Jules Verne might not have set foot on Iceland before releasing his Journey to the Center of the Earth, but in anticipation of the third Volcano Lady novel (cross your fingers for a Spring 2014 release,) I did. Not only is the country on my Bucket List of travelling to the three “I” countries (Iceland, Indonesia, and India,) it is also the planned destination of our heroine, Lettie Gantry. How could either of us resist: beautiful glacier-cut valleys, rolling green pastures, lava flows, spectacular waterfalls, lava flows, fascinating black sand beaches, lava flows … oh yes, did I mention lava?
Iceland is a land on contrasts, as any good travel tome will tell you. Despite its name and the presence of the largest icecap in Europe, its coastal areas are quite mild thanks to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. If those waters ever cool or divert, Iceland is in for some serious trouble (shhhh … don’t tell any mad scientists!) Green, black, cool, bleak, stunning, shattered, flooded, ancient … every good descriptor seems to be made for Iceland. Let me add: cool adults, too! My only job was to soak up the beauty and to take notes so that what I describe in Volcano Lady #3 gives the reader the best, most accurate, realistic impression. I want a reader to be able to feel the spray off of Gullfoss or smell the sulfur leaching out of the cliff sides.
A little travel info for authors and everyone else: To do the research, you got to get in country and almost literally sniff the dirt. Ewww? No. If you ever want your readers to believe that such places exist, you need to tell them what things look like, sound like, and yes … smell like. Even if your characters don’t travel by air or stay in Guesthouses, you will learn things they might have learned themselves.
To start with, you need to plan a bit ahead. Iceland has so much going on and yet so little, that you can easily find yourself under or over whelmed by the options. It’s expensive, so use your funds wisely. Invest in private operations, museums, and good restaurants.
Reykjavik is bleak. The roads are made of gray lava based asphalt. The sidewalks are made with squares cut from gray lava. The foundations of most buildings are made with gray lava rocks. The concrete which forms 80% of the buildings, including churches, is made with gray lava gravel. Most homes are covered in aluminum siding the color of gray lava. The water is gray, the glass windows in new high rises reflect that gray, the sky is foggy and gray … do you get the idea? Occasionally the buildings are painted, but not often enough for this San Francisco gal who is used to the brightly colored, Victorian “painted ladies.” Don’t let that stop you from visiting. The people will more than make up for the lack of color.
Icelanders are not isolationists by choice. This is just the way it can be due to location. They get excited with each chance to meet or try something new – or at least those folks we met were excited. (However, my fellow Americans, we need to get over thinking we’re “special.” People want to meet you because of YOU and not because of the country that issued your passport.) They will do you the kindness of speaking English without asking. The Icelandic language is as close to Viking language as you can get, having not really changed since the Settlement back in 871 AD. Needless to say, you’ll pick up words but for the most part you would need to study hard to be able to join them in local conversation. They quite courteously speak English for your comfort, and their ability to sell you tourist stuff .
Museums in Reykjavik are interesting but rather focused on modern times and the fishing industry. Few if any are focused on the earlier historical periods which we realized much to the consternation of my travel partner who was researching Viking culture. Many of the museums can be done in 30 minutes but cost about USD $16 – $20 to get in. The best was the National Museum, followed by the Settlement House (an archaeological dig under a building in town,) and the Perlan – Saga Museum (a slightly hokey but well researched wax museum.)
For my interests, we trouped over to the Volcano House with its grand geological exhibit and shows – not realizing that it’s a café, with a couple of tables of rocks, two old documentaries you need to pay to see, and boxes of “lava” you can buy and take home. As much as I adored the staff and sort of warmed up to the idea of the place once I realized what it was, I stopped feeling ripped off. You don’t have buy the box of lava rocks – you can get all the lava you want by picking it up everywhere you go, even outside your hotel. They WANT you to take it home. They’ll give you baggies or a Latex glove if you need (more on that later. No, seriously, I’ll need to explain that.)
Later in the week we headed down to the last bastion of Viking culture: the Viking Village, home of the Viking Festival, at the Viking Hotel, where you can get dinner at the Viking Restaurant. Before you laugh, let me tell you that we expected the full on Disney experience. Instead, we found a charming hotel with the loveliest manager, and a festival of international artists and Viking enthusiasts. The room was sparse, as most in Iceland are, but the breakfast was splendid and the dinners fantastic. So it was a little cheesy – it is worth the price. The hot tub is worth the price!
Iceland and Reykjavik seem to be two different places, which is typical of most countries as the capital never quite fits with the rest. However, you need to give Reykjavik a try, if for no other reason than it is a fun spot for tourist shopping, café lounging, eating, and walking.
Next up: Volcanoes!