diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 02, 2011

Iceland, from which I have now flown home, is an island nation in the North Atlantic (approximately 50% larger in area than Ireland).
More people live in Croydon (340,000) than live in Iceland (320,000).
Most of Iceland's population live in or around the capital Reykjavik. The rest mainly live around the coast along Ring Road 1. Nobody lives in the interior, which is a rocky plateau of mountains and glaciers.
Iceland would be much icier were it not for the Gulf Stream. Even so, the average summer temperature is only 13°C. [current weather]
Everyone in Iceland speaks Icelandic - an ancient Norse language unique to the island. There are two non-standard letters in their alphabet, eth (ð) and thorn (þ), both of which are sort-of pronounced 'th'. Thankfully for tourists, everyone in Iceland also speaks English. Many signs are bilingual, and Brits can get away with being linguistically lazy almost anywhere they go. The word for thankyou is takk, which was the limit of my Icelandic conversation.
Iceland has the world's oldest surviving parliament - the Alþingi - dating back to 930AD. This kicked off as an outdoor assembly on the plains of Þingvellir, but has since moved to a permanent building in Reyjkavik town centre. Þingvellir is a most impressive place, beside a braided river on the edge of a rift valley. The valley marks the highest point of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, with a lake in the centre and lava cliffs on both sides. Here the Eurasian and North American continental plates meet, with the parliamentary meeting place at the foot of the North American basalt cliffs. The site's now a UNESCO World Heritage site, which at least means that the two visitor centres are tastefully hidden. [three photos]
Iceland's well known for being expensive. It used to be more so before the economic crash of 2008, but the need to import almost everything means prices are still higher than the rest of Europe. The local currency is the króna, currently exchanging at 180ISK to the pound, so four- or five-figure pricetags aren't uncommon. Take a deep breath before ordering a round of drinks (I paid 2200ISK for two beers, which is about £12).
Icelanders never expect a tip on top of the published price. That helps a bit.
The locals are very pleasant, although I found those serving in shops and bars a little brusque. Ethnically it's a very white country, lots of Nordic blonds, and completely different to living in the heart of East London.
They eat a lot of fish, as you might expect, a lot of lamb, and a lot of skyr (which is a bit like yoghurt). Several restaurants serve whalemeat, should your conscience allow, which looks like steak but tastes more like liver. If you're feeling adventurous, and loaded, I can recommend the menu at Trir Frakkar (ptarmigan, reindeer and monkfish, before you ask).
The main shopping street is called Laugavegar. It's long but narrow, with a rich mix of tourist shops, supermarkets, bars and cafes. Many of the shops double as 'tourist information centres' in the hope that you might buy a coachtour ticket even if you don't buy some volcanic jewellery, puffin fridge magnets or local knitwear. I didn't see a Starbucks or a McDonalds anywhere, but Europe's largest KFC is to be found out of town in a Reykjavik suburb.
To learn more about the country, from early Viking settlers to 20th century independence, nip into the excellent National Museum of Iceland at the foot of Tjörnin lake. Like many museums in the capital it's closed on Mondays. If you decide to have a day off in Reykjavik, don't make it a Monday.
Keeping busy as a tourist in Iceland involves taking a lot of day trips out of town. Several tour companies are competing for your custom, each keen you'll ride with them on the Golden Circle, out to the Blue Lagoon or off on the hiking trails. A network of minibuses nips round the hotels in Reykjavik picking up passengers on the way to the agreed rendezvous point - be outside early, else they'll go without you.
It seemed like a good idea in the 1940s, to introduce the Alaskan lupin to Iceland in the hope that it would colonise eroding soil. But the lupin proved far too successful, almost an invading force, and now covers roadsides and rockfields across the entire lowlands. The purple and white flowers are very pretty, don't get me wrong, but at what ecological cost to native species?
Should you visit Iceland? If you have the money, absolutely... it's a country of amazing contrasts. Should you visit Iceland twice? Probably not... unless you're captivated by the place, in which case better make plans for a third.

Visit Iceland, Iceland Wants To be Your Friend
Visit Reykjavik, Reykjavik webcam
Iceland News, The Reyjkavik Grapevine


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