Iceland, known predominantly for its cold weather (which is not at all accurate), geysers (which is very accurate), the international artist Bjork, and of course, the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption of 2010 (mainly because it briefly disrupted European air travel). But did you know that the Icelandic people harbor an unrivaled love of fireworks that can cause them to literally go pyro-insane on New Year’s Eve? Er það? Já!*
Icelandic fireworks came to my attention several years ago when I received a New Year’s Day text message from a close friend of mine: “Last night was incredible! The sky was so full of fireworks I didn’t know where to look! I think I have found paradise. Happy New Year!”
What was ironic about his message was that my friend ordinarily couldn’t care less about fireworks. He just happened to be traveling in Iceland on New Year’s Eve and saw something incredible that he liked. To receive a message like this from him, though, made me want to investigate further just what he saw, and after watching several online videos of Iceland’s New Year’s Eve celebratory fireworks shows, I came to fully understand his text. Wow! Impressive! Video is one thing, however, seeing spectacular fireworks like this firsthand is something quite different. That is when I made a conscious, life-altering resolution–a bucket list kind of decision–to visit Iceland myself to see all of this live.
Fortunately, my girlfriend and I had just been talking about going on vacation together during the wintertime, and a New Year’s trip sounded great to her. I was exceptionally persuasive about Iceland, and gently cajoled her with promises of romantic dinners for two in cozy little Icelandic restaurants filled with local delicacies cooked just for the two of us (unfortunately, our only “delicacy” on this trip turned on to be Hákarl–an Icelandic dish made of fermented shark meat that reeks of ammonia and is an “acquired taste” which means only Icelanders like it after their taste buds have died). My final convincing argument (which also turned out to be a bust) was the promise of seeing the Northern Lights firsthand (which we never saw because it was cloudy almost every night we were there).
Failed promises aside, after a three-hour flight from England, my girlfriend and I were picked up on schedule at the airport just outside Reykjavik. After suffering through a host of sales pitches and other standard tourist nonsense, we finally mentioned our desire to see fireworks. According to our driver, the people in Iceland are THE craziest fireworks enthusiasts in the entire world, and we should prepare ourselves for some of the best fireworks we’ve ever seen. THAT’S what I wanted to hear! THAT is why I came here in the first place! And just the prospect of seeing great fireworks displays on New Year’s Eve kept me excited for days! (Remember: mostly cloudy days, full of fermented shark meat).
Meanwhile, I learned that fireworks in Iceland are called FLUGELDAR, and are generally sold by sports clubs or by the Icelandic Mountain Rescuers (ICESAR). In the evenings just prior to New Year’s Eve, consumer fireworks are sold directly from shipping containers turned into little shops placed in parking lots outside shopping malls. Some are also sold alongside the roadways as well. Almost every night, an hour before they close, many of these shops shoot some of their inventory into the sky to attract more customers. Watching them from my hotel window definitely whet my fireworks appetite as I watched intermit explosions light up portions of the Icelandic night.
Being a bona fide “Dutchie” I couldn’t allow New Year’s Eve to pass without setting off at least some fireworks myself. Procuring them, however, proved to be somewhat of a problem. Since I didn’t have a car in their country, I had to walk to find one of these roadway shops. Let me be clear about something at this point: they call it ICE land for a reason. And a winter walk in Iceland is every bit as cold as one might imagine. Despite the gelid walk, just seeing the fireworks in the makeshift shop warmed my soul. And what strange names they had for their cakes there: Egill, Grettir, Gunnar. The wrappers read like a chapter out of Lord of the Rings. Regardless, there were all kinds of fireworks behind the counter in all shapes and sizes. Unlike other customers perusing the shelves, it took me more than an hour to make the difficult choices of what to buy. I wound up buying a few oddly styled cakes and a large fountain. Now that my purchase was complete I had a new problem: how would I get all of this back to the hotel room? Luckily, the man who sold me my fireworks noticed my dilemma and offered me a ride back to the hotel when he closed.
December 31st finally arrived. In the Netherlands it is the day when fireworks aficionados begin shooting off firecracker madly at precisely 10 o’clock in the morning. Here in Iceland, though, nothing out of the ordinary happened. It was a quiet, somewhat sunny, cold day and that gave my girlfriend and I time to explore the city and its nearby surroundings a little more. Locals told us that the best view for the New Year’s fireworks display was up over the city by the water tower. We wanted to be in the middle the action, however, so we chose the square in front of the Hallgrimskirkja (Pilgrims church) instead. The Icelandic tradition is to watch comedy shows on television, and then come outside at 11:30 PM to start setting off fireworks.
Because the open space near the church where I wanted to set off our fireworks was way too far to walk carrying all of the different sized fireworks packages, I decided to set them off closer to our hotel instead. So, around 11:00 PM I placed everything I had purchased on the ground outside and began shooting our own private little show. First, I lit the fountain, followed by assorted small cakes, ending our show with “THE JOKER,” a 66-shot, 2-inch cake. Is it my imagination, or does the cold wintry air make fireworks appear even more beautiful? It was already turning out to be the perfect New Year’s Eve: I was in Iceland, I just set off some cool fireworks, I was with my girlfriend, and at last I was breathing in the sulfurous smell of burning cardboard and gunpowder.
After cleaning up the aftermath of our little show, we walked to the Pilgrim’s church to wait for the evening’s festivities to begin. Even though it was already getting late, not much was going on yet. Every now and then we did see tiny rockets lighting up the sky here and there, and also heard loud bangs in the distance as more and more people began gathering in the square. Then promptly at 11:30 PM the whole square became surprisingly crowded with locals and tourists. As if by magic, fireworks suddenly filled the streets everywhere, and within minutes you didn’t really know whether to look up or down or right or left—so many fireworks were going off at once! It was absolutely crazy to be in the middle of that fireworks Armageddon: rockets, colored peonies, whistles and crackling—all sorts of styles and sounds everywhere were exploding all around us! Best of all, since the church is on a hill overlooking much of the city, we had a great view of most of Reykjavik and could see the entire sky engulfed in color! Wow!
After about an hour of pyrotechnic bliss, as suddenly as it began, the city went relatively silent again. (Except for a few big spenders who never get enough and have the need to show off to their friends). As for me, I just needed to sit down and breathe normally again. I was totally drained. What an amazing spectacle we just had witnessed. Never before in my life had I ever experienced fireworks of that intensity. Obviously, coming to Iceland to see this spectacle had been a good decision.
Later that afternoon, I received an New Year’s text message from the same friend who originally told me about Iceland: “And? Was I right? You’re in Iceland aren’t you? Happy new year!”
It was March before I answered him: “Sorry for the late reply… It took me this much time to recover.” 🙂
* Er það? Icelandic for “No kidding?” or “Really? Já ! means Yes!”
Video by Jos Hulsing