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The north coast of Iceland.

SINCE my teens I have dreamed of Iceland. And to my regret always let other considerations come in my way. It would cost too much in the |hungry thirties'. Friends questioned my sanity in yearning to holiday in the Arctic! My husband preferred to relax in warmer climates. I let myself be persuaded. But not that summer of 1983. No. I was determined to visit Iceland at last -- aged 74.

With a like-minded friend I sailed by a Danish boat from Scrabster in the north of Scotland through the Faroes to the east coast of Iceland disembarking at Seydisfjordur.

Customs procedures were minimal and soon we found the road-coach waiting on the quayside, narrow like the dirt road ahead of it, and sturdy to defy its rough surface. Some of the private cars that had travelled on the same boat as us charged ahead to shake us off -- in vain. Others crawled apprehensively behind us into the forbidding grey-and-white landscape on a road banked high above raging snow-melt torrents. Most of Iceland's main roads are unmetalled -- as a policy. That way the country more easily qualified for development loans from the UN. Reindeer stared.

We stared back. Rain pelted, but three hours later we made it into Egilstaddir in brilliant sunshine. Weather unpredictability is a feature of Iceland. Sunshine persisted too until well after I had gone to bed at 10.30 at night with the final whistle of the football match played outside my window still ringing in my ears.

Egilstaddir looked a prosperous little settlement. It began as late as 1944 with 100 people. Now it boasts a knitting factory, a printing works, and two flourishing building firms. The bus set us down at our hotel. It didn't look like one. A large square barn-like edifice. Plain wooden door. No name displayed. No bright fights. My companion, a botanist, rapturised over a cushion of lavender-pink Moss Campion on a bank of black volcanic dust near the entrance while I wondered if it really was where we had booked in.

Finally we pushed our way in, and found an inviting Reception Area, and were each allotted a comfortable bedroom with its own bathroom. Afternoon coffee -- not tea -- was dispensed from a kona machine and there was no limit set to our consumption of it.

Next day, after a visit to the Supermarket -- yes, a supermarket almost on the Arctic Circle -- we made for the tiny airport. A small Icelandair plane landed on the run-way, followed by a pint-sized scarlet mail-plane, which we made fun of -- and Judgment followed.

We checked the luggage we could see being trundled out on wagons towards the Icelandair machine. Horror of horrors, ours was missing. A second later I spotted it on a wheel-barrow heading for the bright-red |dinkie toy' plane.

|Akureyri, Akureyri,' I wailed rushing out on to the tarmac waving our air-tickets. Amused smiles from the baggage-handler.

|You will enjoy,' he assured us grinning, and slung our |traps' on to the back passenger seat. Three teenage girls, munching their way through bags of fish crisps -- the equivalent of our potato crisps -- were already aboard. Our arrival with our luggage filled all available seats.

For the next hour we skimmed, bumped and wheeled over a cold grey desert where we were told Armstrong had practised his moon-walk. Here and there we espied an ice-cap in the distance, or a not-so-long-extinct volcanic crater beneath us. An occasional jet of steam from some underground inferno startled us. At last we banked steeply and flew low along a mountainside to land gently as a moth on the Akureyri airstrip built on ground reclaimed from the Eyafjordur on which the town stands. On the free taxiphone we contacted an English-speaking voice, who gave us the number of his hire-car and promised to be with us in a few minutes. And he was. Soon we were being driven through heavy rain to No. 5 Scholastigur, (School Road), where we had booked in on a bed-and-breakfast basis.

On our first day in Akureyri we lunched off halibut at Hotel Kea, and between heavy showers explored the town. The twin-spired church, stood proudly at the top of a Right of nearly eighty steps, and was built in 1940. Indeed, all churches in Iceland seemed to me to have been built recently albeit on sites of earlier ones. At Skaholt in the south of the country, the Church building we visited was the eleventh on the same foundation.

We met the Lutheran Pastor of the Akureyri Church. He told us that the windows behind the altar had come from Coventry Cathedral, and that those on the side aisles had been designed and made in Exeter. A model of a sailing-ship hung from the ceiling. I told him a similar one hanging in a church in Saltcoarts in Ayrshire, was fashioned by an ancestor of mine in gratitude for his safe return from the Battle of Copenhagen. That was tactless of me. Iceland was Danish until 1944.

Next day I went swimming. The reception area was littered with discarded shoes, so I kicked off mine, and paid five Kroner at the desk for an elastic band with locker-key attached, No. 29. I was handed on to a stern-faced woman attendant in hospital white, who piloted me towards the locker-room full of nude women, girls, toddlers and infants in arms. I divested myself of my numerous layers of British underwear and stuffed them into Locker 29, and donned my swim suit. |Oh no!', the |warder' signalled that it had to come off, and I was led to the showers. Soap-dispensers were being liberally used by another batch of nudists. I lathered vigorously with the rest, and noticed the attendant did not take her eyes off me until she was sure I had skimped nothing. At last, swim-suited, I went outside and gasped for breath in the snow-frozen air. But the pool was warm, like new milk, heated for free geothermally. I swam until I tired, and then followed a group of bathers into a hotter steamier bath with seats all round where I sat like an ancient Roman up to my neck in aqueous bliss. So warm did I become that I didn't feel the cold of the air on my way back into the building for further nakedness in shower -- and locker-room. I couldn't fathom the hair-drying arrangements so I rammed on my Donegal woolly cap and floated on a cloud of well-being back to No. 5 Scholastigur.

Meanwhile my companion had found another wonder at this high latitude, a Botanic Garden full of bloom, using underground heat for beds and hothouses. When she took me there later I could scarcely believe the display of asters, azaleas, tulips and dahlias, not to mention the two thousand less-known special plants all classified and labelled. Trees lined the walks, not tall but remarkable, for Iceland is practically treeless.

Akureyri besides woollen factories processes fish for export. But it was the Museum which impressed me most. Domestic appliances from early days were on display in profusion dating from the turf-built housing years when by candlelight during the long dark days of winter the Icelanders used to read aloud to each other the adventures and feuds of the early ninth century first settlers. These were the Vikings who found a land almost uninhabited except for a few Irish monks who had come in the wake of

St. Brendan's famous sixth-century voyage from Ireland. St. Brendan, so it is written, seeing fiery flames issuing from this new land took it to be the gateway to Hell. There is an amusing legend too. He is purported to have found as he approached Iceland, a solitary sorrylooking figure squatting on an ice-covered island who turned out to be Judas Iscariot cooling off from the fires of Hell, on his annual day off!

The Vikings came from Scandinavia in the ninth century via Scotland and Ireland picking up slaves en route. These first settlers were the |bad boys' outlawed from their own country. Halldor Laxness, the Icelandic writer, made this point in his books, and was ostracised for disloyalty to his |fathers' until international fame as a Nobel prize-winner in 1955 changed all that.

Matthias Jocumsson's house to the west of Akureyri was a surprise. This ninteenth century Icelandic poet, who wrote the words of the Icelandic national anthem, bought the property almost on the Arctic Circle as a suitable house to retire to. And I could swear he had purchased the furniture from the same emporium as did my grandparents. It reminded me too of Carlyle's house in Chelsea. Horse-hair sofas, tasselled tablecloths, lace-curtains, sombre potted plants, the lot. The house was built early in the last century, and the furniture was brought from his previous home in the south of the country.

Myvatn was our objective on the following day. We booked through an agency in Akureyri, and found that the girl who attended to us had a mother who hailed from Glasgow. We boarded a coach and set off in rain to travel fifty kilometres east of Akureyri. By the time we arrived at Godafoss, the Fall of the Gods, the weather was fair. We were let loose on the rough lava to photograph the unbelievable display of cascading water. Then, as we skirted the southern shores of Lake Myvatn, the sun had won the day. I saw my first pseudo-crater, where a sudden jet of watervapour had burst forth from the earth's fiery depths in a one-off phenomenon. Cameras clicked towards the many species of wild duck that are attracted to Myvatn's myriads of midges and mosquitos, which gives Myvatn its name. We reached Reykjahlid on the lake's northern shore in a minor heat-wave. At the hotel, we were served as main course for the third day running, halibut. And we were to live to enjoy much more of this fish.

In the afternoon, shedding anoraks and jerseys in the heat, we mounted the coach and left Reykjahlid on our journey to Myvatn's famous hot springs. They are awe-inspiring. Steam jets hissed through fearsome vents. A plan, already afoot, to harness this source of power was at that time in political abeyance. We saw from a distance some of the control buildings. Everywhere we heard the loud hiss of steam, and the gobble-gobble of mud springs, bubbling in the sulphurous yellow and grey flat ground. At one point I was warned to stand back lest I fell through and lost a limb in the burning rock beneath.

A few kilometres further on, we were shown fissures that steamed more gently. To these, Icelanders used to repair with soap and sponge for a good scrub -- until eight months before our visit, when the practice was banned as being too hot for safety.

Myvatn is geologically so unstable that we were not surprised to learn that another cycle of fissure eruptions were expected daily. Yet, despite this unpredictability, Myvatn region boasts the largest farm in Iceland. We were shown one field no longer planted with potatoes as the last lot had |been dug up cooked'.

And so into the coach again. The driver, negotiating hair-pin bends at speed, decided we needed entertainment -- or he did. He activated his cassette-player. All in Icelandic language as it was, we had no difficulty in identifying the antics of Punch and Judy.

We made it finally safely back to Akureyri and a supper of halibut at Hotel Kea. But the day was not yet over. By midnight we were standing on the topmost step of the church to watch the sun kiss the surface of the waters of the Eyafjord by way of night.

Then it was Saturday, and since no-one works on that day, no buses were laid on. We had to walk to the Municipal Museum on the eastern outskirts. There, besides enjoying the exhibition of earlier domestic tools and furniture, I found small pieces of jet-black obsidian for sale. These, the custodian told me, found a ready market in Iceland, since their presence in any house is an amulet against fire. I bought some to bring home for friends in Scotland.

Early on Sunday, we boarded another stoutly built Icelandic service bus. (There are no trains in Iceland.) For nine hours we were to travel west and south to reach Rekyjavik, the capital city. Alas, it was goodbye to Akureyri and the north of Iceland. I could not at my age say with any confidence, as I watched the trim white homesteads of the town recede, |I'll be back'.
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Author:Barnett, Muriel
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1992
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