Five exams, extreme stress, a sensation that freedom is in the distant unimaginable future. I experienced this for a month before finally finishing the last exam. What did I feel? Relief? Excitement? Not so much as one might expect. I am sure many dedicated students are familiar with the strange void which makes itself felt shortly after walking out of one’s last exam. This ‘void’, as I consider it, is quite the anticlimax. I felt, as is always the case at the end of an academic year, like I was in a limbo land, just waiting for something to happen.
Fortunately this year I knew that my limbo period wouldn’t last too long. I had five days left in Edinburgh before the busiest day of the summer; I had to move all of the contents of our flat into a small van, clean up any traces of our presence, and depart with just hand luggage. Where was I going? North, to the realm of Ice and Fire.
Was it just a coincidence that George RR Martin called his epic fantasy A song of Ice and Fire and that the location chosen to film for the scenes north of the wall in the hugely popular television series Game of Thrones was Iceland? I don’t think so. Westeros and the east seem to have a lot in common with the reality of European history, thinking above all of the War of the Roses, but also the cultural traditions that were found in Europe throughout the middle ages. The wall in itself is clearly Hadrian’s wall on steroids, and what is north of the wall is a wilderness full of mysteries and magic, which most southerners see as pure superstition. It is well known that around 90% of Iceland’s population believe in elves. There is also much folklore about trolls and giants, as is also the case in other Northern countries, I am thinking of Norway in particular.
Easyjet has just made the world a little smaller, with this exciting new flight route Edinburgh-Reyjkavik. Previously I had considered visiting this isolated island, known best for its stunning landscapes, waterfalls and volcanic features, but the prices were too high with other airlines, especially given the relatively short journey.
As its name suggests, much of Iceland is covered in ice, especially in winter. The Vatnajökul glacier is one of the largests glaciers in Europe (in terms of area), and covers around 8% of the country. People also go to Iceland to see icebergs, such as Jökulsárlón, a reminder that man is quite insignificant in this harsh wilderness. Now let’s consider what sets Iceland apart from its neighbours, Greenland and Norway: volcanic activity. Iceland is a tectonic and volcanic hot spot. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is known about worldwide, mainly due to the resulting airport closures, which left many travellers stuck where they were. This must have been traumatic for news reporters who found themselves blushing on live television when unable to pronounce the name of the volcano. But the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull is not the only evidence of the fire element in this land… Iceland is full of naturally hot pools, geysers and evidence of the pressure can be seen in the steam which rises from the earth. The Icelandic people take advantage of this fantastic resource which provides them with cheap (but very pungent) hot water, inexpensive and renewable geothermal energy and a fantastic past time: bathing in the all-year round warm open-air swimming pools.
Sorry for the detour.
Day 1 I flew to Iceland, taking advantage of the new low-cost route from Edinburgh to Reykjavik. My flight arrived at around 8pm (after a two hours journey), and after a brief moment of anxiety when my Caxton card didn’t work, I took the flybus (£18 return ticket) to the centre of Reykjavik. It took about 45 minutes, and we went past the lava fields and industrial suburbs before arriving at the central bus station. The sky was clear, though it was a little chilly. After 15 minutes of walking through a residential area feeling famished, I reached Laugavegur, the main picturesque street in the centre.
Couchsurfing is the way forward if you want to travel in this otherwise expectedly expensive country. I was welcomed at my host’s house (who I found via couchsurfing). Although originally from Switzerland, she moved to Iceland 10 months ago after having been a frequent visitor to country for 5 years, which shows just how enthusiastic about the country she is. Her little modern studio flat had a pretty view onto typically Nordic colourful houses. I quickly learnt about how she lives ethically, practising ‘freeganism’ and how she made just about all her furniture from recycled boxes. Dinner w from a shop’s dustbin, thai green curry and rice, and it was surprisingly good. As I have come to expect from CS, my host was was very kind and generous, but our conversation lasted a long time, and the light outside was disorientating. We ended up going to bed at around 1am, at which time it still seemed like dusk judging by the light outside.
Day 2. Despite my lack of sleep, the next day I woke up early to sort out my card problem, bought a few vegan snacks for a picnic and headed off on a day trip to visit the golden circle. Iceland horizons picked me up at 9am from outside our host’s house, and we went off in a minivan with a few other tourists. I usually hate doing tours, but Iceland is not a great place to use public transport if time is limited. Most buses only return to Reykjavik one or two times a day from the major sites such as Gullfoss and Geyser. As far as tour operators go though, Iceland horizons was a great budget choice. Dave talked a little about Icelandic economics, history and society, whilst we drove through the suburbs, but allowed us thinking space when we were surrounded by natural beauty. It never felt as though he were impatient-on the contrary, I felt I had a perfect amount of time in each destination, and got a few surprises thrown in.
Dave stopped to allow us to walk around a volcano, see another less famous waterfall and come up close to some Icelandic ponies, which were surprisingly friendly. We had about an hour at Gullfoss, followed by an hour at Geyser and another hour at Þingvellir. Gullfoss was beautiful, and that is coming from someone who has seen many beautiful waterfalls in the world. It was quite dramatic, and though touristy, it did not feel like Disneyland, as was the case with Iguaçu falls. I had a quick picnic and then walked along the edge, getting sprinkled by a refreshing mist.
Geyser was perhaps the most interesting sight for me, as I have never seen a geyser before. The main geyser there was surrounded by onlookers. On average it erupts every five minutes, yet the suspense between eruptions was incredible. The small crater was bubbling, yet it never seemed to be about to explode. Then, the inevitable jet of warm water shocks everyone, despite everyone knowing that it was about to happen. We experienced being soaked by the sulphuric eggy misty which was blown in the breeze to where I was standing.
The final destination took us to Þingvellir, the site of the old parliament of the Vikings, though there is no trace left of their presence. The summer house of the Prime minister and the postcard perfect little church act as testament to the area’s historical importance. Here I stood between the two continental plates, that of North America and Eurasia. One day I’d love to come back and dive between the two plates. The area was sculptured by earthquakes, cracks and high ledges, and made more poetic by the clear blue rivers and surrounding mountains. I returned to Reykjavik at about 5pm, tired after a long day. I went to bed pretty soon after having dinner with my host and sampling Icelandic herbal tea (a delicious mixture of Angelica, Birch and Iceland moss).
Day 3. Having already done a lot on my first day, I slept in late today. After relaxing around the flat and getting fed and watered, I left our host’s house at around 2pm to check into our hostel: Reykjavik backpackers. Unsurprisingly for a Nordic country it was quite pricey, costing around £22 a night, but it was clean, tastefully decorated, with a bar, good showers and comfortable beds. I love Couchsurfing, but sometimes, even on a tight budget, I need to have some privacy. Most of the staff were really friendly and helpful with regards to providing advice about transport etc. After dropping off my stuff in the 6-bed mixed dorm, I immediately left the hostel to take a walk around the city, visiting the top floor of the Hallgrimskirkja to get a fantastic view of the city, the parliament building and the upmarket residential area around it, the pond and a few book shops. I attempted the walk towards the lighthouse, but turned right too early, ending up in a monotonous and tiresome industrial area near the harbour. Suffering from a sugar drop, I put my hand out in hope I could hitch hike back to the centre. I struck lucky. A friendly local made room for us in his car, I sat with the two toddlers in the back. He talked a little about Iceland, before announcing he had two pubs. Before I knew it, we were ushered out of the car and into one of these said bars, after he said I couldn’t leave Iceland without trying a brio. After some whispers to one of the bar staff, he left without another word. I quickly found out what a brio was, as I got given two pints of beer on the house! Turns out Reyjavik is a very good place to hitchhike.
Day 4. I had a quite substantial breakfast at the Italian run gelateria and creperie Eldur and Is, which made fantastic crepes, usually with spelt, but also a gluten free vegan variety! There were numerous fillings, but I went for dark chocolate and blueberries, washed down with a iced white tea from the nearby 10-11. Today I had organized something which I had always wanted to do: whale watching. When I was little I used to be really obsessed with marine life, in particular large mammals such as dolphins and whales, and large fish, such as sharks! I was obsessed to the extent I dreamed of being a marine biologist. I may now be a language student, but my love of marine life is still with me. I went with Elding tours, after seeing such good reviews online. It turns out that Elding is also a very ethical company, campaigning against the slaughter of whales for meat, which is legal in Iceland, and promoting whale watching as a more peaceful alternative. Being an eager beaver, I went way too early, allowing me some time at least to take things slowly and check out the sights on the way. The most impressive and surprising of these was indeed the Harper building, the main concert hall of the city. Though futuristic on the outside, it was even more so on the inside. On the ground floor were a few shops selling CDs and memorabilia. Upstairs were plush cafés, and the glass walls made for a vertiginous experience.
I headed to the Elding office, still ahead of schedule, and got a free hot chocolate to warm ourselves up before heading off. The waiting area for the boat was another boat, with a little exhibition about whales and previous sightings. In the Reykjavik area the most common whale species are minkes, followed by the majestic humpback. There are also white-beaked dolphins, porpoises, and occasional sightings of orcas.. and even the very occasional blue whale! The water was quite rough, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t see anything. If it weren’t for my warm overcoat I would have probably died of hyperthermia, courtesy of raynaud’s disease. I stayed at the hull awaiting some signs of life. After a brief and interesting visit to see puffins, the boat headed out to the open ocean. After a quick sighting of two porpoises close to the boat, it seemed like I had my fair share of luck. I was wrong. 20 minutes of patiently waiting proved enough, and I got my first glimpse of a minke whale. A few minutes later, and I saw another, and then another! The sea became rougher, the sky more overcast, and I thought it would be time to return to shore. We had one more treat in store for us. A pod of white-beak dolphins rushed towards the boat, some of them diving under, many circling us and jumping around playfully. It was a really unexpected finale. I returned to the bottom deck café/sitting area for the return journey, munching on a dark chocolate rice cake and high from the experience. Next time I will see a humpback whale. I slept for the afternoon in the hostel, before cooking and eating soup with bread in the kitchen; a staple easy dinner for the budget traveler.
Day 5. Today was supposedly a day to ‘relax’, leaving the hostel early to chill at the famous hot pool Laugardalslaug, which is very popular amongst locals. It was drizzly, the perfect day for an outdoor swim right? The price was 550 isk, about £3, which is really good considering the facilities available. For that price you got access to the showers (shower gel included), the lockers (the key is in the digital waterproof wrist band), hair drying and cloth drying facilities! On top of that, there were many pools. Needless to say, being in Iceland I completely ignored the indoor pool, going straight for a warm one, which was heated to around 20 degrees. I then sampled a 44 degree hot pool, which was seriously hot, and ended up needing to switch to the 8 degree large pool, designed for doing strokes. After this slightly more refreshing dip, I headed to my personal favourite, the geothermal heated seawater pool. It was 40 degrees, which was perhaps a little too hot for my liking, but I give into the hype of bathing in mineral water too much, and salt water has always proven great for my skin. After an hour and a half, feeling a little too hot and restless, I went home. This is an excellent pool if you want to try something quintessentially Icelandic, which doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. The blue lagoon, though beautiful, seems extortionate if you think of the cost-facilities relation, the entrance fee costing around £40, and a one way bus around £10…
Again, I returned to the hostel for a rest and another lunch of sandwiches. The rain returned hard-core by the afternoon, just as I went out to get tea and cake. There was a cute little vegetarian restaurant just off the road where my hostel was, Ecstasy’s Heart-Garden. I opted for the gluten free vegan chocolate cake and a local Iceland moss tea. When the rain finally passed, I went out, took a walk and then returned in time for dinner (soup and bread again..)
While we are on the topic of food, being a vegetarian/vegan in Iceland is rather easy. Soya milk and yoghurt are readily available, there are plenty of vegan options and many veggie restaurants. Ecstasy’s Heart-Garden was brilliant, also offering gluten free raw vegan snicker’s cake, which I took away for breakfast the next day. Glo have a lot of raw food options, including cakes, one of which I tried on the last day. Downstairs from Glo is also a really good (if not a little bit expensive) health food shop, which sells fresh gluten free bread two times a week and a good variety of gluten free cereal, chocolate, snacks, pasta and other things which are difficult to get hold of elsewhere!
Having filled my belly a little, I went out to see the sun voyager, a modern art installation on the seafront which is made to look like a Viking ship. I realised I still had a lot of energy left in us, so kept going to the left until I eventually reached the lighthouse for real. The views across the bay were quite stunning, even more so when I reached the lighthouse and could see the South shore stretching out in front of me. It was a nice walk, but the walk back would have been repetitive, so I hitched a lift with some local guys who told us about the hippest thing which happens in the city-the fishermen’s festival.
Day 6. Today I got up early yet again to head off on a Viking horse through an Icelandic valley. The Laxnes horse farm was located in a pretty area, close to the city, but in the countryside. It is family run, and hence very informal. One of the women treated me in a very motherly way, seeking out small overalls and finding and an adequately fitting hat. We were then assigned horses, which were chosen on the basis of our experience. When I said I had had a horse a few years ago, I was inevitably given the mare in season, a pretty little horse called Harper. We passed through some interesting terrains including rivers, roads, narrows paths, and up steep hills. Though my horse was lovely and the ride was by and large enjoyable, I had a few gripes: the saddle was clearly incorrectly fitted, as whenever my horse went into a trot, it slid to one side and left me feeling a little vulnerable. For this reason I opted to go on the slower ride when we were given the chance to choose midway, whilst I would have chosen the faster one, being an experienced rider. My second grumble was that the riders at the front seemed a little impatient with the paying customers. They also seemed to think that cantering on roads wouldn’t harm the horses feet, and that the rising trot was optional. Apart from that, my horse was lovely, the stable itself was very nice, and the location was really beautiful.
I got back to town and rewarded myself with soup and hummus at Ecstasy’s heart garden. After a couple of hours I noticed my aching backside, yet still decided to do something. I went to the down town flea market, bought some Icelandic herbal tea, and then decided to check out the two pointy towers that towered above the relatively low Reykjavik skyline. I passed a park and yet another residential area, before arriving at the surprisingly attractive Háteigskirkja church. It was quite typically Icelandic in design, with an Icelandic flag flying high in front of it. I couldn’t enter as a wedding was taking place, though I have since read that the interior is not as interesting as the exterior anyway!
Day 7. This was my last full day in Iceland. Being a Sunday, I soon realized that the buses start running later than usual, and had to wait for 2 hours at the bus station before being able to get the 19 bus to Árbærjarsafn, the open air folk museum in the suburbs of the city. A return trip cost 700 isk , about £4. The folk museum was very quiet and looking around it was quite a pleasant way to spend the morning. The entrance fee was 600 isk for students, 1200 isk for everyone else. Though quite small, the museum had a good collection of traditional houses from different periods, including a church and some houses with turf roofs. It was great to be able to go inside them and explore the upstairs too. If you can’t get to Skogar, thi is a good alternative if you want a taster of Icelandic traditional life from the past. This was one of my first sunny days, and I returned to our hostel at around 3pm, had another habitual rest and cooked some food. It was a calming evening, walking along the coast, looking out towards the bay and mount Esja. I had a disturbed nights sleep that day, thanks to two drunkards beating up a girl who was screaming. Always the case when one needs to sleep. Slightly concerned about what was happening to this girl at 2am, I went down to reception in my pjs to ask what happened. “Oh, just some really crazy Icelandic people…” was the response. I moved to another room where there was no creaking, no snoring and no screaming and slept like a baby.
Day 8. I hate afternoon flights. You never know whether you ought to go out and do something touristy, or just hang around. I always end up doing the latter, as I don’t want to risk missing the flight or having travel complications… I wandered around town for a while after leaving my bags at the hostel, bought some iceland moss for my mum, bought a salad for lunch, and then passed the entire afternoon sat in a cosy bookshop, free to look at travel books and dream about the next destination, to drink water from the coffee shop and look at what was going on down in the street below. Flybus to the airport at 5pm, the airport seemed like a ghost town, the duty free and restaurants were nearly all dark with shutters downs. No wonder it is so expensive to fly to Iceland-there are hardly any flights.
Overall I had an amazing time in this sparsely populated yet progressive little nation, did and saw some amazing things, and lived on a budget to the best of my abilities, considering the extortionate prices which are found in Iceland. If you are a veggie traveller, you will easily get by, especially if you learn the words for various meats and ask locals for help with translations.More or less everyone is bilingual, so despite the apparently massive language barrier, you should get by. Should you wish to learn Icelandic, go ahead, no language is more difficult than another one if you are motivated.