Tag Archives: hallsgrimskirkja

A week in the frozen north

201px-Flag_of_Iceland.svg

The passengers on the right-hand side of the aircraft have a fantastic view, apparently. The captain’s typically warm, authoritative voice comes over the PA system: “if you look out of the windows on the right, you’ll get a spectacular view of the Icelandic landmass.” I assume ‘Icelandic landmass’ just means Iceland. However, I’m sat on the left as we fly north toward Keflavík International Airport, which means I won’t get my first glimpse of our destination until we’re much closer to the ground. No matter – I have a pretty spectacular view anyway. Far below the Airbus A319, the choppy seascape inspires quiet awe as I observe the ice floes bobbing on the bitter North Atlantic waters. It’s late February, and although the temperature in the cabin is as comfortable as you’d expect, I feel cold as I take in that wintry oceanic scene. I stare out to the horizon, straining my eyes to see if I can make out Greenland in the distance – that vast glacial island nation of polar bears, a population of just 56,000 hardy souls and a national anthem called Nunarput Utoqqarsuanngoravit. I can’t. I’m sure we’d not need to fly much further west to bring it into view, but I’m happy to settle for Iceland at this stage.

And then I get to see it. Iceland – is there a country in the world with a more evocative name? The runway is lined with grey slush, some of which has encroached quite far towards the centre. And beyond, everything is white. Everything. In the fading light, I can only make out so much, but there’s no mistaking the sheer amount of snow. A few specks of dark rock are visible towards the coast, but otherwise, Iceland is white, buried under a winter’s worth of Arctic precipitation. I’m just not used to it. Of course, I fully expected it, but I suddenly begin to wonder if the boots I’ve bought are going to be sufficient. I feel like I’m embarking on an expedition, naive and underprepared. I’ll soon learn that it’s not the snow I need to be wary of, but the coating of packed ice, as smooth and slippery as a skating rink, from which no boot in the world could save me.

Keflavík airport to Reykjavík is one of the longest airport transfers I’ve ever been on, if not the longest. It was built by the Americans during the Second World War and went on to become the main point of entry to Iceland, despite being a good 90 minutes’ drive from the capital. The highway is relatively clear, but patches of ice and snow remain. The landscape looks pretty barren from what I can tell as the coach speeds along, making short work of the potentially treacherous roads thanks to its trusty winter tyres. Iceland is one of the most sparsely-populated countries in the world (there’s a good chance your home town or city has a bigger population) and this is brought home by the fact that we barely see a car or pass a building of any note until we reach Reykjavík’s outer suburbs, despite being on one of the country’s most important routes. One poor passenger – a woman in her 70s, I’d say – slips as she disembarks outside her hotel. At first I think she has broken her ankle, but she is then able to walk gingerly to the lobby. The look of anguish on her face suggests two things: her holiday to Iceland may well be ruined before it’s begun and I’d better be careful where I put my feet.

12795263_960328347395047_8868566991581756334_n

The view from Centric Guesthouse room 13…

I’m the last of the party to be dropped off. My hotel – the appropriately named Centric Guesthouse – is on Lækjagata , right in the middle of Reykjavík . The perfect location. I allow myself to feel the chill in the air for the first time, to breathe it in. So this is Iceland. The streets and footpaths of the city centre are, for the most part, mercifully clear of ice and snow, but anywhere that doesn’t receive heavy vehicle or foot traffic is covered in pure, white fluff. The street lights shine down, their beams reflecting back up, giving the city a strange, almost otherworldly amber glow. I get to my room and take in the view of downtown Reykjavík – of the attractive Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík , a sort of preparatory college for future university students, with its front lawn hidden beneath snow so deep you could belly-flop onto it and not make an indent, and featuring a flagpole without a flag (a common occurrence in Reykjavík , it turns out). I can see traditional Nordic houses on the hillside, juxtaposed with touristy-looking restaurants and pedestrians taking great care over where they walk, just in case. It’s different. I like it already.

12321581_960333680727847_7018829237627074713_n

Althing – The Icelandic parliament, seen across Austurvöllur

My first morning in Iceland dawns bitterly cold. Tiny grains of snow blow about on a brutal wind, making one degree celsius feel more like minus ten. I’m booked on a walking tour of the city – a tour that runs in all weather conditions, all year round. A gaggle of frozen tourists – their eyes poking out from between hats pulled down low and scarves covering numbed mouths and noses – assembles in the middle of Austurvöllur, Reykjavík’s central square where the country’s parliament – Alþingi- is located. I reflect on how dainty it seems, a national legislature smaller than many local council buildings you’d find back home in the UK. This is not entirely surprising given that Iceland has a population roughly the same size as Coventry. Austurvöllur also features the city’s oldest church and several restaurants and bars. I will go on to become well acquainted with the burgers served at the imaginatively-named American Bar. Icelandic burgers are never too big, but they pack plenty of flavour. You also need to take out a mortgage to buy one.

The tour winds through the compact streets of central Reykjavík . There is little respite from the icy wind and I’m glad for my thermal socks, thick gloves and woollen jumper. I’m as Iceland-ready as anyone else in our group. I fall in love with the little houses that dot the city, as Nordic as they come, built from wood and painted in vibrant reds, greens and blues – perched on concrete foundations designed to hold them together during earth tremors. Iceland is one of the most geologically active places in the world, but its earthquakes are usually mild. We clamber through thick snow to the statue of Ingólfr Arnason – Reykjavík’s founder – positioned at the top of a hill from where one can see out over the bay to the peaks of Esja and down to the brand new concert and conference venue. In this exposed spot, my Southport Football Club scarf offers little protection to the flesh beneath it as the wind and hard pellets of snow blast their way in off the sea.

12799252_960328764061672_199275708164917335_n

The frozen surface of Tjörnin

12795378_960326457395236_6577745878586564692_n

Frozen lakes don’t suit everyone

Relief from the force of the Icelandic winter comes in the shape of the Ráðhús – Reykjavík city hall – where our guide ushers us inside for a lesson on the city’s history and hands out liquorice. The most unpleasant of all the sugary treats, liquorice is inexplicably popular in Iceland. Indeed, I later learn that sweets (or candy, if you’re one of those people) are a big deal in Iceland. Children expect bags of the stuff as weekend treats. Adults aren’t much better. Paradoxically, Icelanders consume some of the highest quantities of sugar in the world, yet also manage to have one of the planet’s highest life expectancies. I choke down the foul tasting liquorice, apparently too British to decline on the basis that it turns my stomach, and observe the array of tourists and locals stomping their way across the frozen surface of Tjörnin, the urban lake that stretches from the Ráðhús to Reykjavík airport, where domestic flights take off and land. At the end of the tour, I consider taking the opportunity to walk on a frozen lake for the first time in my life, but I can picture the headlines after I put my foot in the wrong place and have to be rescued by whoever does Iceland’s rescuing: ‘Englishman is stupid’, or something to that effect. Later, I realise how stupid I really am when I see a group of teenage girls playing football on the lake, the goalkeeper throwing herself to the ground to make a succession of pretty good saves, none of them looking like they expect the ice to crack any time this side of the final whistle. The lake has been frozen since November. I’m not going to fall though it without applying a blowtorch to the ice or attempting to land an aircraft upon it.

12795501_960333064061242_2326346238946633710_n

A sunny Hallgrimskírkja

To the east of Tjörnin and Ráðhús , a short walk past an array of souvenir shops, restaurants aimed squarely at the tourist trade and even a tiny, functioning prison, is Hallgrímskirkja, the city’s impressive, imposing Lutheran church. I find it on my first night and vow to return in the daylight. Icelandic churches tend to be modest affairs, built in the same charming, understated style that most of the houses are. But here in central Reykjavík stands one of the most striking churches I’ve ever seen, designed to evoke images of the country’s lava flows and visible for miles around. I don’t hesitate to fork out 900kr to share the lift to the top of the bell tower with nine excitable Americans, certain it will be worth the outlay. It is. The viewing area in the upper section of the bell tower offers panoramic views of the whole  of Reykjavík, far out to sea and to the mountainous interior. A ferocious wind – barely perceptible on the ground but raging at this altitude – threatens to liberate me of my iPhone and all pictorial evidence of my trip to Iceland. One day I might invest in a camera with a strap, but it might take the total destruction of my phone to convince me to do so. I feel inclined to spend the rest of the day up there, oblivious to the icy wind, happily watching Reykjavík going about its business far below. Plus, I’d get my 900kr’s worth.

12718308_960333020727913_434378019927045371_n

A view from the top

These days, the Reykjavík shoreline is dominated by Harpa, the gleaming new concert hall and cultural centre. In a nod to the centrality of the fishing industry to Iceland, the building is designed to resemble the scales of a fish and is quite widely acknowledged to have made a major contribution to the country’s cultural life since its completion in 2011. However, Harpa has had something of a fraught history and stands as a reminder of the folly of the Icelandic banking industry and its devastating crash in 2008. According to my tour guide, the building was originally not meant to cost the Icelandic taxpayer a penny (or a króna). The long-awaited dream of a world class concert venue would finally be realised through private funding at a time when the Icelandic economy was booming. State-of-the-art office buildings began to rise around Reykjavík, as fancy new homes and apartment buildings rose from the volcanic rock. The “UAE of the north” was bubbling along nicely. Harpa was to be the crowning glory, an indicator of Iceland’s prosperity and confidence in itself.

12742146_960329994061549_4824234811032078445_n

Harpa concert hall and the mountains of Esja

The Icelanders I speak to about this period still seethe. 2008 was this tiny country’s “annus horribilis”. In Iceland, they call it the Kreppa. As the world economy tanked, the country’s banking system collapsed. It became apparent that the Icelandic boom was built on shifting sands, a ticking time bomb that would inevitably detonate. Construction work across the country came to a halt as brand new apartment blocks either stood empty or were abandoned before completion. Harpa went from being a sign of the country’s ambition and wealth to a scar on the seafront, little more than a giant hole in the ground, about which nothing could be done. I get the feeling that this period in Icelandic history was a profound shock to the nation’s sense of itself. In a country without much of a history of political scandal or protest, it had been easy to pretend that the rules of the world didn’t apply here – that somehow Iceland was better. Now, the people had woken up to reality. They were confronted with corruption and betrayal, the consequences of which were profound and even brought Iceland into conflict with other countries. One tour guide I meet tells me of her passionate desire to join the European Union, believing it the only way to guarantee a prosperous future for Iceland. Another, slightly older lady, recoils at the idea, convinced EU membership would sink the country again and increase the risks of future economic strife. The Kreppa seems to have left Icelanders less sure of their place in the world and less confident in their nation’s politics.

Things are different now. Famously, Iceland’s response to this crisis was to jail its bankers. Public demonstrations brought down the government, and Icelanders are now expert in the art of vociferous but peaceful protest. Meanwhile, the country has rebounded economically. Government investment ensured that Harpa was eventually completed, and how splendid she looks. So how has Iceland managed to turn things round so impressively? The answer is because of people like me. Iceland is teeming with tourists. American English seems more common on the streets of Reykjavík than Icelandic does. One local I speak to tells me how much of a shock it is to suddenly have to jostle for space on crowded Reykjavík pavements in this once isolated corner of the world. Walking tours of Reykjavík run all year round, even in the depths of winter, when the deep dark and frightful cold is offset by the majesty of the northern lights. Icelandic roads are groaning under the weight of tour buses ferrying eager visitors from the city to the spectacular sights of Þingvellir national park, Geyser and the Gulfoss waterfall. The Blue Lagoon has become a sort of aquatic UN. Getting a table in a Reykjavík restaurant is no easy feat. Hotel and guesthouse capacity is being stretched. The sheer beauty of the country, coupled with the swarm of tourists, almost makes it feel a bit like a theme park – perhaps one built by God out of lava and powered by geothermal energy. The explosion of tourism in Iceland has driven a period of economic growth similar to that which preceded the Kreppa. But will it last? Can Iceland weather any downturn in visitor numbers? Only time will tell.

The fishing town of Hafnarfjörður lies a half-hour bus drive south of Reykjavík city centre. The capital’s expansion means that it has developed into a suburb, but it retains its own separate identity. I pick up the yellow Strætó bus on Lækjargata and secure a window seat, determined to see what an Icelandic public bus journey has to offer. The route from central Reykjavík to Hafnarfjörður calls at the University of Iceland, the hospital and a large out-of-town bus station, allowing people from all walks of Reykjavík life to get around. University students clutch trendy bags and piles of books, their ears covered by headphones – just like their counterparts anywhere else in the western world. An elderly couple board at the hospital, having struggled through a mound of snow to get to the bus. A man and his children chatter in Icelandic, about what I will never know.

12794386_960329307394951_581942651082383580_n

Colourful Hafnafjordur

I disembark at the main bus stop in Hafnarfjörður, just across the road from the seafront. It’s a cold day, and most of the town is covered in snow. The streets are eerily quiet. I assume the majority of people are at work in Reykjavík or keeping warm indoors. Still, it really is eerie. I’ve come to Hafnarfjörður for a pleasant stroll around the old town, a cluster of traditional colourful Nordic houses on hilly streets overlooking the bay. The steep inclines and frozen ground makes for a more challenging walk than I’d anticipated, but the cuteness of the setting makes it all worthwhile. I stumble upon a rocky hill in the centre of town, a vantage point offering views of the whole town and the mountainous landscapes beyond. The bell tower of Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík is visible below the peaks of Esja to the north. The combination of pure white snow and dark, volcanic rock makes for a bleak but beautiful scene. Nobody else is around. The air is cold but fresh and clean. The skies are grey, but reluctant to snow. Seabirds circle the harbour. I feel a deep sense of peace.

12799338_960329210728294_6903777225908252950_n

Searching for elves in Hellisgerdi

I stumble upon Hellisgerði by accident. Stomping around the old town, I begin to wonder if I’ll be able to find it, and then it appears, tucked away in an otherwise ordinary housing development. The Elf Garden, has Hellisgerði is known, is one of the main reasons tourists venture to Hafnarfjörður . The park features numerous lava formations and provides a pleasant stroll at any time of year. During my visit, the snow is thick, giving the place a magical air. Magic is a pertinent theme in Hellisgerði. The lava park plays a central role in Icelandic folklore as a home for the Huldufólk – the hidden people. These elf-like creatures are an important part of Icelandic identity. Indeed, during my Reykjavík walking tour, a member of the group was told to step away from a boulder on the edge of someone’s front garden, lest he upset the Huldufólk that dwell within. I don’t meet any Icelanders who believe in the Huldufólk, but they all seem to know somebody who believes, and there are Icelanders who claim to encounter them on a regular basis. It’s bad form to poke fun at this, even around those who don’t personally believe. I don’t come across any trace of the Huldufólk in Hellisgerði. Like the rest of town, it’s deserted, save for two boisterous boys of about nine or ten busily beating a large stone with two sticks. They briefly put a stop to their shenanigans as I pass by, grinning sheepishly as if caught in the act of some misdemeanor. Personally, I consider beating a rock with sticks in a cute little park quite wholesome, compared to what kids sometimes get up to. But then, this is Iceland – a country so safe that our Reykjavík tour guide got very excited at the sight of a police car and told us to take advantage of this rare opportunity and to get some photographs.

Back at the seafront, I take a seat and check the local temperature according to my iPhone app. Two degrees. It’s strange how used to things you become. Normally I wouldn’t dream of stopping for a sit down in weather this chilly, but today, two degrees feels comfortable. In Reykjavík, there’s a bar that promises to open its outdoor terrace whenever the temperature exceeds five degrees. Perfect beer garden weather if you’re Icelandic, I guess.

One of the main reasons people like me are drawn to Iceland is the Golden Circle, a trio of natural wonders an hour or so’s drive inland of Reykjavík. As is so often the case with Icelandic excursions, I’m picked up by a bus at my hotel, then transferred to a larger coach in the suburbs. Even the airport transfer companies operate this way. It seems odd to me, given that Reykjavík city centre is hardly inaccessible for coaches. In any case, the coaches are all modern, comfortable and relatively new. They’re also full to bursting point with tourists from the US and Canada, the UK, continental Europe and even as far away as China and Southeast Asia. Iceland is where it’s at right now.

12799365_960332040728011_7676424636354338085_n

Thingvellir national Park

Þingvellir national park gives visitors the chance to walk along the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The movement of these plates is pulling the island apart and will one day result in it splitting in two. It is Iceland’s proximity to this plate boundary that results in its mountainous terrain and geological activity. The pathway winds for about a mile between the two plates. On our left is North America, while Europe lies to our right. Waterfalls tumble from the cliff faces on either side. A place of stark, remote beauty, Þingvellir no longer feels isolated, as literally hundreds of tourists trudge along the stony path, selfie sticks at the ready. However, the park offers ample opportunities to explore, to ramble and to be amazed if you have the time. On a Golden Circle tour from Reykjavík, you’ll only see the main attraction, and it’s not long before we’re on our way again, snaking along a road that climbs and plunges through mountains, the only traffic being other tour buses and hire cars.

12805732_960331094061439_592482197652862647_n

Gulfoss waterfall, frozen in time

Stop number two is Gulfoss, the epic waterfall that crashes into a ravine in the Hvita river. At this time of year, parts of the waterfall are frozen, suspended in time, as if somebody in Iceland has stopped a clock. The scene is jawdroppingly spectacular – a vivid mix of icy water, shimmering snow-covered terrain and air so fresh it seems almost alien. The excitable hordes fall silent in awe. It seems somehow inappropriate to make noise while mother nature puts on such a show.

12799360_960330794061469_4484057459217732506_n

Strokkur being a show-off

The last leg of our Golden Circle tour is arguably the most exciting of all. The first geysir – known as… Geysir – is just a steamy hole in the ground. Eruptions occur every few years or so, meaning the likelihood of seeing one is slim to none. Fortunately, only a few metres away is the more exhibitionist Strokkur, which erupts in spectacular fashion roughly every ten minutes. Strokkur is Cristiano Ronaldo to Geysir’s Gareth Barry. The ground under foot is treacherous, with sloping pathways coated in an icy sheen. To stand still and watch the display is no guarantee of not sliding away into oblivion (or at least into the car park). I manage to find a patch of gravel and plant my feet firmly in place, mentally ticking Strokkur off my bucket list as another jet of boiling hot water spews out of the ground and the ring of onlookers lets out a collective ‘ooh’. I hear ‘ooh’ a lot in Iceland. It’s a very ‘oohy’ country.

12794515_960327574061791_4363523648003992626_n

Eyjafjallajökull emerges from the mist

Eyjafjallajökull. Yes, it’s a mouthful. But back in 2010, it was more than just an obscure Icelandic word. Thousands of European holidaymakers fretted over their summer getaways as a north westerly wind brought a plume of ash across the continent, grounding flights. The volcano, in Iceland’s south west, had erupted, bringing chaos to the aviation industry in the process. In late February 2016, under an azure sky, I stand at the side of the road and admire Eyjafjallajökull , casting my mind back to those anxious days in 2010 when I thought my trip to India might be in jeopardy. The volcano stands there before me, quiet as a very large mouse, as if butter wouldn’t melt. However, while things are peaceful for the time being, it might not stay that way for long. Eyjafjallajökull has a bolshy big sister, known as Katla. As far as we know, eruptions of the inconvenient but relatively small Eyjafjallajökull are always followed by a Katla eruption. Except, of course, this time. Katla is considered to be much more dangerous, owing to her relative size and the sheer volume of ice that makes up the glacier under which she broods. A Katla eruption could cause just as much disruption to air travel across Europe and North America as Eyjafjallajökull did. But the risk to life is also much greater. All that ice would have to go somewhere. And even if local lives were spared (this is a sparsely populated area, after all), the consequences for farmland and infrastructure in the region could be devastating. Houses would almost certainly be wiped out. Roads would probably have to be rebuilt at considerable cost. The expulsion of all that ash could cause potentially dangerous environmental changes, not just in Iceland, but across the northern hemisphere. Katla has been bubbling away for a while. The eruption of her little brother in 2010 suggested she would have something to say sooner or later. Nothing so far. For now, she remains a silent ice-capped treasure. For now.

10624649_960326754061873_2957754780417951278_n

The wild Atlantic at Vík

Further down the coast from the volcanic siblings is the village of Vík. This small settlement draws tourists to its wild shores and black volcanic beaches. The waves are enormous, crashing down at the edge of the beach as if trying to trigger a Katla eruption. The police have recently been patrolling this area due to several tragic incidents involving naive tourists and the power of the North Atlantic Ocean. Apparently, today is the first day they haven’t been there in weeks. I can see why their presence was required. Swarms of visitors take leave of their senses, climbing onto rocks that jut out into the perilous sea, the risk of being swept into the freezing, violent waters apparently worth taking in search of the perfect selfie. I stand well clear. As an anxiety sufferer, I’ve no interest in making my condition worse by putting my life in danger. But the scene is as beautiful as anything else I’ve seen in Iceland so far. The plunging cliffs provide the backdrop, sweeping down to meet the coastal plain on which Vík sits, with its traditional Nordic church perched on a hill – the only building in town that would likely not be swept away by lava should Katla finally blow her top. The black ‘sand’ gives the beach that otherworldly feel that Iceland does so well.

Not for the first time this week, I find myself boarding a tour bus. Only this time, the sun has gone down and the skies are dark. It’s nine o’clock in the evening and we’re off to see the Northern Lights. Theoretically. The chances aren’t good. Although a few stars can be seen, much of the sky is obscured behind stubborn clouds. Our guide remains optimistic, however. Sometimes it’s cloudy until you get out of the city, and then everything falls into place, he tells a hopeful crowd. I’ve chosen a smaller tour company for this excursion and learn that, by coincidence, our driver is the younger brother of the owner of my guesthouse. They share the same enthusiasm for their line of work, their pride in showing off their country, and the outgoing eccentricity that is quite rare in Icelanders.

The air in Reykjavík has dipped below freezing and is dropping all the while. A fair breeze makes it feel even colder. By the time the bus reaches the suburbs, the temperature gauges are reading minus ten. The guide breaks into song, beckoning the Northern Lights to be kind to us this evening, to emerge from behind the cloudy blanket and come out to play. The forecast is not good, and I can see only one star out of the window. We drive about 45 minutes out of Reykjavík, stopping in an icy lay-by off a deserted mountain road. Light from the moon illuminates my breath in front of my face. The clouds have begun to disperse and clear sky is visible. In the distance, above the clouds, is a strange light – a mysterious glow that generates an excited hubbub among frozen onlookers. After much deliberation, it’s decided that this is just a trick of the moon. How cruel.

Giving up on our first location, we drive on to Þingvellir. Far from any sources of artificial light, the mountains surrounding the winding roads are visible only as jagged silhouettes. It feels like civilisation could be days away. By this point, the clouds have gathered again. Þingvellir has nothing to offer, so we push on again. Arriving at Geyser, it occurs to me that I’m now getting the Golden Circle tour again, only this time at night. It’s fascinating to see Strokkur in action in the dark – a bonus of the trip. If only the skies could have matched Strokkur’s penchant for showmanship. Three times now I’ve disembarked a comfortable, warm bus to stagger around in the dark, slipping on unseen icy hazards, frozen to the bone in the lowest temperatures I’ve ever experienced.

Our guide plays the situation as best he can. His optimism is undimmed till the end. His repetoire of Northern Lights-themed songs keeps the troops happy. Alas, we run out of options. We make one final stop, and although the clouds have parted a little, the skies above are not performing. A couple of weeks later, the Northern Lights become visible across a large swathe of Britain and Ireland. However, I manage to miss this display. My wait to encounter this breathtaking phenomenon goes on.

12805954_960330567394825_357184192808956879_n

Fishing and whaling vessels in Reykjavík Harbour

Icelandic cuisine turns out to be quite interesting. Perhaps the first thing that springs to mind is whale meat. A controversial industry, I’m told early on in my trip that Icelanders rarely eat whale and that there is nothing especially authentic about eating whale while in Iceland. Almost all whale meat sold in the country is served in restaurants catering for tourists, who wrongly assume they are having an authentic Icelandic experience. He doesn’t suggest that we don’t try it, but knowing this is enough to make me think twice. I also think twice about trying kæstur hákarl – fermented shark. A common snack food in Iceland, it seems to divide opinion. Some love it, some cannot stand it. A shopkeeper in a Reykjavík supermarket peels back a plastic lid so I can have a smell. The fact I didn’t deign to taste the stuff should tell you all you need to know. I’m all for new cultural experiences, but I just… I just couldn’t. It’s not all ethically dubious whale meat and oddly-preserved shark, though. Icelandic lamb is special. I’m no lover of lamb, but I vowed to give it a go, and I was not disappointed. Succulent and tender, Icelandic lamb lacks the chewiness and stringiness I often associate with cuts back home. It may have been one of the most expensive plates of food I’ve ever had, but I could never regret it. The local mussels are also a must-try on a visit to Iceland. It’s no surprise that seafood should play such a key role in Icelandic cuisine, of course, but I would go so far as to say that these are the best mussels I have ever tasted. I sampled a huge bowl of them in a Belgian restaurant in Reykjavík as part of a guided culinary tour, and my guide explained to me how the clean, lively waters off the west coast swill and swish the mussels around in a motion that seems to contribute to their unique flavour and quality.

If fancy mussels and extravagantly-priced cuts of lamb don’t tickle your fancy, how about a hot dog? In the centre of town, just off Austurvöllur is a hot dog stand operated by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, bedecked in cheerful-looking red and white paint. Serving hot dogs at a rate of about 40 a minute, the servers’ arms helicoptering at a hundred miles an hour to assemble eager tourists’ orders, this venue took on a new significance in 2004 when Bill Clinton visited and declared it the best hot dog he’d ever eaten. In late February, the dining area is reminiscent of the Keystone Cops as people try to maintain their balance on the icy asphalt without losing too much filling from their hot dogs. It’s a challenging eat in such an environment. Surprisingly, the sausage itself seems to be a regular frankfurter, such as you might find preserved in brine and encased in a can at your local supermarket. However, the chefs prepare the onions and mustard in a way that injects magic into what would otherwise be a very ordinary hot dog. I will never know how anyone makes a hot dog in which the onions and mustard are the star attraction, but these guys do.If it’s good enough for the former President of the United States, it’s good enough for me.

By the time I leave Iceland, I’ve already vowed to come back. I need to see the Northern Lights. That goes without saying. But I also want to return in the summer, when the nights are too light for aurora borealis, but the more clement weather conditions might make for a safer road trip under my own steam. Iceland is under something of a tourist siege right now. But it’s not hard to see why. In one week, I’ve walked on a frozen lake, seen a police car, scared two boys in a park full of elves, walked along a rift valley, braved the elements on a black-sand beach, seen an active volcano, been entertained by a geysir, declined the chance to eat fermented shark, chased the Northern Lights (albeit unsuccessfully), sampled the same hot dog as Bill Clinton, and met some wonderful people. Not bad for a country with a population the size of Coventry.

12799241_960326957395186_5345318156448314124_n 12472541_960331777394704_1906787848548384318_n 10391541_960330914061457_3985111175380684815_n

12803263_960329990728216_2155284110069877653_n 12794517_960326604061888_6495186594905641414_n