Iceland: In the land of snow and folk tales

city

It is 10 am and pitch black. The landscape in front of us is flat as a pancake, with no sight of trees, and overwhelmingly white. The snow looks blue in the faint moonlight. It is difficult to tell where the snow dunes end and the clouds begin.

walking snow

Our guide Jakob has the classic looks of a Viking, with a stocky frame and a bushy blond beard. His nasal voice coming from the front of the bus is talking about Icelandic sagas that for centuries have told tales of ordinary people rather than heroes, passed from generation to generation.

We are on our way to Pingveillir National Park, the historic site of the first Icelandic Parliament – the word’s oldest, which assembled in 930 AD. The little bus is negotiating its way among thick snow and even thicker fog to make sure we arrive to the park in time for the sunrise, around 11.30 am.

These days there is no sight of the Parliament, only the same endless whiteness. We jump out of the bus and push our way through knee-deep snow. I’m wearing my ski outfit with many layers underneath, but I’m still cold. Within seconds my eyelashes turn to icicles. We stop to watch the sunrise over the post-glacial lake-filled plain. Iceland is still being created, says Jakob. It is still geologically active, with tectonic plates continuing to shift.

lake

Looking down over the park we see a few picture-pretty wooden huts painted in bright colours, as if in spite of the unforgiving winter. Someone is probably putting on a kettle there, a little haven of warmth among the bitter cold.

We jump back on the bus, as daylight only lasts 4 hours and we have the whole Golden Circle to complete before that. The next stop is the Golden Waterfall, a spectacular site of natural beauty that we fail to see even the contours of through the thick falling snow. I get dizzy walking in the fog, with whiteness below me, whiteness above me, and whiteness everywhere around me. Every point of reference is lost.

We have more luck with the geysers, hot springs that have formed warm wet patches in the snow, encircled by a rainbow of colours from the sulphur. The geysers are bubbling and hissing and every few minutes they spit a fountain of hot water.

geyser

Behind the geysers in the snow-covered field we spot a herd of Icelandic horses – tiny hairy creatures that have adapted well to the harsh climate. Isolated for thousands of years, they are genetically homogeneous and are now actively protected from mixing with other sub-species. The import of horses into Iceland is strictly prohibited.

horses

The night has fallen again when we leave the geysers and make our way to the secret lagoon. Less famous than the Blue Lagoon, this one is no less spectacular, but slightly smaller and therefore off the beaten tract. We change into our swimsuits and go out into -10 C. The body gets confused by the extreme change in temperature and the touch of snow on my bare feet gives me the sensation of heat rather than cold. Without thinking twice, I jump into the steaming water of the lagoon, at 40 C. It is surreal to be sitting in a nature-made hot tub surrounded by snow. On an impulse, I get out and make a snow angel. I’m not cold, but my whole body is burning. When I jump back into the water, my back feels as if stabbed by a thousand needles.

lagoon

We could stay in the lagoon forever, but we need to get back to Reykjavik for the highlight of our impromptu Icelandic weekend – the Northern Lights. It is the dream of every traveller to see these magical, elusive lights.

When the tour bus picks us up from our hotel in the evening, we are prepared. We are wearing thermal underwear, tights, several pairs of socks and our complete ski outfits. We have also brought warming snacks and our super high-tech photographic equipment.

The bus takes the eager group an hour outside Reykjavik where there is hardly any light pollution. We will spend the next two hours in -20 C standing thigh-deep in snow in the middle of a field. The sky is cloudy, but not completely covered and the sun has been reasonably active, boding well for the lights.

The light spotters, dressed in so many layers they look like Michelin men, are standing in small groups around their tripods, cameras pointing at the sky. The silver moon comes out and floods us with bluish light.

lights

We wait. And wait. And wait. But the lights don’t come. Disappointed, we take the bus back to Reykjavik. The glimpse of a green ribbon in the sky on our first night must suffice.

The next day is definitely no good for Northern Lights spotting. The sky is grey and it is raining. The rain is washing away the snow and the streets of Reykjavik have turned into an ice rink. We spend the day skidding and sliding our way around the city. Our consolation prize is a small Aurora Borealis Museum that shows spectacular photos of the lights from across the world.

I know I’ll be back to Iceland, but not to chase Northern Lights. I want to see what amazing landscape is hiding beneath these mountains of white fluff. And I want to hear more about Egil and Njal, and other memorable characters in Icelandic sagas.

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