Iceland is a fairly elemental sort of place, as you’d expect from a country which keeps volcanically spewing new bits of itself into existence. It’s a land which bubbles and steams like a saucepan of porridge, a place of starkly dramatic beauty that often doesn’t even look like planet earth, let alone Europe, with extraordinary lava fields and moonscapes, as well as snowcapped mountains and glaciers. Reykjavik itself is a clean and airy place, with wide streets and colourful wooden houses overlooking the North Atlantic. Dominated by the concrete organ pipes of Hallgrim’s Church, the city centre is a compact place to walk around and has an easy-going atmosphere; this is a prosperous society with little crime to speak of, an enviable quality of life, famously expensive beer and lots of chunky knitwear. Put a handful of Viking outlaws who were kicked out of 11th century Norway for being too tough onto a volcanic island ruled by a coalition of liberal democrats in woolly jumpers for a thousand years and this is what you get – the bloodthirsty land of the sagas has somehow become a cosy, orderly place on the edge of the known world with some serious weather and a faint geothermal whiff of sulphur in the air.
In Iceland the richest pickings came from the sea, with some of the best fishing grounds in the Atlantic just offshore. Fish is invariably fresh, and the seafood is famously good. Even so, there’s a distinctly no-frills approach to traditional gastronomy; some of the local delicacies are just plain bewildering. Jellied ram’s testicle, hrutspungar, is bad enough, and make of selshreyfar, sour seal flippers in curdled milk, what you will. But when you chop up a sheep, cook the bits in its own stomach and call the appalling aftermath Slatur – meaning ‘slaughter’ – you realise that the niceties have finally been dispensed with. Perhaps the most putrid of all is hakarl. Hakarl is literally rotten shark which has been buried in sand for 6 months. I didn’t want anything to do with the stuff, but my companions decided some was required; a large plate appeared with little pink cubes speared delicately on cocktail sticks. The first whiff was not too bad – slightly musky and fishy – but as you chew it suddenly gets a whole lot worse. It became eye-wateringly strong, the spongy, slimy texture seeming to exude neat ammonia. Three shots of local brennivin were poured out of a bottle called The Black Death, and I downed one. Immediately my head went numb and I developed singing in the ears, but it did at least take away the taste of the rotten shark. They warn that too much hakarl can cause an upset stomach, which is presumably more deadpan Icelandic humour.
Reykjavik is known as an ultra-cool clubbing destination. The city is small enough to have a friendly feel but it attracts some deeply trendy people. Most of the locals don’t go out till late and if you do the rounds by visiting a few clubs, you’ll probably see some of the same faces appear again and again. Anywhere with a long queue is where the action is – there’s usually a reason people are queuing up. Emerge into the perpetual sunlight of a summer night when the clubs finally close around 4am and you’ll find streets like Laugavegur are still crowded with people, a good-natured Nordic passeggiata as clubbers hang out together before heading home, some more vertical than others. To recover from a night out you could head for one of the island’s many thermal pools to slowly poach yourself into a state of well-being, such as the Blue Lagoon on the airport road. This blue-green pool is heated by the Svartsengi power station to bathwater temperature, and is said to be a cure for many skin ailments, as well as taking the edge off a hangover. It’s the perfect way to round off a trip to this remarkable country.