28th Post: 1st ICELAND – Gods and Geysers

The ponies of Iceland

1997 September: Thursday

As the plane started its slow descent towards Reykjavik, the Icelandair pilot’s voice came over the speaker: “The time in Iceland is one hour behind the one in front”. Fair enough, I suppose.

I’d spent the previous few weeks trying to locate a reasonable venue for Wilde. It was more difficult than I had imagined. I had been told that the authorities would only allow Icelandic plays to be performed in the National Theatre as understandably they were trying to preserve the language. In fact, they had a committee to create new words rather than have it bastardised by English terms. Finally the British Embassy Overseas Trade Services had given me the name of an appropriate Reykjavik stage – it was a pub called the Dubliner, an Irish outpost in the land of Vikings, volcanoes and cod.

Keflavik Airport, near Reykjavik

At a quarter to midnight the plane landed at Keflavik Airport and I walked into the prettiest air terminal I had seen. It was modern architecture at its best, panoramic windows, Norwegian wood, thick beige carpets, and a vast skylight with stained glass motifs. On the downside, as I walked out to board the bus to the city, the cold hit really hard; it was below zero with added wind chill, and I was dressed only in a shirt and a leather jacket with a broken zip. I shivered as we drove through the darkness and the flat dead wasteland towards the lights of Reykjavik 30 miles away.

The hotel was on the outskirts – a large recently constructed concrete block with an empty echoing foyer and seemingly no other guests at all. My requests for a hot drink were met with blank refusal by a yawning porter on the grounds that the kitchen was closed. The bedroom had no kettle or mini-bar. By 1am I had had enough. Muttering ‘Sod this’, I crept downstairs, dodged the porter, raided the kitchen, and returned bearing a pint of hot tea in a decorative vase that I purloined from a lounge. It was not an impressive start.

Aerial view of Reykjavik

1997 September: Friday

Neither was the hotel’s self-service breakfast. It consisted of some foul fish dish that tasted like a sweaty sock soaked in cooking oil. I ate a small hill of rubbery scrambled egg in compensation. Glancing down the menu price lists, it dawned that Iceland was an incredibly expensive place.

Typical Icelandic prices – in 1997!

However, outside the sun was shining, the air was brisk, and a new country awaited. Reykjavik (which translated as ‘Smoky Bay’, due to the steam rising from hot springs), was founded by the Vikings in 870AD, after which nothing much seems to have happened. If history was not Iceland’s strong point, scenery certainly was. The city was dominated by the stark mountains across the bay – they gave the island the look of a gigantic slag heap to which human habitation clung precariously on the edges. It was a place where you simply could not ignore nature.

The Fishermen’s statue at Reykjavik dockside

Down by the harbour quayside, I came across a statue of two anonymous fisherman gazing out towards the Arctic Ocean. It was a democratic and imaginative tribute to the real source of Icelandic survival. The main impression of the old town was one of wind-scoured cleanliness – straight streets lined by three-storey houses, their multi-coloured exteriors giving the place a tinny but defiant cheeriness.

The main square, the Austurvollur, was small and sported the only trees I’d seen so far. The town pond, the Tjorn, was actually quite a large lake and dotted with thuggish-looking Arctic tern pursuing bits of bread in the chilly ripples of water. The Chief Minister’s House, (formerly the city jail), was built on a small prominence and beyond it rose the Cathedral, a modern, impressively spired building reputedly built to resemble a basalt lava flow. What that had to do with Lutheranism was anybody’s guess?

The Cathedral, Reykjavik

On the main shopping street, the Laugavegur, I spotted a lingerie shop. Five female dummies stood in the window, all wearing crotch-less long johns – given the near freezing air, I could understand why, but as a sex aid they lacked a certain fizz.

The Tjorn – city lake

A few pedestrians strolled in the centre, while the traffic was similar to a quiet day in an English market town – the same unruffled parochial atmosphere. The only hint of the genuinely unusual came from the guidebook. It said that occasionally polar bears drifted across from Greenland on ice floes and could be found wandering up the main street. The policy was to shoot them on sight.

The Dubliner Bar – the venue

The Dubliner Bar was a small, rather pretty building in the centre of town. A man was unlocking the door as I arrived. He was about thirty with dark hair and sharp clear eyes.

“Hallo, I’m looking for Gerry.”

“Well, you’ve found him and you must be Neil.”

The bar itself was decorated with all the usual regalia of the Irish pub – Guinness and Jamieson adverts, road signs of ‘Kilkenny’, ‘Tralee’, etc, and the ubiquitous poster of Irish writers (including Oscar). Gerry said that it was the most northerly Irish bar in the world; it was only 150 miles from the Arctic Circle. This was a regular Reykjavik ploy – along the street another building was touted as ‘the Most Northerly Indian Restaurant in the World’.

Gerry pulled me a pint and we chatted for a while. Through the window, I noticed what looked like smoke signals blowing from the top of the mountain across the bay. I asked Gerry if it was steam.

“Christ, no. It’s snow. It’s not called Iceland for nothing.”

He said that at this time of year, the Reykjavik people watched the mountain each day to see how far the snow line had descended.

“By October it reaches sea level and Iceland really becomes Ice Land.”

Shop front on the main square, Reykjavik

Bearing in mind the hotel menu prices, I decided to stock up on food from a supermarket. Even this was a bit of a shock – a bread roll, two slices of ham, a small tub of margarine and a Kit Kat came to £6.50p. In the UK at 1997 prices, this would cost about £2. In another shop I bought a cheap biro, about 30p in Britain – here, it cost £2.20p. For the first time, I realised that I might have to depend on the show income simply to get through the trip.

When I returned to the Dubliner in the evening, the cost of living became even more worrying. A pint of lager costing £2.60 in the UK cost £5. 50p here! It seemed that the local method of coping with these prices was to restrict themselves to drinking only on Friday and Saturday nights. Then they would drink relatively cheaply at home until about 11pm, and emerge already well-oiled for an uproarious night out. The bars stayed open till at least 4am.

I sat by the window and watched the long twilight turn into night – it took over an hour to reach real darkness. In December there are only two hours of daylight per day.

Statue of Pallas Athene on Lekjorda St., Reykjavik

By 9pm a few other customers had arrived. A young man steered a very old man to a chair near me. The old man had the head of an ancient Norse god, long white hair flowing round the almost primeval strength of his features. He turned out to be a retired Professor of Medicine.

During our conversation, he told me that the Icelandic race was genetically almost half Irish. The reason for this was that when the Vikings arrived in Iceland, their womenfolk had taken one look at the place and insisted on returning to Scandinavia. Bereft of female companionship, the Vikings had raided Ireland and forcibly removed large numbers of Irish women to their new settlement. The resulting offspring had been as much Irish as Scandinavian.

He also said that the population of the country was roughly 250,000; since 1940, 50,000 of whom appeared to be American troops. The island was a base camp for the US in the event of a Third World War. This however provided work for the locals in addition to the plentiful building and fishing jobs. After an hour, his granddaughter came to collect him in her car. It was like watching the god Thor being helped carefully into a Landrover.

City street, Reyjavik

Later I talked more to Gerry. He said that on the previous weekend Ireland had played Iceland in a football World Cup qualifier in Reykjavik. The total capacity of the Dubliner was officially 170 persons – he had had 280 Irish fans inside. 8000 pints of Guinness had been sold and the bar was still roaring at 4am. Roused by complaints, the local cops had arrived outside, took one look at the mob, and cleared off again. With the party still continuing the next morning, their chartered aircraft was held up as everyone was still in the pub. Gerry had to phone their hotels, ask the staff to pack the fans’ luggage, and send it on to the airport. His beer order that day was the biggest ever placed in Iceland.

As I had to be up early the next morning, I left about midnight. The centre had indeed filled up with revellers. I passed a group of ten skinheads loitering on a street corner. They politely stood back to let me pass. Behind, I heard one of them call out: “Goodnight, sir.” A bit of a change from Camden Town.

The interior of Iceland

1997 September: Saturday

At 9am the following day, I joined the ‘Golden Circle’ Tour. The coach was packed with international tourists and I squeezed in beside a very large German. The guide was an athletic young Icelandic student who announced: “The temperature is zero, but it is a beautiful day. We should charge you extra – in September, this is very rare.”

After a half hour of driving to the south-east, we stopped on a hillside and walked out on to two jutting semi-circular viewing platforms, built for the visit of the Danish queen ten years previously. They were now known predictably by the nickname of ‘Queen Alexandra’s breasts’.

To the south, it was just possible to see the Westmen Islands. These were named after Irish slaves who had killed their Viking master and escaped there, hence the name. They themselves suffered badly from attacks by North African Barbary pirates – these early seafarers certainly got about a bit.

Below us lay a small town called Hverageroi, sited on top of geo-thermal springs where, as a result, it was possible to grow tropical plants in greenhouses. We drove down to what the guide engagingly described as ‘a tourist trap’ called Eden – it was in effect a supermarket of tat. The opening exhibit was an eight foot tall plastic Viking emitting Santa Claus-esque ‘Ho, ho, ho’s’. This was followed by every form of polar bear and troll trinket that Taiwan could invent. The guide shook his head in embarrassment: “I don’t know what the owner thought he was up to”. In its favour, there was indeed an extraordinary array of tropical plants.

A crater in Iceland

Back on the road, we drove further into the hills to a volcanic crater with a sinister slime-green lake covering the core. Breathing the air there was like drinking ice-cold water.

The next ‘attraction’ was a modern, very functional, Lutheran church that stood alone on the flat tundra. The guide explained that in the mid-1500s, the Danish king began to impose Lutheranism on the island. He managed to avoid the danger of the enduring religious strife that so bedevilled the rest of Europe by the simple solution of beheading the Catholic bishop and all his adherents. The island became and remained Lutheran. However, it seemed that paganism had never been far below the surface. A strong streak of Icelandic individualism meant that often they would attend church first and then make an offering of ravens’ blood to Odin in the back garden.

The Church in Iceland’s interior

There were a few small cabins around used as summer dachas; otherwise just the sparse coarse grass and the Icelandic fir trees that only grow to a height of three feet. The guide: “Question. What do you do when you get lost in a forest in Iceland? Answer. You stand up.” The bare landscape stretched away into the dark grey lava hills and the distant white ridge of a glacier.  I overheard a couple of English students in front of me: “So which barrel do we scrape next?” In truth, on this barren moor a bus stop would be a tourist attraction.

Gulfoss Waterfall in summer….
….. and winter

Our next stop, though, was genuinely impressive – a magnificent waterfall called the Gulfoss. In the 1920s, some speculators had planned to turn it into a hydroelectric dam. The daughter of the owner had walked to Reykjavik, made a barn-storming speech to the Parliament, and threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if they went ahead. She had such an effect that the plan was shelved. Later, the local people built a monument in her honour as being one of the first conservationists. A rainbow formed in the rising spray of the falls.

At 1pm, we arrived at a truly world-famous site. It was the Geyser – the original waterspout after which all the others were named. Unfortunately, it no longer spouted owing to some eighteenth century mead louts who had thrown boulders down into its interior to watch the spray blow them out – until it didn’t anymore. Luckily, another spout nearby called the Strokkur still performed roughly every five minutes: a very sudden roar and belch, then a pillar of boiling steam and spray emerged and shot up to about twenty feet.

The Strokkur spout

The last stop was at the Pingvellir National Park. This covered the actual line of the great rift between the European and the North American tectonic plates. Elsewhere along the north-south line it was covered by the Atlantic Ocean; this was the only place where it was visible. Two parallel lines of cliffs were separated by a couple of miles of flat, marshy no mans land. This was geology at its starkest.

The Valley between the Tectonic Plates

It was also the site of the first Icelandic parliament, the Alping. Starting in 930AD, this was an annual open-air debate that could last up to four weeks, and was arguably the real mother of parliaments. The Vikings enhanced the acoustics for their speeches by bouncing their voices off the cliff walls.

It was here where things started to go wrong.


Next week December 19 – How to Get lost in Iceland.


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