Iceland: The Pearl

High on a hill in Reykjavik stands an odd building. The Pearl – Perlan – is a collection of hot water tanks, which store the hot water for the city, topped with a glass dome. Icelanders like to think that the Pearl is to Reykjavik what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris; an instantly recognisable symbol of the city. I think they’re wrong. I think Hallgrímskirkja works better. But Hallgrímskirkja divides opinion between Icelanders and this is about the Pearl anyway.

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There are six water tanks, each with a capacity of 4 million litres of fresh-from-the-ground hot water. As far as I understand, only five are in use. The sixth previously housed the Saga Museum, now moved to the harbourside in central Reykjavik. I think there are plans to do something with the empty tank but I don’t know exactly what they are.

The top floor of the Pearl is a revolving restaurant, possibly the best in the country. I don’t know, I don’t do food, I haven’t eaten there, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s only open in the evening so I’ve never seen it revolving.

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The fourth floor contains a cafe, which I mistook for the posh restaurant the first time I was there. It’s the sort of cafe where I could quite happily go for some hot chocolate and cake with a view, while wearing the sort of clothes you need to wear to stand on a roof in Iceland. There are also small shops in there – a souvenir shop which used to be on the ground floor, the Christmas shop, accessible through the souvenir shop and supposedly a gourmet food shop. I’m pretty oblivious to food-based things, so I’ve never noticed it.

The fourth floor is also home to the viewing platform. There are several sets of revolving doors and you can walk out on top of the tanks for a 360° view over Reykjavik and the surroundings. Sad to say, I’ve only ever been there on cloudy days, so I’ve never seen the full wonders of the view.

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Reykjavik and Esja (view to the north)
Reykjavik Domestic Airport (view to the west)
Reykjavik Domestic Airport (view to the west)
Kopavogur and beyond to Reykjanes (view more or less to the south)
Kopavogur and beyond to Reykjanes (view more or less to the south)

Be aware that you are in a raised place and it gets cold and windy up there. Don’t do what this idiot did and think it’s not cold enough to need a hat. You do need a hat.

That is the pained, forced smile of someone whose ears are about to break off from the cold.
That is the pained, forced smile of someone whose ears are about to break off from the cold.

I don’t really see any need to go inside the Pearl, other than to go to the cafe, the toilet or to get to the doors leading to the observation deck. There isn’t much more of interest inside. Downstairs is supposed to be exhibition space but it seems to be used for company presentations and the like. There’s also a “geysir” in the basement, to give you an idea of what the real thing is like before you go to the Haukadalur geothermal valley but… well, it’s pretty terrible. It’s a simple fountain that squirts up to about the third floor and is switched on for a minute or so about every five to ten minutes. It has none of the drama of the real thing. It doesn’t erupt into the air, it switches on. It’s certainly not steaming boiling water. It’s not a jet, it’s a fountain. You’ve all seen fountains before and this just doesn’t compare to the real thing. I’ve heard rumours that there’s a “man-made geysir” in the grounds of the Pearl but I’ve never come across it. To be honest, I’ve only come across these rumours in the last ten minutes, so I’ll go looking for it next time I’m in Iceland.

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To be fair, this is caught before it reaches full height. But it doesn’t get any more dramatic just because it’s higher.
Now, this is the real thing.

And if you want to see it in action, complete with the shrieks of tourist children:

The Pearl is set on a wooded hill (Öskjuhlíð), which is quite unusual in Iceland. It’s criss-crossed with hiking paths – wandering paths is probably a more accurate description. That can be lovely in the summer, when everything is green and birds pose obligingly for you.

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However, when I went there three or four weeks ago, that was not how it was at all.

I was staying at the Capital Inn. It was cheap and looked pleasant enough, so I didn’t mind that it was a bit out of town. Until I discovered it’s two and a half miles from the city centre and there is no bus anywhere near. I don’t mind a walk but there was no way I was walking five miles just to get into town and back every day. But on my first morning, I decided I would walk up to the Pearl, which isn’t very far away, enjoy the view, and then walk down the hill to the Natura Hotel (the green and white stripy building outside the Domestic Airport in one of the pictures above) because I’ve stayed there before and I know there’s a bus stop right outside.

So off I went, to make my way down the hill to the bus stop. From the hilltop, I could see the bus passing my stop. I knew it had to get to the end of the line, to Nautholsvik and back and that would take it about fifteen minutes. That was plenty of time to walk down the hill. Except that it was early February, in Iceland, and walking down a hill was a really, really bad idea.

This is what the hill looked like.

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That is sheet ice. That is, essentially, an ice rink, with no barriers, at an alarmingly steep angle. I was up to the challenge. I’d brought my Yaktrax and I put them on. I did have to sit on the ground to put them on, which taught me that the ground is very cold, very wet, very slippery and very dirty. Yaktrax are “lightweight ice grips” – they’re a set of rubber netting you put over your shoes and the rubber under the soles are wrapped in steel coils which grip the ice. Well, not sheet ice they don’t. Within ten steps I’d realised that I was likely to die on the slippery hill and that Yaktrax were not going to do the job. You genuinely need crampons for a walk like this.

I met an Icelander coming up the hill, making it look ridiculously easy, who commented to me “Very slippery. Very dangerous.” Well, thank you. I’d already realised that. I’d already realised that I had to stop as soon as I saw you and wait for you to pass me because just having another person in my field of vision was enough of a distraction that I couldn’t continue. Even with the Yaktrax, even clinging to trees, it required absolute focus. If I wanted to take a photo, I had to get in position, kick my feet into the ice and only when I was certain that I was secure, could I think about getting my camera out.

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There were times when I thought I was going to die on the way down that hill. There were times when anything resembling support vanished and I had to cross a zig-zag unaided. There was one point where my only option was to climb onto a rock and slide down the other side. I tried to stick to the edge of the path where there was soil and moss and leaf litter but there were places where that just wasn’t possible.

pearl13I missed the bus, by the way. It took about forty minutes to get down that hill, on the verge of panic all the way, shrieking whenever my supposedly grippy feet slipped, swearing at the ice and at the trees for not being where I wanted them to be and at the Capital Inn for being so far away that it had forced me into this madness.

I caught the next bus and I never walked down that hill again. I used the bus stop outside Kringlan, which is a ten or fifteen minute walk along the edge of a six lane highway, the closest thing Iceland has to a motorway. There’s nowhere in London a fifteen minute walk from a bus stop. Pleasant as the Capital Inn is – and when you haven’t got drunk people screaming at 4am and you’re not mistaking a carrier bag for a leering corpse in a window (this happened; nothing has ever scared me so much in my life) it is pleasant – if you haven’t got a car, it’s just not a practical distance from the city centre.

So, in conclusion, go up to the Pearl on a nice day and take in the views. Don’t bother with the indoor geysir and don’t walk down the hill in winter.