The morning of August 5 found us docked at Reykjavik (RAY-kya-vick), the capital and largest city in Iceland. It is the northernmost capital of a sovereign nation in the world & its population of about 120,000 is more than a third that of the entire country. Although it was officially founded as a city in 1786 it is thought to be the site of the first Icelandic Norse settlement in 870. When we opened our curtains in the morning it was well after sunrise but it still looked pretty spectacular.
We were in town for an overnight stay, so for the first day we booked a non-Holland America tour of the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is the classic tour in this area, visiting some of the most popular sights in Iceland in one long day. While waiting for our bus we saw some minks on the rocks near our harbor. It turns out that minks are one of the few types of wild animals in Iceland, most if not all of which were introduced by man. As we drove the rather long way to our first stop our driver/guide pointed out the lava fields. Although they are thousands of years old, some of these lava fields have little more than moss growing on them still, while others are lush with vegetation. He explained that this depends on the depth of the lava; if it is too deep plants can’t reach the nutrients in the ground under them so substantial growth never begins. Our first stop turned out to be a bathroom stop, with a gift shop also on the premises. American travelers must have quite a reputation since a restroom is often the first stop on a tour (wasting precious time in our opinion). This is the first of several pictures of gift shops in this episode, responding to a request we received just before we reached Reykjavik. So I hope you enjoy that, Cecile!
Our first real visit was to Vatnsleysufoss (also called Faxi Falls), a wide waterfall with a fish ladder next to it to enable salmon to swim upriver to spawn. As has been noted before, Iceland is full of impressive waterfalls.
You see a lot of fields in Iceland with large stubby cylinders of hay wrapped in plastic (I think) that will presumably feed animals in winter. But our guide helpfully explained to us that these are really giant marshmallows left out for trolls in the hope that they will eat these instead of local children. They come in mint and licorice flavors as well as plain white. He says they have been quite successful in that few children are eaten by trolls any more.
Our next stop was Haukadalur, a geothermal area of geysers & steam vents. In fact the word “geyser” coms from one of the features here, a now-dormant geyser named “Geysir” that used to be the main attraction here because of its frequent eruptions. Near it is a geyser called Strokkur that still erupts pretty dramatically every 5 or 10 minutes. You can see the crowds standing around it waiting to take pictures of the next eruption.
Since everyone knows that heat is what makes steam you would think that people would know better than to stick their hands in it. But of course you would be wrong; they do it all the time, despite a sign warning against it in four languages.
In addition to the main geysers there are small bubbling pools (one called Litli-Geysir) and steam vents. There are also pools filled with hot water from below, some of which display unusual colors. We learned at Yellowstone that at least some of those colors are caused by bacteria living in the hot water.
One of the more unusual features is called Blesi. It comprises two pools. The hot water bubbles up into one that hardly looks like it has water in it at all, and then it runs over the edge into another pool with a very blue cast . If you look closely into the second pool you can see the cavern at the bottom. The second pool is bright blue from silica in the water that reacts with the air as it runs from one pool to the other. And because there is no independent source of hot water in the second pool it is much cooler than all the other pools here. Its also very pretty. All of the pictures here are of the second, runoff, pool because it was the only one that looked really interesting.
This was a lunch stop, for those who wanted to buy lunch (everything in Iceland is really expensive; one passenger told us he bought a bowl of take-out soup here that cost more than $10), so it was a lengthy stop. Among other things, we looked through the large gift shop. In Iceland there are three primary souvenirs: Puffins, Vikings and trolls. Sometimes they are combined, for the perfect souvenir! I really shouldn’t be so snarky since gift shops are the only places we saw any puffins on this voyage.
Our next visit was to yet another beautiful waterfalls called Gullfoss (golden falls). It is quite large & falls down two levels. On sunny days it generates a rainbow, but our day was not sunny.
Gullfoss may have gotten its name from a golden hue that sometimes appears in the evening. But a better story is that a local farmer with a lot of gold could not bear someone else possessing it after he died, so he threw it into the waterfall. So far no one has swum under the falls to find it. Early in the 20th Century an Englishman tried to buy the waterfalls to generate electricity. The daughter of the owner of the land, named Sigriður Tómasdóttir, fought against it for years in court and by threatening to throw herself over the falls if construction began. She lost her court battle, but the purchaser ultimately failed to pay and so the falls was saved. It is now owned by the government and is a nature preserve. By the falls is a plaque to Sigriður Tómasdóttir, who is considered Iceland’s first environmentalist.The trail to the edge of the waterfall is also named for her.
We walked up to the top of the canyon ridge. From there you could see the glacier in the mountains miles away.
This is a good spot to look at today’s flowers, since we saw a lot of these near Gullfoss. Also in this area were several small rock piles presumably built by visitors. You see rock piles like this a lot in Iceland, presumably set up as way markers most of the time.
On our way to the last major site on the Golden Circle we stopped to meet some Icelandic horses who were anxious, as always, to meet people from a bus who might give them food. They were not disappointed.
We continued on to Þingvellir (the first letter is pronounced like “th” in English), an Icelandic national park, a UNESCO world heritage site & a place of great historical and geological importance.
Historically, this is the spot where the Icelandic Althing (general assembly) met from 930 until 1799. It is considered the oldest parliamentary body in the world, and has met since 1844 in Reykjavik. The original Althing would meet for a couple of weeks every year & everyone was invited. It served legislative and judicial purposes. Before laws were written down an official called the Lawspeaker would recite all of the laws from memory (over the course of three Althings) as well as the procedural rules of the gathering. He sat on a rock called the Law Rock & everyone gathered around to listen. The location of the Law Rock is not currently known for sure, but there is a flagpole where it is thought to have been.
Geographically, the long cliff behind the Althing location is the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate. The North American and European plates are moving apart here, at a rate of about 1 mm per year, and there is a wide rift valley that represents the “no man’s land” between the plates. The floor of the rift was formed by volcanic action & it is relatively thin & is sinking, also at about 1 mm per year. The western edge of the European plate can be seen from the top of the cliff at Thingvellir lying across Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
As we drove along this lake on our way to Thingvellir I heard the guide say that it is very popular to piss in this lake. I wondered why that would be so popular, but then we got to the visitor’s center and discovered that it cost $2.00 to use a restroom! It turned out that the guide had actually said it is popular to fish in the lake. That’s very different; never mind.
There are many smaller fissures in the floor of the rift. One of them, called Nikulásargjá or Peningagjá was bridged in 1907 for a visit by the king of Denmark. On our arrival at Thingvellir we parked next to a fissure with a bridge; I don’t know whether it is the same one but it was quite beautiful. We thought at first that this fissure was the dividing point between the tectonic plates, but of course it wasn’t.
There is a path leading up to the top through a fissure in the cliff. Normally we would have taken that route, but we had been ill & when we first got out of the bus there was a cloudburst. We hadn’t brought our umbrellas and although the rain stopped there was no guarantee it would not suddenly begin again when we were halfway there. So we decided to forego the walk & went to the top in the bus. We did see people standing at the top of the cliff, though, and we could see in the distance a waterfall called Öxarárfoss dropping over the top of the cliff.
From the visitor’s center on top there was quite a view, some of which you have seen above.
We drove back to Reykjavik but since this was an overnight stay there was no all aboard deadline, so our guide took us on a short tour through the city. We stopped at two places. The first is a building on top of a hill called Perlan. The base consists of five massive tanks holding hot water pumped in from geothermal stations to heat the city. The tanks have been there for a long time, but in 1991 they built a glass dome on top. Inside are shops, a revolving restaurant in the dome and the Saga Museum (which is being moved this year). In front is an interesting sculptural group of jazz musicians. Around the dome is an observation decks with striking 360 degree views. Fortunately, the rain was long gone & it was now a bright sunny evening.
Our last stop was at the Hallgrímskirkja, probably the best known landmark in Reykjavid. A Lutheran church built after World War II, it is the largest church in Iceland with a soaring bell tower that can be seen all over town. It is named after 17th Century poet Hallgrimur Petursson, who was married to Gudrídur Símonardottir who had been abducted from the Heimaey area during the 1627 North Africa raid mentioned in that episode and enslaved as a concubine. She was returned to Iceland a decade later after being ransomed by the king of Denmark. She was notorious among Icelanders because she was twice her husband’s age and was pregnant when they married. Inside is an impressive pipe organ and while Mary was there the organist filled the church with the theme from Star Wars. Awesome! I wish I had been in there to hear it. I will leave it at this for now since we would be visiting the church again the next day.
So after a day jam-packed with many of Iceland’s best known sights we returned to the ship to eat & rest up for a partial day in the city tomorrow.