It’s not often you can say you feel like you’ve travelled to a different world – particularly when such a world is a mere three-hour flight away. Yet many first-time travellers who visit Iceland, the Nordic island nation beneath the Arctic Circle, return saying exactly that. For a cold weather-adverse Brit, an early winter getaway to Reykjavik wasn’t the most obvious choice. But, with my imagination stirred by talk of a faraway land built from ice formations, shining glaciers and simmering hot springs, I found myself landing one morning in November at a windswept Keflavik airport.
Iceland’s welcome comes in the form of zephyrs of crisp glacial air. Fortunately, I had brought thermals, cashmere jumpers and a huge fur-lined parka along. My first port of call was a free walking tour of the city, led by a charming local history graduate. We started at Austurvöllur, a town square opposite parliament where, traditionally, locals congregated to bang pots and pans and protest government policy. From there we frequented major landmarks and statues, as well as lesser-known curiosities; all the while, my guide told fascinating tales of the Huldufólk (Elves) of Reykjavik, the establishment of the first parliament, and the history of the two smoking pillars downtown which gave Reykjavik the name ‘Smoky Bay’.
I was lured to Reykjavik, in part, by the hope of catching the elusive Northern lights at play in the night skies. That Saturday evening, a group of us from the hotel bundled up and boarded a Reykjavik Excursions bus tour out of the city, to a remote coastal spot where we could watch the phenomena, uninterrupted by city lights.
As our guide explained, seeing the lights is an activity which hinges delicately on the weather conditions, which continually flit between rain and cloud, mortal enemies to the so-called ‘electricity in the sky’. At first, the skies remained stubbornly pitch black as bracing winds swirled around us. But it was after an impromptu stop-off, pre-empted by our intuitive guide, that patches of light emerged up above: green, misty streaks that morph and shift before one’s eyes – playing hide-and-seek with the clicks of a camera’s button. To be in the presence of such a spectacle is a humbling experience. On that windswept volcanic plain, I felt privileged to have seen such magical lights.
Another early start beckoned the next day, and I rose sleepily for my Golden Circle tour – the most well-trodden of all Iceland’s attractions, where visitors flock to observe the three jewels in the Icelandic crown: Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the Geysir hot spring region. We set off on Route 1 out of town, still steeped in darkness, and headed to Thingvellir National Park – the birthplace of the Icelandic nation, where the world’s oldest existing parliament Althingi was created in 930 AD. Thingvellir is a scenic masterpiece, all black basalt crags and stripped volcanic terrain, rusting with carpets of windswept grass. High up on the mountainside, the views are awe-inspiring; silvery-green moss coating vast lava plains, clear blue fjords and red-brown grass everywhere you look. As I crossed the last bridge at 10.30am, leaving the last of the crunchy rubble underfoot, the sun finally rose over the shadows of the blue mountains to bathe the landscape in a brilliant, golden light.
Next up was Gullfoss, a thundering waterfall bordered by red earth cliffs, that surges with might over a shelf of basalt rock. I left, covered in sheets of silvery dew, onto the geothermal regionof Haukadalur where the Geysir hot spring and its “younger brother” Strokkur nearby. The geothermal region is enchanting, in entirely different ways to the tortured post-apocalyptic beauty of the landscape we’d travelled through. Trails here are marbled with mineral-rich mud formations, peppered with steaming vents and dotted with puddles of water. We didn’t have to wait long for the symphonies of steam: Strokkur exploded within four minutes of our arrival – unleashing a swelling of white foam and steam that pulsed like a giant blister, before shooting skyward to shrieks of delight from the crowd.
My last day in Reykjavik was spent soaking in the thermal waters of the Blue Lagoon, strolling through the Legoland backstreets of Reykjavik, and watching the arctic sun set over the city from the top tower of the Hallgrímskirkja church. The summit of the famous Lutheran landmark offers visitors a 360-degree panorama over the city, and is a fitting tribute to Reykjavik’s unique landscape: colourful corrugated steel houses, glassy lakes and snow-topped mountains. My visit crystallised the realisation that, although so near to its European neighbours, this city will always reveal magical and otherworldly moments to those who seek them.
Words by Christobel Hastings
Christobel is a London-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter here.
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