Overseas travel index
Iceland -
land of fire, trolls, elves, snow, history, sagas, Vikings, beauty.
Before I go any further I'd like to make it clear that I'm implying a great deal by suggesting that these few notes could come close to expressing everything that is Iceland, its history and its people.  This is just a small sample of what the country has to offer. And photos on a screen can never illustrate the true grandeur and majesty of such a beautiful, striking, different place.  These notes follow a trip to Reykjavik for Jól (Yule, Christmas, midwinter, whatever you want to call the late December festive season) 2004.

Basalt Sculpture
One of the wonderful things about Reykjavik is the fact that you will find sculptures on almost every corner.  Icelanders take their culture very seriously.

This is an unusual piece to be found on the University campus to the west of the city. Made from reconstituted stone, it represents the natural basalt columns that occur in other parts of the country. Basalt has a distinctive shape, represented by the hexagonal blocks. This piece dates from 1990 and was sponsored by the local bank.
In December Iceland gets around four hours daylight a day - and that's not the brightest you'll ever see. The sun finally gets over the horizon around 11am and is well on its way back down by 3pm. That accounts for why these photos are  dark. But around Christmas the place is magical. Everything is lit by candlelight  and there are tales a-plenty of trolls and elves to add to the mystical atmosphere. The country officially adopted Christianity in 1000 AD but around a third of its population still believes that it is inhabited by trolls and the hidden people - elves. The story goes that God went to visit Eve one day but she had been very busy so she had not had time to wash and dress all her children. Rather than let God see that she had untidy children she decided to hide the unwashed ones in the cellar.  After God met her other children he asked: "Surely you have more children than this?" 
But Eve denied it and said He had met them all.
 "Foolish woman," God said, "Do you not realise that I know everything? If you do not want me to see your children then, from this day, they will be hidden from the eyes of Man for all time!"  And that is why the elves can only be seen if they want to.

To add to the festive tales there are the Yule Lads - 13 pranksters who arrive, one a day, until Christmas Eve. They are responsible for many of the things that go wrong around Christmas and have names like Candle Beggar, Strap Loosener, Butter Stealer and Lamp Shadow. If children are good they can leave their shoes in the windowsill and expect to find a gift in the morning. But if they are bad they will get just a raw potato.  And if that wasn't bad enough there's the Yule Cat to contend with.  Everyone must have something new to wear for Christmas or be carried off by the Yule Cat to be eaten in his lair.  That tale stems from the days when much of Iceland's wealth depended on wool and workers were expected to finish washing, carding and spinning the fleeces by Yule.  In exchange they were given an item of clothing.  So if they had no new clothes it meant they had not worked hard enough and so deserved to be carried away by the Cat.

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Hallgrims church
View of Hallgrims Church from Saga Hotel

Tourism does not stop in Iceland even in the starkest weather so that visitors can expect to see some of its highlights even on Christmas Day. One such place is the Blue Lagoon, the offshoot of a geothermal power plant  near Grindavík, around 10 miles from Keflavík Airport.                                   
Offical Blue Lagoon Tourism shot
blue lagoon

Water is piped from around a mile below the earth's surface and is about 240 degrees Celcius when it arrives near the surface. It is used first to power steam turbines to generate electricity then pumped through pipes passing through fresh water to provide a hot water supply for nearby Reykjavik. By the time it has been used to create clean energy it has cooled to around 70 degrees, the temperature of a very warm bath. It is allowed to run into an outdoor lagoon alongside the power plant and visitors can bathe in the mineral-rich pool. It is a surreal experience on Christmas Day to be up to your neck in milky, blue, hot water, surrounded by a snow-covered lava field and enveloped in steam created by the combination of the hot water and below-freezing air.

Within a short distance of the world's most northerly capital lies the site of the oldest parliament in the world, the Althing (Alþing) on Thingvellir (Þingvellir) or Parliament Plain. This annual meeting was founded in 930 AD as a place to settle disputes and establish new laws. Icelanders travelled from all over the country to attend the meetings at the Law Rock but, while all could listen, only the chieftains could vote. Thingvellir is now recognised as one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites. Close by the site of the first parliament  meetings, to the north of Iceland's largest lake Thingvallavatn, two continental plates meet and it is possible within a few hundred yards to pass from Europe to America. Between the two is a slowly expanding area known as No Man's Land. Lava wells up between the two plates to seal the rift as the two land masses drift apart but it is noticeably lower than the two plates and steep cliffs can be seen that mark the boundaries.

A very grey day at Gullfoss - but the raging waters can just be seen in the background.
Other highlights on a trip from the city might include the magnificent Gullfoss or Golden Falls, a double level waterfall that cascades more than 100 feet (32 metres) into a ravine. The falls was  almost  destroyed when businessmen planned to create a hydroelectric plant on the site but local farmer's daughter Sigriþur Tómasdóttir mounted a one-woman campaign to stop it. She threatened to throw herself from the top of the falls if the plan went ahead and the government eventually agreed to buy the land and save a natural wonder. It is now designated a national monument.

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Every school child knows that the official name for an exploding hot spring is geysir but how many know that all of them are named after the original Geysir in Iceland?  The site of the original Geysir can be found close by  Gullfoss but the once magnificent spring now blows its top only after earthquakes. On the other hand it has a close neighbour called Strokkur (Cauldron) that can be relied on to spout steam and hot water every few minutes, reaching its peak height about every 15 minutes.  A short wait by Strokkur's mud hole will soon be rewarded with a 60 feet high (20 metres) plume of boiling water.
Geysir site
The site of the original Geysir - now just a hot spot in the snow.
Strokkur starting
Strokkur starting up
Strokkur steaming
Strokkur steaming
Thanks to Hafsteinn and Baldur of Iceland Excursions for much of the information on this page.