“While I was growing up I never heard the word ‘happiness’ except on the lips of a crazy woman… My grandfather was once asked, sympathetically, how the people at Akurgerði, who had lost their breadwinners at sea, were keeping. He answered, “They have plenty of fish.” In the same way, if someone asked how anyone was, we invariably replied: “Oh, he’s fat enough.” – which meant he was well, or as they would say in Denmark, he was ‘happy’. If someone was not well, one said: “Oh, you can see it on him.” And if the person under discussion was more dead than alive, one said: “Oh, he’s a bit low.”, “He’s off his food these days.” or “He’s packing his bags now, dear fellow.” Of a mortally ill youngster it was said that it did not look as if he would ever have grey hairs to comb.”
The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Guðjónsson Laxness
If you’re considering a trip to Iceland, get yourself fully vaccinated, let 15 days pass, book your tickets, pack your cozzie and some wind/rain proof outer layers, grab your passport and go!
Also, take your life savings. You’ll need every penny.
But don’t rely too heavily on Google. The all-knowing-cyber-giant is not too clued in to Iceland.
Google has no idea what museum is open, what time a restaurant closes, if a geothermal bath is still open to visitors or where in Grindavík to buy salt fish. Google maps cannot even tell you how to get to a base camp meeting place to hike a glacier – we had to get geographic coordinates from the tour company. Google also did not tell us we were near a Shark Museum – we happened upon that ourselves. And Hubby had to do without coffee for an entire day due to Google’s lack of caffeinated-hot-drink information.
Geothermal is HUGE in Iceland which makes heating and electricity super cheap (apparently – I don’t actually know the prices and even a cup of coffee costs an arm an a leg there, so …). But my point is this – when we were ‘upgraded’ (beware of that word) by Hertz to a hybrid car, we were excited to be saving some dosh and going greener.
Fuelling stations are few and far between in Iceland (and Google is not clued into where they are), but almost everywhere you go, shop parking lots, hotels etc, all have electric charging stations where you can use the ‘ON’ card to charge your battery while you charge your batteries.
Did Hertz give us an ‘ON’ card? Did they include charging cables? Did the customer service person at the Hertz desk show us any empathy or offer any discount or recourse for their oversight?
I know you want to believe in human goodness as much as I do, but I’m afraid it’s a resounding ‘NO’ to all questions.
Instead we filled up with premium fuel almost every day because driving a hybrid is equivalent to driving a fully loaded car.
Anyway, road trips are great and we loved all the driving despite at one stage being 88km from our destination, with only enough fuel for 70km, and no feeling stations anywhere in Google-sight.
Phew! We made it with a few litres to spare.
What have we learnt about Iceland that Google cannot tell you?
- Hot pools are everywhere. They bubble and steam at the side of roads and lunar landscapes. They heat hothouses. Some become fee-paying luxury tourist traps. Some are literally too hot to handle. Many are sulphur-itious. The Icelanders LOVE them and lie about in them daily, only stepping out to sweat up a storm in the saunas and steam rooms or quickly dip into icy cold water.
- If you love fish, you cannot go wrong in Iceland. We even found fish ‘biltong’ (dried fish) which was crunch in texture, fishy in smell and high in protein. Icelanders eat it smeared with butter.
- Other foods we loved: Icelandic chard, lamb soup with barley and veg, marriage cake with rhubarb jam, Icelandic ice cream rye bread flavour, lobster soup and sushi.
- We tried shark meat with (and without) sweet bread. Hubby described the taste as “like very strong cheese with an after taste of ammonia.” Icelanders eat it at a festival in February called Þorrablót – a winter festival celebrating traditional Icelandic cuisine with fermented shark and boiled sheep head. When quizzed about this, most Icelanders admitted to only eating shark meat in February and then only a nibble followed immediately with a shot of Icelandic brennivín (brandy).
- Icelanders do not have surnames. They only have patronymics. So if you are a boy called Sigurður and your father’s name was Þór (Thor), your full name will be Sigurður þórsson. If you are þór’s little daughter and your first name is Guðrún, your full name will be Guðrún þórsdóttir. So it’s possible for a husband and wife, with girl and boy children, to all have a different last name. Because of this, most Icelanders can trace their ancestry all the way back to the original settlers on the island. If an Icelander does have a surname (like the author I’ve quoted) then it’s probably handed down from Danish family and is considered pretentious.
- Health and Safety rules apply on all organised tours. It feels rather like being nannied – “Don’t step near the crevasse!” “Stay in a line!” that sort of thing (actual warnings to Hubby and me as we explored on the glacier hike). Had we known, we’d have hired the crampons and ice-picks and just asked a local to point us to the glacier. The locals all hike, walk, swim, explore, snowmobile etc anywhere they like with no concern for rules, just a little common sense. We reasoned that the tours are like primary school outings because of all the potentially litigious American tourists. 90% of the tourists we came across were Americans. Hence also, all the burgers and chips and pizza restaurants all over Iceland.
- It’s very easy to speed on Iceland roads. Speed limits are much much lower than in the UK or in South Africa or Europe. You have to constantly put your foot on the break to bring yourself back to the top speed limit on open roads – 90km/hour. This is difficult when there’s not another car anywhere in sight for miles and miles.
- In terms of flora, there is a lot of moss which is protected, but which you can buy at the supermarket. Also little flowers and succulents grow all over the rocky landscape. There are very few trees except where domestic or urban landscaping has been done.
- Fauna is also limited. Until the Norwegian and Danish settlers arrived the only mammal, native to Iceland, was the Arctic fox. Otherwise, there are seals, puffins, Kittiewick and other sea birds, Icelandic horses (NOT ponies, we were emphatically told. Again, we were mistaken for Americans here.) And there’s a lot of sheep farming so every now and again you need to slow down your speeding vehicle to allow a lamb or sheep to cross the road to determine if it’s greener on the other side.
- You can visit the Hellisheiði Power Station, the third-largest geothermal power station in the world. We did. Here you learn all that sciencey stuff about hot air and power.
- Glaciers are so much fun. We went up, onto, into glaciers. We hiked, we snowmobiled and we tunnelled.
- Black beaches are a thing of beauty.
- We were in Iceland at during the 3 week flowing period of the purple ‘nootka’, or Alaskan lupine. It adds stunning colour to the landscape, but is actually not indigenous. It was brought to Iceland in 1945 as a means to add nitrogen to the soil and to stop erosion.
Our absolute highlight was on our penultimate day in Iceland. We put on all our extra wet/wind gear and climbed 3km for just over an hour, to an elevation of approximately 300m to sit and watch the latest Icelandic volcano spew its guts. Fagradalsfjall volcano, on the Reykjanes Peninsula, first erupted on 19th March 2021 after laying dormant for 800 years. It’s and effusive rather than an explosive volcano so scientists and visitors have been able to get really close to it to study it. The lava flow now covers almost 4 square kilometres and you can walk along the flow. The edges are cool enough to stand on, but you can feel the warmth coming off the now solid formations and steam still rises from the interior.
I will now prepare to bore you with photos!
P.s. We have news about our flat sale … stay tuned for next blog.
P.p.s. At home in London, it’s been raining on an olympic level. Basements have been flooded, allotments need no watering and since there’s been so little sun, it’s not turning out to be a good year for anything but cucumbers which are really just water anyway. As a result, we recently discovered a growing damp patch on our bedroom wall. Turns out our dodgy roofer of 2014 did not secure the roof slates properly. They do not extend properly over the gutter and the membrane is too short so water has been getting in for 7 years. We have roofers madly at work right now to try and get the repairs done before the heavens open again tomorrow.
P.p.p.s. Halldór Laxness is Iceland’s most famous author. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955. We happened upon his home in Gljúfrasteinn when we were looking for a coffee shop. We mistook a car park and cultural signpost among the trees off a country road and pulled over. It was an interesting diversion and a welcome break, but no coffee. Hubby has a coffee habit.