While flying to and from California for a bicycle tour in France, Iceland made for a good place to break up the twelve hours of flight time. Since we were stopping anyway, a two night lay over in Reykjavik on the way back was a natural extension of the plan.
We had been intrigued, no obsessed, with visiting the isolated island nation for nearly a decade, ever since our eldest sent photos and videos of her trip. Luckily, a couple of airlines offer deals for staying over anywhere from a day to a fortnight while crossing the Atlantic.
Not only was that perfect for us, it was also the cheapest way to get to Europe.
Even though the island is fairly small, we had a lot to pack into a couple of days, so we spent one of them touring the Golden Circle. This was a perfect overview of the country’s unique natural beauty, but didn’t include the city of Reykjavík at all.
For that exploration we were on our own, and in typical Gypsynester fashion went right for the weird stuff.
That meant beginning at The Icelandic Phallological Museum. Seriously, how could we possibly pass up seeing the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts?
We’re not sure what possessed Sigurður Hjartarson to start his collection, but he has managed to gather nearly 300 examples from almost every animal to ever grace the land or sea around Iceland.
These range from whale specimens he snagged at commercial whaling stations, to an assortment of farm animal phalluses, to tiny mice and hamsters members that can only be seen with a magnifying glass.
Once our childish embarrassed giggling subsided, a strange curiosity kicked in. We found ourselves staring at pickled penises of every imaginable size and shape with the detached concentration of a researcher instead of the goofy immaturity of a Junior High kid.
Looking around, that seemed to be a transformation almost everyone else also experienced after a few minutes.
But that doesn’t mean that the museum takes itself too seriously, at least we hope that the exhibits portraying the organs of elves and trolls were meant to be humorous. You see, according to Icelandic folklore these creatures are invisible, so we may never know if those were just empty jars.
Easily the most disturbing aspect of the gallery was an array of lampshades made from foreskins. These must have been some circumcisions because the light fixtures were not miniature. It’s not a stretch to say these had an unsettling effect.
We won’t be doing any redecorating from this inspiration.
An hour or so of this phallic bombardment was more than enough; it was time to explore the rest of town.
Reykjavík has the distinction of being the northern most capital city in the world, and it is also one of the smallest, making it easy to walk the entire downtown even if it was only forty-five degrees in July.
We took in the handful of famous sites as we walked along Laugavegur, the main street, then checked out the City Hall and especially the massive Lutheran church Hallgrímskirkja, which dominates the skyline, but all the while we had something else in mind.
As we said, our eldest spent some time here and she told a tale of something called kæstur hákarl, which means putrefied shark. It was hard for us to believe that anyone would intentionally consume man-eating beast that had been buried on the beach for several months, but she insisted it was true.
We had to find out for ourselves. A chalk board at the Icelandic Craft Bar announced our fate: “Shark Tale” Shot 1000.
Sure 1000 Icelandic Kronas seemed a bit steep for a small hunk of foul fish, about ten dollars, but it came with a shot of exceedingly strong Brennivin (translates to burnt wine) to wash it down, and more importantly, the story.
The meat of a Greenland shark is poisonous due to its very high concentration of ammonia, but somehow some hungry Icelander discovered that if the fish is buried and allowed to ferment the poison dissipates.
This falls into the long line of things we have encountered that make us wonder why anyone ever thought “We should figure out some very elaborate and involved method of making this inedible stuff edible.”
It makes no sense. All in all we’d rather eat some grass, or seaweed, or dirt.
After about three months some brave soul digs it up, scrapes off all of the black rot, and declares the shark edible. As near as we could tell, no one actually likes it. It’s just one of those things that people keep eating over time…like lutefisk, or fruitcake, or Vegemite.
Our bartender, Dan, gave us the lowdown:
Chef Anthony Bourdain once described kæstur hákarl as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he had ever eaten.
We can’t agree, as the silkworms we had in China were much worse.
We can, however, agree with Chef Ainsley Harriott, who described eating fermented shark as “like chewing a urine-infested mattress.”
Guess that says a lot about just how bad silkworms are.
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