Lit. Go North and go down; fig. “Everything’s going to hell”
A dream come true! Our all-time favourite band, Sigur Ros, play their first concert in their hometown of Reykjavik for the first time in years. And not just any old end-of-tour concert, but a whole festival of music and art from the band themselves and all their friends and collaborators…
Exploring Iceland’s capital city in summer
In late June, I swung a three-night stopover en route from Tokyo to Toronto. As R and I already planned a self-drive adventure further afield in July, I would explore Reykjavik instead, drifting around town with a camera in hand and nowhere to be, nothing to do for 72 hours…
Continue to read Reykjavik Kills Me…
I have visited Iceland twice now, in late spring two years ago and again this year at the height of summer. I blogged before, during, and after my travels, including such random trip planning resources as inspirational music videos and good reading. Now Im work on a landscape photo essay about this summer’s trip. Meantime, check out my trip reoprts and travel resources at Iceland: Emotional Landscapes https://medium.com/iceland-emotional-landscapes
Ultima Thule: “beyond the borders of the known world”
Pining for the fjords, thoughts of a summer in Iceland send my Nordic heart a-viking…
This summer we celebrate my partner R.’s 50th birthday by traveling north north north, almost to the Arctic Circle, to Iceland – land of fire and ice. We’ll spend a week with camera and notebook exploring Iceland’s insomniac landscapes under a midnight sun. If I can stay awake: there’s a nine-hour time difference between Tokyo and Reykjavik.
R. and I first visited a couple of years ago in spring, a trip that was one part intervention into the ever-widening gyre of our stressed, workaholic lives in Tokyo, and one part mad dash to catch the aurora during the vernal equinox (R. got pics; I slept through it).
We couldn’t get enough of Iceland’s austere, astringent beauty: the glassy fjords, active volcanoes, creeping glaciers, and haunted wastelands. We vowed a return trip, as we do every time we spend a few days in a place that needs a lifetime to explore (which is every place…)
And this time, we mean it. With a little out-of-the-box thinking, I re-routed my annual migration route from Tokyo to Toronto to include stopovers both ways in Reykjavik, coming and going.
On the first leg, I’ll have a few days alone to get over jet lag and explore Reykjavik. I look forward to some time just to wander the small city with a camera.
On the stopover on the return flight to Tokyo I’ll meet R. for a week of independent car touring in the west and north.
So, on a weekend in late January we put on some appropriate Icelandic music (“Little Talks,” Of Monsters and Men) and start to plan… and quickly discover that, if anything, Iceland is almost too much on the tourist map these days. A half-year out, and already we find ourselves scrambling after quickly filling flights and hotel rooms.
Seats on flights from Tokyo to Reykjavik via Copenhagen on SAS and Icelandair were no problem, but it’s a different story from Reykjavik to Toronto. I just barely managed to get on board the flight I wanted. And what started as a casual browse for accommodations turned into a panic attack when room availability in Vik, one of the towns we wanted to use as a base to explore the south, was already nul. Even big-city Reykjavik (population about 119,000) is already more than a third full: 38% in June, when I first arrive; 44% in July, on the return flight to Tokyo.
Then, as we continue to research, we realize that maybe we shouldn’t rely exclusively on one travel site such as Booking.com: yes, the room rates might be lower than if we contact places directly, and it’s helpful to see what availability is like in real time, but the travel site seems to fill up faster than the hotels themselves. After an initial panic-driven flurry of reservations to make sure we’d have somewhere to stay in high-season July, we check at the source several listings which previously seemed off-limits… and manage to upgrade several of the small rooms with shared baths we’d been consigned to, to larger rooms with private baths.
Lesson learned: don’t get lazy and rely on the convenience of a single travel site: shop around.
So after a few weeks of intense planning, booking, and booking again, we’ve got our itinerary for a weeklong (10 days, in my case) trip to Iceland in June and July:
I will arrive in Reykjavik the third week in June and spend a few days solo in the city. I don’t have a definite plan at this point, other than to walk around town with my camera – hopefully to catch some of the sites, such as the volcano-inspired Hallgrímskirkja church and harbour-side Sun Voyager sculpture illuminated in polar “white night” 24-hour sunlight. Then again, the last time I was in Iceland I managed to sleep through the aurora lightshow, so I don’t know how much I’ll get to see of the midnight sun…
A few weeks later, mid-July, I’ll return to Reykjavik from Toronto (about a six hour flight) and meet R’s flight from Tokyo. Then we’ll rent a car – two-wheel drive, not four – to explore.
One of the best things about travel is the anticipation, the planning of the trip. Because we toured Iceland on that aurora-hunting expedition a few years ago, mostly around the “Golden Circle” route in southwest Iceland, this trip we’re gonna stretch things out a bit and hit some specific destinations which have been on our list:
Landmannalaugar for day hikes through colourful rhyolite mountains and lava fields.
“Diamond Circle:” the town of Akureyri near the Arctic Circle; geologically active Lake Myvatn; and the powerful Dettifoss waterfall
The fjords of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, including the town of Gundarfjordor and Kirkjufell mountain
A half day in Reykjavik for shopping
A road trip south, including Seljelandsfoss, Black Sand Beach and the town of Vik, Svartifoss and Vatnajökull National Park; Jokulsarlon lagoon; the Glacier Kayak Adventure at Heinaberg Lagoon
The double rainbow – if we’re lucky – of Skogafoss waterfall, near the south coast
And as a send-off, before a 15-hour return flight to Tokyo, we’ll indulge in the silica mud baths of the Blue Lagoon.
That’s the plan so far, and travel to Iceland being as popular as it is, we’ve already had to make reservations for all nights’ accommodations and most activities, though we can probably hold off on booking a time at the Blue Lagoon until we’re in-country.
So in the meantime, there’s a lot of great Icelandic music to listen to (see links to a couple of current faves, below), as well as some reading up to do…
More to come!
Of Monsters and Men:
Samaris, Ég Vildi Fegin Verda
Plus, of course, anything by Sigur Ros, especially Valtari Mystery Film Experiment…)
A Music Video Tour of Iceland
(Read the rewrite of ‘”The land of Fire and Ice”…’ at Exit Booted 2.0 on Medium.com, ‘Iceland: “Land of Fire and Ice…” and Trippy Tunes?!?’)
Recently, while researching scenic locales for my first photo trip to Iceland, I got a real kick outta watching music videos shot locally by some of my favourite bands such as múm, Bjork, and Sigur Rós. All of which happen to be from Iceland. Turns out, not surprisingly, that Iceland’s wild and woolly landscape makes a great backdrop for some inspiring music videos… or maybe it just says something about the kind of music I like. In any case, I thought it would be fun for me, and cool for you, to put together a “Top Ten” list of inspiring music videos. Some of the locales, such as Reykjavik, and the black sand beach near Vik, we did actually get to in March of 2014; others are at the top of my bucket list. Please note that I’m not gonna try and be comprehensive here: these are ten songs and/or videos I happen to like. There’s nothing magical about the number 10: feel free to add your own favourite Iceland-themed music videos in the comments section below!
The Sugarcubes, Birthday
Reykjavik circa late 1980s – a bird’s eye view (you’ll see what I mean…) and the hinterland. Funky brollies, and a Wonderland-ish dinner party. Hipster before it was hip to be hipster (“Don’t call me ‘hipster'”).
Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindI, 2004) took the refrain “emotional landscapes” to heart when he directed this video. The CG looks a little dated, but the over-all effect works. One of my favourite Bjork songs… and videos.
And then there’s Sigur Ros, still my all-time favourite band. More than just minimalist post-rock musicians with roots in punk and classical music, they’re also keen supporters of video art. Don’t believe me? Check out the tour documentary Heima, or especially Valtari Mystery Film Experiment. Better yet, see them live. Meantime, enjoy this small selection of videos from my list of personal faves…
“Glósóli” (“Glowing Sole”)
Arni & Kinski’s dark, beautiful childhood fairytale set in Iceland’s volcanic desert highlands.
Fun fact: this is the first song I ever heard from Sigur Ros, in the climactic scene from Vanilla Sky. In August Jacobsson’s video, Iceland’s elements are interpreted in dance by a troupe of actors from Reykjavik.
Hoppipolla (“Hopping into Puddles”)
How Vikings grow old. Shot in the residential neighbourhoods of Reykjavik. Used in the soundtrack to We Bought a Zoo.
Untitled #1 (aka Vaka)
Floria Sigismondi’s video of childhood as post-apocalyptic (well, post-volcanic) fantasy won the 2003 MTV Europe Music Awards for Best Video.
This is kinda how I expected Iceland would look in March. It did, and it didn’t…
Steindór Andersen – Hugann Seiða Svalli Frá (with Sigur Rós)
Iceland in black and white! Traditional rimor (alliterative rhyming) folk song with scenes shot around Breiðafjörður, a wide shallow bay which separates Westfords from southern Iceland. I can’t tell who shot the video, whether this is an “official” Sigur Ros video or fan art, archive footage or current, but the imagery matches the music perfectly.
Beyond Sigur Ros…
múm, Green Grass of Tunnel
Okay, this video is even heavier into graphics than Bjork’s Joga, above, but the scene is inspired by a real-live lighthouse: “Iceland is shaped somewhat like a dragon, and this was on the dragon’s forehead,” according to band member Gunnar Orn Tynes in an article at The Age.
Heavy metal does Iceland.
So there ya go… ten music videos shot in Iceland. I had a heckuva time choosing just ten. Sigur Ros alone has more than ten videos worth watching before taking a trip to the Land of Fire and Ice. So does Bjork. And Iceland is no two-band wonder; maybe it’s the long, dark winters, but for whatever reason Iceland has an outsize music scene. Heck, even the country’s airline is on the act, sponsoring a music festival and producing a stream of music anthologies they play in-flight and that you can buy from those duty-free carts the flight attendants push around. And, I mean, people actually buy them. We did… There’s also a growing list of websites with pages devoted to music connected in one way or another to Iceland _ I won’t insult you by googling that for ya, but now you know the stuff is out there.
These are only ten music videos, and in no particular order. What are your favourite music videos shot in Iceland, by Icelandic acts or others? Add links in the comments so I can check ’em out before I plan my next trip to Iceland…
Reykjavik, “Bay of Smokes”
The capital of Iceland has a population of about 120,000 (which is, like around the same number of people jammed onto my suburban commuter train into central Tokyo each morning), more than a third of the country’s entire population. We didn’t spend much time in town, but from what little I did see the spirit of the place reminds me of Kingston, Ontario and other small cities: a core of old but brightly coloured wooden houses with steep-pitched roofsin the city centre mostly occupied by hipster shops, cafes, and restaurants, and the bachelor apartments of making-it artists and artisans, and a couple of minimalist, Scandesign-inspired office towers downtown, surrounded by suburbs.
(Updated April 30: I continue to post galleries of photos from our recent trip to Iceland on Exit Booted… Check ’em out!)
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. – John Ruskin
Forget what you may have heard about how Iceland got its name: that a group of xenophobic Vikings put the “ice” in Iceland to chase other settlers from their newfound home’s forests of downy birch “from mountain to shore”, and meadows — according to one contemporary account — dripping with butter. Those stories are kids’ stuff.
The trees are long gone. And, I can’t speak to summertime, but in March if there’s any butter on the grass it’s buried under a subarctic winter’s worth of ice and snow.
Apparently the climate was a little different a thousand-plus years ago. During a period known as the Medieval Climatic Anomaly, when 30% – 40% of Iceland was covered in the aforementioned birch forests so dense it made travel inland difficult. Even so, according to the official telling of Iceland’s settlement in the Landnámabók, Iceland’s first Norse settler Flóki Vilgerðarson gave the island its current name (there were others) after climbing a mountain and seeing with homesick eyes an ice-choked fjord.
Kind of the way I stood atop Grábrók crater, staring (I hoped) Viking-like into an eye-biting wind, and glassed through a tear-smeared telephoto lens for troll-sign in the desolate, wind-whipped, frost-nipped volcanic wasteland of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. The thought occurred to me, as it must have occurred to Flóki, that it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity it’s not the temperature, it’s the wind.
See, the Anomaly was followed by a Little Ice Age, and by volcanic eruptions, and human settlement, and sheep. The forests were cut down by Vikings long since and the land over-gazed. Today where once was forest now there’s tundra — think the colour of an Icelandic pony’s winter coat of honey-coloured hair — and mossy, fog-shrouded lava fields.
Wind really does make all the difference. Sure, as Wikipedia knows, the Gulf Stream moderates air temperatures even this close to the Arctic Circle. Even in March, Reykjavik stays a positively balmy few degrees above zero Celsius – t-shirt weather for a visitor from Canada or, say, northern Japan (though the coldest temperature ever recorded, in the northeastern hinterland, did reach a respectably bone-chilling -38 C in January of 1922). But that wind: on a stormy day it can average 50 meters a second (112 mph) – hurricane strength on the Beaufort scale, and well below the National Weather Service’s wind chill calculator’s upper limit. But the answer is obvious: don’t go there then. Leave it to the trolls.
Never mind. “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change,” the tourist literature brags, and it’s true: on the day we strapped on crampons to hike the Þórisjökull glacier, we left the car park at the head of aptly named Kaldidalur (“Cold Valley”) road under grey skies which unleashed rain and snow showers, then rice-sized hail, followed by blue skies, and finally a second – temperamental, wind-driven – snowstorm which chased us around the off-road bus. All in the space of little more than an hour.
Thing is, the quixotic weather can be part of the fun, if you’ve got warm layers, a rainshell, and the right attitude. And there are other advantages to being in Iceland in March. Daylight, which at the beginning of the month is still a wintery 10 hours, is a respectable 13 ½ hours by the end. And, while Iceland is still off the beaten path, it does get close to 700,000 visitors a year, mostly in the summer months. That’s more than twice the population of the entire country. Come in March, though, and Iceland is still home to the descendants of those original Viking settlers. And the trolls and elvish “hidden folk” who were the island’s first inhabitants.
It’s all about the spirit of place, the genus loci, fuinke, Ultima Thule, the part of the map which reads Here Be Dragons: the undiscovered country.
Hyperbole aside, this really is the land of fire and ice, glaciers capping super-volcanoes which do occasionally erupt: and shut down airports across north and central Europe. Dirt roads and mountain tracks through the uninhabited central highlands – which makes up something crazy like 60% of the landmass. And the aurora…
Reykjavik, “Bay of Smokes”, is the hip, young, artsy capital, with a population of 120,000. As I tell my high school students, where I would go if I wanted to start a band, or an artist of any kind. Or a hipster. Here, or Montreal (just saying). Then again, not everyone is so crazy about life there. Our guide, Christian, tells us (in fluent English and Japanese) that the cost of living is so high most people just work to make ends meet. And Þorsteinn Bachmann, one of the stars of 2014’s Life in a Fishbowl, is quoted as saying “If you imagine a little fishbowl, the fish go round and round and you meet the same fish… that’s life in Iceland.”
This is the place R. and I chose for our Spring Break 2014. It seems kinda crazy to travel, like, 26 hours door-to-door for a four-day bus tour of a barely inhabited island just outside the Arctic Circle (then again, if you know anything about me, you know I’ve always been attracted to wastelands: shopping mall parking lots; rooftops; Toronto’s beaches… in winter). In any case, as you see from the pictures, what Iceland’s famous rhyolite hills and wastelands lack in colour in spring it makes up for in texture and contrast.
Our four-day tour took us from Reykjavik to Reykholt, with some stops along the way. Highlights include Thingvellir, Reykholt itself, Grábrók crater, glacier hiking, the rivers and waterfalls that cut through lava fields and wasteland; the black sand beach outside the town of Vik, and for R. and everyone else in our group, the aurora borealis in – I’ve been assured, many times – full bloom. But we also just enjoyed watching the scenery pass by our tour bus windows, the tundra and hoar-frosted massifs and fjords, and snow-covered volcanoes rising like sugar mounds out of the wasteland.
Wonder what it’s like in summer…