Bad weather is not entirely unexpected in Iceland, but I still think I had bad luck during my brief stopover there. My first morning in Reykjavik was grey and chilly. It was as if the sun didn’t rise at all. At this latitude in the middle of the North Atlantic, 1st of September spells autumn. I was up quite early and ventured outside right after breakfast. It was Sunday and the streets in the city centre were deserted. No wonder, as the parties had gone on until early morning. Although I hadn’t partaken in any party the night before, I had had my share of noise from the merrymakers. Every Saturday night in Reykjavik is like a carnival, I had heard and last night’s experience seemed to confirm this. The room in my hotel where I just had had breakfast, doubles as a microbrewery bar (one would think that in Iceland every brewery is a microbrewery and that distinction be somewhat redundant) from afternoon until the wee hours. I was impressed that they had managed to clean it up perfectly for the morning meal in the couple of hours in between.
Reykjavik is a rather small town but still it and its suburbs are home to two-thirds of the entire population of 305,000 in the country. The centre of the city is compact and very friendly for walking. I headed down the pedestrian street past many shops and restaurants that all were closed at this hour. I observed the opera house—albeit small, Iceland has all aspects of social and cultural life covered—and headed further to the port. I only saw one person, a woman walking with an umbrella against the wind and slowly intensifying rain. They ocean was steel grey. A long row of leisure yachts bobbed in the waves against the backdrop of mist covered mountains. It was gloomy and I loved it.
As I only had this one day to explore, I had done what I normally would not consider: booked myself on a day trip with a bunch of other tourists. I and a few others were picked up by a minibus from the centre and delivered to a bus station a bit further out where we switched to a full-sized bus. This was the reverse procedure from yesterday when the airport bus left me at the same bus station to catch a minibus. The city centre streets are too narrow to accommodate big buses. There was a guide, a 51-year old man called Leidur, who would keep us entertained during the bus ride. The bus was almost full. It turned out, when Leidur took stock of his charges at the beginning of the trip, that more than half of the passengers were from Norway. This meant that Leidur’s running commentary would be delivered bilingually in English and Norwegian, both in the same angular Icelandic accent. It turned out that Leidur was not only knowledgeable, but also quite funny and refreshingly politically incorrect (or perhaps he’s just average in Iceland). As we were driving through the edge of the city he pointed out a modern building with four interconnected vertical towers each of different height. Leidur said that there had been much opposition to its building and the opponents called it the “world’s largest fuck-you sign.” I wasn’t sure what he had just said through the PA system, but could ascertain it when he repeated it in Norwegian.
The good road led eastward out of the town. At this point, the rain was getting heavier whipping against the windshield. Cars driving towards us emerged from the semidarkness with headlights blurred by the rain. The scenery was sparse and powerful. Volcanic rocks and old lava flows marked the landscape. As I had expected, there were grazing sheep, but I was surprised to see more horses. There are 80,000 horses in Iceland. Some are exported to Japan and Russia. Their meat is also widely eaten in Iceland. As the horses have evolved in isolation on this island, they are of a very distinct race. I am not sure how that translates into their taste.
There were few trees on the windswept plains. Only 5 percent of Iceland is under forest cover. This had not always been so. As described by Jared Diamond, professor of geography at UCLA who has studied society-environment relationships worldwide in a historical perspective, Iceland went through a very rough patch. The country’s first colonists came from Norway who apparently didn’t realize how fragile the ecology of the island actually was. They ended up destroying the topsoil and most of the forests. Although the forest cover still is very low, the Icelanders eventually adapted through adopting elaborate environmental protection measures to maintain agriculture under tough conditions. In his book Collapse, Diamond highlights Iceland as a success story from this point of view.
Leidur briefed us on older and relatively new history. During the heady days of financial speculation just two decades ago, Reykjavik was thriving and the city centre was flush with strip joints. Then that party ended and the strong feminist movement in Iceland saw an opportunity to ban the strip clubs. There is a long feminist tradition in the country—in fact, Iceland was amongst the first countries to give women the full voting rights in 1915—as well as a Christian heritage. The irony is that today 80% of Icelanders belong to the Lutheran religion, but 70% are descendants of the last Catholic bishop and his 11 children.
Our first stop was Geysir, a place where overheated water bubbles to the surface from the volcanic rock. At this juncture, I had to accept that I would be wet. I had on a windbreaker that would keep me relatively shielded, but the rain was heavy by now and the wind blew it sideways. My jeans were soaked in no time. But I had no choice. Having come this far, I wouldn’t let a bit of a North Atlantic storm to keep me inside. Furthermore, this whole geothermal business is so important for the country that it was necessary to see the source of it with my own eyes. Some 90 percent of houses in Iceland—and every house in Reykjavik—are heated with geothermal energy. Piped water comes straight from the clean waters underground and therefore hot water has a light but distinct odour of sulphur.
So I set out to walk towards Strokkur, the most active of the geysers, which spouts a formidable burst of scalding water some 30 metres up into the air every 10-12 minutes releasing the pressure that builds up with water vapour underground. Both sides of the walking path were pitted with holes filled with hot water (it would only take minutes to cook a tourist, Leidur had warned us). The soil and rocks were coloured red and yellow by the iron, sulphur and other minerals oozing from the earth. The landscape had an exquisite melancholy beauty, which I felt the rain accentuated. Fog in the hills mingled with the steam arising from the hot springs. Geysir (which has given English language the word geyser) is a hot spring area that has been active for some 10,000 years, but its activity levels have varied greatly.
After the walk, I relented and headed to the visitor centre, which luckily hosted two bars. I ordered a beer and Icelandic schnapps, which is known as brennivin. As Leidur had said earlier, Iceland has an alcohol policy, which is “extra Norwegian” in its severity, another expression of the Lutheran legacy. Today it really doesn’t limit the availability or consumption of booze, but translates into high prices. Until recently, however, beer was not allowed to be sold in the country on the perverse assumption that it would be so easy to drink that people would be drunk all the time. I remember in the late-1980s when I was a research fellow at the Nordic Africa Institute in Sweden, we would get visiting researchers from Iceland and the first thing they’d do was to rush to the closest bar for a beer. The law was only changed in1989. It was seen to be futile, as bars in Reykjavik had taken to selling alcohol-free beer with brennivin dropped in.
Back on the bus, Leidur told us a story about a country priest who had found a dead pig on the road. Not knowing what to do with it, he called the police from the first automated phone in the country. The officer at the other end quipped: “you’re the priest; aren’t you supposed to bury the dead?” “Certainly, but I always inform the next of kin first,” replied the priest. This was in the mid-1970s. There had been a lot of public opposition to the introduction of automated phones, as that prevented neighbours from listening into telephone conversations.
The following stop was at Gullfoss, a fabulous waterfall, the highest in Iceland. The rain was still coming down in torrential bursts. I was wet and cold, but decided again to take the walk to the waterfall, which definitely was worth it. Gullfoss has two waterfalls with a combined height of 31 metres. The gorge in which it is located is 2.5 km long. The waterfall and the deep gorge below were formed at the end of the last Ice Age when great glacial floods cut through cracks in the volcanic basalt lava layers on top of softer sedimentary rock. Today the average water flow through the cascade is 109 cubic metres per second, but at times it can go up to 2,000 cubic metres per second. I am sure that on this stormy day the flow was well above average.
Luckily there was time for another beer and brennivin combo before with again gathered in the bus. The bext and final stop on our round trip would be Thingvellir, designated a UNESCO world heritage site due to its geologic, historic and cultural significance. This is where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge forms a rift valley that is constantly spreading. The formation is quite remarkable. The view from the top of the crest to the surrounding area is gorgeous. Historically, Thingvellir became the site of the first parliament founded in the year 930. It remained the location of the parliament until 1798. The area also became a central cultural place where people from all over Iceland would gather in the historical times. There would be traders and craftsmen and, natural, it would become fairgrounds where drinks were served and games held.
By the time we returned to Reykjavik in early evening I was feeling quite fine. It was warm in the bus and the brennivin was adding to my mellow mood. Back at the hotel, a hot shower with the sulphur-infused water and change into a fresh set of dry cloths got me ready to roll again. By this time the rain had stopped and the temperature was a comfortable 10 degrees Celsius above freezing. I took a stroll around the centre of the city—still quiet but not a ghost town as in the morning—and picked at random a pleasant looking casual restaurant from amongst the many tempting places. A genuinely friendly and attractive young waitress led me to a window table with a view over the rapidly darkening square where a few people were crossing once in a while. I ordered lox as my starter and lamb with herbs for the main course, pairing them with nice white and red wines respectively. It was rather heavenly to sit in the warm and welcoming place, enjoying a superb meal after a wet but interesting day in the stunningly beautiful country. I rounded off the evening with a nightcap in a pub with a live band. Finally, I also found Icelanders who had crept out of their Sunday slumber and wandered out to quench the thirst caused by the previous night’s partying.
In the morning, I slept like a baby in the silent darkness when it was time to get up. I had to catch the 5 am bus to the airport. The driver, a blond young woman, quickly headed out of town onto the straight highway leading west to Keflavik. I relaxed to the monotonous roar of the bus and reflected on my short but pleasant stay in this unique country. I am from the north, so I’m used to darkness and rain. In fact, I find certain solace in them. A few years back, Eric Weiner in his his quest for the happiest places on earth that he describes in the book The Geography of Bliss visited Iceland. At the end of his day, he observed that melancholia and happiness are not mutually exclusive or opposites in any way. I have always known this.
Finally, the lights of Keflavik came into view like a bright twinkling string floating above the still dark horizon. What a lovely sight.