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Land of elves and spirits

Iceland turns out to be a heady dose of nature?s miracles and urban revelry.

india Updated: Aug 12, 2006 03:56 IST

One small step out of the Keflavik airport and the world changed dramatically. It could have been Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth country, or was it the moon? Had I strayed onto the set of a science-fiction film or a ‘how the earth was created’ virtual reality show? I definitely had expected Iceland to be different but no travel brochure had prepared me for such landscape.

All I could see was a vast stretch of moss — covered craters with a jet black ribbon-like road leading to nowhere. Men and machines appeared confined to the airport complex, making it feel like an oasis in a desolate desert. Latest cars and luxury buses as well as Brad Pitt look-alikes in designer wear (the Icelandic man sure is eye candy and according to my husband, women should wear the Miss World tiara) conversing in impeccable English only added to the surreal feel.

Picture perfect

A holiday gone wrong, I thought darkly. Facts rattled off by the tour guide did little to lift my mood. What was I going to do in a hot spot for volcanic and geothermal activity (average of three earthquakes a week), 11 per cent of which is covered by glaciers and 30 per cent by lava fields, a population of 3,00,000 of which 1,70,000 live in capital Reykjavik? I did want to escape from the sweating crushing human mass back home but not to a lonely planet. Unexpectedly, the next six days in Iceland turned out to be a heady dose of nature’s miracles and urban revelry. Icelanders like to party hard. Pubs, nightclubs, restaurants some listed amongst the 100 best of the world are huddled together in 120 sq km of Reykjavik.

Add to this a summer sun that shines round the clock. Bedtime became a must only when the body played a traitor refusing to keep up with the spirit. So action packed trips to see the sights across the country were deservingly rounded off either at a pub or tucking into salmon and trout at the city restaurants.

As I drove around Iceland, (there are no trains here) every turn held a surprise. The first was to see barren land in the high temperature area spouting steam even at the doorsteps of houses. Coming from power-starved Delhi, it was fascinating to learn that Iceland has harnessed steam from the ground to generate electricity.

Bond and the lagoon

Icelanders are proud of how they use technology. As I sailed in the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon around icebergs broken off from Vatnajokull, Europe’s largest ice cap, excited at touching 1,500 years old ice, the guide related how the Lagoon water was frozen for the James Bond’s Die Another Day. It was the spot chosen for a car chase around the huge icebergs. For a price, Iceland decided to use technology to stop the ocean water for 10 days from coming into the lagoon. The lagoon froze and Bond did his thrilling bit.

After a taste of ice and steam, I decided to drive in an Iceland special SUV lovingly named Super Jeep. Daredevil drivers remodel the Nissan vehicle by raising its chassis to accommodate 48 inch tyres. Then it is ready to zoom across river waters, climb mountain tops, glaciers and cross black lava deserts. The first river crossing had me on edge, but soon excitement took over as we sped across the Skeidararsanndur desert formed by volcanic sand. A storm raged but the guide comforted me saying the only damage would be to the paint of the jeep. The searing wind rips off the paint!

Spooky tales

Despite their obsession with modern technology 80 per cent of the people (according to a survey) in Iceland believe in elves, fairies, ghosts, trolls and men who do not have an iris. The 1998 volcanic eruption under the Vatnajokull glacier that pushed up new mountains and triggered off meltdown floods, and the mysterious presence of a black church on the grounds of Budir, a modern sea side resort, are all attributed to ghosts. Something of their folklore must have rubbed off on me.

I sure wanted to be with the music and lights of Reykjavik. The disco and pub scene is essentially a post-midnight affair which I discovered after sitting for two hours in a small, dark room with black walls and black furniture. The silver dance floor sprang to life after the Cinderella hour and the strobe lights could barely keep pace with bare arms and legs.

The Viking affair

For the locals however, there is their own fare handed down by their Norwegian Viking forefathers who arrived to settle in Iceland, 1,100 years ago. The first settler Ingrolfur Arnarson made his home in Reykjavik and there are ruins to indicate that. While the Icelanders have retained the ancient Viking language with little changes, the same cannot be said of their food. You need nerves of steel and a stomach of iron of eat ram testicles pickled in whey, loin bags, rotten shark and boiled sheep head. Black Death or Brennivin schnapps is the traditional local drink reserved for festivals. Made out of potatoes and flavoured with caraway seeds, it gets past few noses and throats. That explains the rush at the Duty Free booze store which spans an entire floor of the airport. Can’t hold heavy drinking against the Icelanders, not if they have all that ice above the ground, fire below, the elves and the trolls to deal with.