Golden Circle

Friday, August 25, 2017

Driving in this country is absolutely nuts because every single street name is completely unpronounceable.  When either Mom or I would try to help the other navigate by saying things like “Look for the street that starts with H and has a ‘gata’ at the end,” it wound up being but only so productive.  With all of the special characters in the Icelandic language that do not even remotely translate, it made looking down at the map then back up at the street signs something like a game of memory.  Once we finally got sorted with a SIM card so that I would have a working GPS on my phone, life was infinitely easier.

After a short half hour drive from Reykjavik, we arrived at Þingvellir (Thingvellir), one of the main stops along the busy Golden Circle.  We walked along a path with towering rock formations on both sides of us that seemed as if a gorge had been perfectly carved through.  It’s still hard to fathom that at that time, we were walking between two continents.  Iceland sits between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate, divided by the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.  I read in Lonely Planet that North America and Europe are tearing away from each other here at a rate of 1mm to 18mm per year.  Nowhere else in the world does this rift lie above sea level and it’s a wonder to wander through this natural phenomenon.  Needless to say, because of Iceland’s position over two tectonic plates, earthquakes frequent the island causing a number of natural destructions like violent volcanic eruptions and dangerous glacial cracks.

Þingvellir is not only significant because of its unique geology, but it is also Iceland’s most important historical site.  Þingvellir translates to “assembly fields” and it is here where the Vikings established their first form of government.  Mom and I found ourselves at a beautiful area to soak in the views and casually stopped to read a sign about our surroundings.  We were standing next to a Viking execution site.  According to what we were reading, hanging was the penalty for theft and we were right next to where 15 men were believed to have been hanged.  Priest Einarsen was quoted saying “The gallow… was between two independent rocks that were called Galgaklettar (Gallows Rock)… I don’t think that there was space for more than one each time, but it is possible that two were able to hang in a row.  There [at Gallows Rock] human bones were found and quite near my time, a leg bone was found.”  For certain, 72 people were executed at Þingvellir between 1602 and 1750; 30 male beheadings, 9 burned at the stake and 18 females drowned.  The Vikings possess a gruesome past indeed.  As inappropriate as this comment may be, at least the said criminals had a stunning sight to behold before they died.

We ate lunch at a nearby restaurant called Lindin where we rather enjoyed our $35 reindeer burger before detouring off the main road in hunt of the incredible Bruarfoss.  (I quickly pieced together that anything ending in “foss” meant waterfall.)  I can’t remember how I found out about this place.  I probably found a picture of this stunning waterfall on Pinterest or down a rabbit hole on Instagram, but I can tell you that Bruarfoss is definitely on the “touristy Lonely Planet track.”  Google maps lead us to a small car park within a private campground where we stopped and decided to continue on foot.  The best part was that we parked in front of a sign that I wasn’t able to translate online, so we just crossed our fingers and hoped for the best as we bundled up and ventured out into the rain.  There were absolutely no signs pointing us in any sort of direction, so we had to rely fully my Steph navigation and keen intuition.  We walked for a while alongside some sort of path before we started to hear the sound of water.  Next to a small pedestrian bridge read a sign with two points of interest, neither of which resembled the word “Bruarfoss” nor any arrows for whatever this sign was trying to tell us was nearby.  In the next couple of weeks, I would get use to the fact that the signage in Iceland could greatly be improved.  Aside from the language barrier, the sheer lack of explicitness baffled me.  Before the end of the trip, our general rule of thumb became: if it’s in English it’s important; it it’s in multiple languages it’s very important.

Mom and I roamed a bit more, determined to find this so called destination.  The sound of water lead us in one specific direction and once we found a more powerful river, we followed it on the foot path the best we could all the while taking mental pictures of every turn we took so we would be able to find our way back to the car.  Excellent mother-daughter teamwork eventually led us there!  Even in the dreary, drizzly overcast weather, the colors could not have been more vibrant; blue glacial water against coal-black rock.  I’ve never seen a waterfall with two colors so prominent.  I’ll let the picture below speak for itself.  I did not Photoshop nor edit anything.  Battling the rain, mud puddles and questionable directions made it all worth it just to find my new favorite waterfall.

Our next stop back on the main road of the Golden Circle was the infamous Geysir, the original from which all others are named.  The bubbling Earth and sulfur smell of the Haukadalur geothermal region reminded me of Rotorua in New Zealand.  Geysir has been recorded shooting hot water 80 meters into the air (about 260 feet), but hasn’t been steadily active since 1916.  It is possible for earthquakes to stimulate activity, but I can’t imagine that would mean good news for Iceland if Geysir were to erupt today.  Fortunately for guests, there is a more reliable neighboring geyser.  Even more predictable than Old Faithful, Strokkur consistently goes off every 5-10 minutes.  Hordes of tourists circle around Strokkur anticipating the exact moment when it will explode next.  If you look closely, sometimes the boiling water gently swirls and waves, then casually sinks ever so slightly into the Earth before finally releasing an enormous blast of water, sometimes up to 40 meters in the air.

We wrapped up the highlights of the Golden Circle with Iceland’s most famous waterfall.  The size and power of Gullfoss made me think that we had found the cousin of Niagara Falls.  There are a couple of legends about where the name Gullfoss derives from, but I preferred one myth in particular.  Once upon a time, there was a greedy man named Gygur who didn’t want anyone to possess his gold after he passed.  So in spite, he locked his gold in a chest and threw it over the waterfall.  It makes perfect sense now that Gullfoss translates into “Golden Falls.”

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