Iceland: A Guide
As we are all about to start a new year at University or work , we multiply endless to-do lists and unsustainable resolutions. What courses to choose? What new activities to try out? What internship for next summer? What projects to undertake? In this mad and almost schizophrenic rush in anticipation for changes, I would like to talk about my July trip to Iceland.
I can already hear you saying: “why go to such a cold and rugged country when you could be happily lying on a sunny beach?” My answer would be similar to the French journalist Nicolas Ungemuth description about his own trip. Some countries are sweet and tender whereas others are abrupt and almost violent. Iceland is a place that must be earned. It is in this tumultuous and apparently unwelcoming land that I chose to go hiking with five of my friends. Situated on the rift that separates the American from the European continents, the island gathers a wide and surprising panel of landscapes. From active volcanos and boiling geysers in Pingvellir to cliffs on the southern coast, icebergs in Jokulsarlon and water falls, the ground you walk on is alive, it’s nature at its wildest state. Iceland is also unpredictable. At the Landmannalaugar, one of the most famous natural parks of the island, we could be climbing a volcano in the middle of sheer and stony mountains and come across a huge lake in the crater. When it comes to the weather, Icelandic people say that you can go through the four seasons within a single day. What’s more, the night only lasts from 12 to 4am in the summer.
It is true that there is a first geographical (and thermal) shock to absorb, especially when you were spending your holidays in the southwest of France! Particularly amazing is the range of colours that unfolds before your eyes: the green of the moss or even of the rocks of specific mountains, the brown, the rust and the red of the mineral ground as well as the white of the large spots formed by the snow. The immensity of the landscapes is also quite impressive: kilometres and kilometres of mountains and volcanic plains without a single sign of human life. Even the point that indicates a city on the map turns out to be a small grouping of houses solely supplemented by a supermarket and a church. Iceland is completely withdrawn from the usual turmoil of the rest of the world.
As paradoxical as it might seem, it is in these abrupt hills where you pay attention to every single step you make to reach the top safely that you learn how to appreciate your holiday. By focusing on your movements and by letting your thoughts come and go in your mind, you experience what it is to be “entirely here”. Your attention is slowly redirected from your daily preoccupations to your physical senses, whether you walk alone or alongside with a friend. Knocked out by the effort, you feel almost in a state of weightlessness.
I would love to do this kind of journey again next summer, where you make a physical effort with some friends in the middle of outstanding landscapes. The yearn to repeat might be the surest proof that you have had a great holiday. I go back to Iceland by looking at my photos in between emails and I continue to climb Icelandic volcanos in my thoughts.
Here are a few, and in my eyes, useful information to all people who wish to backpack in the southern part of Iceland:
- Iceland is an expensive country (especially the bus even though it is indispensable to go from one place to another.
- Bring a fleece jacket, a woolly hat and something to protect you from rain. It is cold, even if it’s summer (around 10 degrees in the day and 0 or below in the nights).
- Do not forget your guidebook, the Icelandic language is hard to pronounce and names are very hard to remember
- Try hitchhiking if you want to meet locals (and save money) or even other tourists who might give you some interesting information and nice addresses.
- Buy some freeze-dried meals before your departure in case you want to hike for more than one day in the nature.
- Do not forget a sleeping mask, it is dark only four hours in the day.
- Walk a lot, look at what is around you, enjoy!
Finally, here are some few noteworthy addresses in Reykjavik:
- For all art lovers, do not forget to visit the opera houses situated near the harbour. The façade made of glass panels was imagined by the artist Olafur Eliasson and is at the origin of subtle light fluctuations and reflexions.
- For all food lovers, go to Sandholt, the “best patisserie of the city” situated on the main street Laugavegur to try the locally famous cinnamon roll or other sweet pastries. A good idea for breakfast (and even for stay) is to go to the perfect hipster spot, the Kex hostel located in an old industrial building. They serve a nice buffet in a wide and friendly dining room with a vintage decoration combining furniture found in various places. If you are more into savoury, take the opportunity to try some freshly-caught grilled fish in a gargote called the Sea Baron. They even have sea whale steaks!
Featured image by Moyan Brenn