Iceland’s Isolated Beauty

What happens when Iceland, an island nation with 330,000 residents, starts welcoming 1.2 million tourists a year? Feargus O’Sullivan, of our sister site CityLab, explains:

This is raw-boned, hardscrabble country, both thinly populated and thinly served by public amenities. That’s much of its attraction, of course—the idea of having ancient lava fields, raging waterfalls, and mossy ravines more or less to yourself.

You’re far less likely to be alone nowadays, though, and many of the easier-to-access areas are groaning under the pressure of not being as unfrequented as they once were. Land at some beautiful spots is being trampled by too many feet, while basic facilities such as parking and toilets are limited. This has led to unfortunate incidents that include desperate tourists turning the graves of Iceland’s greatest poets into an impromptu bathroom. Less gross but also less forgivable are tourists who drive off-road, damaging fragile landscapes and thus partly ruining the wildernesses that they have traveled so far to witness.

An Atlantic reader feels the irony:

When I first went to Iceland in the ‘60s it was not unusual to find attractions like Gullfoss to be virtually free of visitors. In contrast, on my most recent visit, lines of people shuffled past key spots with just enough time to get their selfie. Now I am sorry that I kept telling everyone just how great Iceland is.

If you have a related anecdote from your own visit to Iceland you’d like to share, drop us an email. We published one in our February 1893 issue.

William Edward Mead, writing about Iceland’s literary culture, was shocked at the barrenness of the landscape, finding it distinctly “unfavorable … to literary fertility” and other scholarly pursuits. “The country is little better than a desert,” he wrote. “People with so little to make life attractive might be pardoned if they were to sink into a stolid indifference to everything but the struggle to keep alive.” Yet the beauty of such harsh, isolated country is also evident in his description:

The only inhabitable portion is a narrow strip of pasture land extending like a green girdle round the coast and up the deep, narrow fiords. The interior of the country is a howling waste of sand and ice, traversed by darting glacier rivers, and utterly incapable of supporting more than a few scattered inhabitants. […]

The farmhouse where I spent more than a fortnight [is] distant a day’s ride on horseback from Reykjavik. Behind the house rises a naked, precipitous ridge of basalt, a quarter of a mile high, sweeping in a magnificent unbroken curve from the bold headland that juts into the sea to the upper waters of the Laxá. Before the house stretches the long, narrow fiord, swarming with sea-birds that circle endlessly about the double cascade foaming down from the river into the sea.

It’s a place that takes its romance from its solitude—and Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who visited Iceland in 1936, captured that lonely beauty in his poem “Journey to Iceland.” Iceland, to Auden, with its “sterile immature mountains” and “abnormal day,” is a place for travelers who want to reject the world—a kind of alternate reality, whose purity rubs off on people.

For Europe is absent: this is an island and therefore
Unreal. And the steadfast affections of its dead may be bought
By those whose dreams accuse them of being
Spitefully alive, and the pale

From too much passion of kissing feel pure in its deserts.

Auden later revised that stanza to read “this is an island and therefore / A refuge”—a small change, but a telling one. After all the only truly solitary journeys are imaginary ones; the mind is the most isolated country of all; and the best place to get away from people, tourists or otherwise, may be the refuge of your own thoughts. As Auden closed his poem:

Again the writer
Runs howling to his art.

You can read the full text of “Journey to Iceland” (or listen to Auden reading it) here, and you can see some of its sights for yourself in the video below.