It’s astounding to think that while the rest of the Europe was still feudalistic, the chief representatives of the settlers in Iceland gathered in 930 AD to form the world’s first parliament, the Althing. Thingvellir (parliament plains) as the meeting place came to be known, was the location where leaders were elected, disputes were resolved and justice was carried out for the next 300 years.
The location they chose had plentiful water, there were relatively good forests for fuel and the weather was mild; a natural amphitheatre formed along the Mid-Atlantic ridge. It is here that the Eurasian and Atlantic tectonic plates are gradually pulling apart on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean; the Mid-Atlantic ridge is part of the longest mountain range in the world.
The Golden Circle is the name given to a route through this region and encompasses many of Iceland’s most famous sights, including Thingvellir. The route can be easily done in a day with a rental car or as part of a guided tour. The other two main sites that are not to be missed, are the waterfall Gulfoss and the nearby Geysir.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We were still a little fuzzy from jet lag so we thought a day trip outside of Reykjavik would be manageable and besides, the weather was beautiful though the forecast for the coming days was less than favourable. Adia and Geoff had visited Iceland two years earlier and advised us to drive to Akureyri in the north and the iceberg lagoon on the south eastern coast, and to avoid driving all along the east coast where there is little to see.
We set off from Reykjavik under sunny skies and admired the scenery along the way. It wasn’t long before we arrived at Thingvallvatn, the lake near where the Althing first met. Along the way we spotted a group of Icelandic sheep, with long, coats of wool, ready to protect them from the coming winter.
There were few other tourists at Thingvellir, and that suited us perfectly. Not a single tour bus to be seen. There is something to be said for coming this late in the season. After passing through relatively flat landscapes, the rift caused by the Mid-Atlantic ridge was quite dramatic and easily seen. A small wooden platform has been constructed on the site where the parliament once met, and an Icelandic flag hung limp on the flagpole.
We didn’t mind the lack of wind, especially in a region where wind can be quite an enemy. We set off on foot to walk the trails towards the small group of buildings, which included a church and an old cemetery. We read the sign boards that explained that a number of women were once put to death in a small pool along the ridge. Drowning was once seen as a suitable penalty for adultery, infanticide or witchcraft.
We carried on to the location of the site of the Geysir, the Icelandic word for the natural phenomena where superheated water shoots into the air. All geysers from around the world owe their names to this geysir, the first ever described in a printed source. The original geysir is no longer as reliable as it once was due to rocks that were thrown into the pool in an attempt to stimulate eruptions.
However, the nearby Strokkur geyser still thrills visitors with its moderate shot of roiling water, though it pales in comparison to the 70m eruptions that Geysir produced for over 10,000 years. We watched for a short time and enjoyed a couple of events at Strokkur, but the wind was nasty on the open landscape and we quickly decided to move on to the waterfall.
We parked at the Gulfoss (Falls of Gold) visitor’s center and had a quick cup of coffee before venturing out into the wind once again. It’s possible to drive to a vantage point below the start of the falls, but we decided to walk down the wooden staircase and let the view unfurl slowly before us. We didn’t regret the decision, but we did have to hand onto the handrails with both hands to prevent being buffeted by the wind.
Once we were lower that the surrounding land, we were shielded from the wind and could enjoy the power of the falls. Tourists who are unable to walk on gravel and uneven paths would not be able to approach the crest of the falls, but this was no problem for us. It’s quite another thing to stand beside the water as it hurls over the edge and roars into the chasm.
I asked Anil to stand for a photo and he scared the daylights out of me by going far to close to the edge. I worried that he isn’t that surefooted anymore and that I would lose him to the gorge. He assured me I was over reacting, but just the same, he inched closer to the camera so that I could take the photo.
Instead of taking the most direct route back to Reykjavik, we set off on a secondary road through what appeared to be farming country just outside the edge of the national park. The first 10km consisted of bone jarring corrugated dirt road, and we considered turning around, but the scenery was so inviting that we pressed on. Just when we felt our molars would surely be jarred loose, the pavement began and we had pristine pavement for the rest of the journey.
We stopped to take photos of some of the unusual farm structures along the way. I spotted a wooden fence with three arms, clearly constructed to provide a windbreak for farm animals. A little further on, we came upon the remains of a turf barn, used to house sheep during the long winter months. The farms were few and far between but we did come upon a small hamlet and were surprised to see a sign advertizing an Ethiopian restaurant.
We pulled in to have a look as we would have killed to have an Ethiopian meal, but the doors were locked and no one was around. Anil pointed out that the tables were laid with cloths and cutlery, so it was clearly still in business. Perhaps it was only open in the evenings, the signs in Icelandic were Greek to us. I did take a moment to photograph some odd sheds in the field near the restaurant. They were decorated with an assortment of vegetables, for what reason, is anyone’s guess.
We carried on south instead of turning west in order to visit a village by the sea. Our guidebook described Eyrarbakki as a typical fishing village with one of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in Iceland. The former residence had been turned into a local museum, but as we pulled in at 5:55pm, we found it was due to close in five minutes. We asked if we could have a quick peek around and the young woman closing up was as friendly as could be.
We had a great conversation with her about the history of the village, and in the end, offered to pay the admission in spite of the fact that we hadn’t actually toured the museum. With a wave of her hand, and a big smile, she said “no, it is not necessary”. It was a great end to a perfect day and we turned our car towards Reykjavik.
Our route took us along the sea, over a long causeway and then across a massive lava field. It was haunting and stark, and unforgettable. We decided to head into the city for a meal instead of cooking for ourselves at the guesthouse and sought out the ‘northernmost Indian restaurant in the world’. We had the address right, but instead of an Indian restaurant, we found the ‘northernmost Nepalese restaurant in the world’.
We had a laugh as we took our seat as the only guests that evening. We had studied the menu in the window and were lured in by the highlighted ‘special menu’ for 12.50 €. It was only offered from Monday to Wednesday, and we were lucky that it was a Tuesday night.
We had seen that most dishes were listed between 25 € and 35 € each, and that rice and naans were add-ons that had their own steep prices as well. A lassi was 8 €. At that rate, a simple meal would have cost over 100 €, too steep for our budget. We had read that eating out in Iceland was expensive, but this was a big surprise.
We ordered our meal and struck up a conversation with the owner when he came by to introduce himself. He was a most interesting man, explaining that he was planning on opening a sister restaurant in Vancouver shortly, two in fact, one in the city and another in Richmond. We spent over an hour with him, discussing the economic crisis that had struck Iceland and learning about the charitable project he had started in Katmandu to shelter some of the city’s elderly.
We had looked forward to meeting some Icelandic citizens on our journey around the island. Little did we realize that the first person we had a connection with was someone who hailed from Nepal, much closer to Anil’s homeland than we had expected to find. The next day we were due to strike off into the hinterland, away from the capital. We were touched to meet this gentle man from the Indian subcontinent, but we were fairly certain he would be the last such person we would meet as we headed north to land nearing the Arctic Circle.