The first time I travelled to Iceland I flew in over the Reykjanes peninsula during the day, so that my first impression from the plane window was of a terribly bleak and desolate landscape, an impression that the bus journey from the airport to Reykjavík seemed to confirm. I was mistaken, however, to think that these vast lava flows and barren moorland were the essence of Iceland. But how many visitors come to Iceland and never see anything more than this, stopping over for an afternoon to visit the Blue Lagoon, or perhaps for a night or two in Reykjavík? How many tourists leave thinking Iceland is a wasteland punctuated only by the occasional stunning tourist attraction and by the sprawling city of Reykjavík?
I would guess that the single greatest category of foreign visitors is the visitor who is in the country for three or four days, and spends it in Reykjavík, leaving the city only to do a mandatory Golden Circle tour: a coach trip round Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss. There is nothing wrong with this. They will have a great time, and some of them may resolve to come back, because even on such a short visit the natural features make quite an impression. But this is no more the essence of Iceland than the lava fields between Keflavík and the Blue Lagoon, though many of these visitors will undoubtedly make the mistake of thinking they have ‘seen Iceland’. I know, because I made the same mistake, and I had a whole week to make it in.
I had two days in Reykjavík, and then spent a day hitchhiking round the Golden Circle, before continuing along the south coast. I had three more days to race to Jökulsárlón, a spectacular glacier lake, in the southeast of the country, and back to Reykjavík. They were three truly incredible days, and a major factor in my decision to return to Iceland just over a year later for a longer visit. This journey along the south coast is probably the most common route for tourists going beyond the Golden Circle, and with good reason, as the waterfalls, cliffs, and glaciers it passes are truly stunning. It is also a route which seems to confirm a first impression of Iceland as an exceptionally bleak country. While the road first crosses the extensive grasslands of the Rangár district, these soon give way to hundreds of miles of washed out black sand, regularly reshaped by glacial floods and supporting a little grass only in those places that have for some time escaped these catastrophic interludes. Just when the traveller thinks the landscape can get no bleaker or more inhospitable, the road hits a series of tremendous lava flows, mile after mile of twisted and lumpy rock supporting no life except a thick layer of moss.
When I left after my week’s visit I was amazed and appalled in equal measure. I knew I would have to come back to explore more of the natural features of the landscape, but I could not understand how or why a people had come to settle this desolation in the first place. Bleak as it seemed to me, how much worse must it have looked to settlers who knew their lives depended on making a living out of this harsh land? To me it seemed a landscape divorced from its inhabitants – an easy conclusion to reach on the south coast, where there are in any case large areas with very few people living there at all. I thought this alternately and often simultaneously beautiful but bleak landscape was essentially Iceland, but I was wrong.
Actually I did come closer to the real heart of the country when I walked out along a long dirt road to a tiny youth hostel in a narrowing lowland valley to the northwest of the famous glacier called Eyjafjallajökull. On this little croft, with only a single staff member for company, the croft itself in the company of a single farm, there was a sense of peace, and of harmony with the landscape. But I had to get back to Reykjavík the nest day, and so this brief experience of a human place in peaceful coexistence with the landscape was overwritten by more sandscapes, lava flows, and by the bustle of the Blue Lagoon, where I rounded off my trip that afternoon. Iceland, I could declare on my return to Britain, is an unbelievably bleak place – beautiful, but no place to live.
However, as a student of the medieval Icelandic sagas, I could not escape the fact that for over eleven hundred years people had been living on this island. And more than that, they had created, told, and written stories of all kinds that demonstrated their interactions with the landscape, showing that these people existed not in spite of the land, but with it and because of it. My experience of Iceland made this difficult to understand, but there it was, demonstrated in forty medieval sagas and numerous other stories and folk tales, taking place in real locations all over Iceland, and all crying out that there was more to this country than waterfalls and lava. So when I went back this summer I carried with me two kinds of guidebook. I had an up to date Lonely Planet to lead me to more of the natural features that had so impressed me on my first visit, and in my rucksack I had a five-volume collection of the Icelandic family sagas, or Íslendingasögur. These would be my guide to the landscape behind the landscape, the Iceland the settlers saw and lived in, visible now to foreigners only with the aid of these stories, but preserved also in the memories and national consciousness of the Icelanders themselves. It is an Iceland that takes time and effort to discover, but it is an Iceland worth making the effort for. It is the nature and the people, the history, and the literature of Iceland. It is Iceland.