Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017
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Don't let the name fool you -- Iceland's surreal volcanic landscapes and trendsetting nightlife make it one hot destination

If you're ever in Reykjavík and find yourself in a bar -- which is likely -- and you want to strike up a conversation with the locals, who can be reserved, just ask about the Icelandic horse. Icelanders are fiercely proud of their horses and enjoy talking about them at length.

Before your second shot of aquavit, you'll learn that the Icelandic horse is among the purest breeds in the world, unchanged in over 1000 years. Small and stocky, with a thick and luxurious mane and tail, it is one of the only horses that has five gaits. Not only can it walk, trot and cantor, but it can also do the flying pace and tolt. The flying pace is a racing gait usually seen in a camel, while the tolt (Icelandic for "running walk") is even more peculiar: it's a floating gait so smooth that you can hold the reins with one hand and a full mug of beer with the other. And that's not just a metaphor. A highlight of Icelandic equestrian events is when the beer mugs are brought out and the horses, hair flowing like '70s rock stars, tolt around the ring, never spilling a drop.

Day One: Tolt and Bolt
Having discovered this in my preliminary research and eager to experience it firsthand, I made sure that one of my first excursions in Iceland was to the Íshestar Riding Centre in Hafnarfjördur, about a 15-minute drive from Reykjavík. With a stable of 54 horses, Íshestar offers tours lasting from three hours to nine days, through lava fields and past lakes, caves and canyons. On this day, though, there would be no mugs of beer, which was probably just as well. It was mid-November, around noon, meaning that the sun had only come up a few hours earlier, and although we'd been suited up with overalls, boots, gloves and helmets, the rain and biting wind were enough to chill even a Canadian like myself, never mind the Californians who'd also signed up for the ride.

As two laughing blonde female instructors led the way over the desolate terrain ("Here in Iceland we don't like to hide the landscape behind the trees," one of them joked), the Californians squinted and shivered. I, meanwhile, attempted to coax my horse to tolt, with zero success. But at least it didn't bolt, which is what happened to another rider: with no warning, his horse set off on its own route, and while the rider was never in danger, 15 minutes were spent persuading the animal to change its mind. It seems that in addition to its Nordic fortitude, the Icelandic horse is also known to be playfully stubborn.

Light, night and nightlife
After our three-hour ride, I warmed up back at the Íshestar Lodge with cups of hot chocolate and shots of a schnapps-like beverage called brennivin and reviewed our itinerary. I'd be in Iceland for only four days, on my way to Amsterdam, and wanted to see as much of the country as I could. To do so I'd have to keep to a tight schedule, which would mean getting up early in the pitch black of the not-yet-dawn.

Indeed, the lack of light in Iceland in the fall and winter can be disarming. In January and February, the sun is up for a scant four hours a day; November, by comparison, has seven hours of daylight, but those hours rarely include any actual sunlight: more likely rain and, if you're lucky, some snow.

On the plus side, in the fall and winter the temperatures are never too cold (rarely falling below 0°Celsius) and you certainly won't see as many of your fellow tourists. So accommodations are easier to find and Iceland's prices -- among the highest in the world -- are not quite so astronomical. At any rate, few go to Iceland to get a suntan and enjoy the lovely weather.

Even in the summer, when the sun rises at 3am and sets at midnight, there is still normally a lot of cloud, rain and wind. Instead, Iceland's key attraction is the infernal geology -- the glaciers, hot springs, geysers, volcanoes and lava deserts -- along with the 1000-year-old culture and the party-till-dawn nightlife.

Day Two: The Golden Circle
After familiarizing yourself with the Icelandic horse, the next thing you'll want to do is take a tour of the Golden Circle. Lasting eight hours and run out of Reykjavík, this is one of the most popular day trips. It gives the visitor a chance to get the lay of the land, take in the natural wonders and see some historic sites.

Setting off in the morning (i.e. dark) and heading east in a tour bus, we soon made a pit stop at a place called Eden, a large geothermal greenhouse that taps into the energy produced by nearby hot springs. Sticky and humid, Eden is packed with tropical flowers and fruits that wouldn't have a hope of growing outdoors. As well, for the benefit of the touring busloads, more standard Icelandic crafts are available: I bought a handsome Icelandic wool sweater for a quarter of what it would cost in North America.

 

Next stop was Gullfoss, the Golden Falls. After passing small settlements of lonely-looking houses, where even the

churches are tarred black to protect against the weather, we arrived at the falls at around noon. Often referred to as Iceland's Niagara, the falls are a spectacular site and can be approached on foot from the parking lot via a breathtaking trail, if the weather is willing. On this day, though, the weather was far from willing, with winds strong enough to knock a grown man down. Thus most of our viewing of the 32-metre falls was done from inside the bus, where the guide explained how decades ago a Japanese firm had planned to buy the falls and build a hydro plant. The scheme was only thwarted when a local farmer's daughter, Sigríur Tómasdóttir, protested by walking to Reykjavík and threatening to throw herself into the icy waters. The public rallied behind her, and Gullfoss is now a national park.

After Gullfoss, we moved on to Geysir, an area of steaming, erupting hot springs. The most famous is the Great Geysir, which used to blow to 60 metres and had been as regular as Old Faithful until 2000, when an earthquake (which also occurs in Iceland with great regularity) knocked it off schedule. Now the visitor has to settle for the smaller but not inconsequential (20 metres) Strokkur, which spouts every three minutes.

After attempting to snap a photo of Strokkur and consuming a late lunch at a nearby restaurant (lamb and fish the specialties, as is the case in all of Iceland) we headed for Thingvellir National Park, where the tectonic plates of North America and Europe have engaged in a battle and formed a dramatic ridge, the site of Iceland's first parliament (Althingi) in 930. We didn't have long to contemplate the historic ramifications, though, as the wind was still howling and the light was dwindling. We got back on the bus and hurried back to Reykjavík, Golden Circle completed.

Day Three: Midges and Troll Yards
Day three, Saturday, I was up dark and early to board a small plane for a short flight north over Iceland's forbidding interior to the town of Akureyri. Situated only 90 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, Akureyri is actually hotter and drier than the rest of the country, and is the place where Icelanders go for their summer vacations. For we November travellers, though, the difference between Akureyri and Reykjavík was that Akureyri had snow: a picture-postcard layering of soft powder that covered a quaint little town set on a harbour. After wandering around the town for an hour and seeing barely a soul -- only tourists and tour guides get up early on an Icelandic Saturday morning, it seems -- we boarded a small bus to explore the outlying regions.

One of the first attractions we passed was Lake Mývatn, a beautiful blue body of water that in the summer attracts thousands of holiday-makers and even more black flies (mývatn means "midge"). "Two thousand tons of black flies, to be precise," informed our guide. "They are annoying but harmless, and food for the many fish and birds."

On the east side of the lake, we visited Dimmuborgir, a peculiar maze of lava formations created 2300 years ago after a volcanic eruption. At least that's the official story. The mythic version is that a group of trolls were having such a good party that they forgot about the time. Daylight came and turned them to stone, thus the name Dimmuborgir -- Troll Yard.

Equally bizarre was the next stop, Haverarond, where the mud pits are boiling hot, and Eldhraun ("fire lava"), a barren lava field so unearthly that it is where Neil Armstrong and the crew of Apollo 11 trained for their 1969 moon voyage.

After these strange sights we stopped to dine at the Skutustadir Café, the only restaurant in the only town in the region. By chance, our waitress had spent two months in Calgary, where she had been employed as a trainer of imported Icelandic horses. As we studied the menu, curious about items like "hunting burger with egg," "deep fried hot dogs" and "ice with sauce," Asdis Jóhannesdóttir expounded on the difference between Canadians and Icelanders. "Canadians are more lively," she said, "whereas Icelanders are very serious. Until you get to know them, you might think that Icelanders are not always in a good mood. In Canada, people were always asking me, 'How are you doing?' I was always very surprised that they would want to know!"

As for the food, she recommended the hunting burger, which was made of mutton and turned out to be a hearty, filling meal (even without the fried egg topping, which I passed on). However, she advised against the ice with sauce, which she explained was like a snow-cone with syrup, as it was off-season and she couldn't totally vouch for the state of the sauce.

Day Four: The Blue Lagoon
A requisite stop on any whirlwind tour of Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa that attracts over 300,000 visitors a year. Located in a lava field 40 minutes north of Reykjavík, it was created in 1976 by wastewater from a power plant. For over a decade people surreptitiously bathed and waded in the lagoon and, instead of mutating, found that the warm waters had a soothing and even medicinal effect; in particular, the lagoon's mineral salts, blue-green algae and silica mud seemed to help clear up skin conditions like psoriasis. In 1986 the first public bathing facilities were opened, and now Blue Lagoon Ltd. handles 900 visitors at a time, with its 250-seat restaurant, conference centre and clinic.

I visited in the early evening and found the experience to be both therapeutic and comical. The Blue Lagoon is long and wide and filled with nooks and crannies, and on a cold night the mists make it impossible to see from one end to the other. It was hard, however, to miss my fellow bathers: gleeful children, starry-eyed romantic couples, rotund British tourists, ancient health freaks, a loudly victorious Icelandic soccer team, and so on. The water isn't deep -- about waste high -- but it is super-buoyant; the overall feeling was like soaking in a huge and rowdy hot tub on the moon.

As a bonus, there is a pool-side bar, and for a small stipend on the $11 entry fee, a waiter will bring you drinks (alcoholic or not) to enhance your relaxation. One word of warning: in addition to whatever medicinal miracles the lagoon's salts may be performing, a very good job is done to tangle up your hair, and it can take days of washing and shampooing to restore your locks to their normal limpid state.

Reykjavík by night
While there are many more sights to see, one you won't miss is Reykjavík itself, where 175,000 of Iceland's 270,000 people live. At first glance, the world's northernmost capital city is not especially impressive, looking more like an overgrown Arctic outpost than a city with any degree of sophistication. But Reykjavík is charming in a different sort of way: in addition to its millennium-long history (and there are numerous monuments and exhibits that testify to this fact), it also lays claim to an impressive and raucous nightlife that in the past few years has helped put Iceland on the trendsetter's map. Bars stay open as long as there are customers; the music scene, personified by the impish Björk and the critically revered band Sigur Rós, has garnered international recognition; and the people easily live up to the Nordic stereotype of being tall and attractive. Nearly everyone speaks English, though there is a kind of national shyness that only tends to loosen up after a few drinks. And sometimes a few drinks too many: I was repeatedly told that a major problem in Iceland, right behind soil erosion, was alcoholism.

Be that as it may, careful examination of the notes that I took dutifully on my last night in Iceland reveal that I seemed to be having a good time: "Icelanders dance happily on street;" "Girl in red dress twirls on lamppost;" "People want to know more about Canada;" "People invite me to go to Skuggabar, Vegamot bar, Rex bar..." Certainly, I know that when I left Iceland the next morning, in the proverbial predawn gloom, it was with every intention that I would return, and the next time for more than four days.

 

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