The Road Less Travelled: Under Immovable Skies (Iceland)
At that precise moment the man said to himself: what would I not give to be with you in Iceland under the great immovable day and share the now like we share music or the taste of fruit.
After returning from Christmas holidays a dear friend of mine sent me a translation of Longing for the Present by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s a poem where Borges details his love for a woman, as well as for the arctic wonder that is Iceland. I had only been back in New York for a couple of weeks before I received it, but the descriptive beauty of Borges’ narrative had the power to take me back to Iceland with every consequent reading.
A mystical place, borne of tectonic shifts and the volcanic thrust of the earth, Iceland is a country unlike any other. What, with whitewashed winters congealing under an irreproachable darkness, and summers where one can bathe in an excess of light, it’s easy to see why Iceland is a place of magic. A country that nurtures great deal of traveller interest, and is home to fairies and stardust, elves and unicorns. All those magical emblems that still carry allure.
And Iceland is the place that brings them to life.
I travelled north of 60° in the dead of winter because it was convenient, the cost was agreeable and the idea of celebrating the arrival of 2014 in a country on edge sounded just about right. Thanks to IcelandAir’s generous stopover rules (and if you pick up just one thing from this post let that little nugget of information be it) I spent six days and five nights walking on black ice, turning Reykjavik inside out, making numerous day trips to satiate my adventurous side and eating food that was delicious and undeniably delightful. It only took six days and five nights to became so enamored with this northern wonderland that I’m already clamoring to go back.
Granted, exploring Iceland in winter is likely to be a far different experience than doing so in the summer, but I found January to be a good time as any. In addition to planning excursions that revolved around 4.5 hours of true daylight, it was a rather odd (although nice) change of pace to step out of the door mid-morning and find yourself cloaked in darkness.
The night following you like a shadow you cannot shake.
There’s a persistent omnipresent twilight in Iceland that lingers far longer than it should. Where the coming and going of the sun is marked by a soft subtle glow, a sort of suggestion of light that injects itself between dusk and dawn. It’s a twilight that stretches out to last – quite literally – for hours on end and it paints the lakes, lagoons and mossy volcanic plains with an eerie glow the colour of blossomed bruises. Blueberries a few days overripe.
In terms of what to do and where to stay, there are countless options. We spent the first two days in a small B&B several hours north of the capital, which was wildly fantastic. On the edge of a lake, far removed from…well much of anything really…we were surrounded by the kind of picturesque beauty that deserves to be on a postcard. Enjoying an exquisite spread for dinner before watching the fireworks and calling it a night after that, we emerged the following morning into a world replete with bitch slapping winds, iced currents, white capped mountains and a sky that looked as if it were – quite literally – on fire.
For hotels and lodging in Reykjavik, AirBnB is a fantastic resource, given the various options and price points. Mr. Intolerant and I ended up staying in a lovely one bedroom flat that had a large dining/living room, fully equipped kitchen and roomy bathroom. Having access to a kitchen was perhaps the selling point for us as we were able to hit up the grocery store for provisions and save cash by making breakfast in the morning and the odd dinner after a long day of touring around.
When you’re contemplating what to do the most important thing is to make sure you have enough time. Iceland is a tourist’s playground. You can spend all of your time in Reykjavik visiting galleries, museums, churches and cafes/restaurants or you can put your hiking boots on and get out of town. There are the typical tourist ‘musts’ – which include seeing the northern lights, signing up for a Golden Circle tour, going for a dip in the Blue Lagoon and possibly partaking a glacier hike – as well as excursions that allow you to test your resolve. You know, things like climbing into the mouth of an active volcano, getting on the back of a snowmobile or diving the Silfra Cathedral (one word: amazing). Yes, Iceland is cold in the winter, but while temperatures require visitors to pack their parkas and toques, it is in some ways far more agreeable than the cantankerous weather I’ve experienced in New York this season. Case in point: while I was in Iceland the temperature only dropped below -7 degrees Celsius once. Most of the time it hovered around an agreeable -3 degrees, though when the wind kicks in: watch out.
Aside from the fantastic food devoured (wild caught fish, grass-fed meat, greenhouse organic produce and more) and the spectacular views that will take your breath away, one thing I enjoyed about my time in Iceland was speaking with people and learning about all sorts of cultural/social norms. It’s fascinating to see how equality and creativity are fostered (by government especially) in a country that boasts a mere 320,137 residents. Equally impressive is people’s commitment to environmental sustainability (a lot of produce – e.g. tomatoes – is grown in the winter thanks to the clever use of geothermal pockets) and their ingenuity and engagement ought to make the rest of us hang our heads in a crying shame.
Ah Iceland, though I’m sure I didn’t do her enough justice, what, with my meandering and blathering throughout this post, I will leave you with this: Iceland is a place for the books. More than a layover, a mere tryst, she’s the kind of place you ought to get lost in. A land of extremes, all she asks is that you suspend your imagination the minute the plane’s wheels touch down. Turn yourself over to her magnificent landscapes and charming people.
Feel the insufferable lightness of travelling beneath her infinite and immovable skies.