Nordicaa: Travels in the Nordic Lands – Iceland

The harbour is shrouded in mist, yet the concrete is dry underfoot.

The air smells clean and crisp and pure.

As the mist clears, a building emerges. A wooden shack: A diner sits at a table: A bowl of soup steams in front of them, next to a pile of freshly cut baguette.

Welcome to the Sea Baron, Reykjavik. AKA Sægriffinn.

Sægriffinn is a Reykjavik institution steeped in folk lore and oozing with charm. Its food is soup and kebabs; no more, no less. Thankfully the soup is superb and the kebabs are the freshest Icelandic fish. That’s all it needs to be. I’d recommend you go there, but you’d need to get to Iceland first.

Reykjavik is the smoky bay, shrouded by the steam of myriad subterranean fissures. It was first chanced upon by Irish monks in coracles, then by the great warrior Ingólfr Arnasson, who threw his high seat pillars in to the sea, and vowed to build his capital wherever they were found. Reykjavik.

Probably just a story for the tourists, but spend a little more than five minutes in Iceland and you’ll find that pretty much everything has been set up either to entice, entertain or to rid of coin that odd breed of human: the tourist. Everyone here has several jobs: a real jobs, and then tourism jobs. There are not too many people this far North, but the great beast of tourism must be fed somehow.

***

Contradiction should be key to your understanding of Iceland: they will do anything at all to keep the tourists entertained, but they have absolutely no interest in consumerism. On my first visit, in 2008, I went to the country’s biggest shopping mall, Kringlan, on a Saturday morning, and found it deserted. The shopping streets of the capital had shops full of crockery that members of my family had bought in the 70s. Not much has changed in the intervening decade. They have fun, rather than buying stuff.

The first visit to any country can be a struggle. The prices were high, and we planned a holiday based on our understanding of other countries. Iceland is not other countries: it looks small, but feels vast, on a scale and hewn from materials you last witnessed in science fiction. The countryside is akin to a moss strewn lunar surface; the air seems to run through your entire body, stripping the fug of the cluttered world you normally inhabit right out of your pores. It invigorates you, but gently.

Iceland is a most developed country, but there is very little crime. This always struck me as odd: they must surely be hiding something somewhere. Not so. The first night I was there, I saw two girls, one no more than six, the other four, walking through the dark. It was 1am and they were perfectly safe.

***

Although my first visit to Iceland was in summer 2008, I returned a year later in 2009, deep in the midst of the economic crash they suffered. The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown proposed legal action over Icelandic banking failures, under the ægis of our anti-terrorism laws. This did not go down at all well with the Icelanders, with t-shirts proclaiming “Brown is the colour of poo” all the rage. It was a tough time to be an Englishman in Iceland, but the food and drink was very cheap.

The currency collapsed, falling more than 35% against the Euro; inflation was seen to be hitting 14% and the future did not look good for the Icelanders. However, the relative drop in costs for tourists meant that a steady stream of foreign currency was flowing in to the country, and a steady stream of jobs in the tourist industry was being created to feed the beast. Tour guides, bar staff, waiters: all in high demand. Work enough of these and you can make rent for the month. Maybe even eat too.

The biggest symbol of this decline was sat in the bay itself. A huge, glittering, state of the art music venue now: when I first visited, it was a half-built building, sitting in a hole in the ground. The project looked in jeopardy, but was rescued by the Icelandic government not long after. Today it is beautiful.

***

Black sand sits underfoot, as waves crash in towards you. Out to sea, a troll, huge in the water, pulls its boat in to land, after a fishing trip. The light of dawn put paid to his return, and now he stands, as still as the rock he now comprises, battered by Atlantic waves. A couple eat sandwiches, oblivious.

Behind, a small red-rooved church sits on a bluff, urging the world to stand and stare: Behind still, an almost Tyrolean sweep of greenery, peppered with flashes of wildflower: Before, a village hugs the passing road, almost wishing to be dragged along, back to where life is easier than here. This is Vik.

You cross a plateau a mile above the sea, spanned by electricity pylons, walking across the landscape like the Jötunn of old. The sky broods and boils, black and grey swirl above you. There is no respite from the darkness, even as mid-day approaches. Until descent: a valley coursing with geothermal energy leading to a small town and a greenhouse full of bananas. This is Hveragerði, beneath Hengill.

The mud bubbles, pops and boils in front of you: milk chocolate in appearance, rotten egg in odour. Beyond, a landscape of rough, scratchy earth, coloured bright by volcanic deposits. Wooden paths offer views on to the scene, and the bright, emerald lake beyond. This is Krýsuvík and Grænavatn.

***

Iceland calls for poetry and art: it feels instantly homely, and distinctly alien. It is a comforting shock upon arrival, complemented by the discomfiting recognition of the return home. How on earth are we going to bring any of that back to life? One answer is to visit time and time again, but that’s pricy.

My answer is to bring Iceland home with you, albeit in food form.

The classic Icelandic hot dog “eina með öllu” – dog in a toasted bun, adorned with ketchup, remoulade, mustard and onion (both raw and crispy) – is harder to recreate  than you’d think, but can be achieved, if expensively, from Icelandic food websites.

It is far easier to try other classic Icelandic recipes, such as Plokkfiskur (creamy potato and cod; an ideal cure for cold Icelandic days) and humarsupar (langoustine soup straight out of Sægriffinn, and my family’s perennial Christmas Eve favourite).

Ingredients available from a supermarket near you.

Brennivin is virtually impossible to buy outside of Iceland. The local spirit, frequently referred to as Svarti dauði (The Black Death), and viewed by many learned commentators as undrinkable. Straight, Brennivin is one of my favourite drinks: A pure, clear spirit, flavoured with Caraway, it also works as a cocktail, shaken over ice with equal parts Aperol (an “Orange Lagoon”). If you find any, treasure it.

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