Touring Iceland’s Golden Circle

The experience of getting stuck in a snow drift on our last trip to Iceland could easily have put us off a return trip, but I’m so glad it didn’t. Iceland was every bit as magical as we remembered it for our second trip of the year, despite the fact that the snow this time was limited to the volcanic peaks that litter the geologically active island. Not knowing how we would find the road conditions in November, we erred on the side of caution and split this trip between an organised tour and a bit of driving ourselves around. For day one we booked a tour with Iceland Horizon of the famous ‘Golden Circle’ – three of Iceland’s most famous places, which are within a couple of hours’ drive of Reykjavik and of each other.

Sunrise was at about 9.40am, so it was still very dark when the small minibus picked us up from our hotel at around 9am. A grey light and plenty of rain filled the sky by the time we were out of Reykjavik and into the wilderness bound for our first stop of the day. On the way through a moss-strewn landscape that had been completely white with snow on our last trip, our affable Icelandic guide regaled us with fascinating stories about his upbringing and the farm on which his ancestors had eked out an existence in the countryside he was driving us through. As recently as 1954, he explained, some Icelanders were still living in caves or turf houses and relying on small herds of animals for survival. His was the first generation of his family to have a proper heated house, the snow in winter being so heavy that it was often necessary to exit the house from an upper storey window.

Such tales set the scene for our arrival in Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park, where the first Icelandic parliament met in AD 930. We were dropped off in a car park with a small visitor centre and instructed to walk around half a mile to the next car park. The route looks out over the national park, a landscape of lakes with distant snowy mountains.

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Þingvellir is famous for being one of the points at which the North American tectonic plate meets the Eurasian; it lies in the rift valley between the two. It’s riddled with geological features, such as this crack in the ground. The whole country is growing at a rate of about an inch per year because of the tectonic plates moving apart, so cracks like this are often opening up, wreaking havoc with the roads.

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This famous canyon, called Almannagjá, is another tectonic fissure on a rather bigger scale.

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Here’s a token photo that includes my face, for the benefit of a few relatives who may wish to see it.

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Along the walk, we spotted amazing volcanic features such as this fascinating solidified lava flow.

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You can see one in this photo, too.

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I kept expecting to see the Riders of Rohan (from Lord of the Rings, if you’re not a Tolkien fan) come galloping around the next corner. Aren’t the houses and little church cute?

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As well as being a geologically fascinating area, the national park also has enormous cultural importance. The name Þingvellir comes from Old Norse words meaning “assembly fields”, and it was chosen as the place for parliament on account of its natural features providing some degree of protection from the country’s harsh climate. The Icelandic parliament sessions were held in Þingvellir up to 1798. In this photo, you can just about make out the earthworks in the foreground that are all that remains of one of the shelters (called ‘booths’) where people stayed during the two-week parliament sessions each summer.

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A sign next to this pool – fed by a fast-flowing waterfall – informed us that they used to drown people as a punishment here. Nice!

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This moss is everywhere in Iceland. Our guide informed us that after a volcanic eruption, the moss is the first vegetation to start growing on the lava.

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From Þingvellir, our next stop was the geothermal area of Geysir, which is where all geysers get their name from. The main one – Geysir – hardly ever erupts anymore, but there’s a smaller one called Strokkur that erupts reliably every five minutes. The weather had taken a turn for the worse by the time we arrived, so our short walk around the area’s bubbling hot springs was bracing, to say the least. The air was full of smelly sulphurous steam, to the point that it was sometimes difficult to see where we were walking.

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The geyser itself was awesome. As you can see in this video, the water bubbles and then starts to bulge, before bursting upwards to quite a height.

The name “Geysir” comes from the Icelandic word “geysa”, meaning “to gush”, which is an Old Norse verb.

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This one was labelled ‘little Geysir’, but I don’t think it does much.

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After an eye-wateringly expensive mug of warming soup and some Skyr (a very healthy kind of Icelandic yogurt-type stuff) in the on-site cafe, it was back into the bus for the short drive to Gullfoss waterfall. Gullfoss means ‘golden falls’, and it’s set in a sort of mini Grand Canyon.

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You can get a better idea of what it was like from this short video.

The thing that surprised me the most was the amount of spray – it makes the photos look as if they’re blurry, but they’re not!

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On the way back to Reykjavik we made a couple more small stops, the first for another waterfall. The thing I liked best about this one was the little fish ladder to the left, which helps the salmon swim upstream.

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The other stop was to meet an Icelandic horse that we saw by the side of the road. Icelanders love their horses (though they do eat them as well), and there are loads of Icelandic horses wherever you go. They’re hardy little things and the only breed in Iceland.

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We were dropped off back at our hotel in Reykjavik at about 5pm, giving us plenty of time to relax before heading down to the harbour for dinner. I loved how the clear lights on this Christmas tree lit up the dark evening sky around the harbour.

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We finished up the day with a delicious burger at Hamborgarabúllan, a little place down by the harbour housed in a small building that used to be where the fish were counted and weighed. It’s a quirky and informal burger joint that’s ideal for a less expensive meal after a day of exploring. I’m hungry just looking back at this photo!

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In my next post I’ll tell you all about what we did the next day: a road trip along the south coast.

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