Destinations, Europe

Golden Circle Iceland Tour

July 8, 2015 • By

Although my latest posts and photos imply I traveled to Iceland for the food and not the scenery, the next few items will explore the rich beauty of this great country. The texture of the tundra landscape, the rock formations, the rivulets and ridges, the calderas, glaciers, lakes and mountains, and the spectrum of color are a photographer’s dream and a tourist’s wonder. It’s the reason one million foreigners sought a vacation in Iceland in 2014.

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The Golden Circle, a popular side trip from Reykjavik on most itineraries, loops along the Reykjavik Peninsula and into Central Iceland. It’s a path ripe with natural beauty, history and hidden treasures. My incredible and very knowledgeable guide Jón taught me many things about the rivers, lakes and glaciers, but nature often speaks for itself.

We wound our car through lava fields, pockets of fertile grass with clusters of purple Alaskan lupine flowers, farms flecked with sheep and horses grazing, to Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland. If I recall, it was formed some time ago by the simultaneous eruption of two volcanoes close to each other.

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Þingvallavatn the sky meets the lake

Þingvallavatn may be the most extraordinary lake I have ever seen in my life. A midnight blue color, it is surrounded by lush Iceland vegetation and towering mountains (some still capped with snow). That day, the surface remained still and peaceful in spite of the wind. The clouds met the water, as if a mirror had been placed over the lake to create identical images of the sky and land. Mesmerized by the scene, I struggled to differentiate between the lake and the clouds. It was a visual moment I hope to hold in my mind for a very long time.

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Original spot of settlers convening parliament

After that idyllic moment, it was hard to appreciate the congested next stop. But my guide, who knows how to always take the road less traveled, worked some magic and we spent time sorting out the exact placement of the first Althingi or Parliament. Did it occur between the rock formations or out in the open with the blustery wind? We don’t know for sure, but after experiencing the wind, I venture to guess that the Vikings were no dummies and gathered in a nearby ravine. Parliament convened at Þingvellir in 930 and remained until 1798. It now meets in downtown Reykjavik. It is the longest-standing parliamentary institution in the world.

Þingvellir lies in a rift valley at the top of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It’s an area with lots of earthquakes and volcanoes as a result of the Eurasian and North-American plates breaking apart. After walking through a gorge, pretending I stood where the Vikings once assembled and formed the beginnings of Iceland, I felt small and unprotected, and, for another deep moment, I appreciated the challenges of living on this island of volcanic rock, black sand and unpredictability.

“The world is small here,” said my guide Jón.

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Gullfoss, Golden Falls, Golden Circle

Next, we visited Gullfoss, or “Golden Falls,” because at the end of every rainbow is a pot of gold. The water moves with serious power along a river and then dips once and then again like stairs into a gorgeous rush of activity, creating the falls.

There is a neat tale behind the history of Gullfoss. In the mid 1900s, a woman by the name of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson, the owner of the falls, threatened to throw herself over the water if it was sold to generate electricity. It wasn’t, and today, the landscape remains for locals and tourists alike to admire.

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Strokkur (Geyser) Golden Circle

We also visited Strokkur, meaning “churn”, a geyser near the Hvítá River. Having never seen land-based water eruption, I thoroughly appreciated the enormous magnitude and pure adrenaline brought on from the water exploding some 40 meters (131 feet) into the sky every 5-6 minutes. Billows of “smoke” (steam) from the many geothermal pools in the area blanketed the landscape. Imagine a setting with mini bonfires but instead of wood creating a choaking smoke, it’s boiling, bubbling water creating steam sequences.

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Geothermal pools

The other highlight (note: the entire drive itself is without question a perfect day) is Kerið, or, as my guide Jon explained, “the place where Superman was born.” It’s a huge crater lake carved out of the land with deep reddish brown walls hugging and capturing the rainwater. It’s worth a quick photograph and another sign of nature’s powerful presence.

Along the way, Jón and I talked shrimp egg salad sandwiches (local specialty), volcanoes, Vikings, Icelandic history, photography and life. He tested me on the differences between calderas and craters and ridges, riffs and canyons. I failed most of the time but I really tried. Iceland’s topography is a geologist’s study for life.

I learned about outlaws being sent out to the wild for their sentences and how north winds mean it’s going to be a very cold and windy day. Iceland’s weather is unpredictable–Mount Hekla-fickle–and, people, if you listen, will always throw you curve balls.

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Alaskan Lupine Flowers