Friday, 11 July 2008

The land of ice and fire

I have longed to see the home of the Icelandic sagas since I was seven and still have the book that fired my imagination. Faced with fire in the landscape it is easy to understand how, when the first Vikings landed in 950AD they were convinced that the god Thor was in control, bashing out their fate on his anvil close beneath them. Trolls, now petrified in lava weathered by wind and time still inhabit the landscape, their dwellings are there for all to see. For a story teller this was a thrilling adventure.

The Icelandic people care for their fragile environment and waste nothing. Clouds of steam billow gently from cracks in the ground like trails of smoke left by the passing trains of my childhood. Modern technology has enabled them to harness the power underground where water is held at temperatures exceeding 300°C. Standing beside the steam emerging from the power station outside Reykjavik the ground vibrated with the energy of a primeval giant. It seemed as though nothing could prevent this monster from eventually breaking free.

Children don’t begin schooling until they are six and are not hemmed in by warnings of danger, real or imagined. As teenagers they are expected to do paid work for the community during their summer break and can be found cleaning the streets, working in municipal gardens or for older members of the community or, for those suitably gifted, working in museums demonstrating old skills, dancing, reading from the sagas or writing and putting on plays for younger children. I met some students in the museum in Akureyri, their English was excellent and spoke they with pride of their community and culture.

We had an RSPB party on board so bird watching was part of our itinerary. Among the fulmars swirling around our stern I saw a gannet drop out of the sky. Some days we were followed by clouds of artic terns; skuas were among the many birds I had never seen before and when we got to Haemaey puffins crowded the cliffs.

I have to confess that I have always found tour buses rather claustrophobic so I took advantage of an offer of a drive from Reykjavik to Thorsmork in a 4x4. Only seven of us volunteered as the majority didn’t fancy nine hours over rough ground. The truck turned out to be well padded and robustly sprung, very necessary as part of the way was over an ancient glacial moraine with descents into a river where we had to go down stream for fifty yards or so before scrambling up the other bank.

Like all holidays the end came far too quickly. I can’t speak highly enough of the care the crew of Spirit of Adventure took to ensure that every passenger enjoyed the cruise, from the Captain to the youngest steward fresh from the Philippines. Some of my travelling companions were very frail but no one was allowed to feel too old to take part in what ever appealed to them. We set off from Portsmouth into the teeth of storm force winds coming up the channel and met steep Atlantic rollers as we came down the west coast of Ireland. I was able to enjoy the gale, but did find the Atlantic swell a little uncomfortable. However I managed to sit down to every meal and enjoy the wonderful food which tasted even better because I hadn’t had to cook it. The Spirit of Adventure only carries 350 passengers and life on board is far more informal than in her bigger sisters Saga Rose and Saga Ruby. Her small size allows her to call into ports that couldn’t take larger ships, going into Haemaey would have been impossible fohad she been any bigger.

On the way to Iceland we visited Dublin and Tobermory, on the way home we stopped in Cork and Falmouth but to tell you about all of that would make this story far too long.

One thought remains to puzzle me. How did the Vikings manage to carry their sturdy little horses across stormy seas in open boats. Today the breed is still pure, they have never been crossed with any other breed and if one should leave Iceland for competition or sale it is not allowed to return.


Telmis said...

Fantastic writing, C.

I might not often comment - but I read all your pieces.


Armorel said...

I dropped in to my (rarely visited and empty) blog today and checked out yours too. How strange that we should be on the verge of booking a holiday in Iceland this November. Like you, it's somewhere that we've always wanted to go and we're hoping to see the Aurora Borealis (if we're lucky!). I loved your piece - very interesting and insightful :)