“IT’S A beautiful country. It will be even more beautiful when it is finished!” My Icelandic friend Jens laughs as we dodge the hot spray from Strokkur geyser. It is a more regular performer than nearby Geysir, which gave us our English name for these spouts of hot water, issuing from deep within the earth where the process of volcanic creation continues.
We have just been talking about the volcano of Eyjafjallajökull – Jens has another laugh by asking me to pronounce the name – which erupted in 2010, launching a giant ash cloud that brought air travel to a halt throughout Europe. Its much bigger sister is Katla, which is overdue for a big eruption. “We’ve been waiting since 1918 for it to blow,” he says, laughing still. I am beginning to realise that, to live in Iceland, you need to be cheerful in the face of whatever nature might throw at you. This land that is still being shaped by primeval forces, the elements of fire, wind, water – and ice. Geysir is on the “Golden Circle”, a 300km loop into the interior from the capital Reykjavík that also takes in the national park of Thingvellir and Gullfoss Waterfall. I can only imagine the name “Golden” comes from the money flowing into the cash tills from visitors, as the grey rain hides much of the horizon. When the sun breaks through, though, the views are spectacular.
Gullfoss, the “Golden Falls”, is the scenic highlight. The river Hvítá plunges over a series of falls at right angles to each other before appearing to vanish into the earth. A stone memorial to Sigriður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of one-time owner Tómas Tómasson (as her name implies), commemorates a story that she threatened to throw herself over the falls if they were sold for use in a hydroelectric project. Gullfoss now belongs to the state. “The Icelandic naming system, like its language, dates back to Viking times,” Jens says. “We take our surname from our father or mother, and not the family. My daughter’s surname would be Jensdóttir but my son is Einar Jensson. Women also keep their name on marriage, as they remain their father’s daughter.”
One odd consequence of this (besides great confusion for passport officers and hotel check-in staff) is that Iceland is the only country in the world where the telephone directory lists subscribers by order of first name, adding professions to reduce the confusion. It is also usual to address people formally by their first name, rather than surname e.g. as Björk rather than Ms Guðmundsdóttir, or even Ms Björk. It’s a nice custom that gives the impression to outsiders such as me that Iceland is a small country where everyone knows everyone else. Maybe they do: there are only about 320,000 people in the whole country, the least populated in Europe, and 60 per cent of them live in and around Reykjavík.
This familiarity must have made Europe’s first parliament, dating to the 10th century, a very civilized thing, too. Sorry, I should spell it Thing, for that is the Icelandic name for it, one that led directly to the English word “hustings“. Thingvellir (Thing fields) is where the Vikings met to lay out new laws, with speakers standing on the Law Rock, now marked with a billowing Icelandic flag. It was here that Iceland adopted Christianity more than 1,000 years ago and where the modern Icelandic republic was founded in 1944.
Iceland was the last country of Europe to be settled, inhabited by a few Irish monks before Norwegian Vikings arrived in 874. Thingvellir is also where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet and you can see a literal crack in the earth, from where a river flows into a pretty lake, a reminder that, at some point in the far distant future, this will be where Iceland splits in two. A neatly maintained path into the rift canyon lets you touch North America on one side, Europe on the other. It is not often you get to touch two continents in one place.
At Kerið, another popular stop on the Golden Circle, I stare into a perfect volcanic crater lake, the water a striking blue in colour. You are never far from a volcano in Iceland, active or not, and geothermal power plants provide a quarter of its energy, with hydropower accounting for most of the rest. “We want to turn Iceland into a 100 per cent fossil-free nation in the near future,” says Jens. Iceland has enough natural energy to power all of Europe without the use of fossil fuels but getting it out is the problem. Bauxite, shipped to Iceland to be smelted into aluminium with the plentiful cheap electricity, is now a major factor in the economy.
Nesjavellir Geothermal Plant, just outside Reykjavík produces electricity for the city as well as hot water for heating, pumped 23km to the centre in well-insulated pipes. Steam clouds vent from the landscape around and, while it seems a simple idea to harness the power of nature, the dangers involved are also obvious. A plant tour explains some of the forces at work under the rather dull exterior. Geothermal energy works by injecting cold water into bore holes reaching the earth’s magma, which is only 2km below the surface in Iceland. Heated to around 240C, recovery wells extract it, often in the form of steam, which is then used in turbines to generate electricity. Some is also used to heat cold water stored in separate tanks. The water heated in this way warms most Icelandic homes.
Why not use the geothermal brine from the earth’s interior directly? Because it is rich in minerals that will clog the pipes. To understand just how many minerals are in the water, I visit the Blue Lagoon near Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport. The water is a vivid blue like some tropical paradise and makes a sharp contrast to the black lava rocks around. It is actually the silica-rich run-off from Svartsengi geothermal power plant and, with a temperature of about 35-40C all year, has a reputation for its therapeutic qualities. “The water is very good for psoriasis and eczema: some people have been totally cured,” Jens assures me. The lagoon is also incredibly lovely, at its best in winter when thick clouds of steam rise from the water’s surface and falling snow adds to the magic. No wonder it is Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction.
WHAT ELSE lurks under the ever-changing surface of Iceland? While many deny they believe in them, it is easy to get Icelanders talking about the elves and trolls that inhabit the underworld. “While elves can see us, only a gifted few humans can see them. They are tiny folk, dressed all in green, with mischievous ways,” Jens’ girlfriend Sif says, sounding quite serious. These huldufólk or “hidden folk” feature prominently in stories of building projects or roads running into problems that are solved by diverting away from the elf’s home. Trolls are giant, fearsome creatures, living inside hills or caves, who turn to stone when caught in daylight. The proof of their existence is the many troll-shaped rocks that litter the landscape.
“I can’t say I believe in them,” an Icelander tells me in a bar after a few beers. “But I can’t say I don’t, either.” I am not sure if he is teasing, or taking care not to undermine yet another marketing idea from the tourist board. After all, Scotland relies on the Loch Ness Monster to draw in visitors. However, a recent poll shows about half of Icelanders won’t deny the possibility of hidden folk. Terry Gunnell, associate folklore professor at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík, writes: “Icelanders are well aware of invisible forces around them that shape their lives. An earthquake might shake the house but you can’t see it. You turn on the tap and you have hot water heated by magma deep underground. The wind can knock you off your feet.”
The Icelanders remind me of my fellow Irish, from whom many descend. Indeed, while three-quarters of Iceland’s men have Norwegian genes, three-quarters of the women have Irish ones: those Viking raiders brought home more than sheep. Both nationalities can spin a tall tale with a serious face, a talent developed from a culture of long winter nights over flickering fires, when the wind howls outside and the whole house groans, conjuring up spirits from the netherworld. The most famous troll is Grýla, the “monster”, and her 13 sons, the jolasveinarnir, who all live in this “Hidden World” of Hulduheimar, deep under the lava landscapes. In the 13 days before Christmas, the jolasveinarnir, or “Yule Boys”, prowl the streets at night looking for naughty children to take back home to feed to their mother.
“Children put a shoe out on the windowsill every night from 12 December,” says Sif. “If they are good, they find a treat inside but, if they have misbehaved, they might find a raw potato as a warning that the jolasveinarnir have their eye on them.” Once trolls in rags or traditional Icelandic wear, the jolasveinarnir have adopted Santa’s traditional red and white costume in more recent years. New clothes are also an important present at Christmas for children, as tradition has it that anyone who doesn’t have any new clothes will be eaten by Grýla’s cat, no matter how well behaved they might have been.
After lunch on Christmas Eve, families go to the cemetery with nine candles to remember those who have already left this world. The older family members explain to the younger who is named after who and how they are all related. In Iceland there are almost no trees, one reason its landscapes are so striking. The first Vikings cut them down to build ships and smelt iron while their sheep ate any that tried to grow back. In cemeteries, though, where the sheep can’t stray, they grow into strange shapes, beaten this way and that by the wind, and you need little imagination to see spirits from other worlds.
Most Icelanders are Lutheran and, while superstition from the past may be officially frowned on, it is worth remembering that the church has a real belief in angels and devils. In the modern church, just as the Yule Boys merge into Santa, so, too, do angels merge in New Age thinking of a guiding spirit.
Midwinter’s dark is blasted with light and noise every New Year, when Icelanders set off more fireworks per person than any other country in the world. Fire trucks ring their bells and ships in harbour sound their foghorns. The trolls are well and truly warned off. It is also a good way to see off the internal midwinter demons. The last day of Christmas, though, is January 6 when bonfires blaze out all over Iceland and another batch of fireworks blaze into the night sky. Known as Threttándinn or “The Thirteenth” in Iceland, it is the day the last of the jolasveinarnir returns to his cave but other elves and trolls emerge for a last try at luring humans into Hulduheimar. Homes are cleaned so that no dark corners can hide restless spirits. “The elves may ask you to party with them and you cannot say no,” says Sif. “But you must not take any food or drink or gifts from them because if you take you must also give – and they will ask you to give a lot.”
ONE other thing that might scare away the trolls is the Icelandic passion for driving off-road in very noisy, very fast, heavily modified vehicles. Flying up to Akureyri, Iceland’s second-largest city, I take to the road to Hell. Viti, Icelandic for “Hell”, is a volcanic crater in the Krafla area, rich in lava flows and steaming pools of bubbling mud. A Nissan Patrol on chunky, studded tires is the preferred vehicle, its tire pressures reduced to what seems an insanely low level to gain traction on the loose black volcanic soil. These lunar moonscapes were used by NASA to train astronauts for the Apollo landings. Reaching the top, I get out to admire the view but the icy rain soon has me back inside the cabin’s warmth.
“If you don’t like the weather now, wait five minutes” is a common saying here and, sure enough, the next day dawns bright and sunny. There is also a fresh breeze, good news for I will be riding an Icelandic horse around Lake Mývatn the “Lake of Midges”, named for its swarms of tiny flies but which the wind keeps off me. My horse seems tiny but it is very sturdy, descended from Viking steeds introduced to Iceland more than 1,000 years ago and purebred ever since. They are noted for their “tölt” gait, a sort of fast-paced trot that is a very comfortable way of covering long distances – once you get used to it. In a rough landscape, with few roads, this was a prized characteristic.
In contrast to many other Icelanders I meet, my riding companion Bergur, who runs a horse-breeding farm, says not another word after “Hello” until a “Goodbye” hours later but he is not being rude. In a country with such a small population, being used to your own company is also prized and we are out to enjoy the spectacular scenery and the silence of nature. The sagas of his Viking ancestors are still a popular read in Iceland and one says: “Often is there regret for saying too much, and seldom regret for saying too little.” As we rest the horses and enjoy a view of towering clouds reflected in the clear waters of the lake, an exchange of glances is enough to show that we both appreciate the beauty laid out before us.
Afterwards a hot pool relaxes my sore seldom-used riding muscles. Sauna is an institution everywhere in the Nordic countries (roughly speaking, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are the Scandinavian countries, Iceland, Finland and Scandinavia make the Nordic nations) but Iceland takes communal bathing to impressive heights. Every small town has a hot pool heated by nature and Saturday is called “Laugardagur – “Pool day”.
Bergur guides me through the strict protocol: no shoes in the locker room, no bathing suits in the shower (to ensure all the “bits” are washed properly) and make sure the locker room floor stays dry by towelling off after showering and swimming. The water in the outdoor pool is chemical free, so cleanliness before entering is important. I am told the Icelandic cabinet has held meetings in the hot tub and sitting in the water chatting for hours is very much part of social life. A new tourism initiative called Vatnavinir, “Friends of the Water”, is opening up a trail of hot pools in spectacular natural locations across the country, part of a plan to put Iceland back on the tourism map. The economy needs all the help it can get after the massive financial crisis that hit in 2008. However, as the currency tumbled in value, it became a good value destination for overseas visitors.
Akureyri, “the capital of the north” is also a good place to enjoy traditional Iceland’s cuisine, with dishes such as smoked lamb (hangikjöt), marinated herring (sild) or rye bread (rugbraud). More heavy-duty dishes such as rotted shark (hákarl), ram’s testicles (hrutspungarand), and sour seal flippers (selshreyfar) are normally just eaten at the traditional midwinter festival of Thorrablot in January. Rotted shark is one of those dishes that you smell before you see, although you can practically see the smell. The best thing you can say about it is that it doesn’t taste as bad as it smells. But that is only because it smells very, very bad indeed, with an acrid taint of ammonia. A shot of the local firewater, Brennivín (a form of schnapps often called “Black Death”) is an essential to help it down. Or keep it down. These dishes originated from preservation methods designed to last through the long winters but, as Jens says: “We have freezers now so why would you want to eat that s**t? It’s for the tourists.”
Those long, dark days of winter, when the sun disappears for 21 hours, contrast with 21 hours of sunlight at the height of summer. Icelandic author Jón Kalman wrote: “April comes to us with a first-aid kit and tries to heal the wounds of winter.” The ever-changing extremes of weather and landscapes of Iceland are an endless balm to the soul and one can hope it is one country that will never be finished, clinging to the storm-lashed edge of Europe as a reminder that nature still shapes – and rules – the world.