She was 23. Dark-skinned, short in height but with soft brown eyes and flowing, unkempt hair and I fell in love with her just like that.
It was a slightly nippy but bright sunny morning with no cloud in the bluest of blue skies you’ll ever see. I met her at a hilly farm about 100km from the northernmost capital city in the world. She liked being soft-whispered into her ear and her neck stroked gently. Her name was Princess and I had her literally eating out of my hands. She liked sugar cubes.
She was a mare, ageing and retired but much loved by both her farmer owner and tourists like me making a short stop on their way from bustling Reykjavik to the isolated Gullfoss geothermal region out in the sparse countryside in Iceland.
Beautiful, serene Iceland, an island state northeast of Europe and dwarfed on its west by the largest island on the planet, Greenland. Here they love their horses. Although it is difficult to afford them, most of those who do, keep them as status symbols and many people driving out into the Great Wide Open love to stop by and spoil them with sugar cubes. Like me.
You can be forgiven for thinking Iceland is a country with lots of ice and plenty of cold. You’d be surprised it has a moderate clime with average temperatures being zero degrees centigrade in winter and in their 20s in summer.
It is, however, just as magical as most of us assume it is. The country of northern lights that bedeck the sky in eerie neon colours for most of the year after August. The country that generates all its power from geothermal activity. It is where the average age is 83 years and has been consistently voted as the happiest nation on Earth. It has no bones to pick with anyone. No conflict to nurture, no army at all and only a small police force who carry no weapons. The most serious crime here is selling tickets on the black market for the packed concerts of its native musicians, the elven Bjork (one of my favourites) and enigmatic Sigur Ross — who are wildly popular globally.
Verne, Nietzsche and Laxness
I was here for an impromptu weekend getaway from Copenhagen — a three-hour, $180 return flight — last month. On my first day I was taking the popular Golder Circle Tour, a quintessential Icelandic day-long excursion into the heartland of the country to its most popular and uber-scenic sites, Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss.
The trip started off from the country’s harbour capital Reykjavik in a roomy, luxury bus. As it made way out of the city, I was thinking about French author Jules Verne who wrote arguably one of the most famous adventure tales in literature, Journey to the Center of the Earth, about a volcano in western Iceland down which a group of explorers descend.
My thoughtstream was interrupted by our guide, who asked us to look left into the distance, where a snow-capped mountain shimmered in the haze. It was, I startlingly learnt, the 700,000-year Snaefellsjokull glacier, adjacent to where Verne sat writing his novel near the volcano into which his protagonists descended to the heart of the world in the 1864 science fiction novel that I read for the first time in 1978 in Colombo.
“You are lucky,” our guide Freya said. “The light is rarely bright enough to allow us to see the glacier 120km away.”
I am lucky, indeed, I thought to myself not for the first time in my life.
I remembered a quote from the Verne’s book (underlined in a poster that once adorned my room wall): “I dream with my eyes open… Nothing was more intoxicating than this attraction of the abyss. I was going to fall. A hand held me back.” Critics say this itself is another version of the famous quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
Iceland is such a country where gazing into the abyss is an opportunity you get often — a living paradox boasting active volcanos hundreds of thousands of years old and glaciers, such as the Langjokull Glacier (6 million years old and 600 metres deep) that we passed in about an hour snaking inward into Iceland.
Verne and Nietzsche were not the only persons of letter on my mind. About 30 minutes into our journey, we stopped at a gray-black forlorn house into a hillside with no other habitat in sight and with stubborn patches of snow on the hill refusing to melt under a happy sun. This was the home of Halldor Laxness, the 1995 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was a prolific novelist, short story writer and playright.
Worshipped in Iceland, he is best known for his 1935 novel, Independent People, considered as one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century. “No beauty is allowed to exist as ornamentation in its own right in these pages; the work is replete from cover to cover with the beauty of its perfection.” This description of the novel could double up as an introduction to his beloved Iceland.
Another celebrated novel of his was the startlingly titled, The Great Weaver from Kashmir, which was greeted by a British publication, thus: “Finally, finally, a grand novel which towers like a cliff above the flatland of contemporary Icelandic poetry and fiction! Iceland has gained a new literary giant — it is our duty to celebrate the fact with joy!”
My joy was limited, though. The house museum would not open for another hour while we had to keep moving.
Ravine, spring and waterfall
Our first stop was the breathtaking panorama that was Thingvellir — snowcapped mountains merging into grassy plains in a valley jutted by the largest lake in the country, shimmering deep blue in the bright light. And all of this — declared a national park — steeped in local history: the site of a building that served as Iceland’s first parliament set up 900 years ago! This was the very first parliament in Europe and is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It was here that Iceland declared independence from Scandinavia while retaining its Viking heritage and embraced democracy when most of Europe was neck-deep in bloody authoritarianism.
Thingvellir is also neatly divided by another phenomenon: the Raven Ravine, also known as the Rift Valley, which is tearing the island apart at an average two inches a year between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates.
We moved on to Geysir next. This is one of the most famous attractions of Iceland. It is a sprawling area in the shadow of a hill range sporting hot water springs. For over a century, the springs driven by perennial geo-thermal activity miles underneath, throw up geysers of hot water that spout in the air for up to 80 meters. The scalding hot waters can top 120 degrees centigrade.
The spectacular spouts unfailingly erupt every few minutes, keeping camera-ready visitors alert for hours on end. Perimeters are deployed to keep visitors at a safe distance as the spouts have been known to scald uncareful ones. The spouts are a sight to behold unlike any other phenomena.
The word ‘geyser’ is Iceland’s contribution to the English language, denoting a mechanism that warms up water.
Nearby are hotels and restaurants. I had a quick lunch and decided to try out a specific Icelandic delicacy — the skyr, a dairy product. It is eaten regularly as a snack or with meals. Many mistake it for yogurt but it is actually a form of soft cheese prized for its high protein and virtually no fat. It was delicious!
We moved on. As our day shifted into mid-afternoon, the hills gave way to a stunning deep blue series of lakes that seemed cordoned off. When I asked why, Freya, our guide, told us these boast “the best salmon in the world.” Fishing licenses are super-expensive and are mostly auctioned off to the rich and famous. Recent visitors have included Mrs. Vladimir Putin, Eric Clapton and Prince Harry. Clear out of my league, then, I told myself.
Soon enough we arrived at Gullfoss, billed as one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls. I could believe it. It was a stunning panorama sporting a massive, vivid permanent rainbow, as long as the sun was out. Which it was, thankfully, when I took the panorama in, dwarfing the thousand people that milled about spellbound. It is difficult to conduct a conversation here. The roar is deafening, the water spray hangs in the air omnipresent and the abyss (I couldn’t help thinking of Nietzsche again) into which a monstrous volume of water flowed held a magnetic lure that beckoned your sub-consciousness.
I stayed there for about an hour and parted only reluctantly.
Museums, churches and lagoons
We returned to Reykjavik through another route punctuated by more rolling hills and grasslands but strangely no trees. There are virtually no proper trees or forests in Iceland. Only bushlands and grasslands. About the only specie of tree that reluctantly grows here is the Alaskan Poplar which has pithy stem and is thin on foliage. The farmlands are encircled by metre-long ditches as drainage because the high water-table ends up spewing water everywhere. I wistfully thought of how that contrasted with a water-starved Pakistan devouring its water-table in the cities.
The villages in Iceland in the outback are all situated on geothermal faultlines where the energy is harnessed to grow mostly fruits and vegetables and small, happy communities sustained.
Next day it was time to explore the sprawling capital city. I was in time for the formal summer inauguration. The local rite of passage is for the city mayor to catch the first salmon of the season from the city river to herald the arrival of summer. How lovely!
Reykjavik is home to an impressive collection of interesting attractions and places of historic and contemporary significance with much to intrigue the curiosity of visitors. It is hilly, green and flowery with pastel painted houses, quiet lanes and busy bazars.
On the southwestern coast of Iceland, Reykjavik is home to the celebrated National Museum and Saga Museum, tracing the country’s Viking and whaling history. The striking Hallgrimskirkja Church, the city’s main landmark visible from everywhere like the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, and the rotating The Pearl, a glass dome restaurant and shopping complex, offer sweeping views of the sea and nearby hills.
Also, exemplifying the island’s volcanic activity is the geothermal Blue Lagoon spa that almost all visitors to the city go to for a nutrient-rich dip. Everybody loves a dip here. Taking a hot dip is to Icelanders what drinking wine is to French and wolfing a paratha to Pakistanis.
At the spa, I learnt that swimming is the only compulsory subject at schools in the country. Everyone, between the ages of 6 and 16, need to master it and pass rigorous exams. No one ever drowns anymore in Iceland.
Books, drinks and phalluses
A major attraction is the waterfront Hofdi House over 120 years old, one of the city’s most beautiful traditional buildings. It was here that in 1986 hosted a summit meeting of presidents Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev that ushered in the formal end to the Cold War.
Other celebrities who have stayed here include Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill and Marlene Dietrich. With the impressive addition of Harpa — the city’s award winning new concert hall — and a growing number of other interesting places and businesses, the colourful Old Harbor is a place to spend the evening drinking and dining with its stunning views across the bay.
It also abuts one of Europe’s most famous shopping districts — the Laugevegur, or the Wash Road, which was once the main road to all key hot springs in the region. This hyper-cool thoroughfare is a place where you can easily spend all your money if you’re not careful. It is a street that symbolises an entire country with its wide sampling of all that the innovative, surprising, and design-obsessed country has to offer. You can spend a whole day here alone.
The Mal og Menning bookshop is one of the best bookshops I’ve ever seen in all the five continents.
Close by is the Icelandic Penis Museum, the only kind of it in the world, displaying actual specimens of phalluses of 215 land and sea mammals. Including man, of course. I mulled an exploration but decided to do the next best thing instead: try the local Icelandic signature beverage, the Brennivin.
This has something of a nasty reputation even among Icelanders. It is a sort of Schnapps distilled from potatoes, which doesn’t sound too bad (think vodka!) until you take a swig. It’s super-bitter, bordering on the vile, but is made a tad tolerable if it goes with shark meat. I didn’t enjoy the meal all that much but it didn’t matter — Iceland had already melted my heart.