Iceland manages what most other nations have failed at – to preserve the integrity of its history and culture while simultaneously moving with the times. At the same time, the incredible landscapes of this beautiful island remain relatively unspoiled due to the respect and regard in which Icelanders hold the natural world. Few visitors fail to be absolutely bowled over by this utterly unique location, but a place so different from the global norms can be a bit of an unknown quantity. Here, therefore, is a short guide to Iceland.
Geologically speaking, Iceland is really quite young. The island is one of the ‘newest’ pieces of land on the face of the planet – which is to say that it is a youthful 16-18 million years old (a baby, in geological terms). Its relative youth along with its positioning between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates means that Iceland has a lot of tectonic activity – but don’t worry! Most of this is beneficial (its geothermal activity that blesses Iceland with its famed hot springs), and the volcanic landscape is a great contributor to some of Iceland’s most breathtaking scenery.
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Iceland is renowned for its wild, rugged beauty. The interior of the island is largely covered in lava fields, which provide a hauntingly eerie yet tremendously beautiful alienesque landscape. Human settlement is concentrated around the island’s edges, where the might of the sea meets dramatic cliffs and green moorlands. It’s a haven for wildlife, photographers, and nature enthusiasts alike! Often at night, the sublime vistas of Iceland are lit by the flashing curtains of the Aurora Borealis.
Those who wish to explore (and who wouldn’t?) should be warned that you will probably need a car to take in a lot of Iceland’s best locations. You don’t need a special international driving license if your country is an EU member state, but you will need to have your vehicle properly insured. Alternatively, there are tour buses which run to many of Iceland’s most incredible areas!
Iceland maybe a newbie as far as European settlements go, but its culture is still quite ancient. The first settlers made landfall in Iceland in the ninth century AD. They were Scandinavian explorers – ‘Vikings’, if you will – searching for new land, as the tribal and political situation in their native Scandinavia was going through a time of change.
Many of the famed Icelandic sagas relate to this time of political conflicts and the settlement of Iceland. The settlers brought with them a Scandinavian culture which survives and thrives in modern Iceland. Indeed, most modern Icelanders can trace their ancestry right back to the original settlers. Today, while retaining many of the cultural markers and traditions of their Viking forbears, the people of Iceland hold an open, friendly, and tolerant culture. They are welcoming, and pleased to aid visitors. They have a pride in their land which is palpable, and an in-depth knowledge of their own fascinating history.
Icelandic food has a dubious reputation in the rest of the world. Given the nature of the landscape, the people of Iceland learned to be inventive with what they ate in the past.
Dishes like ‘hákarl’ – i.e. shark meat which has been fermented and left to rot for four or five months – are certainly an acquired taste. Then there’s singed sheep’s head – which looks deeply suspect to anyone used to more continental cuisine, but actually tastes rather nice.
Don’t worry, it’s not all this eclectic! Iceland does a wonderful line in smoked lamb – ‘Hangikjöt’ – and the seafood is simply to die for. Iceland is also quite cosmopolitan enough to be able to supply visitors with plenty of the kinds of foods they’re used to back home, as well, if you’re not feeling particularly adventurous.