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Literally the land of fire and ice, Iceland just brushes the Arctic circle, making for a bracing combination of Atlantic wind and rain with Arctic cold and snow. Not unlike Aberdeen. Here the earth is still being made, as the European and North American plates rip the Atlantic Ocean apart. When coming into land, the stark lunar landscape is quite other-worldly.

I visited on a family holiday in Easter 1991, briefly on a stopover to New York, in 2001, then for a couple of nights again in 2015. Most memorable from my first trip were the geothermal and natural features including geysers and boiling mud. There are about a quarter of a million people in the country, mostly in the capital Reykjavik. There is a great sense of locality, everybody either knows each other or is related. I was really happy to go back and see it again as an adult.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik

Hallgrimskirkja stands tall on the hill in the centre of Reykjavik, and has a quite unique architectural style. Construction commenced in 1945, in a style resembling a lava flow. Its austere foreboding style is very atmospheric. It also made me think of another great church of the far north, Tromso's Arctic Ocean Cathedral.

Colourful Reykjavik streets as seen from the top of Hallgrimskirkja's tower. The day I arrived in May 2015 was superbly sunny and warm.

Colourful Reykjavik streets

Art Deco or Brutalism?

An example of Iceland's harder architecture, I am not sure whether this counts as art deco or brutalism. I believe this is one of the court house buildings.

Solfar, the Sun Voyager, is a sculpture on the Reykjavik shoreline, and on this day wouldn't have had to travel far to reach the sun. Despite appearances, it is decidedly not a Viking ship. It was installed in 1990 however I have no recollection at all of seeing it on my first trip in 1991.

Sun Voyager

Cellist statue at Harpa

A cellist statue sits outside the Reykjavik Concert Hall, Harpa. He appears to have forgotten his bow.

Harpa opened in 2011 and is a spectacular piece of modern architecture. This is a detail from the interior of the myriad geometric glass cuboids which make up the curtain wall of the building.

Harpa, Reykjavik Concert Hall

Tjornin Lake

Tjornin, the urban lake and a view of Reykjavik's west end housing. The lake is straddled by the Radhus, the town hall at the north end.

A fancy house in central Reykjavik, I like the symmetry of its design.

Fancy house

Ice sheet vehicle

Fat-tyre vehicles ply the streets of Reykjavik, on the lookout for tourists to take on jaunts over the ice sheets and glaciers. Heavily modified, the trucks have their tyres deflated to practically nothing, for traction on the ice. If one falls off, it's doused in lighter fluid and set alight, which pops it back on.

Haukadalur valley is a geothermal hotspot complete with sulphur springs and boiling mud, not far from Reykjavik. It is an integral part of the Golden Circle tour, and upon arrival the landscape steams and spurts like something from Middle Earth.

Geysir Park

Little Geysir

The Little Geysir bubbles and boils in its little pot, one of the first sights on a walk around the Geysir Hot Spring Area.

Strokkur, the smaller of the main geysers in Haukadalur, reliably erupts once every few minutes. Her bigger brother "Geysir", from which all other geysers take their name, is somewhat more temperamental.

Strokkur geyser

The Great Geysir

The Great Geysir is the grand-daddy of them all, the first to ever be documented and the namesake of all geysers the world over. It erupts only when stimulated to do so, either by earthquakes or manual intervention, as used to be the case on Icelandic National Day. On both my visits, Geysir was sitting, simmering ominously.

Another curious feature of the Geysir Hot Spring area, the blue pool Blesi actually translates as "The Blazer". As I had forgotten my swimming shorts, this was the closest I got to a blue lagoon. With all the steam and the random breezes, it was difficult to get a half-decent picture.

Blesi, the blue pool

Gullfoss in 1991

Gullfoss, the "Golden Falls" is one of the largest waterfalls in Europe, and conveniently located near Reykjavik making it a very popular day trip as part of the Golden Circle tour. Much more notable however are the fashion mistakes of the 1980s...

Gullfoss again in 2015, around the same time of year and not much has changed. There were plans at one point to build a hydroelectric plant here, but the local people saw sense and it is now protected by state ownership.

Gullfoss in 2015

Thingvellir, the continental divide

Thingvellir is one of few places on the planet where a continental plate boundary is visible on land. The left hand side is the North American plate, to the right is a no-mans land bounded a couple of miles away by the edge of the European plate. As the plates drift apart, the Atlantic Ocean widens and Iceland continues to be torn asunder.

One of the many volcanoes in Iceland, Kerio crater is just a small fry. The lake may be frozen over, but that would pose no problem should the volcano lose its gruntle. Others erupt with regularity, we were in Iceland just a few weeks after Hekla had completed a three-month eruption campaign in 1991.

Kerio volcano in Iceland

Stones at Skalholt

On our way back to the city, we stopped off at Skalholt Cathedral. One of the most interesting features were these carved figures in standing stones - modern of course but still worth a look.

A log and grass cabin stands next to Skalholt Cathedral. I guess many Icelanders would have lived in such simple dwellings until relatively recently.

Skalholt cabin

Hellisheidi geothermal power plant

With such a wealth of heat just below the surface of Iceland, the people are well equipped to exploit it. Heating and electricity are two of the few things that are cheap in Iceland, being generated in such facilities as Hellisheidi geothermal power plant. Hot water is piped directly to the city centre and under the pavements, preventing snow from lying during winter time.

At the Reykjavik Summit of 1986, Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev and they shook hands on the steps of Hofdi, the former French consulate. Only a few years later, the Cold War was over, but neither premier was reported to have worn pink or red trousers to the occassion.

Hofdi house in 1991

Hofdi house in 2015

I returned to Hofdi in 2015, having grown wise enough to understand the significance of the event our parents were having us re-enact back in 1991. I was pleased to see that very little had changed.

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Copyright © Ross Wattie 2001-2015