Going to Iceland feels like stepping into a Hans Christian Andersen tale, I half expected to stumble across the Snow Queen’s lair as I explored its surreal moonscape in the perpetual twilight of late December.
I’ve often wondered how much effect the weather and landscape of a country has on the personality of its people. It can’t be a coincidence that people you meet on sunny tropical islands always seem so cheerful and laid back while the faces you see in harsh arid deserts are often weathered and taciturn. Its probably why Londoners, ever at the mercy of a capricious sun and the icy sting of yearlong drizzle, seem to have a Murphy-esque approach to life. If something can go wrong it probably will and while it might be sunny now you’d better layer up and carry an umbrella anyway!
Which is one of the reasons I was so curious to go to Iceland. I grew up near a desert where the heat was so extreme that on boiling afternoons in the summer school holidays I used to stick my head in the refrigerator’s freezer every now and again to cool off. What could be the most extreme opposite than an island that rather disingenuously named itself after..well..frozen water.
I half expected the whole country to be monochromatic and noir-ish with the people all gloomy and existential. Surely having 3 hours of sunlight a day for half the year must mess with your head. Instead, my first morning as I went down to the hotel lobby for breakfast the tall blond boy behind the cereal counter twinkled his blue eyes and apologised for the ruckus on the streets all night that must have surely kept me up. I asked if it was some sort of festival or wedding celebration? He replied with a slightly sheepish grin that no, it was merely the end of the month i.e. the time when most folks get their pay checks and in this neighbourhood that was reason enough to gather your friends and enjoy a Big Night Out. Fair enough!
I chose to go in the dead of winter because I desperately wanted to see the Northern Lights. But in the interest of fair disclosure for any of you who might be reading this in the hope of seeing pictures of the same I must admit I was not fortunate enough to do so. I realised its pointless to plan trips to see the Northern Lights too far in advance. Even though it might be more expensive you are better off doing it once you have a fairly accurate forecast of what the weather conditions are going to be like. Unless you have the luxury of being able to go for a couple of weeks or more.
As it turned out while I was there it was extremely cloudy and a little unseasonably warm (by which I mean a couple of degrees above zero!). Ergo while I waited every evening to see if the tour I had booked would go they would call and apologetically postpone it to the next day until I finally ran out of time. I have to say even then, I had a wonderful holiday and will definitely go back to try my luck again at the Lights. I imagine they are probably the closest you can get to the dazzling visions prophets had when they saw Gods and Angels appear to them.
There are many other things I learnt while I was there that pleasantly surprised me about this tiny frozen isle. Like the oldest parliamentary assembly in the world was established here in 930. And that it was the first country in the world to have an openly gay (or more accurately lesbian) Prime Minister. That it has no armed forces at all and one of the lowest crime rates in the world – so low that the police don’t bother carrying guns. That rather ironically people here probably pay some of the lowest heating bills in the world as the island is blessed with an abundance of naturally ocurring geothermal springs (when I first turned on the shower in my hotel room it took a while to get used to the pungent sulphuric smell).
That when the infamous volcano exploded a few years ago bringing flights across Europe to a screeching halt thanks to the fearsome clouds of ash billowing over the continent not a single casualty was reported. Because volunteers from the capital city of Reykjavik jumped into their cars and trucks straightaway and drove over to help evacuate those living in the immediate vicinity of the eruption. And that the whole country took immense pleasure in watching gleefully as British and American news anchors fumbled in their hopeless attempts at pronouncing the name of said volcano (Eyjafjallajökull – go on try it!).
Iceland Travel Diary Part 1 : Reykjavik
One of the best views over Reykjavik is from the top of its main church, Hallgrimskirkja. Its exactly how you would imagine an Icelandic cathedral to be. Stark, simple, with clean lines and minimal decoration, in fact none at all, but with a bright airy interior that inspires a moment of quiet gratitude nevertheless. Its exterior is rather dramatic as you approach it from one of the main shopping streets – rather like a massive church organ. Its design is in fact meant to symbolise the volcanic lava flows that are such a constant feature in this country. From the viewing gallery at the top, clusters of colourful wooden chalet-style houses stretch out in all directions – their bright pinks and blues and yellows covered with a feathery dusting of snow.
One of the first things I did was take a morning walk by the city’s twinkling harbour. Fairy lights were festooned over boats and ships of all manner and sizes lining the marina. It felt a bit strange at first having breakfast when it was pitch dark outside and slowly seeing pink and gold streaks of sunlight crease the skies around half past eleven!
Walking around that Sunday morning I felt like Tom Cruise in that scene from Vanilla Sky where he’s running through Times Square and its completely and bizarrely devoid of people. Maybe the people were tucked under their duvets recovering from the revelries of the night before. I wandered around a completely still ghost-town with streets bereft of any noise or traffic not even a barking dog or a squalling baby anywhere in sight! As it was soon after Christmas there were giant fir trees, wreaths and fairy lights everywhere that only added to the sense of mystery. I half expected to peek into the windows and find people asleep under some evil witch’s spell!
The Blue Lagoon, a short drive from Reykjavik, is a huge open-air geothermal spa which is well worth a visit albeit a bit expensive. Wisps of steam constantly rise from its milky waters, which are kept warm at a temperature of around 40 degrees celsius. Little mounds of silica mud, which are great for the skin, are placed around the rim of the pool, so you can give yourself a mini facial while you’re there. Little tip, try and avoid getting your hair wet as the minerals in the water can make it very rough and dry.
Iceland Travel Diary Part 2 : Geysir
The next day I took one of those ubiquitous Golden Circle tours that take you to the hot springs of Geysir, the Gullfloss waterfalls and Þingvellir National Park. The hot spring of Strokkur is quite a sight. Crowds of people gather around a large bubbling pool of water with rainbow streaks glistening across it like the kind you often see when petrol leaks on to a rainy street. They wait patiently, cameras ready, and then every few minutes or so a huge towering fountain of water and steam explodes into the air above amidst gasps and squeals of delight.
Iceland Travel Diary Part 3 : Gullfloss
My favourite stop on the tour was definitely Gullfloss or Golden Falls – set as they were amidst a dramatic tundra landscape of endless snow and ice. Being an overcast day the falls didn’t look golden but more like icy chocolate. A broad expansive river thunders down over two drops and then seemingly disappears into the abyss of a narrow rocky gorge. The sides of the cliffs surrounding the waterfalls are almost completely frozen and at places the falls themselves look like a flurry of icicles suspended in mid air. A constant glacial mist rises from the gorge and washes over you as you peer down from the wooden boardwalk along the banks.
Iceland Travel Diary Part 4 : Þingvellir National Park
The final stop in the tour is Þingvellir National Park where you can walk along a rocky canyon that is in fact the exposed continental drift marking the divide between the North American and European Plates. This is where the Alpingi (the oldest parliament and legislative assembly in the world) was run from 930 to the thirteenth century. Every year for the weeks the assembly was held people used to flock here in droves and live in makeshift settlements. It was a festive period with street markets and daily feasts where people brewed ale, sold their wares and caught up on gossip from the far reaches of the isle. Now it is a wonderfully preserved area with little or no habitation and an eerie lunar landscape broken here and there by lonely black firs and a winding frozen river that eventually opens out into an impossibly still lake.