Wednesday, 3 September 2014


People avoid Iceland. It is Nordic, therefore must be extortionately expensive. Foul beer at £10 a pint and a mortgage to afford dinner. That is probably why so few people visit Iceland. Yet "I am so glad you are going to Iceland!" a friend said. "People travel halfway round the world to visit New Zealand, when you can see the same things a two hour flight away in Iceland."

"I've always wanted to visit Norway," I said.

"Iceland's better," he replied.

And he is right. Iceland is exotic in a way more distant places are not. It is a land of dark volcanic rocks, and buildings of white corrugated iron and concrete. In Reykjavik these even have white roofs, which makes the city look modern, clean, a bit clinical. The countryside has few old buildings, turf-roofed hovels abandoned as soon as people could afford modern convenience. But some of the old traditions remain. There's hákarl, rotten shark meat (served in a sealed jar), smoked puffin - and bitarfiskur, a pleasant if pungent biltong-style snack made of dried, salted fish.


Fly with a budget airline and camp, and Iceland is cheap. The beer is no more expensive than in central Edinburgh and - to my astonishment - some of it is quite good.

And another thing about Iceland. I like the way random geographical features have proper names. This volcanic crater is called Kerið.

Each geyser also has its own name. This is Strokkur.

Another in in the park around Geysir is Konungshver. Another Blesi. The largest (and most famous) is Geysir, which gave its name to the whole class of hot spring fountains. Unfortunately it is not a frequent spurter. Strokkur is, and every five minutes or so provides entertainment as unwary tourists downwind are sprayed with hot sulphurous water.

Pressure welling in Strokkur:

Iceland is a land of abundant rivers and, on a wet day, what could be better than going to see a major waterfall like Gullfoss? You are going to get wet anyway...


At first sight, only the 11m top fall on the River Hvita is revealed. But get closer, and the lower 20m fall comes into view, thundering into a narrow slot gorge and sending wet clouds of spray high into the air.

The story of Gullfoss is one of local farmer Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who campaigned to have it preserved for the nation and saved from being dammed for electricity. There is a bust of Sigríður by the waterfall to preserve her memory. I like the way ordinary people in Iceland are recognised as heroes. Perhaps it comes from the tradition of the sagas. Perhaps it is because this is a country of ordinary people, whose infertile land repelled aristocrats and feudal landowners, leaving the inhabitants to make the best of what they had. And in the last 100 years, they've made quite a bit of it. What other country generates 100% of its power requirements from renewable sources, has a proportion of 1 in 10 of the population as published writers, or puts supposedly untouchable international financiers in jail for negligence?


blueskyscotland said...

I think I'll give the shark meat a miss if I go there. Always fancied the classic two week trek from Sveinstindur to Flojotsdalur though.

Robert Craig said...

It's surprisingly cheap to visit Iceland if you take a tent. I would definitely like to go back and do some hiking.