Harpa concert hall in Reykjavic Iceland
Harpa concert hall in Reykjavic, Iceland

The concert hall in Reykjavic was just one highlight for SHIRLEY DE KOCK GUELLER who experienced the unique features Iceland has to offer:

Fire and ice. That’s not only the sum of Iceland but of Harpa, its concert hall in Reykjavic, with a glass exterior to reflect the ice of centuries and a blood-red lava-like interior. It’s significant that a city and country in the midst of a depression in 2008 could fund a new basalt-like concert hall to house a first class symphony orchestra with first-class local musicians. But Iceland is far more than its concert hall. It’s an impressive country of proud people and history and hopefully a dynamic future.

Modern Iceland came into being in 1944, when at a time of international crisis Denmark had other matters of grave concern, like wearing a Star of David. So Iceland declared independence. From boasting the oldest parliament in the world dating from the 10th century in Alþing (Althing), in the Þingvellir (pronounced sort of like thingvetlir) national park and where the tectonic plates meet, it has become a nation of consequence. Just 360 000 people, two thirds of whom live in Reykjavik or the towns close  by, celebrated as it reached the playoffs in the 2014 World Cup and staggered the world.

Iceland icebergs with ash
Iceland icebergs with ash

Iceland’s unique features

It boasts a Nobel literature winner, Halldór Kiljan Laxness and several noir  novelists; a Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson who designed a part of the concert hall and is being exhibited for the second time at the Tate Modern in July 2019, has a language which developed in isolation and virtually no one else speaks (or can understand or pronounce), yet everyone there is bi or even tri-lingual (English or Danish and now other languages).

It has whale watching in chunks and offers trips to islands in whaling boats to pick up refuse, has thriving geo-thermal power so no one is cold in a climate that can reach -30 or more; and a creative film industry.

Having been attracted by the first Trapped movie series before I went, I watched it again, seduced once more by the ice and fire and the great bear of a detective into the second series, but still no closer to understanding anything that was being said!

Icelanders don’t have surnames as we know them, using the patronymic or matronymic for identification. Thus everyone from the Prime Minister down is called by their first name, with  a suffix like ‘son’ or ‘dottir’ on the end of the parent’s first names. Sensibly perhaps, there’s a list of approved first names so if one wants to go beyond that list and use a Chardonnay or Brooklyn before Eliasdottir, special permission is required, and not often granted.

With one airline, WOW, gone bust earlier this year, Icelandair has filled its gaps and those left by the grounding of its own Boeing Max 737s, offers free stopovers on a haul from Europe to North America. Timing meant I couldn’t take advantage of that, but went to and from London (the bonus was time for the Tate Britain’s Van Gogh on the stop-over to Canada and the British Museum’s Munch), and only for four days which is enough only to whet the appetite.

Reykjavik is something of a mix of taste and tat. Miniature Vikings and polar bears abound in tourist shops (which multiplied after the volcanic eruption of 2010) along with Icelandic wool jerseys and socks. It’s expensive… A plate of fish and chips was over R200, but the fish was the softest most succulent barely fried fish I have ever had. A glass of beer was over R120 but a good local brew, Gull (Golden)m was truly golden at the end of a long day. Fish aside, the other local delicacy is lamb. Lamb soup is also a speciality, specially on a cold day. Luckily I had sun for the most part.

I took a walking tour of the capital and was delighted at the serendipitously chosen minibus trips.  It’s not exaggerating to say that around every corner was another visual feast and even though the lava fields, especially from the air look bleak, they had a beauty of their own, covered in moss for up to several meters.

The first day took me to Þingvellir,  with the parliament and a creek where ‘misbehaving’ women were drowned, to the impressive Strokkur Geysir, which erupted every few minutes,  rather like Old Faithful in the Yosemite National Park in America, then on to the Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) where multi-levels made it spectacular.

A bonus was an off-tour stop in at a 6500 year-old  volcanic crater, Kerið, (pronounced Kerid) before going to the Blue Lagoon, a magnificent man-made thermal lagoon, for a swim, and then being dropped off right outside the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre … I was in time for the second half of the concert with the Iceland Symphony performing Beethoven’s Eroica, conducted by Osmö Vänskä.

Tickets were about R300 to R900, but with the superb acoustic the softest pianissimo could be heard everywhere. The 1800 seater hall (one of four halls) was about two-thirds full and the language all around me was Icelandic, so local is lekker.

The centre was opened in 2011 after the massive world economic crash of 2008 in a country that imprisoned bankers for their actions ….    Not bad for such a small country. After the concert a walk around the concert hall (situated to take advantage of land and see views) to the harbour behind led back to my hotel past the sculpture of a Viking Ship, in the safest of circumstances,  and despite it being 10pm broad daylight.

Gullfoss Iceland. Pictures: Shirley de Kock Gueller
Gullfoss Iceland. Pictures: Shirley de Kock Gueller

Waterfalls, glacier lagoon

Another trip took me to the first of several waterfalls, Skogafoss, and to Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon at the base of Europe’s largest glacier, Vatnajökull. Here the iconic views of icebergs  with riveting translucent whites, icy blues and black from tapped volcanic ash) became reality from the boat that took us around them. (Icelanders boast that many films – like two James Bond, were shot there; Game of Thrones was shot on a glacier there.)

It’s a shocking fact that the lagoon didn’t exist a 100 years ago and at this rate of global warming the glaciers themselves, today covering more than 10 per cent of Iceland’s mass, will be a thing of the past in the next 100 to 200 years. It’s to the credit of the Icelandic government that it launched a climate action plan that seeks to make the country carbon neutral by 2040.

We also drove past the renowned volcano Eyjafjallajökull (called E 15 by tour guides to make it easier for the visitors … 15 letters after the E!) which in 2010 spewed so much ash it disrupted air traffic across Europe. The trip included a closer look at the unique Icelandic long-maned horses and a visit to Diamond Beach, where smaller icebergs were in stark contrast to the black soil beneath them. A stop at the Fjallsárlón glacier on the way back and then  one last waterfall,  Seljaklandsfoss, and it was back to Reykjavic.

Since the sun only sets at 11.45pm in early Summer, the northern lights were not an option so I will have to return!

What: Iceland travel