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Iceland: Life on the Brink

Iceland: Life on the Brink

Icelanders live on the edge.

In 1783 the Laki Volcano in this glacier-covered country erupted in a violent and prolonged paroxysm, killing a fifth of the country’s population.

For 10 months 30 billion tons of lava and sulfuric acid belched forth, creating a noxious haze that killed crops and livestock in Europe as it wound its deadly way west.

Some experts say it was this eruption that led to crop failures in distant France, setting the stage for the French Revolution.

There are still active volcanoes in Iceland, as we know all too well from the spring of 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted, snarling air traffic for weeks.

In the endless, but brief summer days when the sun never sets, golfers tee off at two in the morning, and at midnight cafes are filled with what could pass for boisterous lunchtime crowds.

But the seemingly endless winter are not, surprisingly, any colder or brutal than say those of New England or Montreal.

In fact, temperatures hover around the low forties, not so bad, but the drizzle and the low cloud cover is pretty constant.

The New York Times has an interesting article on the best times to go.

From late October to November, the Northern Lights are a major travel attraction, but they don’t come with guarantees, so ask any travel company that promotes the phenomenon what their refund or alternative plans are.

But at any time, the country is a nature-lovers paradise.

It’s misty and moody, with fast-moving clouds, wheeling gulls, and a silence that could be unsettling.

In the classic Western sense of beauty, Icelanders are striking.

Almost uniformly taller than the average European, they are almost always blonde with very blue eyes and finely sculptured features, befitting their Viking heritage.

Honest to a fault, reserved and taciturn, Icelanders still use the patronymic name system. The surname is the father’s name with son or dóttir (daughter) added to it.

Thus the former Icelandic president (the first woman elected president in a Democratic society) is Vigdis Finnbogadóttir, or Vigdis, daughter of Finnbogi.

Her brother would be Finnbogasson. It can be very confusing, so the phone book lists Icelanders by their occupation as well as their first names.

Reykjavík, the capital,  itself is a Lilliputian city. Everything is small scale with a distinct, charming, village feel.

But don’t let that fool you. It’s a reasonably sophisticated, fun-loving city in an very expensive country.

A Reykjavík stay has to include the  “Golden Circle,” a quick look at Iceland’s best-known features.

It can be done in a few days, if you return to your hotel in Reykjavík each night and set out again the next morning.

Tour buses  leave from various hotels, but better still, rent a car. That way you can stay as long as you like at any spot and stop at the many authentic fishing villages that dot the coast.

The driving is very civilized, roads beautifully marked and traffic nonexistent.

Your first stop, some 50 miles from Reykjavík, is Gullfoss (foss means “falls,” thus “Golden Falls”). You’ll hear the deafening roar of the double falls well before you arrive.

The river Hvita (White River) roars 105 feet into a half-mile ravine. Like so much of the nature in Iceland, you get as close as you want.

There are never any billboards to mar your views of nature at its most beautiful, nor are there people hawking coffee, souvenirs and other annoyances. Just you and the spectacle of nature with nothing in between.

Following along the old Viking trail, you can bypass Geysir (an original Icelandic name) if you’ve seen others. The main geyser started erupting around 1294, then petered out.

However, the area is ringed with lesser geysers that erupt frequently and spew forth very hot water. It’s quite interesting, and the eruptions never fail to cause lots of “oohs and ahs,” by those patiently waiting for the next plume of water to burst forth.

Continue to Thingvellir National Park (Thing-vet-tler), or Parliament Plains.

Allegedly it was here, on this vast, craggy, wind-swept plain, where cliffs and rivers surround a deep depression, that the Western world’s first parliament was formed, or so Icelanders claim.

The feuding, warlike tribes decided in 930 to band together and try to settle their differences peacefully. It was more carnival than law, with the speaker standing on a stone (logberg) drawing from his store of sagas, traditions, customs and precedent to keep the fractious tribes in line.

The last stop on the Golden Circle is the Blue Lagoon. About 10 miles from the airport on the Reykjanes peninsula, this man-made lagoon may be the strangest thing you’ve seen, and it will be one of the oddest photographs you’ll ever take.

Surrounded by an extensive lava flow, this silica-rich lake is a by-product of a geothermal energy processing plant nearby. It’s some mysterious-looking lake, with mist hovering just above the 104-degree blue water.

The only creatures in this blue lagoon are the incredulous visitors swimming in its waters.

Iceland’s glaciers and endless white mountain will doubtlessly inspire awe and respect for a people who not only survive against such odds, but, the present dismal economic situation not withstanding, are generally happy doing so.


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