadir. You might see a monster.

According to legend, a little girl threw a slug into the lake way back when after it had grown to frightening proportions. The slug kept growing, and some town magicians chained its head to the floor of the lake to protect the citizens. However, you can still see part of it above the surface of the lake if you are lucky. There's a drawing of "The Lagarfljot Wyrm" on the side of the town supermarket.

Egilsstadir is one of the newest towns in Iceland, established in 1947. It has an airport and hospital, and a couple of thousand people live there. If the day we were there is any indication, it also has fog on some mornings.

By the way, our hotel was a block away from the main road in the town. In the small grass area between the parking lot and the road was a fenced-in pasture where a horse hung out. The animal was well-trained;it would come over and see visitors, probably in the hopes of getting some food.

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Möðrudalur, Iceland

We've already done a lot of driving in Iceland. Time for a rest stop for lunch.

A farm in Möðrudalur has some extra facilities just for that purpose. There's a restaurant, gift shop and gas station on the grounds. Apparently this used to be right on the nation's Ring Road (which circles the country, more or less) - until Iceland built a new one a few miles away. Even so, this is a good place for a stop, particularly since there aren't many options in the area.

We saw the home of an arctic fox during our visit here, but the little critter didn't want to parade outside to say hello. He stayed in the tunnel while we were there.

By the way, this is the highest settlement in Iceland - 1,539 feet above sea level. It's also the spot of the coldest moment in the nation's history - about 36 degrees below zero.

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Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland: Dettifoss waterfall

"Slowly I turn, step by step, inch by inch ..."

No, this isn't Niagara Falls. But it is Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in all of Europe. That's not to say it is the biggest, as one in Norway is larger. But in terms of water, this is tops. 

One point that struck me while looking at this huge waterfall is the angle of it all. The rocks don't cut directly across the gorge; they go at a good-sized angle. Therefore, the falls are wider than you might think they should be.

A still photo doesn't give the full impression of this waterfall. Let's go to the video:

By the way, there's another nice waterfall just up the river a little bit. Be sure to see it.

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Myvatn, Iceland: Namafjall

You can almost smell the sulfur just by looking at a picture of this region. And you can taste the mineral when you drink or use the water.

Welcome to Namafjall, an area filled with hot springs. It's one of the largest such deposits in all of Iceland, and certainly looks like it belongs on Mars rather than here.

This isn't Yellowstone National Park on the wow factor scale, but it's certainly worth a stop. The usual warning for such places - be careful where you step.
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Myvatn, Iceland: Myvatn Nature Baths

It's a little tough to picture how the idea of Iceland's baths work without going there. Here's a quick course.

Visitors pay a relatively good-sized fee and head for a locker room. There they take a community shower and scrub up, and then put on bathing suits and stroll into the water. The liquid is like bath water and contains some minerals that are said to be good for the skin. The bottom is covered with rock and sand for the most part. After a good soak, it's out of the pool and possibly into the sauna, and then a shower and out.

The Blue Lagoon gets all the publicity in this department in Iceland, but this is a smaller facility and probably is more comfortable for the first-time visitor. The Myvatn facility is open year-round, and is a great place to watch the Northern Lights in the winter time.

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Myvatn, Iceland: Dimmuborgir

There has been all sorts of volcanic activity around Lake Myvatn over the years, and that means lava. And when lava is around, interesting rock formations often follow.

In this case, some volcanic eruptions about 2,000 years ago - before people turned up in Iceland - led to the creation of the shapes shown here. Some lava solidified more than others, leading to an irregular surface.

A trail winds its way through the "park," if that's the right word. It takes perhaps 45 minutes to see it, and the road is paved so the walking is interesting.

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Myvatn, Iceland: Skútustaðagígar

This isn't another dormant volcano, but that's in the ballpark.

Skútustaðagígar is a group of pseudo-craters that surround a pond. It seems that, once upon a time, hot lava passed over a small pond of water. Pressure built up, and explosions took place. The result was a crater.

Visitors can climb up to the edge of some of the craters, and a trail goes through the area. It takes about 45 minutes for a leisurely stroll through the area. This is down the road a bit from Godafoss.

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Baroardalur, Iceland: Godafoss

"Waterfall of the Gods" sounds like something from a Led Zeppelin album. Instead, it's one of Iceland's most beautiful waterfalls.

It's located in the North Central region of Iceland, not too far from Akureyri. The Skjalfanadafjot river flows into it, and the multiple outlets for water gives it a particularly interesting look.

According to legend, around the year 1000 the leader of Iceland had just converted to Christianity. He came to Godafoss, and threw his statues of Norse gods into the waterfall in order to demonstration that conversion.

Let's see how the entire area looks:


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Akureyri, Iceland

There's no sign in Akureyri, Iceland that reads "last pizza before the Arctic Circle." Someone is missing a marketing opportunity.

Akureyri is on the north shore of Iceland, a bit below the imaginary line to the north. You can take a ferry from Akureyr to Grimsey Island, which contains the only part of Iceland that is actually north of the Arctic Circle. It's a six-hour round trip, but you can say you were on the north side of the geographic line when you were done.

Akureyri serves as an important commercial center for the entire region. I don't know if it contains the only bookstore within hundreds of square miles, but it's probably close to that. The climate isn't as cold as you might think it is, and the harbor is ice-free. That gives it some major commercial advantages.

Besides, Akureyri is beautiful. It is surrounded by mountains, and the city is something of the skiing center for the country. A road goes north on the other side of the harbor from Akureyri, and it offers a spectacular look at the city and the surrounding areas. Just don't look for much darkness here in June - when we visited, sunrise and sunset were 35 minutes apart.

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Akureyri, Iceland: Botanical Garden

You don't expect this much color so close to the Arctic Circle. Come to think of it, you don't expect a botanical garden either.

Yet Akureyri is proud to have one, and it's one of the northernmost such places in the world. The Garden is part of a public park, and there's no admission charge. So it's a nice place for a walk in the summer months.

This isn't a huge facility, but it does show how many different types of plants can survive and at 65 degrees North.

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Akureyri, Iceland: HOF Cultural and Conference Center

Every city needs a little culture, and that's why the HOF was built in Akureyri - the biggest city in North Iceland.

It can hold more than 500 people for a concert comfortably, and it also used for conferences and other group activities. One of the tour books made a good point when it pointed out that Icelandic buildings are often much more beautiful on the outside. But this is a rather striking addition to the city's waterfront; you can see a cruise ship that happened to be visiting during our time there in the background of the photo.

The HOF also has a gift shop, visitor information, and - for those in need - good rest rooms.

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Akureyri, Iceland: Akureyri Church

It's tough to miss the main church in the cities of Iceland. (Well, there are only two "cities.") They are big, impressive, and on a big hill.

Such is the case in Akureyri, located on the north shore of Iceland. The Akureyri Church is Lutheran, the official church of the country. It was completed in 1940 and features a 3,200-pipe organ and a central window that once was used in England.

And as you may have guessed, be prepared to go up several steps if you come to see it from downtown Akureyri.

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Skagafjordur, Iceland: Vidimyri Turf Church

"I have to mow the roof today."

There's a sentence that isn't typed very often. It could apply to the Vidimyri Turf Church, located in North Iceland in the village of Skagafjordur - although the logistics of doing it are beyond my lawn mower's capabilities.

Supposedly there has been a church on this site for about 1,000 years. This one was built in 1834, and is considered such a important historical structure that it is maintained by the National Museum of Iceland. There is a altar inside, with items that date back 400 years, and pews are there for worshipers. A crowd of a couple of dozen people just about fills it.

Visitors can take a walk into the place and also see the grounds. They often wonder - "why turf?" Wood was often in short supply in Iceland, so the the grass filled in the gaps of a roof constructed with driftwood. There are about six such churches in the country.

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Hvammstangi, Iceland: Icelandic Seal Center

Care for a crash course on seals in Iceland? This is the place.

The Icelandic Seal Center is a nonprofit organization that helps seals in the Northwest Iceland area. There's a relatively short film about seals, as well as a couple of rooms of exhibits and the mandatory gift shop. Proceeds from the museum go to the organization's work, which seems like a good cause.

There's a restaurant above the museum, and tour buses apparently stop there on their way through the area. We gained free admission that way (at least, sort of free as the tour company no doubt paid something). The town of Havammstangi is small (580 people) but rather charming thanks to a nice harbor.

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Bifrost, Iceland: Grabrok Crater

This ranks rather high on anyone's cool attractions list. How often do you get to walk around the rim of a dormant fissure volcano?

Bifrost offers that chance. Grabok is only a few thousand years old, and hasn't blown its top in a while. After a climb of some stairs - not too bad - you reach the top. There you can stroll around the rim and see the countryside, which includes a couple of other small volcanoes of the same type. It's maybe a quarter-mile around, perhaps a little more.

Someone's drone allows us to take a look at the area from above:

Grabok is located just off the Ring Road (Highway 1) on the West Coast of Iceland. Definitely, this is worth a stop.

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Reykjavik, Iceland: Perlan

You have to give the city fathers of Reykjavik credit. They sure know how to make a water tower multi-functional.

This is Perlan, sitting on a hill overlooking the domestic airport and the rest of the city. Yes, it holds water in its tanks, and the location has been used that way for decades. But in 1991, the place was updated.

The first floor has some open space, and has been used for concerts and conference center. When we visited, people were voting there for the Presidential election - so it can serve as a polling place. On the fourth floor is a cafeteria, souvenir stop, Christmas store, and observation desk. You can get 360 degrees of views from the city up there. Then on the fifth floor is a high-quality (read expensive) restaurant. Put it this way - President Clinton hosted a function there during his time in office; the thank-you note from Hillary Clinton to the chef is on display.

There's also a little public art outside the entrance just to round it out. You can drive up the hill to enter, or you can take a nice walk from the airport area.

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Reykjavik, Iceland: Jon Sigurdsson Statue

Tourists stumble across this impressive statue across from Reykjavik's City Hall. They must assume he was a pretty important person.

Sure enough, Jon Sigurdsson Forseti qualifies.

Back in the 19th century, Sigurdsson was the unofficial leader of Iceland's independence movement. He helped the area win some concessions from Denmark. Sigurdsson was pretty moderate as these things go, attacking the project with reason and good sense.

As a result, his memory is well preserved to this day. He's on the 500-kroner bank note for that reason, and he's been on several stamps. Sigurdsson's birthday of June 17 was picked to celebrate Iceland's national holiday.

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Reykjavik, Iceland: City Hall

Most City Halls are majestic buildings that are big and tall and radiate power. Reykjavik's is, well, different. But no less nice.

One of the entrances, as you can see is particularly interesting. Another on the street features a pond and fountain; someone was shooting a movie or commercial when we walked by.

It's a typical City Hall in terms of usage. However, it does house a large 3-D relief map of the country. We were disappointed upon discovering that the map had been loaned out to another location for exhibit. Oh well, maybe next time.

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