By Denise Mattia
Fields of grass meet scarred earth and encrusted lava flows, which continue to spit and ooze from glacier-topped volcanoes. Red roofed, white-sided farms snuggle close to these living giants and appear as intermittent specks in the countryside. Geysers burst from rocky terrain and majestic waterfalls display rainbows through the mist. One can’t help being in awe of the beauty of Iceland and the people who live here. This is a country for everyone to discover.
Five colleagues and I arrived at the Keflavik International Airport shortly after 7 a.m. for a weekend in South Iceland and were transferred to the Hotel Plaza in Reykjavik, the capital. The 180-room first-class hotel is comfortable, clean and centrally located, ideal for business conferences and vacationers. It had been an overnight flight from New York and although tired we were on the move again. We had an appointment to meet with President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson at his residence in Bessastadir. With advance notice, he’s available to any visitor who wants to meet with him.[slideshow id=2]
In 20 minutes we went from an urban environment into the stunning countryside, where the president’s home, formerly the dwelling of kings and important personages, a school and farm and finally the president’s estate, is situated in a field of grass fronted by a river. In the distance we could see the spire of a town’s church and beyond that nothing but sky and clouds rimming the mountains.
Once inside the estate, we were shown to the reception and dining area, where coffee and local sweet delicacies were served along with a short history of Iceland, the current growth tourism in the country is experiencing and a projection for the future of the economy here. The interview lasted just over an hour, which gave us time to return to see a little of Reykjavik. Since we’d have only a few hours, we split up to enjoy the city before meeting again for lunch.
The Lutheran church (Hallgrimur) the largest landmark in Iceland took almost 40 years to build. It’s also an observation tower. Visitors can take the elevator up to the top – almost 240 feet high – to view the mountains and the town of Reykjavik. The air quality is crystal clear, unlike most cities in the world. But time was short. I headed to the restaurant at Silfur in the Hotel Borg to regroup with my colleagues.
Our lunch was a selection of local meat and fish dishes. To whet our appetites, the first course was a slow cooked and spruce-smoked haddock served with fried langoustine, fennel, potatoes, grilled cucumber and topped with a butter-cream and foaming fennel mixture. Next, the apple-cider cured salmon was accompanied by a mustard glaze and dill crust and was served with seared celery puree, roasted bread cream and herb sauce. The meat course consisted of fried leg of lamb and a juicy lamb shank. It was served with local Brussels sprouts, a potato terrine, caramelized turnip paste and a light thyme lamb glimmer sauce. Dessert was a creamy Skyr mousse and ice cream.
We walked off the caloric lunch while touring the four concert and conference halls of the ultra-modern Harpa designed by Henning Larsen Architects in conjunction with Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. I’d seen Eliasson’s public and gallery exhibiitions around New York City. Seeing some of the countryside, I understood how the country inspired his art. Outside and in, the hall’s clear and colored glass fastened on prism-shaped steel frameworks scatter reflections of the surrounding harbor and sky.
Our hosts at dinner that evening at the very popular Fiskfelagid (Fish Company) were the director and project managers of Iceland Express. No longer represented in the states because of cutbacks, the airline is preferred by students and budget-minded Europeans and Canadians. Dinner was imaginative and delicious, and by 10 pm we returned to the hotel to pack for our journey along the tourist route called the Golden Circle in South Iceland. This is the area of geysers, waterfalls, hot springs, spas and volcanoes.
We were met with our guide David Samuelsson the following morning and driven to Pingvellir (pronounced Thing vel ir) National Park, where the rift valley marks the division between Europe and North America. It was the seat of Parliament from the end of the first millennium until the end of the eighteenth century. We felt dwarfed by the massive boulders, deep, dark chasms and wide lava flows nature created since this country was born 60 million years ago. Continuing our journey along the golden route, we visited the Laugarvatin Fontana Spa, a wonderful wellness center that had steam and sauna rooms and thermal pools, which were fed in from geysers and underground springs. Close by, the ISC Restaurant Linden’s Chef Baldur prepared dishes of wild venison, reindeer, lamb. A decadent chocolate moose with raspberry sauce for desert topped the sweet-treat charts.
Wide tunnels were created over the centuries by volcanoes erupting in the area, causing chunks of the mountainside to scatter within like pick-up sticks. We spent more than two hours in one of the 30 caves with our guide, Tomas Magnusson, crawling over angular boulders, and I emerged with the knowledge that I’d been into the belly of Iceland. Toward nightfall we arrived at the chic, five-star Hotel Ranga, where we dined at the restaurant, which serves a “farmer’s market” menu that includes a variety of soups and salads and also a selection of lobster, puffin, salmon and local meat dishes. Use of marine resources and land management contributes to Iceland’s substantially to human food security and dietary variety as well. The cuisine consumed by visitors and locals alike attests to this policy.
The following morning we were on the road again to Eyjafallajokull, the volcano that erupted in March and April 2010 and brought the air traffic, which uses the northern routes, to a standstill. The volcano Museum shows the genesis of craters and the effects the activity of these volcanoes have on the environment as well as on the arts. Ancient sagas from generations of this independent nation have contributed to original fine and performing arts. Still, no journey to Iceland is complete without a dip in the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa to heal, relax or both.
Originally a lava basin that was filled by runoff of sea and fresh water through porous rock from the neighboring geothermal power plant in the late 1970s the Blue Lagoon was found to possess a high content of sulphur, silica and other minerals. By the 80s it was known to heal psoriasis, and today the waters continue to be studied for various other skin diseases. The pool was warm and soothing and the price of admission included a dollop of silica mud to use after the soak and a beverage of our choice. The mud seemed to extract all the impurities and, whether real or imaginary (or the effects of relaxation and wine), I felt at peace with the world as we walked to the elegantly modern Lava Restaurant for a gourmet meal before our flight home.
As I traveled the countryside I came to a fuller understanding of the artistic derivation and development, which is reflected in exhibitions, theatrical and dance performances at the country’s National Gallery, the National Theatre, the Reykjavik City Theatre and the Iceland Dance Company. The portrayal of the resources in Iceland are the most prominent and unforgettable theme in this country of fire and ice.
About Denise Mattia
A writer and photographer, Denise Mattia’s works are published nationally and internationally and include all aspects of leisure travel: art , culture, resorts, spas, food and wine and sports’ activities. She's the founder of the soon to be launched Yum-Yum-Traveler, a site devoted to reviewing restaurants in addition to her travel articles from around the world. She lives and works in Manhattan, where she was born.