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A LAND OF FIRE AND ICE
ON THE WAY TO EUROPE, A FROSTY LANDSCAPE OF LAVA, STEAM AND HOT SPRINGS

If you have flown to Europe, you've probably stared down through the clouds and wondered about Iceland. It's so far north that it touches the Arctic Circle. So how do people live in "Ultima Thule," this distant land of ice?

We decided to satisfy our curiosity and make a three-day "stopover" on our way to Britain.

We weren't entirely sure what to expect as we left Halifax, Nova Scotia, late at night, armed with sweaters, winter coats and hiking boots.

Poetic tourist brochures (Icelanders have always been highly literate) call it the "Land of Ice and Fire." Nature is overwhelming -- earthquakes, fiords, waterfalls, glaciers, bubbling hot springs. The volcanoes are active. Mount Hekla in the south has erupted 20 times since the country was settled in 874, the last time in 1991. In the Middle Ages it was considered one of the gates of hell, and you can still visit a farm destroyed in 1104.

Irish monks settled here to meditate. Then Viking chieftains arrived on the scene, and the Christians wisely "went away." The disgruntled Norsemen had left home because they were unwilling to pay fealty, and taxes, to Harald Fairhair, first king of Norway. They occupied themselves with farming, feuding and surprisingly, literature. Their sagas written in the 12th and 13th centuries are a treasure trove of early northern European history. Because the language has been preserved, Icelanders can still read their beloved sagas with ease. It's as if an Anglophone could curl up with the "The Canterbury Tales."

We flew through the darkness into bands of rosy light, fields of fluff, a heaped eiderdown of clouds and then plunged into the flat lunar landscape that surrounds Keflavik Airport, near the nation's capital.

The short bus ride to Reykjavik past endless moss-covered lava fields confirmed that we were in for a different experience in the "Land at the Top of the World." The Apollo astronauts trained here for lunar landings; it is jokingly said that when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, his second remark was, "Why this is just like being in Iceland."

Because flights arrive early in the morning Icelandic time, hotels admit guests immediately so that they can nap until noon. After lunch, remembering that "swimming in Iceland is not so much a hobby as a way of life," I visited the spa on the second floor of the hotel and sloshed about in two gently heated pools, seasoned with seaweed and minerals, enjoyed a shoulder massage, and a steam bath to wash off a Hungarian-mud facial.

Completely un-jetlagged, we set off next morning for a two-hour city bus tour. It was a good, if whirlwind, way to get a handle on this unique capital ringed by sea and mountains.

Our first stop was the Perlan. The volcanic hot springs which bubble away underground provide non-polluting geothermal heat for the lucky Icelanders, whose heating bills are about $25 a month. Seen from outside, the Perlan is a futuristic glass-domed structure surrounded by vast silver hot water tanks. Inside there's a convincing simulation of a geyser that erupts every five minutes in the lobby. There is a revolving gourmet restaurant under the dome, and a handsome cafeteria which offers the best view of the city from its balcony: the dramatic spire of the Hallgrimskirkja (Hallgrim's Church), Faxa Bay, the 3,000-foot Mount Esja and blue/green/red rooftops.

Next stop, the Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Gallery and Garden. This small building, also domed, was the home of the artist (1893-1982) for whom it is named. It is all white and light, with marble floors, and shows the progress of a distinguished career, from a classic Venus rising from the waves to an exhilarating abstract phoenix which changes shape as you walk around it.

We drove past the Elliadaa River where the mayor catches a ceremonial first salmon every May 1 and the elegant white Hofdi House where President Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met for the 1986 Superpower Summit. There is also the delightful Tjorn, a lake in the middle of the city that is home to 40 species of birds. It was here that Ingolfur Arnason, "the First Settler" built his homestead in "the Bay of Smoke." Reykjavik was a poor farming community until the 18th-century when it became the center of the wool trade, because of its ice-free port. (One of the many surprising things we learned about Iceland is that it isn't all that icy, except in the glacial interior -- which is uninhabitable. It is often windy and rainy, but because of the Gulf Stream, Reykjavik is cool in summer and relatively mild in winter.)

As the town became prosperous, the traditional turf houses were replaced by expensive imported wood, which had to be protected from the salt, so the heritage buildings clustered around the harbor in Old Reykjavik are covered with brightly-painted corrugated iron. Another surprise, the effect is oddly attractive.

Inspired by the success of the first tour, we embarked early next morning on the eight-hour Golden Circle. We drove past a carpet of medieval moss, the first vegetation to grow on lava. One 19th-century visitor wrote: "Everything in the country that is not made of wood is made of lava . . . the mud on the roads is lava paste, the foundations of the houses are lava blocks, and in dry weather you are blinded with lava dust."

The country was well-forested at the time of the settlement, but most of the trees were cut down for heat. They are working hard at reforestation, planting 6 million trees a year, but it's a slow business. There is a favorite joke: "What do you do if you're lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up."

Our tour stops at Hveragerdi, "the country's market-garden under glass" where they grow tomatoes, cucumbers, bananas, coffee plants, jasmine and oranges in geothermally heated greenhouses. We scramble gingerly around the 4,000-year-old Kerid crater, drive past great flat mossy plains with the occasional small wooden summerhouse or pony-sized Icelandic horses brought by the Vikings 1,000 years ago. There is another stop at Gullfoss (Golden Falls) where the river drops into two falls and frequent rainbows arch through the spray.

At Geysir with its steaming vents and more than 200 hot springs, our guide, became visibly anxious. "Be careful. Walking through a hot spring field is almost worse than walking through a minefield. It takes four minutes to soft boil an average tourist."

The Great Geysir has retired, but the sprightly Strokkur (churn) still puffs out 66 feet of hot water and steam every five minutes. The hole fills up, bubbles (shades of Macbeth) the dome rises and swoosh! Everyone leaps back as the scalding steam, a fountain of white firecrackers, erupts. Little geysers nearby practice with quiet, blup, blup, blups.

On to the national park atThingvellir, the original site of the oldest surviving Parliament in Europe, and the most sacred spot in Iceland. From 930 to 1271 when they signed away their independence, the people came from all over the country for the Althing, held in this natural grassy amphitheater. For two weeks quarrels and insults were settled, marriages arranged, and the law was read. When Iceland became a republic in 1944 after 500 years of colonial rule, the ceremony was held here. Thingvellir is also significant because it contains the Great Rift, where the European and North American tectonic plates slowly drift apart.

Of course we ate. Travel guides take a wicked delight in describing gruesome Icelandic delicacies, but don't listen. The first night we tried the seafood buffet at the restaurant in the Esja Hotel. There were three kinds of herring, fish quenelles, seafood salad, dogfish . . . hard to believe there could be so many kinds of fish so delectably cooked. Warned that alcohol is ferociously taxed to support the superb educational and medical systems, we split a Viking beer. The rest of the time we drank "Icelandic white wine" -- water.

The next night we wandered around the lake again, revisiting the Tundra Swans, who hoot like car horns. Talk about road rage. There were ugly scenes as they flapped their mighty wings, brawling over bread-crumbs. Dinner was at Laekjarbrekka, a substantial house built in 1834 by a shipping merchant. One of us had shellfish salad with Chantilly sauce, and grilled leg of lamb, the other tucked hungrily into "Mountain and Bay": char-grilled Iceland lamb steak, marinated in lichen and seaweed with diminutive lobster tails and mild herb sauce.

Our last night was at the deservedly well-known seafood (and whale meat) restaurant Thrir Frakkar Hja Ulfari, tucked away on a sloping street leading down to the lake. We finished with Skyr, something between cream cheese and sour cream, an Icelandic specialty that the travel guides do exclaim over.

We agreed that three days was far too short a visit. We had seen only a fraction of this "austerely alluring" land. We long to visit the Arctic Circle under the Midnight Sun; Akureyri, northern village of flowers; ominous Mount Hekla, the whales and puffins. We want to see the vellum manuscripts of that sagas at the Arni Magnusson Museum, to go swimming in the Blue Lagoon and snowmobiling on a glacier. We plan to return to this land of "Everlasting frost . . . and fountains of unapproachable fire."