Icelandic culture: 4 misconceptions busted

Iceland photo diary Reykjavik Arts End of NowhereAs one of the tourist destinations du jour, Iceland welcomes over 2 million tourists every year. That’s more than 6 tourists for every resident (yes, this sparse land is indeed about as populous as Croydon). We bring with us cameras, ill-advised footwear and a wealth of misconceptions about this remote, mysterious island.

Here are 4 of those myths that were quickly busted on my four-day adventure into the northern wilderness (from which you can see my photo diary here).

Iceland misconception #1: “I’ve lived in London for 7 years. No pricetag can shock me.”

Iceland photo diary Reykjavik Arts End of Nowhere

Well, cocky London girl (see above), this is the first time you’ve been to Reykjavik, where a box of Corn Flakes will set you back £7; the bus from the airport into town is £35; and £6 for a sandwich is show-stoppingly cheap. I even saw a stone with a smiley face painted on it for £63.

If you can’t afford Laxness* on the purse strings, here are some tips:

  • Café Babalu (pictured above), not far from Hallgrimskirkja, does refillable tea and coffee for 480 ISK (around £3).
  • Walk wherever you can, and for everywhere else, check the bus system at bus.is.
  • An extra bus tip: if you’re staying anywhere near the shopping centre Kringlan, which is on the outskirts of town, there’s a free shuttle bus to and from City Hall from Monday to Saturday.
  • If you’re likely to drink while you’re there, be aware that not only is a pint somewhere north of a tenner, but also that Icelanders prelash and tend to go out at around 1-2am. If you’ll be joining them, pick up your prelash booze at the airport.
  • Take advantage of the free walking tours, but do donate as much as you can for the time and expertise of your friendly tour guide.
  • Look out for Bonus, a grocery chain where you can pick up sandwiches or whatever tickles your tastebuds. For my travel buddy Loz and myself, that was breakfast bars. 25 of the buggers. Over a less-than-4-day-period.
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*Halldor Laxness was a 20th century writer and something of a national treasure for Icelanders.

…And as we all know, puns that require an asterisked explanation are the best puns, can I get a hell yeah?

No?

Ok, let’s move on then.

Iceland misconception #2: “It’s the thick of winter. I’m pretty much guaranteed to see the northern lights.”

Think again, sweetness. On the plane back, I got chatting to the chap next to me, who’d taken his mother to see the northern lights for her birthday. Bless his little heart. They paid for two bus tours before giving up on the third night which, sadly for them, was the night the Aurora Borealis put on its famous light show (luckily for me, that was the night I happened to go out in search of them).

Iceland photo diary Reykjavik Arts End of Nowhere

Just the one tip this time:

  • Consider going on a jeep (or bus) tour, rather than a boat. While I enjoyed the view of Reykjavik from the sea, its light pollution fills the sky. We sailed to the fringe of the legal limit, but the view was still compromised (albeit only slightly).

Iceland misconception #3: “Most Icelanders believe in elves, it’s part of their mainstream culture.”

Well, to some extent, this is correct; but the prevailing belief of elves existing among Icelanders has been, as I discovered, somewhat exaggerated and popularised. Older generations are more open to their existence, but the belief is connected to clairvoyance, spiritual tendencies and a healthy reverence for the hazards of nature. On a walking tour, our guide put on a hilarious display of his disregard for the idea of their existence; but in all seriousness, asked us to treat the issue with its due courtesy.

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Iceland misconception #4: “Icelanders just love them some whale meat.”

If you’ve watched documentaries like The Cove and Blackfish, you’ll have heard of Iceland’s less-than-pristine reputation for whaling. It’s true that Iceland doesn’t officially recognise the authority of the International Whaling Committee, much to the chagrin of environmentalists. But one Icelander I spoke to (charmingly, his name is Ziggy and he’s from a village of 300 people) suggested it’s only eaten once or twice a year. It is, by no means, a common lifestyle food. Last year, 17 whales were killed for their meat.

No, I’m not excusing (or condemning) this – I don’t even begin to have the authority to do so. I’m just putting things into perspective. As far as I understand it, it’s like dog meat in Korea: whale meat in Iceland is rare, but predominantly on the plates of the rural elderly.

 

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