I was on an Icelandic road trip. In the middle of the Golden Circle, I saw a sign from hundreds of metres away, telling me how many more kilometres to the next town. By the time our car reaches the sign, I was still figuring out how to pronouce that town’s name. Prior to the trip I had done enough research to eventually be able to spell “Reykjavík” correctly and know what a “fjord” or a “foss” is. But what about Snæfellsnes, Ísafjörður, or that region with the longest name in Iceland, Svalbarðsstrandarhreppur ?
As foreign as I am to Iceland, the Icelandic language is a real tongue twister. Its cute-looking letters, its lengthy words and its swinging sounds … are however as fascinating as the country’s pure, undisturbed nature. Putting together this itinerary, I tried to understand the roots of the Icelandic language and make sense of these place names. In general, the Icelandic language being as old as its history of first settlements mean the words are quite simple and straightforward. Place names are often made up of nouns describing the physical geography of the place.
*Ačiū to Auksė, who actually speaks a bit of Icelandic just by being a language nerd and now works at the Norræna Húsið (Nordic House), for looking up the Icelandic dictionary and inside her beautiful logical brain to help me figure out better what these place name means. Takk fyrir !
The Capital and Around
Meaning in Icelandic : Smoke Cove/ Smoky Bay (from the steam of hot springs)
Meaning in Tourist-language : The world’s northernmost capital; home to the biggest architectural photographic challenge for amateurs – the Hallgrímskirkja church, and a penis museum; whose city hall is surrounded by a natural lake guarded by actual wild birds; and where the nightlife is so awesome because you can be drunk, sober, straight, gay, bi, sexy, conservative, and weird as fuck, as no one gives a fuck.
Meaning in Icelandic : (Etymology unclear)
Meaning in Tourist-language : A volcanic mountain range that leads hikers to a phenomenal city view, on which the lava were cooled by the Ice Age to rocks and now painted (probably by trolls) with lovely autumn colours.
Meaning in Icelandic : The Basin (-ið indicates the definite form of Ker)
Meaning in Tourist-language : A caldera (volcanic crater) that is 3000 years old. To me it looked more like the eye of a strange monophthalmic giant – the royal blue pupil that reflects the sky, set off by the mossy green iris. It was scary to look down from the edge (it’s really deep), but descending with stairs was fairly easy. (Does that mean I walked into someone’s pupil ?)
Meaning in Icelandic : Steam Valley
Meaning in Tourist-language : A geothermal stream much cooler than the Blue Lagoon to bath in. You have to know a friend who knows a local to know that this exists, hike 3 km in the wind and pass some dangerous boiling pools that could cook you, before you can take off your clothes in front of all other bathers with beers and soak in. But it’s all worth it the moment the warmth of mineral water touches your cold, shivering skin, and you get a hip Instagram photo out of it. Also when we left, we saw a bright moon, stars, and the northern lights in the dark dark sky.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Meaning in Icelandic : Snæ + fell = Snow Mountain; Snæ + fells + nes = Cape/ Promontory of the Snow Mountain (the s in fells indicates a genitive)
Meaning in Tourist-language : A 90 m long peninsula on the west of Iceland. An actual wonderland. Any random turn from the main road brings you to a geological wonder and breathtaking landscapes, including :
Meaning in Icelandic : Cave’s Sand (origins unclear)
Meaning in Tourist-language : A small, small village on the tip of the peninsula next to the main glacier. We visited the church Ingjaldshólskirkja (Ingjaldur’s Hill Church) which is the oldest concrete church in Iceland (and probably the world according to the sign outside) and the local cemetery. I was a bit hesitant to walk into the cemetery because in Hong Kong they are generally reserved for families and relatives and death is definitely a big taboo. It was actually a very peaceful place. The wind was strong. I heard that lavender fields around the church will blossom during summer.
Meaning in Icelandic : Ólafs’ Bay
Meaning in Tourist-language : Probably the most epic village I have ever seen. Immediately behind the modest one-storey housing is a magnificent fjord/ mountain that will protect you from all kinds of adverse weather (maybe except landslides). The grand Bæjarfoss, Town Waterfall is within metres and you don’t even need to hike to see it. The architecture of the Ólafsvíkurkirkja, the village church is probably inspired by its natural landscape. Just like its mountains – tall and pointy leading straight to the sky, blocks of black and white possibly mimicking that of the virescence and the shadow. We visited the community swimming pool as well. We felt like Icelandic kids.
Meaning in Icelandic : Reef
Meaning in Tourist-language : The village that houses the Freezer Hostel, a really cool place (pun intended) with no “managers” or “attendants”. Those are too commercial and capitalistic for this place. They only have young hippie volunteers (probably in a couple) and resident artists. I didn’t know anything about that wall deco from the old fish factory or the vinyl collection or the comfy leather armchair in the common hall, but I pretended I had taste and appreciated everything because I didn’t want to look uncool (they are THAT cool).
Meaning in Icelandic : Snow Mountain’s Glacier
Meaning in Tourist-language : According to French writer Jules Verne in 1864, this glacier is the entrance for the Journey to the Center of the Earth … We didn’t try. We weren’t German, nor equipped for cold or lava weather … But we see why it might be a source of such great inspiration …
Meaning in Icelandic : The Well of the Irish
Meaning in Tourist-language : There is a well, and a lot of rocks. And grass. The rocks are like Irish trolls. Maybe. Icelanders themselves don’t even know why the ancient well is named after the Irish, but there were Irish monks before Iceland was settled by Vikings.
Meaning in Icelandic : Sax (a short sword with wooden handle) Hill
Meaning in Tourist-language : A crater that erupted 3-4000 years ago, with an incredibly misleading name and stairs easy to climb.
Meaning in Icelandic : Naked/bare Bay/fjord/inlet Town
Meaning in Tourist-language : A sank (the floor is at least 1 m below ground level) stone structure with high walls and several rooms with windows. I wish there were more information about this site.
Meaning in Icelandic : Bird Poo Bay
Meaning in Icelandic : Deep Lagoon’s Sand
Meaning in Tourist-language : The Dritvik cove can be reached from the Djúpalónssandur beach. Djúpalónssandur is a black sand beach on which are the remains of a wrecked English fishing trawler Grimsby fishing trawler Epine (GY7). When the beach entered my eyes it was shocking and the accident seemed alive. The broken pieces were broken in the same place for over 70 years, remembering the lost lives of the fishermen who died that cold night.
Walking out, the lava formations that are neither hills or mountains, will remind you of the Dragon Enclosure, where Harry (and other contestants) fought the Hungarian Horntail (and other dragons) in the Triwizard Tournament. Its rocks barely covered by moss are insurmountable and their camouflage will disrupt your multidimensional vision. You could however try lifting the four big stones at the entrance, as another test of strength to see if you are fit to be an Icelandic fisherman.
Meaning in Icelandic : Holm of the Piece
Meaning in Tourist-language : We stopped by basically any village that came into our way, just to take a walk and get some fresh air/ food/ gas. I learnt afterwards that this is where the chess player Bobby Fischer planned to reside before he suddenly died. I watched a movie about him, starring Tobey Maguire.
Meaning in Icelandic : Dale of Booths/ Camp Valley
Meaning in Tourist-language : Where we rented a cozy family house with Asian neighbours (I know, other than me). We got so lost in that tiny town looking for it that I had to get out of the car and wave on some Icelandic teenage boys’ study room so I could ask for directions … I was so sorry. But they were extremely nice (and cute). We saw horses in the backyard which is basically an endless field of green grass, and the lights. Unfortunately our neighbours were early sleepers they missed out. I mean I could have tried knocking on their door … we are all Asians … but I think they wouldn’t want that.
Meaning in Icelandic : Town’s Cape (land that goes into water)
Meaning in Tourist-language : Where we rented a stunning and cozy summer house that belongs to a horse-riding family, and saw the northern lights when bathing in their outdoor hot tub. Didn’t take any pictures because I wanted the moment to forever remain in my mind only.
In the Middle of Nowhere
Meaning in Icelandic : The Westfjords (This one makes so much sense that the English Westfjords is used more often than the original name)
Meaning in Tourist-language : The closest I have ever been to a whale because the hand-shaped steep and mountainous fjords extend directly to the Denmark Strait of the Atlantic Ocean. There we stayed in a summer house with no internet and the next neighbour a kilometre away for three days. It was absolutely fun.
Meaning in Icelandic : “Hey Valley” (I took the liberty to figure out its meaning in Icelandic myself because it’s actually a proper noun – Heydalur the name of the country hostel we stayed in. But it was fun to call a hospitality place “Hey!” and dalur does indeed mean a valley, where the country hostel is located.)
Meaning in Tourist-language : A backdrop almost too poetic for the dramatic memories of our trip. In the natural hot spring Sasha showed his less-than-perfect bottom to the hostel’s stable of Icelandic horses across the river (I later made this his phone screensaver). Then Sasha (it was definitely only him) accidentally slammed the door of the summerhouse, leaving the soup cooking (and later drying…) on the stove because we were too excited to see the others walking back and attempted to yodel to each other in the mountains. Then when we hiked to the top of the mountain, the five of us danced to Kate Bush’s Wurthering Heights and Backstreet Boys’ Everybody. Unfortunately there were no rescue helicopters otherwise they would notice our cry for psychiatric help. The hostel’s Golden Retriver, Bangsi, kept barking until we descended because he was afraid we were lost. Then I made a salty dinner (which obviously means I fell in love in Lithuania). Then in the evening we soaked into another hot spring with a few Americans and they could still tell I was the odd one out of the blond Lithuanian group in the dark. We saw the lights.
In the next day of activities we kayaked with seals and a whale (we didn’t see it though, our guide Radek told us it was swimming away from us). Three of us rode Icelandic horses for a small trip around the hostel. Mine was called Mozart and he was brown and milky white. Very adventurous character who doesn’t like to fall behind or take the old usual paths. Then I played with a 3 year old kid in the hostel restaurant. His parents offered to buy me a beer for keeping their boy occupied when they eat pizza.
Meaning in Icelandic : Fjord of Ice
Meaning in Tourist-language : The district capital and largest settlement of the Westfjords with 4000 residents. Driving (and walking) on the main street makes you feel like one of those miniature figures in Legoland. The gas station, the supermarket, the short houses all seem so insignificant compared to the fjord. Lucky how some Icelanders live in short buildings with windows of the dining hall facing the view below …
This list is not exhaustive as we only toured around western Iceland. We missed out a big part in the East and South, and natural reserves that are only accessible during summer. There are still plenty of place names I need to learn and I look forward to giving them even more absurd tourist-language meanings. But before that I should probably get my driving license so as to not let the great mum driver Auksė limit my reckless choices of places to see. Sjáumst aftur, Ísland !