The island of FIRE AND ICE

Published: Sunday, October 02, 2016   English | العربية  

From jumping into a volcano to submerging oneself in a natural thermal spa, the tiny nation of Iceland remains raw and uncut

By Irwin B Fletcher

Tucked way up North, just outside of the Arctic Circle, Iceland has always been a place that I’ve wanted to visit. I’m not sure why, maybe because somebody told me “Iceland isn’t made of ice and Greenland isn’t green.” What kind of backward dichotomy was this? With a fve-day break over the summer Eid, never had there been a better time to fnd out.

Flying from Abu Dhabi or Dubai, there is no direct flight. No matter, travelling is an adventure and so we do what we have to do. Arriving in Iceland, however, you don’t arrive in the country’s capital of Reykjavik. Instead, you arrive at Keflavik International Airport, which is situated 45 minutes south of the capital and serves as the island’s major international airport.

We rented a car for the duration of our stay so we could move about the island with less time-table restrictions since about three-quarters of what we wanted to do and see could be done on our own.

First impressions of Iceland are staggering. The rugged lava flow terrain that runs from the airport to Reykjavik seems impassable if you leave the highway, unless you’ve got a ‘super Jeep’. And the air smells fresh and looks crystal clear thanks to the island’s small number of inhabitants that keeps the air pollution to a minimum.

Combine this with the low level sun in the sky and the place becomes a photographer’s perfect landscape. Moody. Vivid. Surreal. The light cast brilliantly across the landscapes, producing obsidian blacks of the volcanic ground, lush greens of the hills and mountains, deep blue skies, and even the ominous rain clouds seemed to pop against the other aspects of the rustic backdrop.

A very long frst day

Rising early the next morning to get a jump on things was not a problem. Summertime in Iceland produces extremely long days of nearly 21 hours, and the remaining three make up twilight, thus it never gets completely dark.

The day was spent exploring the waterfront area and shopping district that stretches west from Old Downtown up the hill along Laugavegur. Here you can fnd an array of cafes, local restaurants, and boutique shops offering all kinds of traditional Icelandic goods including furs, jewellery, lava salts and handmade clothing, and just about everything associated with the Icelandic obsession of winter holiday folklore.

During the weekends there is also Kolaportið, Iceland’s only flea market. It takes place inside a building close to the harbour and has a wide range of antique type items. There is also a grocery where you can purchase an array of cured fsh or even ready-forgrilling Puffns (more about that later).

A must see stop as you walk through the shopping district and surrounds is the famous Hallgrimskirkja, situated just to the south of Laugavegur. One of the most popular tourist stops, you can’t miss it; the striking 73 metre central bell tower echoes the modernism of the Icelandic landscape. The church functions both as a parish church and a national sanctuary. It is free to visit, but taking the elevator to the top of the bell tower for an unobstructed 360-degree view of Reykjavik will run you around 900 Icelandic Krona, or about 30 dirhams.

Nature in all its glory

The planned activity for our second day was a road trip. Our route was down the Southern coast of the island to Vik, a twoand-a-half-hour drive, mainly to visit the puffn colony while stopping along the way at some interesting cultural sites.

Right from the start we could see that escaping nature was impossible. The two lane highway stretched out for kilometres in front of us and was shared by all forms of transportation from campers to cyclists pedaling around the island with a tent strapped to their back. Our frst stop on our way to Vik was at Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s best-known waterfalls. Located right along Route 1, it’s an easy fnd and a pleasant stop. Dropping nearly 60 metres, it is part of the Seljalands River that originates in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that caused a week’s worth of air travel disruption in early 2010.

Barely getting underway again, we found the perfect place for lunch almost halfway between Seljalandsfoss and our next stopping point, Skógafoss. Right along the highway in the middle of nowhere; a farmhouse restaurant called Gamla fjósið serves traditional Icelandic fare – complete with outside dining, which allowed us to take in the some of the bright Icelandic sunlight and blue skies.

Arriving at Skógafoss we found that it was much larger than Seljalandsfoss, and was a good place to explore. If you climbed the stairs to the top of the falls and then over the barbed wire fence, a hiking trail stretched out in front of you over the rugged lavascape that was now green with prairie grass.

Posted signs warn of the rapidly changing weather conditions and that hikers should be well prepared before taking on the extent of the trail. Up river I could hear the faint sounds of more waterfalls and ventured only to the frst as I knew we had other things we wanted to check out at this location; primarily, the Skógar Folk Museum and their collection of turf houses.

There are actually two museums on the property and the entrance ticket covers both. The frst is a transportation museum that also has exhibits related to technology through the ages, such as the mobile phone and radio. There is a collection of some vintage vehicles as well, like snowmobiles and heavy equipment.

What drew us in though were the sod (turf) houses. There are a number of vintage structures on the property, including a barn, a single room schoolhouse and a church, some of which were brought in from other locations around the area.

I found the Magistrate’s House from Holt most interesting. Having a floor space of only 40 metres square, it appears and feels much larger. Sheriff Árni Gíslason built the house in 1878 and it was the frst wooden home in the county, mostly made of driftwood. It was dinner time by the time we arrived in Vik, and a friendly Icelander we met along the way informed us to have dinner frst as the puffns only came back to the rocky cliffs nearby on a small peninsula called Dyrhólaey a little later in the evening.

Dyrhólaey is a National Park and if you take the time to drive up as far as you can to get near Dyrhólaey Lighthouse, you will be able to take in one of the best panoramic views in all of Iceland. The black lava columns of Reynisdrangar stretch out of the sea to the east. Looking West the entire coastline seems to be visible to Selfoss. But most impressively is the gigantic black arch of lava standing just in front of the small outcropping. This arch is what gave the peninsula its name; meaning The Hill Island with the Door Hole.

Into the volcano

The next day was an early start, but we only had two listed items on our agenda. The frst: jumping into a volcano. The second: relaxing in the Blue Lagoon.

Our tour collected us early in the morning and rendezvoused with the other adventure seekers at the main terminal for tours in downtown Reykjavik.

‘Inside the Volcano’ is a fve-hour guided tour, that although a little pricy at 42,000 Krona (Dh1,325) per person, it is well worth the trip and a once in a lifetime experience.

A 3km walk or helicopter ride is required to go from the tour bus drop off point to volcano base camp. Once arriving at base camp and outftted with safety gear, our group made its way to the very rim of the Thrihnukagigur Volcano, the only place in the world where you can descend with a customised elevator 120 meters directly into a lava chamber that last erupted 4,000 years ago.

The surrounding area gives no sign of civilisation and even the base camp that takes three weeks to be delivered by helicopter and constructed at the start of every season, disappears behind the cone of the volcano.

The six-minute ride to the bottom of the magma chamber goes faster than you would expect. Once landed, stepping out of the elevator basket is a humbling experience. The rich colours of the interior walls consisting of different minerals are astonishing as the chambers are normally flled with cooled magma. But Thrihnukagigur is one of a kind, as the magma seems to have either retreated into the Earth, or just solidifed in the walls.

On our walk back, stories were told of the Icelandic people who used to hideout in the tunnels underneath the lava feld hiding from prosecution and of the Huldufólk, the hidden Icelandic elves that are said to live near the rocks and caves.

Some of the lava tunnels are accessible and stretch on forever, unless caved in due to time and weather. I had to duck down to enter one such tunnel as it was wide enough but not nearly tall enough for me to move comfortably. By the time we reached our apartment around midday, we were certainly looking forward to the Blue Lagoon experience that night.

Pre-booking is a necessity and we are certainly glad that we did. Although it is supposed to be a relaxing, geothermal experience, we quickly realised that nearly every visitor to Iceland books at least a small bit of time at the lagoon. The number of people made it look and feel more like a Caribbean resort rather than a spa when we arrived.

One thing I didn’t know is that the lagoon is not natural, it is manmade. The lagoon is fed runoff water from the geothermal power plant nearby. It’s not toxic or anything, but it’s one thing that most people who visit the Lagoon fail to realise.

Dining with a difference

Our last full day in Iceland was dedicated to souvenir shopping and just general relaxation in a way that allowed us to see the local buzz of activity and yet still feel like we didn’t have to go anywhere to do something.

For our fnal dinner, I fnally worked up the courage to delve wholeheartedly into the local cuisine. Íslenski Barinn is a traditional restaurant located in the Central District along Ingólfsstræti Street. Their menu has a breadth of items to satisfy most tourists, but for this traveller only one item needed to be included on the menu, the infamous fermented shark.

All three traditional items offered caught my eye, so I placed one order for each of the fn whale in a jar, grilled puffn in a jar, and six pieces of fermented shark. Both the fn whale and puffn were okay, although nothing to get excited about. The fermented shark,

however, was not as bad as I was told. If you are looking for videos of it on the Internet, I assure you that what you will fnd is the worst case scenario. Our server explained that the version they serve isn’t the most pungent, for if they served that, the restaurant would clear out and they’d be out of business.

The initial smell was similar to what a can of fsh food smells like when you open it. Not bad, but you can tell it’s not normal. The flavour was even less shocking. Followed with a shot of Brennivín, the local distilled beverage, it was actually quite pleasant. In fact, I rather enjoyed it and would easily have it again. Plus, I can say, “I ate Icelandic fermented shark” just to see the faces of the people I’m talking to contort.

When it was over, Iceland was a trip of a lifetime. I feel like I do need to visit again during the wintertime to experience the three hours of daylight rather than three hours of twilight.

Plus, winter is the ideal time to see the famous Aurora Borealis in its entire splendour and to make my way into a glacier ice cave. I didn’t even get a chance to get into a super Jeep. Oh well – next time

7 weird facts about Iceland

1. The majority of Icelanders believe in elves

2. There is a volcanic eruption every 4 years on average

3. There are no forests in Iceland

4. The Icelandic language remains unchanged from ancient Norse. That means 1,000-year-old texts are still easily read

5. Babies in Iceland are routinely left outside to nap

6. In Iceland owning a pet snake, lizard or turtle is against the law

7. Iceland does not have an army, navy or air force
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