From 30 degrees and humid to 5 degrees and icy cold wind.
Having experienced the bustle that is Hanoi, the calm that is Rekjavik could not have been more of a contrast. The capital of Iceland is the northernmost capital city in the world. There are only 300,000 Icelanders, and two thirds of them live in the city – the rest of the island has an average of 3 people per square kilometre.
In contrast with Hanoi, the air is clean and crisp, several of the streets are pedestrians only, cars stop and let you cross. The city is full of galleries, museums and public art is dotted about. One of the most striking buildings is the Hallsgrimskirkja which draws its inspiration from the basalt formations in the south of the island. Another impressive piece of art is the Solar Warrior, a sculpture on the harbour which recalls the first settlers in Iceland, Danes and Norwegians who came here in their longships. This Viking heritage is celebrated around Rekjavik, most notably in the Settlement Exhibition which is built around an excavation of an actual Viking longhouse.
On the other hand, a lot of the houses seem to be built from a mixture of granite and coloured corrugated iron. Icelanders are very laid back – hotel staff treated our worries that the bus to take us out to see the Northern Lights was 30 minutes late with a bemused “It will be here,” and of course it was.
One of most popular tourist treks is called the Golden Circle, taking in the first hot spring which gave its name to all the others, Geysir, followed by the spectacular waterfall at Gull Foss and the Thingvellir, the area where the oldest parliament in the world is held.
Another tourist must see is the Blue Lagoon, a hot bath as big as half a football pitch, where you can enjoy being in 39 degree water whilst swimming up to the bar and pasting yourself with silica mud to improve your skin.
However, what it really is, is the outflow from the geo-thermal power station. All hot water in Iceland comes out of the earth from its volcanic core at 80 degrees (so the showers in the hotel warn you that it can smell of sulphur).
The most inspirational part of our trip was however the drive we took to the south of the island. The black sand beach at Vic was deserted, and the black basalt caves just around the coast were dramatic. On the way back we stopped off at Sólheimajökull glacier, where we were able to walk right up to the mass of ice which poured down the valley. Sad to learn that the glacier was over a kilometre shorter than just ten years ago.
Iceland is the only country in the world to both continue commercial whaling, and have a tourist whale watching industry in the same place. Contrary to popular belief, whaling is not a traditional Icelandic pastime – islanders simply ate whale if it washed up on the beach. It was other nationalities that came to Iceland to whale in their waters. This misapprehension means that restaurants advertise “traditional” Icelandic menus featuring minke whale steak (as well as puffin and guillemot) which is the sole reason that the Icelandic whaling industry continues.
It was interesting that several friends commented, “Why Iceland?” when they heard where we had been. Apart from seeing the spectacular Northern Lights, which we did on our last night there, no one seemed to feel it had anything to offer. Yet we managed to find enough to do to fill our week.
Why do we choose places to go on holiday? Is it because someone tells us about them, that we might see a programme on TV which sparks our interest, or that we read a book which uses the setting? We had thought about going to Iceland several times when we lived in Boston, as it is kind of on the way there, but we never made it happen. So we finally made the trip ten years after we came back from the States. Iceland is interesting, stimulating, has a dramatic landscape and the people are welcoming and laid back. Since returning, I’ve used some of the pictures I took to create art. It’s inspired me to discuss my own Nordic heritage with my children. Well worth the experience!