Nature & Nurture: Warm & Very Gay-Friendly Iceland
At Harpa, the participants in Rainbow Reykjavik were treated to a concert by a local singer, a lesbian who resembled (in looks, if not voice) Iceland’s most famous export, Björk. This gave a pretty good sampling of the local gay culture, which is flourishing.
Although necessarily small, the gay scene in Reykjavik is very active. Since this is a small city in a thinly populated country, there are few gay bars, and the gay scene freely mingles with nightlife overall. In fact, you could almost say that Iceland represents one of the vanguard "post-gay" societies, inasmuch as no one really cares about the particular orientation of a bar or club. The intermingling here is free and open.
For such a small city, Reykjavik has a happening club scene that could stand on its own against some of the better-known European cities. Like Madrid, Barcelona and New York, the scene here starts later than in most places. You can walk the streets at 11:30 p.m. and they will be nearly deserted; at 2:30 a.m., they’re packed. There are dance clubs that fill up on Saturday night, and you can make a full night of it if you want. The major (OK, essentially the only) gay nightclub is Trúnó, a nice-sized multi-storied club and café that plays some great House music and, not surprisingly, is popular with young Icelanders of all stripes.
As part of the Rainbow Reykjavik program, a local historian treated us to a tour of the city with an emphasis on gay events. Even more than other places, the LGBT history of Iceland is pretty sketchy up until the latter part of the 20th century. Partly, this is because the island was so isolated and life was pretty primitive. Even so, we found out some fascinating and fun facts about gay men and even a well-known lesbian couple in what we Americans would have called a "Boston marriage."
The gay rights movement came to Iceland slowly, but once it got here, it proceeded with a bang. The "Stonewall" of Iceland, as it were, occurred in the early 1980s, when the Parliament was forced to take up a debate about the national broadcast service refusing to allow the word "gay" on the air, let alone air any LGBT-related programming. The ridiculously antiquated provision was struck down. One of Reykjavik’s central squares became the site of gay-rights rallies celebrating Stonewall. At first, there were only a tiny handful of people, led by the daughter of a powerful politician. Today, Gay Pride is one of the island’s biggest celebrations (see below for more information).
The nation, as noted above, has made rapid strides in recent years, attributable to its close-knit nature; it’s said that everyone knows someone who is gay. The historic elevation of the prime minister put the cap on the struggle for equality. Today, it’s simply a given. Oh, and the current mayor Reykjavik has celebrated Gay Pride by dressing in drag. See if the mayor of a major U.S. city would try that one!
Rainbow Reykjavik, which is sponsored by the local tourism board and Icelandair, is a reflection of the open-armed, welcoming nature of the populace. At the end of the article is a list of the upcoming LGBT events in Iceland, which, for such a small country, is remarkable.
The Northern Lights
Anyone who travels to Iceland for any reason - whether to participate in a planned gay event, or even just a long flight layover - is going to have to experience the natural beauty of the place.
The wonders of nature from the landscape to the sky are, in a word, incredible. Iceland had long been the Number One city on my personal "bucket list" of must-visits just because of what I had read and heard about its natural wonders, and I’m happy to report that it didn’t disappoint.
On the night of the concert, we followed reports from outlying farmers and fishermen that the weather conditions were optimal for viewing the Northern Lights. In such an intimate country, tour guides and others in the capital rely on an informal network connected by telephone calls rather than any sophisticated system of observers.
So we piled into the bus and drove several miles outside of Reykjavik until we reached a small fishing community. There, we went outside, which was the first and only time I experienced any bone-chilling cold, with sheets of ice raining down. It was fun - for a few minutes. Unfortunately, we didn’t see the lights, probably the most beautiful natural occurrence anywhere. But we were privileged to see, in an otherwise-perfectly clear sky, a strange cloud-like formation take place. Under other conditions, this would, indeed, have turned colors.
As it was, it stayed white. But the otherworldliness of seeing that "cloud" amidst the northern stars made the long, late-night trip into the countryside worthwhile.
The Golden Circle
The next day, we experienced the "Golden Circle," the wonders of nature that are readily accessible from Reykjavik. Visitors can hire a tour guide, take one of the many bus tours, or hire a car. I’d recommend the last, only because it will allow you to visit these sites on your own time and add casual side trips. Major car rental companies are all represented in Reykjavik.
Iceland is a very young island, still very much in formation. This means a great deal of geological activity, as the world very much experienced two years ago, when a volcanic eruption caused havoc on trans-Atlantic flights and especially intra-European flights because of the wind carrying the ash toward the continent.
Much of the landscape of Iceland has a very strange, dreamy quality. The land itself is bumpy and covered with light moss, a result of lava from the many active volcanoes. The famous Icelandic horses, with their stolid bodies and thick manes, are not just there to impress tourists, although horseback riding is one of the country’s major draws, along with the spectacular rock climbing; in many places, the horses are the only way to get around, the land defying any all-terrain vehicle excepting maybe a tank, although there are modern roads now everywhere, including a ring road around the entire island that can be traversed in two days.
Iceland’s main (probably sole) contribution to the English language, geyser, comes directly from Geysir, the oldest-known geyser in the world.
Currently, it goes off every eight to ten minutes. There are also a series of tiny eruptions around Geysir, and the earth itself is literally bubbling with steaming hot water.
The Continental Divide
In terms of sheer number, Iceland is unparalleled for its waterfalls. Dettifoss, in the northeast, is the largest in Europe, although there are ones closer to Reykjavik.
When people ask me what was the most spectacular thing I experienced in Iceland, I don’t hesitate to answer the Continental Divide. It was even more dramatic for having been so unexpected.
Honestly, I hadn’t heard about this profoundly historical site, although I certainly knew about the tectonic plates that divide Europe and the Americas.
As geology students know, the earth was once one giant landmass. Over several millennia, it broke apart. Perhaps the most obvious point of reference on a world map is the South American bulge largely formed by Brazil that fits very neatly into Western Africa.
Iceland sits atop the two giant plates that make up the Old World (Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia) and the New World (North and South America, the Caribbean islands). For historic reasons, it’s considered "Europe," although it could as easily be considered as part of North America.
Its geographic position is the reason why it is considered the linchpin in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and why 50,000 U.S. troops - one-third of the island’s then-population - were stationed here during the Second World War.
What’s truly fantastic, in every sense of the word, is that here is the only place in the world where you can actually witness the tectonic plates. The Continental Divide is literally a rift in the earth that varies from a few feet to an entire valley, and from several feet down to hundreds of feet.
Due to seismic activity, during our visit we could only straddle the divide via a small footbridge, but the sensation of standing atop two continents gives one a sense of the earth’s wider history unlike anything else. The Divide gives one a "God’s-eye view" of the earth’s history.