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TRAVEL. Working up a lava

Avril Mair travels to Reykjavik and discovers an ideal base from which to explore the lunar beauty of Iceland.

Take no notice of tourist publicity about green fjords and fluffy sheep. That‘s not Iceland. The land ofthe midnight sun is on first sighting a desolate volcanic moonscape, utterly devoid ofgrowth. Irregular chunks of lava pile into towering configurations, ash smothers large areas in a grey blanket, springs erupt periodically, sending jets of steaming water high into the air. This is, as author Desmond Bagley succinctly put it, ‘a country with a bad case of geological acne'.

Iceland sits roughly midway between Scotland and Greenland, straddling a rift ofvolcanic activity which influences everything you see. Geysers, hot pools, glaciers, lava fields. waterfalls— nature has the upper hand, creating a stark wilderness which is, at the same time, charged with raw beauty.

It is difficult to imagine the emptiness of a country that is as large as England. but with a population only half the size of Edinburgh. Here lies part of Iceland‘s charm. More than half the inhabitants live in or near the capital Reykjavik in the flat land of the southwest, the rest in small fishing villages scattered round the coastline or in hamlets just inland.

Reykjavik is the world’s most northerly capital, and a city unlike any other. Despite a growing cosmopolitanism, you can never forget that you’re on top of the world and that your nearest neighbour is the North Pole. In comparison with the rest ofthe country, Reykjavik is a bustling metropolis and indeed, as a fishing harbour, a port for the produce of the farmlands and a centre for small industry, it provides employment for a large majority of

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Icelanders. The city has also pioneered the use of geothermal energy to provide low cost heating— which explains why their tap water has such a nasty smell ofsulphur.

You’d be hard pushed to find a capital city much smaller than Reykjavik and, once you get used to the way it sprawls over several hills, it is easy to get about a leisurely walk will take you round most of it in just an hour or two. Its diminutive size accounts for a lack of contrast, but the centre is roughly defined by the Tjorn, a sizeable lake, from where the main road runs to the Laekjartorg square. The pedestrianised Austurstraeti winds through the square and is a general rallying-point for the city.

Far and away Scandinavia‘s most expensive country, Iceland is also subject to runaway inflation. Food and drink cost roughly four or five times what you might pay in the UK. That said, the cuisine and the alcohol features much that is worth sampling whatever the price. The delights of Icelandic cooking include ram‘s testicles, blood sausages and singed sheep‘s heads fortunately specialities rather than everyday staples. For economy the supermarket chains, Hagkaup and

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Kaupfelagio, are your best bet but still expect to pay around 90p for a packet of crisps!

Alcohol is even more expensive. Champion among the hard stuff is Brennivin, a vodka-like spirit whose nickname, Black Death, is an indication ofthe effects of consumption. A litre ofthis at the airport (whose duty-free shop is open to both outgoing and incoming passengers) costs about £4.50. Spirits, costly though they may be, are half the price ofa pint. Beer has been legal here forjust one year, and despite the £5 charge, the novelty hasn’t worn off— the youth ofthe country, wholesome and healthy as a result of fish and fresh air, seem to spend most of their time mindlessly drunk.

Their weekends are spent roaming the city streets, queueing to get into the overpriced pubs, fighting in popcorn shops, and barging into each other in the handful ofclubs. Despite what you might imagine, the nightlife is extremely lively one visitor was prompted to describe it as ‘Lord of the Flies on ice‘. To get involved, go along to Cafe 22 which is the bar to be seen in, or Tunglio, the city’s most fashionable club. The reserved Icelanders change

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drastically after a drink or two and you’ll soon find yourself being invited back to a party.

Despite its unique atmosphere, Reykjavik is not a place to spend a great deal oftime. There‘s the National Museum with an easily-digested summary of the country’s past, the Ice House an art gallery converted from a fish warehouse and the Hofdi where the Reagan-Gorbachev summit of 1986 was held. But unless you‘re gripped by the lava and stuffed birds ofthe Icelandic Museum ofNatural History in Hverfisgata, there’s little reason to hang around. As a base for excursions, however, it is unbeatable, giving easy access to Iceland’s most visited places, and it would be a foolish traveller who did not spend at least a short while there.

Ifyou’ve only a few days in Iceland and don’t want to stray too far from the capital, some awareness of the beauty and severity of the countryside can be found fairly close to Reykjavik. Within easy travelling distance is the National Park of Pingvellir, a strikingly wide plain hidden amongst barren lava fields and lonely peaks. One ofthe more demonstrative aspects of Iceland‘s volatile geology is located close by at

The List 22 February 7 March 1991 71