Vlekomin til Islands!
We’re in Iceland people – actual ICELAND! Land of volcanoes, lava fields, black sand, glaciers and geysers. We’ve been REALLY excited about this leg of the journey; the desire to see the unique, unspoilt wilderness of this volcanic island was irresistible. This is the farthest North either of us has ever been (Reykjavik sits at 64°08’N – just 2° below the Arctic Circle; it’s actually the most Northerly capital city in the world) and it is so unlike anywhere we have ever been that already we’ve been left a little awed. Just look at the views we had from the plane as we landed:
Iceland is most certainly unique. It’s one of the most geologically active sites in the world, with a landscape that looks almost alien due to its desolation and topography. There are virtually no trees and out on the open plains, where winds blast across the island from the North and the East, there are only rocks, carpets of pale lichen and a few sturdy grasses. We passed through landscapes like this on the drive from Keflavík International Airport to Reyjavik.
We flew directly from Copenhagen to Reykjavik this morning on a ridiculously early flight (we knew it was going to hurt when we booked it, but it was just so cheap!), which was not much fun, but did mean we had almost an entire day to explore our new home for the next week. We’re staying in Reykjavik for the whole week we’re here and exploring as much as we can of the rest of the island on day trips. Given Iceland is quite small (about 100,000km2), we’re actually going to be able to see a lot without having to move every 1-2 nights which is nice. We also decided to rent an apartment for our stay as we’re here long enough that it seemed worth it. The guesthouse we’re staying in has great 1 bedroom apartments and it’s right next to one of Reykjavik’s main tourist attractions: Hallgrímskirkja.
Hallgrímskirkja is the main Lutheran Cathedral of Iceland. It was constructed in 1945 and is incredibly stark in its design,especially inside. And yet its the very simplicity of the church renders it so captivating and awe-inspiring. Also captivating is the statue in front of the church of Leif Eriksson, the first European to have set foot in North America. Nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus made his way across the Atlantic, Leif, an Icelandic Viking, led an expedition from Iceland to Greenland, then on to the North American mainland. The statue was a gift to Iceland from the USA in 1930, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s first parliament. It’s amazing to think that whilst the rest of Europe was still picking the fleas of its butt, the Viking settlers of Iceland already had a system of elected leadership and parliamentary decision-making in place!
We really enjoy being able to explore a new city on foot, so once we’d checked in, unpacked and seen Hallgrímskirkja, we set out to see more of Reykjavik. With a population of about 200,000, Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city and most populated area (there’s only 320,000 on the whole island). It’s a small town by most standards, but it’s quite cute. We went all the way down to the harbour as well where we saw The Harpa, a concert hall and conference centre built in 2010 that is just extraordinary in design; and The Sun Voyager, an iconic sculpture designed to capture Iceland’s Viking heritage and the spirit of exploration those early explorers must have had.
The harbour-front was pretty, but unfortunately we couldn’t hang around to enjoy it because IT WAS SO DAMN COLD WE ALMOST FROZE TO DEATH. We knew coming here it would be cold (like maximum temperatures of 10-15C cold), so we brought our thermal underwear, a couple of jumpers and our good wind proof, weather proof jackets. NOT ENOUGH. It’s not the 10-15C ambient temperature that was the problem, it was the 30-60km/h winds blasting us from the Arctic that left us looking like this:
- Icelandic is the closest modern language to Old Norse. It has the same North Germanic roots as Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, but is much closer to its original Viking roots than those languages. Apparently Icelanders can read Old Norse texts without much difficulty due to the similarities. We, however, have no hope with their language. Thank goodness everyone speaks English!
- Most Icelanders believe in the huldufólk (translation = the hidden people), including what we would think of as elves.
- The sun barely sets between mid-May and mid-August, and barely rises between mid-November and mid-February. We almost have a midnight sun here at the moment!
- Cold and hot water come from totally different sources: glacial runoff for cold, geysers for hot. This makes cold water from the tap VERY COLD, but also very pure. It makes hot water from the tap VERY HOT and slightly sulphurous.
- 85% of their electricity comes from geothermal power.
- Icelanders have one of the highest life expectancies in the world (82.5 years).
- This is one of safest countries on Earth. Like Japan, people leave their bags on tables and go order at cafes and restaurants and it’s fine. Crime is virtually non-existent.
- In 2008 when the Global Financial Crisis hit, Iceland’s banks went bankrupt. The people voted to let the banks collapse, rather than bail them out. The feeling was that it would tougher times for all in the short term, but that the people that did the wrong thing needed to be held accountable and that it would be better for everyone in the long run.
- Iceland is all about gender equality. It consistently rates highest for equal rights, equal pay, etc. It was one of the first countries in the world to give women the right to vote.
- They have no military force, just a Coast Guard. They spend their money on a socialist system that gives all its citizens free healthcare and high quality education instead. How awesome is that?
- Iceland has a 100% literacy rate. They read more books per capita than anywhere else in the world and publish more books per capita than anywhere else in the world.Long winters I guess. What else you going to do? (You certainly wouldn’t be touching anyone with those cold, cold hands!)