Blink and you're at the North Pole

The longest day of the year is even longer in Iceland, the geysers gurglier, the parties wilder. By Jeremy Atiyah

WHAT SPECIMEN of Homo sapiens had dreamed of colonising Iceland? From what I had heard, it was something to do with riotous late-night drinking and bashing glaciers in four-wheel drives. But that didn't explain why a 9th-century Norseman had set out in a 30ft boat and confronted wind and rain for six days in icy seas, on the merest off-chance of hitting land.

Funnily enough, flying to Reykjavik today still feels a hit-and-miss affair. If you blink, you might end up at the north pole. The sight of cliffs looming up out of the Atlantic rain and fog were as welcome to me as they must have been to that first settler, Ingolfur Arnarson, back in 874.

Except that it wasn't even foggy when I arrived. On my first afternoon, I took a stroll round Reykjavik in balmy sunshine, and found that the world's most northerly capital had been built around a duck-pond. Beside the pond, Ingolfur Arnarson's former hayfield (now a village green) was the city centre. The office of the Prime Minister of Iceland was round the corner from McDonald's, and the grey house by the hayfield was the national parliament (wasn't that besuited person on the step Iceland's Presdent?).

In fact, the Icelandic parliament, known as the Althing, had originally been founded as a wild convention of Norse chieftains. I later visited its original location, 100km east of Reykjavik, at the Thingvellir ("assembly plains"), where the gathering of the clans had taken place under open skies beside a freak of geology, a menacing black cliff running straight across a vast, empty plain. To the early settlers it resembled a crenellated wall built by giants. But geologists have since pronounced it to be something far more significant: the fissure - no less - dividing the continental plates of America and Europe.

In 1930, a thousand years after the first Althing, the people of Iceland were presented with a gift from the United States: a statue of Iceland's second favourite viking, Leif Eriksson, famous for his discovery of Vinland, otherwise known as North America.

That great viking, in bronze, still stands in front of the Hallgrimskirkja, dominating Reykjavik. When in town, I kept coming back to this church, which towers over the city: tall, white and ethereal, it looked flimsy enough to blow away in a storm. It is supposed to evoke an angular mountain of basaltic lava; it also resembles a pile of melting ice-cubes.

I climbed the spire for a view over Reykjavik. From the air, in summer time, it was hard to imagine a purer city than this. Colourful roofs separated wide, simple house-fronts. Streets were spacious and orderly, divided by luxuriant foliage and bright green verges. But then, not far away, the city simply petered out. Low grey hills, still patched with snow, terminated every horizon.

Here, in fact, they seemed to terminate the known world. It was beyond belief that this could be an international city. And yet, there it was: in a grassy space on the waterfront, aloof from neighbouring petrol stations, stood a painted log cabin with views north over the icy bay. This was the Hofthi House, where Reagan and Gorbachev met in1986 to discuss the end of the Cold War.

Perhaps it was the view that attracted them. Behind dull brown hills to the north-west, the eastern shore of half of Iceland could be seen, loping away along the horizon, towards the massive Snaefellsjokull volcano a hundred miles away across the sea.

I saw its snow-mantled bulk rising dimly from the blue sea. Human history records no eruptions on Snaefellsjokull since the discovery of Iceland, but it was here that Jules Verne chose to locate the proverbial orifice of the world: the gateway for the journey to the centre of the earth itself.

The soul of Iceland? This felt like progress. Meanwhile, back on ground-level, I set off in search of more history. In the National Museum I saw gloomy wooden doorways and grim Romanesque figures of Christ carved in birch wood. There was a mock-up of a "sod" farm-house, a chilly dark house with a turf roof of the sort that Icelanders still lived in until the 1950s.

Was fear of cold - or fear of death through volcanic eruptions - the inevitable price to pay for the freedom to share your whole country with a mere 250,000 people? Not necessarily. Since that happy moment when Norse settlers first noticed that their new country was full of thermal springs, Icelanders have been relaxing in tubs of hot water. The numerous pool complexes of Reykjavik are, in fact, the perfect antidote to Nordic gloom.

The one I visited had enormous, bright changing-rooms which were busy in the middle of the afternoon. Despite an outside temperature of only 10C, skimpily clad Icelanders were lying about in deckchairs eating Chinese take-aways.

I tiptoed anxiously into one of several hotpots, small round pools lined by underwater benches with seating for five or six. The water was as warm as my evening bath, though I do not normally share my bath with senior citizens in swimsuits.

Pools filled the landscape. One was a mock-rockery which produced irregular hot bubblings and gushings, into which bathers crowded. Old ladies jostled alongside Icelandic youth for favoured spots over inlets. Next to this was a curiously shallow, dish-shaped pool in which people reclined like fish on a tray. The actual swimming-pools themselves were enormous and spacious, and heated at a constant 30C.

Icelanders have learned to relax with their volcanos. Steam rises in columns from holes, craters and nozzles scattered about the countryside. At geyser sites, the ground burps and gurgles like an entrapped Norse god. Tour guides chuckle over the "tourist eruptions" which so excite visitors. The locals, on the other hand, turn out to be older than the landscape they live in: entire mountains and off-shore islands have appeared (and disappeared) within recorded history. The vegetables grown in hot- water greenhouses on the fertile south coast, could almost feed the whole country.

With such vibrant geology underfoot, no wonder that young descendents of Ingolfur Arnarson have such an exciting night life. I went out into the streets of Reykjavik at 1am on Saturday - in broad daylight - to find the city in uproar. Drunken children were snogging in slow-moving Toyota Land Cruisers. Music blasted from cafe doorways. In the Gaukur A Stong bar, girls were ordering Cokes and thimblefuls of Black Death, the local schnapps, while elves and stomping trolls rattled the dance-floor.

Who could blame the children of Iceland for staying up while the sun still shone? The next day, on one of my day trips into the countryside, beyond the meadows of buttercups and the stunted birch trees, beyond the jagged lava fields, I glimpsed the dead, uninhabited interior of Iceland, the ice-cap of Langjokull. Beyond here, a foggy wall of permanent ice filled up half the sky. After burning so improbably, this was where the old Norse dream finally died.

The one I visited had enormous, bright changing-rooms which were busy in the middle of the afternoon. Despite an outside temperature of only 10C, skimpily clad Icelanders were lying about in deckchairs eating Chinese take-aways.

I tiptoed anxiously into one of several hotpots, small round pools lined by underwater benches with seating for five or six. The water was as warm as my evening bath, though I do not normally share my bath with senior citizens in swimsuits.

Pools filled the landscape. One was a mock-rockery which produced irregular hot bubblings and gushings, into which bathers crowded. Old ladies jostled alongside Icelandic youth for favoured spots over inlets. Next to this was a curiously shallow, dish-shaped pool in which people reclined like fish on a tray. The actual swimming- pools themselves were enormous and spacious, and heated at a constant 30C.

Icelanders have learned to relax with their volcanos. Steam rises in columns from holes, craters and nozzles scattered about the countryside. At geyser sites, the ground burps and gurgles like an entrapped Norse god. Tour guides chuckle over the "tourist eruptions" which so excite visitors. The locals, on the other hand, turn out to be older than the landscape they live in: entire mountains and off-shore islands have appeared (and disappeared) within recorded history. The vegetables grown in hot- water greenhouses on the fertile south coast, could almost feed the whole country.

With such vibrant geology underfoot, no wonder that young descendents of Ingolfur Arnarson have such an exciting night life. I went out into the streets of Reykjavik at 1am on Saturday - in broad daylight - to find the city in uproar. Drunken children were snogging in slow-moving Toyota Land Cruisers. Music blasted from cafe doorways. In the Gaukur A Stong bar, girls were ordering Cokes and thimblefuls of Black Death, the local schnapps, while elves and stomping trolls rattled the dance-floor.

Who could blame the children of Iceland for staying up while the sun still shone? The next day, on one of my day trips into the countryside, beyond the meadows of buttercups and the stunted birch trees, beyond the jagged lava fields, I glimpsed the dead, uninhabited interior of Iceland, the ice-cap of Langjokull. Beyond here, a foggy wall of permanent ice filled up half the sky. After burning so improbably, this was where the old Norse dream finally died.

iceland fact file

Getting there

The author's trip was arranged courtesy of Scandinavian Travel Service (0171-559 6666) which offers city breaks to Iceland from pounds 299 per person for two nights including return flights and B&B accomodation. Extra nights cost pounds 25 per person per night. The flights are with Icelandair (0171-388 5599). Bear in mind that food and drink in Iceland is extremely expensive. A Big Mac meal costs pounds 6; a half-pint of beer is pounds 3.50. An Icelandic meal with seafood (and wine) in a classy restaurant will cost at least pounds 50 per head.

Getting around

Bicycles can be rented from the long-distance bus station in Reykjavik for about pounds 10 a day. Car rental is also available, but at prohibitive prices. Reckon on at least pounds 60

a day for unlimited mileage.

Tours and excursions

The Golden Ring tour (one day) costs about pounds 40. The Blue Lagoon tour, around the Rekyanes peninsula, begins at 10am and ends at 3pm at the airport in time for many flights; the cost is around pounds 30. Tours can be booked through Reykjavik Excursions (0035 5644777) at the Loftleithir Hotel. Scandinavian Travel Service also offers longer tours around the country, including a 7-night tour from pounds 792 per person (full board) and a 12-night "North and South Countryside" walking tour for pounds 1,463 (also full board).

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