Thingvellir, Gulfoss, Geysir, and more
03/24/2013 - 03/24/2013 42 °F
The Golden Circle refers to three main sights not far from Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. We'd booked an excursion that took them in with Gateway to Iceland tour company. We picked them mainly because not only was their price competitive, they also used vans rather than huge tour buses. I'm not a fan of guided tours, and we figured the smaller the tour the less obtrusive it would be. As a bonus, when our driver Thorstein picked us up, he promised we'd make a number of surprise stops - in addition to the scheduled attractions.
Our first stop was the site of Iceland's first parliament - the Althing. Created by the Viking settlers in 930 A.D., it is a national park, now. Virtually all of Iceland would attend during the two weeks it was held each summer. The 12 chieftains were bound by law to attend, where they held court and judged disputes between their tribes. The Vikings chose a pretty significant spot for their meeting, too. Thingvellir just happens to be the spot where the North American and European geological plates are pulling apart at a rate of about an inch a year. This has created a large rift valley, with looming walls of stone on either side of you as you venture down to the historic sight. This is also the spot where Iceland voted to change their religion to Christianity in 1000 A.D. So, it there is a historic church located onsite, too.
Thingvellir, site of the Viking's first parliament
There really aren't a lot of physical remains of the Althing in the park. You can see some stone foundations of habitations the Vikings would build up over their two weeks camping out. Also, on site is the largest lake in all of Iceland. A dried, millennia old lava flow and surrounding snow-capped mountains complete the picture. This was the only part of the trip when I felt kind of rushed, being part of a tour. There was really no time to check out the visitor center. We pretty much just walked down into the rift, looked around a bit, snapped some photos, and then worked our way across the bridges to where our van was waiting. I'd read up a bit about the site, so didn't feel too mystified by it all. I just felt that, being on a guided tour, we'd get a little more...you know, guiding!
After we were all aboard the van, Thorstein sprang our first surprise stop on us. We pulled up not far from the lake shore and he took us down to taste the spring-fed, clear and pure water. It was also a nice chance to take some pictures of the lake itself, as there isn't an unobstructed view of it at Thingvellir. A short time later, we pulled off to the side of the road to pet a herd of Icelandic ponies. They were friendly and came right up to the barbed wire fence. Their shaggy appearance only made them look even stockier than they are. I made friends with one, and he let me scratch his ears and stroke the soft hair on his snout and nose.
The highlight if the trip (at least for me) was next. We were given about 45 minutes to explore Gulfoss waterfalls. Although the wind howled along the edges of the great river cleft, the sun shone brightly making the water sparkle and its plumes of spray bright. Caked ice lined the shores in weird formations and gleamed in the sunshine. The waterfall was a constant drumming, and phantoms of mists made of fine droplets rose up like ghosts seeking a way out of the surging river. I alternated taking photos with shooting video with my new camera. To toggle the video camera's controls, I had to take off one glove. Although it was supposed to be in the 40s today, the wind ripped that temperature to shreds and kept me bundled up with my hood tied tightly around my head. I took several dozen shots, though - I would guess. Gulfoss drops in a series of falls, and every different angle promised a new panorama and spectacle.
Next up was a visit to the site of the original Geysir, which all other geothermal steam vents are named after. The area has a number of pools that are still, bubbling, percolating or gushing. The old man, Geysir, is no longer regular in its eruptions. His place has been taken over by a smaller geysir named Strokkur, which shoots off every 5-10 minutes. It was fun to sit there and try to catch it on camera or video. Thorstein warned us to NOT try to film it with the wind blowing in your face. He didn't warn us to beware of sudden 90 degree wind shifts, though. On the final eruption, the wind veered suddenly and soaked me with warm water and spray. Luckily, I was layering to stay warm in Iceland and my top layer was a rain jacket. I also turned away in time to protect my camera lens. It was funny watching the crowd scatter as the giant column of steam and water descended on us. All we needed to complete the humor was a Monty Python-esque, "Run away!"
I dried off in the visitor center cafeteria. The cheap food Thorstein described was anything but...so, I satisfied myself with a large bag of peanuts and a water bottle I'd saved from the flight. We looked around the souvenir shop. To get ideas for later in the week, but didn't buy anything.
We closed out the day with another surprise stop, Skaholt. We had the church to ourselves and it was obviously a favorite stop of Thorstein. He sat us down and told us about the building and history of the church in great detail. He even gave us a probably too lengthy run-down of the sanctity (or not) of various bishops of Iceland for the last 1,000 years. It was a pretty, graceful church decorated in sparing, Lutheran style. The original Skaholt's ruins were just outside the church door. This version is less than a century old, but has attractive stained glass that the sun was doings its best to illuminate for us.
Interior of Skaholt Cathedral
Thorstein was an entertaining guide, and regaled us with story after story about Icelanders and their history. He even gave us insights into the national psyche, answering and soliciting numerous questions. I learned a lot about what makes Icelanders tick...at least in the opinions of one of them. As I am finishing typing this, we are on board another minivan heading out into the night in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. Hopefully, we succeed, and I'll be breathless with more wonders of Iceland to spin tales about...!