Iceland is my most favourite place so far in Europe. There, I said it.
To me that’s a pretty bold statement and I had to contemplate a bit but yes, I decided to make the proclamation that Iceland has replaced Switzerland as my favourite European travel destination.
For a long time I couldn’t bring myself to blog about Iceland because I worry that no amount of elaborate descriptions or breathtaking photographs can ever do Iceland justice. It also pains me to remember my trip because it reminds me that such a dream-like place exists on earth, and I’ve been there. Yet I’m not there now, and if that place I’m talking about is Iceland, that thought is enough to make me slightly depressed.
Truth is, if there was one European country I wouldn’t hesitate visiting again, it’d be Iceland. Maybe it’s the friendly people. Maybe it’s the breathtaking scenery. Maybe it’s the smell of sulphur and the mystery of the hakarl…okay not really. Maybe it’s the serenity of even the largest city, Reykjavik. Every breath I took, I fell in love with this place more and more.
First impression of Iceland from the plane: barren. Cold, barren, deserted. From the aircraft window, the landscape already attracted my wandering spirit and I couldn’t wait to see what this country had to offer. I took Icelandair in 2010 when I first stepped onto European soil, and it is the same airline that takes me away from Europe and back to North America. This trip was planned as part of a correspondence on my way back home from France to Toronto, where I thought I’d take a 3-day stopover in Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland. After a very mild mid-winter in mainland Europe, I finally arrived to some real cold…if -1 degrees Celsius is even cold at all.
In fact, while the Nordic island country is located fairly north of mainland Europe and Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world, Iceland’s climate is surprisingly mild. Considering its position compared to France, an average of 0 degrees Celsius is quite heavenly for the end of January. The phenomenon is supposedly caused by the effects of some clashing currents, which I will not pretend to understand. What Reykjavik does not lack, though, is a breath of fresh air everywhere you go. Well, that is aside from the occasional smell of sulphur – AKA rotten eggs (from taps and faucets but also in open spaces) – due to the majority of the country being powered by geothermal energy from volcanoes, a natural source of sulphur. Still, you get used to that in five minutes and you’d rather focus on the spectacular view of mountains across from the waters right in downtown Reykjavik.
This is the Sun Voyager sculpture, a significant landmark in Reykjavik overlooking the sea. Iceland is a nature-lover’s paradise as the entire country is covered with beautiful landscapes and natural features, ranging from lakes to volcanoes to glaciers to fjords to geysers. Even in the capital itself, you are two steps away from majestic ice-capped mountains stretching beyond the sea on the opposite shore.
Iceland has a population of 300000, and approximately 2/3 of the population lives in the capital region. Upon passing this building, my bus guide said, “This is our national bank – or what’s left of it” – a fair comment considering the results of the economic recession in Iceland.
And at night, Reykjavik becomes even more stunning. The building shown above is the Hallgrímskirkja, a giant Lutheran church in the centre of Reykjavik. I was lucky to be staying at a guesthouse literally right outside the church and I got an astonishing view of the building during the night. Doesn’t this look just like a high-tech space shuttle from an alien planet?
On my first night in Reykjavik, I wandered alone around the centre of Reykjavik in search of the city lights. I think I even saw very faint, greenish Northern Lights in a distance, but I couldn’t be sure. Eventually I came upon Tjörnin, a small lake in the middle of the city, and it was frozen. Completely frozen. In my mind this was what “Ice”land was supposed to be like, with ice everywhere. Heh. Some ducks and swans chilled by the lake as the city lights reflected on the rigid mirror-like surface, glowing elegantly in the night. The view really wowed me, and the frozen lake was definitely a surprising little encounter that was not at all expected.
Continuing my night stroll, I stopped by the harbour, where the ships rested. Walking by the sea in Reykjavik was one of the most relaxing things I did in Iceland – though everything else was quite relaxing as well. The quiet waters refreshes me and I felt like I could walk by the waterfront of this city forever. There are no smothering skylines, no rowdy crowds anywhere, just peace.
More extravagant lights at the Harpa concert hall, right next to the harbour. I was quite mesmerized by the architecture of this building but more so by the dancing colours that wrapped around the exterior of the concert hall, modern and chic, but not overwhelming.
In the morning, I made a trip to Perlan, or “The Pearl” in English. The sole mission was to get to the observation deck on the top of the dome (which is situated on a hill itself) in order to take in a panoramic view of Reykjavik. The Pearl was located slightly outside of the city centre, but it only took about 20 minutes or so to get there on foot, a lot faster than I had anticipated by looking at the distance from the city map.
Alas, the top view was magnificent. In the distance, on the left, you can see the Hallgrímskirkja, the beginning of my short trek, where my guesthouse was located. And in the background, there they are again, the snow-capped mountains across from the water. There is an island-like structure in the middle of the water…I wonder if it serves any purpose or if it is reachable by the public. I gotta say though, the view was excellent but definitely can’t compare with the view from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja, which will be showcased in another post.
Something breaks me knowing that cities like Paris (100000 apologies to Paris lovers, which is probably everyone except me) are so glamorized while places like Reykjavik are so often overlooked. Then again, selfishly I wish things would stay this way so that my beloved places would be free from contamination…
It’s hard to put my finger on what I liked so much about Reykjavik. The country of Iceland as a whole, yes, I loved because of the vast amount of nature that is available at the tip of my finger, but I really enjoyed Reykjavik too, the urban centre of Iceland. Something about it just makes me feel so comfortable as a tourist, and I felt like I would love it as a resident as well. The city is incredibly clean and organized. Everyone is very friendly. The air is fresh and tap water tastes delicious. The weather is incredibly pleasant (though it is said that it could be unpredictable.) I don’t know, what else? By the way, try to pronounce that long word in the picture. It could turn out quite amusingly.
I spent quite a bit of time in this little café just down the street from the big church because its cozy atmosphere charmed me to go back and chill after the first time. There’s my usual set-up again: a cup of cappuccino (or hot chocolate, coffee, or latte), my tablet, my journal, and a pen. Iceland was almost an image of perfection – even the little café, popping out of nowhere, was the perfect addition to the itinerary.
As I said before, words and photos cannot sufficiently convey my love for the beauty that is Iceland, yet I still try. By no means is this the only post about Iceland. There will be more…many more. I have yet to talk about the nature, the food, the surprising and the strange…there is so much about Iceland that I want to remember.