The colours of Reykjavik

20 December 2016

The Icelandic daybreak we’d been anticipating since midday when we’d stood by the Saga Museum and seen pink clouds in the sky seemed to be a bit of a mirage. There was certainly more light than there had been when we set out but, an hour after the sky first began to get lighter, the sun appeared to have stalled on the horizon and risen no further, leaving us in a kind of perpetual dawn. It was a strange state of affairs but at least we could now see the colours of Reykjavik.

From Lækjargata we turned onto Bankastræti, one of the most important shopping streets in Reykjavik. Seeing all the brightly coloured shops filled with warm clothes, jewellery, enchanting artwork and, of course the cafes and restaurants, we decided not to turn back. It seemed as if we should be able to find an alternative route to Hallgrímskirkja this way. How lost could we get?

As it happened, when we reached the junction with Skólavörðustígur we could see the spire once again. Everything we passed now seemed to be brightly coloured. Even something as mundane as a multistory car park had been transformed into a rainbow by the graffiti artists. Perhaps the colour everywhere was an Icelandic attempt to make up for the lack of light?

In the end Hallgrímskirkja wasn’t nearly as far away as it seemed and we were soon standing in front of the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures in the country. Named after the seventeenth century Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson, the church is one of the best known landmarks in Reykjavik. It was commissioned in 1937 and designed by Guðjón Samúelsson to mimic the basalt lava flows of the Icelandic landscape.

Like all good things it took quite a while to complete. Building work began in 1945 and the church was finally completed in 1986. It may not have taken quite as long to build as Segrada in Barcelona which, as far as I know, is still not complete, but the people of Reykjavik were not impressed with the many delays and the spiralling costs. Some even called it ugly!

Unfortunately, building the church wasn’t quite the end of the story. Before it was even properly finished a problem was discovered with the concrete. There was serious fracturing and crumbling at the top of the steeple and, in 1983, repairs had to be made. As if this wasn’t bad enough the main tower had to be restored again in 2008 and the building was obscured by scaffolding for more than a year.  Even now things are not quite as they should be. As we got nearer to the church we spotted scaffolding around one of the side wings and a closer look showed the concrete is still crumbling. Perhaps the cold climate is to blame?

Just as I was about to turn back to the front of the church Commando noticed the sun, finally making it above the horizon over Perlan a mile and a quarter away. It was quarter past one and this was about as high in the sky as the sun would get. In another couple of hours, it would be thinking about setting again.

Our plan had been to go inside the church. The door had been open as we approached but, when we got up to it, a sign told us it was closed for a funeral. It was a shame but this is a working church after all.

As we headed back towards the shops and cafes we stopped to admire the huge statue of Leif Eriksson, one of Iceland’s most famous sons. The statue is actually older than the church. It was a gift to Iceland from the Untied States, for the 1930 Alþingi Millennial Festival, commemorating the thousandth anniversary of Iceland’s parliament at Þingvellir.

Leif, like his father Erik The Red who founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland, was also an explorer. Although he grew up in Brattahlíð in Greenland, he was born in Iceland in 970. According to the Icelandic Sagas, he was the first European to discover North America when his longship was blown off course between Greenland and Norway. Long before Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the New World in 1492, Leif had established a Norse settlement at Vinland on the Northern tip of Newfoundland.

The Sagas describe Leif as wise and considerate, a strong man of striking appearance. Nothing is mentioned about his death in the Sagas but he probably died in Greenland some time in 1020. Now he stands on a large rock in full armour with his sword and his axe perpetually looking out towards the sea. He is an impressive sight.

With Hallgrímskirkja ticked off our to see list, at least the outside of it, we headed back down the hill taking in the sights and sounds of Reykjavik as we did. Everywhere we looked there seemed to be colour and light. The buildings were painted all the colours of the rainbow and we even found a pavement with a multicoloured trail leading to a shop door. Here and there little gardens were filled with ornaments and fairy lights instead of flowers.

In a country with a landscape of barren lava floes and snow capped mountains where the default heat setting is cold and winter sunlight is a rare commodity it’s no surprise that the people choose to brighten everything they can with paint and light. Of course, this means it’s easy to be distracted by the buildings, the lights and the paintings and end up somewhere other than your intended destination. One minute we were looking in shop windows, the next we found ourselves on the seafront again where the colour was provided by the sullen clouds, the pink of perpetual dawn and the white peaks of Mount Esja.

The dark clouds were rolling in again and the daylight that hardly seemed to have arrived was fading once more. By now we’d been walking solidly for more than three hours in the icy cold. Our Arctic clothes had done an admirable job of keeping us warm but our stomachs were telling us it was time to find somewhere warm to sit for a coffee and a rest.

Trying not to get too distracted by the colourful and unusual buildings or the stunning murals on every other wall, we headed back towards Bankastræti. Here we found such a choice of coffee emporia it was hard to make a descision. They take their coffee very seriously in Iceland, they even have a number of coffee based superstitions to go with their belief in Huldufólk. Sugar must always be put into coffee before the cream or you will stay unmarried for seven years. Refilling a cup before it’s empty will result in a horrible mother in law. Sediment left in an empty coffee cup is a good omen. Drinking coffee too hot makes you ugly while drinking it cold makes you prettier. As someone who often leaves her coffee to go cold but still drinks it I feel vindicated, although I’m not sure I believe the superstition.

There are no Starbucks, Costa’s or big chains in Iceland, just hundreds and hundreds of quirky little cafes. We knew the coffee would be good wherever we went but this didn’t make it any easier to choose and there was a fair bit of walking up and down trying to decide. In the end we settled on somewhere with just the right amount of quirkiness on a side street. It wasn’t too crowded plus the leopardskin chairs and an old treadle sewing machine base as a table appealed to my sense of the unusual. The coffee was superb.

We lingered over our coffee and, by the time we got back outside, there was a definite feel of snow in the air. Regretfully we passed the Bankastræti public toilet that has been turned into a punk museum. We’d both have liked a look inside but we needed to get back to our hotel, freshen up and find somewhere to eat before our evening boat trip. The dark snow cloud above us and the wind whipping up didn’t bode well for aurora watching or a boat trip. Hopefully it would clear up before evening.

As we passed through Ingólfstorg square, where the Christmas ice rink was still busy with skaters, the first flakes of snow began to fall. By now there wasn’t an inch of blue to be seen in the sky and the light, such as it was, was fading fast.
“Somehow I don’t think we’re going to see the aurora tonight,” Commando said, “but at least we will have seen the snow.”

The flakes fell harder and harder as we headed up the hill. By the time we reached the big road, Hringbraut, we were in a blizzard. Reaching the hotel felt like a real achievement and a look from our window showed the trees bending sideways and the snow falling horizontally. Frankly a boat trip didn’t have much appeal. In fact going back outside at all felt like a really bad idea.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

8 thoughts on “The colours of Reykjavik”

  1. I’ve always thought that pouring concrete in cold weather was a bad idea but I don’t suppose there’s any way around it if you live in Iceland.
    The colors must help people to not get too gloomy in all that darkness. It must get old living in the dark after a while.
    That black and white mural is fantastic.

    1. As April said, they would probably have been better building the church from stone but I suppose the cost would have been far greater. The darkness in wi tear and the light in summer do seem hard to live with. I’m not sure I would cope well with it long term. The bright colours and ok the lights do help though. The black and white murals are some of the best I’ve seen.

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