A Few "Lesser Known and Obscure" Facts (I've Learned) About Iceland
Song in a fish tank (disused fish oil tank, that is).
Bottom Line: Travel enriches the mind and spirit, in spite of any intent to the contrary.
My wife and I visited Iceland this past June, after two previous trip cancellations. Once we’d shelled out our pesos, we ran the gauntlet of COVID requirements (vaccination and negative PCR test verification) to board our Reykjavik flight. Then, during our Viking cruise circumnavigation of the island, we surrendered daily spit samples for rapid testing each morning, and as well, donned tracking devices, in order we be “notified,” if we came into proximity of anyone discovered to be a carrier. (And though some individuals might run away from these requirements complaining like a cat facing a bath, I considered them reasonable and the results well worth the effort.)
We arrived in Reykjavik the day before boarding our cruise ship, everything according to Hoyle. That evening, however, our trip headed southward when primate turned violently ill. Long story short, my symptoms improved over the next two days . . . and Janet experienced the same problem, though her symptoms trailed mine by a day. Jet lag didn’t do either of us any favors, either. However, with daily improvement, we rallied mid-cruise and enjoyed a strong finish.
I learn new things when I travel. Things about the country, the culture, the people, that I’d never learn any other way. I could learn those things on the internet, though probably wouldn’t think, or take the time, to do so. And besides, firsthand experience has no equal for me. My thinking expands when I travel. I relate to our shared humanity and, as a result, consider myself an earthling, my identity not restricted to a political group, territory or flag. (Not to be confused with patriotism, mind you.)
Here are a few tidbits I learned in Iceland that I hadn’t previously known, or given thought beforehand (but since I’ve learned these more obscure facts, I have given them thought and included links in places to kindle your curiosity):
1) Iceland is a small country. With an area of 103,000 km² Iceland is more than twice the size of Denmark, or about the same size as the US state of Kentucky.
A scale model of Iceland in Reykjavik City Hall, looking east to west.
(Note the rugged topography on the less populated eastern coastline.)
2) Iceland is roughly centered along the 65-degree north latitude, about that of central Alaska and southern Scandinavia, and straddles the Eurasian tectonic plate to the east, and the North American tectonic plate to the west. Indeed, Iceland exists because of the plate spreading along that rift zone (at about three centimeters per year, give or take a few millimeters).
A short segment of the rift, Europe to the right, North America to the left.
(Though it wouldn’t be credible to say that you can stand with one foot in
Europe and the other in America!)
3) Volcanoes, barren lava fields and ash cones blanket the landscape as a result of Iceland’s creation from the up-welling of magma along the rift zone. And the Icelanders are familiar with volcanic activity, you might say that it’s in their bones, and they don’t deny the reality of their situation, in fact they embrace it. They warm homes and generate electricity with thermal water. Tourism of late has boosted their economy, particularly to observe volcanic activity. Seems people ogle with fascination at flowing lava and flying ash. In 1973, an eruption aside Vestmannaeyjar—don’t ask, I can’t pronounce this, I don’t speak Icelandic—threatened to block the town’s harbor, its lifeline to the sea. The town isn’t connected to the rest of the country by road. Fireman from several countries set up water hoses to cool and harden the lava flow. Meanwhile, a portion of the town was buried under ash. (I cheated and googled a news release about this eruption: https://icelandmag.is/article/when-residents-vestmannaeyjar-woke-discover-a-volcano-erupting-outskirts-town)
A number of buildings disappeared under ash in 1973. This one was
excavated and enclosed in the Eldheimar museum. Tourists flock to
check this out. Who wouldn’t? And the Icelanders are making money
on this deal! (For a virtual visit to the museum:
4) The Norse began settling the island before the end of the first century CE (more than five hundred years before Columbus’ dad had a twinkle in his eye). Vikings—the term for Norse pirates—were a hardy bunch. Though perhaps not as blood-thirsty as depicted, on occasion they relished a pillage and ransacking of some unfortunate neighbor.
One of the wax figurine scenes in the Saga Museum (https://www.sagamuseum.is/).
5) And when the Vikings embarked on a pillage and ransack tour, some, if not most or all, donned metal helmets. Most Vikings helmets didn’t sport horns, however. (That was a matter of personal finances.) It is believed the “myth,” backed by popular demand, that all helmets had horns, originated in the 19th century. (Here’s more information about that: https://www.history.com/news/did-vikings-really-wear-horned-helmets and https://en.natmus.dk/historical-knowledge/denmark/prehistoric-period-until-1050-ad/the-viking-age/weapons/helmets/)
Examples of Norse helmets in the Saga Museum in Reykjavik. Note
the lack of horns! (For a quickie visit: https://www.sagamuseum.is/)
5) Remember the pillaging and ransacking part? Icelander male lineage primarily derives from the Norse (coming from the surrounding territory enveloping the Baltic Sea) while female lineage, in large proportion, derives from the Irish (British Isles). Seems the Norse—at least their pirate brethren, the Vikings—liked sequestering their wives (slaves) from Ireland. Though I heard that the local British-Isles ladies, preferred the Norse fellows over the local Anglo-Saxon men. (Seems the Vikings were better groomed than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. You know, combed their hair, bathed more, smelled better. Take a lesson gentlemen!) So, perhaps some intrepid gals went to Iceland voluntarily, more or less.
Side note: I had Ancestry.com check my genealogy a few years ago. According to those results, I hail from the region of northern Europe, Southern Scandinavia and northern British Isles. I’ve concluded I’m a latter day Viking! I suspect my wife might disagree, however, and claim I descend from the Anglo-Saxons, as occasionally, she says I need a shower, because I “smell bad.”
6) Iceland’s population is quite small, numbering 368,792 in 2021. However, the bulk of Icelanders, 233,034 of them, congregate in and around Reykjavik, the capital. Only five towns boast of populations larger than 10,000. Icelanders concentrate along the more hospitable western and northern coastlines, and where fjords provide calm harbor.
Here’s one such town, Eskifjordur, situated along the opposite fjord shoreline.
7) Ten percent of Iceland’s landmass is covered by several large glaciers, and with all that melting ice, waterfalls abound.
Gullfoss Waterfalls, which can be visited via a “Golden Circle” tour from Reykjavik.
The edge of the ice field which feeds the nearby Gullfoss Waterfalls.
8) Iceland is relatively devoid of trees. What forests persisting before the Norse arrived soon became their housing material. Today, trees are paltry in number and height by North American standards. A favorite local joke goes, “What do you do when you get lost?” Answer: “Stand up.”
One of Iceland's "forests" near the WW II museum in Reydarfjordur. They
appear eight-ten feet tall, but I didn’t have the time to attempt getting lost.
9) Weather, along the southwestern portions of the country, is influenced by the relatively warmer Atlantic current from North American environs. The warmer waters historically supported abundant stocks of fish, though their numbers have declined in recent years from over-harvesting. (“Salmon farming” does occur in fjords in scattered locations, though controversial. What if the guy salmon escaped their pens, had their way with the local girl salmon and thus contaminated the wild genetic lineage with bad genes?)
A local Icelander models and talks about fishing gear of the more recent past. (Note
that his gloves have two thumb inserts. Turning them over provided extended use.)
10) Fish served as a primary dietary choice of the first settlers—this should be of no surprise—and remains so today. Lamb and a few veggies, here and there, has supplemented Icelander cuisine. Very little beef was, nor is, consumed. Winter housing and feeding of large animals, such as cattle, proves prohibitive, both in supplying them warmth and feed. Sheep, on the other hand, fit the red meat bill, as they consume less, require smaller space to house and grow thick fur, perfect clothing for the sheep in winter and humans the next spring.
Side note: Don't eat the fermented shark! Though I'm open-minded, I predict you wouldn't enjoy its taste, either. Though now that I’ve mentioned it, some of you will be compelled to try it . . . you know who you are! Regardless, do get your veggies as you dig into a delicious lamb stew.
11) The bulk of Iceland, particularly the interior, is devoid of human habitation, and most everything else, as that land not buried under ice or aforementioned volcanic features, contains poor soil which is unsuited for agriculture. As a result, farming in Iceland has never been a popular occupation.
Though along the coastline (and hence, not the interior), try farming on that!
Only a narrow strip near the water may be suitable to grow grasses and shrubs,
and is subject to avalanche during winter and general landslide year-round.
12) Reindeer roam wild in the island’s interior. However, Icelanders do not consume venison. They rejected that notion when Norwegian imported reindeer in the 18th century. (I gathered the Icelanders didn’t like the Norwegians “meddling” with their culinary preferences.)
13) The arctic fox is the largest indigenous (not introduced by humans) mammal on the island. One or more, no doubt, hitched rides to Iceland on ice flows long before the Norse arrived in their longships.
14) Turns out the longships, powered by oars and sail, and built with over-lapping wood planks which provided flexibility to withstand ocean waves, were quite sea worthy.
An artist’s representation of a Norse longship in Reykjavik.
15) Icelanders, at least many nowadays, display wit and humor. Icelanders think that Iceland and Greenland should swap names, although I’m not sure Icelanders consider this a joke! At least around the edges (coastline) Iceland is clear of snow and appears relatively green with scattered indigenous shrubs, stunted trees and grasses.
My wife and I encountered this sign while rambling the streets of Reykjavik.
However, not in the mood for pizza, we didn’t check the assertion.
A trash receptacle in Vestmannaeyjar. (A protest against nuclear
weapons or volcanic activity? Either way, you get ash clouds.)
16) Icelandic forebearers had creative imaginations and likely suffered bouts of boredom during their long, dark winters, particularly without electric lighting. Huldufólk, AKA Hidden People, were believed to inhabit the countryside among the human folk. You know, elves, who lived in a parallel universe and showed themselves now and then. Most Icelanders no longer believe they exist, however. (See this Wikipedia link for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hulduf%C3%B3lk)
A "Hidden People's" church according to Icelander folklore.
17) Icelanders prize their lineage of horses. (Even though they're small, short and stocky, don’t call them ponies!) If an Icelandic horse is taken out of Iceland, for whatever reason, it cannot be returned. No ifs, ands or buts. The Icelanders don’t want an introduction of diseases or genetics to effect or alter their horse population.
One said Icelandic horse, though not posing for me. (And no,
my wife and I didn't see the Northern Lights while there.)
Photo Credit: pexels – Evgeny Tchebota.
Travel Tip: If you travel to Iceland, even for one day, I recommend a “Golden Circle” Tour from Reykjavik, which will provide you the best of what Iceland offers.
PS: This, my most ambitious blog to date, could contain an error or two. So, please let me know of any errors. Other comments welcomed, too.