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Iceland The Globe Travel Guide
© David Williams

Reykjavík: changing cultures in a frontier town


About forty per cent of Iceland`s population lives in Reykjavík and the city acts as the central lynchpin for the whole of the country`s economy. It is also the place to see the many changes that the country has undergone during the twentieth century. This is a glimpse into the nature of this fascinating capital and how the trappings of modern European and North American life have been adopted by its people.
This winter view of Reykjavík has the mountain of Esja in the background.
Many Icelanders buy large 4x4 vehicles then adapt them for driving through snow and across rivers. Or just to show off their new super-size tyres.

In many ways Reykjavík has the feel of a frontier town — and no wonder, as the world`s most northerly capital is right on the edge of inhabitable Europe. But instead of wild west cowboys riding in and tying up their horses outside a saloon, on Friday nights Icelanders park their massive four-wheel drive vehicles outside the Kringlan shopping mall, pick up the shopping then head towards the weekend retreat — fording a few rivers and crossing a desert or two en route.

As in a wild west town, Reykjavík`s roads can be dry and dusty (and are in better condition than the pavements), but with one of the world`s highest car ownerships, who bothers to walk anyway? (apart from tourists, that is). Half the Icelanders seem to be driving about in these huge 4x4 vehicles (many of them make Range Rovers look like Minis), wondering who next to annoy on the car phone — these people are mad about gadgets. The raised suspensions are designed for crossing rivers but their function in the city is more for looking down at humble pedestrians.

All around Reykjavík you see images of this "frontier" life; the buildings may not be architectural gems (concrete and corrugated iron abound) but inside they feature the very best in Nordic and North American interior designs. The modern Icelandic economy only really started to develop in the 1940s when British (and then US) troops took over the island in order to stop the Germans from doing the same thing. The occupation started an economic boom — airfields, roads and houses were built and the Icelanders rushed headlong into a spending spree. They haven`t stopped spending since then and today the smart clothes shops sit quite happily near stores selling fishermen`s gear or software for the latest in home computers.

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