The Land of Fire and Ice
Exploring the Beauty of Iceland
WORDS BRYCE M. WATTS
Iceland is a country built on two main tenets: survival and prosperity. It was settled first by Celtic monks in the seventh and eighth centuries, and later in the eighth century by Norse settlers. Unlike many others, the country can trace its history back to the exact date and even name of its first settler, Ingólfur Arnarson in the early 870s. These early settlers made their villages with stone and earthen roofs and relied on fishing and raising livestock. The turbulent coastlines surrounding Iceland created rich fishing grounds that helped the country prosper.
For most of its history the country was controlled by or in union with the Norwegian or Danish monarchy. It wasn’t until 1944 that it became an independent republic. Today it remains a small country of only 320,000 inhabitants and while almost two thirds live in the capital region, the country is still very much dominated by small town community feeling.
Human history aside, the landscape of Iceland is simply breathtaking. From the high snow-covered volcanic peaks to the deep river gorges, it is a country shaped by titanic forces and it is because of these forces that it has thrived.
Icelandic history is memorialized in a number of monuments pointing to its origins from Norse and Celtic settlers. This stylized boat sculpture represents those first settlers crossing the turbulent seas.
The Celtic monks and Norse built traditional homes representative of that period. Made with thick walls of stone and earth, these dwellings helped with temperature moderation.
The modern façade of Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik continues the tradition of tying in the natural world with architecture. It takes its form from the shapes created by lava cooling, something that is the very basis for Iceland itself.
The residential architecture of Iceland is quite similar to other Scandinavian countries. Simple right-angled buildings are common, often very bright coloured. They are built with function in mind, and shy away from the overly ornate styles that were popular on mainland Europe during the same time period.
There is also a strong modern architectural streak running through Icelandic culture, as is evident in the design of the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik.
Iceland was built by the extreme forces of volcanism, and its landscape reflects that ongoing history. There are still many active volcanoes dotted around the island. The most recent eruption, which occurred in Grímsvötn in 2011, caused international travel delays. What might seem like a disadvantage has proven to be a powerful source of Iceland’s modern success: it has been able to tap into this clean power source, and now produces a significant amount of geothermic energy.
The Blue Lagoon started off as a wastewater pool from the Svartsengi power plant in the late 1970s and people immediately began to recognize the water for its positive effects on their skin. Since then it has transformed into Iceland’s top tourist destination and become known around the world for its restorative waters.
Although the country is called Iceland, its landscape is anything but. Though there are glaciers and it does snow, the countryside is a lush green rocky terrain that is beautiful in its simplicity and its contrasts. It has been shaped by the flowing of lava, water, and ice. Because of its beauty, it has often portrayed other planets: many can’t believe it exists.
Most of the population of Iceland lives within the capital district, but there are still many small towns like this one that maintain the original sense of what Iceland was up until the 1960s. Up until that point the majority of Icelanders lived in the countryside, either fishing or herding sheep.