It isn’t the icy cold chill that stuns you when you first witness Iceland, it’s the soft blue halcyon glow that suffuses every atom with a ghostly calm.
Before you’ve even had a chance to realise it, the light is the perfect complement to the stillness that hangs over everything, suspending your sense of self and time.
A country of lunar landscapes and hypnotising wilderness, Iceland is one of the more geologically recent places on Earth and among the last to be populated by people. Happily, it still feels like one of the most isolated places on the planet, untainted by humanity for the most part.
That said, it’s now so well connected that 15 international airlines run scheduled flights in and out of Keflavik Airport, and in 2014, 3.3 million people passed through the country. That’s ten times the number of the country’s inhabitants.
Travel at its best is an opportunity to discard the norms of routine for a life less ordinary. The writer Paul Theroux describes it as an experience of vanishing — a perfect description of how it feels to be in Iceland.
Most visitors hang around the capital of Reykjavik, with its laid back vibe and effortlessly cool character. What you might consider a bearded parka-wearing try-hard hipster in Bristol, is more likely just a disarmingly handsome local in this aesthetically stunning city.
Like Bristol, Reykjavik’s streets are peppered with graffiti. The angular, Alpine architecture halts you with its two-dimensional quality and the arresting opaque colours that are splashed in discrete corners beg to be noticed.
It isn’t hard to see why so many artists have been inspired by the cerebrally and visually arresting aspects of the country, from the main thoroughfare of Laugavegur through to the rugged fjords that encase the island.
Leaving the city feels like escaping the world. As the urban roads stretch out into endless distance, the winter skyline merges indistinguishably with the horizon, leaving you to precariously circumnavigate the island’s mountain-framed ringroad.
There is so much more to it than the cliches of Viking history and geysers, glaciers, snow-capped mountains and volcanoes. Though all of that is an undeniable part of its majestic charm.
As is the fact that you rarely see another human being, until you reach one of the points on the Golden Circle where the herds trudge through each other’s footsteps to be amazed by the astounding waterfalls at Gulfoss, the sublime Blue Lagoon, Thingvellir National Park and the original Geysir.
The seemingly endless landscape and the blinding white light reflected by the snow makes it feel as though you’re going nowhere in particular, until you happen upon a space in the Earth that has either erupted, sunk or drifted apart.
The map tells you you’re approaching a destination of some sort but you may not even recognise it until and unless the cloud lifts to reveal an utterly breathtaking natural sight.
Proust once said that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”.
If it’s new insights you’re after, or just a return to unadulterated Nature, Iceland is hard to beat.
Go with an open mind and tread lightly.