ICELAND _ LAND OF FIRE, ICE, AND VIKING ADVENTURE!
1ST POST: Reykavik, Iceland
Arriving at the Reykjavik airport in Kevlavik, I noticed a sign held higher than the rest with the letters Mike. The person holding the sign was a big burly gentleman. He was wrapped in animal skins from head to toe, and carried a shield and a sword. His beard was thick and he wore a peculiar hat with curved horns.
Curious, I said, “Are you here for me?” to which he laughed and bellowed “Of course I am here for you Mike! My name is Eric Thor Leifursonson, but you can call me Sven” he said. He then proceeded to bear hug me, squeezing me so tight I could barely breathe.
Sven said he would be my Iceland guide for my Icelandic adventure. He lifted my backpack with one finger and directed me toward the van outside. Already waiting in the van were a troll, a hobbit, a gnome and a tired-looking Viking. They had just returned from a Las Vegas, Nevada drunken binge. “They’ll be a new Icelandic saga written by this sorry bunch I can assure you” said Sven, shaking his head.
As you leave the airport, you’re immediately transported to a region that’s renown for its volcanic history, evident by the massive lichen laden lava fields that cover the barren countryside.
Once on the road, Sven began describing our adventure itinerary. We would begin with some lively plundering and pillaging, followed by a nice hot soak in a natural geothermal spring. Later, for good fun, there would be sheep tossing and iceberg tossing contests followed by some invigorating volcano bungee diving into the active volcano Hekla. “A lovely roll in the devil’s bowels as they say”, said Sven, with a wry wink. Sven also said that Hekla was geologically past due to erupt so our timely volcano bungee diving visit could provide a unique opportunity for us to witness an eruption firsthand.
This remark evoked nervous stares among me and the boys. Sven continued, stating that we’d obviously be quite hungry after an active day’s activities so a hearty dinner was planned. The meal consisted of herring, putrid shark (an Icelandic delicacy), a lightly marinated sheep’s head, and a raw potato, all washed down with a bucket of Viking beer. Prior to this delicious dinner event we will have traveled many miles across snow-capped mountains, desolate god-forsaken highland deserts and lava fields, to work up a hearty appetite. I said I was hungry now and didn’t we just pass a Subway sandwich shop?
Our van was now entering Iceland’s modern city and capital, Reykjavik, which seemed to perk up the boys in the back of the van as the lively plundering and pillaging would be commencing soon. I thanked Sven profusely for this grand adventure Iceland tour he offered however, and against much protest by Sven and the boys, I said I’d prefer to explore Iceland on my own and create my own adventure.
I did have my camping gear after all. Sven shrugged, then grinned, saying “I should have expected as much from a man with Viking blood flowing through his veins. You have to make your own course. Alright Mike, enjoy, and we’ll be seeing you!” Sven bellowed, and handed me a folded piece of paper as the van pulled away from the curb entrance to the Reykjavik campground. I unfolded the piece of paper and read the scribbled phrases on the page:
A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. – John Steinbeck
I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Before I left for this journey, people asked me why I was traveling to Iceland. I said I hadn’t been there before.
During my month’s travels in Iceland, I would discover the obvious: Iceland is this raw uncut jewel. An island of such varied landscapes each scene a composition in sheer natural beauty. There’s rarely a moment as you travel along the open highway, paved or otherwise, that your eyes aren’t mesmerized by the dramatic scenery.
Before I left for Iceland, I envisioned a landscape bleak, barren, lacking in colorful flora and abundant in ice and snow. A land only Vikings and polar bears would love. At least that’s what I would have envisioned if I listened to popular opinion which fortunately I never do.
Instead Iceland offered golden sand beachfronts, dramatic black sand coastlines with green grass and bountiful wildflower laced cliffs, snow-capped mountains, abundant waterfalls, some that challenged the world’s greatest waterfalls grandeur and intensity, massive green valleys and crystalline blue fjords, volcanic craters of every shape and color, bubbling geysers and mud pools, bright reddish orange ryolite canyons, and lava rock landscapes covered in emerald green lichen splendor.
Of course, as you travel across the highlands, you definitely find barren, desolate windswept topography, a no man’s land lunar frontier, interspersed with snow-capped volcanoes and snowmelt raging rivers. Yet even here the occasional shocking pink desert plant or lichen finds a haven on a summer day.
And yes, there is ice and snow, even during the shortened summer season, concentrated on Iceland’s three major massive icefields, where glaciers, iceberg lagoons, and snoring volcanoes live.
Often those snoring volcanoes awaken. Only a day before I left, a section of Iceland’s main road, Route 1, along the South Coast east of VIk was washed away by glacial melted waters caused by volcanic rumblings under the icecap surface, stranding travelers in either direction. Only two months prior, a major volcanic eruption from Mt Grimsvotn occurred under the massive Vatnajokull icefield, sending ash plumes for miles across the Icelandic landscape and across the Atlantic Ocean toward continental Europe. Nature was active here.
My initial plans to purchase a circumnavigating Circle Road bus pass would hence be interrupted, due to the washed out bridge while a workcrew hastily began repairs. An interior highland bus route was also currently closed due to late June snowmelt flooding. So my first few days in Reykavik I spent exploring the city and devising an alternative travel itinerary. A plan was forged to begin my travels on Iceland’s western edge, across the Snaefellsness Peninsula and the more remote Westfjords. I wonder if I’ll run into Sven and the boys?
To Be Continued…
2ND POST: SNAEFELLSNES AND WESTFJORDS
The crashing waves brought more shimmering smooth black rocks to my feet, their rolling movement sounding like a castanet chorus. I picked up a perfectly round-shaped one, gently tossing it around in my hand as I gazed across the seemingly endless ocean horizon.
Standing on this black sand beach, at Snaefellsnes Peninsula’s furthest western edge, I imagined the Vikings 1000 years ago standing on this same beach. Just down the coast, a grave site marked the remains of a former Viking, a chieftain perhaps, who, like Eric the Red, and his son, Leif Ericsson, must have gazed across this same ocean, eyes filled with wanderlust, thinking about unknown lands and adventure ahead. Greenland was just a mere 150 miles away from this point. Behind me, adding more powerful mojo to this special place, sat the massive snow-capped volcano Mt. Snaefellsnes (Snaefelljokull), its spiritual and physical presence felt throughout the peninsula’s western region. Grotesque, hand-shaped volcanic lava boulders spewed from Snaefelljokull inner core stood on the shore like proud earthly sentinels, legions to their master Snaefelljokull. This brooding, mysterious volcano, was the inspirational setting for Jules Verne’s novel Journey To The Center of the Earth, the entry point for his main characters’ incredible journey downward to the earth’s inner core.
My journey to this beach proved less arduous. The first two and a half days in Iceland I spent getting my bearings; acquainting myself with Reykjavik, checking bus schedules and weather forecasts, road conditions and food sources, until the time to move on could wait no longer. Whether my first arrival point is Capetown, Quito, Bangkok, or Kathmandu, now here in Reykjavik, this personal travel acclimation pattern stays the same. By Day 4…..I’m busting loose, venturing inland. Fortunately as I departed on the 8am sharp bus for Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the clouds parted and for the next five days I was treated to warm sunny blue skies.
A short drive north from Reykjavik, Snaefellsnes Peninsula offered a stunning panoramic feast: captivating prehistoric volcanic landscapes, lush green valleys, majestic snow-capped mountains and dramatic pristine coastlines, with only the occasional glimpse of civilization. I couldn’t possibly read a book while I was on the bus. The passing scenery was too mesmerizing. Small wonder Iceland has such a strong appeal for the outdoor adventurer; certainly the last frontier in Europe.
You get a good humorous sense you’re in a slightly less populated region when you arrive at a scheduled bus stop, for the bus transfer to Stykkisholmur, further north or points west along the peninsula and the “bus stop” is only a gravel pullover with nothing but volcanic desolate landscape for your vast panoramic view. Not even a signpost.
On the peninsula, I stayed in Grundarfjordur, a very picturesque fishing village, open to the sea and dwarfed by the surrounding stoic snow-capped mountains. Here in Grundarfjordur I met the Viking descendants, big, stocky fishermen, enjoying a hearty lunch buffet at the lone town restaurant. No fish or sheep heads; simply all you can eat chicken, potatoes, vegetables and broccoli soup. I. like they, ate several portions.
Iceland is a hiker’s and photographer’s dream. Leaving the restaurant, and walking the few yards down the coastal road to the village outskirts, it was so easy to simply start hiking upward across an open, lush, moss-laden volcanic hillside, past crystalline blue streams, waterfalls, until eventually coming to a snow-capped mountain amphitheater which guarded seven waterfalls and a band of wild horses. Didn’t I see this image in a Maxwell Parish painting? A breathtaking scene….
As a hiker, while Iceland may lack the dangers presented in other wilderness regions such as ferocious animals lurking in the wilderness, there does exist an unexpected attacker, the arctic tern. Like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, the white arctic terns, without any provocation, initiate their aggressive dive-bombing raids upon the unsuspecting human who dares walk near their alleged territory, screeching bloody murder on their approach to your scalp. I thought the attacks were personal until later I witnessed other poor souls running through the fields flinging their hands madly trying to deflect the feathery aggressors.
Although the mountains still sported snow, as a result from a colder, wetter than expected June, a woman told me that the Snaefellsness Peninsula region had so little snowfall this winter that to support their winter ski season they had to artificially create snow. Really?! We’re only several hundred miles from Greenland and the Arctic Circle. Here again is another indication that climate change is affecting everyone.
Before venturing northward by ferry to the Westfjords, I stayed at a camping site in Stykkisholmur, another colorful fishing village. Here was the furthest north I’d traveled thus far and I was thoroughly enjoying the energizing properties brought forth by the summer midnight sun. Close to midnight the campground and the surrounding mountains were still lit by bright sunlight. I’d already hiked around, was still taking pictures, reading my book, etc., still wide awake thanks to the psychological positive effects of the midnight sun. So too were the noisy school girls in the tent next to mine as well as the Icelandic retirees excitedly engrossed in a traditional Icelandic game. The game involved team members throwing a block of wood across the grass at other blocks of wood, trying to knock them down. Alcohol helped.
I’m guessing the game originated from Vikings passing through England who came across Stonehenge, and began throwing the massive stones at each other. Alcohol helped.
Icelandic folklore, embodied in Icelandic sagas, is rich in mythology and colorful, melodramatic stories. Human strengths and foibles, sins, loves, and testy family feuds overflowed from these sagas long before Shakespeare wrote his first word. The Westfjords’ surreal, mysterious natural formations, its haunting beauty, and deep isolation spawned many a tale and a mystical belief in the “hidden people” or huldufolk, known as hobbits, trolls, elves, and gnomes. Tolkien was inspired by the Icelandic sagas for his Lord of The Rings writings.
The belief in the “hidden people” still runs deep, as a local news article spoke about the Westfjord townspeople who offered appeasements to the huldufolk, in response to a construction project that was disturbing their territorial turf. And, of course, they are real. I hung out in a van with them earlier remember.
In the Westfjords, even sheep take a vacation. Here, along the long windswept coastlines, sheep take a vacation from the typical grass eating drudgeries and simply hang out at the beach. Golden sand beaches too, warm and sunny, offering superb Atlantic Ocean views mere miles from Greenland and the Arctic Circle. You also find the truly intrepid travelers roaming the Westfjords gravel roads and countryside; the long distance cyclists and backpackers, couples young and old. Even in the summer months, it takes an adventurous spirit to wander this extra wild Icelandic region. Carry plenty of food and a sturdy tent!
Back at that black sand beach on the Snaefellnes Peninsula, I scanned the endless ocean, my eyes squinting from the sun’s sparkling reflection off the waves . At that moment, I could have sworn I saw a Viking longboat rowing past the peninsula’s jagged rocks. Was that Sven standing on the bow yelling commands to the troll, hobbit, gnome, and the tired looking Viking? Were there also several sheep on board? The scene looked chaotic, with some rowing backward while others rowed forward. Suddenly, still squinting, I saw Sven grin and waved in my direction. I waved back and just as suddenly the longboat disappeared behind the jagged rocks.
3RD POST: ICELAND’S DRAMATIC SOUTH COAST
You’d think the most challenging situations a traveler might encounter in Iceland would involve adverse weather conditions or difficult terrain issues. Not me. My greatest challenges involved food, and the subsequent lengths I went to find some.
For a touch of urban sophistication, one needs to look no further than modern, progressive Reykjavik, and that included its downtown restaurants. Fine dining experiences, albeit at great expense, were available, with a handsome assortment of international cuisine selections.
While I expected herring vendors throughout downtown Reykjavik, to my amazement, I discovered a New York style pizzeria, next to a Thai restaurant, next to a pastry shop, next to a cheeseburger and fries stand. Even hot dogs sold at hot dog stands were a Reykjavik staple.
Once away from the big city, however, a problem arose for me in the smaller towns throughout Iceland; the scarcity of food.
The town bus stops were often at a gas station/ convenience store. At the convenience store, the bus driver’s timetable allocated time for a small break, giving folks the opportunity to grab a bite to eat, light a cigarette or find a bathroom. To my chagrin, the average gas station mini-mart was only stocked with junk food; potato chips, candy, hardly anything nutritious and nourishing except for the occasional yogurt. I vowed for my remaining bus trips to pack pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches…. survival food!
Skaftafell National Park, located along Iceland’s remote southern coast, was the backdrop for one particularly adventurous food search.
The park to its credit did not have the usual commercial trappings found at the entrances to many American national parks. Nor did they charge an entrance fee. This was true for other outdoor national sites as well which was a very refreshing approach I thought by the Icelandic government toward the public lands system concept. The citizen’s public lands should be free to the people. Not like in the States where our state and national park fees keep getting raised without any added benefit in return.
Skaftafell only had a visitor center and a tiny cafeteria that offered a few assorted pre-made sandwiches and pastries, none of which were available until noon. For the midday meal, I must admit the cafeteria cook did serve a delicious bowl of homemade Icelandic meat soup. However my stomach cannot wait until noon. Thus, for several mornings during my park stay, I would crawl out of my tent around 6am, shower and begin my six mile round trip hike from the national park to the nearest village, which had a hotel and truck stop diner.
The hotel breakfast buffet began at 7am. I always arrived promptly, happily paid, and proceeded to calm my growling stomach.
The hike was the highlight. In that early hour, no souls stirred at the campsite, or the main road. There were no cars, no people in sight, simply vast open country. The air was crisp, not too cold, as I walked down the open road, my thoughts comforted by the peaceful, ubiquitous silence. The mornings tended to be free of clouds, before the rains rolled in, so I would be fortunate enough to see the dramatic mountains and glaciers that encompassed Skaftafell National Park in full majesty.
Returning one evening from the truck stop diner, the weather changed abruptly. Clear skies swiftly vanished, the winds whipped into frenzy and the sheets of rain that poured across the mountains now poured over me. Drenched, chilled, I could still smile as I thought about that great all-you-can-eat homemade dinner I just ate. Yes, it was worth the hike!
The journey to Skaftafell offered amazing scenery. Despite the coastal road closing, there was an alternative inland route that still reached Skaftafell. The route went behind the Myrdals glacier, past Mount Hekla, across the rugged volcanic highlands to Landmannalaugar, and eventually back toward the coast. Only a few rivers to ford said the bus driver, that’s all!
Mount Hekla rises above a volcanic desert plain. She sat quietly under fair skies as we passed. Since Hekla’s ten year eruption cycle was past due, the mountain’s slumber was comforting, however titillating the prospect of witnessing a volcanic eruption might be. I wonder if Sven and the boys were inside Mount Hekla now, bungyjumping?
Hekla’s potential danger would not deter Ridley Scott’s latest movie production, which was being filmed not far from Hekla’s shadow. Did his star Charlize Theron feel the same way and why wasn’t I called in as a movie extra?! Our bus passed the gravel track that led to the movie set. I could see the attraction since the surrounding prehistoric terrain presented a great otherworldly atmosphere for the Alien prequel they were filming.
Our halfway point was at Landmannalaugar, a Land of The Lost multihued landscape. Most travelers departed the bus here, beginning a four day cross country hike to Porsmork, traversing a geothermal geological odyssey in the process. I hiked for a few hours enthralled by the glassy obsidian boulders, the rhyolite orange canyons and the hissing geothermal steam pots. Throw in a chocolate river and a blueberry hill and I would have been in a Willy Wonka / Dali collaborative dream!
Continuing on our Icelandic magic carpet ride, the clouds gathered and the drenching rains arrived, as our bus drove through a volcanic region covered in lichen/moss vegetation that resembled an emerald green velvet carpet.
Once back on the main Circle Road, I noticed traffic traveling west toward the collapsed bridge. At the next bus stop I inquired about the bridge condition. A bus driver driving that direction said the bridge had been repaired several days ago, an incredible four day turnaround by the road construction crew, and traffic was once again flowing freely in either direction. Kudos to Icelandic ingenuity and to the obvious pressure applied by the Iceland commerce and tourism departments since this did occur during the height of tourist season.
The southern coast is an isolated region, populated by the occasional village and small farmhouse. Nature dominates this territory and over the centuries, through volcanic eruptions, has periodically decimated communities, encroaching and engulfing their land in lava and poisonous ash. As you drive along the southern coast, you see turf houses, a typical farmer’s house.
The houses are built low to the ground, foundations and walls constructed with stone, low entryways and roofs covered in grass and sod. Could these be the original hobbit homes? To keep warm, the cows were usually housed underneath the homes, providing an additional bodily heat source during the prolonged winter months. Apparently,before geothermal energy was harnessed as the major energy source for the majority of Icelanders, cow methane gas heating was all the rage a century ago!
From a naturalists’ viewpoint, there were bonuses to living in this region. Every house seemed to have its own waterfall, a blacksand beachfront view and even the occasional glacier.
4TH POST: ICELAND’S NORTHERN FRONTIER
The sea cliffs were alive in activity. Hundreds of puffins and seagulls crisscrossed the sky, the puffins carrying their fish catch of the day from the sea and delivering their food to their cliffside nests. A comical colorful bird, the puffin has hybrid features, sharing a penguin body, a parrot’s face, and bright red web feet that reminded me of the booby birds seen on the Galapagos Island. They’re also a delight to watch in their natural habitat. Awkward swimmers, better at flight, and judging from the silvery minnows hanging from their mouths, excellent fishermen.
Here on Grimsey Island, northern Iceland’s furthest point north, the birds far outnumbered the people. And I, by arriving on this island, had officially crossed the Arctic Circle. I know because I have the “official” certificate to prove the moment!
The journey to Iceland’s northern outpost began with another prompt bus leaving the main Reykjavik depot. Starting from Reykjavik, I chose the more adventurous bus route to Iceland’s northern region; crossing the wild highlands. Prior to the highlands region, we stopped at two popular natural attractions; the stokkur geyser basin and the spectacular waterfall Gulfoss. The word geyser originated in Iceland, named for the stokkur geothermal hot water spout. Sitting next to the old geyser were a bunch of old geezers, also venting a little steam. The most impressive geyser rises every six minutes, forming a bright aquamarine bubble caldron, before bursting skyward with a strong vaporous spray, then as quickly receding back to the tectonic depths below.
Gulfoss is this thunderous, massive waterfall, set against a windy barren primeval backdrop. It’s multilevel size and power rivals other famous falls I’ve seen around the world including America’s Niagra and Zimbabwe’s Victoria.
After Gulfoss the road turns to gravel and the sky grows darker as we cross the remote highlands. Here in the highlands, the folklore is as bold and brass as the landscape. This is Iceland’s Wild West, legendary tales told of outlaws and highwaymen, banished souls and magical trolls. Separating fact from fiction here is as tricky as deciphering the true story to Billy the Kid and Jesse James, embellishing being a key component to Icelandic popular culture. The most identifiable outlaw dates back to the 18th century to Eyvindur of the Mountains and his wife Halla. They are to have survived living in the highlands for over twenty years, staying one step from the law that sought them. Scanning the barren volcanic landscape it’s understandable that for anyone to survive the highland’s harshness, their immortalized legendary status would be raised.
My bus carried today’s intrepid travelers, mostly German and French travel groups, who with backpack in tow, would periodically be dropped off at a gravel crossroad. The crossroad would lead them to some distance glacier lake or mountain pass in which to hike to and pitch their tent; a cold fierce wind encircling the landscape. Did I mention this was summertime in Iceland? Though tempted to join them I decided to continue on to the northern coast. One such stop offered a great chance to explore the multitude and multihued geothermal hot spots that punctuated the volcanic landscape. The percolating hot pools and fierce cold winds created the perfect melodic pitch to this otherworldly wilderness scenery.
By mid-afternoon the highlands gave way to lush valleys and mountains that in conjunction with the numerous icemelt-fed rivers would simultaneously weave their way down to the coast. As I watched the passing countryside, the occasional farm house would come into view, as with the occasional sheep or horses grazing, providing a very serene feeling. By evening’s end,we few remaining passengers arrived at Iceland’s next biggest city Akureyri.
For a touch of urban sophistication in northern Iceland, one needs to look no further than Reykjavik’s budding smaller cousin Akureyri. And, for the steepest hike to a campground from a bus station, Akureyri wins the prize hands down. The stretch from the coastal harbor to the campground is like San Francisco on steroids. Good exercise after a long day on a bus.
Flanked by mountains, Akureyri rests at the end of a long fjord bay. The fjord bay extends northward toward the Arctic Ocean. A prosperous town with a population at barely 20,000, Akureyri offers considerable cultural amenities, as well as a great communal pool. Icelanders do love their communal hot pools. They also love certain other things which explains the near comical continue flow of baby strollers through the main street.
Akureyri serves as a good central hub for northern Iceland exploration, including Lake Myvatn, Husavik, and Grimsley Island. For volatile, spectacular natural geography, the Lake Myvatn region is a perfect destination. Every imaginable volcanic geological feature is on natural display here where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. The landscape is so open for the casual hiker, no restrictions. I’d walk along the volcanic rock and spongy moss when suddenly I’d see steam coming out of the ground! Continue walking a little further then I’d see another bubbly spot, then another. Hope the ground doesn’t suddenly open up, I thought!
Of course, the Lake Myvatn region presented another food challenge for me; finding a breakfast source. Fortunately my morning hike from the Lake Myvatn campsite was only a two and a half mile round trip hike to the Cow Café for breakfast. A working dairy farm, in the family for generations, the café was uniquely constructed such that only a glass partition separated a section of the café from the dairy barn stalls and milk production operation. A very clean, efficient operation as the cows go from stall, to milking machine, to the outdoors for grazing, all while I eat my breakfast and enjoy my morning coffee. Very cool.
To the north lies Husavik, a charming fishing / whalewatching town, with snow-capped mountains across the bay for its view. In the harbor, several beautiful wooden schooner ships are docked alongside fishing boats and trawlers.
In Iceland, as with virtually everywhere I’ve traveled, the locals have a saying “If you don’t like the current weather, wait an hour and it will change.”Yeah, yeah, ok you say. Well, in Iceland it’s really true, and in Husavik it’s closer to every 15 minutes!
Fortunately, I spotted a break in the clouds leading toward open water so I immediately bought a ticket for the next whalewatching tour. I figured the whales would be more inclined to surface to enjoy the sunshine and I was correct. We spotted a humpback whale that seemed quite comfortable with our presence. Several days later a blue whale, the largest mammal in the world, was also spotted. Puffins were seen everywhere.
The cold rains arrived as we pulled back into the harbor. I scurried over to food stand for some excellent fish and chips and a hot cup of coffee.
The clouds finally parted by evening’s end so I spent Saturday night in Husavik at an outdoor patio bar with the seafaring locals. A local musician/singer played 60s / 70s tunes while everyone laughed and drank numerous pints of Viking beer.
Several more days would pass before the dark low rain clouds moved eastward, creating a sunny opportunity for me to venture north, and catch a ferryboat excursion to Grimsley Island.
The voyage to Grimsley Island had two tales; choppy waves in route, calm seas on the return, the latter providing ample time for reflection. Grimsley Island’s prominence as an Arctic Circle crossing destination is so wonderfully low-key; no neon signs, massive gift shops or giant arrows marking the occasion. Only an unobtrusive sign and two nice older ladies who will offer an “official” document to signify the occasion.
Returning to the mainland, the ominous snow-capped jagged mountains along Iceland’s northern coast gradually appear on the horizon. How adventurous and foreboding this horizon must have looked to the first arriving Vikings a thousand plus years ago. Little had changed.
5TH POST: REYKJAVIK AND PINGVELLIR
When I mention Iceland back home, I’m often met with querulous facial expressions. Curiosity however is piqued, the ensuing questions familiar: What are the people like, what do they eat, what is their economic means, is Iceland the green country or the snow-capped country (a reference to a distant high school geography class lecture they heard that helped distinguish Greenland from Iceland). One Swedish fellow I met in Reykjavik relayed a conservation he had about Iceland with a young American girl back in the States. “Could one drive to Iceland?” she naively yet honestly asked. Yes, our American educational system is on the decline.
Here are one person’s humble observations during his month-long visit to Iceland to hopefully answer some of these questions. Icelanders are kind, considerate, good humored, efficient, clean, blonde but not all blonde, very community-minded, and except for their community pools strict guidelines and procedures, tend to lean toward flexibility rather than rigidity as far as strict rule adherence goes.
I have seen no street panhandlers, a first for any country where I’ve traveled, and a sense of calm and safety permeates the city streets. Other notable characteristics include a trusting atmosphere as exemplified by a campground payment honor system and an appreciation for the public good demonstrated by a national parklands free access policy (no park fees).
Is Iceland really a modern, progressive society? Well, they have a mayor who thinks he’s a stand-up comedian and have recently elected a president who is a lesbian. A live and let live attitude especially in the country’s capital seems to exist. In Reykjavik, the Gay Pride parade in early August is celebrated with gusto and frivolity in the downtown streets, while fashion chic, wildly individualistic attire and an active art and coffeehouse scene all contribute to a rather progressive societal tone.
The standard of living among Icelanders still appears quite high as living costs are still considerably expensive in Iceland. I can only imagine how expensive Iceland must have been before the financial crisis struck the Iceland financial system over three years ago, hurting their economy. As one gentleman fisherman sardonically put it, “the city people have to live with only one Mercedes now”.
Iceland has a very small population, slightly above 300,000 people, or as Kurt Vonnegut once described this small nation, there’s “more people in his hometown Rochester, New York than all of Iceland.” Yet, Iceland’s economies are varied and innovative. By harnessing the abundant hydroelectric and geothermal power sources, Iceland’s renewable energy industry provides over 70 percent of all the nation’s primary energy needs.
Iceland has explored the feasibility of exporting hydroelectric energy via submarine cable to mainland Europe and also actively seeks to expand its power-intensive industries, including aluminum and ferro-silicon smelting plants. Local environmentalists have expressed serious concern with these particular activities.
Other economies include the fishing industry, woolen goods, machinery and electronic equipment for the fishing industry, software production, biotechnology, and ecotourism. Of course, I witnessed rapid expansion in the milk production industry at the Cow Café!
This small island nation is also a European country and a member of NATO. So what if there are more Icelandic horses than people, these Icelanders are on the map baby!
And speaking of maps, I met an Icelandic woman whose stepfather makes Iceland’s maps, which for a country that loves its maps, must keep him extremely busy! I’m a map lover traveler myself so after thirty days seeing an Iceland map in every hotel lobby, hostel, campground, visitor center, truck stop, bathroom, restaurant, bus station, etc., I had Iceland’s geography and topography so memorized I could walk across the country blindfolded. No GPS for me!
And speaking of babies, that statistical population figure might need to be adjusted higher, considerably higher soon judging by one very noticeable item you see on the Reykjavik and Akureyri sidewalks… a baby stroller. I do believe making babies is also experiencing a production boom in Iceland, for in just one hour’s span while I sat at a Reykjavik coffeehouse I saw over two dozen baby strollers past by my window.
Strong-minded independent thinking may also be an Icelandic trait. Two such indications are these: first, Icelanders have an affinity and affection for Kurt Vonnegut books, the few English language novels you find in a local bookstore and second, the recent pots and pans peaceful revolution, a response by the citizens several years ago to the corrupt and incompetent handling of the financial system by the politicians and bankers. The movement helped oust the sitting president during the financial crisis and elect a reformist, the current woman president.
And too, to survive Iceland’s winter months, which are many, in the rural countryside you have to be a strong individual and adept at survival skills.
Many classic stories have been inspired by these real life Icelandic characters. Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is most likely based on an Icelandic fisherman and even the movie Bate’s Motel or at least some other contemporary horror movie may have its inspirational origins in the story of a 17th century innkeeper on the remote Snaefellsness Peninsula who over the course of forty years, murdered and buried many of his guests in the backyard!
Whether its Iceland’s harsh climate or northern isolation, few animals are indigenous to Iceland. Marine animals are the most common; birds, fish, whales, etc. The sturdy small horse known as an Icelandic horse originated with the early Viking settlers migrating from Norway and has remained a pure breed, easily adapting to its new environment. Domestic animals such as sheep and dairy cows are plentiful too. To the very remote northern reaches the beautiful white fox can be seen and the occasional lost polar bear who stumbled upon a floating Greenland iceberg will arrive on Iceland’s shore. Regretfully his life usually ends quickly at the hands of a local with a rifle.
Iceland is considered one of the most egalitarian nations (although I’m sure that same polar bear would beg to differ). This commendable recognition probably has its historical roots in the democratic origins of Pingvellir.
Pingvellir is a much revered locale in Iceland, a place of great historical, cultural and geological significance. Over a thousand years ago, the original settlers gathered on the vast grassy plains, ate a nice picnic lunch, and established the first democratic elected parliament, Alpingi. This event took place centuries before such notions rooted themselves throughout the rest of Europe. The Viking chieftains comprised the Alpingi, or Assembly, and maintained Iceland’s Commonwealth rule for over 300 years.
Christianity as the official Iceland religion was also determined here at Pingvellir. After much handwringing, grumbling and I’m sure a fair amount of arm wrestling, the final decision was given to the revered head chieftain and like some official at a highly contentious soccer match, he stoically announced the religious winner for Iceland to be Christianity. Much grumbling and rejoicing ensued. That said paganism did come in a close second.
Pingvellir continues its prominence as a central meeting place for important political and social occasions, as well as center stage for international events, including Reagan and Gorbachev’s historic meeting and, a visit from the pope celebrating a thousand years of practicing Christianity.
Geologically, Pingvellir is a remarkable region. Here too the two tectonic plates, the North American and the European, join, yet their volatile junction rests incongruously with the otherwise pastoral grass plains and placid lake surroundings. You can visually see the earth splitting along the craggy fissure demarcation.
I hope through this entry and my others, I’ve answered those Iceland questions, and a few more. The trip was a great one and I shall be back again someday; in the summertime of course. As my plane rose past Iceland’s remaining coastal outline I could see a small boat being towed out to sea by what looked like a humpback whale. Was that Sven on that boat waving?
To Be Continued…????