Letter from Iceland
A quirk of nature
There is a feeling of audacity about Iceland. This land of fire and ice is young, burst out of the earth at a random point on the mid-Atlantic ridge. Glacier-covered volcanoes continue to wreak havoc as the island isn’t entirely sure it wants to house these few hundred thousand souls who have made it their home. It’s only a millennium ago a few Vikings came here, looking out over the stubby landscape and thinking yes, let’s live here. Occasionally Iceland tries to buck off these invaders, like a horse not yet broken in. It happened the week before I arrived, when a volcanic eruption filled the air with ashes so thick you couldn’t see your hand at the end of your outstretched arm. The skies were clear again a week later, as I drove for hours across the flat landscape, grey seas on the left, black mountains on the right.
A brutal and fascinating landscape is Iceland’s biggest visitor attraction, and it’s easy to see why. The Gullfoss waterfall is enormous, cascading downwards into a ravine in the earth, silky white to look at and too loud to speak over. Geysir, the geo-thermal phenomenon that gave name to all others of its kind, no longer erupts, although the awareness that once it used to hurl water 60 metres up in the air makes the experience of walking up to the steaming surface dam a little daunting still. A better photo opportunity is provided by nearby Strokkur, a smaller but still active geyser, which thrills visitors with 12-metre eruptions every few minutes. With cameras at the ready, the gathered crowd waits patiently in complete silence for Strokkur to do its thing. The water in the surface pool sloshes around as the pressure builds, accompanied by the communal sharp intake of air from the crowd each time the water rises a little. Crouching down, the ground is hot to touch, even though the pale Scandinavian sun isn’t strong enough to do that. This heat comes from inside the earth, reaching the surface on this spot due to a crack in the skin.
My visit to Iceland falls just before the summer solstice, meaning I am treated to daylight almost around the clock. I walk along the streets of Reykjavík for ages on the night I arrive, oblivious to the hour having passed midnight. The sun has set but it still lights up the sky, in the palest blue. As I’m not used to this I don’t get tired, as my body doesn’t realise the rules for darkness and light have changed.
Reykjavík is an odd little city, relatively small in size but with many of the characteristics of a bigger metropolis. Walk into a quirky little café and you could be in London, or more probably, Stockholm. There is definitely a Scandinavian cool at work here, with the friendly but slightly aloof smiles, the wood-clad houses lining the city streets, and the big jumpers knit from unbleached wool, useful on cold June nights. The food, on the other hand, isn’t very Scandinavian at all; it’s much better than that. Menus include excellent Atlantic salmon and Icelandic sheep, unique after a thousand years of evolving to fit a harsh climate. More controversial local specialities are offerings of whale and horse - the former is a little tough, like beef with a marine touch, while the latter is surprisingly delicious, like a tender, gamey steak. The smoked puffin is also a treat, like a delicate pigeon with a tang of ocean. It’s all local produce, and there’s plenty more where it came from.
And everything comes with salad, comprised of rocket and spinach, with fresh mango and pineapple. Looking at the price of booze you’d think these more exotic fruits and vegetables would be rare due to the cost of import, but the fact is there’s plenty around; local farmers grow them in greenhouses, free to heat from the hotpot that is the earth. The air might be cool but you never forget how close you are to this nature phenomenon, with the whiff of sour sulphur in the shower water, and the warning signs in restaurants informing you to be careful not to let the sink water burn your hands.
I visit the Blue Lagoon geo-thermal spa on the morning before I leave Iceland, reassured that although it looks like an obvious tourist trap it is in fact much loved by the locals. The spa is located in the middle of an empty lava field, visible from a distance due to the steam coming off the sweaty hot waters. The sulphur adds a by-now familiar tang, and a tropic look is created by the silica in the water coating every surface with white residue. I’m shivering as I tip-toe towards the pool, goose-bumped from the obligatory pre-swim shower, but as my body disappears into the cloudy water I’m warm again, soon too hot to swim. So as the minerals crystallise around my ears, I lie back and float, idling away in this quirk of nature.