Iceland, very Nice Land!

Ingόlfur Arnarson was the first settler in Iceland, more than 1100 years ago.  His trip from Norway lasted four days. There were no napkins”.

This is what Iceland’s national airline has chosen to print on each of their napkins. On the headrest of each seat meanwhile there is an Icelandic language lesson (“Good night is góđtha nott. It has a soft and cuddly sound”), and the pillows are adorned with a traditional lullaby inscribed in both Icelandic and English. Although you don’t realise it when travelling to Iceland for the first time, these original, amusing and informative little details, seem to capture so much of the character of the Icelandic people.

Friendly, chatty and amazingly individualistic, Icelandic people have an inimitable quirky sense of style that is the perfect combination of hippy Boho meets Parisian Euro-chic meets 80’s glam rock. And any variation on those themes seems not just to be tolerated but celebrated. The bars and clubs of Reykjavik are a marvellous mix of every genre of person you could imagine, young and old alike, furiously dancing until the wee hours of the morning to the sweet sounds of eclectic Icelandic trip-pop. It really is no coincidence that the divinely eccentric Bjork hails from Iceland. Icelanders are justifiably proud that there are no multinational chain stores in downtown Reykjavik, and they are understandably pleased that there are no McDonalds in Iceland at all! Instead the small, but vibrant heart of Reykjavik is awash with funky shops displaying unique creations by contemporary young designers, or traditional hand-knitted woollen sweaters.

Iceland Reykjavik

Not surprisingly, Icelanders are also ardently patriotic and really eager for visitors to know about their culture, history (the fascinating colourful sagas of the Vikings), and achievements (did you know that Iceland was the world’s first democracy, the first country to elect a female head of state, and the first country to elect an openly gay head of state).

But they’re also not afraid to share with you their belief in mythical beings. On my second day in Iceland, after rambling over an icy glacier for an hour I stopped for a warming cup of tea and cake in a café, and proceeded to be regaled by the owner with tragic tales of selkies (shape-shifting seal people) that dance in caves on the local beaches. Apparently, up to 80% of Icelanders believe in elves, trolls and similar fabled beasts. I even read that certain roads through the country have been re-routed to avoid disturbing areas where elves are thought to live!

Iceland Reykjavik

I’m really not sure what it is about Icelanders that makes them so delightfully different. Maybe it’s the fact that they descend from the legendary Vikings and still essentially speak the same language. Or maybe it’s because there are only 300,000 of them! Or perhaps the desire and liberty to express one’s individualistic style stems from the fact that there are no surnames in Iceland. In Iceland, your second name simply reflects that you are so-and-so’s son or daughter (for example, Agnarsson or Jonsdottir). As a consequence, everyone, even the prime minister, is referred to by their given name. In case you were wondering, the Icelandic telephone directory lists people by first name then occupation!

Or perhaps their unique character has something to do with the fact that Icelanders live their lives surrounded by some the world’s most uniquely beautiful landscapes.

Iceland Landscape

If you are after vast rugged scenery, spectacular terrain, and epic vistas, then Iceland’s for you.

Head out of Reykjavik and you immediately find yourself driving through wide, open grassy plains that are interlaced by networks of rapidly flowing rivers, and home to large herds of shaggy-haired Icelandic horses. These diminutive, yet hardy beasts graze at the foot of soaring vertical cliffs over which fall thundering cascades of endless icy water. Follow the road on to land’s end and you can watch enthralled as the terrifying fury of the North Atlantic Ocean relentlessly batters towering basalt columns. These impressive, rock formations rise formidably out of the black sand beaches, and in warmer months are festooned with seabirds.

Waterfall in Iceland

Veer a little inland next, to savour the powerful elemental fusion of Iceland’s massive glacier-covered volcanos. Fire and ice: the old and the new; geographically juxtaposed like no-where else. Iceland is one of the world’s most volcanically active regions with over one hundred volcanos. Thirty of these are active (there’s about one eruption every five years), and at least two are well over-due to explode. When they do, they  will reportedly make 2010’s Eyjafjallajokull eruption seem like a school bonfire!

Happily, there are plenty of less intimidating reminders of this tumultuous geological activity to witness. The surreal green moonscapes of vast moss-covered lava fields reveals the extent of past explosions. While the spectacular spurting geysers and bubbling hot springs (which smell somewhat less spectacularly), provide both endless entertainment and a more present-day reminder of the power of magma.

Then there’s the UNESCO World Heritage listed Thingvillier National Park: an impossibly beautiful landscape framed by cracks and fissures that formed as the rock was literally torn apart by tectonic forces. With the underlying mid-Atlantic rift continuing to separate unabated, you really get the sense that, geologically speaking, Iceland is still very much being born.

Iceland geysers

One fortunate and welcome by-product of all that subterranean heat, however, is the ease with which all Iceland’s abundant water can be heated. And this means not only a ready source of clean, renewable and cheap energy, but an abundance of thermal spas to soak in.

While natural thermal springs also exist, in most of the country geothermal bathing involves a visit to the local hot tub. I think it would be fair to say that a visit to the hot tub is an Icelander’s version of going down to the pub. One particularly beautiful spa, the touristy, but totally visit-worthy, Blue Lagoon, realised that people often want to do both, and installed a swim-up bar. I spent two heavenly hours floating languidly in the steamy vivid-blue waters, applying therapeutic silt face masks, soaking up the decadent bliss of the moment, and planning my next trip back!

Iceland Blue Lagoon

But there was still one more heavenly moment to behold.

With all the clichés and liberally-applied flowery adjectives used to describe the Aurora Borealis, it is really quite hard not to be excited at the prospect of an evening spent gazing upon a magical aurora display. However, after three hours standing in the cold with a bus load of other tourists, staring at a star-filled, but entirely aurora-less sky, excitement and expectations start to wane. I should point out that my entire reason for visiting Iceland had emanated from a desire to see the northern lights. Thus, when I boarded the bus to head home and it really seemed like it was going to be a case of NO-thern lights, my mood was a little deflated.  But lady luck was on my side. Half way down the winding mountain road the driver pulled over to the side of road exclaiming “we have some activity!”, “we have some activity!”

Suddenly there was quite a lot of activity among the previously sleeping passengers as everyone rushed for the door and the chance to tick “seen an aurora” off their bucket-list. But all cynicism aside, as I emerged from the bus to see a billowing vivid green curtain of light shimmering across the sky before me, I couldn’t stop the involuntary “Wow!” that escaped my lips.

At the risk of sounding cliché, the sight of a dancing ribbon of bright green light, hanging just above the snow-capped peaks, and dotted with twinkling stars was truly breathtaking. Despite standing in a road verge, with 50 other spectators, the moment was completely captivating, and serenely beautiful.

And then it was gone: a brief, but enchanting demonstration of the wonder of our universe, and a fitting finale to a fleeting but magical Icelandic odyssey.

Northern Lights
Cacioetta! / Foter 


 The Seal Wife (as retold by the lovely owner of Sólheimaskáli Glacier Café)

 Once upon a time there was a man of Mýrdalur who was walking along the sea-shore at the foot of some high cliffs early in the morning, before most people were awake. He came upon a cave and heard the sounds of revelry and dancing from within. Outside the cave’s entrance he saw a large pile of seal-skins. He took one of the seal-skins with him as he went on his way, took it home with him and locked it in a chest.

 Later in the day he returned to the cave and found there a pretty young woman, naked and crying. He gave her some clothes, dried her tears and took her home with him. She was shy and aloof with everyone but him, and would often sit and look at the sea. After a time however, the man proposed to her and she accepted. They had a happy marriage and had several children together. Through all this time the man kept the skin firmly locked away in a chest at the foot of their bed, and always carried the key with him wherever he went.

One day several years later the man went out to sea to fish but forgot the key at home under his pillow. The woman found the key, opened the chest and found her seal skin inside. She was unable to stop herself from taking the skin. She kissed her children goodbye walked down to the sea, put the skin on and disappeared into the sea. Before she left she turned back to look at the house that had been her home for many years and said:

 “Oh, pitiful me, I have seven children on the land, But seven more under the sea.”

 The man was struck with grief when he came back and discovered what had happened. From that time on, when he rowed out to fish there would be a seal circling the boat that seemed to be crying, his catch was always big and the waves cast many useful things upon the shore below his farm. Often when their children walked down by the sea they would see a seal swimming in the sea near them and it would throw them colourful fish and beautiful shells. But their mother never came ashore again.

5 comments on this post

  1. Zoe Doubleday on said:

    Love this article! Have had a long fascination with Iceland – you’ve reinvigorated my desire to go there – shame it’s so far away from the baking heat and arid country of South Australia.

  2. Simon Evans on said:

    This is awesome, Shelly, and your writing is so easy and interesting to read. Super-awesome, in particular, because I’m planning a trip to Iceland next summer and you’ve further convinced me about how amazing it could be, especially with the beautiful photos.

    And inspiring, too, because I’ve been thinking about taking some time away from research to do some travelling.

  3. I like Iceland too, that place rocks!!

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