It’s minus-seven degrees Celsius, I’m encircled by a jagged crown of snow-capped mountains and the white breath tumbling from my open mouth suggests a serious attempt on the world chain-smoking record. But even though I’m only wearing swimming shorts, I can’t remember ever feeling so toasty.
Iceland in winter is a wasteland of frosted volcanic rock, dark skies heavy with impending snow and abandoned shacks that crag the horizon like broken teeth. Although descended from ancient Viking settlers, the 290,000 inhabitants here have swapped the rape-and-pillage approach for a gentler and more hedonistic take on their challenging environment. En route from Keflavik International Airport, the Blue Lagoon is a large, geothermally heated outdoor pool where you can stand in steaming, milky-blue water that’s upwards of 36 degrees Celsius. The enveloping warmth makes the surrounding snow and ice seem as threatening as a painted backdrop. With sweat beading my face and eyelids drooping, I languidly bob my way around the pool, nodding at the old ladies enjoying the waters with me. When I’ve concluded my involuntary chorus of deep sighs, I grudgingly negotiate a tunnel back into the main building and pull myself out of the water. I can’t feel any of the neck muscles that are usually more knotted than a string of last year’s Christmas lights. Enjoying a body that feels like it’s filled with hot chocolate, I dress quickly and take the 40-minute bus into Reykjavik (right), home to more than half the population. Checking in at a stylish downtown hotel – my room overlooks a grim but strangely alluring vista of black ocean and low mountains – I cocoon myself in thick layers and totter out toward the historic old town. It’s lined with pricey boutiques and laid-back coffee bars in solid grey stone buildings that seem built to last forever. I soon arrive at the doors of the Culture House, a museum displaying some achingly beautiful medieval Saga manuscripts, the deeply held legends that define Iceland’s age-old struggle against adversity. Back on the streets, I head toward another museum, but as I cross a bridge over a frozen lake, I’m suddenly engulfed in a swirling blizzard. Initially, I tuck my head down and make a run for it, but then I stop halfway across. Holding the rails with both hands, I gaze at the cozy, well-lit homes ringing the heavily blanketed lake. There’s the kind of deep, all-encompassing silence that singles you out and only comes during a tumultuous winter storm. With giant, feathery flakes spiralling around me, I feel like I’m in a snow globe that’s in no rush to settle. Abandoning the museum plan, I face into the blizzard and crunch to a nearby restaurant for an early dinner. The interior has the glowing, wood-panelled feel of Santa’s grotto. It seems appropriate, then, to order reindeer, which turns out to be fairly bland. In comparison, the slender, rubbery strips of marinated puffin have a strong fishy flavour and are not for the culinary faint-hearted. After a glass of Brennivin – a distilled potato spirit that would blow the head off a hardened alcoholic – I decide to grab a beer on my way back to the hotel. Reykjavik has several good bars – some apparently frequented by local pop diva Björk. She seems to be avoiding me on my visit, so I console myself with a lager at an unassuming upstairs pub in the centre of town. It’s loud with reeling, testosterone-fuelled lads engaged in unfathomable drinking games and Nordic bar songs. Perhaps the Viking spirit is alive and kicking here after all.