Iceland, a heart of lava under a crust of ice.

A decade ago, few people would have situated Iceland, a small insular country in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, three reasons have made it increasingly famous. First, the singer Bjork, second, it was the first country in Europe to undergo the global financial crisis in 2008, when its government-backed “Icesave” bonds defaulted, and third, of course, the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull who left millions of passengers stuck in airports throughout the world.

Iceland has roughly the same size as Ireland, but its population is only 320,000 people. It makes 3 people per sq. km that is like in East-Siberia and 2 out of 3 live in the capital, Reykjavik. Iceland has a high standard of living and a high level of education. Iceland has also the biggest number of Nobel Prizes per capita in the world, because there is one Icelandic, Halldor Laxness who got the literature Nobel Prize in 1955.

There is a paradox in the name Iceland. Except icebergs and glaciers in the mountains, ice is not rife over there because the Gulfstream makes mild winters. The Greenland, situated 500 km West of Iceland, doesn’t receive the warm current, and the island is recovered with a cap of ice.

iceberg iceland

The two biggest industries in Iceland are fisheries and aluminium smelting. The last requires a large amount of electricity, which is present in Iceland in natural renewable energy sources such as hydropower or geothermal power. The infrastructure is quite well developed. In almost each village there is a heated geothermal swimming pool with bubbling Jacuzzis. This gives to most Icelandic inexpensive hot water and home heat. You have certainly heard about the scenic Blue lagoon thermal lake. It is actually a modern resort using the waste water of a geothermal powerplant. Of course, this is never shown in the pictures with happy bathers in steamy blue water, but it’s worth doing it once.

Blue lagoon

Let’s say two words of History. Iceland has an official founder, Ingolfur Arnarson, a Norseman who settled in 874 in Reykjavik. Then more people came from Norway and that’s why Icelandic language is similar to old Norwegian. In the 13th century, Iceland became part of the Norwegian Kingdom and later the Kalmar Union, made up with Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

The Christian religion was introduced in the 10th century. In 1550, King Christian III of Denmark imposed Lutheranism on Iceland and made the Catholic bishop, Jon Arason, and his two sons beheaded.

In 1814, after the Norway-Denmark union broke apart, Iceland remained in Danish dependency. Denmark was occupied by Germany during WWII. This short rupture in relationships revived Icelandic national conscience. The 20 May 1944, Icelanders voted 97% in favour of ending the union with the King of Denmark and Iceland became an independent republic.

You noticed that all Icelandic names finish with “son”. Actually Icelandic people don’t have family names. Instead they have patronymic, like in Russian, based on the first name of their father, plus “son” or “dothir”, if you’re a girl. As a result, no one, except siblings of the same gender, has the same family name in a family. This can lead to misunderstandings at some foreign airport, when you must prove that your wife or your children belong to your family.

Iceland mountain

What gives Iceland its unique feature, is that the forces of Mother Nature seem to converge there. The four elements continuously fight with each other; the strong marine wind, the massive mountains, the powerful waterfalls, the fire bursting out of its numerous volcanoes.

Iceland is located on the fault between two tectonic plates (called the Mid-Atlantic Ridge). You can even put one foot on the American plate, and the other on the European, as the ridge is in some place the size of a tiny crack. Iceland’s volcanic activity is very strong. Eruptions happen on an average once every five years. There are also many geysers in Iceland, including Geysir, from which the word is derived. Iceland is mostly admired for its spectacular and dramatic landscapes. The island itself is largely an arctic desert, with high mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls. One of them, Dettifoss, is the largest waterfall in Europe.


Iceland is a paradise for bird watching. The place is inhabited by an endemic variety of orange-beaked Puffin, which resembles a black parrot. It is absolutely delicious smoked. Whale watching is also an important part of the local economy.

I recommend you to go to Iceland during the summertime. Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, there is no night whatsoever, so you can enjoy long walks without fearing darkness. However, this is to do during the weekdays. On Friday, I strongly recommend instead a visit into the numerous bars in Reykjavik. The atmosphere is particularly eventful!

ice cave Iceland


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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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