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  • Writer's pictureMathieu Boulay

In the Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is a country of extremes. Widely known as 'the land of fire and ice', Iceland is home to some of the largest glaciers and the tallest waterfall in Europe, along with the world's most active volcanoes. It is also a country of amazing beauty; the landscape can sometimes be moonlike but can also be lush green.

Like many of you, the first pictures of Iceland I had in mind were of ice and a cold country located far away in the north of Europe. When I told my friends that I would visit this country, they were all surprised that I chose such a cold place for a summer holiday. Although the climate can be harsh sometimes, it is milder than you would expect from the country’s name and its global position at high latitudes.

People often think that Iceland is like Greenland, but the Icelandic climate is temperate due to the Gulf Stream. Winters are generally mild and windy, and summers are wet and cool. The milder Atlantic air meets the Arctic air, resulting in frequent weather changes and storminess. In summer, expect a temperature between 13-15 degrees Celsius and in winter, around 0 degrees Celsius, colder (below zero) in the middle of the country. There is an old Icelandic adage: if you don't like the weather, just wait for five minutes. The weather in Iceland changes often and suddenly. So, make sure you pack for the four seasons and be very flexible on your journey. Iceland is a rainy country so you can expect rain at any time but after a few minutes, it will change. 

Your first entry point to Iceland is Keflavík International Airport. When I first arrived, what struck me the most was the daylight. I arrived at 1:00 am and it was still daylight, thanks to the midnight sun; basically, there is no night as we know it in Western Europe. In winter, it is the opposite - no daylight; only the darkest night.

Follow me on a seven-day trip around Iceland with Ars Langa's Iceland and the Vestman Island tour.

Day 1

After a few hours of sleep and a quick breakfast, we were already on the road to what is called the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a 300-kilometer route of Iceland's three most popular natural attractions: Gullfoss waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Europe, the Geysir geothermal area, and Thingvellir National Park,

The first stop was at the Gullfoss Waterfall, which is considered by many to be the most beautiful in Iceland and the largest in Europe. It was raining, as is often the case in Iceland, but the view was incredible, nevertheless. In this chilly weather, the only way you could keep yourself warm is to get a hot lamb soup, one of the typical dishes in Iceland.

We then visited one of the most famous natural phenomena in Iceland, the hot springs Geysir and Strokkur, where we were able to observe the eruptions of boiling water. 

Next, we went to Thingvellir National Park, featuring Iceland's largest lake. The park, situated in a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates separate, has immense historical significance as the former parliamentary site. Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland, lies to the south of the park.

We finished the day visiting a tomato farm. In Iceland, as you can imagine, the climate is not ideal for growing tomatoes. However, Icelanders have been very creative and used geothermal energy to grow tomatoes, without soil, in greenhouses. As is often the case in Iceland, there was a restaurant offering tomato soup and other products made with tomatoes and other vegetables, including tomato beer.

Day 2

On the road again, we drove through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, which is over 5.5 kilometres long and 165 meters below sea level. Thanks to this tunnel, which opened in 1998, going from Reykjavík to the western and northern parts of the island now takes only seven minutes instead of an hour.

Exiting the tunnel, we arrived amidst a vast landscape that in some places was fabulously overgrown with moss. We observed herds of sheep, cattle and Icelandic horses, as well as wonderful lupin flowers.

During the drive, we stopped a couple of times - first to see the crater of the smaller Grábrók volcano, which was formed about 3,400 years ago (this was our first real contact with the volcanic relief that characterises most of Iceland); then at the Glaumbær Farm, where we learnt about the old way of building houses from peat and covering them with turf (grass houses). 

Driving along the northern fjords, we finally arrived in the town of Akureyri, where the climate is extremely mild. The city lies at the end of a long fjord and is surrounded by hills. 

In Akureyri, we took a boat to go into the fjord and see the whales. We were very lucky with the weather and after an hour’s trip deep inside the fjord, we were surrounded by around 10 whales! Such a wonderful experience!

Day 3

In the morning we went to see the picturesque Goðafoss Waterfall

Then we went to see the 38-kilometre-square and only 2-metre-deep Lake Mývatn. The lake was formed by two volcanic eruptions. Lucky for us, the weather was amazing and the color spectacular.

We continued our trip to the Námafjall Geothermal Area, located on the east side of Lake Mývatn. This area, known as Hverir, is characterised by multicoloured sulphur-crystal-covered smoking fumaroles and boiling mud pots. The landscape made me think of a landing on Mars. The sulphur makes the entire place smell like rotten eggs!

Then it was time for a little hike to see the crater of a volcano. So off we went up the Hverfjall Crater - the view was amazing, but it was so windy that we could have been blown away in seconds.  

It was then time for a well-deserved break in the natural hot spring of Myvant Nature Baths. The water is around 38 degrees Celsius, and the color is blue like a lagoon, but be aware of the unpleasant smell. It is supposed to be good for your health and skin though...

Day 4 

The next morning, before leaving Akureyri, we went to visit the Botanical Garden, the northernmost botanical garden in the world. It has a range of flowering plants from high mountainous regions to temperate zones, along with species native to the Arctic.

On the road again, next we visited the southern edge of Iceland Canyon, which ends at the Dettifoss Waterfall, known as the second most powerful waterfall in Europe. It is situated on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, which flows from the Vatnajökull glacier and collects water from a large area in Northeast Iceland along the way.

After all this excitement, we needed a good lunch to give us some energy. We went to a traditional farm where we could get the famous traditional lamb soup.

We continued our trip. On our way to a nice little harbor, we saw some deer roaming around freely. We made a pit stop in the charming little port of Djúpivogur before heading to the hotel. 

Arriving in Höfn, we had a little walk around the tiny town before heading to dinner. We were blessed with the beautiful midnight sun.

Day 5 

After a nice breakfast, we headed to Jökulsárlón Lagoon, where Vatnajökull, the largest glacier on the island, flows. The view of the lagoon, full of floating icebergs, is one of the most extraordinary on the island.

Finally, some ice! After all, we were in Iceland.

The view of the beautiful lagoon with all the icebergs and the glacier in the background was breathtaking. Do not even think about going for a swim as the water is so cold that you will only survive a few minutes in the water!

We then continued for a nice walk in the Skaftafell National Park. Skaftafell is an area of wilderness in Iceland's Vatnajökull National Park. Many trails lead to Kristínartindar Mountain and to the Svartifoss waterfall, which tumbles over black basalt columns. Volcanoes repeatedly erupt there under a colossal ice shield.

On the way to Vik, a small fishing village, we stopped for an outstanding view of an amazing and typical Icelandic landscape made of natural moss. It looked like a fairyland. 

Finally, before heading to the hotel we stopped in Reynisfjara, a world-famous black-sand beach found on the South Coast of Iceland, just beside Vík. Reynisfjara has enormous basalt columns, Atlantic waves crashing on the beach, and stunning panoramas. It is widely considered to be the most beautiful example of Iceland’s black sand beaches.

Reynisfjara is also the place of a famous Icelandic folktale: The Seal Skin in Reynisfjara. The story is based on the belief that seals are descended from humans and that once a year they come on land and cast off their seal skin to dance and sing through the night. 

Here's how the story goes:

Once upon a time, a man was walking by the sea in the far east of Mýrdalur early in the morning and came upon a cave. He heard the sound of roaring and dancing inside the cave. There were many seal skins outside. He took one of them home and locked it in a chest. He returned to the cave door a little later; there sat a young and beautiful woman, completely naked and in tears. This was the seal whose skin the man had taken. The man gave the woman some clothes, comforted her and took her home with him. The woman was loyal to the man but did not get on with anyone else and would often sit alone and longingly watch the sea.

After some time, the man and woman married and had seven children. The man still had the seal skin locked in the chest and he would take the key everywhere. One day, however, he forgot the key and it was left under his pillow. When he returned home, the chest was open. The seal skin was gone and so was the wife.

It is said that the wife found the key and opened the chest out of curiosity. When she saw her seal skin in there, she could not resist the temptation of putting it on. She bade her children farewell and returned to the sea. She said: Woe is me / I have seven children in the sea / And seven on land.

The woman did not forget her human family, however. When the man went fishing, a seal would often swim around his boat, and when her children walked along the shore, a seal would often swim close by and throw them fish and beautiful shells. But she never returned to land.

Day 6 

Today was a bit different as we took the ferry to visit the Westman Islands. We first stopped to see an amazing waterfall on the way to the harbor. The Seljalandsfoss is beautiful and if you don’t mind getting wet, you could actually walk behind it. Sadly it was raining so I did not want to get soaked.

The Westman Islands are often called Iceland's best-kept secret! The main island is called Heimaey and is surrounded by 15 other uninhabited islands. The rich history, unique landscape and welcoming people make the island a must-visit. Around 30 rocks and reefs in this area help the seabird life flourish, which includes the emblematic puffin birds.

Eruptions are a big part of the history of the Westman Islands with two Volcanoes still present on the island. One erupted around 6,000 years ago, but the other one, the Eldfell, erupted in 1973 and all the inhabitants had to leave the island for the mainland. The funny thing is that the day before the eruption, the weather was so bad that all the fishing boats were still at the harbour and could therefore transport all the people to the mainland.

The Eldfell eruption was strong and powerful and lasted from the 23rd of January to the 3rd of July, leaving the island under lava and ashes. The islanders, with their strong mentality and courage, did not want to give up on their amazing islands, so they went back and with the help of other Icelanders and foreigners they worked hard to rejuvenate the island. The island is truly beautiful with lush vegetation, lava fields, arctic flowers, and amazing wildlife.

The star of the show is the puffin bird. Walking along the cliffs, you may be lucky and see some. 

Day 7

We spent the final day of our trip in Reykjavík - the Bay of Smoke. The name is of Old Norse origin, derived from the roots reykr ('smoke') and vík ('bay'). The name is said to be inspired by steam rising from hot springs in the region. It was inhabited as early as the 9th century, but today the Icelandic capital is dominated by more modern buildings from the 19th and 20th centuries. It is a fairly small town but so charming! It is such a nice feeling to walk through the narrow streets full of colors.

Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran parish church, situated on the hilltop Skólavörðuholt near the centre of Reykjavík, is one of the city's best-known landmarks and is visible throughout the city. Guðjón Samúelsson's designed the church in 1937. The design incorporates such features as trap rocks, mountains, and glaciers from Iceland's landscape, in particular its basalt "organ pipe" formations (such as those at Svartifoss). 


After a visit to Hallgrímskirkja, we went outside of town to visit Árbær Open Air Museum. With more than 20 buildings that include a town square, a village, and a farm, Árbær Open Air Museum gives a taste of the architecture, way of life and lifestyles of the past in Reykjavík. Most of the buildings have been relocated from central Reykjavik.

After the museum, we went to see Perlan, the iconic attraction and nature museum, offering panoramic views over Reykyavík.

We then went along the harbour, where we saw the famous Sun Voyager, which is described as a dreamboat, or an ode to the Sun.

Along the old harbour, you can see colorful streets, modern architecture, and lots of colorful houses.

We ended the trip with a short visit to the Icelandic geothermal bath Bláa lónið or Blue Lagoon on the way to Keflavík airport to catch our night flight back home.

The water's milky blue colour is due to its high silica content. The temperature of the water averages at 37–39°C. This water, as well as the silica mud, is supposed to have some healthy properties for your skin, but of course, you must accept the sulfuric smell in the air!

The seven-day trip in the land of fire, ice and waterfalls had come to an end. It was sad to say goodbye to this wonderful place. Iceland is truly magical, and probably even more so when you can see the aurora borealis. From the lava fields to the volcanoes, from the glaciers to the black sand beach with the basalt columns chiseled like an organ, from the bubbly blue lagoon waters to the moss fields, Iceland has touched my soul with its beauty and its kind and welcoming people. Goodbye, Iceland! You showed me your amazing beauty. Thank you so much. Þakka þér kærlega fyrir. Until we meet again. Við sjáumst.

About the Author

Mathieu is not your typical French guy wearing a beret and holding a French stick! He is an insatiable discoverer, always ready for new adventures all over the world and always willing to learn new things about different cultures, languages and people. A linguist by background, he spent many years living and working overseas and met amazing friends who helped him understand today's world and opened his mind to cultural differences. Mathieu lives in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and teaches French. His favourite quote is: Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.


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2 komentáře

(01. 1.)

What an incredible place Iceland is! The weather conditions appeared similar to Melbourne. It was fascinating to see how tomatoes are cultivated there! - Anita M

To se mi líbí

30. 12. 2023

The Iceland journey is beautifully lucid, unfrilled.. leaving readers ample of nooks to take on their own flights with the writer! And guided by the breathtaking photographs from site. What a refreshing read :-) thanks!

To se mi líbí
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