#10 Iceland: Into the centre of the earth

‘Better weight than wisdom a traveller cannot carry.’

Hávamál, the Sayings of the Vikings

It took seven minutes to glide down 120m into the depths of the volcano’s crater. Thrihnukagigur volcano last erupted over 4000 years ago; five years ago, the coloured caverns of its magma chamber were opened up to form a unique tourist attraction. Clipped to the open sides of a metal lift, using a system devised for window cleaners on skyscrapers, eight of us were slowly lowered into the damp and dripping darkness, until the outside world was a distant uneven rectangle of light above us, visible only if we craned our necks backwards.

As the lift was winched up without us, its lights winked back like stars as we stood below, slightly stunned at being at the bottom of a dormant volcano. Left to our own devices in an area equivalent in size to three full-sized basketball courts, we clambered over boulders of porous rock, gazing at the multi-coloured walls: sulphurous yellow, rusty iron, dull orange and green-tinged copper. Droplets of water drifted down onto us from the opening of the volcano’s chimney at the top, smearing white in the gloom like slow-moving shooting stars.

Iceland is in one of the most volcanically active regions of the world, with eruptions occurring every three to four years due to its location on the interlocking fringes of the Eurasian and American continental plates. Thrihnukagigur is perched right on the centre of this joint, as is Thingvellir, site of the world’s oldest parliament, which was assembled here in 930 AD. Here we walked down Almannagjá, a narrow, vertical-sided canyon formed between two tectonic plates and an unusual visual representation of continental drift.

Textbook volcanic cones pebble the whole country, their angled slopes stripped of anything but grooved rock. Their activities have created some phenomenal scenery. Layers of black lava lie pitted and bare like a desolate lunar landscape, sometimes crumpled into weird and wonderful formations (for instance at Dimmuborgir, where an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’ was filmed). Milky turquoise lakes are cradled in deep, round craters and it’s hard to ignore the hot grumbling of the earth’s core when geothermal features are everywhere and sulphuric fumes prickle your nostrils. From bubbling pools of roiling brown mud to steaming vents, geysirs hissing like angry kettles out of the earth and natural hot pools for blissful bathing, this is a land where the might of nature is plain. It’s not just a captivating sight for tourists either. As Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company proudly states, ‘in Iceland, all electricity is generated from renewable sources: falling water, the heat of the earth and the force of the wind’. Again, the evidence is in your nose, with the hot water in sinks and showers in Icelandic homes carrying the unmistakable whiff of sulphur.

The other major force that has visibly and dramatically shaped the landscape is glaciation. As we drove round the country, classic U-shaped valleys, huge flat plains and lots of other features I gleefully remembered from my geography studies, such as hanging valleys, erratics, drumlins and pingoes (I had to google that last one!) rolled past the window like scenes in a nature documentary. Large swathes of the country are still bedecked with icecaps (I guess the clue is in the country’s name!) and at Jökulsárlón we stood at the edge of the glacier and gazed at the opaque blue-white bergs that had calved off from the Vatnajökul ice mass to float nonchalantly on the freezing water. Lush green grass, barren steppes of grey and black rock, tumbling rivers of pure clear water, geometric blocks of columnar basalt, snow-speckled mountains, fjords with humpback whales prancing in their sun-flecked depths, triangular volcanic peaks, grey skies laden with rainclouds – this is a land of breathtaking variety.

And so many waterfalls! All dramatic, all different. Skodafoss, which we’d watched Brian Cox visit on his BBC programme ‘Forces of Nature’ only weeks earlier – tall, thunderous, purposeful. Gulfoss – wide, sweeping, dominating the tabletop of green surrounding it and draining off fiercely into a narrow rocky gorge. Godafoss – a joyful flounce of frothy white cascades. And the magnificent Dettifoss – a pounding deluge of ferocious, churned-up brown water, with a clear arc of rainbow seared into the spray-spattered air alongside it.

With a population of just 320,000, some 120,000 of them in Reykjavik, the countryside of Iceland is largely empty. Raw, remote and bleak, it is nonetheless stunning and somehow magical. Magnetically enticing, it is also brutally expensive. I can’t wait until I can afford to go back!

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HIGHLIGHTS

Natural highlights – the whole country! Waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, whale-watching, geothermal hot springs, geysirs, thermal pools

Cultural highlights – bathing in thermal pools. While the most famous is the tourist magnet of the Blue Lagoon, Icelanders love to bathe in their wonderful natural hot waters. There are seven public thermal pools in Reykjavik alone. We enjoyed a few relaxing hours in Árbaejarlaug in Reykjavik – in such an expensive country, these public pools are a real steal as they cost just a few pounds to get in and you can stay as long as you like. In the north of the country, we loved the Myvatn Nature Baths, set in a spectacular lava landscape. If you have time to get off the beaten track, you can also find natural pools in wilder locations. The Big Church in Reykjavik stands out on the city skyline, has fresh, clean architectural lines and a sweeping view of the city from the top of the tower on a clear day. Harpa, the cultural centre on the harbour is a distinctive landmark, which won the Mies van der Rohe award for architecture in 2013 and has loads of different events going on. Worth visiting Harpa’s public spaces just to admire the building.

Food & drink highlights – one of the latest trendy superfoods, Skyr (pronounced skeer) is a low-fat, high protein Icelandic yoghurt in a range of flavours. Healthy and delicious! We loved fish and chips in the Fish Restaurant in Akureyri and enjoyed pizza in the cosy atmosphere of the restaurant-with-no-name at Hverfisgata, 12 in Reykjavik (once we’d recovered from learning the prices!). We didn’t try of the more unusual local delicacies like smoked puffin.

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