YOU can give me much more of Iceland, much more.
These are the joys of the place: big landscapes, big skies, waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, mountains, lava fields, volcanoes, smart shops in Reykjavik, decent museums and art galleries, interesting food and friendly, ironic people who endlessly bathe in public pools.
The reason for the geographical drama is all the geological indigestion rising from the bowels of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, that the nation sits astride. Iceland shivers and quakes providing the tiny population of 300k (not much bigger than Bolton) with cheap geothermal energy, flight disrupting volcanic eruptions and a distorted fantastical landscape of the sort portrayed on the crackpot literature Scientologists insist on pushing through my Old Trafford door.
You get this in heaps on the Golden Circle tour. This is the classic day excursion from Reykjavik via a Greatest Hits of Iceland’s crazy terrain which includes the large and lovely waterfall, Gulfoss, and a geyser field of exploding steam and water (one geyser Strokkur obligingly erupts every eight to ten minutes).
The tour also takes in Thingvellir, which as well as being the site of the original open-air Parliament of Iceland, is the place where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates uneasily meet.
People have built holiday homes along one side of the fault line. As I looked down on the toy town houses I imagined property disputes between owners: “This is my fault.”
“No, it’s my fault.” “I tell you, it really is my fault.” “No, it’s been my fault all the time.”
The guide, Ulrich Lotsofinfosson (or something like that), introduced the coach travellers to Snorri Sturluson and his eleventh century poems and aphorisms. He read us one as the sun came out and lit the autumnal ground plants – tasty bilberry among them – which have conquered the lava fields: ‘The cattle knows when to return from grass/ The foolish man knows not the size of his stomach.’
Greed is something Iceland knows a lot about, it lies at the heart of Iceland’s economic woes. The residents are big on irony, as I’ve said, but also big on anger.
They aren’t happy with their bankers, their government (the former Prime Minister is being impeached) and they aren’t happy with themselves. They rode the good times hard and now the economy is hobbled and the people feel like fools. And ashamed. I’m not sure in Britain we ever reached that understanding of our individual responsibility in letting our filthy bankers get away with it.
The Icelandic attitude comes through in the Reykjavik Grapevine, a free English language newspaper available in hotels. If you're going to Iceland read it. It's sharp, witty and intelligent.
I got a blast of Icelandic irony as I wandered round the capital one evening. Everywhere and at all points people were willing to talk about their country and about its wonders and worries.
This was especially the case at the lively Cafe Paris, where students drank coffee and I drank beer, and they drank more coffee and I drank more beer. Even the murals on the wall satirised the national debt which will take at least 30 years to pay off.
That evening I ate in the Lobster House restaurant (18/20 on the Confidential food rating scale). This gorgeous wooden building with a jewel-like interior of chandeliers, linen tablewear, and polished cutlery provided the best individual dish I had on the trip, lobster tails with Jerusalem artichokes, dates and bacon, a glorious combination of flavours with the dates the exotic key. As the name suggests the restaurant specialises in crabs. OK, lobsters.
The openness of the Icelandic character revealed itself with a meal later on the trip at Vox restaurant (15.5/20 on the Confidential food rating scale) in the Hilton. Hildur Omarsdottir (the lovely head of press for Icelandair Hotels where I was staying) and husband and wife chef team, Fridrik and Arnrun, were great company describing Iceland honestly and passionately. We had the very Nordic taster menu with the best courses being the reindeer with beetroot and the beef with ceps.
Earlier preparing for dinner I took a gulp of my Gull beer and stared at tiny Reykjavik from my bedroom. It occurred to me that I’d never seen such a ‘new’ European capital. The place only exceeded a population of 1000 in 1900, the last twenty five years must have witnessed 85% of all the property built.
As I mused, Gull beer in hand, I caught a rainbow, arcing into the sky above the fjord, with an impressive mountain for a backdrop. Beautiful I thought. Beautiful and safe.
“We had a murder close to our house this year,” said one of the locals over a drink. “That’s terrible, is there a high annual murder rate?” I asked wondering if the long winter nights drove people mad. “No, that’s been the only one in the country over the last year or two,” came the reply. In fact Iceland has the lowest murder rate in the world, and there are just 137 prisoners, only 4 of whom are women. The Icelandic ladies are clearly a very sensible lot.
If you want a really odd but beguiling destination Iceland lies less than three hours away from Manchester Airport. You might even catch the Northern Lights. I tell you folks, after just three days I felt so relaxed I nearly moved the family over.
Jonathan Schofield was hosted by Icelandair (http://www.icelandair.co.uk). He stayed at the hotels below.
Icelandairhotel Loftleidir - Reykjavik Nautholsvegi 52 - 101 Reykjavik – Iceland Classic sixties modernism, adjacent to city airport and Perlan hill. Story-telling sessions on Thursday and presentation video of Iceland.
Hilton Reykjavik Nordica hotel Sudurlandsbraut 2 Reykjavik, 108, Iceland Sharp, newish hotel a short walk from the main boutique shopping area. Wonderful views of the mountains and the fjord. Spa treatments, plus one of Iceland’s best restaurants, Vox.
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