Feature From icy waterfalls to volcanoes and geysers. The spirit of Iceland's sagas endures in the country's extraordinary landscapes.
In from the cold
Spring in Iceland brings sunlight and joy back to a dark wintry landscape. Waterfalls are released from their frozen imprisonment and become mighty forces cascading from jet black volcanic plateaus down 200m cliffs. Wet moss on lava flows shines brilliant emerald in the sunlight. Glaciers drip at their leading edges, filling lakes and rivers with milky opalescent meltwater. Birds return from Europe, Africa and North America, flocking to the cliffs to scrabble for nest sites. Puffins come in from a winter spent at sea. Inland mountain roads become passable once more as the snow retreats. The days begin to stretch out and by May it is light until 10.30pm in the capital Reykjavik. A few weeks later the country will enjoy 24-hour daylight and a midnight sun. This spring, however, brought more than just the return of fecundity and natural beauty. It brought the dawn of a new era for the island republic, seven months after the economic implosion the Icelanders call the kreppa, or crisis. In October of last year the entire financial sector collapsed, the banks failed, the International Monetary Fund stepped in and people took to the streets to protest the government's failure to prevent the disaster. Rioters threw rocks at police and officers used pepper spray. It was a very rare moment in this country's famously peaceful recent history - Iceland does not even have a regular army. Protests continued through the dark months of Iceland's winter of discontent and eventually the people brought down the government, got rid of the Central Bank governors and forced fresh elections in April, in which the centre-left Social Democrats triumphed and formed a government headed by prime minister Johanna Sigurdardóttir, a striking former Iceland Air -stewardess. Sigurdardóttir's government has inherited a US$28billion (Dh103bn) foreign debt but it has also inherited a nation of immense natural beauty which has been off-limits to millions because of the high price tag on almost everything. Now, however, Iceland's natural wonders could be a catalyst for getting the country back on track. Even with rising inflation, the value of the Icelandic krona is so comparatively weak that foreign visitors cannot lose. A year ago one US dollar bought 72 Icelandic krona; at the end of May of this year, it bought 126. Add to that the fact that hotels are slashing room rates, some of them by half, and the value for tourists increases again. The result has been immediate - tourism is heading for its most successful summer as the world leaps at the chance of experiencing the natural majesty of this incredible island. There's a sense of renewal in Reykjavik. Icelanders are ceasing to bemoan the economic crisis; instead they are moving on, meeting for cappuccinos in the cafes along the main drag - Laugavegur - and planning new businesses focusing on art, design, fashion, music and food. Dressed in the cool, stylish Reykjavik 'uniform' - men in grey designer trousers and black three-quarter-length woollen coats and women in knee-length boots, smart skirts and Arctic-white woollen hats - they are talking about opportunity. These new entrepreneurs are using their Viking stoicism and toughness to build on a proud foundation of Icelandic culture which has created one of the most liveable and likeable capital cities in the world and one that can best be described as snug. Reykjavik is small, its city centre being traversable in a matter of minutes. It is built functionally to withstand the worst the North Atlantic can throw at it but also with a uniquely reserved style and unadorned elegance ? even the much-photographed Hallgrimskirkja church's sweeping basalt buttresses, while impressive and powerful, are stark. Cosy houses inhabit tree-lined streets, their tin roofs painted in bright colours to dispel the gloom of the long winter and their windows made large to drink in as much precious sunlight as possible. Cafes have book-lined walls and homemade cakes, hotel bathrooms have heated floors, and restaurants have intimate black-velvet-seated booths. Everything is double- or triple-glazed and - in true Viking style ? often centred around a log fire, creating divinely warm and inviting interiors. The almost minimalist look and feel is not cold but warm and welcoming. There's a sense of renewal in Reykjavik. Icelanders are ceasing to bemoan the economic crisis; instead they are moving on, meeting for cappuccinos in the cafes along the main drag - Laugavegur - and planning new businesses focusing on art, design, fashion, music and food. Dressed in the cool, stylish "Reykjavik uniform" - men in grey designer trousers and black three-quarter-length woollen coats and women in knee-length boots, smart skirts and Arctic-white woollen hats - they are talking about opportunity. These new entrepreneurs are using their Viking stoicism and toughness to build on a proud foundation of Icelandic culture which has created one of the most liveable and likeable capital cities in the world and one that can best be described as snug. Reykjavik is small, its city centre is traversable in a matter of minutes. It is built functionally to withstand the worst the North Atlantic can throw at it but also with a uniquely reserved style and unadorned elegance - even the much-photographed Hallgrimskirkja church's sweeping basalt buttresses, while impressive and powerful, are stark. Cosy houses inhabit tree-lined streets, their tin roofs painted in bright colours to dispel the gloom of the long winter and their windows made large to drink in as much precious sunlight as possible. Cafes have book-lined walls and homemade cakes, hotel bathrooms have heated floors, and restaurants have intimate black-velvet-seated booths. Everything is double- or triple-glazed and - in true Viking style- often centred around a log fire, creating divinely warm and inviting interiors. The almost minimalist look and feel is not cold but warm and welcoming. I had two weeks in Iceland and was focusing on the south-west area, arguably the most diverse, accessible and rewarding for first-time visitors. Specifically I had targeted the less visited peninsula of Snaefellsnes, about 200km north of Reykjavik. The next morning I set out, with Björk's Gling-Gló CD on my car stereo. I skirted the flank of Mt Esja and found a stretch of glassy water called Hvalfjord under which the Icelanders have built a road tunnel that takes drivers down into the bedrock of this geologically young and active island, jut a few miles west of the great rift valley. It's the closest you can get to the warm crustal rocks of the North Atlantic Ridge, the ever-shifting division between the American and European tectonic plates. On the north side of the fjord, the mountains are higher and their cliffs and scree slopes are severe and threatening. Beyond the next bulge of rock and the sea plain that runs down to the ocean lies the breathtaking sight of Borgarfjordur and the town of Borgarnes, with its small houses clinging to low east-facing cliffs in the lee of the North Atlantic winds that barrel mercilessly up the inlet.
As the US has Plymouth and Australia Botany Bay, so Iceland has Borgarnes, the site where some of the first permanent settlers landed from Norway in the 9th and 10th centuries. We know a lot about these landings and the early life of these people because of the Sagas of Icelanders, a remarkable collection of works that is regarded as one of the most sophisticated examples of early writing. The sagas have been described as the first European novels, such is the clarity, passion and evocativeness of the storytelling. The sagas are full of wonderful and terrifying characters; goodly farmers, despotic kings, big-hearted heroes, strong and loyal wives and crazed Viking warriors called berserkers. They have fantastical names such as Unn Ketilsdottir the Deep-Minded, Hallbjorn Half-troll, Ulf the Squinter, Halfdan White-Leg, Thorolf Sledgehammer, and - a personal favourite - Grim Hairy-cheeks. The tales are of honour, duty, bloodshed, jealousy, revenge and greed; of a lawless land where friends become enemies at the turn of a conversation or the denial of allegiance; of journeys through Iceland's monumental terrain, over treacherous mountains, across swirling fjords and icy rivers, and on the churning storm-whipped northern seas. One of the most readable is Egil's Saga, the story of a poet and berserker who was the son of one of the first settlers, Skallagrim Kveldulfsson, and who hailed from Borgarnes. Visitors can get an excellent potted history of Egil and his bloodthirsty saga in the Borgarnes Settlement Centre and from its knowledgeable manager, Thorleifur Geirsson. Back in Reykjavik, it's worth spending an hour or two in the darkened rooms of an excellent museum called the Culture House. There sit nine original versions of the sagas, their 900-year-old calfskin pages perfectly preserved and their illuminations almost as beautiful as they must have been when first produced by scribes hunched over the skin canvas, working by candlelight. The sagas are powerful not just for their content but because of the direct link with the past. Many of the stories were written in the 13th century but they describe events that happened a few hundred years earlier during the years of settlement. Imbued with a courageous spirit after my encounter with Egil, I headed out of Borgarnes and took a detour east up Borgarfjordur, cutting south-east into the mountains and down into the rift valley to experience three marvels of nature in one afternoon. This wide valley is tranquil on a spring afternoon but below the surface lies one of the most active volcanic zones on the planet. Molten rock is slowly making its way to the surface along the length of the valley, cooling as it rises, then spreading out east and west, gradually increasing the land area of Iceland and pushing Europe and America further apart. At Thingvellir you can walk along the base of a cliff in one of the valley's many rifts and stand on a rock which was the site of the world's first parliament, called the Althing, established in 930AD and mentioned in the sagas. An hour's drive away is the waterfall of Gulfoss, where the meltwater from the Langjökull icecap gracefully plunges over two cascades sending sheets of spray into the air. In spring it roars; in winter it is frozen solid and silent - two great blue-white curtains of ice forcing the Hvita River to hibernate. Driving south from Gulfoss you will see another jet of spray - this is Strokkur, a geyser which shoots plumes of superheated water 30m into the air with alarmingly accurate frequency - almost exactly every six minutes. Thingvellir, Gulfoss and Strokkur are worth seeing, if a little touristy, but there is something special and much more powerful and mysterious about Snaefellsnes. The north and east parts of Snaefellsnes feature prominently in the Saga of the People of Laxardal but its western coastal tip is better known for a more recent work of prose. The ice-capped volcano at the peninsula's point, Snaefellsjökull, was where Jules Verne sent his adventurers underground in Journey To The Centre Of The Earth, for them to discover a subterranean lava-land. I approached the peninsula across ancient lava fields and drove a long left-hand bend which threw into view a dramatic blown-out volcano, its gaping mouth revealing a perfect three-quarter crater. The road continues along the south of the peninsula, at the base of a curtain of long-dead volcanoes painted with thin white veils ? waterfalls freshly released from their winter freeze. Over the centuries great eruptions have poured forth immense amounts of lava, creating mighty flows. Some, such as Hnausahraun and Buthirhraun, stand more than five metres high and are coated in brilliant green moss. For the brave (OK, foolhardy, if you do not have a 4x4) the F570 gravel road is too tempting to miss. It snakes up the eastern side of Snaefellsjökull, bringing you to a mountain pass from where you can climb to the top of the volcano if the cloud is not down and the snow not thick. Sadly both were against me and I retreated, slithering back down to the main road and then around the coast to the black-pebble beach of Djúpalónssandur. I arrived around 7pm, which is considered late afternoon in May in Iceland, and found that a day that had begun with clear spring skies and light breezes had deteriorated into ferocious gales. Horizontal rain spat into my anorak hood, wind forced my eyes almost shut and the cold fought its way between the fibres of my newly acquired thermal gear. A British trawler was wrecked on this beach in 1948 and the debris remains, splashes of rust-orange paint on a black and grey stone canvas. I squinted through the spray and the deafening waves as a fishing boat pitched in the tempest, its hurricane lantern disappearing into the troughs as its modern day Viking crew ploughed a slow and painful path back to Reykjavik. There was nobody on the beach, there had been no traffic on the road for the past hour and the nearest civilisation was the Hotel Budir, my bed for the night, 10 miles away. The hoards of tourists predicted to visit the reborn Iceland had not yet arrived and I was - as I hoped I would be - alone and at the mercy of the wild elements on Snaefellsnes. For the first time I understood why Scandinavians call far northern outposts such as these Ultima Thule or the edge of the world.