Kooky country

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iol travel sept 12 nt Iceland_Gullfoss

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Gullfoss, Iceland

Everyone knows Iceland is wacky. There are so many volcanoes that the whole place could be barbecued at any moment, and it stays light all night in summer and dark most of the day in winter.

Then there’s the people. The sane ones all disappear as soon as they’re old enough to apply for a passport, leaving the utterly charming but completely kooky to run the show.

We don’t hear much about them unless their banks run out of money (2008) or one of their charred mountains erupts and grounds planes all over the world (2010) or when the leaders of the two super-powers meet (1986).

When the young get stroppy with their president, Olafur Grimsson – who’s been in the job for 16 years and is standing for re-election – they congregate in the main square and bang pots and pans together. And, of course, don’t forget Bjork. I rest my case.

At times, it felt like visiting a film set depicting the end of the world, with boiling water bubbling just beneath the surface, steam escaping into the cold, invigorating air and mile upon mile of blackened lava fields.

At others – in Reykjavik, especially – it was like wandering around a toy-town or theme park before they let the punters in. Where is everyone? I kept asking.

There were shops but no one in them. There were churches but their doors were locked, and in the city’s futuristic, underground museum there were two members of staff – and me.

Even our guide seemed to accept that Iceland is an acquired taste. “It’s natural selection,” he said. “The people who are here really want to be here and know that they could not live anywhere else.” There are some 300 000 of them, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe.

Our first stop was Geysir, the mother of all hot springs, where the champion boiling water fountain is called Strokkur. It gurgles and spits and then every five minutes or so throws water 30 metres in the air.

There’s more water flying a few miles down the road at Gullfoss, where a series of waterfalls comes together in spectacular fashion before disappearing over a steep canyon. What makes it so thrilling is that you can wander down and stand on rocks a few metres from the rushing torrents.

Our guide had made a point of saying that “if you show an Icelander a puddle of water, he’ll dive into it”. One of the biggest puddles is the Blue Lagoon, which holds six million litres of geothermal seawater. This communal bath is meant to work wonders for your skin and general well-being.

“It’s like being in a giant kettle,” shouted an excited English student.

Also worth a peep is Harpa, the square futuristic building that houses Reykjavik’s main concert hall. It’s a spectacular creation that, at night, goes all psychedelic and flickers feverishly. As is the Reykjavik Art Museum – though I couldn’t make head or tail of a video installation by Santiago Sierra, showing six young Cubans being tattooed. But that was the point, and completely in keeping with Iceland’s unfathomable charms. – Daily Mail

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