Having just returned from holiday I thought I’d record some impressions of this extraordinary land and its people, with a few comments along the way on the place of women in Icelandic society, their love of books, ghosts, their horses – and the Northern Lights.
It really lives up to its tag as the land of ice and fire. Snow-covered mountains tower above vast glaciers, but many of those mountains are volcanoes and eruptions are frequent. Some of the volcanoes lie beneath glaciers, which means that eruptions can not only create devastating ash clouds and lava flows, but also very destructive floods.
Near-boiling water bubbles out of snow-covered ground. Pools of boiling mud lie a few metres of frozen ground from geysirs spouting into the sky.
It is so strange to see a borehole on a farm producing free hot water to heat the farmhouse and greenhouses, while a nearby borehole produces pure, ice-cold drinking water.
Along the south coast what were once sea cliffs now stand well back from the sea, separated from it by a stretch of flat land created from ash, lava and debris that has flowed down from the mountains.
If the volcanoes and weather were not enough, the land is riven with geological fault planes and there is the constant threat of earthquakes. The Silfra Crack extends across the Thingvellir National Park in the south-west. On the west side one is standing on the North American tectonic plate of the Earth’s crust; cross the crack and one stands on the Euro-Asian plate. It is one of the few places on Earth where the crust is so thin that the tectonic plates are visible on the surface.
The land area is roughly 40,000 sq. miles compared to England’s 50,000. The population of Iceland is only 320,000. Over 99% live along the coast with 200,000 in the area around Reykjavik that is the northernmost capital in the world and the westernmost capital in Europe.
There is no mistaking the fierce pride with which Icelanders face and overcome the natural disasters their country throws at them. In 1994 an eruption under a glacier resulted in a flood of water, ice and rocks that carried away everything between the glacier and the sea – including the coastal road and a bridge over 100 metres in length. Within two weeks the road was restored and the bridge re-built.
They are friendly, welcoming and tolerant. The following quote was about Iceland’s First Lady, “She was born in Jerusalem, spent her teenage years in London. I think she follows the Jewish faith. All that matters is that now she is an Icelander.”
I warmed to their attitude to life. For example, “People must be free to visit Iceland and be themselves without interference. We have many famous visitors and no paparazzi. If any of them turn up they will find the waters of the fjord very cold.”
And this tale about angling:
“There are a lot of foolishly rich people around the world. They will pay us £2500 a day to fish for salmon. They seldom catch anything. But if you haven’t got much money, and want to catch fish, for £30 we will sell you a year’s permit to fish in over 60 lakes that are full of brown trout and char that taste better than salmon. We don’t tell the foolishly rich. Why should we? Their pleasure is not in catching fish, but in spending money.”
We heard a lot about trolls and elves that play a large part in Icelandic folklore. They certainly believe in ghosts, which I suspect is related to the close connection they feel with their ancestors. One ghost story has official ratification. There is an attractive building in Reykjavik that stands in its own grounds overlooking the fjord. It is best known for being the location of the historic talks between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. It was originally built for the French consul in 1909, but by 1952 it was owned by the British Government and housed the British Embassy. The then Ambassador, John Greenway, insisted that the house be sold and the consulate moved elsewhere because it was so haunted that no staff would stay in the property overnight. The Icelandic government bought it and it is used for formal receptions and festive occasions – but no-one ever stays there overnight.
The Althing was first formed in 930 A.D. and is the oldest still existing parliament in the world. Icelandic women have been consistently ahead of Britain in all aspects of women’s rights. 43% of members of the Althing are women. Their current Prime Minister is a woman. She had two sons by a conventional first marriage that ended in divorce. She subsequently entered into a civil partnership with another woman whom she eventually married in 2010. None of which seems to have had the slightest impact on her popularity, which is rather refreshing.
The Bishop of Iceland is a woman.
Icelandic women do not take their husband’s name when they marry.
Fertility rates are the highest in Europe and Iceland is one of the four safest countries in the world in which to give birth.
90% of children in the 1-5 age group are in nursery day-care with local councils paying 85% of the cost.
Icelanders are obsessed with education. Twice as many women as men obtain degrees.
Icelanders love books. Their consumption of print copies per capita is the highest in the world. Their language hasn’t changed, apart from the addition of modern words, for over 1000 years. This means that they can all read the old Sagas and their history is very important to them. There are several excellent bookshops in Reykjavik. It is common for there to be a sample copy on display and if you choose to buy one it comes shrink-wrapped so that you get it home in pristine condition.
Books are passed down the generations. My Kindle was greeted with disdain. “It’s OK if you need to read something once, but it’s not a proper book to be cherished.”
Almost unbelievably, the movement of horses into Iceland has been banned since 980 A.D. The ban has been maintained to protect the Icelandic breed from both cross-breeding and disease. They have the height of ponies, but they are classed as horses. They are immensely strong with a double coat. They are unique in that they have their own extra gait. In addition to the usual walk, trot, canter and gallop, the Icelandic horse can naturally ‘do’ the tölt. It is a form of rapid trot. Take a look at this clip on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bQU5pnOi7o Note how the rider’s head doesn’t bounce up and down at all.
They take horses abroad to competitions but, as they can’t then take them back into Iceland, the horses have to be sold. This gives rise to an Icelandic expression about their horses: “We ride the best, sell the second best – and eat the rest.” Yes, Icelanders eat horses – and so did we, inadvertently. We ordered the peppered steak in a restaurant. It was delicious and very tender. It was only after eating it that we discovered it was horsemeat.
The Northern Lights
Seeing the Northern Lights was the main objective of our holiday. We had planned it well in advance so that we would maximise our chances. Solar activity goes through 11-year cycles and this is supposed to be a period when that activity is at a peak. We also chose a week when there was no moon, so that we would have dark skies. Finally, we arranged a tour so that we would only have two nights with the light-polluted skies over Reykjavik and five nights in remote locations far from any man-made lights.
The one thing we couldn’t plan was the weather, but even if we had the luck to have some cloudless night skies, there was still no guarantee that they would coincide with bursts of solar activity.
In the event we were extremely lucky. We had seven days and nights of cloudless skies – unheard of in Iceland in October. We saw the lights on four nights, two of the displays filling the sky. The unexpected outcome of it all was that I was disappointed!
All of the photographs of the Northern Lights, and TV film, show the lights to be bright green, occasionally with red as well. But, unless the solar activity is very intense, the lights appear white to the naked eye and the colours are introduced by an optical effect of the photographic process. It is very strange to stand looking at white lights in the sky, take a photo and see the image appear as bright green when reviewing it on the screen.
So, despite a successful outcome to our trip, the Northern Lights were probably the least impressive feature that we saw in this spectacular island. They certainly didn’t compare with the whales, sea eagles, geysirs, waterfalls, glaciers, glacial lagoons, volcanoes, steep-cliffed fjords and black sand beaches – or the Icelandic people.