The plane touches down, galvanized rubber wheels screaming resistance as they scrape against the runway, skid-marking the concrete as the brakes, fully-locked, reduce a headlong hurtle to a controlled glide across the tarmac, the journey ending in a gentle taxi to the terminal.
The Blue Lagoon is one of the few things I know about Iceland. That and Eidur Gudjonnsson, a striker currently plying his trade with Spanish giants Barcelona, who’s all over the in-flight magazine. He’s all over the airport as well, a modern building boasting smooth, clean lines and a sense of flow and efficiency: it just feels Scandinavian.
Outside, the Icelandic sky hangs familiarly low, a never-ending mass of cloud that mists the tarmac with moisture as I cross – seemingly unmolested, but more likely just not feeling the rain, so softly is it falling. We Scots have a word for days like these – dreich: a word born out of necessity, the only one in our vocabulary that conveys a sense of this – a day we see so often. In many ways it is perfect, a word that sums up not only the weather, but the feelings induced in the observer. To use it is to surrender to all that it implies – listlessness, a dulling of the senses that tugs at the heart-strings; a sense that one has been here before, that nothing changes, that this may never end. Dreich – rhymes with grief, ending with an ‘eech’; guttural, almost Yiddish yet distinctly Scottish.
I find myself wondering, as I board the coach, how many words Icelanders have for this. In the same way that the Eskimo have so many variations on ‘snow’, I wonder if natives here can distinguish linguistically between this and, say, a different cold grey day; one where the sky looks less like a sheet of slate and carries, perhaps, occasional metallic-looking streaks of white, or the odd patch of blue, a distant reminder of warmer climes, far-off lands.
It’s an international coach; a strange mixture of foreign languages and variously accented Englishes, all asking the same questions, more or less. No one really knows where we’re heading: ‘some kind of spa’, the sum total of our collective knowledge. No one knows how long it will take to get there, or if we’ll make it back in time for the next leg of our flight. I’m fighting an urge to tell the driver to stop as we pull off from the terminal. ‘I’ll just wait it out back there,’ I want to tell him. An American accent behind me, confident, soothes my unvoiced fears, or at least makes me feel ridiculous for thinking them; she’s sure, she tells her child, that nobody would arrange something like this and allow people to miss flights. That would be dumb. I’m obviously more of a pessimist than she, but all of a sudden it’s too late: we’re on a sweeping, curving piece of tarmac that leads away from the airport, from certainty, and out into Iceland.
Even this close to the airport, I can see that Iceland’s landscape is weird. Obviously, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I feel that I’ve seen precious little, so personal experience isn’t the best yardstick, but it goes further than that. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever imagined, save perhaps for images conjured while reading of Frodo and Sam’s journey towards Mount Doom. It’s all strange rock formations, jutting masses of solid-looking volcanic spew, starkly highlighted against the grey uniformity of the sky. Ahead of us, the road stretches out, almost deserted, the tarmac seemingly elevated; it feels strangely like it’s floating on top of the rocks, a temporary resident in this alien environment. It’s not fenced in, or off, and there are no comforting, soft-looking fields bordering it. Everything looks unforgiving, harsh, apocalyptic – an impression only heightened by the geysers of steam rising at various points in the distance. Apparently, the American voice informs her child, they’re the result of volcanic activity. Geothermal action.
The music of Sigur Ros plays from memory inside my head as I survey the scene; a connection I hadn’t realized I’d made – yet another thing I know from Iceland. Previously, I had always associated their lonesome melancholia with a different kind of visual bleakness – that of the North Sea, of standing on a night-time cliff-top, watching the distant lights of an offshore oil rig, feeling small and insignificant as wave after wave pummeled the Scottish shoreline beneath me. It spoke to me, that music, with its made-up language – Hope-ish, someone told me it was called. It touched something inside me that recognized the loneliness and desolation, evoked yearning for the indefinable. From what I can see through the window here, I know where it’s coming from – another insignificant little country in the great big Atlantic where people dream of bigger things, more fulfilling lives, but struggle to express that desire, or what it means; hence the Hope-ish: a language of intangibles.
The bus turns off at an intersection, the driver taking care to make the turn perfectly, not going too fast, responsible in his charge despite the lack of any other traffic. We seem to be heading towards one of those geysers of steam. There are some low buildings clustered around, close to one of them. The road floats over the rocks towards it while we, coach-bound, float with it.
We pull up in a parking lot; more black tarmac to add to the cold-seemingness. The rain is slightly heavier now, distinctly spattering my face as I make my way onto a path with the rest of the group, following both path and group round a rock, as per the driver’s instructions, ticket clutched in hand, ready for inspection.
The entrance to the Lagoon is a low-key affair: glass door, horizontal wood slats, more of the clean lines and subtle crispness of the airport. My ticket is taken without ceremony, and I am ushered down the hall towards the men’s changing area, boots to be removed at the door thereof.
Ten minutes and a pre-spa shower later I walk outside and meet the Lagoon. It’s essentially a large, natural spa pool – a major tourist attraction here, which accounts for the crowds. There is no definite shape to the pool, enhancing its natural feel. It has numerous hidden nooks where one can sit quietly, as well as the main bathing area where people are floating, swimming, and coating their faces in sulphur-heavy mud, said to be good for the skin. The narrower areas of the pool are criss-crossed by wooden bridges, and there are glass-fronted saunas built into a wall of rock at the side of the lagoon. Next to this is a waterfall, under which laughing children push one another playfully into the cascade. It’s all very civilised, genteel, un-British; the only thing that seems familiar is the group of football fans, stopping over on their way to or from something, their drunkenness and the volume of their songs drawing many a nervous glance. The fact that they start singing in German gives me reason to be both cheerful and depressed – happy that they’re not my countrymen, dismayed that they represent my gender, proclaim to follow a sport I love dearly, staining further its already sullied reputation.
There is a strong smell of sulphur throughout the Lagoon, and I have been warned not to put my head under the water, at risk of drying out my hair for the next month or so. I elect to try the mud pack, and then float-walk around the pool for a while, enjoying the sensation, discovering the different hotspots in the water, further evidence of the geothermals, albeit I suspect that here they may have been harnessed by man. But no matter – there is quite enough that is natural, what with the open air, the spectacular views of the landscape, the sitting outside half-naked, without worrying about that.
The whole experience is extremely pleasant, a welcome relief from the stresses of flying, although the nagging doubt about making it back in time still lingers. The driver told us we had an hour and a half, so with 30 minutes left I leave the pool, skin wrinkled from water exposure, and head back to change.
My paranoia about leaving late means I have time to explore the restaurant area before leaving – a mistake, as it instantly creates hunger pangs which the mouth-watering, multi-currency menu informs me I can’t afford to satiate here. There is, however, a take-away area, where the most affordable item is a hot dog – a reminder both of home and my eventual destination, in that canned hot-dogs taste the same everywhere.
The coach floats us back to the airport, all with ample time before our flights to browse the duty free shops, floating through the concourse in a haze of Bjork CDs, sophisticated chocolates, body products from the Lagoon, everything seeming fresh and novel, rather than cheap and tawdry as they would have done had I spent the entire three hours here.
The boarding call for the plane comes and people form an orderly queue at the gate, the flow of the building, the experience of the lagoon, seemingly relaxing enough to allow us to make do without the usual stampede to be the first to board.
Take-off comes without the usual anxiety for me, the stresses of the airport this morning long since forgotten. I breathe out confidently, rather than holding it in fear, enjoying for once the sensation of being whipped skyward. Ahead of me, the gleaming continent of America awaits, a place modern and impulsive. Behind me lies Scotland: older, traditional, more set in its ways. Iceland lies somewhere between the two, on the rim of the Arctic Circle, connected yet otherworldly – definitely a place to come back to with time to spend.
Iceland Air organises free tours to the Blue Lagoon on any stopover in Reykjavik between Glasgow and the US , and also allows you to stopover in the country for up to 7 days at no extra cost on the ticket.