Iceland: pristine nature and cultural creativity

| June 30, 2016 | 0 Comments
The Northern Lights shine over the Alftanes-peninsula close to Reykjavik. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

The Northern Lights shine over the Alftanes-peninsula close to Reykjavik. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

I am very glad and honoured to say that I meet an increasing number of people who express an interest in visiting Iceland. My usual response is: “If you are looking for sunny beaches and ancient castles, then don´t go to Iceland. However, if you want, in one trip, to be able to enjoy pristine nature, good food and a high level of cultural creativity, then there is no better destination.”
Obviously, being Icelandic, I have a natural bias and as the ambassador of my country abroad, it is my job to promote my country, but this advice is completely sincere. Iceland is not a large land area and the population is small, but you would be surprised by the variety in landscape, quality of cuisine and vibrancy of culture. Indeed, it is this combination that draws increasing numbers of foreign visitors to Iceland. Only 10 years ago, the annual figure was about 500,000 visitors, but this year we expect around 1.5 million.

Safe and peaceful

The national park at Thingvellir is at its most colourful in the autumn. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

The national park at Thingvellir is at its most colourful in the autumn. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

There are direct flights to Iceland from a large number of cities in North America, including five in Canada: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Edmonton and Halifax. Numerous daily flights connect Iceland to continental Europe. Many travel no further than Iceland; others stop over for a few days and some only use the efficient and relatively low-priced system of transatlantic connections. The stopovers enable passengers who use Iceland as a hub to stay for a while without
raising the price of the fare.
In Iceland, the infrastructure is modern, tourist services are rapidly developing, most Icelanders understand and speak English and it is a safe and peaceful place.

Talk about the weather

The waterfall Svartifoss (also known as Black Waterfall) in southeast Iceland. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

The waterfall Svartifoss (also known as Black Waterfall) in southeast Iceland. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

Iceland is neither as cold, nor as warm, as southern Canada. It is located just below the Arctic Circle, exposed to the mighty North Atlantic and yet warmed by the ocean´s Gulf Stream. The weather is a source of endless discussion and it can be quite fierce, particularly in winter, but usually sensible dress and common-sense behaviour overcome the occasional challenges posed by the climate. The same applies to all of the other aspects of raw nature that can make a visit to Iceland an intensely enjoyable experience. In general, take care, follow instructions and use local assistance where necessary and you’ll enjoy the thrills without the chills. By the way, there is a volcanic eruption in Iceland on average every five years, but none has caused personal injury in recent times.

Reykjavík and beyond

The spa at Myvatn in northern Iceland. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

The spa at Myvatn in northern Iceland. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

So what to see and do when in Iceland? Almost all visitors to Iceland arrive by air at Keflavík and start by driving 50 kilometres to the capital of Reykjavík. About two-thirds of the population lives in the “greater” Reykjavík area, so it is inevitably the political, commercial and cultural centre of the country. There are excellent restaurants, tempting shops and interesting cultural venues in other parts of the country, but the largest concentration and variety is in Reykjavík. If time for travel is limited, there are many types of excursions available in the vicinity of the capital; for example, whale-watching or driving the Golden Circle, which can be done in one day. That includes the national park of Thingvellir; the site of the ancient parliament, the geological boundary between Europe and North America and a UNESCO World Heritage site; and the Geysir hot spring, which has given a generic name to all hot springs; and the majestic Gullfoss waterfall.

Detour to a sarcophagus

Children skating on the pond in central Reykjavik. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

Children skating on the pond in central Reykjavik. (Photo: Ragnar Th. Sigurdsson)

For history buffs, it is worthwhile making a short detour from Gullfoss to Skálholt, for many centuries the spiritual and temporal centre of Iceland. In medieval times, it was the site of the largest wooden church in Europe, built of imported timber, and today it is the location of a parish church and school. In the basement of the church, a small exhibition includes a 12th-Century sarcophagus containing the remains of a powerful bishop who commissioned a stone mason from Germany to make his final resting place.

Southern contrasts
The drive eastwards, along the southern coast of Iceland, offers many different views: green pastures, steep mountains, glaciers, rapid rivers, black beaches and the group of Vestman Islands can be seen on the horizon. The two waterfalls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógarfoss, are among popular sights and so is the beach at Reynisfjara, close to the village of Vík, as is the glacial lagoon at Jökulsárlón. The national park at Skaftafell includes, in close proximity, the contrasts of black desert, a natural birch grove and a glacier.

Quiet and solitude
A drive northwards along the eastern coast can take time, because of several long and deep fjords, but is definitely ideal for those seeking quiet and solitude. The village of Seydisfjörður is where the ferry from Denmark’s Faero Islands docks in the summer months. The inland village of Egilsstadir is close to Iceland’s only extensive forest, Hallormsstadarskógur.

Waterfalls and whales
Northern Iceland also has a lot to offer, including the dramatic Dettifoss and Godafoss waterfalls; the bird-watchers’ paradise of Lake Mývatn; and Námaskard, the nearby geothermal area, where sulphur for gunpowder was mined in days past. The seaside village of Húsavík has a nice harbourfront, where it is possible to “set sail” for some of the most plentiful whale-watching available in the waters around Iceland. Slightly further westwards, there is the town of Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest, beautifully located inside the long fjord of Eyjafjördur. Further west is the very small village of Hofsós, where there is a small centre and museum dedicated to the migration from Iceland to North America in the late 19th Century, as well as a legendary public swimming pool.

Northern and western extremes
The hand-like peninsula jutting out of northwestern Iceland is commonly called the Westfjords. It is a sparsely populated area of stark but frequently breathtaking natural beauty. The vertigo-inducing seacliffs of Hornbjarg and Látrabjarg are respectively the northernmost and westernmost points of Iceland, where seabirds nest in tens of thousands.

Centre of the earth
South of the Westfjords is the Bay of Breidafjördur, which contains about 3,000 islands, islets and skerries (small rocky islands). Its southern boundary is the Snæfellsnes peninsula, dominated by the inactive and glacier-topped volcano Snæfellsnesjökull, the scene of Jules Verne´s opening in the Journey Through the Centre of the Earth. The village of Stykkishólmur is scenically located, with a view to some of the bay’s islands.

Snorri´s hot-tub
From there, it takes only about two hours to drive back to Reykjavík and on the way is Reykholt, the site of the former home of Snorri Sturluson, chieftain and author assassinated in AD 1241, who transcribed a large part of known Norse mythology and, thereby, later provided Richard Wagner with material for some of his operas, such as the four-opera series The Ring of the Nibelung. Snorri´s geothermal hottub is still preserved. Before reaching Reykjavík, it is possible to drive around the Hvalfjördur fjord or under it through a five-kilometre-long tunnel. During the Second World War, there was a large Allied naval base in this deepwater fjord, from which the British battle cruiser HMS Hood sailed to intercept the German battleship Bismarck. The ferocious ensuing battle, heard all the way to Iceland, ended with the sinking of the Hood, and the British pursuit and later sinking of the Bismarck.

Uninhabited interior
The interior of Iceland is uninhabited, with no paved roads, few bridges and very limited accommodation. The central highlands are, in many respects, a natural wonder, but best experienced with organized tours using four-wheel-drive vehicles. What roads and tracks there are will usually be open only during the height of summer. Off-track driving is strictly prohibited because of the delicate sub-Arctic fauna.

Light and shadows
While in Iceland, you can get close to nature and test yourself in many ways. Try snowmobiling on a glacier, take a horseback tour of two hours or two weeks, hike or river raft, fish for trout and salmon in lakes and rivers or cod in salt water, or simply observe the different aspects of the environment. For example, you can enjoy the ever-changing light and shadows, and even sometimes the vividly shimmering and shifting Northern Lights. Speak to Icelanders you meet on the way, both the tourist professionals and the farmer and fisherman, and ask them for advice. They will give it readily and gladly.

Swimming, eating and drinking
If you want to “go native,” use the public swimming pools, which are of different sizes and standards in most municipalities, all generously heated with geothermal water. The chlorine levels are kept down by requiring everyone to wash thoroughly before using the pools.
Try the delicious lamb, which is mountain-raised, and the fresh seafood, including the sweet-tasting prawn-like langoustine. If you want a really authentic culinary experience, taste traditional delicacies such as pickled rams testicles, cured shark or wind-dried haddock, and wash this down with Icelandic aquavite, a schnapps sometimes known as Black Death and best enjoyed well-chilled. It is usually chased with beer and Icelandic breweries, large and small, produce some excellent thirst-quenchers using the abundance of clean water. For the more abstemious, we take pride in our refreshing tap water. Last but not least, try the original dairy product, Skyr. It was eaten by the Vikings and is made from skimmed milk, resembling a yogurt, but in its unadulterated form. It is non-fat and high in protein and calcium. Skyr has become very popular in Europe among those who watch their diet. You can, of course, allow yourself the luxury of adding some sugar and cream. Icelandic cattle are grass-fed, which gives the dairy products a good flavour.

Arts attract
Iceland is very much a microcosm. It is relatively small, but has all of the structures and characteristics of a larger society, including in administration and culture. The professional symphony orchestra and opera company are now performing in Harpa, the new internationally acclaimed concert house in Reykjavík, located at the entrance to the old harbour. Classical music can be enjoyed in many other locations, including church concerts, and contemporary and popular music is widely available. In fact, the inspiring music scene attracts young people from all over the world. The same applies to visual arts and literature.

Last but not least — shopping
Many opportunities await for shopping in Iceland, with the largest selection in the area of Reykjavík. Apart from traditional products, such as woollen garments, many small designer shops sell modern Icelandic fashion, jewelry and natural cosmetics. Bookshops offer a good selection of translations of Icelandic literature, including crime novels.

Embassy at your service
It is difficult to do justice to a nation in one short article, but I hope this very brief description raises interest and questions about specifics, which the Embassy of Iceland in Ottawa would be delighted to answer.

Sturla Sigurjónsson is the ambassador of Iceland to Canada.

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Sturla Sigurjónsson is the Ambassador of Iceland.

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