From the plane, I glimpsed glaciers. Then, here and there, a geyser threw up plumes of hot steam out of the dark lava. It felt like being an astronaut about to land on a weird planet.

Thus began my visit to Iceland, which lived up to its name by being astonishingly cold — even though it was April, it didn’t feel warmer than -25°C. Locals assured me the temperature was above zero and even claimed that peak summer heat waves might hit record highs of 13°C, though that’d be in July and I wasn’t going to be around. Anyway, whatever the truth, the Arctic winds that swept through Reykjavik, which is apparently the world’s northernmost capital, made temperatures feel so much lower. After all, Iceland and the North Pole aren’t that far apart.

I turned the hotel room heating up to sauna levels, especially before going to bed, so as to avoid waking up a snowman. (The volcanic room heating was top class.) I’d wake up each morning, completely dehydrated and gulp down lots of water. Subsequently, I stepped out into tiny Reykjavik (they say in Reykjavik everybody knows everybody) and felt all that water inside me turning into ice cubes. I could tell by the constant rattling from within my frozen ribcage.

The object of my journey, the Viking parliament or the Althing at Thingvellir, lies inland, some 45km east of Reykjavik, and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Essentially it’s a large field in a rift valley created by the continental drift ages ago — the European and American tectonic plates grind away at each other here at the speed of 5mm per year.

This dramatic landscape of cliffs and lava fields was chosen by the Vikings in AD 930 as the setting of their annual assembly, making Iceland the country with the oldest parliament in the world. (Nowadays, though, the parliament meets in a building in Reykjavik and only special ceremonies are held outdoors at Thingvellir.)

The Althing was where, as the name rightly suggests, all things were settled, usually by chopping off the offender’s body parts. There are no visible remains of the parliament, not even blood stains, as the Vikings built temporary structures of turf or stayed in tents, but if you go with a guide s/he’ll bring things alive for you. Mine spoke eloquently about the many misconceptions people have about Vikings: no, they never plundered and pillaged; instead they were the founders of international trade, discoverers of America, Africa, Asia and so on, and their legal system was — according to him — way ahead of modern legislation.

Today Icelandic pop singer Bjork owns one of the few cottages in the national park, a 2BHK of 1,000 sq ft overlooking Lake Þingvallavatn, which she recently put up for sale for about ₹1.4 crore — pretty cheap in case you wish to freeze like a superstar.

Super-freezing isn’t my show so I ventured further inland to the Gullfoss waterfall, which turned out to be more or less frozen solid, except for the occasional mesmerising flow of sluggish water, so cold it seemed thick. Luckily, I spotted a geyser nearby — not the contraption that heats water at home, but a natural boiling ejaculation siphoning into the sky. Indeed, its location is, interestingly, called Geysir, which perhaps explains the origin of that universal word.

There’s a local story about a Viking showing the geyser to a priest. The impressed Christian exclaimed: “Oh my God!” The Viking quipped: “No, it’s the devil cooking.”

Later in Reykjavik I found geothermal baths where volcanic water is tempered down into separate plunge pools with fixed temperatures (37°C-46°C), and where one can swim outdoors round the year. When it got too hot, I just stood up for three seconds in the icy air, until my chest hairs turned into icicles and then jumped down for another boil.

Meanwhile, the Icelanders were casually peeling off the layers day by day, eventually walking around in shorts and t-shirts. I enquired how they survived and one replied: “Winter officially ends in April, so since it doesn’t get much hotter we don’t have a choice but to dress in summer clothes.”

Other than the many geological wonders, Iceland is also known for superb seafood. Travel magazines rave about the lobster soups and shellfish in fancy Reykjavik restaurants such as Grillmarkaðurinn, Sjávargrillað and Fiskfélagið, locally influenced dishes rustled up by five-star chefs, a heritage trend that’s bloomed after the 2008 financial meltdown, as imported food got prohibitively expensive for Icelanders. (Even McDonald’s shut down here, as people couldn’t afford the burgers.)

However, the most exotic food that I tracked down was probably invented by some demented Viking chef — the traditional hákarl or rotten Greenland shark sold in the flea market Kolaportið. It’s essentially shark dug down into the ground and allowed to rot until it is fully putrefied and then hung to dry for half a year, which apparently is the only way to render it edible (otherwise it’s so poisonous it’d kill the eater). The worst part is really the smell — like the missing link between a broken down urinal, zombie morning breath and ripe Danish cheese — but the flavour is surprisingly okay.

The other national dish I heard of was something I didn’t want to try — hrútspungar. Although the name sounds delicious, it translates as pickled goat testicles. The Vikings probably loved to snack on hrútspungar, but… Seriously, at that point I felt there are certain lines even an eccentric travel writer shouldn’t cross.

(This new monthly column combines the two best things in life — food and travel)

Zac o’Yeahis a Bengaluru-based author, travel writer, literary critic

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