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The Golden Circle

A Thing this morning, followed by some geyser, Black Death and a couple of eruptions

overcast 6 °C
View Northern Lights Explorer - Iceland 2013 on Grete Howard's travel map.

At around 23:00 last night I popped out to photograph the rather unusual church yard next to the hotel (every cross is individually lit with fairly lights), when I noticed the clouds were clearing and a few stars were peeping out from the dark sky. I sent David a text, suggesting that he might want to get out of bed and come and join me as this was the best chance of the Northern Lights so far. Despite staying out until gone 01:00, all we saw of any excitement was a shooting star. Eventually we decided we couldn't stay out all night, but we did put our name down to be woken in the night should the lights make an appearance. They didn't.


I did sleep very well, but obviously not long enough, so once on the bus, I went straight to sleep. After all, we couldn't see a thing outside and it was a 90 minute drive to our first stop. We did have a funny five minutes when the overhead vent cover fell off and icy cold air was blasting down. One stop on the way for a pretty pastel pink sunrise. That was the only sun we saw all day, and if you'd blinked you would have missed it.


Driving along the coast, Rocky-Rock would point out the things we were passing, but even after daylight we still couldn't see a thing, for a couple of reasons – thick mist and filthy windows due to the salt being thrown up from the road.


Anyway, apparently we passed by Hvalfjörður (translated the name means Whale-fjord), which is said to be one of Iceland’s most scenic and beautiful fjords, the name is derived from the large number of whales which could be found and caught here. During World War II, a naval base of the British and American navies could be found in this fjord and until the 1980s, one of the biggest whaling stations in Iceland was located in one of their piers. In the past the fjord also contained a large number of herring fisheries. The old whaling station can still be seen. Or not as the case may be.

Whaling in Iceland dates back to as early as the 12th century, with more modern commercial whaling introduced by other countries in the late 19th century. Local Icelanders have held mixed opinions on the whaling industry over the years, and various part and full bans have been implemented on whaling in Icelandic waters from time to time.

Today, Iceland is involved in commercial whaling under objection to an ongoing moratorium established by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 and can be divided among two producers according to the types of whales they hunt in the North Atlantic. Hvalur H/F exclusively hunts endangered Fin whales for international export, whereas others hunt smaller Minke whales for domestic consumption.

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir is famous for three reasons:

1. It is the site of a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region; the biggest one, Almannagjá, being a veritable canyon. This also causes the often-considerable earthquakes in the area. One-third of all the world's earthquakes in the last 1000 years have been in Iceland. The plates move apart at the rate of 2cm a year, unless there is an earthquake, when the chasm can widen by 40-60 cms overnight, causing huge gaps to appear in the roads. And there was I thinking the potholes in the roads back home were bad! Unlike British road deterioration, the 8 m wide gap caused by the last earthquake here was filled in overnight and the road open again the following morning.

Þingvellir and the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa are the only sites on Earth where the effects of two major plates drifting apart can be observed – so, basically this morning we started off in America, and this afternoon we were in Europe. Not bad in less than an hour...

2. At Þingvellir - literally "Parliament Plains" - the Alþing general assembly (an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland) was established around 930 and continued to convene there until 1798, making it the world's oldest parliament. Major events in the history of Iceland have taken place at Þingvellir and therefore the place is held in high esteem by all Icelanders.

Every year during the Commonwealth period (the union between Norway and Iceland), people would flock to Þingvellir from all over the country for the two weeks of the assembly. The main duties of the assembly were to set laws - seen as a covenant between free men - and settle disputes. Ordinary people also gathered at Þingvellir to sell their wares, as well as performers and ale-makers, farmhands looking for work and beggars seeking alms. It sounds like Þingvellir was a meeting place for everyone in Iceland, almost like a country fair. People would set up dwellings and trading booths with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing - fragments of around 50 such booths can still be seen today.

I was really glad we went to the museum yesterday, where they had a model of Þingvellir showing the layout of the Alþing as it was. This made everything make more sense once we were there today. When we arrived, the car park and walkways were like ice rinks, and extremely dangerous, so we were not permitted to walk down the path to the lower area,instead taking the bus.

3. Þingvellir is the location where, on July 17th 1944, Icelanders celebrated their independence from Denmark.

Þingvellir National Park was founded in 1930 to protect the remains of the parliament site and was later expanded to protect natural phenomena in the surrounding area. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


The Geysir Geothermal area boasts a variety of hot springs and bubbling pools, and research shows that geysers has been active here for approximately 10,000 years, although the oldest accounts of hot springs date back to 1294, when earthquakes in the area caused significant changes in the landscape, creating several new hot springs. Changes in the activity of the Geysir and the surrounding geysers are strongly related to earthquake activity – the 1630 eruption was so violent that the whole valley trembled. Geysir is of course where the word 'geyser' or hot spring is derived from. As a teenager, I read a book which moved me greatly, where the finishing scenes had the heroine chased by the baddie around these springs, regularly tripping and almost falling in; or the fragile, thin crust giving way under her feet, before the villain was swallowed up by the boiling water of the middle earth. I have been wanting to visit this place ever since, and it certainly didn't disappoint.


Strokkur, (the 'Churn'), is a geyser that erupts a heights of up to 30 metres every few minutes. Its activity has also been affected by earthquakes, although to a lesser extent than the Great Geysir.

Here is the scientific explanation of the cause of the eruptions at the Strokkur geyser:

Water at a depth of 23 metres is around 120 °C, but cannot boil because of the weight of the water pushing down on it from above. When this water is forced up to around 16 m, some of the water may be above boiling point, which sets off the chain reaction: the pressure decrease allows more water to boil and flash boil into steam, which drives the unboiled water further up the conduit. As this happens closer and closer to the surface, with increasing velocity, the water and steam is forced out, and it is this mixture of water and steam that forms the eruption.

We were lucky enough to witness seven or eight eruptions of Strokkur in the time we were there, varying greatly in height, ferocity and frequency.


Restaurant Geysir
This is a restaurant kitchen with a difference – all the food is cooked in the ground with the help of the hot springs. Here, the chef gave us a taste of freshly baked “hot spring bread” (very dark and malty, almost sweet, but much tastier than I thought it would be) served with Icelandic butter along with geothermally-boiled eggs (they are placed in a string bag in the bubbling pools) and pickled herring (absolutely delicious!). Of course, it is best enjoyed with a small glass (or five – when Rocky-Rock heard I was Norwegian he offered me the bottle rather than a glass!) of ice-cold Geysir schnapps.

Geothermally cooked food

Eggs cooked in the hot springs

Bread cooked underground

Bread with butter, herring and eggs

Brennivín is a brand of schnapps that is considered to be Iceland's signature liquor - the word translates literally into English as "burning wine". It is made from fermented potato mash (similar to the Norwegian akvavit) and is flavoured with caraway seeds. It is sometimes called svarti dauði (Black Death) and has a strong taste, a high alcohol content (40% ABV – baby food compared with the Norwegian equivalent), and a dubious reputation. Brennivín is the traditional accompaniment to Hákarl (the fermented shark) – probably for those people that don't enjoy it to take the taste away!


Gullfoss, “The golden falls“, is a double waterfall that tumbles 32 meters down a wide curved three-step staircase, and then abruptly plunges in two stages (11 m and 21 m) into a crevice 32m deep. The crevice, about 20m wide, and 2.5 km in length, is at right angles to the flow of the river, so you don't actually see it from the view points. The average amount of water running over this waterfall is 80 m³/s in the wintertime.


During the 20th century, foreign investors wanted to transform Gullfoss into a dam for a power station which would of course have changed the waterfall forever. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, a local girl, was determined to preserve the waterfall in its original condition and even threatened to throw herself into the falls. Eventually the government intervened and it did not happen (neither the use of the falls for power nor Sigríður throwing herself into the falls), and now Gullfoss belongs to the Icelandic nations and is protected.


Icelandic horse
Horses are extremely popular in Iceland – in a country of 300,000 people, you can find 100,000 horses! It's unusual I guess for a horse-mad nation to also eat them, although I don't suppose any of the ones we saw at Friðheimar farm would ever end up on a plate. The horses were way cuter than I imagined them to be, and really friendly.


Although the Icelandic horses are small, at times pony-sized, the Icelanders are keen to stress that the animals are still referred to as horses. I found two reasons for this when I researched – one is their strength, spirited temperament and large personality; the other is the fact that there is no word in the Icelandic language for 'pony'. I personally think the latter is the most likely explanation.

The breed comes in many coat colours, including chestnut, dun, bay, black, grey, palomino, pinto and roan. Despite there being no word for 'pony' in Icelandic, there are over 100 names for various colours and colour patterns in horses (or is that ponies?).

Icelandic horses are long-lived and hardy. Because Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return, there are few diseases affecting the animals. The lineage was developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Norwegian settlers as far back as the 9th century, and with selective breeding, the horses have developed into the present-day hardy variety. Natural selection has eliminated many horses through cold and starvation due to the harsh Icelandic climate - resulting in that they have now developed a double coat for extra insulation in cold temperatures. In the 1780s, much of the breed was wiped out in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.

The horses are still used for traditional farm work in Iceland, as well as for leisure, showing, and racing.


One of the unique qualities of the Icelandic horses is that instead of the traditional three gaits of other horses (walk, trot and gallop), they have another two, called tölt and 'flying pace'. I'm afraid I couldn't distinguish between gallop and flying pace, but the smooth tölt was very impressive – the rider showed how he could easily carry a pint of beer without spilling a drop.


Geothermal Greenhouse
Our last stop of the day was to see one of the 93 geothermal greenhouses in the country, and how they harness the natural resources to heat and light it. The farm has its own hot spring which provides the heat and electricity (there are 200 private power station in Iceland) to give the tomatoes 17 hours of daylight every day during the dark winters. They use the same amount of power to run the greenhouse as a town of 3000 homes! The fruit is totally organic, using the good cop bad cop method (or good bugs fighting the bad bugs in this case) of keeping the plants pest free, and they import bees from Holland to pollinate the flowers. It takes seven weeks from flower to fruit, and the tomatoes were delicious!


Posted by Grete Howard 14:42 Archived in Iceland

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Having fun , aren't you. It's not a place I'll ever visit, but have enjoyed your tour so far, though I'd pass on most of the food.
BTW we had a short flurry of snow first thing today, but amber alert for tonight/tomorrow.

by Shane

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