Iceland is a mountainous island nation in the north Atlantic Ocean, located between Europe and North America. Though not part of the continental mainland, the country is considered European. The name of the country – Iceland – may not be that appropriate: although 10% of Iceland is covered by glaciers, it has a surprisingly mild climate and countless geothermal hot-spots. The native spelling (“Ísland”) is appropriate in English as well.
Iceland is a stunningly beautiful place if you enjoy strange and desolate landscapes. Because it is so close to the Arctic Circle, the amount of daylight varies dramatically by season. The sun sets briefly each night in June, but it doesn’t get fully dark before it comes back up again. In the March and September equinoxes, days and nights are of about equal length, as elsewhere in the world. If you go in December, it’s almost 20 hours of gloom and darkness.
Summer is definitely the best time to go, and even then the tourist traffic is still mild. The midnight sun is a beautiful sight and one definitely not to be missed. It is easy to lose track of time when the sun is still high in the sky at 11PM. Early or late winter, however, can be surprisingly good times to visit. In late January, daylight is from about 10AM to 5PM, prices are lower than in the high season, and the snow-blanketed landscape is eerily beautiful. (Some sites are, however, inaccessible in the winter).
Iceland was settled by Nordic and Celtic people in the 9th century AD – tradition says that the first permanent settler was Ingólfur Arnarson, a Norwegian Viking who made his home where Reykjavik now stands. The Icelanders still basically speak the language of the Vikings. Iceland has received a great number of immigrants over the last 10 years. In the last 5 years the population of immigrants has doubled.
Most of these people (from Eastern Europe and South East Asia) come for employment. Immigrants in Iceland are now well over 10% of the population, giving Iceland a larger proportion of immigration than Norway, Sweden etc. Icelanders also continue to use the old Norse patronymic system, which was formerly in use in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Faroe Islands well into the 19th century, until their governments decided that their people should adopt a surname.
Despite its name, Iceland has surprisingly mild winters for a country at that latitude owing to the warming effect of the Atlantic Gulf Stream, especially when put into comparison with the Russian one. Iceland enjoys a maritime temperate climate and the winters are often compared with those of New England (though the winds in winter can be bitter).
However the rapidly changing weather has given rise to the local saying: ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes!’ It’s the kind of place where it’s not unusual to get rained on and sunburnt at the same time – some Icelandic people also believe that if the winter is hard and long then the summer will be good and warm. The summers are usually cooler and more temperate than elsewhere at the same latitude (the effect of the ocean again) and 20 to 25°C is considered quite warm.