A few weeks ago, I wrote a travel blog post all about Iceland, giddy with the prospect of going there but with very little actual knowledge about the place. Then I actually went to Iceland, did the holiday thing, came back, organised a Cold-War-themed spy mission team building activity (don’t ask), and now here we are. Time for a debrief to see what I got right in my first article and what was fake news.
“Reykjavik is a wonderful city and its airport is a pleasure to arrive in. Like in many Nordic airports, all the guests are greeted with a small plate of delicious pickled fish while you wait for your suitcase in baggage control. (Or as the locals call it, Bjaggaske Kontrolljerjarg).”
You know all those songs by urban beatnik folk musicians like Simon and Garfunkel about the solemn grace and tragic resignation of vagrants on the streets of Brooklyn, as they gaze into the palms of their gloved hands bracing themselves for another long, cold night? This is the experience of spending the night at Luton Airport. Which was unfortunately necessary since I missed my flight and had to camp in London Luton to get the next flight to Iceland. And the delirium caused by fourteen hours of being bunched into extremely uncomfortable chairs prevented me from noting whether or not pickled fish was available at baggage reclaim, so I can only assume it was indeed.
“I spent a wonderful day roaming around the city marvelling at the clean streets and gorgeous blend of modern and classic architecture and functional public transport system”
The architecture in Reykjavik is a strange and disorderly mishmash of sleek, modern buildings and pragmatic cuboids with various levels of decorativeness. It feels a lot like Oxford in many ways, but far more urban and with very many houses clad in colourful painted corrugated iron sheeting that simultaneously looks harbour-industrial and country-cute.
“The next day it was off into the wilderness… The woods are full of wildlife… A park ranger explained to us that all the native animals in Iceland are actually pure white in colour so that they are all camouflaged when standing next to each other.”
None of this is true. First of all, I did not see a single unit of woods in the wilderness. Icelandic wilderness means huge, stark plains, covered in a crumble of dark volcanic rock which itself is covered with a carpet of thick, tweedy moss. Enormous rock formations punctuate the martian expanses and are randomly strewn with waterfalls and dark caves. There is no wildlife; no birds, no deer, no glittery white foxes. There are no park rangers; the national parks are simply unimaginably colossal areas of some of the most staggering, unreal geology on the planet. Unkempt, uncurated, uninhabited.
“We stayed in a little hut on the edge of the national park overlooking the volcano, and we spent every evening sat on the veranda sipping hot cocoa while watching the streams of glowing lava trickle down the slope and into the thermic pools.”
Unfortunately at the time of my holiday there were no actively erupting volcanoes blooping hot lava around the place but I did get to visit several extremely active geysers that blew my mind (is that a pun? Like, because geysers explode? Not sure, leaving it in just in case). The best and biggest one fires a massive blast of hot water 70 metres into the sky every ten minutes (even an inanimate natural phenomenon is more punctual than National Rail) which is as exciting as fireworks to watch. If you can’t see a geyser on your Iceland trip there is, apparently, a ‘geyser simulator’ on the outskirts of Reyjkavik, which I assume is just some guy regularly turning a top on and off while some other guy points a shower head out of a hole in the ground. Just go the the geyser everyone, it’s so coooool. Also the word ‘geyser’ comes from the place ‘Geysir’ where the big geyser is so now you can use that fun fact at a pub quiz sometime.
“We then continued our journey north, stopping in a little town called Tálknafjörður (pronounced ‘Terfer’). The amazing thing about this part of the island, which on the maps looks so frilly and curvaceous, is that it is not in fact a land mass at all but one of the world’s largest bodies of fungus.”
Sadly we did not go to see the fjords on our road trip so I have decided this is definitely true.
“We stayed in the area and waited until nightfall to watch the northern lights. They were scheduled to start around 9pm, so we grabbed hot dogs from the local IKEA and waited for them to start, but sadly it was announced at 8.50pm that they were cancelled due to too many night kite flyers flying kites that night.”
The northern lights. What a gyp. First of all, I had to endure all manner of sass from my German friends leading up to the trip because the German word for the phenomenon is ‘Polarlicht’, and they all thought that I thought that Iceland is IN THE NORTH POLE and then they would pat me on the head and gently laugh about my folly while condescendingly offering me a children’s juicebox.
Secondly, they didn’t happen for a single night while we were there. You want to see them so badly, and you stare at the black night sky willing your retinas to register the faintest soft ribbon of green light. And then, of course, because you have spent so long looking at a dark empty void your vision starts to swim and you think maybe you did see some green out there but no. You didn’t. Put your binoculars away and get the f*** inside because it’s f***ing freezing holy monkey christ.
“What was I talking about again? Oh yeah Icelandic cakes are rad.”
I am delighted to announce that this part is NOT FAKE NEWS. Icelandic cakes are DOPE, BROSEPH. The bakeries in Reykjavik are so fantastic it makes you want to launch a Band-Aid style charity single in sympathy with gluten intolerant people. Iceland has a traditional meringue cake which, as far as I could ascertain, is simply a gargantuan mound of meringue and whipped cream combined with chunks of anything else you like as long as long as you serve each portion as an amorphous, delicious crag the size of a buffalo’s head.
There’s also a special kind of Icelandic donut which is the shape of two overlapping diamonds and is completely bland but redeemed by its jazzy form. Eating out in Iceland is usually great, sometimes terrific and always so expensive it makes you emit an involuntary yelping noise every time you look at the menu.
The most traditional national dish is lamb stew, which makes sense because Icelandic sheep are majestic creatures with satisfied facial expressions and wool that is visibly luxurious. Their meat and wool is probably the only thing that keeps the Icelandic population going through the insanely cold, blustery winters.
The most traditional national drink is hahaha are you kidding a glass of wine costs 14 euros let’s just get a bottle of gin in duty-free and swig that under the table.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2: FJURTHÜR ÄDVJENTÜRRES IJN IYSKLJAND