According to an old saying, “Greenland is white and Iceland is green.” But in March, Iceland is also white, as well as unique and fascinating.
By Jan Kelsey
According to an old saying, “Greenland is white and Iceland is green.” But in March, Iceland is also white, as well as unique and fascinating. When my husband and I received a flyer about a college-sponsored trip to Iceland — for a long weekend in March — we thought it seemed different enough to give it a try. And then, to our surprise, who should end up on the same trip but longtime Rye friend Susie Morison and her sister.
Iceland was settled by the Vikings in 840 AD. The Icelandic language is still very close to the Viking’s Old Norse. Most people also speak English, which is taught beginning in elementary school.
After a five-hour flight, we arrived in Reykjavik. On the 45-minute ride in from the airport, we passed through miles of desolate brown lava rock fields. Iceland is after all a volcanic island.
Reykjavik, Europe’s smallest capital city and home to two thirds of Iceland’s population, is a thoroughly modern and vibrant city. A wide variety of restaurants offer excellent fresh fish and particularly good lamb. Shopping in the old town is as diverse as anywhere in Europe with shops featuring beautiful hand-knit Icelandic sweaters. An active bar and club scene lasts well into the wee hours.
Architecturally, Reykjavik is known for its colorful houses. Traditionally built of timber or concrete, the “barujarn” houses (translated literally as “iron wave”) are sheathed in corrugated iron as protection from the wind and snow. Museums abound, including the National Gallery, the Einar Jonsson Sculpture Museum, and the Maritime Museum. While excavating for the foundation for the Hotel Reykjavik Centrum in 2001, workers uncovered a 10th-century longhouse. The fascinating Reykjavik 871+2 – The Settlement Exhibition was built to preserve the longhouse in place and provide exhibits on Iceland’s Viking past.
Iceland is a very “green” country. Geothermal heating is used to heat both residential and commercial districts. Roughly 90 percent of all the buildings in Iceland are heated with natural hot water. The pipes even run under the sidewalks in many places, eliminating the need for shoveling the snow. A very ingenious idea and, after the winter we just had, an intriguing one for Rye.
With a population of just over 320,000, Iceland is, in fact, a very small country and Icelanders are all related (at least seventh or eighth cousins). Everyone calls one another by their first name. Phone books are arranged alphabetically by first name. Icelanders do not have last names the same way that we do. In Iceland, you are always your father’s child. If a man named Jon Einarson has a son, Gunnar, his name is Gunnar Jonsson. If Jon has a daughter, Eva, her name is Eva Jonsdottir. When Eva marries, she retains her name and her children’s last names are “-son” or “-dottir” of her husband’s first name. So, in a family of four (parents with a boy and a girl) each would have a different last name.
So, how do Icelanders tell how closely they might be related? A database has been created based on the “Book of Icelanders,” a genealogy of the families from the 11th century onward. A smartphone app (IslendingaApp) drawing on this database was developed in 2013. Now, all an Icelander has to do is bump phones with another Icelander and the app will tell them how closely they are related.
Our second day was devoted to the Golden Circle tour, which includes some of the best-known historic sites and natural wonders of Iceland and is a must for all visitors. Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, a site of great historical and geological importance. The Icelandic parliament, the Althingi, was established here in the year 930, creating the Icelandic commonwealth, and continued to meet here until 1799, making it the oldest extant parliamentary institution in the world. The highlight of the meeting took place at the Law Rock (Logberg), where the Lawspeaker would recite aloud all the laws in effect at the time.
Geologically speaking, Thingvellir is the rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The path through the valley passes beneath the edge of the North American plate, which towers some 100 feet overhead. These plates are moving apart at a rate of 2 centimeters a year. It is a truly amazing to walk from North America to Europe.
We continued on to Gullfoss (Golden Falls), the spectacular waterfall. Glacial water is brownish because of the sediment it carries. In the sunlight the water has a golden glimmer hence the name of the falls. The water rushes over a two-step falls descending 32 meters to the canyon below.
The third leg of the Golden Circle is the hot springs field at Geysir, from which the English word “geyser” is derived. Pools of hot water and steam rise from crevices dotting the landscape. Strukkur, one of the largest geysers, erupts every ten minutes shooting boiling water 30 feet into the air!
At night we went in search of the Northern Lights. Waiting for complete darkness, we left our hotel at 10 p.m. Our tour guide was in constant phone contact with other guides checking out the best locations for celestial activity. We finally arrived at a place about a half-hour outside of Reykjavik, far away from any interfering light source. Standing out in the cold searching the sky, we waited . . . and waited. There was a faint glimmer or shimmer on the horizon. After about an hour we packed it in returning to our hotel well after midnight. Luckily, a member of our group had a camera set to an extremely slow shutter speed. He shared his picture of the amazing green light in the sky that was not visible to the naked eye. So we saw the Northern Lights, but didn’t see them. (There is no guarantee you will, but it is always a great adventure.)
Our final day was spent at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa located in lava fields 25 miles from Reykjavik. The man-made lagoon is fed by water output from a nearby geothermal plant. The water is naturally between 98 and 102 degrees and distinctively milky blue from the high silica content, which is wonderful for your skin. Since the Blue Lagoon is only 20 minutes from the airport, it is a popular day trip destination for Europeans. Floating around in the soothing warm water of the open-air lagoon was a fabulous way to spend our remaining hours in Iceland.