Iceland: Land of Stories and Unpronouncable Volcanoes

I grew up in Yorkshire in the North of England but I live in Oregon, so every now and then I travel back with my family to the place where proper chip butties can be bought and ridiculously tiny roads navigated.

This trip we took Iceland Air which uses Keflavik as their hub, and they allow layovers in Iceland of up to a week without extra fees*. So we decided to stop off in Iceland on the way – we’ve flown over it so many times, it seemed rude not to visit for a change.

We landed on the summer solstice, which meant that we didn’t see night for a week. The midnight sun in Iceland is far more disorienting than I expected. With light all the time you never have to worry about finding your hotel in the dark, but it also encourages you to stay up far later than you really ought to! The twenty four hour sunlight also helped reset our jet lag faster than usual.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik is not a large city, but it is very walkable. The touristy parts are no more than a couple of miles across, and although there are large roads the centre is very pedestrian-friendly. My immediate reaction was that it reminded me of Keighley, a Yorkshire market town just over the moors from where I grew up, but it’s more accurate to say it’s like a scaled down version of London – the roads are all the twisty turny paths of paved cow tracks just like in London, but the streets are all still narrow and cosy.

We mostly wandered around the city looking at things – the public architecture is remarkable. It’s quite a new city by European standards (Iceland was colonised only in the 800s CE) but it’s quite bold in promoting its history. The central church, Hallsgrimkirkja, is a wonderful light-filled edifice.

Geology

Iceland is defined by its geology.

It’s a volcanic island formed by a hot spot on the mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and European tectonic plates are moving away from each other. This means that the landscape is quite young: it is familiar in form to anyone who knows volcanic geology, but it’s a lot less worn down than equivalent landscapes in Oregon, for example.

Highlights for us:

  • hot springs – the original Geysir is on the Golden Circle, and there are many other places where volcanically heated water is forced to the surface. This is why Iceland is the geothermal energy capital of the world. Be prepared, though: many of the geysers are sulphurous, and so incredibly smelly!
  • volcanoes – volcanic outpourings are everywhere, as well as proud linguistic obstinacy over the pronunciation of Eyjafjallajökull. There’s a little museum on the main road along the south coast which tells the story of the 2010 eruption that shut down European air traffic for a week which is definitely worth a look. There are also opportunities to visit active volcanic sites, but we didn’t get to those parts of the island.
  • black sand beaches – volcanoes and sea water make black sand, and there are a couple of gorgeous examples near Vik. Reynisfjara also has some beautiful examples of basalt columns, the kind of thing that make up the Giant’s Causeways in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • ice – Iceland has ice because it’s quite a long way north. The glaciers are retreating due to a warming climate, but even so there are opportunities to explore tongues of glaciers. The abundancce of ice also means many spectacular waterfalls – Gullfoss is one of the best know, but you can get a lot closer to Seljalandsfoss**.

Culture

Volcanoes and Vikings are, it turns out, a good mix.

Most of the stories of the Vikings I grew up with were of marauders and invaders. King Harold, the last Saxon king of England, was defeated by William of Normandy after his army being weakened by an invading force of Vikings at Stamford Bridge; island monasteries were raided by the Vikings.

But Vikings mostly farmed. They were storytellers and sailors and metalsmiths and keepers of livestock. Until visiting Iceland I had only really heard stories from the side of the victim (Vik-tim?), and the skill and bravery of these people who came to North America five hundred years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic and then went away again because there were people already living there is remarkable.

Particular highlights for me included:

  • Þingvellir – Iceland has the longest continuously sitting parliament, and the Parliament Plain is where it met until the eighteenth century
  • Eyjafjallajökull museum – in view of the famous volcano is a museum which describes the narrative of the eruption and its effect on nearby farms. Very interesting
  • Lava Centre, Hvolsvöllur – a really good overview of Iceland’s extensive geology, imaginatively presented
  • geothermal plant – geothermal energy is more complicated than you’d think: you have to put the water back, for a start!
  • The Blue Lagoon – the nicest power station outflow you could possibly imagine. This is a seepage pool for geothermal waste water, which happens to be mineral-rich and a perfect temperature for bathing in.
  • Viking World, Keflavik (or, more accurately, Reykjanesbær) – a few years ago, some enterprising souls decided to build a Viking long ship like the one Leif Erikson and his crew took to Vinland, then they sailed all over the north Atlantic in it. Now it resides in a compact but dense museum overlooking the bay north of the Keflavik.

Weather

We were there in late June and it was rarely much above 10C (50F) – when it’s sunny it’s nice, but it is almost always windy. We were in three layers and were glad of our woollen hats.

Bring the right gear and you will be fine.

Language

It’s a fair bet that anyone you run into in a touristy location will speak English, and your odds are very good most places. We encountered a couple of teenagers who looked at us blankly when asked questions in English, but who knows if they were just being obstreperous.

Icelandic itself is fascinating because it has barely changed in a thousand years (the sagas are taught as originally written in schools today), and because while most European countries were writing literature in Latin (and would for centuries to come) Icelanders were writing in their native tongue.

I’m not going to claim that pronunciation is easy, but these are the rules I have learned that have helped me replicate what I heard:

  • ‘J’ is a ‘yuh’ sound (like German)
  • ‘Ö’ is an ‘eh’ sound (not like German!)
  • ‘Þ’ is a ‘th’ sound (like English until relatively recently)
  • ‘h’ at the beginning of a word is a ‘k’ sound
  • ‘ll’ is a ‘tl’ sound. Welsh is close with its ‘ll’ sound, although that’s more like ‘thl’ really so…

For example:

  • “Hvolsvöllur” => kvols-vet-lur
  • “Þingvellir” => thing-vetlir
  • “Eyjafjallajökull” => Ayah-fyatla-yeh-kut-luh

In conclusion, Iceland is an interesting destination. Be aware that things are expensive there, though.

[*] it also doesn’t hurt that Iceland Air is cheaper and quicker than the other routes we’ve travelled, so these people will see our business again even without this.

[**] I got very wet when the wind changed.

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