The exotic scent of stink bombs greets me, as I alight from the plane at Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland and accompanies me for most of my stay here, with Neil. Nowhere is far from volcanic fumes and hot springs. Indeed, the name Reykavik translates as 'Smoky Bay'. Legend has it that the Norsemen used to decide where to settle by casting their high seat pillars overboard and seeing where they washed up. The Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Armarson did this around the year AD 870; it took them three years to track down the actual site and found Reykjavík. But there was no urban development until the eighteenth century. Today, 65% of Iceland's population live here. (This is the most sparsely populated land in Europe)
Reykjavík is the northern most capital of a sovereign state in the world. It is typical Scandi style - a hill crowded with gaily painted houses and arty shops crowned by an elegant modern (1986) Lutheran church, the Hallgrimskirkja. (Lutheranism was imposed on Iceland by the Danes.) The church is designed to look like the pipes of a volcanic flow. It's named after an Icelandic poet. it's February and the whole country is atmospherically blanketed in snow - and chilly.
The white domed Reykjavík Art Museum (Ásmundarsafn) is housed in the former studio of Icelandic sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson. Adjacent is a sculpture garden that looks stunning in the snow. Also a landmark dome, is the Perlan. once a collection of hot water tanks and now home to an exhibition on the volcanic wonders of Iceland.
Iceland - in a Nutshell
Iceland - A Very Brief History
Iceland was one of the last places on earth to be settled by humans. After Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island, Norwegians, and other Scandinavians, also emigrated to Iceland, bringing with them their thralls. Eventually, the island fell under Norwegian rule. In 1397 it was incorporated into the Kalmar Union of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. After Sweden left the union in 1523 Iceland came under Danish rule.
A form of independence was achieved in 1918, with the establishment of the Kingdom of Iceland, sharing rule with the incumbent monarch of Denmark. Formal ties with Denmark were not ended until 1944, precipitated by the German occupation of Denmark.
Even when subjugated, Iceland has been governed by what may be the longest continuously running parliament in the world. (Apparently a break in the nineteenth century doesn't count.), The Althing, was established at Þingvellir in 1930.
Facts and Factoids
Today, Iceland ranks third in the world by median wealth per adult, and is eye wateringly expensive. Nearly all the food has to be imported and alcohol is so dear, the wine is provided in bottles marked by rubber bands. You pay for what you drink – only the super-rich consume the whole thing. Perhaps that's why consumption of Coca–Cola per capita is higher than in any other country. And the food is eclectic - everything from fermented shark and puffin burgers to smorgasbord and pizza.
Stunningly beautiful, Iceland has 30 active volcanic systems, amounting to a third of the world’s total lava output. Add this to the glaciers and you get “Land of Fire and Ice”. An epithet that George R R Martin was only too happy to appropriate.
There are no surnames or family names in Iceland – Icelanders use the traditional Nordic naming system, which includes a last name that is comprised from their father’s (or mother’s) first name with the addition of -dóttir (-daughter) or -son. First names not previously used in Iceland must be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee.
Everyone speaks excellent English and wears woolly jumpers. And all that geothermal activity is very helpful. Iceland runs almost completely on renewable energy.
O, and apparently, a majority of Icelanders believe in elves.
The Golden Circle
We visit the Icelandic tourist Golden Circle and the lava filled landscape, more of a moonscape, is extraordinarily eerie.
First, there’s the spectacular Geysir area, where the active hot spring of Strokkur spouts steaming water 30 metres into the air habitually, every 8 minutes.
Then, one of Iceland’s most iconic features, where the Gullfoss Waterfall (Golden Falls), plummet into a 32-metre deep crevice.
Onto Þingvellir National Park, at the Continental Divide. Here the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart, at a rate of a few centimetres per year. It's the only place in the world where you can stand between two tectonic plates. Sadly, the idea is more exciting than the reality. It's a stream separating two stretches of rock. Þingvellir is also the site of a stunning rift valley and the Rock of Law - marking the first Viking parliament.
There's also a stop at another modern church - the Skrasholt Cathedral. though this one has historic antecedents - it's the tenth church on this site.
Finally, the volcanic crater at Lake Kerið. Starkly beautiful in winter. it is said to look very different in summer, when the water contrasts with the red volcanic rock now lurking below the ice. In Iceland. there is a volcanic eruption every four years, on average.
The Northern Lights are sadly elusive on this trip.
I opt not to visit the Blue Lagoon. It’s at the top of most visitors’ agendas, but it sounds like an overcrowded tourist trap and what’s more, you also get covered in mud.
I am also persuaded into a snow-mobile ride on the glacier, however, a decision I later regret. Neil professes to be able to drive one. It is a terrifying experience.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.