There’s a feeling of quietude that Iceland’s expansive landscape evokes when it opens up on either side of you as the sun rises on your drive to the Reynisfjara’s black sand beaches. It was still dark at 8.30am when you set off from your AirBnB in the residential suburbs of Reykjavík. You stumbled to your rented car, rubbing your eyes wearily as you try to adjust to waking up in the dark – a quirk of Iceland in winter.
The shadows that have enclosed you on both sides are gradually illuminated to reveal rocky peaks that disappear into the mist at their uppermost points. The road ahead bisects a landscape whose colours are taken from a palette of Renaissance greens and browns, dappled with snow that remains in the crevices of the planes.
The Icelandic landscape is beautiful, but it’s the word ‘sublime’ that is on the lips of every travel writer who steps foot on this island. Renowned for its harsh and unpredictable weather, awesome rocky summits, crashing waterfalls and explosive geysers, the landscape is undoubtedly an example of stunning magnitude and is distinctly humbling. Maybe it’s something to do with winds so strong they buffet the car from side to side or the rumble of earth the moment before a geyser sends scorching water soaring into the air.
The evidence of the harshness of this environment is littered across the landscape: squat houses nestled at the bottom of sheer mountain faces; sheep swaddled in wool waddling across the landscape. The Icelandic horse, one of Iceland’s most notable exports, is designed to survive the severity. Short, stocky, with a stomach to brave the barrenness and a thick mane to contend with the merciless wind, the Icelandic horse is not a ‘pony’ only because it was not bred to be this small and hardy. It simply evolved this way as a means of survival in such an unforgiving landscape. They exemplify the Icelandic survival instinct, as shown by the sheer amount of Icelandic horse paraphernalia available at Keflavik airport. The Icelandic horse has been venerated for its ability to have survived since the 12th century. They are living history, brought to Iceland by Norse settlers. surviving until now despite the odds.
This is one of the speculated reasons for Iceland’s tourism boom in recent years: the landscapes and natural wonders are heralded as one of the few examples of land relatively unchanged. That, and a concerted marketing effort and spurt of cheap flights from within Europe. Iceland is a destination for those searching for a country with its history still resonating in its every aspect; like the locals who still sincerely hold the belief that elves and fairies roam. It’s the antithesis of the modern urban experience: fairies, elves, authentic untouched landscapes – whatever ‘authentic’ might mean.
In Britain’s equally cold but less inspiring corner of Europe, there’s a fascination with our neighbours’ ability to endure the weather with style – take the recent interest in Denmark’s concept of ‘hygge’ – so is it any wonder that this land of elves, with a tradition of gifting books and chocolate as a family on Christmas Eve is so attractive? Yet Iceland has its gritty side: Reykjavík is noted internationally for its street art and there is a growing rap scene spearheaded by the likes of Aron Can and Emmsjé Gauti – it’s not all rolling hills and adorable ‘lopapeysa’ jumpers.
Whilst expensive, hire a car, split an AirBnB between some friends you’ve coerced into joining you and eat Icelandic own brand pot noodles, and you’ve got an experience at fairly low cost. Just don’t forget to pick up some booze in duty free. You’ve been warned.