Dream Destinations: The Parallel Worlds of Venice and Iceland

Throughout my life, I’ve had two great geographical obsessions: first Venice and then Iceland. No two places in Europe can be more different, you might say; going from one to the other seems like giving up the convoluted cavatinas of a Monteverdi opera for the brutal battle cry of a Viking warrior.

Venice is the very essence of urbanity, while Iceland is all about nature: even its capital city sits on the seashore facing the magnificent mount Esja looks like some kind of temporary fishing post that will be soon covered in snow and swept away by the wind. One is hot, serene, Latin, and Mediterranean; the other cold, unpredictable, Germanic, and Atlantic. In the terms of Nietzsche, Schiller, and Kant, Venice is Apollonian, sentimental and beautiful, while Iceland is Dionysian, naive, and sublime. One tells you that there is Order in the world, and Man is its master; the other, that Chaos reigns over everything, and human beings are but snowflakes melting on the hot lava of existence.

At first, I interpreted this change of heart of mine as a sign of old age. I must have grown, matured, and the raging romantic in me gave way to the rural recluse who could contemplate the sea and the open skies with as much admiration as the marble monuments of the city built on water. But then, as the date of my final departure from Iceland started to get near, once again I experienced that melancholy state of mind when all of a sudden every word becomes a goodbye and every move a gesture of farewell. As if walking through my own memories, once again I’ve found myself looking at Iceland as the visitor does, and I’ve had an epiphany.

I didn’t really come to question what I’ve previously thought about this transition from Latin to Germanic, Mediterranean to Atlantic and so on; but I also realized that I’ve been rowing in the same boat all along. For however different and distant these two places may be in the geographical and physical sense, they are both situated, in one way or the other, on the edge of reality. You go to these places to experience the very same feeling: the feeling of being out of real life, in a world of fiction, while still walking around in actual physical locations in your own body. »Be part of your own fairytale« is a touristic catch-phrase that can be equally used by Venetian or Icelandic promoters. And from this perspective, these two places have more in common than one would expect.

Venice has established itself as the par excellence place of longing and the ultimate tourist trap for a few centuries now, whereas Iceland’s status as the new dream destination is relatively new. Once, it was just the exclusive playground of millionaires, but the 2008 financial meltdown has devalued the Icelandic currency enough to make the country more or less affordable to a broader audience, and then the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010 put the little island on everyone’s mental map. After that, it only needed a massive marketing campaign from the Icelandic government to convince people that one hasn’t really lived until one saw the wonders of Iceland. Today, the general income generated by the tourism industry in Iceland even surpasses the one made from fishing, which used to be, for half a millennium, the country’s most important industry. There are already T-shirts on the market saying, »I don’t need therapy, I just need to go to Iceland«, and the infrastructural and demographic problems the small nation is facing these days in the wake of its self-induced tourist boom show an eerie resemblance with the ones Venice has been struggling with for at least half a century now.

Although the proportions are still quite different — for around 60.000 locals living in the historic center, Venice has seen approximately 20.000.000 tourists per year lately, while Iceland, with a population around 350.000, is expected to have 2.000.000 tourists coming in this year —, the lack of public toilets, the logistical issues posed by tourist buses, the impact of gigantic cruise ships, the dependence on (often illegal) immigrant workers to cater to the needs of the tourism industry, the replacement of local products with cheap, mass-produced Chinese souvenirs and the devastating effect on the real estate market when it comes to the eternal war between hotels, AirBnBs and locals trying to find affordable housing in the city center, are all problems that both places share, with Venice serving as a sort of apocalyptic foreshadow of what Iceland might expect in the coming decades if it continues down the road it has taken in the last decade.

It would be easy to just file all this in the »cultural gentrification« folder and recommend other, yet to be disneyfied territories for the seasoned traveler, like the Faroe Islands or some less popular ex-Venetian settlements on the Dalmatian coast. But the strange thing is that Iceland and Venice have no real alternatives on planet Earth, and, despite of all the consumerism and overhyping, their magic still works. But how? I believe that the curious persistence of their enchanting effect is due to the lucky coincidence of three very different factors, which I will call overnarration, narrative unity, and structural strangeness. Basically, it’s the overnarration that lures you to the place, and embalms everything with an aura of fictionality before and during your stay; the narrative unity will guarantee that your experience will remain coherent despite all the possible factors of disenchantment; but deep down, it really is the structural strangeness what makes these places so unique, multiplying the effects of the two previous factors.

In Venice with my father and brother. (Photo from the family archives.)
My father, mother and brother at a family visit to Iceland, at the lighthouse of Grindavík. (Photo by the author.)
Reproducing a classic tourist scene in Venice with my mother and brother: feeding the pigeons at St. Mark’s Square. (Photo from the family archives.)
My mother, brother and father at a family visit to Iceland, at the Grótta lighthouse near Reykjavík. (Photo by the author.)

Overnarration happens when narrative content — be it a piece of tourist propaganda, a personal memory or fantasy, or a story of fictional or historical nature — is applied onto a certain physical space in such a way that in the visitor’s mind, the invisible becomes more important than the visible, resulting in a quite different and often more powerful emotional response than what the empirical environment could vouch for in itself. It’s basically the cultural equivalent of today’s new »it« technology called augmented reality. It has two levels: one is universal, the other locative.

The universal overnarration of a place, be it Venice or Iceland, is independent of geographical location, because it works in the sphere of the collective imagination of the global community. It is the construction of a very selective and overwhelmingly positive myth around a place which is spread and promoted with the intention of luring as many visitors to the place as possible, while establishing and maintaining a mythical reputation of it even in the heads of those who do not and will not ever go there physically. This means that every visitor has a prefabricated idea and correspondingly, a set of ready-made dreams and desires connected to both Iceland and Venice long before they set foot on either islands, and the quest to fulfill these dreams and desires often proves to be more important for them than getting to know the real, previously unknown curiosities of the place.

One of the best examples of universal overnarration’s deceptive nature is how the main sights of these places are photographed for touristic marketing purposes. Whether it is the Bridge of Sighs or the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, the Doge Palace or the Geysir geothermal area, one thing is almost always missing from these pictures: the sheer mass of other tourists that one is likely to meet when actually visiting these sites in real life. In fact, if the image does feature any human presence, it is (depending on the target group) usually that of an individual, or a couple, or a family: something that offers itself for the spectator’s own identification, without acknowledging the other few hundred fellow travelers who’ll also be there at any given time, all desperately trying to reproduce the very same solitary portraits and inevitably blocking each other’s view during the process.

Locative overnarration, on the other hand, works on a much smaller scale, and is more connected to the actual time we’re spending at a dream destination. It’s the network of very specific stories associated with very specific sites which, when reaching a critical mass and density, can greatly contribute to the overall feeling of unreality and fictionality of a place in general. These can be the birthplace or the death site of a famous person; the scene of some important historical event; or the inspiration of a famous poem or the location of a fictional story — the important thing is that the sheer sight of the place is fundamentally transformed in the eyes of the spectator when given some narrative assistance, may it be a travel book, a tourist guide, or an information plaque placed there by the authorities. Of course this doesn’t mean that these sites cannot be appreciated solely on the base of their visual appearance: both Iceland and Venice can offer sights that are magnificent to behold without any background knowledge. But even if the traveler is only using them as eye-candy, the »legendary« status of these places adds a lot to their allure and magic, which is enhanced tenfold when complimented with the narrative content behind them.

The prevalence of locative overnarration in Venice does not need much explanation. In the city of canals, one cannot go anywhere without also walking in the footsteps of old-world celebrities such as Goethe, Thomas Mann, Lord Byron or Alfred de Musset, or their fictional offspring, like Gustav Aschenbach and Childe Harold. On any given corner, there is a historical anecdote for every passing pigeon, and every little piazza is likely to have been featured in a number of movies since the invention of the motion picture. It is due, first of all, to the historical and political importance of the Most Serene Republic of Venice and its role as a major hub of scientific, cultural and economic exchange between the 7th and 18th centuries, which also lay the foundations of the »Venetian myth«; and then, to the exponential effect of this very same myth, that seduced generations after generations of great artists to visit and leave their own narrative marks on a city already famous for its many stories.

Iceland, on the other hand, has been always on the periphery of the Western world geographically, politically, and culturally, and its status as a universally overnarrated dream destination is relatively new. However, in terms of locative overnarration, it’s always been as full of stories as its Venetian counterpart. This can be explained perhaps as a cultural strategy dating back to the first settlers of the island, who arrived to its shores in the second half of the 9th century and — quite exceptionally for a time this late in human history — found this vast territory with no indigenous population, and thus absolutely no cultural memory connected to its topography. So what they did during the first few centuries of their settlement, in order to make this place their home and also to make it suitable for mental orientation, was to basically map the whole place with their own stories of every kind: spanning from what we’d call today »historical narratives« through what is now considered to be »fictional literature« right down to what is today filed under the »fantastic« label. (The reason why I’m using this awkward phrasing here is that when we distinguish between historical testimonies, literary inventions and traditional fairy tales, we are in fact forcing our own concept of reality on more or less the same corpus of texts which did not really make these distinctions themselves at the time of their inception. When it comes to Icelandic medieval sources, the relation between the real and the unreal is a problematic debate which is as old as the sources themselves, and is very much alive even these days.) Today, locative overnarration occurs on four different levels in Iceland: folkloric, historic, literary and more lately, also cinematic.

Houses for the »hidden people« or elves in Skógar, South Iceland. (Photo by the author.)
Screenshot from the webpage sagnagrunnur.com where exact locations of Icelandic fairy tales and legends can be seen on a map. The dots mark the legendary places, the numbers tell the number of stories connected to the areas.
Contemporary rock sculpture of a famous glacier troll of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, Bárður Snæfellsás. (Photo by the author.)
Screenshot from the webpage sagamap.hi.is where exact locations of events recounted in the Sagas of the Icelanders can be seen on the map. The dots mark sites that are connected to the story of the glacier troll Bárður Snæfellsás. On the website, there are more than 35 other sagas mapped like this.

The special importance of folkloric overnarration in Iceland comes from the fact that contrary to a lot of folkloric traditions in the West, Icelandic narratives of trolls, elves, ghosts, magicians and other supernatural beings and occurrences contain a surprising amount of factual detail. Your typical Icelandic fairy tale will not begin with the usual universalities like »there was a man who once went into the woods…« Instead of that, the proper retelling of an Icelandic fairy tale would go something like this today: »This story is about the famous magician-priest called Sæmundur fróði Sigfússon. He was born in the year 1056 and died on the 22nd of May in 1133. His parish was at a rural church farm called Oddi in a Rangárvellir district. If you are taking the Road 1 on your way to the famous waterfalls of the South shore of Iceland, you only need to take a little detour between Hella and Hvolsvöllur, taking a left turn on Road 266, to get there.« And then, after all these very down-to-earth details, stories of serious ghostbusting, quests for magical grimoires, and deals with the devil will ensue.

In the same fashion, stories of trolls, elves and other legendary creatures are nearly always directly connected to specific rock formations, mounds, mountains or areas, and what is even more important, these stories are still very much alive in the memory of Icelanders. Wherever you go on the island, your local guide will surely tell you all about them; and even if you are not particularly interested in folklore, you surely must have heard at least one piece of tourism propaganda claiming that the overwhelming majority of Icelanders still »believe in elves« (whatever that might mean), and you’ve probably read at least one news story before your departure about a road construction that was halted because one of the rocks was claimed to be inhabited by the so called »hidden people.« This latter kind of universal overnarration will prepare you for what you’ll experience once you set foot on the island where, with the right kind of narrative assistance, you’ll be able to see even the most deserted and empty landscapes swarming with supernatural creatures and adventures.

The most of the historic and literary overnarration in Iceland is connected to the incredible medieval corpus of texts known as The Sagas of the Icelanders or Íslendingasögur. They tell the stories of the early Icelanders from the settlement of the island up until the end of the country’s independence between the 8th and the 14th centuries, all as meticulously located as the fairy tales we discussed above, with a surprising mastery of narration, structure, psychological depth, humor, and basically everything that we associate today with the modern novel. These are considered to be Iceland’s most valuable contribution to European cultural wealth and memory, and rightly so; and because the language of the Icelanders has not changed significantly in the last millennium, even the originals are still accessible and present in contemporary Icelandic culture up to this day (and they are, of course, also widely translated). In fact, when in 1861 Sir George Webbe Dasent published his translation of The Saga of Njáll in England, followed by some other translations from the same corpus, their great popularity amongst the Victorian readers triggered the first wave of tourists to Iceland who primarily came to experience not just the landscapes, but the intricate interplay between the visible and the invisible when visiting the locations of the events recounted in these stories.

These so-called »saga pilgrims« were the precursors of today’s cinefiles who instead of searching for the abandoned farmsteads of saga heroes, wish to experience the breathtaking landscapes and sights used in a myriad of movies and TV series made in the last decade mainly in the science fiction and fantasy genres, like the mighty Dettifoss waterfall featured in the iconic opening sequence of Prometheus, the glacial mountains seen in Interstellar, the green hills and pastures of the post-human world of Oblivion, or the fairy tale settings used in several episodes of Game of Thrones. When compared to Venice, in these cases of locative overnarration, the Icelandic landscape is in fact raising the stakes in terms of unreality: after all, Venice can only offer a voyage in time as it provides an immersive experience into the golden age of the Serenissima Republic between the 13th and the 18th centuries. But while Iceland can also be an ideal destination for those wishing to travel back to the Viking age, it also functions as a gateway to a veritable multiverse of other fictional realities, ranging from distant planets and galaxies to the epic fantasy world of Westeros.

This versatility can be explained by a fundamental difference between the visual repertoire of the two places, because in contrast to the historically preserved architecture of Venice, the main sights of Iceland are all natural, and distinguish themselves from other touristically compelling landscapes with the complete lack of any signs of human inhabitation that could link them to a specific period of time or civilization. They are, for the most part, a clean slate for the imagination: and because they are so different from any other kind of landscape one is likely to observe on planet Earth, they can be ideal starting points for all kinds of otherworldly fantasies.

The Dettifoss waterfall in North Iceland, where the opening scene of the film Prometheus was made. (Photo by the author.)
The Þingvellir National Park in Iceland, site of many scenes in Game of Thrones. (Photo by the author.)
The Sólheimajökull glacier in South Iceland. Glacial sites like this were used frequently in the film Interstellar and in scenes beyond the Wall in Game of Thrones. (Photo by the author.)
Posthuman landscape near Seljavallalaug in South Iceland. Notice that despite of the broad perspective, no sign of human presence can be seen. Sites like this were frequently used in the postapocalyptic science fiction movie Oblivion. (Photo by the author.)

What is the same, however, is that both the specific historicity of Venice and the unspecific timelessness of the Icelandic landscapes is something that can be experienced in an exceptionally immersive and coherent way. After all, both are islands, which guarantees right from the start that they can be a world of their own. The historical memory of both places is pretty much focused on one specific period: their more or less democratic (or at least not classically feudal) »golden age« in the past when they were part of a political system of considerable maritime power; and even though the size of their territory is very different, their population is roughly comparable, both harboring a community of only a few hundred thousand people, which means that their societies are also much more closed and interconnected on the personal level than most mass societies we are used to be living in.

And what is even more important, even though neither of them depends solely on their touristic income — the broader Municipality of Venice is still an important player in the chemical and boat building industry and Iceland still makes an awful lot of money from fishing, while, quite ironically, the biggest international aluminium company, Alcoa has important facilities in both places —, these industrial areas are quite carefully kept out of the sight of visitors, making sure that living the Icelandic or Venetian myth will not be disrupted by anything that might break the illusion the traveler is looking for.

So because there seems to be no end, no backstage area of these mythical environments, when everything comes together nicely, they don’t seem to be stage designs at all, giving the enchanted traveler the impression that he or she has actually made it out of his or her own reality. The narrative unity of these places makes it possible to see them not as parts of everyday life but as scenes of a fictional universe, where the aesthetic mode of perception, usually reserved for works of art, overrides the practical, empirical way of looking at the world.

But of course, planet Earth is full of other legendary places filled with stories where a specific period of historical time (or the lack thereof) can be experienced in an unusually immersive and coherent way. So what makes Iceland and Venice so special among them? It’s the fact that at these two places, the very fabric of everyday reality is structured in a strangely unfamiliar way as compared to any other place where global tourism might take the traveler. This structural strangeness, which basically constitutes the secret core of the magic of both Venice and Iceland, works on three very different levels: it has a visual level, a sensory level, and one that is connected to the logistical structuring of space.

When we grow up and learn to navigate in the world, we acquire a visual vocabulary of the things around us that consists of the most common forms of different types of objects and phenomenons. We all have a general idea of what a street, a main road, a traffic jam, an ambulance, a construction site, a police force, a horse, a mountain, a river, a beach, or a public transportation system looks like; but, when we are visiting Venice and Iceland, a significant amount of these basic concepts are being questioned and need to be completely restructured in order to be of any use for us.

In the exclusively urban setting of Venice, this, of course, comes from the fact that we’re talking about a city built on water, which means that every piece of urban infrastructure needs to be converted into its aquatic counterpart in order to make sense here. Police, ambulance, firetrucks, and taxis all become boats, and buses become the famous vaporetti; streets and main roads are replaced by canals, and a parking lot is more of an anchor site there. It is like that childhood game when we speak our normal language, but pronounce every word backwards: we know what we say, yet we have to do some mental conversion before saying anything out loud, and the sound’s delicious unfamiliarity makes the game all the more enchanting. In the same fashion, in Iceland, it’s the island’s geological age and unusual flora and fauna that makes the difference: since from a geological point of view, Iceland is a newborn baby compared to the old Continent, every geographical feature is quite different than what one is normally used to. Mountains appear to be giant heaps of sand shoveled around massive pieces of uneroded rocks fresh from their volcanic furnace; rivers are in fact vast networks of intertwining rivulets, sometimes stretching over a kilometer wide and constantly changing directions; beaches are covered in black sand and the so called »forests« often don’t grow higher than your chest, while some of the green pastures you’d expect to be covered in grass prove to be massive lava fields with a finger-thick layer of soft, green moth on top of them.

But the strange unfamiliarity of these places doesn’t end on the visual level: in fact, all of our senses get a little confused at these places, strengthening our feeling of unreality on a much more physical and unconscious level than the visual one. In Venice, it is the constant contact with the instability of water that gives one a certain dizziness after having spent some time going around the city; the incessant ups and downs of bridges and the claustrophobia of the narrow passageways; the ever-present play of light reflected from the canals and the salty smell of the sea even at the most urban settings; and the lack of the usual sounds of automotive traffic with the change of pace and navigation in a city where walking is the only option of getting by without a water vessel. In Iceland, on the other hand, the very same effect is more of a meteorological nature, where our usual concepts of summer and winter or day and night don’t apply anymore. In times of the year where nearly everyone in Europe goes around in bathing suits, you might need a winter coat in Iceland; but you can also experience bright sunlight in the middle of the night and pitch-black darkness in the early afternoon. Rainbows, which are quite exceptional at other parts of Europe, are almost a daily occurrence there, but even the heaviest rainstorms don’t come with the usual rumble of lightnings. Sometimes the naked earth is heated up to body temperature or warmer by the volcanic activities underneath, but in the next valley, you might be able to climb up to a glacier covered in eternal snow.

Meanders of an unregulated »river« at a geothermal area near Hveragerði in South Iceland. (Photo by the author.)
The boiling earth at a geothermal area near Hveragerði in South Iceland. (Photo by the author.)
The black beach of Reynisfjara with volcanic rock formations in the sea, which are said to be trolls who turned into rock in the sunlight. (Photo by the author.)
Steaming hot pools at the geothermal area of Seltún on the Reykjanes peninsula. (Photo by the author.)

The last defining factor of structural strangeness is perhaps the most elusive one for the present day traveler. It comes from the fundamental difference between our current, car-obsessed, terrafirmal civilization where nearly all our primary logistical routes are on land, and the maritime civilizations that Venice and Iceland were initially. Today, unless if we’re in the business of freight shipping or planning pleasure cruises, we usually look at water-covered areas on the map as empty, useless spaces limiting our movement. For a maritime civilization however, where the use of boats is the primary option, these areas become regions of unlimited possibilities of navigation.

To see what a world of difference it makes if we shift from one perspective to the other, one only has to look at the traffic structure of the city of Venice. Nowadays, one of the biggest touristic clichés of the place is getting lost in the intricate network of narrow passageways, alleys and bridges criss-crossing the pedestrian areas of the city. Their structure and system truly looks like something that only a madman or a sadist could have designed to completely confuse anyone trying to orient him- or herself in their maze. But that is because with the exception of some wide main streets, these alleys and passages were not at all intended for the circulation of Venetian citizens. In fact, at the times when the current structure of the city came to be, there were only three things to be found in these places: beggars, whores, and trash. A respectable Venetian citizen went by his business from palazzo to palazzo by gondola, using the perfectly logical and functional system of canals, and he almost never set foot on the paved little streets that are today swarming with disorientated tourists trying to find their way, with as much difficulty as if they were attempting to navigate through the city of New York by only using its extensive sewer system under the ground.

And this way of turning our usual way of thinking inside out comes quite handy when we’re trying to understand the wider geopolitical structure and importance of the Venetian Empire as well. Because if we measure its greatness solely by the landmass they had possessed at the height of their power, the result is not very impressive: apart from the area of a minor mainland principality in the vicinity of the Venetian islands, it is just a scattered collection of port cities here and there, sometimes with immense distances between them. But when we are looking at the sheer expanse of maritime territory they had under their control, it becomes obvious that their power can only be compared to the biggest empires of European history — or the Viking sphere of influence during its heyday on the other side of the Continent, of which Iceland was an important part during its golden age.

Also, when it comes to understanding the history of Iceland or the current distribution of human settlements around the country, the maritime perspective proves to be similarly helpful as in the case of Venice. From this point of view, it seems perfectly natural that the towns of villages are scattered around the shore, sometimes deeply nestled in fjords that often become completely unaccessible by land during the winter, and also for example the reason why the small island of Flatey in the middle of the Breiðafjörður archipelago could once be a major hub of commerce, politics and culture (even hosting the island’s first library), whereas today it is little more than a picturesque holiday site with a handful of houses only inhabited during the summer. And it also helps a lot when trying to make sense of Iceland’s so called »Cod Wars« between 1952 and 1976, a series of militarized conflicts with the United Kingdom (at a time when both states were members of NATO) about the unilateral expansion of Iceland’s exclusive fishery zone, which from the point of view of these two maritime nations, proved to be almost as serious a question as a »real« territorial dispute would have been on land.

Of course, the transition from a maritime society to a terrafirmal one never completely happened neither in Iceland or Venice; but the significance of maritime logistics and its influence on the structures of society has greatly declined in both places in the last centuries. There are two dates however, that could symbolically mark the end of the maritime era in these insular societies: the 1846 opening of the Venice Railway Bridge (or alternatively, the opening of the automobile bridge now known as Ponte della Libertà, in 1933) that finally made it possible to reach the inner city with a terrafirmal mode of locomotion, and the 1974 completion of the famous Ring Road of Iceland, which goes all around the shores of the island and makes all Icelandic towns and farms accessible by car from any other part of the country.

The sphere of influence of the Venetian Republic at the height of its power. The deep red areas are Venetian lands, lighter reds are later acquisitions during the 15th century, pink ones are temporary acquisitions. The yellow area marks the extent of maritime territory controlled by Venice at the beginning of the 16th century, orange lines mark frequent routes of Venetian boats. (Map from Wikipedia.)
Map of the Viking expansion from the 8th to the 11th century. (Map from Wikipedia.)
The successive expansions of Iceland’s Exclusive Fishery Zone during the »Cod Wars« with Great Britain between 1952 and 1976. (Map from Wikipedia.)

As you can see, one or two of these elements can be found at a number of other destinations around the world, but the coincidence of all three at the same time is quite rare. Rome and Paris are also universally overnarrated and are swarming with stories both fictional and historical; but they are also highly functional contemporary metropolises with a myriad of temporal layers in their architecture, from medieval and baroque and art nouveau to high-end futuristic. The well preserved cities of Bruges or Mantova offer an equally immersive historical narrative unity, but they don’t challenge our visual or sensory vocabulary with their environments. The volcanic island of Lanzarote can offer equally otherworldly landscapes as Iceland, but it lacks the narrative overload of Iceland’s immense folkloric, historic and literary tradition. The meteorological extremes or the initially maritime structure of human habitats in Norway are pretty similar to those of Iceland, but as Norway is very much part of Continental Europe and a country too diverse and well-connected to offer the same kind of narrative unity as Iceland. Amsterdam with its urban canal system shares a lot of elements of aquatic infrastructure with Venice, but it’s neither an island, nor a historically or economically coherent environment.

But when universal and locative overnarration, narrative unity and structural strangeness all come together in the right way, as is the case with Venice and Iceland, pure magic happens — and it just won’t go away, which can be both a blessing and a curse to these places. Since most of these features come either from structural conditions or historical heritage, they can’t be easily spoiled by contemporary developments, because even the most reckless touristic exploitation won’t change the weather, the fundamental construction of human habitats, or the past. If we imagine a Venice, or even an Iceland where the only more or less long-term inhabitants are low-wage foreign workers cleaning hotel rooms, guiding and driving tourist groups and making coffee for the exhausted travelers, with no new cultural, scientific or economic output that is not connected to the tourism industry, most of these elements would still be in place and wouldn’t reduce significantly the touristic allure of these places. The worse that can happen — and that is actually a quite frightening perspective — is that these places will continue to align themselves more and more to the universally overnarrated, mythical versions of themselves, offering less and less of the unexpected, but delivering more and more successfully the ready-made dreams and desires with which the tourists arrive to their shores, eventually sucking out every last piece of reality from the premises.

But how does one avoid this? While the causes of structural strangeness are not easily changed, the natures of overnarration and narrative unity can be and had been altered in the past. In order to do this, one needs to change and diversify the conversation about these places, make them famous for more than one thing only; and with a partial sacrifice of their absolute narrative unity, be not afraid to show visitors that these places are more complex and multilayered than what their initial myth suggests.

The biggest geothermal plant in Iceland in Hellisheiði. (Photo by the author.)
A concert shot from the Iceland Airwaves music festival in 2014. (Photo by the author.)
The biggest geothermal plant in Iceland in Hellisheiði. (Photo by the author.)
Press armband of the Iceland Airwaves music festival of 2014. Note the prominent logo of IcelandAir, the festival’s biggest sponsor. (Photo by the author.)
A map of Iceland with plans of the energetic exploitation of the Icelandic Highlands. Yellow squares mark possible sites for power plants proposed by energy companies, while the gray stripes mark the routes where high-voltage cables are planned to connect these facilities. (Map taken from the site halendid.is, a project dedicated to protect the Highlands from further constructions by making it Europe’s biggest national park.)

In his incendiary pamphlet entitled Against Past-Loving Venice (Contre Venezia Passatista, 1910), the futurist Italian poet Marinetti (1876-1944) proposed a radical solution to this at the beginning of the 20th century. In this manifesto, he envisioned a new, highly industrialized and militarized city in place of the living museum that Venice has become, a city that could once again dominate the Adriatic both in terms of economy and warfare, just like in its heyday. And however insane this plan might sound today, a decade later this idea was taken up by the Fascist government of Mussolini and partly implemented by the nearly-omnipotent oligarch Giuseppe Volpi who served as his finance minister between 1925 and 1928 and then as president of Italy’s biggest industrial confederation between 1934 and 1943. Part of this project was the 1933 opening of the automobile bridge named at the time Ponte Littorio (now Ponte della Libertà), connecting the city to more terrafirmal modes of locomotion, and the establishment of the Marghera industrial zone just outside the historic center of old Venice, but also the foundation of the Venice Biennale and the Venice Film Festival, both initiated to lengthen the tourist season that was initially restricted to the summer months of the year. And while these two art festivals proved to have some beneficial effects on the city (it’s always nice to have visitors at a dream destination who don’t exclusively come for the usual touristic purposes, and to welcome new, contemporary cultural impulses which are not the mechanical reiterations of the place’s past cultural glory), the environmental effects of the Marghera industrial zone have been devastating. Air and water pollution have catastrophically perturbed the fragile ecological balance of the Venice canals, and also greatly contributed to the erosion of the historical monuments of Venetian architecture, while generally disrupting the greater Venetian landscape with their factory buildings and sky-high plumes of smoke, very much visible from the historic center too.

And when it comes to industrial fantasies, they have been haunting Iceland as well from the second half of the 19th century. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, the first English travelers in Iceland already noticed the huge potential of the country’s mighty rivers and waterfalls for the production of hydroelectric power, and almost succeeded in converting one of present day Iceland’s biggest tourist attractions, the great Gullfoss waterfall into a power plant with the support of some of Iceland’s richest and most powerful people. And although that particular waterfall was eventually saved, the harnessing of Iceland’s hydroelectric and geothermal energies nevertheless became one of the major industrial projects of the country apart from fishing. Today, the amount of cheap electricity produced by the current power plants of Iceland exceeds the domestic needs of the country multiple times, and apart from the establishment and planned expansion of giant aluminum smelters all around the country, there is even a plan to make an underwater cable between the island and Great Britain to be able to sell it overseas. But the dreams of the country’s most devoted industrialists don’t stop here: at the moment, one of the biggest debates in Icelandic domestic policy revolve around the protection or exploitation of the Icelandic Highlands, one of the last untouched wildernesses of Europe, which could be filled with yet another system of new power plants and high-voltage cables if the country’s oligarchs have their way. And to continue with the parallels with Venice, even the founding of high-profile art festivals to raise touristic income during the low seasons has its equivalent in Iceland, with the establishment of the Iceland Airwaves music festival in 1999 for November and the Reykjavík edition of the Sónar International Festival of Advanced Music and Congress of Technology and Creativity in 2013, which is traditionally held in February. (Both festivals are mainly sponsored by Iceland’s biggest air travel and hotel company, IcelandAir.)

But while international art festivals and heavy industries do counter a bit the overwhelming monoculturalism of these places, they don’t really do much for the preservation of the local culture and population. After all, festivals are just another form of tourism, while the heavy industries, apart from their devastating effects on the environment — also posing a threat to these places’ most important source of income, their aesthetic potential — create less and less jobs because of automation, and even those jobs that they do create are either a handful of high-profile technical positions or really low-payed manual jobs that are usually taken by foreign immigrants from other, less fortunate parts of the world. However, putting more emphasis on the so called »soft industries« might be a valid solution. Investing into the creative, scientific and service industries does not need too much intervention into the natural or architectural environments of these dream destinations, while providing not seasonal, but long-term work opportunities both to high-skilled locals and the foreign immigrants who wish to settle there, not to mention the fact that the international reputation coming from successes in these fields can actively diversify the universal overnarration of these places, helping them to get out of the box they so carefully constructed around themselves at the advent of their touristic eras.

Initiatives in these fields have taken place at both Venice and Iceland, with the expansion of their university programs and the encouragement of tech startups and so on. Nonetheless, the fate of Venice seems to be sealed already, while Iceland is heading towards the very same direction at an alarming speed at the moment. This is a very complex problem to solve since although the final fate of these places should be in hands of the locals, in terms of sheer numbers they actually constitute a minority compared to the millions of tourists coming to visit their homes every year. But the cultural and environmental responsibility of saving these places from utter disneyfication is the responsibility of all of us, since the immense value of their heritage expands way beyond their administrative borders. In this conflicting situation, what the seasoned traveler can do in order to feel a bit less than just another cogwheel in the tourism machinery is to educate him- or herself on the wider background of these places, trying not to fall for the selective myths of global propaganda. Because when one looks closer behind the scenes, these places actually harbor more magic and curiosities than what any travel catalog would care to mention.