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The Westmann Islands have been in the news twice during this half of the twentieth century. The first time was in 1963, when a volcanic eruption created Surtsey, the world's newest island. The second time was in 1973, when a new volcano sprouted on Heimaey and began pouring lava into the village and its harbor. Most of the island's 5,000 people were evacuated. Now the town is back in business, except that a third of it is covered with a black lava field, and the harbor entrance is a lot narrower (but better, the fishermen say). A dark volcanic mass -- Eldfell -- looms above the village, wisps of steam still emerging through its skin; in places the surface is warm to the touch. A rock retrieved from a few inches below ground acts like a bed warmer in your pocket. Eldfell now stands in a row with two other volcanoes -- Helgafell, which erupted about 5,000 years ago, and Saefjall, which erupted a few hundred years before that. All this, together with five other volcanic relics, on an island covering less than six square miles. (And Keiko, the killer whale from Free Willy, inhabits an enclosure in the harbor, where he is being acclimated for release into the open sea.)
We explored Heimaey by boat for a few hours. Its cliffs, and those of the smaller islands that surround it like a carrier battle group, are the main breeding grounds for Iceland's colony of 10 million puffins. At water level caves large enough to swallow a trawler have been scoured into the palisades. The highest winds ever recorded at sea have whipped around these isles. Back on land we climbed the promontory called Stóraklif -- a tough ascent in loose volcanic grit -- aided by lines of rope and chain laid down by previous climbers. On the flat, grassy top we savored a moment of sunlit clarity. To the north, on the mainland, the M'yrdalsjokull glacier sparkled. From our vantage point a jagged, mossy spine trailed south, toward the place on Heimaey's tail where, in 1627, pirates launched an invasion of the island, murdering many and kidnapping more. The pirates were from North Africa.
That night, back in Reykjavík, over a plate of smoked puffin, Tim and I talked a little about those North Africans, and I tried to explain that Iceland is not as remote as it sometimes seems. Icelanders themselves rightly insist on the importance of their role in Western culture. The Icelanders, whose language today is the closest of the Nordic languages to Old Norse, produced one of the earliest vernacular literatures in Europe. ("The attitude to the sagas,"Auden wrote, "is like that of the average Englishman to Shakespeare; but I only found one man, a painter, who dared to say he thought they were 'rather rough.'") Ordinary people, unbidden, bring up the fact that their country publishes more books per capita than any other. Icelanders are heavy users of the Internet. When Microsoft refused to produce an Icelandic version of Windows '98, on the grounds that the market was too small, Iceland's Ministry of Education and Culture threatened legal action. Microsoft relented.
Building up steam, I mentioned to Tim that in some ways the Vikings could be considered a precursor to the Internet -- creating vast webs of commerce and culture that had previously been unthinkable. He took this in, nodded, and said, "They had a very slow modem." Reykjavík, home to about half of Iceland's population, is Europe's northernmost capital, and not an easy place to characterize. The city is part active fishing port, part locus of government, and part cultural and retail center, but no one of these functions dominates its sensibility. Nor does any single modifier: utilitarian, salty, charming, dour, quirky, bourgeois, artsy, droopy, hilly, chilly, youthful -- they all apply. It isn't grand, and it doesn't teem. There is no architectural unity (for good or ill, Iceland has never had an architectural college). The older buildings are boxy cottages of corrugated iron, colorfully painted. The more modern ones have a biospheric flair, in an attempt to be environment-friendly. Everywhere the heat comes from hot water underground. Much to Reykjavík's surprise, the city has been designated one of nine "European Cities of Culture in the Year 2000" (along with such places as Helsinki, Avignon, and Bologna), and as a result it will be presenting an unusually large array of exhibitions, concerts, and festivals next year. Reykjavík is not the kind of place whose cultural gravity prevents you from leaving town, but the gravity is strong enough to pull you back for civilized sustenance. There are plenty of fine shops and restaurants, and an unusual selection of small galleries and museums.
The Arni Magnússon Institute, at the University of Iceland, houses Iceland's important collection of medieval manuscripts, including the Saga of Erik the Red, which preserves the story of Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir and other New World explorations. (Such Icelandic exploits will be the subject next year of a Smithsonian exhibit and a two-day Library of Congress symposium.) Tucked into an unprepossessing storefront on Vesturgata, near the harbor, is a tumultuous used-book store, Bokavardan, whose contents seem to have washed up like driftwood. Among old books in German, French, and Icelandic I found a worn copy of Jubilee: One Hundred Years of the Atlantic (1957). One sign that any visitor is sure to notice while walking down Laugavegur, the main shopping street, is the distinctive one for the Icelandic Phallological Museum. The exhibition space consists of a single room containing specimens from most Icelandic mammalia. "I am missing only a single species of whale," the curator, Sigurdur Hjartarson, told me, "and man." Asked about future prospects, he shrugged with resignation ("You know, the international ban on whaling ...") and then brightened, pointing to a photograph on the wall of a farmer named Páll Arason, who lives in Akureyri, in the north of Iceland. Under the picture hangs a signed promise of posthumous donation. Hjartarson said, "He is eighty-four."
Forming the backdrop to Reykjavík, some ten miles north across the bay, is the massif called Mount Esja, its rounded lower slopes mounting more than 3,000 feet toward steep escarpments. We spent an afternoon hiking up and down it through several kinds of weather, peeling off layers of clothing and abruptly throwing them back on. Drifting fog, trapped by the terrain, divulged sinuous ravines and craggy serrations that vanished in the glare of sunlight. Thin rivers converged into waterfalls. From time to time the clouds parted to reveal Reykjavík in the distance, and an oval of golden light out at sea -- only to close up an instant later with hard drizzle and a bitter wind.
HARD drizzle and bitter wind make for a perfect swimming day at one of Iceland's most celebrated attractions. Every place has a touristy venue that turns out to be just as rewarding as its promoters say it will be. In Iceland it's the Blue Lagoon. Out on the Reykjavíkjanes Peninsula, about forty minutes from Reykjavík by public bus, a power station stands amid the lava wastes, taking in geothermally heated seawater. The mineral-rich runoff -- tinted light blue by algae, luxuriously warm and almost hidden by its own steamy atmospherics -- collects in an extensive pool carved out of the volcanic slag. A sleek modern clubhouse with locker rooms has been built alongside. The harsher the weather, the more inviting the lagoon. The waters are supposed to possess healing powers. I can confirm only that swimming in them renders a diverse assortment of people -- bony British coots, censorious hausfraus, slumming Eurotrash, loudmouthed American jocks, Lonely Planet wanderers, and Icelanders of all ages -- into a state of subdued friendliness. Many international travelers stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport, as they're leaving Iceland. Next time, I plan to stop on the way in.
Iceland is served by up to five Icelandair flights a day from the United States during the summer. No other carriers make the connection. A large number of Icelandic companies offer short or long excursions to all parts of the island, and outings by every conceivable means of transport -- horse, raft, kayak, snowmobile, snow scooter, big-wheel glacier truck, and so on. Arrangements can often be made with a day's notice; the difficulty is narrowing the selection. English is spoken everywhere. The Icelandic Tourist Board can be reached at 212-885-9786 (www.goiceland.org). There are also Web sites for the Leif Eriksson millennium (www.leifur-eiriksson.org), the Christianity in Iceland millennium (www.kristni.is/en), and the Reykjavík 2000 events (www.Reykjavik2000.is).
Owing largely to its reliance on imports, Iceland can be expensive -- comparable in cost to a major American city. A room for two at the Hotel Borg costs $240 a night; the Borg is a relaxed and comfortable historic establishment with an extraordinarily helpful staff. The price is similar at Reykjavík's other traditional favorite, the Holt. Dinner for two at one of the better restaurants will easily cost $60, without drinks or wine. Still, there are plenty of other lodging and eating options. Fresh fish of all kinds is the great strength of Iceland's kitchens, but the best culinary deal in Reykjavík may be the hot dog, available at stands every few blocks. We were advised by a number of people to patronize these establishments, and to insist on having our hot dogs "with everything." I don't know what is in those three or four squeezable condiment tubes (and don't really want to), but the result is without peer in the hot-dog-consuming world.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; The Near North - 99.12 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 6; page 46-51.