The Land of Fire and Ice, isolated, wild, rugged. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland welcomes us with ice on the roads and drizzling rain as we pull into Reykjavik. The darkness is velvet, the air is crisply cold. It is well past midnight by the time we get into our accommodation – we are given an entire house to ourselves, three bedrooms, a lounge area and a kitchen. The decor is cute, kitsch. A pair of old roller skates sit underneath a wooden dresser, blue and white china plates adorn the kitchen walls. There are wooden sculptures and old dolls displayed on shelves.
The next morning we are awake well before sunrise – at this time of year, the sun rises at 11am, and we troop over to the main hotel for breakfast. The hulk of Hallgrimskirkja, literally “Hallgrim’s Church” sit across from our hotel. Completed in the 1940s, the structure is supposed to represent the basalt volcanic rock that forms the foundation of Iceland. The choir is practising for Christmas and we sit for awhile inside the stark grey hall. The sound reflects beautifully off the tall gothic arches and the austerness of the church suits Iceland to a T.
Our first full day in Reyk is spent exploring the town. Rugged up against the cold in layers, we wander in and out of the grey rain for most of the day. There is a starkness in Reyk, the town has the spirit of a frontier town, especially in the older parts where there are still original, tin clad wooden houses standing. The buildings are painted in different colours – red, black, blue with bright white window frames. Everywhere we go we see Advent candles lit.
Our first stop is the viewpoint at Mount Esja, looming across the harbour. Later, as the sun sets and the clouds are blown away, the mountain is brushed in liquid gold and we revisit the view point in a different light. We eat in the very cool Cafe Paris, its walls decked with canvases of comic book heroes. We go shopping, but even with the kronur’s devaluation, things in Reyk are still eye-wateringly expensive. It is raining again as we queue up at Baedaris Beztu for “pylsur” or hotdogs – delicious, hot mouthfuls of mystery meat encased in a soft white bun doused with remoulade, crunchy fried onions and tomato sauce. The boys have two, then three each.
We spend awhile by the water, getting colder by the minute, then walk along the foreshore to “Sun Craft” a sculpture that evokes a Viking ship, or whale bones, both appropriate symbols of Reykjavik. The light is perfect, soft golds reflecting off the greyness of the water.
Contemplation in Reykjavik
There are tons of vintage shops in Reykjavik, beautifully appointed, lovingly decorated, more boutique than second-hand. There are also the less upmarket Salvation Army stores, filled with hip young ‘uns and old mamas looking for bargains. Iceland goods are high quality, with matching price tags to match. Like the rest of Scandinavia, it is design that Iceland excels at, and we see examples of that famous, pared-down, sexy Scandinavian aesthetic everywhere, expressed and translated into clothes, jewellery, household items and furniture. I am on the hunt for a “lopi” or traditional Icelandic yoke knit top and I find one that has traditional design with modern colours – grey, red and white.
We eat well while in Reykjavik – lobster, perch, lamb. The produce is fresh and delicious, but the lamb was a stand out. Our first night we sit down at a table at the Lobster House and after, head on home. The bars open late in Reykjavik. Our crew is tired from the cold and a day of walking so we spend the night chilling out in our comfy little house instead.
We are off to the Golden Circle tour the next day, and our first stop is at a geothermal plant. Clouds of steam billow out between the buildings and in the pre-dawn light the futuristic buildings and industrial fixtures look like they come from another planet. All of Iceland uses clean energy – everything is powered by the geothermal energy lying underneath the surface of the country. The entire place is, for all intents and purposes, a giant volcano.
There are three major attractions on the Golden Circle – Gulfoss waterfalls, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park. The waterfalls are smaller in winter, the edges are locked in ice, but standing far above on the viewing ledge, the powerful falls still send clouds of spray in our direction. It is freezing out in the wind and wet, and we feel the cold. The landscape is wide open. As the sun rises a strip of gold light lies on the horizon, illuminating a white-blue glacier far off in the distance. Even in winter, yellow sedge grasses dot the black lava fields.
The Icelandic landscape and a full moon; the double cataracts of Gulfoss; the trail leading to Gulfoss
We stop by Geysir, the geyser that gave its name to all other geysers around the world – the first real hot spring, as it were. Geysir is old now, and less active, so we are entertained instead by Strokkur, which reliably spits up hot steam and water every ten to fifteen minutes or so. The water bubbles just before it shoots up, giving us ample time to ready cameras and poses.
As the sunsets, we explore Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament, the oldest continuing democracy in the world, used to meet in the early 11th century. The rivers cut across this broad plain, its paths locked in ice. Fir trees dot the ridges and a line of blue mountains mark the horizon. The light is purple and pink and soft blues as the sun goes down. The snow crowned moutains flare into gold for a brief moment and we watch as tiny human silhouettes are dwarfed by the age and scale of the landscape.
It’s been a long day. Surprisingly it hasn’t been as cold as we’d expected – the severe snow storms that occurred just a week before we got there had melted into grey snow or ice and there were glimpses of green vegetation around. We had come prepared and wore a thin, light thermal layer next to the skin, followed by two thin cotton tops, a cashmere and lastly a water proof down jacket. The others wore ski pants, which kept them both warm and dry – I layered two thermal leggings underneath regular jeans and wore thermal and wool socks with hiking boots, which seemed to work, though were not wind proof. Just getting dressed in the morning took a while.
Dinner was Laekjarbrekka, where the lobster soup was legendary. There was also Christmas buffet on offer, an Icelandic tradition. We sampled horse (yum), puffin (ew), and reindeer (yum) amongst other Icelandic delicacies. We didn’t, however, try the hakarl, or rotted shark – culinary adventurers we were, but not culinary suicide bombers.
On our walk home to rest up before our Northern Lights tour, the streets of Reykjavik were lit up in festive colours. It was quiet, and the shop windows were locked down. Like many Scandinavian countries, Iceland goes into hibernation mode in winter, but come summer, when the country gets two hours of darkness at its maximum, the party never stops here.
Aurora borealis, named after the goddess of the dawn and the north wind, are a natural phenomenon that occurs as a result of solar magnetic particles brushing agains the Earth’s electromagnetic fields. They occur year long, and are more common when there has been high solar activity, like sun spots. Many friends who have been to Iceland didn’t manage to see them – we felt lucky but weren’t expecting much. We had an almost-full moon, which didn’t help matters – auroras are clearest on dark, dark nights. Far off to our right we could also see the Peace sculpture, an installation by Yoko Ono, a simple, bright white light shining straight into the skies.
It was cold out at the vantage point, and the field was filled with people and random flashes of light – photographing the lights are very very hard to do well. We waited for an hour and were just heading back into the warmth and comfort of the bus when we turned around and there, hanging just over our heads behind us – a ghostly trail of light. To the naked eye the aurora looked white, with a hint of green, but cameras see the Northern Lights much better than the human eye. It stayed and shimmered, then faded away before reappearing every now and again. Ours was a straight line in the sky – a plain, simple arc. Other shapes are clouds, or dancing lights, which move as the solar currents change direction. Green is the commonest colour, with red auroras found higher in the atmosphere.
The last day in Iceland dawned with clear skies as we were speeding down the roads to the Blue Lagoon, another highlight of our trip. Born from the by product of the steam powered energy plants that dot Iceland, the warm waters of the lagoon are filled with silica and are algae rich, perfect for soaking and relaxing. The white mud at the bottom of the lagoon gives the waters their milky blue colour, and are perfect to use as a facial mask. We spend a few wonderful hours here, running around in 2 degree Celsius air taking photographs then plunging back into the warm, 40 degree pools, steam rising from our skin.
The surreal beauty of Iceland is everything that I was expecting, the relatively young age of this country, and the facts of its sheer existence are relentlessly fascinating, even to the non geologist. Iceland is a completely different and unique place to any I’ve ever been to, a fascinating, lose-yourself-in kind of place, filled with rugged beauty and the kind of soul-testing wildness that separates the men from the boys. The sky is tall here, and the mountains snow covered, the sea filled with steel. Hot steam billow out of fissures in the lava fields, pennants of clouds issuing from an underground of heat, fire and volcano hearts. Ice, snow, sky, sea, and fire come together to form a land of extraordinary beauty and spirit.