Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


ARMCHAIR TRAVEL IS a blessing these days. And, for me, old travel books provide the vehicle. Cook’s Traveller’s Handbook to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, 1936, is a fine example of this, with time travel tossed in for good measure.

Iceland. Image from Cook’s.

Iceland has appeared several times here at SimanaitisSays: twice for its aluminum production (greater than the U.S.’s); once for its patronymic names (I’d be Dennis Algertsson); and once in association with Worcester Poly, my undergraduate school.

I’ve visited Iceland as well, back in 2006. I admired its extreme energy consciousness, its colorful cleanliness, and that its capital Reykjavik had an excellent bookstore within sight of Gamla Bió, its opera house.

Here are tidbits gleaned from the 1936 Cook’s, my travel, and my usual Internet sleuthing.

Gamla Bió and Harpa. The Gamla Bió (Old Cinema) was built ten years before my Cook’s was published. The cinema’s Danish entrepreneur Peter Petersen liked the place so much that he included an apartment for himself on the top floor.

Gamla Bio, Reykjavik’s old opera house. Image from The Reykjavic Grapevine.

In 1980, the building ceased being a cinema and became the home of the Icelandic Opera. These days, the Gamla Bió is used for concerts and conferences. Petersen’s apartment is now a rooftop terrace bar, Petersen Svitan (“Petersen Sweat”).

Reykjavik’s Harpa, home of the Icelandic Opera and Iceland Symphony Orchestra today. Image by Ivan Sabljak.

The Harpa, on Reykjavik’s harbor, was begun in 2007, with a hiatus for the world’s financial crisis, being completed in 2011. In 2013, the building won the European Mies van der Rohe Award for Contemporary Architecture.

The Icelandic Opera’s performances tend toward innovative staging, in part because the Harpa’s layout lacks a proscenium or curtain. Last year, the company produced Verdi’s La Traviata and Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.

Die Walküre, the second of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, is on this year’s Icelandic Opera schedule, May 27 and 29, at 6:30 p.m. Tickets run from ISK 5500 to ISK 11,900, $41-$88. Given that the Ring is based on Norse sagas, I wonder if it will be sung, most appropriately, in Icelandic?

Die Walküre, coming to Íslenska Óperan

Reykjavik, 1936. Cook’s made no mention of opera, though it cites “Features of particular interest to the visitor are the National Library, National Museum of Antiquities, National History Museum, and, above all perhaps, the Einar Jónsson Sculpture Gallery, in which are represented all the works of the Icelandic sculptor, Einar Jónsson (b. 1874) and in which the artist himself has his apartment.” Just like Peter Petersen.

Einar and wife Anna Jónsson in his gallery. Image from

Looking Ahead. Cook’s noted in 1936, “Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, has a population of some 35,000.” Today, the city has about 123,000 residents, with some 93,000 others living in six municipalities around it.

“Since 1921,” Cook’s said, “the entire town has been lighted by electricity produced by an hydraulic power-station some four miles outside its boundaries. The water supply is excellent, and in certain quarters of the town the buildings are heated by water from hot springs, plans being afoot for the heating of the whole town by this means.”

Plans for heating (and deicing sidewalks of) Reykjavik came to fruition long before my visit in 2006. Here, I inspect the gentle warmth of a conduit sending hot water to town.

“The older part of the town is mainly built of wood,” Cook’s wrote, “and though the buildings are largely roofed with corrugated iron, they are made attractive to the eye by being painted in bright colours.” Today, Reykjavik has lots of steel and glass, brightly lit and providing contrast during the country’s extended winter darkness.

Cook’s explained, “The Midnight Sun is not visible in Iceland, which lies entirely south of the Arctic Circle. In Reykjavik the sun goes down at about 11 p.m. at the summer solstice and remains invisible for three hours, though the brightness of the horizon during the period clearly indicates its presence.”

Yes, I remember enjoying sausage-roll street food at the Reykjavik harbor around 1 a.m. Good traveling, that. And a good armchair return now. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2020


  1. rulesoflogic
    March 18, 2020

    A beautiful country, but one filled with raging anti-Semitism.

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