The Golden Circle

I talk a lot about Iceland but it occurred to me last night that I’ve never really mentioned Iceland’s number two tourist attraction: The Golden Circle. (Number One tourist attraction, obviously, is the Blue Lagoon)

The Golden Circle is a series of interesting sights in the south-west corner of Iceland. The three key places are Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss but it’s supplemented by various others, depending on the tour company you’re going with, the time of year and the weather. Yes, it’s a touristy thing to do but if you’ve got an idea of what you’re seeing, it’s very worth doing, if you want to see anything of Iceland outside of Reykjavik. You can drag the thing out for two or three days or you can squeeze it into a few hours, you can do it by night in the summer, you can do it by tour company or by bus or independently by car.

Þingvellir

Þingvellir is my favourite stop. It’s a vast rift valley, where the European and North American tectonic plates meet at ground level, rather than at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. I say meet – they’re actually pulling apart and the edges of the plates are now more than a kilometer apart.

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Þingvellir in summer
Þingvellir in winter
Þingvellir in winter

In the background, you may be able to spot a low, flat volcano. That’s Skjaldbreiður, “Shield-broad”, the trope-namer for shield volcanoes, which erupt thin runny lava that builds up in thin layers and therefore form volcanoes like Skjaldbreiður, low and flat rather than properly conical.

Those two photos are taken from the edge of the North Atlantic plate – which is what all the cliffs are on the left – so all that field in the middle is in a geological no-mans-land.

The other interesting thing about Þingvellir is that it’s the site of one of the oldest Parliaments in the world. The early Icelandic settlers, who went over to escape the local chieftains and be free ungoverned men in the first place, set up a Parliament in 937AD and they met every summer on the Law Rock at Þingvellir, which means “the assembly fields” or “parliament plains”. There are still signs of their camps up on the ridge and it’s believed that they diverted the river to better provide water. These early Parliaments were partly about the law but partly about meeting up with everyone every year and I suspect there was quite the festival atmosphere. They moved to a purpose-build stone building Reykjavik in 1881. They often claim to be the oldest continuous parliament in the world but they took a break for forty-five years for some reason I haven’t quite figured out while they were under Norwegian rule – however, that lasted for several centuries and parliament continued for a few centuries so I don’t know quite why it stopped for a while. And in reading about this, I discovered that three out of Iceland’s sixty-three MPs are of the Pirate Party. There doesn’t seem to be much piratishness about them but there we are.

A photo of a painting I saw in the Culture House of a Viking Parliament meeting at Þingvellir
A photo of a painting I saw in the Culture House of a Viking Parliament meeting at Þingvellir

The next interesting thing about Þingvellir is the lake, Þingvallavatn. The river leaving the lake is nine times bigger than the river entering. Figure that out, said the tour guide who first took me there. It turns out that of course there’s plenty of water going in but it’s going in secretly from under the lava. It’s very cold and very clear and very beautiful and surprisingly popular with divers and scuba-divers and tourists. I’ve paddled in the river and, honestly, it’s the coldest water I’ve ever put my feet in but they dive year-round.

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I’m not sure everyone agrees with me about loving Þingvellir. It’s not as obviously interesting as Geysir or Gullfoss and I see a lot of people trailing around after a tour guide with no appreciation whatsoever of the geology or history, who regard it as little more than an opportunity to get off the coach, go to the toilet, have a smoke or a snack or a drink and take a couple of photos at the viewpoint.

Geysir

My second favourite place on the Golden Circle is the Haukadalur Geothermal Area, better known as Geysir because it’s where Geysir itself, the trope-namer for hot waterspouts, is located (except that Anglophones respelled it to geyser. The Icelandic, incidentally, is pronounced something like “gay-seer”, not “geezer”).

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This is me at Geysir himself. He doesn’t erupt very much these days but in the eighties, it was set off for special events by dumping soap powder into it. Now it’s just a steaming bubbling hot pool that gets mostly overlooked in favour of his little sister, Strokkur (I don’t know if these genders are official or if it’s just me that thinks Geysir is a he and Strokkur a she. I know volcanoes are feminine and glaciers masculine but I don’t know if hot springs get the same treatment).

Strokkur is the main event at Geysir, a boiling water spout anywhere between fifteen and forty metres high that goes off every five to ten minutes and continually surrounded by a circle of tourists with cameras, trying to catch the moment it goes off. I have – and I don’t exaggerate – 108 almost identical photos of Strokkur’s pool bubbling away, in an attempt to not miss the real thing.

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By the way, in the winter, all that steam floating about forms treacherous sheet ice all over the place. No one bothers to tell you this minor detail.

Anyway, the drama of a geyser erupting is like nothing else. First, the hot pool bubbles and bubbles, the water levels goes up and down and you hold your breath because you think it’s about to go.

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Then it forms a bubble and the eruption breaks through it, with the sort of noise you might expect when boiling water erupts and then there’s the swish of steam and the gasps of the tourists and then the steam blows away to the west – the fence around it is teardrop-shaped so you don’t stand right in the steam cloud.

Strokkur is the only one that erupts but there are lots of boiling hot pools, which really get overlooked because they’re not as exciting as the erupting one. Some are crystal-clear turquoise, some are opaque turquoise, some are still as millponds and some, like Litli Geysir, “do little but slosh around violently” as my guidebook describes it. For this reason, I love Litli Geysir.

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Gullfoss

Gullfoss is the longest stop on a Golden Circle tour, although I think it’s the least interesting of the three main stops. However, Gullfoss has a fairly large shop and cafe so it’s used as the lunch stop and you generally get more than an hour and a half there. The first time I went it was December and it was the second coldest place I’d ever been (the first coldest place I’d ever been being the first stop on the tour an hour or two earlier).

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In summer, when Gullfoss is in full flow, the spray it sends up is amazing. In winter, it half freezes and it’s so big that I wouldn’t have thought it could do that. Gullfoss means golden falls – someone suggested that’s because the glacial rubbish in it makes it look gold but I think that just makes it look greyish-brown. A century or so ago, there was talk of harnessing it to generate electricity and it’s said it was saved by Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of one of the landowners, who campaigned to save it and threatened to throw herself into it. Wikipedia says the plan never happened because of lack of money rather than Sigríður’s efforts but the Sigríður version is more popularly believed and it’s a much better story.

You can get really close to it – there’s a flake of rock sticking out over the falls with only a little rope fence to stop you falling over the edge.

Kerið

Kerið is an unofficial part of the Golden Circle. On the right hand side on the road from Selfoss up to Laugarvatn, it’s an explosion crater which is now privately owned and costs a few kroner to get in – it’s been subject of a land dispute for a few years.

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It’s very pretty – nice classical steep crater sides, red rock, streaked with greenery and a perfect blue lake at the bottom. You can walk around the top and take in the views or the bottom, and dip your feet in the lake if you really want. Björk used it as a concert venue once. It’s also very, very cold at the crack of dawn in December.

I’ve always been told it’s an explosion crater, blown out by an explosion but the sign boards now erected say it’s probably not, that what probably happened is that the magma crater beneath it emptied and the rock collapsed into it, creating this nice bowl.

Skálholt

Another unofficial stop, Skálholt is now a small village with an equally small and unimposing cathedral but it was the site of several important Catholic cathedrals, each one built on the site of the previous. Iceland’s first official school was there and there was a monastery and when Catholicism was succeeded by Lutheranism, the last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, was murdered there in 1550 and I think I’ve heard somewhere – although this may not be true – that he was dismembered and his body parts thrown in the river.

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Hellisheiðarvirkjun

Hellisheiðarvirkjun is another unofficial stop, only really accessible in summer. It’s the second largest geothermal power station in Iceland, more or less on the shores of Þingvallavatn. It bores boiling water from a long way below the surface and uses the steam to drive its turbines and then the hot water is piped around south west Iceland. To be honest, unless you’re really interested in geothermal power, it’s a chance to go to the toilet and go in the cafe.

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Laugarvatn Fontana

The last unofficial stop occasionally added to the tour is Laugarvatn Fontana because it’s nice to stop off at a spa on the way round. Given that it can easily take eight hours just to cover the three main sites, this is best done if you’re taking two days over the Circle or if you’re stopping somewhere overnight – and I would love to camp at Geysir to get to see the eruptions in the evenings when most of the tourists have gone. I’ve talked lots about Fontana so there’s no need to say it all over again.

Icelandic bananas

Reykjavik Excursions apparently sometimes add a visit to a geothermal greenhouse but I’ve never done the tour with them, so I’ve never visited. Because of the abundant hot water and heat, greenhouses are a very practical way to grow all kinds of vegetables and fruits and flowers and if I ever made an “Icelandic tour guide phrase bingo”, “Icelandic bananas!” would be the central square, even though the bananas are actually more or less a myth.

As far as I understand, the Icelandic people were once told that you could grow bananas in a greenhouse and when they discovered it wasn’t quite so practical, all the banana plants in the country were donated to the university, so the banana greenhouses are less a farm and more a rescue centre. The bananas for sale in Iceland are all imported ones, not actually home-grown ones because it’s not really commercially viable to grow their own. Nevertheless, they can be grown and Churchill supposedly said eating them was the most unusual experience of the war for him.

Tour companies will often offer a half day Golden Circle tour with something else in the morning – usually either the Blue Lagoon, a Reykjavik city sightseeing tour or horseriding, so you can get a lot done in not very much time. But don’t go round like a zombie, do at least a teeny bit of reading so you can appreciate what you’re seeing.