On one of our days in Reykjavík, we strolled through residential neighborhoods and commercial districts.

Our hotel was situated a short distance from the tourist and commercial center of the city, which meant that our stroll started in a charming residential neighborhood. A bit of what we imagined about Reykjavík: charming old-looking colorful houses — a bit of brightness to stand up against snowy and gray winter months.

We headed to one of the city’s famous landmarks in another residential neighborhood, the Hallgrímskirkja, or Church of Hallgrímur. While construction was started in 1945, the church wasn’t completed until 1985; the iconic steeple was completed in 1974. That’s interesting to us because we’re used to the main church or cathedral of a city being among the most ancient landmarks, usually over 500 years old. And here, the monument was completed in our lifetime.

The form of the tower is expressive, perhaps recalling pipe organs, but more likely evoking some of Iceland’s striking geology. Such as these basalt hexagonal pillars of a sea cliff.

The church is most impressive from afar, rising above the neighborhood. Up close, the pillar forms look rough; and the interior is austere. Still, a stunning silhouette above the city of Reykjavík.

A gregarious modern building dominates the waterfront of the city.

We tried to resist, but the call to the architect was too strong. And good that it was. This is the Harpa Concert Hall. It was commissioned and construction began just before the financial crisis of 2008; after that forced pause, the opening concert was held on 4 May 2011. We expected just to stop by, take a few photos, and move on. But we found a beautiful robust shimmering building, inside and out. So we lingered, drinking in all the celebratory forms and dramatic lighting.

All the crystalline forms recall those basalt hexagonal pillars as well as glacier ice. The two main building volumes evoke the crashing of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates only a few kilometers away.

The name of the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre was made public on 11 December 2009. “Harpa” was the winning name out of 4,156 proposals entered by 1,200 citizens. The challenge was to find a name that was Icelandic, but also one that could easily be articulated in most languages. The word Harpa has more than one meaning. It is an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year in early spring and is, in fact, a month in the old Nordic calendar. Harpa is also the Icelandic name of the beautiful stringed instrument, the harp, a reference to the musical activities within our stunning concert house. (source)

We couldn’t help but notice that Reykjavík is full of brand-new buildings. Lots of brand new buildings, from apartments to under-construction commercial buildings. Lots of construction cranes. We wondered why.

Our guide BG, from a couple of our tours, explained. (We use only his initials because his real name is unpronounceable to us non-Scandinavians.) There are three parts: financial crisis, volcanic eruption, and immigrants.

In 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed and the global financial crisis hit, Iceland suffered particularly badly. All three of Iceland’s major privately owned commercial banks failed. Relative to the size of Iceland economy, it was the largest banking collapse in economic history. The government had to take them over. Over three months late in 2008, the value of Icelandic krona relative to US  dollar reduced by half. This immediately doubled the price of imports for Icelanders. (Think of the inflation we are experiencing now, but instead rise to twice as expensive!) On the other hand, the price of Icelandic exports halved on the world market. Exports of aluminum and fish jumped significantly, which brought foreign currency into the country. 

Then in April 2010, the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted and completely shut down air traffic between Europe and America for 7 days, and sporadically disrupted routes for another month. (An American service person is credited with dubbing the volcano E15 because the real name is too hard to say; there are 15 letters following the initial E.) The world media were clamoring for video of the eruption, but they couldn’t send their own people because of the air traffic freeze. So, logically, they contacted local Iceland media who were completely happy to help. Icelandic journalists provided dramatic video from close to E15 – including from where we stopped on a tour. These journalists were sly, though. They showed a few minutes of the eruption, then a few minutes of some beautiful Icelandic landscape, then some more of the eruption, then some waterfalls, eruption, northern lights, and so on. Iceland received a huge amount of free publicity which was decanted into houses and businesses all over the world. The world woke up to this dramatic place; they loved what they saw; and they wanted to go see for themselves. 

After the world realized that Iceland is beautiful, dramatic, and intriguing, tourists started flooding in. But the country didn’t have the infrastructure in place yet for this flood. Fortunately, the tourism brought money with which to respond as quickly as possible to the new demands. 

There is physical infrastructure and there is human infrastructure. There weren’t enough Icelanders to fill all the hospitality industry jobs. At this time, the unemployment rate in Poland was not great. There were plenty of Poles who were eager to move to Iceland for work in the tourism sector. Today, about 60,000 Poles and other immigrants live and work in Iceland. That’s out of the current overall population of about 380,000. 

As an example: At one point, we wanted to know how to say in Icelandic, “Bad rabbit!” (Long story…) We approached the staff at our hotel’s reception. The two staff there at the time said, “Oh we don’t know but we can Google it,” which they started to do right away and with smiles. Of course, we had already googled it; we were looking for an authentic slangy expression, something a native speaker would know. They admitted that they were not Icelandic. In fact, the only native-born Icelandic person working at the hotel is the general manager. Everyone else comes from elsewhere!

All these immigrants need housing. That’s the key reason why we see so many very contemporary apartment buildings all over Reykjavík. And apparently, there are still not enough houses and apartments. 

Our guide said that his house, bought in the 90s, has increased in value by a factor of 7. He said he’s rich on paper, but of course that is not real since if he sold his house, a new house would cost the same inflated prices. (A dynamic that people in Hawaii know all too well.)

So devalued currency, free publicity from an erupting volcano, and tourist influx equals a booming Iceland economy. 

The people of Iceland are creative and smart. They live on top of bubbling magma. Geothermal power heats 89% of the houses in the country, and over 54% of the primary energy used comes from geothermal sources. This is the highest share of renewable energy in any national total energy budget.

So, you live abutting the Arctic Circle. From November to February, sunlight is scarce. Not good for growing tomatoes and cucumbers for your salads. No problem. Mix equal parts greenhouse, geothermal heat, geothermal energy and clever farmers, and you grow produce all year long. We visited the greenhouses of Friðheimar. Outside, it was a gray chilly day; inside, nicely warm with delicious tomato-plant aromas. They cultivate about 10,000 plants, and produce about a ton of tomatoes each day, every day of the year. We enjoyed some fresh tomato soup, a bloody mary, and, remarkably, some tomato beer (which won’t take over any pubs any time soon). 

If Iceland has experienced a tourism-fueled transformation in the last ten years — only ten years! — what was it like before? 

We found a 2018 article in Iceland Magazine entitled, “Photos: Raykjavik in the 1970s was a miserable, bleak place.”

These photographs, taken in Reykjavík in 1974-1977 provide us with a glimpse into a Reykjavík of a bygone era. This is not the booming small fishing town of the early 20th century Reykjavík, a picturesque little town of beautiful wooden houses. Nor is it the min-metropolis of the present day, a bustling town, full of people from all corners of the world, cafés and culture.

No, this is the grimy Reykjavík of the 1970s and 1980s. Downtown Reykjavík had begun a long decline and humiliation which only ended at the turn of the century. The beautiful wooden homes of Þingholtin neighborhood and the areas around Hallgrímskirkja church were falling into disrepair as young families moved to newly constructed suburbs.

There was no TV in Iceland on Thursdays or in July back in those days, dogs were banned in Reykjavík and beer was banned in all of Iceland.

Anyone who remembers this Reykjavík will tell you it was always stormy and rainy. The blogger Egill Helgason notes that the director Roman Polanski, who visited Iceland during the 1970s, commented that Reykjavík wasn’t all bad. Asked his opinion on the city Polanski answered “It’s probably ok if you are raised here and know nothing else.” (source)

Going back further, at the start of the 20th century, Reykjavík was little more than a small fishing town, with around just 5,800 inhabitants.

During our tours out in the countryside, we passed through vast expanses of flat lands. Here and there an isolated group of farm buildings sat exposed beneath steep mountainsides. Our guide told us that for most of Iceland’s history, there were not really any villages or towns to speak of. The country was a loose collection of individual farms. 

Iceland’s human history started in the 9th century when the first viking visitors settled on this challenging land (although it was more forested at the time, and perhaps more temperate). So, for over 1000 years, Icelanders lived lives isolated from each other and from the rest of the world — in a cold windy winter-dark volcanic land. Imagine! Today’s comfort, warm welcoming, cosmopolitan, credit-card-accepting modern Iceland seems like another planet from what the place was not that long ago.

Thank goodness! 

We were surprised at how good the food was at quite a few restaurants. Hit-you-in-the-face expensive, but at least it was very good.

Hédinn – Hotel Grandi

This is the restaurant in our hotel. On our first evening, we just wanted something simple and convenient. To our surprise, we got more than that. An unexpected treat.

Grilled shrimp salad starter: much better than we expected: cilantro, creamy dressing notes, orange slices but not dominant acid, salt, and some mysterious slices we couldn’t figure out. The shrimp has been grilled so the grill taste was there. Delicious. 

Slow roasted lamb, finished on the grill. Mushrooms with pickled mustard seeds. Hasselback potatoes with cheese cream sauce and dill. 

Fish Company

Nice cozy setting. Pleasant service. We expected some good fish-centric dishes, which we did get. But the tasting menu was much more than that. Each dish was complex, beautiful, balanced and surprising. These chefs really know what they’re doing. In less capable hands, the dishes could have been just too much stuff. But not at all: all the tastes and textures were fabulous together. Portions were generous (we were perhaps a bit too stuffed at the end, but very happy!). This was one of the best meals we’ve enjoyed in a long time. 

Matur Og Drykkur

We hadn’t quite realized that this meal would have such a fascinating guiding concept. The restaurant team is committed to local and seasonal foods and heritage recipes. We visited the restaurant in early March, after months of winter and still some time to go before spring sprouts. So, food sources are what have been stored – fermented, cured – over the winter, as well as parts of the animals that weren’t eaten in the fall, that were cured or preserved. Sounds challenging when we’re used to fresh fresh food. The starters were little notes of this season. And the main dishes were delightfully inventive, taking advantage of cod cheeks and more conventional parts, along with pickles and root vegetables. A very good meal, both cerebral and deep. 

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