The Viking Within

The land of fire and ice lures a visitor to the edge of the habitable world


We will now sing a march-like tune, about the thrill of the hunt," the choir conductor announces. He lifts a baton to his singers, 80 men, the average age (I'm guessing) being 55, and they burst forth at shocking volume.

Out to dinner in Reykjavik, I've stumbled into a black-tie gala. Though far from tuxedoed myself, I'm given a warm welcome and informed that this choir, the evening's entertainment, sings almost exclusively of "horses, women and alcohol."

A plate is set before me containing baklowa (salted cod) and lamb with morel sauce, Iceland's version of surf 'n' turf. My vacation is off to a bracing start.

I'd come here to experience the winter that never arrived in New York City. Babied by all those 60-degree days in January, I thought some contrast might toughen my spine. And what better place to clash climates than Iceland, known as the land of fire and ice?

As dessert is served, the choir roars through the "Toreador" song from Bizet's Carmen. The conductor makes a crack about most of the singers being sheep farmers. The crowd laughs appreciatively, since sheep (which outnumber humans in Iceland two to one) are something of a guaranteed punch line here.

By now, I'm chugging down the national drink, Black Death, a caraway seed schnapps. This makes me feel exceedingly tough-spined, and I raise a toast to the thrill of the hunt. Only hours after landing in Iceland, already I've discovered my inner Viking.

A rugged outcrop

The first people to arrive here were Irish monks (hermits, really) who came seeking solitude in the eighth century. They left when pagan Norsemen arrived in the late ninth and 10th centuries. In 874, one such explorer, Ingolfur Arnarson, decided where to build his farm by tossing overboard the high seat pillars he'd brought with him from his native Norway. The place where they washed ashore Arnarson called Reykjavik, or "smoky bay," due to thick steam arising from the water's surface.

The world's northernmost capital city, Reykjavik dominates Iceland to the extent that more than 80 percent of the country's population lives in or near the capital area. (Then again, four-fifths of Iceland's landmass is uninhabitable.)

Offshore from Reykjavik, an enormous volcanic island looms, its jagged peaks oddly sheared off and streaked with snow. At different times of day, the light makes the island appear alive and creeping forward like a great white bear -- that is, if the harbor isn't frozen solid, as has been known to happen in especially harsh winters.

Don't like the weather in Reykjavik? Wait 10 minutes. On the Sunday afternoon I wander about town, one moment the sun is shining and the next snow is falling so fast my open guidebook quickly is adrift.

Most houses in town are sided with corrugated iron, testament to what punishing gales they endure. Ravens hover overhead. These mythic birds fly quite low, and their cry -- more of a choked squawk -- is beyond eerie. There are also ptarmigans, birds that have adapted to the climate, so that they are brown in summer, white in winter.

The ptarmigan seems an apt metaphor for Iceland, as it is a place of extreme contrasts and not much middle ground. Glaciers cover 12 percent of the country's total landmass, which is an area slightly smaller than Kentucky.

The largest glacier, Vatnajokull, in the southeast, stretches across 3,000 square miles -- equal in size to all the glaciers on the European mainland put together. However, Iceland is also one of the most active volcanic countries in the world. On average, some volcanic activity occurs every five years.

An ever-present memory is the day in 1783 when Lakagigar produced the biggest lava flow (218 square miles) recorded in history. Ash fell for nearly two years afterward, wreaking havoc not only in Iceland but also across Europe.

Ben Franklin, then ambassador to Paris, blamed the Lakagigar eruption for the abnormally cold weather and crop failure in France, thereby making Iceland a contributing factor to the French Revolution.

Is it any wonder that Jules Verne, in his novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth, imagined hell's mouth opening just a few miles from Reykjavik?

Like residents of Los Angeles or Mexico City, though, most Icelanders don't spend much time worrying about their unstable environment. That's most likely because the proximity of volcanoes allows for geothermal energy -- hot water is pumped directly from the earth into their homes -- which makes for clean air and laughably low utility bills. It also allows every town in Iceland to have heated outdoor swimming pools.

Hot times

Though a strong sexual laissez faire exists in Iceland (it is said that most couples live together so long before marrying that their children act as the bridal party), the atmosphere at a public bath is serenely convivial rather than lusty.

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