A Holiday in Iceland by N.L van Gruisen, Junr. (London 1879), though an unassuming little volume, caught my attention every time I passed it on the shelf. Since I visited Iceland last year I have held a fascination with the place described by van Gruisen as ‘Ultima Thule’ (beyond the borders of the known world). A Holiday in Iceland is a description of the author’s time spent on the island in the summer of 1878, which he hopes, having given him great pleasure to write, ‘may cause others some in the reading, and be sufficient to induce them, when asking “where shall we go?” to seek the same enjoyment.’
I was interested to see what had changed in the 136 years that had passed between our respective trips. It was good to know that, despite the dubious ‘luxury’ of flying Easyjet, my two hour direct route from Edinburgh was certainly more desirable than van Gruisen’s tempestuous eight day boat journey aboard a Danish Mail Steamer:
‘Alas! We little knew what was in store for us. At two o’clock next morning I was rudely awakened by being nearly pitched out of my berth – little more need be said – you can imagine the rest. Later on I managed to scramble up to the deck house, where to all intents and purposes I lay as a dead man.’
Van Gruisen describes how the boat on which he eventually arrives provides the only point of contact that the Icelanders will have with the outside world for a fortnight. The city he discovers is still recognisable as the heart of modern-day Reykjavik, but the capital has grown exponentially in recent years. So too has the island’s tourism industry, with annual revenue surpassing that of Iceland’s former biggest export, fishing, for the first time ever in 2013. Visitors to the country have trebled since the turn of this century, topping 800,000 last year. This is all the more remarkable considering that the population of Iceland currently stands at a mere 329,000. An exchange between van Gruisen and a Post Office worker highlights the contrast between then and now: ‘I completely puzzled him by asking for a “post card”’, grumbles the author. ‘One might as well have asked him to send a telegraphic message’.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, despite the radical transformation undergone by the tourist industry in recent years, the activities in which van Gruisen participated were almost identical to those I did myself. Even our photos, taken over a century apart, look strikingly similar. The ‘Golden Circle’ is currently Iceland’s most popular day trip, touring three of the country’s most famous geological sites: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur. It is now possible to visit these magnificent natural wonders using a whole range of transportation, from standard coach to super jeep to helicopter, but I think all of them must be preferable to the only option available in the late 19th century; a hazardous week long pony trek.
Despite the fact that van Gruisen and his party are fatigued from the punishing ride, have to camp in harsh conditions, and spend the majority of their long journey wet through due to numerous river-crossings and unpredictable weather, there is something enviable about the unique way in which they are able to interact with Iceland’s beautiful, alien landscape. Their first destination is Þingvellir, site of the world’s oldest parliament (assembled in 930 AD), and where the movement of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates has created a massive rift valley that literally splits the landscape in half. ‘A splendid piece of savage scenery’, remarks van Gruisen, ‘such as can only be seen in Iceland’.
From Þingvellir the party travels past the dramatic Skógafoss waterfall, en route to the hot springs of Haukadalur.
Van Gruisen’s visit to the geothermal valley sounds particularly appealing: whilst nowadays the area is constantly filled with coach parties and the geysers are roped off from tourists, van Gruisen’s party is able to set up camp there, bathe in the hot springs, and even play a rubber of whist while their kettle gently boils in the bubbling waters.
On his return to Reykjavik, van Gruisen settles up with the tour guide, then explains to his readers:
“While on the subject of expenses, I may as well give you the grand total of the trip, which cost me just £36, including my share of miscellaneous purchases, hotel bill at Reykjavik, and passage money.”
In modern times, Iceland has held a reputation for being a notoriously expensive holiday destination. However, all this changed when the 2008 Icelandic bank crash caused the value of the island’s currency, the Icelandic Króna, to plummet. It may still cost a little more than £36, but Iceland is now surprisingly affordable, and the country’s economic recovery has been greatly assisted by its burgeoning tourist industry. In the preface to A Holiday in Iceland, van Gruisen tempers his praise of the island with a warning that visitors must be prepared, to some extent, to ‘rough it’. While I couldn’t agree more with van Gruisen’s recommendation to visit Iceland, I am very happy to say that it now has no shortage of modern conveniences!
Reading Room Administrator