"We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow."
- Immigrant Song, Led Zeppelin.
Iceland is a mind freak.
I would highly recommend it.
Reykjavik is unlike any European city I have visited.
Plain grey or white buildings interspersed with strange and colourful corrugated tin-walled buildings. Viking church architecture interspersed with some of the most unusual artistic grafitti I have seen.
And man, when you rent a 4 x 4, leaving the city behind to travel to some of the most untamed and unreal nature I have ever witnessed, your mind boggles!
Helping the state of "boggling" along is the weirdness of the sun "setting" at 23:00, remaining a strange twilight hue till about 1 AM, when it gets dark. Then the sun starts rising again at 4 AM. You see kids leaving their homes after dinner to go out on their push scooters with friends at 22:30. Weird.
So, if you ever find yourself in Iceland, here are my suggestions:
Places to visit:
These recommendations are centred around Reykjavik. Most can be visited by on any of a number of so-called "Golden Circle" tours. But not being one for keeping to other people's schedules, I would suggest doing what we did, which is hiring a car and driving about at your own pace. With so much daylight in Summer, you never really have to worry about timelines. Going off the beaten path and taking little side roads leads to such fun finds!
- Thingvellir National Park. A massive crack. Some old buildings. Beautiful space. Historical prominence as the beginnings of Iceland's parliment.
- Geysir. The origin of the name belongs to this massive water spout. Hot. Stinky. Amazing. Prepared to be dazzled by a large spout of water.
- Gulfoss Falls. Awe inspiring to the max. So much water! So much wind! So much cold! Stop at the wooden restaurant alongside for some warm-you-up beverages. Despite it being Summer when we visited, the daytime temperature never went above tend degrees Celsius, and the wind chill factor dropped that temperature well below zero. Don't expect the sun to warm you up, so pack carefully when visiting if you are from warmer climes.
- Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa. The coolant water coming from the nearby geothermal energy plant makes for a pleasant way to spend some time if you can get your mind to say yes. I will say, though, that this doesn't even come close to the awesomeness of the hot springs in Rotorua in New Zealand. BUT there is something uniquely Icelandic about this experience, so why not.
Things to see:
- Icelandic horses. An isolated breed famed for their genetic purity. Once a horse leaves Iceland, it can never come back. In this way, diseases stay out and the bloodline remains pure. These friendly dog-like horses will pull up to any random road-sode fence and say hello to you. They are also famed for having a fifth gait which allows the rider to trot exceptionally fast while remaining exceptionally stable so as to continue drinking one's mead.
- Rock piles. They're everywhere. I don't know why. I guess when you have a country that has large parts which look like the moon, you stack rocks.
- Architecture. A church shaped like a viking helmet. 'Nuff said.
- The coastline. Pretty, pretty.
- The Sagas. The historical documents telling of Viking history. They came. They saw. They conquered.
- A show. Get thee hence to the massive glass building sitting on the water. We saw: "How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes". It was funny, if not a little disturbing (tips such as: walk like a zombie, give vague directions, eat sheep's testicles and have sex with as many strangers as possible in a club because what else is there to do in the dead dark cold of Winter don't go over so well with me).
- Coffee! The Icelanders have a serious coffee culture. If you don't have a love of java already, this is the place to cultivate one.
- Tap water. I am serious. The cold water tap pumps pure, icy spring water. The hot water tap pumps geothermal water that smells like sulphur. This is good for your skin, but pretty much guarantees that your entire bathroom and kitchen smells like a rotten egg ALL THE TIME!
- Sushi. Just don't expect it to be cheap (ironically). The Icelanders are into cured and dried and fermented foods. This is not a pleasant exprience for one's tastebuds (or nostrils) unless you are REALLY into that sort of thing. Salmon is also very, very expensive. Although it is plentiful, the permits required to fish for it are very, very expensive too, so you don't find it on menus easily.
- Pakistani cuisine. People laugh when Sim and I say that we ate Pakistani food in Iceland, but that is because they are not looking at travel through the eyes of a person with severe and numerous food allergies. Iceland is NOT a gluten-free friendly city. Bread is a big feature on all menus. Salads are practically unheard of (and buying imported cucumbers and tomatoes, as most common vegetables can't grow in Iceland, makes for a verrrrrry expensive supermarket outing). So unless you are content to spend your holiday eating fresh fruit, plain rice cakes with cheese and really bad dark chocolate, find your way to Shalimar for excellent and allergy-safe food. The chefs make everything fresh, so leaving out any ingredient is something easily done.
Other cool things:
- Icelandic is close to impossible to parse, so thank your lucky stars for the excellent English spoken as a second language by all Icelanders. I have never been in a country where English is spoken so fluently as a second language, not even the Netherlands (which is famed for their education system).
- Heated side walks. Hot water, being the plentiful thing it is due to geothermal heating, is pumped through pipes in the sidewalk to prevent ice.
- The wind. It blows away fishy and sulphury smells.
- The lunar landscape. About as close as you'll get to walking on the moon I suspect. In fact, Askja was used to prepare Apollo program astronauts for studying geology prior to their lunar missions.
- Graffiti. Interesting and abundant.
- The knitting culture! Expect to have some knitting needles and wool handed to you at certain coffee chops instead of newspapers to keep you entertained. Expect to see many lamp poles and trees with knitted accoutrements.