A quick look at what Iceland is all about is enough to capture any travellers’ imagination and make his or her pulse quicken — its landscape composed of fjords, geysers, glaciers, ice caps and lava fields, its variable and ever-changing climate featuring wind and rain, and the active volcanoes that still rumble beneath its surface.
- 1 Basic Information About Iceland
- 2 Iceland Geology Consists of Volcanoes
- 3 Iceland and its People
- 4 The Best Festivals in Iceland
- 5 The Icelandic Festival of Porrablot
- 6 The Reykjavik Arts Festival in Iceland
- 7 Sjomannadagur (Seafarer’s Day) in Iceland
- 8 Iceland Celebrates its Independence Day
- 9 Reykjavik, Iceland, Holds Cultural Night
- 10 The Icelandic Festival of Rettir
Basic Information About Iceland
- Iceland is a northern European island in the North Atlantic Ocean. A volcanic eruption from the ocean floor formed the island about 20 million years ago, making it, relatively speaking, a young country. Flights to Iceland take about three hours from London, England, and five and a half hours from New York.
- The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik, with a population of about 120,000 people. The total population of Iceland is about 300,000, and most of those people live in or around Reykjavik. The “official” settlement of Iceland took place in Reykjavik in the late 9th century AD. Today, it offers visitors nightlife, galleries, museums, restaurants and historical sites.
- The people of Iceland are a homogenous mixture of descendants of the original Nordic and Celtic settlers. Most of them (70 per cent) are employed by the services industry, three per cent earn a living fishing and the agriculture industry employs about three per cent of Icelanders, according to Gateway to Iceland.
Iceland Geology Consists of Volcanoes
- In November 1963, the ocean floor southwest of the Vestmannaeyjar (West Islands) rumbled and spewed forth lava that formed what is now the islet of Surtsey. Research scientists are the only people allowed onto Surtsey, but other mere mortals can get close to the island (but not onto it) via a boat trip.
- Iceland’s glaciers and ice caps are believed to have been formed during a cold spell around 500 BC. Vatnajokull is Europe’s largest icecap at up to 1 kilometre thick and 8,300 sq. kilometers in area, which also makes it bigger than all the other European icecaps put together. Ice covers about 11 per cent of Iceland’s 103,000 sq. kilometres.
Iceland and its People
- There are fewer atheists in Iceland than in any Western country except the United States. Some 97 per cent of Icelanders say they believe, although a smaller number than that attend church on a regular basis. In terms of otherworldly encounters, 41 per cent of Icelanders claimed having had contact with the dead.
- The average work week in Iceland is the longest in Europe, at 46-49 hours. In Icelandic culture, however, work is not just a means to Icelandic krona (the nation’s currency), but a means to self-respect. Back in the 1960s, Icelandic hippies reportedly had to head over to Copenhagen, Denmark, for a lifestyle more suited their own, as they would have been too embarrassed to be in Reykjavik without a job.
Iceland is a country shaped by ice and lava and its hard-working and spiritual people have adapted to such harsh conditions, with many making their livings off the land and sea. They live under threat of volcanic eruptions, with one in 1963 spawning the islet of Surtsey, which is only fully accessible to research scientists.
The Best Festivals in Iceland
From arts to agriculture, the Icelandic calendar features a variety of festivals and events throughout the year, in various parts of the country. A common theme in most celebrations is singing and dancing, but visitors don’t have to carry a note or put on their dancing shoes to take it all in. Following is a look at a few annual Icelandic events:
The Icelandic Festival of Porrablot
Porrablot is a festival with pagan roots, held every February as a means to chase away the winter blues. Residents in towns across the country celebrate by singing, dancing and feasting on the delicacies of hakarl (rotten shark), singed sheep’s heads and Brennivin, a local, caraway seed-flavoured spirit. Porrablot events in smaller villages welcome everyone (others are private affairs), but they must usually be booked in advance. The Tourist Information Centre in Reykjavik should be able to help.
The Reykjavik Arts Festival in Iceland
The Reykjavik Arts Festival first took place in 1970, and now for two weeks in May every year, Iceland’s capital celebrates the arts. Its purpose, according to the festival’s official website, is to “ promote Icelandic and international culture in all fields of art.” The event features music, opera, ballet, theatre and visual arts draw national and international artists.
Sjomannadagur (Seafarer’s Day) in Iceland
Being an island, it should come as no surprise that Iceland celebrates Sjomannadagur (Seafarer’s Day). Local fishermen and spectators mark the first Sunday in June on their calendars as the day upon which to partake in and cheer on participants in tests of strength. Rowing, swimming, tug-of-war and sea rescue contests all test the seafarers’ mettle in what is the greatest party of the year in many fishing villages.
Iceland Celebrates its Independence Day
Iceland’s Independence Day falls on June 17. In 1944, the nation declared its independence from Denmark, and June 17 also happens to be the birth date of Jon Sigurosson, who contributed toward the battle for independence more than any other Icelander. The day is a festive occasion throughout the country, featuring music, dancing, parades, sideshows and street theatre, with the largest celebrations taking place in the capital, Reykjavik.
Reykjavik, Iceland, Holds Cultural Night
Reykjavik Cultural Night takes place on a Saturday in late August, when just about every venue in the city centre is transformed into a showcase. Shops host musical events, poetry readings take place in cafes, street performers fill the avenues and buskers play wherever they can find a spare patch of ground. Fireworks cap off the night, and pubs and cafes remain open until the wee hours.
The Icelandic Festival of Rettir
A more rustic festival in Iceland is that of Rettir, held every September. The festivities mark farmers heading out on horseback to herd their sheep back down to the lowlands from their highland summer pastures. This is a major event on the farming calendar, and singing, dancing and other festivities wrap it all up. Visitors to Iceland in September may check with the Tourist Information Centre in Reykjavik to see where Rettir is taking place.
A few of Iceland’s festivals have their roots in their way of life — farming and fishing, for example, while others celebrate the arts and mark the country’s independence from Denmark. The variety of events leaves visitors spoiled for choice, as the festivals take place throughout the country over the year.