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Is it possible to see Iceland in only two days? My husband and I did our best on our way to a family get-together in Europe at the beginning of July.

The Iceland Express website offered two free nights in a hotel in Reykjavík for customers flying to Gatwick, so we decided to take advantage of it, and arrived early one morning from Winnipeg.

After a brief nap we set out to see the city, and within minutes we spotted a poster for a free walking tour. Despite the constant drizzle, about 25 people gathered for what proved to be an informative and definitely an alternative exploration of Reykjavík’s centre.

Jónas Þorsteinsson offers a stream of historical information about City Hall, The Pond, the Alþingi, etc., peppered with humorous comments and ‘the story behind the story.’ At the statue of Skúli fógeti, Þorsteinsson reveals that the father of the city of Reykjavík was not an altruistic visionary who wanted to better the lives of Icelanders through trade, but an agent of the Danish king, paid to organize their colony so the Danes could extract more profits from it.

At City Hall, we learned voters recently turfed out Old Guard politicians responsible for ruining Iceland’s economy, leaving many people unemployed and indebted. Instead, citizens put their confidence in a professional comedian whose only election promise was to get a polar bear for the zoo. Þorsteinsson’s eyes twinkle when he says that the modern version of the mythical huldufólk are no longer hiding behind rocks in Iceland – they’re the country’s bankers, ducking for cover behind reams of documents and legal writs in the Cayman Islands.

Þorsteinsson has a Canadian connection (of course). The artist, photographer and raconteur lived in Winnipeg for three years during the 1990s and later in Ottawa. Despite his cynicism, he returned home because he thinks Iceland is a great place to raise his children – nearly crime and drug-free, highly democratic. He is proud that the Prime Minister’s phone number is openly listed in the White Pages. “And I hope it stays that way,” he adds, this time seriously.

By the time exhaustion forced us to rest we had swum at one of the city’s two geothermal swimming pools, ogled at the designer fashions in store windows, sampled delicious fish dishes at one of the many restaurants and attended a crowded outdoor rock concert at The Pond.

We were up early the next day for a Golden Circle tour. The 300 kilometre route shows the glories of Iceland’s geography – the imposing rifts at Þingvellir, the thundering waters at Gullfoss and the steaming plumes of Strokkur. Our guide offered excellent information about the geological formations and volcanic events that changed the landscape and the lives of Icelanders over centuries. In the distance, Eyjafjallajökull was shrouded in dust, but while it kept planes out of European skies for weeks, damage in Iceland has largely been confined to the area surrounding the mountain.
Sheep and lambs wandered freely over the countryside and we caught sight of the variety of colours of Icelandic horses, still used to round up them in the autumn. We also saw tourists wanting a more rustic adventure travelling on horseback.

Peering into Kerio – the crater lake where singer Björk sang unamplified from a barge in the centre to an audience perched carefully on the steep sides – we were awed by the power of nature and the ingenuity of human beings.

A serving of traditional meat soup and another stroll to Hallgrímskirkja and the harbour wrapped up our short visit. We were only passing through, but our experience prompted the desire to return to Iceland, to see and learn more about its majestic beauty and resilient society.
Harriet Zaidman is a teacher-librarian in Winnipeg. She and her husband, Cecil Rosner, visited Iceland on July 1st and 2nd.

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