Falling in love with a song written in a foreign language can have unforeseen consequences. Consider 'Starálfur', a haunting track by Sigur Rós, Iceland's top ambient rock band. When I learn it's about a sleepy boy surprising an elf who is peeping in his window, I imagine this fey creature, mouth open, lost for words. A startled elf. "Whatever you do," advises Torfi Yngvason, a Nordic expedition guide who is helping me plan my journey around his black lava homeland, "don't call our horses 'ponies' and don't make fun of the elves."
I've landed in the capital city of Reykjavík during late summer, and Yngvason has called me on his mobile from the wildest region of a wild country. "You've got to see it up here. I'm just about to step onto a coastal trail in the Westfjords," he says. "This is the westernmost point in Europe." Then the connection drops. It seems to be my cue to set off in a sports utility for my own visit to this peninsula beyond cellular coverage.
Not far outside the city, a black basalt massif looms above a silver inlet called Hvalfjördur, or Whale Fjord. The road snakes along the tidal basin, and as I drive north on the Ring Road that circles the island, it's abundantly clear what sets Iceland apart from the rest of Europe: a distinct lack of megaflora. In lay terms: there are no trees. When the first Viking settlers lopped down the virgin forest for firewood and boat lumber, the thin layer of topsoil eroded and exposed an infertile volcanic girdle. So apart from the occasional stand of birch or scrubby aspen or juniper pine, the only timber of any substance is the bleached driftwood from Siberia washed ashore on ocean currents. Once my eye adjusts to this curious deficiency, however, the tundra reveals its subtle greenery inch by inch.
I turn east on side roads toward Reykholt. Rising through a series of steep granite ridges punctuated by salmon streams and sheep farms, I stop to walk along a black sand trail that parallels the Barnafoss waterfall. Wild crowberries, tart Arctic cousins of the blueberry, peek from a mat of spiky grass on the river bank. Slightly farther east near Húsafell, the scenery takes another dramatic shift and I pass through a field of tumbled lava rock. On this seemingly stark plain, a bright patchwork of resolute plants spring to life: grey lichens and feathery liverworts, plump moss, swatches of baby pink heather. And fragrant purple thyme crops up everywhere - even on the verge of a forbidding glacier.
I park at the rim of Langjökull, the island's second biggest chunk of ice. (More than 10 per cent of Iceland is covered by glaciers, some landlocked, others dropping sky-blue icebergs into tidal lagoons.) At 800 metres above sea level, a chill wind blows off Langjökull as ice-melt catches and crystallises again on half-submerged stones in a runoff stream the color of mercury. Even on a summer day, it doesn't take long for my fingers and toes to feel like they may be in danger of frostbite. After returning to Hvalfjördur, I'm grateful for a long soak in an outdoor hot tub and the downy featherbed at Hótel Glymur.
For breakfast, I have a bowl of plain skyr. This soft tangy cheese is often compared to yoghurt but really has the creamier texture of mascarpone. Icelanders love to mix it with porridge or fruit preserves. Over coffee, one of Glymur's owners, Hansina Einarsdóttir, a cheerful woman with bright blue eyes behind wire-rim glasses, attempts to deconstruct Iceland's zeitgeist. Since the first medieval settlement in Reykjavík, she tells me, Icelanders - as well as the horses and sheep they brought with them - have remained a breed apart. Over ensuing centuries the Vikings have evolved into a nation of peaceable farmers and fishermen which may no longer feel the urge to pillage the tender coastline of Europe but occasionally produces an artistic eccentric who takes the world by storm. Björk in her swan dress comes to mind. Sigur Rós tends to be a little easier on the ears although equally weird. "Just look around at the volcanoes and geysers and hot springs," Einarsdóttir says. "The earth still breathes here. Some of our philosophers think that's why we are such creative people." (Several months later Eyjafjallajökull hyperventilates on the south coast and a plume of volcanic ash drifts artistically all over European airspace.)
While Icelandic intellectuals tend to cluster around cosmopolitan Reykjavík, rural Vikings continue to practise age-old occupations, namely fishing for Atlantic cod and herding sheep. A tall, dark-haired farmer named Sindri Sigurgeirsson takes me riding near his property at Fornihvammur, giving me the chance to see sheep on the grass. Or on the rocks, anyway. They graze freely in the highlands until the autumnal equinox, when an island-wide roundup returns each flock to winter barns. Sigurgeirsson saddles a chesty butterscotch gelding named Glowi. "He's very gentle," the farmer assures me. "My son rides him." I touch the coarse blond mane and offer a carrot. Glowi ignores it. "They like stale bread," says Sigurgeirsson, adjusting the stirrups. It starts to drizzle steadily and I flip up the hood on my waterproof jacket.
As early as 982, the Icelandic Parliament passed laws prohibiting the importation of foreign-bred horses. The native equines are generally considered on the small side, but the Icelandic language conveniently lacks a word for pony. These stocky beauties bravely negotiate most open ground with a smooth four-beat gait called the tölt. Glowi slips right into this curious clopping trot as we follow a faint path paralleling a stream. An hour later, we dismount on an outcrop below permanent patches of snow; the low cloud cover breaks apart long enough for a glimpse of Eriksjokull glacier in the distance. Sigurgeirsson removes a vivid green bottle from his bulky overalls and offers me a nip of caraway-infused Brennivín schnapps. (Locals also call it Black Death.) It smells like 75-proof rye bread. I take a healthy slug and start gasping. Sigurgeirsson laughs. "Maybe you will like our lamb better."
On the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, two hours north-west of Reykjavík, Iceland's finest country house hotel sits beside a sandy cove where the Atlantic surf rolls in. Entering Hótel Búdir, I seek remedy for the long day on horseback. The lounge is hung with vintage photographs; wing chairs are positioned next to windows where a telescope is trained on the shoreline. My eye, however, is trained on a row of bottles secured in a glass cabinet behind the bar. "Arette tequila!" I exclaim. "It's almost impossible to find outside Mexico." The bartender pours a shot. Gesturing to shelves lined with eau de vie, grappa and Armagnac, he explains that the staff brings back spirits, bottle by bottle, from journeys overseas.
When the dining room opens, I settle in a slatted wood chair at a linen-covered table. A brimming bowl of soup is placed in front of me, and the opulent aroma of langoustine tails laced with calvados assures me that a master is lurking behind the kitchen swing door. Tarragon, garlic sprouts and a pinch of diced Granny Smith apple float on the creamy surface. The soup is followed by monkfish with honey-roasted cashews, and a pan-fried cod fillet with kale and microgreens. (Geothermal-heated greenhouses compensate for Iceland's short growing season - even bananas are cultivated here.) And chef Petur Thordarson's grilled lamb takes me right back up that mountain where they nibble on wild thyme. It's like tasting foie gras for the first time after being raised on a steady diet of boiled chicken livers.
The next day in Búdir's library, I crack open a modern translation of the Icelandic Sagas. It's one of the earliest narratives in Western literature and, unless you're a diehard academic, kind of a dull read in that Book of Genesis way. (Icelanders also have a rich oral folklore riddled with trolls, ghosts, boogie men and, of course, startled elves.) These tales inspired aspects of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. All it takes is a glance out the windows at Búdir to recognise scenes from Middle-earth. Bisecting a volcanic range in the middle distance, a waterfall whips upwards like a horse's mane in the sharp wind; the mist, blown backwards in the air, requires the inevitability of gravity to correct its descent to a pool hundreds of feet below. The light shifts swiftly from bright silver to tarnished pewter as the sun filters through fog and cloudbanks to refract salty rainbows onto the foaming crest of incoming waves.
Navigating around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it's easiest to reach the Westfjords on a car ferry that cuts across a bay, but I choose the wilder, longer road edging the coast. This route then rises through snow-dusted peaks and past glacial lakes already starting to freeze. A rivulet cascading off a hillside throws steam into the air - the region is riddled with hot springs - and as I descend again to sea level, surface currents ripple an indigo fjord. Looping back and forth on tricky switchbacks leads to the port of Isafjördur. On the docks where commercial fishing trawlers unload, grizzled cook Magnus Hauksson runs Tjöruhúsid Restaurant in a converted warehouse. He sautés spotted wolf-fish and breaded plaice with a fistful of soft yellow butter, then tosses in roasted potatoes and adds mushroom gravy before his wife delivers the sizzling cast-iron skillet to my elbow. Iceland's offshore fisheries are rich with cod, haddock, shark and other cold-water species meaty enough for long-simmered dishes. Hardfiskur, similar to salt cod but made from haddock, is still hung in drying sheds open to the sea breeze; along with putrefied shark, it's consider a treat in this part of the world. Fortunately for those of us lacking Viking appetites, Hauksson uses only fresh fish in his kitchen.
I spend the late afternoon trekking along a dirt road to a cobbled beach covered by dried strands of mahogany kelp. This sheltered basin is just under the cusp of the Arctic Circle. Beyond lies an unfathomable realm of whales and seals and polar bears. With my back to a yellowing grass hummock above the grey surf, I watch a trawler cruise toward the horizon. The setting sun turns sea cliffs dusky rose. Finally, I reach tiny Sudureryri (population 300) at the head of another inlet. It has one church and two fish processing plants. Retired wooden skiffs are dry-docked in side yards next to rose gardens.
At Fisherman Hótel I meet Alain Jean Garrabé. This soft-spoken Frenchman is Gauguin gone the wrong way. Rather than running off to the South Pacific he wound up nearer the North Pole and now manages this tidy guesthouse while dabbling in oils. His abstract canvases hang on the dining room walls yet his true talent is growing fruit and vegetables in an adverse climate. After a bowl of monkfish curry, he presents me with his homemade rhubarb jam. What lures certain people to such isolated places, I wonder, especially as he traded sunny Provence for the perpetual darkness of Arctic winters? Garrabé smiles enigmatically. "Go outside and look up," he says.
Carrying my jar of preserves, I stand on the dimly lit street corner and wait. Across the night sky, the aurora borealis ignites. Excited cosmic particles unfold as a shimmering green curtain that fans westward over the sleeping town. It flares brighter and then dissolves.