Creator of dreams, breaker of hearts, manufacturer of myths…
I was prepared to love Iceland. I’d planned for it, I’d dreamed of it, I’d read all the myths and the writer Halldor Laxness. I’d read mysteries great and small. Okay, I admit it, I’d wallowed.
It’s hard for any location to live up to those expectations.
The natural beauty of Iceland is awe-engendering, partially because it is apparent that everywhere there is a risk for it all to vanish in a volcanic explosion or earthquake as the earth under it builds and creates. Iceland is splitting apart on global tectonic plates. It is the youngest land in the world. It literally feels rough and threatening, and the mountains, raw and uncovered by vegetation, loom. Water springs from the middle of mountains; steam rises from fields and outcroppings. It’s difficult to feel far from the gates of hell or the centre of the earth as the seams are rebuilt and unpicked.
Horses, sheep, and cattle graze, unconcerned. I loved the horses. They have an untamed look about them, thick manes and legs, a tendency to quarrel with each other, and an eye that brooks no nonsense. They feel like the gods of the land, suited to the landscape, rough and somewhat testy. (TESTY, not tasty, though I hear they are)
Their only predators? A smallish fox, the occasional eagle, and humans. Oh, and boiling hot lava.
Reykjavik itself is not immediately charming. The buildings are squat and concrete, with few embroideries to soften their edges. Public art is stolid and solid. Siding is corrugated steel, as are roofs. The big Lutheran church is a touchpoint, towering over the city. But unlike cathedrals in other European cities, it feels heavy. Comparing it to Notre Dame is like comparing lace to lead.
There are bright zones: a tiny triangular downtown garden, filled with flowering trees (my favourite hanging pussywillow tree filled me with delight). Graffiti is tucked here and there down the streets – beautiful paintings that lift the heart as you wander the streets. Crazy cartoon characters, portraits, and bright tags break up the grey. A small music store on a side street had windows filled with colourful ukuleles.
It makes sense for Reykjavik to be solid. Perched on the mid-Atlantic ridge, anything less would have been vibrated off by now. The lovely woman in the Nordsk shop was wrestling with her internet and explained the buildings were built of solid concrete because of the earthquakes…
I loved the Icelanders. Like many of us who live in harsh climates, their faces are adjusted for hardship. Life is serious, most of the time. But when they smile or laugh, it is with their whole face, not pretended, not partial. Rather like the weather in Iceland, once the sun comes out.
Unfortunately, they are overwhelmed by tourists. And they are not yet good at tourism. Floods of tourists flow through the airport in an undisciplined melee, both in and out. We arrived at our hotel to find that they were unprepared for the onslaught of the usual 6:30 AM flight. Two desk staff struggled with the crowd. The computer system went down. The restaurant shut – because breakfast was over – there was no allowance for the flights, though they are completely predictable. Flights come in in the morning; there is an hour trip to the hotel; the conference was booked months ago and they knew approximately 100 people would be arriving. Perhaps some flexibility would have been an idea. The side snack kiosk had few choices and you could only pay for them at the overwhelmed registration desk. Again, poor planning. It is unwise to travel without food here if you have diabetes.
The restaurant remained inflexible throughout my stay. Sunday brunch was booked up by locals, so none of the hotel guests could have anything to eat while waiting for their tours. There was not time to get into town to find a place to eat. Those in the lobby were left with a choice of three shrimp salad sandwiches, or the tasty skyr. Which they’d have to push through the crowds at the registration desk (again) to purchase. Ordering more sandwiches was beyond the desk staff, who were wrestling with people checking out from the conference.
I stayed at the Hotel Natura Rejykavik and would not do so again, despite their admittedly huge delicious buffet breakfast. When I go to Iceland again, I’ll be staying at an inn or bed and breakfast.
My first impression was, and continues to be, that Iceland is unprepared for the amount of tourism they have taken on. Details are messed up, timings are inflexible, crowds mill about areas that aren’t designed for crowds.
I felt annoyance being beamed my way from many places -though again, when we had the time to talk to one another, people were warm and friendly. They were simply completely overwhelmed.
I think it needs to catch its collective breath. Maybe take a month or two off?