Iceland in January

Iceland, it turns out, is not as exotic as some people would have you believe. Bus drivers waiting outside the airport grouse about this and that. Reykjavik’s auto-dependent sprawl recalls small cities in the western United States. “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?” plays on one TV channel, endless televangelism on another.

But yeah, Iceland is different. In early January, the sun rises, but never very high. My camera never stopped telling me I needed to use the flash, even at midday. This picture was taken at about 1 in the afternoon on the only day it cleared up:

high noon

Even the gas stations are picturesque. Here, Mount Esja in the background:

beeyooteeful petrol

And the houses, like many other Icelandic constructions, are cute:

super cute

We walked west one evening from the city center, looking for a public swimming pool, and kept going until we hit the shore:

sunset over the north atlantic

The pool was great, by the way. With plenty of geothermal heat, Icelanders build outdoor heated pools and “hot pots” that are open year round. We sampled two of them, including one of the oldest public pools in Reykjavik, the Sundhöllin.

Reykjavik is a charming city. The center of town has two main shopping streets, Laugavegur and Skolavörðustígur. (The latter is the home of the Reykjavik Hand Knitters Association, where I bought a great wool cap and resisted the giant traditional sweaters.) There are fun restaurants, coffee shops, and bars; art galleries and trendy shops. There’s a really great, formal-looking pond in the center and the expected museums, government buildings, and churches.

But if you go, even for just a couple of days, you have to make two excusions out of the city.

The first is known as the Golden Circle, a tourist route set up by God Almighty to show off what She had wrought on this island in the North Atlantic. You can take a tour bus, but we rented a little Hyundai for less than the cost of two tour tickets. First stop was Thingvellir, a river valley at the head of a large lake. The valley is in fact a rift valley, formed where the Eurasian and North American continental plates are sliding past each other. It’s also where Iceland was formed as a nation in 930 A.D. — a parliament of sorts met there for centuries, hashing out issues among the Viking chieftains.

We got there around 11 in the morning; hardly anyone else was there. It had snowed a bit the night before at that altitude, while it had only rained lower down in Reykjavik. It was cold but not bitterly so, and even the sound of the wind seemed hushed.

Here’s the lake, Thingvallavatn, with a view of the cracked volcanic rock (subsidence where the plates are coming apart) in the foreground:

the lake

The split in the rocks just above where the parliament met:

the crack

A view over the valley to the mountain beyond:

blue valley

The second stop on the Golden Circle is Geysir, the Original Geyser (O.G.). There’s a crazy field of geothermal phenomena, including bubbling pots:

eternal bubbles

And weird mineral-filled mupots:

blue mineral mud

And steaming moss:

valley of the steams

Geysir, the biggest geyser there, isn’t erupting these days, but the smaller one, Strokkur, goes off every 7 minutes or so. I made a video:


The third and final must-see on the Golden Circle is Gulfoss, an amazing double waterfall. The river goes down one set of falls, then makes a ninety-degree right turn and goes down another set. Here’s a view from some distance and another showing the second set of falls and the gorge beyond:


the gorge

As always, my weak photography skillz and my tiny point-and-shoot digital camera are inadequate to capture the experience, but believe me when I tell you that the tourist traps in Iceland are superior to all other tourist traps.

Speaking of tourist traps: The second expedition from Reykjavik was to the Blue Lagoon, a wacky hybrid of the natural and the unnatural. Situated out on the unreal plain of broken basalt and green-gray moss between Reykjavik and the airport, the Blue Lagoon harnesses waste water from a geothermal electric plant built to power the now defunct U.S. airbase nearby. When the steam from a mile below ground has done its turbine-driving thing and cooled a bit, it turns out to be rich in dissolved minerals, including silica, which coat the basalt with a glasslike finish and turn the water a bluish white. Some clever Icelanders turned the runoff pool into a world-class spa. We floated in the open air, under rain, snow, and fog; smeared our faces with the silica mud; checked out the sauna, steam cave, and relaxation area; and had some local beer while once again floating in the hot pool. Even more surreal, but in a less frenetic way, than the Korean baths.

I’d love to go back. We only got to check out a little bit of the local music scene; things aren’t that active in early January. (The record shop 12 Tónar is highly recommended.) And although we saw enough of the landscape to be completely blown away, we really just scratched the surface; some serious hiking in the summer, plus travel to other parts of the country besides the south west, would be great.

For now, I’m recommending Iceland to everyone I talk to. No exoticization necessary.

11 responses to “Iceland in January”

  1. lane says:

    and did you try the local liquer? it’s this odd anis flavored stuff. good if kept in the freezer.

  2. Jane says:

    Wow! those pictures are wonderful! I especially love the first one. Bravo!

  3. Jeremy says:

    “A film by Dave B.” That’s rad.

    I’ve always wondered–is Iceland really as barren and sparsely populated as it seems? I’ve always wanted to go, but I also always had the suspicion that there was really nothing to do but look at some nature…

  4. Scotty says:

    Did you meet many locals? Are people as totally freaked out by their economic collapse as NPR reports?

  5. Natasha says:

    Dave, your”photography skillz, “are quite nice, it’s the factual obstinacy of what one would call a “film,” I worry about :)

    I am fascinated with the Vikings and had the opportunity to visit their ships while in Oslo: the local stories were rather enthralling. Did you get a chance to hear or see anything on the Vikings?

  6. Dave says:

    The anise-flavored liquor is called Opel, and I passed on it, figuring I’ve had enough local anise-flavored liquor. There’s also a caraway-flavored liquor called brennivín, which I really liked.

    Thanks for photo compliments. The place really overwhelms the camera — it’s so much more amazing than snapshots can get across.

    There are about 300,000 people in the whole country, at least half of them in Reykjavik. So yeah, pretty sparsely populated. Lots of nature. But we really only spent one day out of the five doing pure nature-looking. Reykjavik is a cozy Scandinavian city with plenty to do.

    We didn’t end up having any in-depth conversations with locals, who were mostly very polite but not welcoming beyond polite stranger-interaction. The English-language monthly paper was full of freakout about the economy. People were still carrying on economic activities, but you couldn’t tell the unemployment rate, e.g., just by looking. Prices were certainly much, much lower than our guidebook said they’d be due to the wacky exchange rate.

  7. lane says:

    yea Jeremy!

    boo nature!

    i’m w/ u!

  8. Rogan says:

    I’m jealous! The Film by Dave B is indeed a fine work of art. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The tension that builds in those first few minutes is palpable with the camera as our eyes and those perfectly framed people in the background as our proxies. Then *SPLOOOSH!* The eruption is gigantic! Far bigger than expected, with a great big messy splash. The people in the background get concealed completely behind it, but their memory provides a great sense of scale. Then the spout goes down and the people are back, thank God, they made it. And finally, “Did you get it?” “Yeah.” The slow motion shots afterword are nice. Oscar please!

    Ok, I’m convinced that I need to get out of Los Angeles. Thanks for the report.

  9. Stella says:

    3 eruptions in one film is more than one could hope for! loved the slow mo…

    btw, i think as many british people have been bankrupted by the Icelandic financial meltdown than Icelanders…people in the uk have totally freaked out after losing all their money!

  10. Dave says:

    There was a t-shirt in a shop on Laugavegur that had a picture of the British P.M. and the title “Brown Is the Color of Poo.” Apparently he used an anti-terrorism statute to freeze the assets of Icelandic banks.

  11. Stella says:

    quite right. bjork has been terrorizing the world for years.