We’re back in Reykjavik after a two day, two time zone sail from Norway. The seas were rough, not enough to make anyone seasick, but enough to let you know that you were in the North Atlantic far from land. No one was using the pool; few were walking the decks. It was not a wise time for the crew to air a film about a coast guard rescue of a tanker which was sinking in a storm. We tried to cruise to Reykjavik once before. We got as far as the mouth of the harbor, but high winds kept us from coming in. So we were extra grateful for the blue sky view of the city this morning tied up at the dock.
When we were here a few weeks ago, we toured outside of town, taking tours not offered by the ship. We will be here overnight, which should give us enough time to get a decent impression of the city, something that’s hard to do on a short cruise stop. When we were here before, we had no idea where the city center was. Now that we’ve taken a tour of the highlights of the city, we’re not sure it really has much of one. This unique city in a unique place feels more like a polar outpost than the capital city it is. Even historical buildings like the one where Reagan met Brezhnev and brought an end to the Cold War is an unassuming white clapboard, two story house. The culture hall was begun in the optimistic days before 2008 and while this beautiful hall is well utilized, the Icelanders had a tough time paying to finish it.
Since it is September 2, the summer season is over. We were fortunate to see the open-air historical city museum Årbaejarsafn, whose buildings are officially closed now. We followed around a school group on a field trip, learning about what life was like in the early days of their country. They carried buckets of water with yokes on their shoulders and hauled cod carcasses into the sunshine so they could continue to dry. In the little wooden church we sat men on one side, women on the other in the traditional manner. As we saw in Norway, all but the fanciest buildings were covered with sod; some were buried into the hillsides. When men began to settle Iceland, the island had small trees and bushes, but after centuries of trying to keep themselves warm, all the trees were cut down. Once the locals learned how to harness the volcanic heat, they planted imported trees that are flourishing in the city, but outside of town the land looks like tundra.
Since Iceland is so remote, the locals learned how to recycle and repurpose long before the rest of the world caught on to this concept. We drove up a small hill to an outpost known as The Pearl. It used to be a collection of tanks that channeled both hot and hotter water into the city. Today it is a scenic overlook complete with a restaurant and gift shop utilizing the water tanks as a foundation for the building. From there we could see the cathedral, also on a hill near the city center. It took 38 years to build out of local materials and is meant to depict lava flowing down from its steeple. The inside was very plain as Lutheran churches generally are. A statue of Lief Ericsson stood in the front, a gift from the US in 1930 joining Iceland in celebrating 1,000 years as a democracy.
The must-see for every visitor to Reykjavik is the Blue Lagoon. Now that we have been there, I’m not sure why. The fact that it is located near the international airport and people with long stopovers can spend a few relaxing hours soaking in its warm luxuriousness may have something to do with it. Iceland is blessed with thermal energy, underground water more or less near the earth’s surface that they have learned how to harness for electricity, heating and warm water for household use. An energy company dug a hole in a likely spot and were surprised to find that the hot water was murky, full of minerals. It wasn’t what they needed, so they looked elsewhere and the water kept gushing. A local man found that soaking in this water was helpful for his psoriasis and the rest is history. The lagoon is fed with water output from the nearby geothermal plant and is renewed every forty hours.
There are many warm water swimming and soaking pools all over Iceland, although most are not nearly so mineral laden. The locals patronize these pools year round; the tourists go to the Blue Lagoon, which isn’t really even a natural lagoon. Over time the lava stones at the bottom of the pool have been made more friendly for naked feet and we spent our time there wandering around feeling ribbons of water at varying warm, but not hot temperatures. The silica in the water causes the eerie blue color and those in need of facial rejuvenation could smear their skin with a white version of the silica goo. A black one with lava suspended in it for exfoliation and a a green one colored by algae were also available. People wandering around with white faces in the mist, gave the place an eerie feeling. We got there early in the evening when we thought the rush would be over, but we were wrong. It was incredibly busy. Naked women stood in long queues in the locker room waiting to take the required shower before entering.
I’m glad that we got to see this long awaited item on the travel check list, but once was enough. Because it was so clear all day, we were hoping to see the Northern Lights while floating in the warm water, but a cloud bank rolled in and had other plans. We hear that people saw them in other parts of Iceland, but the lights are not on a time schedule. Even though it is fall, it barely began to get dark at 10pm when we got back from the lagoon. It sure would be nice to see them here and not have to plan a return trip here or to Alaska in winter when it is really cold.