Inspired by my beautiful friend Leah + her recent visit to Iceland, I dug out my own travel journal from Iceland, circa June 2013. Amazing memories flooded back and I’m inspired to share this writing with you now. Let’s step back in time, to this fascinating country that stole my heart. Almost two years on, I’m still yearning to go back. //
With five solid months of authentic British living under my belt, every part of me was aching to step out of routine, hop on a plane and chase down some rainbows. I’m not sure what overcame me to leave behind a (finally) warm and summery England and fly to a surreal country of 8 degrees, a pendulum of rain and clear skies, low fog and twenty one hours of daylight, but truth be told I had fallen hard for Iceland well before I arrived, and matters of the weather were never going to hold me back.
Stepping off the tiny plane, I seriously wondered whether I had mistakenly landed on the moon. Iceland was unlike any place I had ever experienced. It was dark, mythical, volcanic, arctic, rugged, calm and electric – immediately and all at once. I was awestruck and smitten. I came across the word ‘numinous’, describing something that makes you feel fearful yet fascinated, awed yet attracted, overwhelmed yet inspired. Lonely Planet pens Iceland as “a mythical kingdom ruled by elves and Arctic energy, where the past meets the future in an elemental symphony of wind, stone, fire and ice,” and only together can these explanations better summate this magical country.
Over four short days, some crazy adventures ensued, involving photo shoots in abandoned barn houses, floating in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon, glacial pools and black sand on arctic beaches, moss covered craters, purple flower fields stretching beyond the horizon, faerie folk, turf houses and chasing the midnight sun with so very much to explore and no time for sleep.
There is so much that intrigues me about this country. Iceland runs on nearly 100% sustainable green energy and the streets are heated by geothermal water, so they do not become slippery in winter. Icelanders only ever refer to each other on a first name basis; even in the phone directory (logistically, I wonder how this works). There are no mosquitoes – read: none. Contrasting forces of ice and fire literally exist side by side. And equally as alluring as the drastically beautiful scenery, are the Icelandic folk inhabiting it. They must be the friendliest, most helpful, graceful and disarmingly attractive community on the planet. Icelandic language is spoken on the in-breath (I still can’t grasp how that works) and the result is a hypnotic, almost lyrical expression.
But what hooks me most about Icelandic culture is their firm belief in the existence of elves, dwarfs, gnomes, faeries and other mystical beings. So much so, that it is government policy to build roads around rocks and land where folklore are believed to inhabit, so as to not disturb them. I felt such a strong sense of belonging, and I’m certain one of the crater gnomes or geothermal faeries cast a spell on me as I wandered the countryside, because I still can’t stop thinking about the place and feel such a pull to return already.
We spent our first day on foot, roaming the quaint streets of Iceland’s capital (and the world’s northernmost capital) Reykjavik. It is a beautiful city with a village-like feel. We ate at The Laundromat Café along with the town hipsters (I recommend the vegan toast: grilled aubergine, fennel and beetroot chutney, house-made hummus and mixed greens on brown bread – YUM) and we got a birds-eye-view of the colourful town roofs at the Hallgrímskirkja lookout, wandered the main shopping street Laugavegur, before stumbling on Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn -The Icelandic Phallological Museum, a.k.a the penis museum, musing at over two hundred and eighty penises, including the whale penis (taller than me), polar bear penis (spiky), an elf penis (supposedly) and a human penis (rather unremarkable).
We couldn’t handle the thought of spending my days boxed behind glass inside stuffy tour buses with a hundred other tourists. We needed to go beyond the mapped routes, roam the land free and stop regularly to shoot when the inspiration smacked us in the face (which was pretty constantly). So, getting ourselves some Iceland wheels was a non-negotiable, and became a decision that I am so grateful we stuck with, despite the exorbitant petrol cost and needing to face driving on the opposite side of the road for the very first time. We rose early each day and arrived back to our quaint little bed & breakfast lodging late; the long stretches of daylight both disorientating and enabling.
There is a saying in Iceland that ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes’ and it was fascinating to see this notion materialise. The weather literally shape-shifted in front of our eyes, as we drove through such heavy fog where I could hardly make out the road before me, then blue sky and streaming sunlight, followed by ominous steel clouds and pouring rain, literally all within the space of one hour – and ninety kilometres.
At one point, we were making our way along an empty road that stretched for miles, our ‘Iceland Music for Hipsters’ CD blaring through the sound system, and spotted a tiny house off in the distance, perched alone on expansive grass field. As we drove closer, we saw curtains whipping in the wind and realised the place was completely abandoned. We hurriedly crossed the grass field with our cameras and pittering-pattering heartbeats and crept inside to find shards of shattered window glass, water-soaked bunk beds, weather-beaten furniture upholstery, open cutlery draws and playing cards scattered across the floor. This became the setting for our first photo shoot – my travel companion lying in the grass, directing and shooting, and me in a white cotton dress, barefoot and goose bumped. With disheveled hair flying in the wind, I crouched inside my broken dolls house and stared far out into the distance, like a ghost trapped in time. It was something we could never have hoped for or imagined finding, and at that point I think we unspokenly accepted that Iceland somehow had its own plans in store for us. We just had to delight in and be dazzled as the rugged lands unfolded before us and revealed their magic.
We made our way over to Hafnarfjörður, a short drive from Iceland’s capital Reykjavík. This town is considered to be the largest settlement of the huldufólk (hidden people) and rich in elf and spirit populations, with more than twenty types of dwarfs, four types of gnomes and all manner of elfin beings. Here we enrolled in Elf School, run by local Icelandic Erla Stefánsdóttir. As we waited in the tourist office next to the ‘Watch out for Elves’ road sign, Erla walked in, tiny glasses protecting her mystical eyes and ruby beanie perched on her head. She welcomed us, her only two students for the day, and presented us with our Hidden Worlds Map before leading us around the town. Erla pointed out particular rock formations and other landmarks and paused regularly to tell us fascinating stories about the town’s history and folklore inhabitants, and with each tale I became ever the more enchanted.
Later that evening, we drove on, bound for Bláa lónið: The Blue Lagoon. When we first saw the milky, pale blue water it was another moment where we looked at each other in disbelief; the only words that we could summon being derivatives of “What! What? What is THIS? But how? I just don’t!” and, again, we surrendered to the magnificence of this country.
The moment the tips of my toes touched the water, I melted. Sitting at a constant 38 degrees celsius and rich in silica, sulphur and a bundle of other healing minerals, it was idyllic to sink into. The Blue Lagoon sits between two continents where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet. Holding six million litres of geothermal seawater that is renewed every 40 hours, it is not surprisingly considered one of the twenty five wonders of the world. The seawater originates 2000 metres beneath the ground where it is 240 degrees Celsius and thirty-six times the pressure of the earth’s surface.
As as hazy evening sunshine illuminated the lagoon, we commenced our second shoot. This time I floated in a bright red lacey flowing dress- the folds of the dress disappearing from sight just centimetres under the opaque water. We made friends with the lifeguards and they let us sprinkle fresh daisies in the water. Although we did the shoot in a hidden space, away from the main crowd of dipping tourists, we did get a few inquisitive glances… one passer by calling me Ophelia.
On our final day, we hit the roads bound for the far south-east, our destination Jökulsárlón. The tourist office told us this was definitely pushing the limits for a day trip, but our convictions were equally stubborn. As the clock turned to five o’clock, we still hadn’t arrived and there was no apparent sign of a forthcoming glacial lagoon – I was starting to doubt whether this place actually existed! In the distance we spotted a few cars parked off road, with nothing but gravel hills on one side and a lone black-sanded beach on the other and our road dividing. We decided to stop and climb the hill. Cautiously, we scrambled up, slip sliding on the loose gravel. As we neared the top we peered over the top of the mound and I will never forget the next moment. Before us, lay the most indescribably astounding view that completely knocked the breath out of me.
Luminous glass icebergs floated still in an expansive azure blue lagoon; the reflection of the icebergs a mirrored kaleidoscope of milk and transparent ice crystals. Far off to the right, there was a narrow channel with icebergs bobbing and rolling down towards the ocean. The black sand beach with icebergs dribbled along the shore became our next shoot setting, me wearing a sapphire crush velvet dress and holding chunks of iceberg in my frozen white hands. We munched on some icebergs and hopped back in the car, sitting in silent disbelief for the whole drive back to Reykjavik.
After that fifteen-hour road trip, we crashed into bed at 1am, daylight still outside, and rose again at three to get on the red-eye flight back to London. It was lovely to turn the key at my gate and fall wearily into my bed, heart brimming with fresh adventure and stories to tell.
Some experiences are just too damn chaotically beautiful and extraordinary to fully absorb… this was one of them. The sun is inside me and I am happy. Thank you world, you crazy beautiful thing.
Iceland Address Book:
+ The Laundromat Café // Austurstraeti 9, Reykjavik
+ Hallgrímskirkja lookout // Skólavörðustígur 101, Reykjavík
+ Laugavegur // main shopping strip, Reykjavík
+ Hið Íslenzka Reðasafn, The Icelandic Phallological Museum // Laugavegur 116, 105 Reykjavík
+ Elf School with Erla Stefánsdóttir // Strandgata 6, Hafnarfjördur (10 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik)
+ Bláa lónið: The Blue Lagoon (50 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik)