A Travellerspoint blog

January 2022

Waterfalls and Glaciers: The Golden Circle

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The classic stops on Iceland's famous Golden Circle are the waterfall Gullfoss, Geysir geothermal area, and Þingvellir National Park. Those three are on a straight line east from Reykjavik, so one has to throw in a couple of extra stops such as Secret Lagoon or the Raufarhólshellir lava tunnel to make it a genuine loop. We had been to Raufarhólshellir on our second day and were completely finished with swimming pools and lagoons so our plan was to make it a Golden Line.

We decided to start with the more straightforward sights and bypassed Þingvellir to get to Geysir. Although Geysir is the origin of the English word geyser and is the largest of the geysers in the geothermal area, the only one that visitors are likely to see erupting is its smaller neighbor Strokkur. Geysir erupts less and less frequently every year and no one seems to know the current frequency or when the last time was that it erupted, but it's safe to say it probably isn't going to happen during any particular visit. It's no big deal either way because Strokkur puts on a nice display every few minutes.

Behind the cluster of geysers and hotpots near the road a dirt path climbed up the hillside. At the top was a narrow ridge that led to an overlook with a bird's eye view of Strokkur. On the other side of the ridge was a beautiful valley with a meandering creek and farmland with grazing sheep.

We rested at the overlook for a while and watched Strokkur erupt a couple of times. It definitely wasn't as impressive as being right in front of the geyser but it felt good to breathe the fresh air again after spending so much time in the sulfurous vapors at ground level.

We made a very brief stop at Gullfoss, just ten minutes further east. It's a beautiful, wide waterfall but we'd lost count of all the waterfalls we'd seen over the last two weeks. In terms of size and forcefulness it was similar to Dettifoss and we decided not to make the trek down to the viewing platform to get soaked by the spray.

We were going to need to find somewhere to eat before tackling Þingvellir and the only place on our route I knew anything about was the tomato farm Friðheimar. My impression was that it was something of a tourist trap but probably unique enough to be a worthwhile experience regardless. The parking lot was packed and we walked down a tree-lined dirt road to the greenhouse which housed the restaurant. It was something of a madhouse inside and we were originally told that the tables were booked until closing, but Mei Ling worked her usual Jedi magic and got us onto the waiting list. We occupied our time examining the gift shop and the long rows of cherry tomato plants with fruit in various stages of ripeness. Many of the products in the shop were related to the bumblebees that flock around the greenhouse pollinating the plants.

Eventually we got our table and started off with some of the famous Friðheimar bread. Some people were taking advantage of an all-you-can-eat deal for the bread and tomato soup but it seemed like a waste given the other interesting dishes we saw on the menu. We had quite a good meal of Caprese salad, tomato ravioli, a tomato quesadilla, and some very succulent mussels which we washed down with beer and tomato-based cocktails.

Þingvellir is a confusing place to visit because few people seem to know its boundaries and several roads enter the park from the main highway. The park is roughly defined as the area between the north shore of the Þingvallavatn lake and the curve the highway makes around it. When most people mention Þingvellir they are really referring to a walking path that extends about a mile from Langistígur canyon to Almannagjá gorge and incorporates most of the well-known sights in the park. There is also a renowned dive site called Silfra in the lake and numerous hiking paths for those planning a longer visit. We ended up at a parking lot in the middle of the walking path, close to the waterfall Öxarárfoss.

Öxarárfoss isn't a very impressive waterfall by Iceland standards but is interesting in that it results from a manmade diversion of the Öxará River designed to create a source of drinking water for the assemblies that were convened there. It is also the source of the renowned Drekkingarhylur "drowning pool" that was used for the execution of women convicted of adultery or incest.

We followed the boardwalk north to Langistígur which proved to be the most enjoyable part of our stop at Þingvellir. We had this gorge almost to ourselves which made for a very peaceful and enjoyable walk between the jagged, blocky walls of basalt. At the end of the fissure we were able to clamber to the surface level where we could look back along the path almost to Öxarárfoss. Beyond the gorge was the blue expanse of the lake.

We reversed course and walked all the way back past Drekkingarhylur to Almannagjá. This spot is very significant in Icelandic history because it is the site of the country's first nationwide assembly, the Alþingi. The assembly continued to take place at Almannagjá for eight centuries until it was moved to Reykjavik in 1844. Almannagjá was also chosen symbolically as the site at which Iceland formally declared its independence from Denmark in 1944. For most travelers the main attraction of Almannagjá is that the two sides of the canyon belong to two different tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian. The path through the canyon is often described as the "walk between continents". I was pretty sure we had just done the same thing in the quieter Langistígur, and for that matter we had explored another section of this rift just hours after stepping off the plane. If I had insisted on walking the length of Almannagjá I would have faced a mutiny from my tired and hungry family so we returned to our car.

We poked around for a little bit at the edge of Þingvallavatn, trying to get some good perspectives on this famously beautiful lake, but the sun was already beginning to drop and we thought that Mývatn had been far more pleasing aesthetically. We made our way back to Reykjavik, eventually passing through the familiar string of dizzying roundabouts. I counted about fifteen before something distracted me from my tally. We only had one more chance to try a food hall and I chose Grandi Mathöll in the refurbished harbor district. The food was good although we didn't find anything as enjoyable as SKÁL! from the previous night.

After eating we spent a little time walking around the harbor checking out the various colorful and weatherbeaten boats that were tied up to the docks. The neighborhood seemed rather inactive in the evening and we decided we would come back in the morning to see if it was more lively. On the way home we saw Reykjavik's famous Harpa Concert Hall lit up in purple for the evening.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:13 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel geysir gulfoss travel_blog thingvellir tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Reykjavik

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After almost two weeks of driving through rural Iceland Reykjavik seemed like a hulking metropolis. We passed through an impressive periphery of residential suburbs and a seemingly endless series of roundabouts before arriving at the city center. In a departure from our usual pattern I hadn't made any dinner reservations in Reykjavik, correctly guessing that we would have grown weary of eating in upscale restaurants. Instead we had decided to sample the capital's cornucopia of food halls, and for our first night I had chosen Hlemmur Mathöll for the simple reason that it stayed open the latest. Hlemmur hosted an excellent restaurant called SKÁL! and between that and pizza for the kids we put together a very satisfying dinner. We were even able to treat the kids to ice cream before the food hall finally closed for the night.

A lucky and unforeseen bonus of eating at Hlemmur was that when I plugged the address of our Airbnb into the GPS it turned out to be just a block away. We were able to get all our stuff into our high rise downtown apartment without having to move the car. Even though we were exhausted there was one crucial task to be completed. We had brought half a dozen BinaxNOW COVID-19 antigen tests from the United States and they had been occupying space in our luggage all the way around Iceland. It was finally time to break them out and complete the swabs with an online proctor now that we had less than 72 hours before our flight home. This would save us the inconvenience and expense of getting the swabs done at a clinic but I was worried that the online portion wouldn't work out as planned. Of course this was a miniscule concern compared to the far greater problem that we would have if one of us tested positive. Iceland was only having about a hundred cases a day of COVID at that point but given the small population that was equivalent to a hundred thousand cases a day in the United States. The vast majority of those cases were occurring in the capital. The decision to place Reykjavik at the end of the trip was in no small part to ensure that any exposure to COVID would likely come after we had already recorded our negative tests, but that was no guarantee that none of us had picked up the virus in the preceding two weeks. The online proctoring was fairly well-designed but there was no way the person on the other end could continuously monitor the swab as it made its journey from the nose to the testing kit. Once my test came back negative I realized it would be quite simple to switch everyone else's swab with my used swab before inserting it into their kit. That maneuver would have been beyond my ethical boundary but if someone had been positive I think I would have regretted completing the process honestly. Regardless, all of us were negative and a major impediment to our safe and timely return home had been eliminated.

In the morning we drove a few blocks to the highest-rated breakfast place I could find, a bakery cafe on a pedestrian section of the main drag Laugavegur. We had to park a couple of blocks away which gave us a chance to absorb some of the colorful downtown Reykjavik atmosphere on the walk to the cafe.

There was a long line outside and we made the mistake of deciding to wait, assuming that the long line was confirmation of the positive reviews. By the time we'd realized that no breakfast restaurant could possibly be worth an hourlong wait we'd already committed too much time to walk away. The kids ended up eating takeout sandwiches while we were still on line. Once we finally sat down the process of ordering and getting served absorbed more than another hour of our precious morning so we ended up with a very late start for the sake of a decent but unmemorable breakfast.

We spent the rest of our day visiting attractions on the Golden Circle which I have written about in a separate entry.

On our last morning in Reykjavik we drove to the Grandi port neighborhood to have breakfast at Kaffivagninn, which is reportedly the oldest restaurant in Iceland. It seemed most of the kitchen staff was in COVID quarantine so only pastries were available. The place had a very strong neighborhood vibe, filled with middle-aged men who looked like regulars that worked around the port.

The neighborhood was a little more active in the morning, especially a strip of small restaurants and boutiques that had been built inside old storage units with pull-down doors. At one gourmet food store I was surprised to find red bell peppers for the same price that I would have bought them for at a supermarket in the United States. Everything else seemed extremely expensive. Although Grandi has gained a reputation for hipness it seemed run down and a little bit depressing to us.

I wasn't sure how to fill the rest of the morning. I considered taking the ferry to Videy island but I wasn't sure the payoff would be worth the hassle. I decided we would drive back to the center of town for a closer look at Reykjavik's iconic Hallgrímskirkja which we had only seen in passing the previous day. Opinions are sharply divided on the architectural merit of this imposing Lutheran church. Many admire the broad wings composed of concrete hexagonal columns that evoke the natural basalt structure of Reynisfjara but all others see is an enormous phallus. I could see the merit of either viewpoint. The interior of the church is most notable for the pipe organ with 5275 pipes which one might think of as a giant organ within a giant organ.

The area across from the church seemed promising so we meandered down the street directly opposite from the statue of Leif Eriksson that stood in front of the church. There was a fascinating grid of commercial streets here with painted sidewalks, wall murals, and street sculptures.

Eventually we found ourselves back on Laugavegur which was closed to traffic and whimsically painted with an enormous hopscotch board followed by a foot racetrack. When we turned the corner onto upsloping Skólavörðustígur we were greeted with the amazing sight of the entire street painted in rainbow stripes with the central tower of Hallgrímskirkja at the dead center atop the hill.

Continuing east on Laugavegur we eventually crossed Lækjargata which was the widest and busiest street we'd seen in the country. On the other side was a densely commercial district filled with restaurants, hotels, and government buildings. As we meandered around we were surprised to come across a large pond filled with birds in the very center of the busiest part of town. This was Tjörnin, a natural body of water that may have provided the impetus for the first human arrivals to settle in the area. For centuries the water was brackish due to influx of ocean tides but the installation of locks in 1989 converted the pond into freshwater. Apparently over forty different species of birds can be seen around Tjörnin but the most dominant by far were throngs of seagulls and terns fighting each other over various snacks tourists were tossing into the water. One of the more unfortunate of these offerings was the contents of a bag of giant marshmallows that the gulls would mournfully peck at and then ignore. On the cobblestone patio of a restaurant adjacent to the pond stands the Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat, a bronze statue of a man whose upper body is encased in a featureless block of stone. This anonymous individual is captured for eternity on his way to or from one of the numerous government offices in the area where he likely helps to craft obscure policies regarding plumbing fixtures or traffic patterns.

I had read an article about a Reykjavik Street Food Market that was supposed to take place every Saturday in this area, but there was no sign of it at the designated location. Instead we stopped at Kolaportið, a weekend indoor flea market close to the port. It was a reasonably interesting place to browse around for half an hour but flea markets aren't really our thing and we didn't have any room in our luggage even if we had wanted to buy anything. The time had come to take our leave of Reykjavik and begin our final adventure in Iceland before returning home the next day. On the way out of downtown we saw a cluster of people admiring the famous Sun Voyager sculpture by the shore but it wasn't worth the trouble to make our own stop. We were eager to make our pilgrimage to Iceland's newest attraction, the erupting volcano Geldingadalir.

Posted by zzlangerhans 23:35 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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