Geothermal springs and storytelling: Exploring Reykjavik and surrounds

From boutiques and bookshops to the Northern Lights, there are distinctive sights aplenty in and around the Icelandic capital. 

Snow crunches beneath our boots in the pre-dawn light. By 11am, daylight will steal three hours from the dark. Fairy lights twinkle in windows and above the pop up ice-rink. Christmas is in the air.

Reykjavik is a tiny city, with two-thirds of Iceland’s population. Easy to explore on foot, this quirky and creative city has boutiques, bookshops and art at every corner.

“Better to go barefoot than without a book”, is an Icelandic saying. UNESCO has designated Reykjavik a City of Literature. Selected city benches have barcodes so you can listen to a story on your smart phone. This small island has more writers, books published and books read, per head, than anywhere else. One in 10 Icelanders will publish a book.

In the city’s centre, the rocket-shaped Hallgrimskirkja Church reaches into the pink sky. By the harbour, the Harpa, a cube-shaped concert hall, reflects the fading afternoon sky. We happen on a market with second-hand Icelandic sweaters.We buy Christmas cakes and volcanic rock jewellery.

Iceland is a riot of volcanoes, waterfalls and geothermal springs, with some of the oddest and oldest landscapes on the planet. In the 1960s, NASA trained astronauts in the volcanic desert. There is barely a plant or bush in sight. These landscapes seduce film makers. HBO’s Game of Thrones and the latest Star Wars movie were shot around Iceland.

We take the 300km Golden Circle Tour through UNESCO World Heritage territory. We visit the Thingvellir Rift Valley, which has widened by 70m and sunk by 40m over 10,000 years. 

Cracks and faults traverse the region and we walk through the largest one, Almannagja, a veritable canyon. Here the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates drift apart up to 20cm each year. This process is known as sea-floor spreading.

At Gullfoss waterfall, the Hvita River thunders into a rift, perpendicular to its flow. Even before getting close, we hear the rumbling. It is bitterly cold, with sleet freezing our faces; the inclement weather doesn’t stop a bridal party posing for photos.

At the sulphur-scented fields of Geysir, an active geyser, Strokkur shoots steaming water 35m into the air every five minutes. Mud bubbles and water boils. Twelfth-century monks called Iceland the gateway to hell because of its geysers and hot springs.

Beneath our feet, the Earth is shifting and tearing and changing Iceland’s geography. Twenty earthquakes rumble daily, making it one of the most geologically active places on Earth. More than 15 volcanoes have erupted in the last hundred years.

Iceland has a rich tradition of mythology. Our guide tells us that elves, trolls and dwarves supposedly live in boulders. It seems most Icelanders operate in the twilight of half belief, falling between not believing and not not believing in these huldufolk, or “hidden people”.

We go hunting the Northern Lights. Quivering green light swirls across a starry sky — a spectacle I will never forget.

According to the World Happiness Report, Iceland is the third-happiest country in the world. People stop and chat. It’s like turning the clock back to another era.

With a population of only 330,000, geneticists have found that almost everyone in the country is related to everyone else going back seven or eight generations. A mobile app, Islendinga App, helps locals determine if their potential romantic interest is a relative. Typing in a name or bumping phones gives a result. The slogan reads, “Bump the app before you bump in bed”.

On the way to the airport, we spend a few hours in the steaming waters of the Blue Lagoon (pictured at top), a man-made geothermal spa. 

The 38-degree milky-blue water is rich with silica and sulphur, and reputed to help certain skin conditions. Our faces white with free silica face masks, we spend our remaining krona at the swim-up bar.

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