Kylie and I raced rat race style across London to meet in the departures lounge at Gatwick airport. We needn’t of panicked, our 20:40 flight took off at gone 11:40 and with the short nights in this part of the world, the sky was fiery with sunrise at 1:30am. As we dropped below the clouds it was grey and wet and windy as we landed in Iceland, immediately making us question our 8 weeks in a tent.
Leaving Keflavik airport for the city, the land was flat and pockets of isolated housing sat away from the road. It may have been one hour behind the UK but it was gone 3am local time by the time we pulled into the city centre, bars still full on a Friday night. Our hostel welcomed us saying that they were sorry that the female dorm we had booked was unavailable so we could stay out two nights for free. Who says Iceland is expensive?! He also commented as he gave us our door cards that the bars would be open for another hour. With the world growing lighter and us increasingly disoriented and sleepy, we had made it to Iceland, further west than I had ever been before.
Late morning, which looked only marginally different to late night, we emerged to explore Iceland’s capital and only city, Reyjkavik. The money is Icelandic Kroner, a simple conversion of about 186 to the pound, hence you have thousands but they’re not going to get you far. In such a miniature capital we were quickly on the main shopping street where we found ourselves easily able to understand basic words of written Icelandic. The gargling bubbles sound that came out when it was spoken was something else altogether. We took our picnic to the bench outside the parliament building to wait for our walking tour. Eric, our tour guide, spoke with such a sing song accent, a mix of Scottish, Welsh, American sounding English which made hang on his every sing song word.
We started out by the Houses of Parliament. Iceland has 6 political parties, the most recent the Pirate party, the alternative vote. In 63 congress members, 29 are women making it the most gender balanced parliament in the world. The protectors are seen on the buildings and the coins, the dragon, giant, eagle, bull, the four guardians of Iceland. It may be one of the most open systems in the world, the prime ministers office having no security whatsoever.
Iceland was settled in 871 (+- 2 years) by Vikings from Norway. Whilst the men were mostly Viking, most of the women were stolen from UK and Ireland, those roots making up 40% of Icelandic gene pool. In this little country of only 332,000 people, 94% are related and everyone lander can trace their heritage through the book of settlers. In recent years, an anti incest app was developed jokingly using this information to alert users of anyone nearby they maybe shouldn’t buy a drink for as they are too closely related.
A beautiful area of the city are the colourful houses of skólavörduháls built using Danish timber and protected by the elements using colourful corrugated iron. Since 1910 building has used concrete so these old style houses are a rare and protected beauty and an icon of Reykjavik.
Reykjavik means smokey basin, or basin of smoke, named after the geothermal activity in this area. Today 90% of Iceland’s energy is green or renewable, a lot generated from the heat below the surface making for cosy housing.
With a reputation for being mysterious and magical, it is often quoted that 50% of Icelanders believe in Elves. It is true that there are mysterious happenings up here and also that Icelandic tour guides like to embellish from facts. Eric said actually this was mostly the older generation and he was not an elf believer, however Iceland has a minister for Elfish communications and will consult the elves on constructions that may disturb them. When the ring road came to built around Iceland in the 90’s, the minister had to consult the elves to move certain rocks and other road constructions have circumnavigated rocks rather than go through despite extra effort and cost. When consulting the workmen on why this is, do they believe in elves, they would answer “no, but there is no doubt they are there…” This strange paradox sums up the attitude to enchantment as many stories site bad luck, illnesses and deaths to those disturbing the elves who will only reveal themselves to those who truly believe.
The water surrounds you on all sides in the city, a large lake in the centre as well as the sea, harbour and port. We ended our walk on the waters edge with many recommendations. Apparently Iceland is a big fan of liquorice, cheap hot dogs and has a police force with a sense of humour. With one of the lowest crime rates they have plenty of time to play with cats and shine their shoes. We also were shown Iceland’s answer to having warm hands whilst drinking a cold beer, the beer mitt and also the love glove, one glove for two hands for a romantic winters walk.
We walked around the weekend flea market where stalls sold the Icelandic wool in funky print hats, jumpers and gloves. Homemade jewellery and trinkets filled the aisles and finally we ended in the food section. We tried many different flavours of sea salt like blueberry and liquorice. Icelandic traditional foods are rather controversial, fermented shark being one but also whale and puffin finding their way onto the menu. There were many pastries that were Iceland’s take on Danish delicacies and after sampling a few we bought a bag of flat scone like cakes to stock up our snacks.
Next we headed for the settlement museum, literally called 871 +-2, where a Viking settlement had been excavated beneath a building. The museum credited the first settler to be Ingolfr Arnarson, a Norwegian chieftain. Icelandic language is Germanic, a form of old Norse which has developed less due to being isolated over the years. After exploring the adult part of the museum, we went to visit the more visual kids area where you could dress up as a warring Viking and also experience life as a Viking child. I challenged Kylie to a competitive match of fox vs lambs, and much to her disgust, ate all of the lambs before she could trap me, meaning a fox victory.
It was a short introduction to the worlds northernmost capital, but time to answer our calling and head south east to Thorsmark.