We promised to take Mr B’s parents away when they came to Europe this year. Being who we are, we suggested Iceland; after all, there’s nothing quite like taking someone from Australian autumn and introducing them to Arctic spring. This isn’t cruelty; it’s educational. After some uncertainty on account of a spat of poor health (mine), I booked us late flights for a 5-night escape to the northern edge of Europe.
Iceland is one of those places that looms large in the imagination: glaciers and volcanoes, vikings and poetry. It’s not as cold as we expect when we land at 1am, our flight delayed by the worrying news that the pilot wants an engineer to check it out before flying home. Code for pizza, assures one of my friends on Facebook. As far as we can tell, it means the climate controls are broken: the cabin is much too warm. I stare out over the wing at the pinprick of street lights, tracking our progress by the roundabouts of Milton Keynes, the sprawling glare of Birmingham.
We catch up with sunset as we fly, the horizon burning dark red until we are half-way to Reykjavik in our hire car. There’s not enough light to get a sense of the landscape (we finally see it on our way home: a thick layer of lava more brutal than any other we encountered), just the silhouettes of small settlements along the shore. Our hotel is welcoming, but holds a surprise: there is a man already asleep in our room as I let myself in.
“This is not your room,” he growls as I fumble with the light switch. British, exhausted, I back out quickly and return to reception, where the charming and confused girl goes to check the next room is empty before she gives me another key. Next morning we discover our new room overlooks a building site. The builders are awake much earlier than we intended to be, but there’s a lot to be said for triple glazing.
Breakfast disagrees with me, but I travelled well-prepared after recent illness. Still, it’s nearly lunch time before we finally venture out to explore the capital. Reykjavik is home to over a third of the country’s population (another third live in the immediate environs), putting it on par with Exeter or Norwich (the Greater Reykjavik area is on par with my local London borough). It feels more like a country town than a capital city, charming and low-profile, until you see the cathedral that dominates the central hill-top and the magnificent concert hall overlooking the harbour.
We enjoy coffee and cake in a sheltered corner near the harbour, watching boats undergoing maintenance in dry and wet docks (an inevitability when travelling with engineers) and failing to discover the nature of the man made green hill on the breakwater*.
Hallgrimskirkja, built in the 1970s. Modern Icelandic architecture reflects the basalt columns of the lava field.
The cathedral instantly becomes my second-favourite in the world. I’ve never been in a religious building so light, airy and welcoming. Like my favourite Durham, it resonates with the faith of its builders without making that faith a barrier to others who treat it with respect. Unlike Durham, it is stark, Scandinavian simplicity that rules here – and there’s a spectacular view of snow-capped mountains through the windows behind the altar. I fail to take any photos without an illuminating finger of light that makes everything magical. The font is a block of glass or perspex that looks like a core from a glacier. I hope the water is a bit warmer.
We belatedly realise how warm the sun is as we wander the streets nearby, enjoying the corregated houses and the daffodils only just coming into bloom this far north. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by the wind. Our faces have acquired a glow; we have managed to get sunburnt at 12C degrees (less with wind chill; I’m still wrapped in a scarf and fleece coat). We decide to return to the hotel for the car and drive up to Perlan for the view across the city.
Walked out after our late night, we decide to continue our 4-wheeled exploration and head south on Route 1 in search of the hinterlands. They start almost immediately, the lava rippling up to the ring road. It is light and airy, scoria lava under a layer of mosses and lichen that turns the black stone grey-green. The occasional bird calls overhead, but there’s no other signs of life. It is eerie and haunted, odd formations catching the corner of the eye, black shapes that make it easier to believe in the huldufolk and elves that people the Icelandic imagination.
An unusual sculpture looms on the right: two burnt-out car wrecks suspended on poles as a warning to others. It’s oddly mediaeval, and as unsettling as is intended. The hills are steaming as we approach them, billowing clouds issuing from the rocks and condensing in the early evening air. A geothermal energy plant is doing good trade, but there’s plenty more untapped vents to give us a sharp scent of rotten eggs as we crest the brow. The steep incline down into Hveragerdi reveals the glacial past for the first time, the black hills dipping down onto a green plain of ponies and greenhouses taking advantage of the hot soils.
We wind our way down to the sea at Eyrarbakki, admiring the older homes and the black basalt beach. The small town feels sleepy and deserted; it’s unclear how many people still live here rather than keep a summer house. Iceland’s only high-security prison sits on the outskirts; it houses about a third of Iceland’s total prison population – just 45 men (Iceland only has one prison that accepts women; in spite of it’s tiny capacity of 12 prisoners it is rarely full, so it also takes men with no history of violence).
Driving along the coast is a lot like being in Holland. A low dyke safeguards the flat fields from the sea, and the fields are cut with channels that I guess are to handle the snowmelt. No cows or tulips here though, just a few ponies and the occasional sheep.
Further round we find Þorlákshöfn, and decide we don’t understand Iceland. Every house seems to have a double garage, but there’s no obvious town centre or source of employment until we find the harbour. Even here, there doesn’t seem to be enough going on to sustain the households we’ve driven past. I eventually determine that the harbour is one of just three on the south coast, jumping off point for the ferry to the volcanically active Westman Islands (Surtsey is only about 50 years old; 10 years later, Heimaey was nearly wiped out when Eldfell erupted). There is apparently more shipping than we could spot.
Our first real brush with Icelandic cuisine that evening is a pleasure: flaking white cod decked with toasted almonds and a creamy sauce, rich lamb fillet that – as promised – tastes different to British lamb. Sweeter, softer, richer. We don’t yet realise that every evening will be a choice of lamb or fish, although this is no hardship, any more than the ubiquitous (and ubiquitously tasty) skyr cake is a difficult sell night after night.
The next day we head inland along Iceland’s most-trodden tourist route: the Golden Circle. As resident travel agent and navigator, I take us in by the southerly route so we can see the scoria craters of the Grimsnes lava field. We stop at Kerið, the caldera home to a lake that begins to glow blue as the skies clear. The surrounding rocks are red as the iron-rich fields of Western Australia, but the ground looks melted, colourful rocks spattered like paint. Between the difficult light and the intermittent rain, I fail miserably at getting any decent photos, but thankfully the internet is full of them.
Further north, the lava softens into fields of ponies and the mountains loom closer and higher, the snowy cap of Eyjafjallajokul on the southern horizon (no eruptions, thankfully, although we see plenty of joke tshirts trying to teach us to pronounce it. The Icelandic sense of humour is overwhelmingly cheeky, and we enjoy it enormously. This is probably why they are home to the world’s only Phallological Museum, whose t-shirts include such blazons as ‘not for pussies’ and ‘we’ve got all the dicks’. Outside Iceland, only the Dutch would try to get away with this).
But the king and queen of Icelandic tourism remain the geysers at Geysir (not Icelandic for geyser, as it turns out, although it gives us the word) and the falls of Gullfoss. We discover that Icelandic tourist destinations are not as tacky nor the food as awful as their British and American counterparts, although we are glad to be early in the season. We are able to get ringside for Strokkur, currently the largest and most active geyser on the site, burbling happily away and erupting every 5 minutes. The smell is almost overpowering. Again, the internet has far better photos than I do – I was too entranced by the spectacle to snap an eruption.
Like Geysir, Gullfoss has been attracting tourists since the 19th century, in spite of British attempts to buy it and harness it for power in the early 20th century. Water thunders over the double falls and drops 30 metres around a bend, appearing to disappear into a crack in the earth that is largely obscured by the spray and the resultant rainbows. I’m delighted to say that practically no-one has successfully captured Gullfoss on camera; for all the beauty of the photographs out there, none of them really capture the impressive reality. It is self-evident that there can be no truth to the local legend of the shepherd who swam the Hvita above the falls to reach his beloved, although it is attested fact that at times the gorge overflows – given the volume of water hurling itself into the canyon in May, the idea is terrifying.
We drive back through Þingvellir and stop for a banana (rock and roll, eh), admiring the still beauty of the lake in contrast to the brutality with which the earth has ripped itself apart. The volcanic fissures tear down each side of the valley, long parallel gashes where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet (or rather split – they are drifting away from one another, making Iceland 2cm wider each year). This is currently a calm process, not one that allows lava to ooze to the surface, but the crumple zone is obvious nonetheless – as are the craters of the shield volcanoes to the north. We are assured that it is only a question of when this area will erupt back into life, not if. This is not exactly reassuring, but given my desire to see a volcanic eruption before I die (and yes, I realise that one could closely follow the other), I find it secretly exciting.
Rather more exciting (and not in a good way) is the road we take up the coast, or specifically, the 6km tunnel under Hvalfjordur. As it dives through hewn rock to dip 165m beneath the fjord, we first comment on the steep descent and then on the poor lighting. We’re still going down when my father-out-law starts to wonder aloud how it’s ventilated (badly, appears to be the honest answer). With a single tube, there’s traffic coming towards us across the solid white line, which doesn’t stop an impatient local from overtaking. Although there are occasional emergency alcoves big enough for trucks to pull into, there are no escape routes obvious (or in fact at all) nor much emergency equipment visible. We are safely ensconced in our unexpectedly luxurious guesthouse in Borgarnes when we read up on the tunnel and discover it has in fact failed its safety review and is classed one of the least safe in Europe. We start to wonder about alternative routes home (although in the end, we go back through the tunnel).
We eat that evening in a restaurant underneath one of two local museums dedicated to the Icelandic sagas. Iceland is the ancestral home of the Edda, which gave us the tales of Odin, Loki, Asgard and Valhalla, but has a broader tradition of sagas that relate events that supposedly happened during the early years of settlement in the 9th and 10th century. These settlement myths are rich in characters and bloodshed, illustrating the brutal and precarious realities of life in early Iceland without necessarily having a shred of truth to them – their heroes sometimes verge on superhuman, or in the case of Bardur of Snaefellsnes (left), are explicitly half-human (and half-giant in his case; he later becomes the guardian spirit of the Snaefellsnes peninsula).
The food is tasty, but it’s the cake that steals our hearts and has us call in on our return trip for lunch (a transparent excuse for more cake). The house special is a sort of trifle cake that involves sponge fingers, pears, cream, meringue and melted Snickers bars (it is very tasty, and surprisingly light), but we also share a blueberry skyr cake, a cinnamon raw cake and a dessert that combines more skyr with rye bread soup (this is better than it sounds).The evening light is entrancing. The tide is out, leaving gleaming sands to reflect the pale sky; at 10pm, it is still far too early for any hint of sunset, and it feels like early evening or possibly even late afternoon. A tribe of local kids (the pony tails making it hard to tell the boys from the girls; there are both on the field) are playing football at the beachfront sports ground: miss the goal and lose the ball, earning eternal unpopularity. Their elders are still relaxing in the heated pool. I suspect they all find our fleecy coats amusing – this is a very mild May evening by Icelandic standards, but it’s not even 10C.
The next morning we set off north to Snaefellsnes, a peninsula dominated by its backbone of volcanic mountains and the looming ice-crowned bulk of dormant Snaefellsjokul by the sea in the far west (the mountains shadows on the skyline above). We work our way up a valley flooded with scoria lava, the familiar grey-green lichen boulders and elf-shadows stalking us, pausing briefly to admire the rushing falls of Glanni, low but energetic, and possessed of a fish ladder that fascinates us – we hadn’t realised the Norðura was a salmon river.Our route cuts up mountain passes and through farming valleys, which is when we realise we’re in a country that clearly relies on dairy produce, but we haven’t seen a single cow. My mother-out-law is of dairy farming stock; the absence bothers her. We start seeing cows in the distance, only to admit they’re ponies as they get closer. The north coast affords us wonderful views across to the West Fjords, cold and breezy. There are no birds or whales to be seen, although both are regular visitors. Instead, we continue to look for cows.
Eventually, tucked into the top floor of a little restaurant in picturesque Stykkisholmur (where we decide that either there is a modern competition in church building, or that Iceland may be the only country still celebrating God through architecture), we importune our waitress.
“Oh yes, we have cows,” she assures us in an American accent. “I don’t know where they are… but my cousin has a farm, and they have a few cows. More sheep, of course, but cows. They will all be inside now. Yes, I’m sure, that’s it. They will be inside.”
Given it’s nearly June, we start to suspect that Icelandic cows may never see natural daylight, nor eat fresh grass. The fields we drive through look to be cultivated for hay, presumably to feed this invisible population. But as we bounce off the gravel track and back onto tarmac, the landscape and its people are clearly more geared for fish. Stykkisholmur itself still centres on its harbour, as do the other towns (each has at most 1000 inhabitants, reminding us of northern Scotland). The mountains have marched close to the sea here, and are heavily eroded with glacial striation familiar from the UK. We argue over whether they are still lava-formed (they are), and admire what turns out to be one of Iceland’s most famous rocks off the coast of Grundarfjordur, but fail to detour into the back streets to find the allotments where the elves live. We are more interested in getting to the end of the peninsula to see the volcano with the glacier on top.
The very idea sounds absurd, but it is quite common in Iceland. Unlike the others, Snaefellsjokul has been dormant for nearly 2000 years, and there is no steam or other signs of life to alarm us. Inevitably, the land at the end of the peninsula is covered in lava fields and dormant craters like Kerið. The day has run away from us, so we do no exploring, to my regret – I would have liked to find the boulders the young men of Dritvik used to prove they were strong enough to crew a boat, lifting them from the beach onto a rocky shelf: bungler (23kg), weakling (54kg), half-strength (100kg) and full-strength (154kg). Only those of half-strength or higher were permitted to fish. This sounds like the exaggeration of the sagas, but it’s impossible to find out whether it’s true. I’m starting to suspect that Icelanders still don’t let truth get in the way of a good story.
We settle into a very comfortable hotel on the edge of two national parks, and after dinner we pick our way through the Hellnahraun lava field along the coast to Arnarstapi, stopping on the beach to admire the seabirds in raucous residence at Badstofa cave in the bay. The path is punctuated with signs, names pointing unexplained into the lava. We cannot decide whether these are rock formations; at least one appears to point into a small grass clearing. The real sights are the sea cliffs, however. My camera fails to capture the archways cut into the cliff, the basalt like enormous collections of hexagonal spaghetti that have streamed downhill and solidified as they hit the sea. The archways are as impressive as that of Hallgrimskirkja, but home to flocks of seabirds that are highlighting the black rock with their droppings. The famous arch of Gatklettur, a free-standing rock with door and window, is less impressive to me. We walk home the long way round along the road, knees and ankles protesting from stumbling over lava.
The next day we take the south coast back through fields of grass and lava to Borgarnes for our second helping of amazing cake at Edduverold. Today she has made peanut butter cake, which I reluctantly share. We are soon back in Reykjavik, concocting elaborate plans for a dinner that will allow us to taste the weirder end of Icelandic cuisine. Sadly, my father-out-law is taken ill, so we spend a quiet evening worrying and learning about Icelandic medical care (although thankfully we don’t need it). Once he is feeling better, we leave him to sleep and walk through the capital on a Friday night like locals, sitting down to our dinner of Icelandic tapas well after 10pm. The party is just getting started as we make our way home, too tired and wearing too many layers to stay and play.
We finally visit the Harpa by the harbour on our last morning, bookending our trip with two spectacular examples of elevating architecture. Where Hallgrimskirkja is made of stone and shimmers with light, the Harpa is made of glass and embraces darkness: the interiors are made of polished black concrete.
Basalt column inspired glazing units create a muted light and frame harbour views; the black interior is cool in every sense.
The concert hall almost went unfinished, being only a hole in the ground when the Icelandic economy crashed (and being a banker’s pet project). In spite of the enormous cost and the unlikelihood that the building will ever pay its way, the government decided to complete it with public money. I would love to attend a concert here (or even spend an afternoon drinking coffee and watching the light play on the waves); it is an unfeasibly beautiful and peaceful space. We spend as long as we can, delighted to discover the window cleaners are in action that morning, dangling from ropes over the harbour that whip out beneath them in the wind.And then it is time to go home. My travel companion has been Sarah Moss’ autobiographical Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, an entirely middle-class English academic’s experience of living in Reykjavik for a year as the country struggled to come to terms with the aftermath of the economic collapse. Like her, I’m not ready to go yet. Like her, I’m sure I’ll be back.
* It turns out that the bump on the breakwater is an art installation for drying fish. I didn’t notice the shed on top of it, although the hill was lushly green with spring grass.