Memorable Reykjavik: The Good, The Very Good, and The Pretty Damned Awful

This awe-inspiring organ takes up one entire wall in Hallgrimskirkja

Here’s one small moment that made this recent trip to Reykjavik memorable for me.

After walking up the hill from my hotel to Hallgrimskirkja, the imposing modern cathedral that you can see from pretty much everywhere in the city, I was fortunate to have the beautifully-lit interior pretty much to myself as the resident organist, Björn Steinar Sólbergsson, rehearsed.

Takk fyrir, Mr. Sólbergsson
An impromptu rehearsal by world-famous organist Björn Steinar Sólbergsson, playing for very few

This meant he played everything from Beethoven and Bach to Christmas carols, while one of his very few appreciative audience-members wore a silly grin.

I sat on a pew in this enormous, empty, minimalist-design Lutheran cathedral, listening gratefully to my very own Christmas extravaganza. It was wonderful, and completely unexpected.

I found out the next day how unique this experience was, while on a short bus tour around the city and its environs.

When the church is lit, you get to see the gorgeous colors of the stained glass

Trying to keep to a schedule, the otherwise cheerful young driver enforced five minutes in and out of the darkened cathedral; a photo-opportunity, nothing more.

There was no organ rehearsal, no special Christmas lighting; the cathedral felt lifeless compared to the previous day. Sad, I thought, if this was your one chance to appreciate Hallgrimskirkja. 

So, if I love Reykjavik so much, why is it unlikely that we’ll settle down in permanent bliss?

There’s the stark, virtually treeless volcanic landscape, for one. As I found out from the Settlement exhibit, the trees—predominantly birch—that once existed in Iceland were cut down hundreds of years ago, and have had to be replaced by transplants from other countries. Iceland has few indigenous trees now.

Then there is the harsh weather and entirely dark winter sky. In June, Reykjavik is gorgeous, colorful, and sunny; you can really understand why people would want to live there. In December, however, the one hour of actual bright sunlight I saw appeared, ironically, on my first day, when I was trying to sleep.

After that, the sun took offense at my lack of interest, apparently, and sulked most of the time. Heavy rain and winds threatened by weather forecasters became reality, and Reykjavik’s exposed terrain, combined with temperatures warmed by the Gulf Stream keeping the thermometer at 2-3˚ C, or approximately 38˚ F, meant no snow, just lots and lots of rain and wind.

Not having thought out the dangers of this time of year carefully, I made plans to see things. On a day of epic rain and wind that shook the enormous tour bus as it made its way through the volcanic landscape, we drew ever nearer to the surreal, mist-enshrouded Blue Lagoon.

These people don't look desperate enough to find warmth
Imagine this scene, but with driving rain and winds whipping around you

Forty minutes into our struggle against the elements, the nice bus driver reassured us that he wasn’t using the windshield wipers because if he did, the force of the wind would break them off. It’s best under those circumstances to let the wind propel the rainwater across your windshield on its own, he managed to convey, cheerfully, in broken English.

The combination of severe, gale-force winds and harsh, stinging rain severely dampened my already jet-lagged spirits. Quite honestly, there was no reason to go to the Blue Lagoon this time of year, and I can’t imagine ever needing to go back. The bus can’t drop you at the entrance of the lagoon, I found out too late, and so the five-minute rain-soaked run up a steep slope didn’t help my mood.

Although I brought an umbrella, I wasn’t dressed for a deluge, and umbrellas are useless against gale-force winds.

Like this hapless Japanese snow monkey, I would have given anything to find a spot in the lagoon to cling to

Now, the Blue Lagoon is famous. All you ever hear is how great it is. I’ve never heard or read anyone say anything negative about it, ever. I’ve heard repeatedly that the water is HOT, 40˚ C. However, being a natural geothermal source, it’s more realistic to say that the lagoon has hot spots and warm spots and lukewarm spots. In December’s chill, the lagoon’s temperatures are just way too varied to make the water comfortable for someone who routinely turns up the heat in a hot tub to 45˚ C or 113 F.

In fact, the experience overall was quite chilling, although once I’d endured the humiliations of the shared dressing room, and waded bravely through stinging rain, I was determined to find a hot spot. To do so, I was forced to threaten other rain-soaked tourists, all desperately defending their hot spot, looking an awful lot like those sad monkeys in Japan who live in geothermal pools all winter long to survive.

The water, infused with silica, sulphur, and other minerals, is only waist-deep. You have to squat to cover your body, and even then, comfort is elusive. To combat the elements, you can go inside to the protected pools, but they’re no warmer. I never found the sauna. The much-touted (indoor) waterfall is just a rather large, ugly drip from an overhead stone formation, and unless you enjoy getting silica and sulphur in your eyes, I’d suggest avoiding it.

I was glad I went on a day when I had nothing else to do, because the fumes from the water and the geothermal heat source really did me in. I felt sick on the drive back, and far too much of my body felt weird after the “curative” waters, although it has to be said, my skin felt great. Basically, the lagoon sounds like a really good idea unless you have any sensitivities to the silica and/or whatever else my body reacted against.

The place smells bad, of algae and green wetness that is really unpleasant, and the towels and bathrobes (available for an extra price; the one complaint you will hear about this place is how expensive it is) felt damp and unwashed from previous visitors. Also, the floors are extremely slippery, and it’s wise to get or bring sandals. It’s a laborious process washing up afterwards; there’s virtually no privacy, but I did talk to a couple of really nice ladies, who now know precisely what my boobs look like. Other than that, for me personally, I have no need to do it again. Once was enough, although I will be going back to Reykjavik soon, of course. I can’t stay away, not permanently.


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