By Sophia Scazzero
Iceland, of all places, has become the country to visit du jour. It may seem like an odd choice given its remote location, small population, and lack of romanticisation in western culture. Iceland may be lacking in the usual tourism draws like historic buildings, an old thriving city, or ancient ruins where cities like Rome or Paris excel, but its terrain alone blows all conventional european trips out of the water. One does not go to Iceland necessarily for the culture or the cuisine-although both are thriving, but for the unique and incredible beauty of its volatile landscape.
That being said, I found my stay in the capital city of Reykjavik incredibly pleasant and full of things to do. Ancient buildings are scarce in the country due to the constant threat of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, but still there are some amazing structures in the city. There’s the large Nordic style church at the top of the hill of Reykjavik called Hallgrímskirkja, and the Harpa auditorium center which is a unique modern building with a facade built to mimic the northern lights. The city, though small, has a nice array of museums, quality restaurants, and cafes with cute wifi passwords like “ILOVEICELAND”. Everyone there is welcoming and friendly, and had a nice sense of humour that made the trip all the more pleasant. But, as I mentioned, the main draw of the country is the landscape, and as someone who has experienced this wild and stunning scenery first-hand, I consider the new-found hype surrounding Iceland quite warranted.
There are the obvious things that everyone thinks about when they think of Iceland: glaciers, hot springs, and the northern lights. They are all the stunning results of the crazy geological nature of the island. The country, created by ancient volcanic activity, is a hotspot of geologic activity like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and geysers. The island lies on top of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, the area where the Eurasian tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate are divided and actively pulling apart causing the country to expand by about 2 centimetres every year. The physical island of Iceland is geologically volatile, providing for an unusual and breathtaking landscape found nowhere else.
Iceland’s landscape is so peaceful yet daunting, as there is practically nowhere you can go and not be surrounded by glaciers, mountains, the ocean, or even an active volcano. The unforgiving and impressive nature makes it the type of place that really reminds you of your insignificance in the scheme of the universe’s existence; the mountainous, glacial landscape beside the ocean makes for textbook majestic scenery. I even got the opportunity to hike up a glacier, which it turns out is not just a block of solid ice but more like mounds of rocks and moss leading up to a slope of snow. And the best part is after two hours of hiking up it, you can slide right down!
The rest of the country is flush with lava rock, which was created by lava that flowed through the region thousands of years ago, rolling over rocks and over itself and creating a bumpy and jet black landscape. Most of the rock is capped with bright green moss that takes thousands of years to grow too. One of the fun activities you can do just about a half hour outside of Reykjavik is take a beautiful horseback ride through the lava-rock terrain, which is otherwise impossible to walk on without a carved out trail.
The waterfalls are equally incredible, gushing with bright blue water even in mid-winter. This massive waterfall was called Barnafoss, not too far outside of Reykjavik. The intensely blue water streaming over the dark rock beside white snow is a most unusual and visually stunning combination of colors and textures.
Of course, no visit to Iceland is complete without acknowledging its massive potential as a geothermal energy source. Iceland is home to the largest geothermal pipeline in the country, Nesjavellir. You can stop by at one of its stations, which is basically a massive, sulphuric steam bath pumped through a pipeline. If you stand next to the stream, it is so intense that you cannot see more than a foot in front of you, and you emerge soaked from the condensation. Another cool thing caused by the geothermal climate was that even though there was still snow on the ground and I was wearing two pairs of pants and five top layers, there were still streams of water running through the ground! The frozen ground. Due to the hot springs underneath, the water is piping hot at about 80 degrees fahrenheit, making it easy for it to keep on flowing despite the chilly temperatures. This enables the near-boiling water to travel all along the 27 kilometers of pipes without freezing, and conveniently enough, actually gives it just enough time to properly cool for use.
Given the cold climate and the abundance of natural hot springs, something anyone must do while in Iceland is take a dip in the natural hot springs, or “hot pot” as our hosts called it. This hot pot was also the ideal place to see the Northern lights at night. The area where I was, way up in the northwest of the country in the West Fjords, is remote enough that you can get a great undisrupted view of the Northern lights. They are a flickering, flowing stream of white light, faintly tinted green and constantly moving. This stunning feat is the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. Cool science aside, their appearance always renders one speechless when spotted.
The history of the island starts with the settlement of the Vikings that started in the 9th century. Now being from the Midwest, where a house built in the 1800s is considered “so old”. But our little victorian houses have nothing on thousand year old glaciers and lava rock. To put another obnoxious american perspective on it, the Vikings were the people that believed in the Nordic gods, such as Odin, Loki, and Thor; characters that have been around for so long they’ve gone from Gods in practiced Norse paganism, to mythological stories, to American comic books, to Marvel movie superheroes.
Speaking of Viking practices, one thing I did not know and was pleasantly surprised by was that the Vikings were an egalitarian society. Since equality was ingrained in the country’s settlement roots, this basically paved the way for a long history of equality between men and women in Iceland. Even now, Iceland is set to become the first country to ban companies from unequal pay based on gender. Coming from America or even from having visited many cities in Europe, I was too used to hearing about all the achievements of ancient men who “did this and that” but then hear about how the women were “not allowed to do anything so they stayed at home and raised families”. I was incredibly delighted to finally visit a country that did not have that same dismal history of suppressing women. In Iceland, men and women did the same jobs, and for that matter, were expected to. For instance, I visited an old fishing village in the West Fjords that was the hub of the fish trade for Iceland and Western Europe since the land was settled. For centuries, the female cook for the boat crews (which were comprised of both men and women), were paid as much, if not more than the crew, because the cook’s role was acknowledged for its importance and physical toll (they cooked outside, even in winter).
Iceland was such a stark contrast in comparison to all the other countries I have visited in Europe. It brings so much to the table in means of culture and new terrain that it really does deserve its current status as a “must-see” European country. There was nothing that I did not enjoy, perhaps besides the cold at times (and I was there during an unusually ‘warm’ spring), but all in all, it was an amazing and unforgettable trip. If you are lucky enough to be planning your next trip abroad I would not pass on Iceland. If this has not fully convinced you, there is also a deal with Icelandic Air, where if you are travelling to mainland Europe, you can stopover in Iceland for a week and they will pay for the extra days’ stay. This might even be an excellent economical choice. Regardless, whichever way you end up getting there, I can guarantee you will come back having seen things you would never otherwise see along with stunning pictures to prove it.