The Golden Circle Tour

The Golden Circle is the most popular day tour in Iceland.  In about six quick hours you get to see and experience three of Iceland’s wonders of nature as well as a couple of sites that are of historical significance.  

First stop Þingvellir or "Parliament Fields“.  This is a national park, 23km east of Reykjavík, and is Iceland’s most important historical site. The country’s first national park, it was finally made a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2004.

The Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþing, here in AD 930.  “There aren’t many Viking remains to be seen, but the park has a superb natural setting, inside an immense, fissure-ridden rift valley caused by the separating North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  That’s me standing on the Eurasian plate.  Notice how the American tectonic plate is taller than the Eurasian tectonic plate.  Just saying.  

Since Iceland was first settled by Scandinavians “Many of Iceland’s first settlers had run-ins with royalty back in mainland Scandinavia. These chancers and outlaws decided that they could live happily without kings in the new country, and instead created district þings or assemblies where justice could be served.

Eventually, a nationwide þing became necessary. One man was dispatched to Norway to study law, while his foster brother travelled the country looking for a suitable site. Bláskógur, now Þingvellir or Parliament Fields, lays at a crossroads by a huge fish-filled lake. It had plenty of firewood and a setting that would make even the most tedious orator dramatic, so it fitted the bill perfectly. Every important decision affecting Iceland was argued out on this plain – new laws were passed, marriage contracts were made, and even the country’s religion was decided here.

Over the following centuries, escalating violence between Iceland’s most powerful groups led to the breakdown of law and order. Governance was surrendered to the Norwegian crown and the Alþing was stripped of its legislative powers in 1271. It functioned solely as a courtroom until 1798, before being dissolved entirely. When it regained its powers in 1843, members voted to move the meeting place to Reykjavík.

I’ll be posting the pictures from the Golden Circle Tour not later than tomorrow June 23.

Next we went to Gullfoss which Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls.  Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is a spectacular double cascade. It really does deserve the term "awesome".  It drops 32m, kicking up a sheer wall of spray before thundering away down a narrow ravine. On sunny days the spray creates shimmering rainbows, and I’m told it’s also beautiful in winter when the falls glitter with ice.

The falls came close to destruction during the 1920s, when a team of foreign investors wanted to dam the Hvitá river for a hydroelectric project. The landowner, Tómas Tómasson, refused to sell to them, but the developers went behind his back and obtained permission directly from the government. Tómasson’s daughter, Sigríður, walked (barefoot!) to Reykjavík to protest, even threatening to throw herself into the waterfall if the development went ahead. Thankfully, the investors failed to pay the lease, the agreement was nullified and the falls escaped destruction. Gullfoss was donated to the nation in 1975 and has been a nature reserve ever since.

Be sure to check out the pictures and the videos.

Next stop The great Geysir.  One of Iceland’s most famous tourist attractions, Geysir ( gay -zeer) is the original hot-water spout after which all other geysers around the world are named. The Great Geysir once gushed water up to 80m into the air but, sadly, it became clogged in the 1950s when tourists threw rocks into the spring in an attempt to set it off. Large earthquakes in 2000 seem to have shifted some blockage, though the eruptions are very infrequent. Luckily for me and everyone else who visits, the world’s most reliable geyser, Strokkur , is right next door. You rarely have to wait more than five to 10 minutes for the water to swirl up an impressive 15m to 30m plume before vanishing down what looks like an enormous plughole.  I did manage to get a video of of Strokkur which I’ll also post.

Nest we visited Skálholt.  Skálholt is a hugely important religious centdf.   It was one of two bishoprics (the other was Hólar in the north) that ruled Iceland’s souls from the 11th to the 18th centuries.

Skálholt rose to prominence under Gissur the White, the driving force behind the Christianisation of Iceland. The Catholic bishopric lasted until the Reformation in 1550, when Bishop Jón Arason and his two sons were executed by order of the Danish king. Skalhólt continued as a Lutheran centre until 1797, when the bishopric shifted to Reykjavík.

Unfortunately, the great cathedral that once stood here was destroyed by a major earthquake in the 18th century. Today there’s a modern theological center, a visitor centre, a turf-house, a re-creation of Þorlagsbúð, and a prim church with a museum in the basement containing the stone coffin of Bishop Páll Jónsson (bishop from 1196 to 1211). According to Páls Saga, the earth was wracked by storms and earthquakes when he died. Spookily, a huge storm broke at the exact moment that his coffin was reopened in 1956.

Our last stop was Hellisheiöi.  This is one of many geothermal power generating plants on this island that creates its much of its electricity, (the rest of Iceland electric generating comes from hydro power), all of it’s hot water and heat using the geothermal technology.  That means there is not a single generating plant that produces electricity with oil, natural gas or coal.  The same can be said for hot water and heat as well.  I was told that the cost to heat, get hot water and electric in the average home in Iceland is about $50.00 a month.  Noodle that around in your head for a while.

I am using the Lonely Planet “Iceland Travel Guide to help me summarize important facts all along this trip. © Louis M. Skypala 2014