Now that I have had time to reflect on my first cycle tour adventure, I feel as though I saw and experienced a lot more in Iceland when comparing my time to that of a typical tourist; by which I mean tourists that travel by car, coach, motorbike and motor-home. For me, the pace of the bike allowed the acceptance of slow(er) travel and with it came the freedom to stop whenever and for however long I fancied. Not only that, but even during the actual pedalling stage I could smell, hear and touch my surroundings, feeling connected at all times to everything around me.
During my four weeks on the road, I made a point of observing. A result of this was that I discovered a few things about Iceland that I feel many might miss. Or at least are perhaps noticed but quickly forgotten. Here’s a small collection that increased my respect for the island and its people just that little bit more.
1. How the locals survive winter
When I questioned a bright-eyed local just how they make it through such a long, dark winter every year, her answer was simple:
“Icelanders gather at the swimming pool when it’s dark to gossip and eat ice-cream”.
It’s true: there wasn’t a single village I passed through that didn’t have a swimming pool, all of which were fed by natural hot springs. The absence of chemicals means a naked shower is a must before entering, which creates an easy way to distinguish blasé local from shy tourist. As for the ice-cream? Due to the infamous unpredictable weather in Iceland, ice-cream is acceptable at any time of the day, in any kind of weather and I often saw people licking away in the pouring rain when it was less than 6 degrees.
2. Do you need a receipt?
A question I got asked in every single shop and supermarket that I entered and one which always brought a smile to my face.
I would happily answer no thank you and walk away knowing a tree was still standing and without that automatic chore of screwing it up to instantly throwing it into a bin. Receipts are pointless 99% of the time – Iceland are doing their bit by giving their customers a choice to refuse the unnecessary waste and I have to say, it is the only place I have visited so far that is doing it.
3. Remember to turn the lights out
It seems ironic to me that a country which deals with close to 24hr daylight in the summer, would locate their customer toilets either on basement level or at the back of a building with no windows. To render this silly mistake, Icelanders have ditched automatic for good old fashioned light switches. It took me a while to realise this as I aimlessly fumbled in the dark to my cubicle but it makes sense – switch the light on your way back out to save on power; you’d do the same at home.
4. Do not drink from the tap
Because in doing so would be totally absurd and you’d risk ruining your entire holiday!
In fact, whilst you’re avoiding the tap you best stay clear of that bottled stuff too.
Iceland’s natural water source has to be some of the cleanest and tastiest in the entire world. I don’t think I went a day without seeing at least 3 waterfalls and 5 different fast flowing rivers, all of which are being fed from the mountain and glacial run-off.
When one local refused to fill my bottle and pointed in the direction of a river, I never looked back. There is something incredibly uplifting in drinking straight from the source, with no filter or purification, and I too found myself shaking my head by the end of the trip when I spotted a tourist sipping from an over-priced bottle of water.
5. “A man without a book is blind”
Just one of the many Icelandic proverbs I came across during my stay. I noticed them written amongst graffiti on street walls and within the pages of local guidebooks. Not only that, but I discovered that Iceland is actually home to many many authors (perhaps another way to keep busy during the winter months) during a visit to a local library. One author in-particular, Halldor Laxness, won the Nobel Prize for Literature way back in 1955 and wrote more than 60 books in his lifetime. Many authors have had their work translated into English precisely because they are classics and very popular. I couldn’t resist buying one which I felt best represented the culture and everyday life – I’ll let you know what I think.
Have you come across any gems whilst travelling that you’d consider unnoticed by many?
As always I’d love to hear about them in the comments below.