During the Christmas season, there are two types of lights that illuminate the skies over Iceland; the Northern Lights and Fireworks. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to experience both this week.
The Christmas season in Iceland starts at the beginning of December and goes through January 6th. Unlike in America, when one can find disgarded Christmas trees out at the curb on December 26th, the week between Christmas and New Years is quite festive here, perhaps because New Years Eve is such a big, community celebration. After much research on how Icelanders celebrate the New Year, we set out to experiene what was surely one of the best New Years I've ever had.
While most Icelanders are home with their families eating dinner, the few restaurants in town that remained open that evening were packed with tourists forming lines to get in. Fortunately for us, Michelle B. had made a reservation for us about 4 months back. We wound up eating dinner at Sjarvilligrillid (Grilled Seafood), the number one ranked restaurant in the city. Though Michelle B. had warned everyone it would be on the pricey side, it was totally reasonable for the exquisite food they serve. I highly recommend this place to those visiting Iceland.
After dinner, we drove down to the waterside to find one of the many bonfires taking place in different communities throughout the city that night. After Icleanders eat their meals with their families, they all gather around the closest bonfires to their homes . We eventually found the one we were looking for, parked the car and slowly approached a giant fire like I've never seen, surrounded by hundreds of Icelanders. Some families had children in what appeared to be firesuits and protective goggles which was a little disconcerting. As we enjoyed the warmth of the fire and stood somewhat bewildered at the lack of chaos and or law enforcement (picture this taking place in New York), we were treated to the sponstaneous sounds of a group of Icelanders signing folk songs in a giant circle next to us. Wonderful tradtion!
After the bonfire, at almost 10:30 on the dot, most people retreated from the fire and went back to their homes to watch an annual comedy show that makes fun of the events of the year. Like we had read, and like people had told us, there was literally no one outside during this time. Not to miss out on the festivities, we all went back to the apartment after the bonfire and lived streamed part of the show. While we couldn't understand it, we did find ourselves laughing at times.
Like clockwork, within 3 minutes of the closing credits, we started to hear fireworks being shot off throughout the city. It is said that Icelanders shoot off 500 tons of fireworks for New Years. Excited, we quickly throughout our boots on and headed up to the main church where much of the activity takes place. Between 11:30 and 12: 15 the firework show was outrageous. And it wasn't a professional show, it was locals shooting off whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted. Michelle actually got nailed with one in her foot. It is hard to desribe how insane this was, but standing there below the church, surrounded by people singing and cheering, while tons of fireworks were being shot all around us was a New Years I will never forget.
After the fireworks, (and there really was no after because they continued throughout the night), we followed the swarms of people down the road leading from the church to all the bars and restaurants. We eventually found ourway into a crammed bar where we ran into a couple we had met while hiking the glacier earlier in the week. They had gotten engaged at the church that night and more importantly, had already scored a table so we managed to have a place to hang out. We lasted much longer than any of us thought possible, finally making our way back to the apartment about 3am. Mind you there were still loads of fireworks in the sky.
Two nights later, the skies looked like they finally might clear and so we booked a Northern Lights Tour. Though we have a rental car and originally thought we could drive out into the country side and find them ourselves, after driving in the middle of no-man's land during the day, we knew there was no way we could do it in the dark, nevertheless find the lights.
The bus for the tour took off from the downtown music venue Harpa around 9pm. We head out into the western part of the country in search of the lights. There is no guarantee that you will see them if you go on a tour, but if you don't they will take you again the next night for free. After driving for a little over an hour out of the city and away from the light polution, the bus pulled to the side of the road into a field of snow. There was literally nothing around us but the night sky and snow-covered mountains. And then we saw them. At first they were very faint, though if you have a good camera you could pick them up with that. Then suddenly, the green became more vibrant and they started to move and “dance” around the sky. We sat there, enjoying hot chocolate and twisted donuts, totally in awe of the sky.