Friday, July 14, 2017

Historic Places: Iceland

My family's recent European vacation started and ended with layovers in Iceland. Admittedly, I knew little of Iceland's history when these flights were booked, but I love to learn about new times and places so this was a great opportunity.

These layovers are actually a small part of Iceland's recent history. Icelandair offers cheap flights to Europe with 1-7 day layovers at the Keflavik airport in order to boost the country's economy and increase tourism, and from what I could see it is a great plan. We used our 17 hour layover to visit the world famous Blue Lagoon, but there are plenty of other attractions including Reykjavik, glacier tours, volcano tours, and the continental divide. If you visit at the right time of year, you can enjoy breathtaking views of the Northern Lights.

Despite its frigid moniker and far north location, Iceland's climate is not much different than the New England states. This is due to the same favorable gulf stream that keeps the UK more moderate in weather than Canada and other similarly far north regions. One important difference is the hours of sunlight, which are short in the winter and extraordinarily long in the summer. During our night there in mid-July, we saw something of an extended sunset that never became full dark.

Iceland's history begins with visits by Vikings (and those running from them), as is evinced in the Icelandic language. It's history as an independent country began relatively recently with separation from Denmark in 1944. There may be fewer people living in all of Iceland than in many US cities, but it still has a surprisingly deep history.

The Icelandic Parliament called Althingi has existed since 930, making it one of the world's oldest government institutions. It has endured through the era of local chieftains, Norwegian rule, and under the authority of Denmark. Today, it is made of of 26 members, 20 elected and 6 appointed. Through the centuries, it has operated as an open assembly, high court, legislative body, and mediator between the people of Iceland and foreign rulers.

Since Irish monks fled to Iceland in an attempt to outrun Viking invaders in the 9th century, Iceland has endured less battles for power than most European countries. One of the few invasions that has taken place was by the British during World War II when they were afraid that Germany would take the island and use it as a launching point for attacks on the UK. Iceland's greater tragedy was when the Laki volcanic fissure erupted over several months from 1783-1784. With crops and livestock decimated and several thousand people killed, evacuation of the island was considered.

A famous Icelander you have probably heard of is Leif Eriksson, who likely deserves more credit than Christopher Columbus for 'discovering' the Americas. In fact, it is possible that Columbus visited Iceland in 1477 and learned of the previous trip. Did Eriksson sail off course on his way to Greenland, discovering North America but never getting any credit for it? Probably. Apparently, Columbus was great at both exploring and marketing.

Today, Iceland manages to somehow be both barren and beautiful, with a sky that seems larger than at home and water of clearest blue. It is rocky and harsh terrain but is wonderfully untouched. If you get the opportunity to see a bit of Iceland, don't miss it. Don't be afraid to rent a car - the roads are blissfully free of traffic and they drive on the right.  ;-)