We watched in wonder as the earth caught fire. Luckily it was on a movie screen, near Reykjavik’s old marina, where Volcano House shows riveting documentaries about fiery eruptions in this island nation.
Bright red magma, silvery clouds of steam and ash are soon followed by rivers of lava creeping toward towns and fishing ports. Icelanders work ceaselessly, cooling things down and digging out their houses. Although humans appear minuscule in these smoking landscapes, Icelanders are tough, doggedly inventive at stopping lava flows, tirelessly sweeping away acres of ash from roofs, yards and fields.
Truth be told, an eruption was occurring during our September visit, but that was in a location remote from the nation’s capital. This country close to the Arctic Circle is home to only 320,000 souls, most of them living in Reykjavik. For a cool $2,000 (US), helicopters were busy ferrying tourists up, up and away to gaze upon the latest seismic spectacle.
But for a tiny fraction of that ticket, we sat, mesmerized, in Volcano House, learning about the two tectonic plates below the island, whose determination to pull away from one other frequently wreaks havoc. Afterward, we ate delicious organic fish and chips in the adjacent bistro – no helicopters involved.
Over time, Icelanders have become expert at monitoring fiery explosions and consequent earthquakes. No wonder writer Jules Verne set his 1864 fantasy about “volcanic tubes,” Journey to the Centre of the Earth, here in Iceland.
There are benefits to all this heat, of course. “Nobody here has ever heard their parents complain about wasting hot water. If we want to cool our houses, we just open a window,” our tour guide declares. Clean energy is a fact of life. Excess hot water “warms the ocean” at Reykjavik’s only “golden sand” beach.
Among watery attractions, perhaps the most famous is the Blue Lagoon, a short drive from the capital. Romantic geothermal baths, opaque and skim-milk blue, are surrounded by black lava fields. Shower naked first (mandatory) then don your swimsuit and surrender to the warm, mineral-rich waters.
Beer or fresh veggie juices are served from a poolside bar, along with icy dollops of mineral masks that, once applied, turn faces ghost-like in the steamy air. Inside, a bistro offers sandwiches and espresso – there are saunas and a large restaurant as well. Upstairs, the “relaxation room” offers power-napping chairs, perfectly suited to a post-massage snooze. Massages are given in the water, of course.
Today’s tourists flock to the Blue Lagoon. Back in the day, our guide recalled, “we kids used to come out here, strip behind the rocks and splash about as we were.”
Among the changes is the high-end shop selling mineral-rich cosmetics, Icelandic-designed jewelry and pricey knitwear. Tourism has exploded – pardon the metaphor – from a mere 50,000 10 years ago to about a million last year. Despite this invasion, the lagoon remains a splendid experience, although not cheap, compared, say, to the capital’s 17 public, naturally warm swimming pools.
To strangers, Iceland’s landscape appears vast, magical and empty: a place to hike, whale watch, fish, bike, wonder at waterfalls, geysers and the dancing Northern Lights. This natural esthetic is echoed in the capital, where a glass-domed building sits high on a hill above Reykjavik, supported by giant tanks holding the city’s water supply. At the top is Perlan, (the pearl), a chic revolving restaurant with astonishing views.
All over Reykjavik, we found museums and public sculptures, many acting as reminders of the nation’s cultural identity – like the bones of a Viking Ship anchoring the waterfront, and the Harp, glassy home to a glittering new symphony hall.
To begin at the beginning, we visited the 871+-2 Museum, built on the site of a farm house discovered in the capital in 2001. The name references the years (871 AD, plus or minus a few years) of the first settlement. Interactive displays tell stories of long-ago settlers from Norway.
Long winter nights encouraged the rich tradition of storytelling known as the sagas, a telling and retelling in verse of the history and exploits of both human and superhuman heroes (trolls, monsters, elves). Icelanders today – “a bookish people” – are among the most literate and highly educated on the planet.
Since their language has hardly changed over the millennia, it’s said that schoolchildren can read 1,000-year-old sagas in the original. Certainly this is a nation of readers and writers; among the latter shines Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness. His 1946 epic, Independent People, reaches into the heart of the national struggle to make a life in a hard land, and yet Laxness’ myth-infused worlds are not unlike those created by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.
The hugely popular and widely translated Reykjavik detective novelist Arnaldur Indriòson writes tales with a similarly strong connection to the mysteries of the land. On our way to the Blue Lagoon, we stopped at Lake Kleifarvatn, where Arnaldur fans were thrilled to recognize the “shrinking” lake that stars in one of his detective novels.
Arnaldur’s titles – like Hypothermia and Arctic Chill – make it impossible to ignore the “icy” side of things in this northern nation. The largest ice cap on a European glacier is here, winds frequently blow across the land, and Icelandic children, girls and boys alike, are taught to knit in grade school – both a practical and a meditative skill. Local wool is famous, Icelandic designs unique. I confess to having bought woollen gloves, a scarf and sweater in September – and not just as souvenirs. I felt the chill.
Ultimately, however, warmth triumphs over its opposite. Our memories of Iceland are rich with people, like the girl who guided us along a narrow street in the old marina, ensuring that we found her favourite fish restaurant; or the young man at the Natura Hotel, who led us to a “comfy” table, the better to enjoy our pizza. Among the Natura’s overflowing breakfast offerings were superb gravlax, tasty herring and cod liver oil, served in shot glasses.
Warming drinks – hot chocolate and coffee – are ubiquitous. When I asked our guide if Icelanders drink as much coffee as the Swedes, a habit noticeable in Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo series, he smiled and admitted, “Just a bit more.”
My “Fire and Ice” massage at the Reykjavik Hilton Nordica Spa was a fine example of the union of contrasts. Hot stones relaxed my muscles, complemented by stones that were icy cold. Like jumping from a hot sauna into a cold sea, it shouldn’t work, but it does: another strikingly memorable experience, like so much else in this intriguing northern land.
If You Go: Check out Icelandair (www.icelandair.com) for specials to Reykjavik on the way to European destinations. The airline also offers insights into the national character: lullabies are written on pillows; a seriously witty safety video features an adventurous couple strapping on life vests and jumping into a kayak on a river, in case of a “water landing.” For tourism information, visit: www.visiticeland.com.