Iceland: Seeing the Winter Sights

Houses in Reykjavik with the mountains as the backdrop. Marjorie Freimuth photos.
Houses in Reykjavik with the mountains as the backdrop. Marjorie Freimuth photos.

Three Winter Days in Iceland

By Marjorie Friemuth

Dramatic mountains just behind Iceland's capital city.
Dramatic mountains just behind Iceland's capital city.

The mountains rose out of the frigid North Atlantic Ocean as craggy, snow-covered behemoths that took my breath away, resulting in a coughing fit as the almost-Arctic air needled my lungs. I had little idea what to expect from Reykjavik, but the dramatic peaks surrounding the city surpassed all of my expectations.

Pulling my hands out of my pockets, where they’d been keeping warm, my mitten-covered fingers struggled with my camera. I snapped a few shots, but I knew the images would never compare to what was right in front of my eyes.

The mountains towered across the bay, and the word ‘glacier’ kept coming to mind. Although it’s entirely inaccurate (Iceland is home to many glaciers, but I was looking at the Esja mountain range), ‘mountain’ also didn’t seem to fit. The view was too primal and frosty, very different from the pine tree- and granite-covered mountains of my New England home.

Ice skating in Reykjavik. Fanpop.com photo. I immediately darted between two nondescript buildings to get to the edge of the harbor, wanting to be as close to the stunning landscape as possible.

After looking my fill (and taking more futile pictures), I continued on my wintry walk with renewed enthusiasm, passing Harpa, the distinctive, ice cube of a concert hall.

This was the beginning of my three days in Iceland, a trip I took on a whim in the midst of a longer journey to Ireland.

A World Alone

After that first glimpse of the vast and (this time of year) barren landscape surrounding Reykjavik, the capital city, I began to feel the isolation and other-worldliness of Iceland.

No other country has ever given me the same physical sensation of remote distance that Iceland did that first morning.

I sensed that I was surrounded by immense stretches of snow-covered nature and felt like I was standing on top of the world. It baffled my mind that this frozen expanse exists in the same world that plays host to busy metropolises, scorching tropical beaches, and international political entanglements. It seemed a land removed from time and controversy.

Of course, the unearthly beauty of Iceland that first morning was reinforced by the fact that sunrise in January is not until 11am, and the best place to view it from is the top of Hallgrimskirkja, the striking church that adorns the high point of Reykjavik.

Gullfoss waterfall frozen in the winter.
Gullfoss waterfall frozen in the winter.

For 800 ISK (about $6 USD), visitors gather in the spire of the church to watch the pink-stained sky over Reykjavik gradually brighten as the sun climbs over the ridges of the surrounding mountains. Every sunrise is special, because at this time of year, Iceland only receives about 5 hours of daylight. Nature compensates, however, as January is the best time for seeing the oft-elusive aurora borealis.

That night, I boarded the Reykjavik Excursions bus with dozens of other expectant tourists to be driven past the outskirts of Reykjavik to a dark, snow-covered field, where we waited, huddling under layers of winter clothes and straining our eyes for any sign of a celestial, green glow.

But, the Northern Lights are difficult to predict, and in technical terms, there was no “activity” that night. We were, however, treated to an incredible starry sky with the Milky Way in full, lustrous view.

Between Worlds

One of Iceland’s unusual natural phenomena is the fact that it straddles a continental divide. It sits on both the North American and European plates, which are slowly moving apart by a couple of centimeters a year (or, about an inch, for us Yanks).

Anticipating the question, the tour guide explained that there is currently no need to worry that Iceland will eventually separate into two islands. This remarkable country is home to fire as well as ice, and the volcanoes in the region continue to fill in the gap between the continents with their eruptions every eight years or so.

This is just one of the many ways in which the natural elements of Iceland, although seemingly contradictory and inhospitable, work together to make Iceland a remote but surprisingly harmonious nation.

Descending into the gap between the tectonic plates is an unsettling experience. As the bus left the North American plate and drove down the slight decline into the stark expanse of snow and volcanic rock, I could see where the earth itself had split from the slow movement of the continents, stretching and cracking into fissures like a brittle rubber band pulled too far.

The gap that separates the continents in Iceland.
The gap that separates the continents in Iceland.

Þingvellir

It’s only a five or ten minute drive across the gap, but I breathed a sigh of relief as we left the dark lava field behind and drove up onto the European continental plate: Þingvellir, also the original location of Iceland’s parliament, is a common location for earthquakes, due to its unusual geological situation.

Strokkur geyser
Strokkur geyser.

Earthquakes also affect another famous landmark of Iceland: Geysir, the geyser that bestowed its name to all others.

Its infrequent eruptions are said to be spectacular, often shooting boiling water 70 meters into the air and occasionally even higher. However, earthquakes in the area have in the past activated it and more recently, unfortunately, deactivated it.

Luckily, the little sibling geyser Strokkur is nearby, erupting with convenient regularity every eight minutes. Bubbling water overflowing the geyser’s base predicts the eruption a few seconds before it explodes, shooting steaming water 15-20 meters into the air as we tourists hover with cameras.

As the stream of water subsides, the air is laced with the smell of sulfur, although this is not an uncommon smell in Iceland, where the majority of hot water from the tap is geothermally heated.

Fighting the Whipping Winds

Stopping at Gullfoss waterfall, I realized the winds had picked up. I’m a fairly petite human being, standing 5’3” on my best day, and the prospect of being blown off my feet was a real possibility. The observation point for Gullfoss is a three-minute walk from the parking lot, but this day it took at least ten minutes, as everyone trudged, leaning at a 45˚ angle, into the wind.

Harpa concert hall in the capital.
Harpa concert hall in the capital.

Perhaps a rickety, wooden observation platform overlooking a cavernous basin of frothing water is not the best place to be during high-speed winds and sub-freezing temperatures (sub-zero with wind chill), but the view was incredible.

What little breath I had left in me after the walk was immediately taken away at the sight of the solid, sculpted water. It was as if it had frozen in a split second as it tumbled over the falls. I could still see the water rushing down under its turquoise shell, but the surface was a suspended, icy snapshot.

Iceland Today

In addition to being the location of uncommon natural beauty and a lot of shaggy ponies, Iceland is home to only about 320,000 inhabitants, so few as to create an unusual social situation. Everyone in Iceland is related to some degree, leading to a country-wide “family tree” database, where you can check to see just how closely related to you are to that person you just met at a coffee shop ().

Perhaps because everyone in the country is family, Iceland also boasts one of the lowest crime rates in the world, resulting in a popular police force that is able to spend more time documenting their antics on Instagram () than chasing down criminals.

To Speak or Not To Speak

While Icelandic can be a garbled mouthful of a language when you try to pronounce words yourself, it’s fascinatingly beautiful when coming from a native. Still, it’s always good to try out a few words. The full ‘thank you’ is a bit of a tongue-twister, but ‘thanks’ is simple enough: ‘takk’. Repeat it twice for added sincerity and the locals will accept you in no time, whether you’re enjoying the delights of Reykjavik or exploring small villages in remote parts of the country.

Marjorie Friemuth

Marjorie Freimuth is an avid traveler and ESL teacher from New England currently studying music in Ireland.

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