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ICELAND: City Break Saudade on the Sidewalks of Reykjavík

November 2022


Iceland is a superb holiday destination; perfect for a chic mini-break in vibing Reykjavík, Spa-hopping at the nation's geothermal baths, or a longer vacations to experience the outstanding natural beauty of Iceland's vast black sand beaches, glaciers, geysers, waterfalls and lava fields.


When I started this blog, I did so because I wanted to share my love of travel with women of a similar age who also enjoy unique experiences and adventure, even if they do it alone. Solo travel can be daunting, so I choose places to visit with safety and comfort in mind. Where better for comfort and safety, especially comfort that in a spa? My original intention was to spend as much time travelling to spas around the world, writing a little, getting discovered as a valuable travel asset, and then have someone else pay for me to go to spas. So far this late bit of my plan still hasn't happened, but it has been fun trying!

My first year as an old bag on a plane, I treated myself to a birthday trip to Iceland and the Blue Lagoon. The Retreat Spa and the Silica Hotel had just opened, and I wanted to try them out. I had been to Reykjavík a few times before, and the Blue Lagoon was always the cream cheese topping at the end of a lovely Icelandic cake. First, experience the fun and vibrance of the city centre, venture out to the waterfalls, glaciers and geysers, then head to the Blue Lagoon for a thermal dip and a silica mud mask, then fly home with stiff, salty hair and mud in places where mud ought not to be.

The plan for this trip was to enjoy the new hotels and to never leave them, except for hikes on the lava fields. It was outstanding! I sopped up the solitariness of the experience. I reflected. I was alone, but I felt a part of the primordial, wind-swept black sand, part of the Earth. I decided I would forever spend my birthday on the lava fields of Iceland.

Then came 2020. ...

This year, I was determined to go back, and find the reconnection to Earth that I have been missing. But as I have also been missing that city-vibe, I gave myself a few more days and explored the city of Reykjavík with a fresh, post-pandemic perspective.

I checked myself in to the perfectly positioned ION City Hotel on Laugavegur, and went for an afternoon peregrination of the 101 RVK area. After exploring the Hallgrimskirja, a church designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, inspired by the trap rocks, mountains, and glaciers of Iceland, but really looks like a pipe organ, I settled in at the Rossopomodoro pizza place for a pie and an Icelandic beer.

To help plan my agenda, I did some reconnaissance stalking by reading an interview article with Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame, who is a long-time, part-time resident of Reykjavik. In this article, he describes his relationship with Iceland as having saudade, a Portuguese word meaning a deep, emotional state of melancholic longing for someone or from someplace you are missing. I have decided to steal this word as I have historically felt saudade for many places: The sensory overload of Marrakesh and the spiciness of Zanzibar, the dense jungles of Costa Rica, the red of the Namibian desert, cigar smoke and petrol fumes in Havana. Crisp air and dirt of an early morning safari, and the wind-swept desolation of the lava fields of Iceland. To some I have been, others are still on the list. When I was young, I had a sense of saudade for London, where I have lived for 27 years and still long for when I am away from home for too long.

Using Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man, and my favourite travel site Atlas Obscura as my guide, I set off to see as many impossibly unique sites I could see in one city, in one day. Though there is a dedicated sculpture garden museum, The Einar Jónsson Art Museum, the whole of Reykjavík is a sculpture garden. So stop for a minute when you come across something unusual, as it may very well be art.

The Icelandic Punk Museum is in a former underground public toilet. It was founded by John Lydon (Rotten) and chronicles the rise of the Icelandic punk movement with photography, video clips and listening stations. It is, however, as small as a former public toilet, and claiming to myself unsubstantiated wariness to Covid spores, I stayed on the outside of the building.

Hólavallagarður Cemetery was consecrated in 1838 though the unofficial history goes back much further than that as evidenced with a few weathered, ancient tombstones. I do love a good cemetery, and this one does not disappoint. Moss-covered stones, decorated with familial names, are shaded by the twisted branches of tall trees, few of which can be found in this city. I am sure there are numerous famous Icelanders interred here, but as neither Bjork nor Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, the Mountain from Game of Thrones is dead, there was no-one buried there that I would know.

The Icelandic are a very creative people, and there are many art museums and sculpture galleries and craft retailers in Reykjavík. The Reykjavík Art Museum encompasses three buildings and is the leading art museum in Iceland. Buying a ticket for one will gain you admittance to all three. I visited the Hafnarhús, which is a waterfront gallery housed in a converted shipping warehouse. The exhibitions on at the moment included pieces concerned with oceanic conservation through exploring climate changing with mapping and cartography. Another probes the importance of codfish in our daily lives, and another investigates indigenous textiles and artefacts.

Not far from Hafnarhus is Fischersund, a tiny little street where you can find Fischersund, a converted recording studio and perfumery owned by J6onsi of the band Sigur Roś and his family. Here, they showcase the artisanal fragrances with etherial music and art installations of this amazingly creative family. Fischersund sells fragrance products inspired by the clean, unique nature of Iceland, using herbs and oils harvested in the Icelandic wild via the most environmentally friendly solutions and materials. The current art installation concerns creating fragrances based on childhood memories. Digitised fictitious floral arrangements are created, not with petal and stems, but with things like candy wrappers, plastic straws and jewellery. These images are each exhibited with an accompanying scent, trapped in a bell jar, that is released for you to sample. Word to the wise. Stay far away from ‘grandma’s purse’!

Across the street from the perfumery is the former home of writer and scientist Benedikt Sveinbjarnarson Gröndal. It is here that a writing group of Icelandic women called the Imposter Poets meet, publish and share their work.

A few streets away, as you can smell, is a kiosk which sells ‘famous Icelandic hotdogs’. Because I did not know what differentiates an American hotdog from an Icelandic one, and, to be frank (pun intended) they smell about the same, I stopped over and had myself one. I learned two things here. One: the only difference is the French-mayo sauce, which looks rather unappealing on the dog. Two: there are multiple uses for taco stands.

My walking trip through Reykjavík was taking an uncomfortable and obvious turn....Further on down the road is the Icelandic Phallological Museum. You may wonder if a city of this size needs its penis museum, but I suppose there will always be a man somewhere that needs to exploit the prowess of the patriarchy, in human or animal form. This museum exhibits many examples of actual animal schlongers, and many artistic representations of the human ones.

Not far from the Art Museum in the Grandi harbour district is the Whales of Iceland museum. With 23 whale species life-sized sculptures, interactive video information, ambient lighting, and soothing whale sounds, the Whales of Iceland exhibition claims to be the largest whale museum in Europe. This had me wondering. How many dedicated whale museums are there in Europe? I’ve found 4, two in Iceland and two in Norway. I also wondered if it is worth it to see a sculpture of a whale when I have already visited the penis museum and seen what actual whales have on offer there?

Sated from my famous Icelandic hot dog, I had two choices. I could either go back to the ION City hotel for a fat nap, or I could press on and visit the last item on my list, the Alfaskolinn, or the Elf School.

I really got my steps in walking about 1.5 miles (2.41 km), only to find that the elf school is located on the second floor of an office building in a shopping district. There was nothing picturesque or even pixie-ish about these surroundings, so I turned and limped back to the ION City Hotel for that much earned nap.

Later that evening, I dragged a none-too-motivated me out for another romp around the 101. After a stop at Sushi Social, for perfect sushi and spicy edamame, I considered a visit to Lemmy. Any bar named after Lemmy Klimister from Möterhead can’t be all bad, and this one is located in one of the oldest houses in Reykjavík. They have live music here, but I felt I needed something a little more sedate, so I headed to Hús máls og menningar, the coolest bookstore on Laugavegur. They sell coffees and cocktails along with books in many languages, and have live music at night. It was well worth a stop here to have a drink, browse the shelves, and listen to an Icelandic band, whale Roxanne. You cannot buy alcohol at a grocery store in Iceland, so needs must. After the bookstore, I stopped at Kaffibarinn, a former hipster’s paradise, formerly part owned by Daman Albarn, formerly super hard to get into, but not when I was there, mid-week in November. It is a quaint little place, complete with romantic lighting for the romantically inclined, with a choice of drinks-cocktails withstanding.

The following day, I headed off to the Blue Lagoon and my Retreat Spa Experience at the Retreat Hotel. This time, I sensibly shortened my in-water massage to 30 minutes, which was much more appealing than the 90-minute massage I had had in 2019. What?! A shorter massage better! I previously wrote that 90 minutes was too long because, even though you are in thermal water, you still get cold. And you can’t fall asleep on a float in the water, so there is not much to do except look up at the beautiful sky and wish it to be over. This is why the 30-minute massage was perfect for me. It is still a great experience and a great massage, but it was over before I felt the dire need to escape.

In the Retreat Spa I met two women who had flown in, one from Los Angeles and the other from Chicago, for three nights only. They spent their arrival evening and the following day at the Retreat Hotel, then planned to shift over to the ION Adventure Hotel, about a 40-minute drive outside of Reykjavík. I admired the tenacity of these women, their sense of adventure and determination to travel. I would have loved to make a lasting friendship, but the spa being a hands-free, no phone zone there was no way to exchange details. Good luck to them and all like them who are determined to get out and see the world!

For my birthday trip next year, I plan to book a night at the ION Adventure for a meander on an ancient glacier, to try my hand at fly-fishing, and have a better chance to witness the lights. Until next November, I will carry a sense of saudade for the lava fields and steaming azure waters of Iceland.

Please see my Blue Lagoon post from 2019



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