You can’t blame Iceland’s most eccentric export – Björk – for her wild imagination force-fed by this country’s rich heritage. It is a land full of lore built on vicious fairies who live in rocks, portly gnomes who visit you around Christmas, phoney Viking villages, incredible moss houses and a wholesale economic collapse in 2008, which in narrative was nothing short of a far-fetched fairytale.
But when I take a closer look at this place, I realise that this may actually be Europe’s ultimate answer to New Zealand. Flowing waterfalls, splashing geysers, dramatic mountain ranges and some unusual wildlife features are just some of the unique aspects that set Iceland apart from the rest of the continent and conjure up such unlikely mental comparisons with NZ. Even weather patterns seem to be comparable, which is not to say that there is no appreciation for the outdoors in this country; just grab a reindeer parka and off you go.
My most pertinent impression here is that wherever you go in Iceland, there always is a magnetic water feature nearby drawing you into this Nordic country’s icy charm like a Viking sorceress hunched over a magic cauldron; that cauldron is the volcanic island of Iceland. Sometimes that cauldron spits out angry bouts of steam from its renowned geyser pits; in other locations the mineral-rich water heals sores and soothes the soul while catering for your well-being with all its medicinal properties, as is the case with the world-famous Blue Lagoon.
Then again, this is the same incredible water, which gently warms the streets by running the hot, sulphuric liquid through the pipes near its surface to keep ice and snow off the pavement during winter months. The same liquid later comes out the faucets with a pungent smell that can only be compared to the vile stench of rotten eggs, but nevertheless carries all the same healing properties with it, bringing the spa into your hotel room or guest house. This country truly is a miniature Waterworld.
Unlike the UK (where you are never more than 80 miles away from the sea at any given location), the ocean is an integral part of everybody’s lives here at all times. The drama of the towering waves crashing against corroded cliffs all along the shoreline dictates the rhythm of most everyday movements, as some strategic roads leading in and out of the country’s capital, Reykjavik, are highly prone to flooding during all seasons. Not to mention the 2010 volcanic ash mess caused by our friend, the murky mouthful known as Eyjafjallajökull. Forget the tides at Morecambe Bay; this is geologic erosion as a national pastime.
About two thirds of the island’s minuscule population of less than 300,000 people live in the western capital city, which really is rather a glorified village than a blossoming metropolis, but in a beneficial way to locals and visitors alike. It almost feels like the place your hippie parents decided to move to after outgrowing their affiliation with Woodstock.
The people here are a coastal people through and through, and you can tell from their friendly and open demeanour that there is a laid-back, easy-going, coastal-living brand of approach to life here that they like to harbour in their hearts. Whether you decide to come for a long weekend or for a summer holiday, you are bound to make friends with the locals, which makes for such a nice change compared to many other European destinations. And this lot will also try hard to show you how to have a “real good time” – Icelandic style. You must know that many of the locals speak impeccable English, largely on account of the fact that a massive US military base just outside Reykjavik used to dominate much of their foreign as well as local trade for the past 50 years. With pseudo-American twangs in-tow, these outgoing Icelanders will be happy to take you on a rather costly Reykjavik pub crawl probably around Austurstraeti, where – depending on the time of the year you choose to go there – the sun may never set or rise, as they reluctantly talk you into trying one of the country’s oddest delicacies: rotted shark. It tastes like ammonia and regret.
You’ll get used to staying up all night chasing one natural phenomenon or the other. Although it is rare to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights – or Aurora Borealis – within the city limits of Reykjavik, you might perhaps be the lucky exception. It is advisable not to throw money at elaborate trips promising to catch the Northern Lights; this is, after all, a natural occurrence, which will not schedule itself in accordance with your travel plans. With the weather being as temperamental around Reykjavik as your average day in Auckland (only much colder), all bets are off. But the midnight sun at the height of summer is just as impressive an experience – if not even more so, as you witness how minutes morph into hours, days turn into nights, and a sense of confusion descends over your brain, which can only be compared to jetlag – despite the fact that you’re just one dysfunctional timezone away from Britain.
But you fight against the fatigue, and you get up despite your better lack of judgement. You shower and you brush your teeth elaborately with the sulphuric, stinky water from the tap, and you get ready to tick off all the city’s main sites one by one: the Althing parliament of just 63 MPs, the overpriced Laugavegur shopping mile, the iconic Hallgrimskirkja cathedral, the impressive Harpa concert hall, and even the world’s only Phallological Museum, where you can go from one room to the next staring at animal penises all shapes and sizes. Here’s a bonus tip: treat yourself, preferably at night, to the stunning sculpture garden by Einar Jonsson next door to the aforementioned Hallgrimskirkja. These noble and heroic copper statues by Iceland’s most famous artist can give Rodin a run for his money any day.
As you do your tourist run, you begin to realise at some point that Reykjavik tries quite hard to impress, but it’s up against the competition of its Scandinavian sister capital cities like Copenhagen and Stockholm, which play in a different league altogether. And so you will arrive at the conclusion that it is best to judge Reykjavik in isolation as a charming village, like a much overlooked wallflower who is desperate to become Homecoming Queen.
And why not? After all, this is the fascinating place of legend and lore, myths and sagas, fairies and gnomes, where many odd things are considered normal while “Normal” is just the name of yet another bar in Reykjavik.