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Warmed by the Gulf Stream as well as by highly active thermal hot springs and volcanoes, Iceland is somewhat misnamed. While it is a stark and barren country with three huge areas of glaciers, one theory is that early Norsemen sought to mislead other potential settlers by giving a pleasant name to fierce, inhospitable Greenland, and a forbidding name to the imminently habitable Iceland. Irish monks and hermits established themselves here in the 8th century, but left a century later when the pagan Norsemen arrived. Europe’s first Parliament of General Assembly, the Althing, was established in the year 930 and still functions as the legislative body, although it was suspended by the Danes at the end of the 18th century and not reconvened until 1843. Reykjavik was the site picked by the island’s first permanent resident, Ingolfur Arnarson in 874, and is home to more than half of the island’s total population. The world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavik is proud of its virtual lack of air pollution. Both electrical power and home heating are derived from the geothermal activity on the island. The city’s large swimming pools are always warm, and in the countryside exotic fruits such as grapes and bananas are cultivated in greenhouses made cozy with the help of underground hot springs.
Like most Icelandic towns, this one on the northwest coast was started by fisherman and whalers. The name means ice-fjord. It is a perfect place from which to explore the cultural and economic staples of Iceland. An excursion to Sudavik reveals a town started by whalers and nearly destroyed by an avalanche in 1995, now rebuilt out of the path of further slides. Its lovely church was donated by whalers, as well. The own also holds a center for the study of the indigenous arctic foxes. The Maritime Museum in Isafjordur illustrates the lifestyles of the early inhabitants, including many implements of their trades, and also a wall of accordions, one of the few forms of entertainment on bygone days. Another option is a boat ride to nearby Vigur island, a nesting site for many species of seabirds, including eider ducks, whose down is yet another example of local economy based on the surrounding seas.
Akureyri is the second largest urban area in Iceland with a population of around 18,000. Nicknamed ‘The Capital of the North,’ it is situated at the head of Eyjafjörður, the longest fjord in Iceland, only 62 miles (100 km) from the Arctic Circle. Surrounded by snow-streaked mountains, the Akureyri hills flourish in summer with a profusion of arctic wildflowers. Mt. Kerling is the highest peak visible from town, at 5,064’ (1,538 m). Often cloudy, with a mild climate, Akureyri has much less precipitation than its southern counterpart Reykjavik. It is a cultured city, with a university, numerous galleries, museums, art exhibitions, and live theater performances.
Nearby Hrísey Island is a spectacularly beautiful and peaceful island often called ‘The Pearl of Eyjafjörður,’ with an atmosphere of calm and settled tranquility. Numerous Atlantic puffins fly overhead, and the occasional whale is seen traversing the fjord.
The remote town of Seydisfjördur is perched at the end of a narrow twisting fjord in East Iceland. A very picturesque village of 700 people, it is known for its thriving arts scene and large number of resident artists. Tourism is on the rise as well, as its natural setting of mountains and waterfalls is simply breathtaking. Surrounded by impressive 1,085 meter (3,560’) tall snow-capped mountains, Seydisfjördur is home to the Technical Museum of Iceland and hosts populations of both eider ducks and Atlantic puffins. It was settled by Norwegian fishermen in 1848 and quickly became an important trading center between Iceland and Europe. It is known throughout Iceland for its colorful Norwegian-style wooden houses.
The first telegraph cable connecting Iceland to Europe made landfall here in 1906. A large dam was constructed here in 1913, which produced power for the country’s first high voltage AC power plant, a revolutionary achievement for its time.
At the tip of the flat, sandy Jutland peninsula, Skagen is Denmark’s northernmost town and a popular holiday destination for Danes. It was long Denmark’s most important fishing port, but its popularity as a recreation area began at the end of the 19th Century when Queen Alexandrine, the wife of King Christian X, fell in love with the rustic character of the place and built the summer residence Klitgaarden. The royal couple invited other Scandinavian and European royalty to share holidays with them and Skagen’s reputation grew. At the same time, the Skagensbanen railway made travel to Jutland easier. Impressionist artists were attracted by the exotic sand- and seascapes and the vivid light reflected from the sea, and a school of Skagen Painters thrived in the first quarter of the 20th century. Arts and crafts still remain an important local tradition, and the town has many shops and galleries offering handmade goods to visitors. There is a venerable lighthouse near the peninsula’s tip, where the North Sea and the Baltic Sea meet, but due to their differing densities, their margins can clearly be seen. A St. Lawrence’s Church was built in Skagen in the 14th century, but it was eventually inundated by drifting sand dunes. The Skagen Church of today was built in 1841.
Denmark’s capital is arguably one of the world’s best-loved cities, and certainly the liveliest of all the Scandinavian capitals. It is a gracious and comfortable place, with a decidedly friendly, hospitable and fun-loving atmosphere. If there is such a thing as a cozy city, Copenhagen is it. From the lingering memory of the tales of Hans Christian Andersen to the colored lights of Tivoli Gardens, there is a delightful ambience that surrounds the visitor everywhere. Tidy, narrow streets are lined with tempting restaurants and cafes, and the pedestrian-only Stroget abounds with stylish shops. The spirited Copenhageners are imaginative and unconventional and exude a “do-what-you-want” philosophy that embraces and respects almost all aspects of life. Every friendly Dane you meet further illustrates the city’s motto “Wonderful, wonderful, Copenhagen.”