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Though there are some striking and handsome architectural sights in Reykjavik, when one thinks of attractions in Iceland, it is not usually those in the built environment that spring to mind. However, there is one building that stands out above all others on the island, and not just because of its physical location.
The Hallgrimskirkja is the largest church in Iceland and it dominates the Reykjavik skyline. I got my first glimpse of it as we came into the city from Keflavik airport; it's one of those buildings that can be seen from different parts of the city, yet can seem hidden when you're close to it. The best way to approach it, to really capture the full impact, is on foot from Skolavordustigur; how you perceive the details of the design, the colour and the construction continually alter as you climb the hill towards the church. (Note: Skolavordustigur is a rather nice shopping street crammed with enticing stores selling handmade goods as well as little bistros and cafes so getting to the church may take longer than you expect)
This astonishing church was commissioned in 1937 but I didn't pick up on that from the design; that's hardly surprising since the graduated designed
was intended to resemble basalt columns in an echo of Iceland's volcanic landscape (very similar to the columns of Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway) and it isn't really representative of any prevailing architectural trend of the period. If anything, this building reminds me of the modernist buildings of Brasilia. The building took a total of thirty-eight years to be completed (work started in 1948 and was finally completed in 1986) though I assume that the original design was adhered to. The 75 metre tower was among the first parts to be completed, the steeple and wings not until the 1970s. It has been said, by people who don't like the design of the church, that it resembles a seal without a beach-ball; personally I do like the design but I do see what they mean.
The church is named after Hallgrimur Petursson, an Icelandic cleric and hymn writer; the three bells in the tower represent Hallgrímur, his wife, and their daughter who died young. The statue in front of the church, however, is of Leifur Eiriksson, an Icelander who is regarded (at least in Iceland) as being the first European to discover America (apparently this was in 1000 AD, some five hundred years before Christopher Columbus made a a song and dance about it). The statue was a gift from the American government in 1930 on the occasion of the 1000th anniversary of the Althing, Iceland's parliament, and the gesture is regarded as a tacit agreement that the Icelander was there first.
Entry to the church is free but there is a charge to take the lift up to the viewing platform. We were fortunate to visit on a very clear (but cold) day and probably wouldn't have paid to go up the tower had the visibility not been as good. Only four people can travel in the lift at once so there may be a queue at busy times. Once you get as far as the lift goes there are a couple more flights of steps to the viewing platform. The cost at the time of writing is 700 ISKr for adults (£3.74) and 100 ISKr (£0.53) for children aged between 7 and 14 years.
The views are wonderful: the little corrugated houses of the tiny city are stretched out like a colourful patchwork quilt while the snow capped mountains make a striking contrast between the city and the island's rugged natural landscape. Were it not for the biting cold, I could have spent several hours up there looking down at the technicolour toy town.
In contrast the interior is rather austere with very little decoration, though this is typical for the Lutheran church. It is however grand in a very simple understated way and the high vaulted nave is breathtaking. The most decorative element is the organ; it's fifteen metres tall and has over 5,000 pipes. Between mid-June and mid-August there are concerts of organ music three times weekly at lunch time or in the evening.
It's worth taking the time to walk all the way round the exterior of the church because there are some really quirky details that you can't see from the front. The bit I liked best was the little dome which reminded me partly of middle eastern bath-houses and partly of those little beehive shaped cottages in Puglia in the far south of Italy.
In a country that is famous for its natural landscapes there are few buildings that can be considered a must see but the Hallgrimkirkja is surely one of them. While the interior need not detail you long, it's worth the short walk to the church to go onto the viewing platform and to see the building close up. It must be the cheapest paid for experience in Reykjavik and worth every Krroner. Admittedly the tower is not for vertiginous but the views are truly memorable.
Pictures of Hallgrimur's Church (Hallgrimskirkja), Reykjavik