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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Reykjavik remembered, 25 years on
Text and photos Luc Jones

Until the country went into financial meltdown in 2008, Iceland rarely made the international news—and why would it? It’s a lump of volcanic rock just below the Arctic circle containing a population of a third of a million, over half of whom are huddled in and around the capital Reykjavik. In fact mention Iceland to most people in the UK and they’ll assume you’re referring to the ubiquitous frozen food chain, if they’ve heard of it at all.

What possessed the first settlers to leave the relative comfort of the Norwegian coast and sail northwards into the unknown is beyond me and quite what they were looking for or what they expected to find upon arrival are also unanswered questions. Iceland was unsurprisingly uninhabited when the new arrivals landed in 874AD and slowly began to settle the land, founding a parliament in 930 which today is the oldest still in existence. Over the centuries Iceland quietly got on with farming & fishing in relative isolation resulting in one of the most homogenous populations in the world, and it was only after World War II that the western world began to take an interest in the island as a strategic outpost. Iceland was allied- occupied during the war and became a member of NATO in 1949, despite having no army of its own; cue the arrival of the Americans who set up a large military base not far from the only international airport at Keflavik.

The post-war years in Iceland saw an economic boom, thanks largely to the Marshall Plan and industrialization of the fishing industries, despite the Cod Wars of the 1970s. Yet it was in the early autumn of 1986 that all eyes turned on Iceland when it was announced to the world that Reykjavik would be hosting a historic summit between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in October of that year. Ironically the talks collapsed at the last minute but the event will always be remembered as the moment when the United States of America met face to face with the Soviet Union, and Reagan’s coined phrase: “The Evil Empire” appeared more docile after decades of cold war hostilities and arms stockpiling. Both sides agreed to meet again and eventually put in place a timeframe to reduce their nuclear arsenals. A few, short years later, communism in Europe collapsed and the world moved on.

For an uninviting, remote, rocky outpost, Iceland attracts more than its fair share of tourists, and certainly packs a punch in the way of natural attractions—it is after all the second largest island in Europe after Great Britain. Conveniently from the capital, most tourists do the “golden triangle” as it’s an easy day trip. We opted for our own wheels and were kindly given an upgraded vehicle, a massive, white SUV, which led a member of our team to comment: “I thought we were doing a road trip around Iceland, not delivering aid to Somalia!” First off is the Thingvellir national park where little remains of the original parliament but it’s beautiful barren setting gives an indication of how difficult it must have been for the earliest people to seek out an living from the land. Next stop is the trusty Strokkur geyser which conveniently “erupts” every 8 minutes, blasting boiling water into the air several metres high, in front of (for me at least) the highpoint which was the Gulfoss waterfall, which is partly frozen and highlights the beauty that it Iceland’s interior. Given our mode of transport, we chose the off-road route back to base which took in Kerid, a volcanic crater lake formed some three millennia ago.

The real fun however is on the runtur, a weekend evening out in Reykjavik, which is basically a glorified, mass pub-crawl for tourists and locals alike (runtur literally translates as “round tour”) with much of the action taking place along and around the pedestrianized Laugavegur street. Expect packed, noisy pubs, rounded off at the end of the night with a famous hot dog down by the harbour. Thanks to the global economic crash, Iceland isn’t anywhere near as expensive as it once was, but for booze expect to pay at least London prices so backpackers should stock up on duty free and sink a few sharpeners in the hostel before venturing out (this is what the local youth do). And what could be a better remedy the next day than a leisurely soak in the geothermal Blue Lagoon spa before heading back into town for a reindeer steak for dinner?

No trip to Iceland could be complete without a trip to Eyjafjallajokull. Yes, that little bugger which brought European skies to a standstill in the spring of 2010, grounding almost all aircraft following a violent eruption of ash. It looked pretty tame by the time we rocked up but the debris on the ground was there to see—many said it was Iceland’s response to having been bankrupted less than two years before.

Getting there: There are no direct flights from Moscow, although Icelandair fly to many key European (and North American) destinations; the easiest change being in either Stockholm, Copenhagen or London.

Getting in: Westerners need to show just a passport, but as Iceland is part of the EU, Russians require a Schengen visa. Bizarrely, Icelandic Embassies don’t issue visas; they leave this hassle to their Norwegian friends

When to go: As a Nordic country, the later in the year you go, the earlier it becomes dark and the colder it becomes in the evenings but this doesn’t stop Iceland from being a yearround destination

What to speak: English is widely spoken by all, even in the remotest spots

Costs: This is Scandinavia so it’s pricey but nowadays not as bad as you’d expect, with accommodation and restaurants available to suit most budgets

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