What my photographs can't tell you about Iceland
08 Oct 2016
Hello blog. Long time no see?
I could position this as an example of quality over quantity, but the truth is, my website is neither. So let's put aside my crippling lack of commitment to this endeavour for a moment and focus on the real reason you're here. You clicked a link from my Facebook or Twitter and ended up here. You have at least a mild interest in hearing more about the country of Iceland.
I can work with that.
For each of the seven days we were in Iceland, I decided to upload three photographs. This was definitely an artistic choice, and not just because my phone and SD card refuse to work together, or at all influenced by the fact that the web version of Facebook mobile only lets you upload three at a time.
Here are those photos:
I think they convey some of the beauty of Iceland, and they sort of document my experience, so I briefly considered not writing a blog at all, but then I thought, well... What about all the things photos can't tell you? What about your other senses? Feelings? How do I convey those? And thus, the idea for this post was born. So, without further ado...
The Vast Scale of Absolutely Everything
Okay so, first things first. My photos are like viewing a beautiful piece of art, clumsily scaled onto a postage stamp and pixelated to hell and back by Facebook's uploader. They look kinda cool compared to a picture of someone's food, or a status update about going to the gym. But visually, in comparison to real life, they're shit.
Iceland is stunning. In fact, stunning feels like an understatement. The rolling lava fields littered with interesting rock formations, huge thundering waterfalls, tremendous snow-capped mountain ranges... I'm pretty sure the guy who invented the word "awesome" originally had this sort of stuff in mind, and not like... Explosions or beer. Although those things are cool in their own way, these are vistas that truly inspire awe.
And there's no way for me to capture that. Certainly not on a cheap Android phone. The view envelopes you and surrounds you, and every time you think you've seen it all, you drive over the next ridge and you're left breathless again by how goddamn gorgeous everything looks in this stupidly attractive country.
I wish there was some way to do those views justice. But there isn't. You'll just have to go out there yourself and fill your own eyeballs. Consider that my recommendation.
The Stillness of the Wild
Because everything is so vast, it's easy to get away from civillisation. Iceland is sparsely populated generally, and the majority of the people there live in one of the literal handful of towns that can be found on the outskirts of island.
So when you hop into your rental car and drive out of the city, it's not long before you find yourself in solitude. It's peaceful. And it's quiet. At one point on our first day, we parked up in Thingvellir National Park in order to walk up a couple of hills, and for a moment I actually thought I had gone deaf. It was unbelievably quiet. That's not something you can find in many places on Earth these days.
The Cold Embrace of the Outdoors
It's cold in Iceland.
I actually kind of liked it. It's only just the start of the cold season at the minute, so the roads were all still open, and the ice was mostly just hanging out up in the glaciers. But the average low in September is 5 degrees, so I was glad I had gloves with me, and warm clothes.
Fortunately though, Iceland's not all just rocks and icy winds. Which brings me on to...
The Stench of Sulphur
Iceland sits on a meeting point between tectonic plates. These massive bits of the Earth's core are racing into and away from each other at various points, inch by inch. The result is sheer stone walls, deep cavernous fissures and canyons. Oh, and the heat of the Earth's core itself bursting up through the ground in the form of geysers, hot springs, and sometimes lava.
It smells awful, but every time you get the scent of rotten eggs you knew you were close to a natural wonder worth looking at. Science fans will be interested to know that all of Iceland's energy is acquired through renewable sources, and a lot of it comes directly from geothermal sources.
But by far the best use for this geographic miracle, is sitting in warm outdoor pools. The most famous and popular is the Blue Lagoon, which isn't just a name, it's actually light blue in colour. They've built up a resort of sorts around it, and installed a bar, but it's still a natural formation at heart, and it's a must-visit Iceland experience.
The Tastes of Reykjavík
Reykjavík is a cultural hotspot, which of course means there's stuff like monuments and buildings to look at, but also, a bunch of great places to eat!
We actually spent most of our time eating doritos and stale bread in the car while out on one of our road trips, but thankfully we did manage to hit a few restaurants during our trip too. Great pizza, wraps, soups and much more besides.
We also partook in a considerable amount of delicious and not-so-delicious alcohol... But more on that later.
Here's a list of the places we ate, plus what I had at each place. I recommend a visit to all of them, but I've put the list in order of greatness. Flatbakan and Gló in particular were incredible. Fair warning, I'm vegan at the minute, so if you've yet to learn the joy of veganism, your mileage may vary.
- Íslenska Flatbakan (Pizza and breadsticks)
- Gló (Vegetable wrap, salad, and raw cake)
- Kaffi Vínyl (Lasagne and a noteworthy whiskey sour)
- Kaffihús Vesturbæjar (Vegan burger with delicious avocado cream)
- Garðurinn (Ukranian Borscht)
- Joylato (Salted Caramel Ice Cream with Chocolate Fudge sauce)
- Reykjavík Chips (Chips with Satay sauce)
The Things you're not allowed to capture (With good reason)
One cultural difference between Iceland and the UK is the showering protocol. It turns out that Icelandic people are very particular about making you shower naked before you get into any kind of pool.
I suppose it guarantees better hygeine, but truth be told, it can be a little awkward in certain places where they strictly enforce it. And by strictly enforce it, I mean they pay a man to sit in a throne opposite the communal showers and literally watch you shower nude to make sure you're doing it. Which happened to us at one of the public pools.
Yeah. Kinda weird.
The Parties of Laugavegur
Reykjavík is among the cleanest, greenest, and safest cities the world. But that doesn't mean they don't know how to have a good time.
The national drink of Iceland is called Brennivín, known colloquially as "The Black Death" or "Burning Wine". If those descriptions sound horrible, it's probably because the drink itself is horrible. But no visit to a foreign country would be complete without a taste of their disgusting shot of choice, now would it?
They also have beer, obviously. We sampled Gull and Einstök, the latter of which is actually nice, if you're looking for one to try.
As opposed to the massive nightclub vibe that most capital cities have, Reykjavík has more of a café culture. They serve drinks and food all day, and turn the music up late at night on the weekends. And for convenience, they're mostly all found on one street: Laugavegur. Also, the pod hostel we stayed in was on that street too, for easy access.
There are several places to choose from, including a whiskey shack with rock music and a bar reportedly co-owned by Damon Albarn, but the place you HAVE to check out is The Lebowski Bar. It is excellent. They mostly sell White Russian cocktails, in a variety of mixes, and they play decent music until the early hours of the morning. It was so good, we went two nights in a row.
The Spirit of Adventure
By far the best reason to visit Iceland, is that you get to explore it. Those alien landscapes are just sitting there, waiting to be visited, hiked through, driven across and enjoyed.
Armed with a car (and of course, the aforementioned snacks) we headed out of town to see as much as we could. We drove across Thingvellir, we circumnavigated Iceland's largest natural lake, and we ventured out in epic road trips on Route One, Iceland's circular road that runs around the entire island.
Along the way we saw so much of what Iceland had to offer, up close. We stopped at more waterfalls than we had hot dinners. We walked kilometers off the road in search of a crashed plane. We clambered down into the pitch blackness of an impressive cave carved by ancient lava. We circled an enormous volanic crater.
We even climbed a bloody mountain. If I ever get my act together I might throw a video in here of that, because it was kind of crazy and I still don't fully believe that I did it.
Because really, despite what Facebook would have you believe, it's those stories and those memories themselves that are the real takeaway of visiting a country this majestic. Not photos. To put it pretentiously, it's not just about the scenic views at the destination, but the journey itself.
It's praying for your terrible rental car to make it up that next hill. It's wondering whether climbing up a random mountain with no humans around for miles and miles is actually a good idea. It's failing miserably to understand exchange rates and eventually giving up on caring about how incredibly expensive everything is. It's taking it in turns to use the torch in the cave so you can see which huge rock to try and climb onto next. It's the hip hop playlist keeping you going when the terrible taste of X-Ray Energy has failed to keep you awake on the drive back to Reykjavík. It's the slipping on wobbly rocks half way up the hill and dusting yourself off to keep going.
Simply put, it's the spirit of adventure that you only find in a few, special, inspiring countries. If you're looking for one to explore, give Iceland a try. You won't regret it.
P.S: Here's just some of the scenic places we visited on our grand tour:
- Þingvellir National Park, including Lake Þingvallavatn, and öxarárfoss (waterfall)
- Reykjavík (duh), including the old harbour and the Sólfar (Sun Voyayer) Monument
- Haukadalur, which is a geothermal hot spot featuring Geysir and Strokkur
- Gullfoss (waterfall)
- This random mountain
- Route 1
- Seljalandsfoss (waterfall) (And other waterfalls, including the very cool Gljúfrabúi, in the same area)
- Skógafoss (waterfall)
- Jökulsárlón (Glacier lagoon) - although it probably looks more impressive during the day
- Kolugljúfur, including Kolufoss (waterfall)
- Leidarendi Cave
- Kerið (Volcanic Crater)