Iceland Feb 15: Swimming in Reykjavik

Yesterday (Sunday!) I spent the day in Reykjavík. First stop the supermarkets because I’d eaten all my food, next stop the Tjornin to enjoy the ducks and geese and swans – they make noises like sad little bike horns and it’s hilarious and there were a couple of geese scrapping and a swan that kept looking suspiciously at me.

Next stop was Hallgrímskirkja, the big pointy church on the hill. Sunday morning service had just finished, which meant the church was open to tourists again. Well, tourists are welcome to walk in on the service as long as they’re quiet, but if they’re coming in, would they mind staying for the whole thing, as it’s very disturbing for them to keep walking in and out. I don’t think I’ve been inside for ages. I’d forgotten how plain it is. It’s all whitish stone and plain windows, just one little stained glass one hidden away at the side. It has those benches like you get on Spanish trains, where you can swing the back over so it faces the other way, although there were signs up pleading with tourists not to do that. As well as the colossal organ on the back wall, there were two small ones and a piano. I didn’t bother going up the tower – on a cloudy rainy day, it was a waste of time.

I planned to go in Café Loki for hot chocolate afterwards but it seems that the café’s moved to upstairs. That’s probably not a bad thing – when it was downstairs it was a tiny bit squished and there’s a marginally better view upstairs, but Café Loki is known for its traditional Icelandic food, which I think has always been served upstairs and I decided I didn’t really want to sit with boiled sheep heads and drink my hot chocolate. So I went back down the street, back to Lækjatorg to get on a bus.

Having gone into the TIC, and knowing I wanted to go swimming in an outside pool  – because it’s fun swimming outside in February – I got the bus to Kopavogur. Except Kopavogur sits on a hill covered in lava. I can only conclude this lava came from Esja a very long time ago. I know she’s a dormant/extinct volcano but no one’s ever mentioned any eruptions of hers. I don’t think there are any other volcanoes any closer than Hengill, which isn’t too far from the city and is active. Very active. Anyway, Kopavogur is very exposed and it was very windy and very cold and by the time I’d walked five minutes up the road to the pool, I’d decided I really didn’t want to go in there. So I went back to the bus stop and had lunch during the twenty minutes I had to wait for the bus. There are three buses running between Reykjavík and Kopavogur and all three leave at the same time, every half hour. If you miss one, you miss all three. It was still freezing sitting in the bus shelter, even wearing the big purple coat that’s a bit too big and hot if you’re moving at all. Every single person who passed by seemed to be wearing a Cintamani coat, even the little kids. I’d been into the Cintamani shop in the morning. That stuff is expensive. It seems effective – if Icelanders who spend most of their time outside wear it, it’s got to work. Tour guides, glacier guides, park rangers.

So I got the bus back to the town centre and went to get a map with a list of all the thermal pools on it. There are three in central Reykjavík – I’d already been to one and after debating which of the other two to try, I went for the closest. I took the bus to Hlemmur (this is a distance of maybe 400m – not a journey I’d bother with by bus if it wasn’t for the bus pass) and then, ditto, took the bus down Snorrabraut. I’ve walked up and down Snorrabraut, I’ve taken buses down it, I’ve ever stayed on it and I have never seen the pool. It turns out it’s far closer to Hlemmur than to the Snorrabraut bus stop, so having taken the bus most of the way down the road, I then had to walk a lot of the way back.

Sundhöllin is the oldest pool in Reykjavík,  opened in 1937, in an Art Deco style building designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (who also designed Hallgrímskirkja and the National Theatre). People love it. I occasionally use “municipal” when I feel a pool is less then space-age. In this case, the word I used was “institutional”. The pool was ok – it had a section for children, it had a lane and it had a couple of diving boards in constant use by local kids. But it was freezing! This is no thermal pool! This is ice cold! I went to the hot tubs instead. They’re on the roof! Well, they’re on an upstairs balcony but given that Reykjavík is not a high-rise city and the pool is just a teeny tiny bit up the hill towards Hallgrímskirkja, we were slightly raised over the nearby rooftops. There were opaque glass boards around the tubs – partly so you couldn’t see in, partly just so you don’t fall over the edge – but you could see a little underneath them and take in the view of Snorrabraut. How I never spotted this place is beyond me. The hot tubs were nice, if a bit busy, but there’s only so long you can sit in a rooftop hot tub before getting too hot, and this was in the cooler of the two. I thought I’d go back in the pool, which would probably feel delightful now. It did not. It felt colder than ever – so cold that I only got halfway down the ladder, the cold water only halfway up my legs before heading back outside and plopping down in the hotter tub.

So this wasn’t the pool for me. I got dressed, consulted my map and decided to go looking for Vesturbæjarlaug. The internet now says it’s within walking distance of the city centre and looking at the map, I suppose it is only a couple of streets away from the Tjornin, but that’s still a distance from Hlemmur and it looked further on the map. I walked back to Hlemmur and got on a bus.

Bus 15 takes you round the end of the airport – Reykjavík airport, the domestic one, not Keflavík, which is the international one an hour or so away – and along the seafront and then it goes round in what looks like a perfect square on the map and of course is no such thing in real life. I got off at the penultimate stop – in the rain – and walked back towards the place that looked like a sports centre because that’s where a swimming pool will be hiding. No, that was a school. It was raining, the wind was so strong that it was an effort to walk against it and I had the sort of hiccups that burn. I’d seen a petrol station, so I planned to walk there and ask about the pool. It was Sunday! The petrol station was closed, self-service only! A little further on, I found a bus stop. Fine.  I would give up, take the bus back to Reykjavík and go back to Laugardalslaug. But the bus wasn’t coming for a little while so I looked at my map. It wasn’t specific where the pool was – the little picture was somewhere within that square the bus was supposed to go round but maybe it was on the right, a couple of streets up. Well, I was already wet and furious, I might as well wander up there and find out. And there it was! Right at the end of the square, just where the bus goes back onto the easy back-and-forth part of the route. In I went.

Oh, Vesturbæjarlaug is much better than Sundhöllin! Alright, it was outside, but the pool was a good temperature. The lane pool, despite being connected, was much colder and also frighteningly deep at almost five metres and there was apparently a sauna, steam room and solarium, none of which I investigated. Two sunken hot pots, one hot tub (I’m concluding that the difference between a pot and a tub is how deep they are in the ground – the 38° – 40° hot pot was far more popular than the tub of the same temperature. There was a cold tub, very popular with children. And there was a kind of shallow pool-tub. Part of it was a shallow semi-circular thing and then if you climbed over the little dividing wall, there was a deeper hot tub with two round tubs at each side. All tiled in blue – another thing that hot pots don’t have. So when you’re sitting in the small hot tub, all you can see is dozens of people sitting in this small pool, with two separate temperature labels, despite the fact that when you go to investigate, the water goes from one to the other and how can one be hotter than the other?

Anyway, I liked it there a lot more than the other. The only downside, apart from it being a pig to find, was that it closes at 6 at weekends. That’s really early. Sundhöllin is open until 8 and I’m pretty sure somewhere like the Blue Lagoon is open until 11. I drifted from tub to pot to tub and went in the play part of the main pool. Back in tub, pot, tub. It was cold and windy still but somehow you didn’t feel it nearly as much here as even in Laugardalslaug, where the wind had been strong enough and cold enough to try to take your face off and rip out the row of trees inexplicable planted in the middle of the place.

Of the three central Reykjavík pools, I understand why Laugardalslaug has the best reputation, why everyone loves it there, why it’s the biggest. It’s by far the best. I would go back to Vesturbæjarlaug but I’d probably give Sundhöllin a miss.

After that, it was time to go home. Bus 1, which I normally get, was leaving just as I went into Hlemmur and then next one wasn’t due for half an hour. But Bus 4 came along. I know Bus 4 goes down my bit of motorway and when I ran for it and hastily checked the timetable, it does stop at Kringlan. So on I went! And wasn’t that a mistake! Yes, it stops at Kringlan, but it stops on Miklabraut, out the front, not Kringlumýrarbraut, at the side. It’s on the wrong side of the biggest shopping centre in the country and it was more than a ten minute walk to my normal bus stop, from where it’s another ten minute walk, in the rain and the wind and the dark.

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