Ice, Sagas and Volcanoes
There can be few countries in the world that can choose to artificially heat a beach for six months of the year but then Iceland is not your average sort of place. It's a country of volcanoes, glaciers, lava rock deserts and towering mountains: the land that inspired Tolkien's epics. Icelanders themselves are a fiercely proud and independent group of people who share a love of hot-tubbing and telling tall tales to tourists. We were pretty lucky to get to spend four days in their fantastic country and we made the most of it.
Our first full day in Reykjavik saw us spending some quality time at the local outdoor swimming pool. Icelanders, unlike their European cousins, prefer to relax after work in hot tub, rather than with a pint, and if it's outdoors then all the better. The ambient air temperature might have been 2 degrees but the hot tubs came in grades between 30-45 degrees. Plus there was a hot waterslide that proved popular with the local kids and the group of tourists relaxing in our tub, including two Aussies from Melbourne. As it snowed gently on our heads we agreed that this definatety wasn't something you'd get to experience at your local Australian pool. Our two trips to the Blue Lagoon, a natural hot tub near the airport, proved this completely, as did the floating massages and white-mud facemasks we had there. Yep, it's no wonder Icelanders seem so relaxed!
Icelanders are also fiercely independent and its something they've only recently won back from Denmark who governed them until 1944. Settled in 974 Iceland is considered to have the world's oldest national assembly, the Althing. Today the parliament is housed in a very non-descript building in Reykjavik but it used to be held at Thingvellir, which is the rift valley where the European and American tectonic plates are slowly but surely pulling apart. It's a pretty amazing backdrop for parliamentary debates but apparently today's politicians aren't made of the sterner stuff of their forbearers. On our drive out to Thingvellir, made all the more eventful by the fact that it was the first time we'd driven on the "wrong" side of the road, and the fact that the map supplied by the car hire place had "not for for navigation" stamped across the top, we also visited Geysir (no points for guessing what's there), and Gullfoss, one of Europe's biggest waterfalls. Just a tip for anyone planning to drive the same route: blind corners on dirt roads seem to be an Icelandic specialty.
Exhausted from our day of driving but not to be beaten we went along to a screening of the aptly named "Volcano Show", which was basically a home movie by Villi Knudsen, one of Iceland's most renowned volcano film makers. Villi screens the video in a shed at the bottom of his garden that he's converted into a small movie theatre. It was certainly very Icelandic.
Apart from its amazing landscape, as captured by Villi, Iceland is famous for its books, or more accurately the Icelandic Sagas. Written between the 12th and 13th centuries, these books are quasi-historical documents that chronicle either the lives of specific people or whole communities. Housed in the Cultural House they are surprisingly impressive and from the way they are exhibited you can sense how important they are to Icelanders. The recently opened Icelandic Museum was also quite special, and a great example of a modern museum and historical display.
And it just wouldn't be a diary entry from us if we didn't comment on Iceland's food which was, in a word, fantastic. Fish features heavily on the menus, as does Icelandic lamb but we had tapas at a local Spanish restaurant that was better than that which we had in Spain, and in a vegetarian restaurant, the most divine chocolate cake. When we said we thought it was great, the waiter proceeded to spiel off its recipe, so we think he might get that request often. It might have been the most expensive slice of chocolate cake we've ever had but it was pretty amazing. Iceland is not a cheap place to visit, even when you've been earning in the pound for twelve months, so we stayed at the cheapest place in town, the Salvation Army Hostel (they throw in the in hymns for free). Though at £65 a night it certainly wasn't cheap by most people's standards! Icelanders assured us that even though a pizza might cost AUS$38 they enjoy a high standard of living. In fact our waitress at the Spanish restaurant assured us that she owned three houses, which did make us re-think our tip.
- 9th July 2005