Iceland: land of fire and ice…and tourists

On our first day on the mainland of Iceland, we visited two of the biggest tourist areas on the island: the downtown pedestrian core of the capital Reykjavik and a park outside of town that is the original site of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Our first impression of the island was: wow, people are right, Iceland is seriously over-touristed! In both places, we were forced to shuffle along behind a sea of other tourists from all over the world, like we were in an arctic Disneyland. On day two, we experienced a completely different Iceland, one with endless empty roads and quiet neighborhoods. As the cliché in every tourism brochure from every place in the world says: “a land of contrasts.”

Despite the crowds, Thingvellir (the site of the original Althing) was quite interesting and beautiful. The Althing is the longest continuously functioning parliament in the world but moved from this original site in the 1700’s and today no visible signs of it remain. Instead, you see a geography lesson writ large. A giant crack in the earth runs through the site, the spreading gap between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Interpretive signs say that the site was chosen as a meeting place because of its central location and abundant resources but surely the imposing topography was an attraction as well. Grassy plains and lakes surround the cliffs of the tectonic canyon, which itself is filled with lush grass where it isn’t paved over for the thousands of tourists disgorged from the tour buses parked in the acres of overflowing parking lots (plural).

The center of Reykjavik is a tourist circus of souvenir shops and cafes. I suspect the locals avoid it when possible during the summer, as we do the Pike Place Market in Seattle. And somehow they manage to have traffic jams in the most sparsely populated country in Europe (unless you count our next destination, Greenland). Bookending the main tourist street are two architecturally impressive public buildings. On one end is the Hallgrímskirkja church, whose tall stone tower echoes the country’s mountains. It is on top of a hill and a helpful landmark visible from everywhere in the city. Inside, the music from a giant pipe organ echoed around the circulating tourists. At the other end of town on the waterfront is the very modern Harpa Concert Hall. We only saw the outside and the lobby but its soaring honeycomb of glass was made us wish we had time to see more.

In Reykjavik we met up with our friends Dave and Amy who were old-hands at Iceland and they planned our escape from the tourist throngs. It turns out that even a short way out of town (unless you are heading to the “Golden Circle” of the most celebrated tourist sites) the traffic dissolves and you can see a less hectic side of Iceland, with quaint villages and uncrowded natural wonders. We were the only people at one road-side steaming/boiling mud pond and enjoyed other volcanic attractions and a giant waterfall with a very manageable number of other sightseers.

Back in Reykjavik outside the tourist quarter, we enjoyed a blog-worthy meal at a nouvelle-Icelandic restaurant that overlooked a city park. And what trip to Reykjavik would be complete without a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum in a slightly gritty neighborhood (by tidy Icelandic standards) on the outskirts of downtown. It is a gruesome personal collection of dried, pickled or otherwise preserved penises from every species of mammal native to Iceland. On second thought, maybe a trip to Iceland would have been complete without it.

A hot spot in the Atlantic: The Westman Islands

There are pluses and minuses to living in one of the most volcanically active places in the world, the Westman Islands just off the southern coast of Iceland. On the plus side, the locals had a front row seat to the eruption of the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. Luckily the wind was blowing away from town so the only inconvenience was that it shutdown air travel over much of Europe for several weeks. They also were able to watch Surtsey, one of the most significant new islands formed in recorded history, rise from the sea in 1963. On the down side, in 1973 a volcanic crack unexpectedly opened up just outside of town that forced the sudden evacuation of the entire population of 5,000 and the loss of 400 homes to the flowing lava and rain of pumice stones. But even that had a plus: a square mile of new waterfront property!

Where the town and lava flow meet

The people returned after two years of exile and we arrived for our visit on a beautiful sunny day 44 years later. A new museum sits where the town meets the lava flow. It was built around a house that was covered in pumice during the eruption and recently excavated, its preserved contents from 1973 still in place, like a modern Pompeii.

Some of the recent lava is still barren of life but most of 5-square-mile Heimaey island (the largest island among the group) is lush, green and sheepy, with dramatic cliffs reminiscent of the Faroes. Our mission on Heimaey was to see the puffin colony, the largest in the Atlantic. Puffins nest in deep burrows dug into the grassy cliffs on the opposite side of the island from the town. The island tour we were on had 30 minutes scheduled for the puffins but we decided to let the tour leave without us and we spent a couple extra hours there. The puffins did not disappoint, even though we couldn’t get too close to their steep nesting sites. They buzzed around like frantic giant hummingbirds, heading out to sea and coming back with mouthfuls of eels to feed their babies hidden in the burrows. It was lovely to sit quietly on top of the cliff after our tour group left, watching their comings and goings.

For those of you who can’t get enuff of the puffs, we have many more photos below and a few videos:

We planned to take a taxi back to town but the three taxis on the island were all booked so we decided to walk. Not making much visible progress across the windswept grasslands in 20 minutes, Laurel shook a thumb at a passing car and we hitched a ride. We happened to get a very good driver, in fact he’s the island’s driving instructor! He was also the high school Sociology and Psychology teacher, which shows quite a diverse curriculum for a remote school with only a couple hundred students. His perfect English was honed as a high school exchange student in Manhattan…Kansas.

The town itself is tidy but fairly spartan, as you might expect from an out of the way fishing port that was largely rebuilt in the 1970’s. We enjoyed popping into a few small shops and a cafe run by a jaded French expat but we didn’t spend much time in town. More exciting city life hopefully awaits at our next stop, Reykjavik.

P.S. About the name, the Westman Islands (or Vestmannaeyjar as they say in Icelandic). “West-men” is what the Vikings called people from Ireland, which is west of the Vikings’ home base in Scandinavia. The Vikings had some settlements in Ireland but also enjoyed plundering and taking slaves from there. During the early settlement of Iceland in the 800’s, a group of Irish slaves in Iceland revolted and fled to these islands… where they were later found and all slaughtered. So the name basically means “the place where we killed a bunch of Irish people.” If you’ve ever read any of the ancient Icelandic Viking sagas, they pretty much all end with a bloodbath. And begin with one. And have a few in the middle.