Glaciers, waterfalls, and volcanoes. Iceland is a wonderland for the geologically and historically obsessed, just like me! Yesterday I took the obligatory tour every tourist to Iceland embarks upon, a sort of “Iceland in a Nutshell” tour coined the Golden Circle. However, instead of shuffling along with the hundreds of other tourists on big buses from sight to sight, I joined a tour company that specializes in small groups, called Iceland Horizons.
At first, count me a skeptic, as any organized tour has me bracing for herd mentality and a lack of time to absorb what we see, spending much of the time gazing out a bus window. This tour is different. Sure there is the unavoidable driving time to all of the sites, but in a van that can maneuver to less visited sites and with a guide who was witty and informative. I actually learned a ton about the geological forces shaping Iceland! Our driver/guide also managed to time everything just right. As we pulled out of each major site, the caravans of giant buses would start pulling in. When enjoying the most touristed natural wonders of Iceland, timing is everything!
I have always been a waterfall fanatic. Blame an upbringing of hiking the Columbia River Gorge back home with my best friend and my family. So when we stopped at Gullfoss, my heart just about stopped in awe. I was prepared to be jaded, disappointed, annoyed with the crowds. After all, Gullfoss is a must on every guidebook list. But there’s a sound reason! A tremendous force of rushing water, roaring over the double cliff down into a narrow ravine that one cannot describe as exactly beautiful, but awesome, in the original, non-slang version of the word. I stood on the rock ledge that juts out between the two levels of the waterfall, the gusting cloud of mist soaking me, my exhilarated laugh hushed by the angry roar of water. If you ever need a good humbling at how small we are in the face of natural forces, this is the very spot for you. I was utterly and totally humbled, yet feeling vibrant and alive. I felt engulfed by the waterfall. Awesome.
Of course, every good Golden Circle tour includes Geysir, located in an active geothermal area of bubbling mud pots, hot springs, and geysirs. This is the one all the other geysirs are named after. So you see, you already knew an Icelandic word! However, Geysir has been dormant the last few years, so nearby Stókkur provides all the action, about every five minutes. Fascinating and thrilling to watch the churning kaleidoscope of water swell in and out, in and out, like a whale’s blowhole, until the tension is overwhelming. An expanding dome of light blue water seems to hang for an impossible moment of suspension, then release! The steam shoots up to 70 feet into the air!
I have noticed that in this violent geological country of geysirs, fissures, and volcanoes, there are few safety guard railings. Paths are marked, but it would be a snap to step on to the dangerously thin soil. Our guide Orðin wrapped up the Icelandic mentality of a thousand years of living in the shadow of 800 volcanoes – Icelanders are “not too concerned about safety…Icelanders believe in Darwinism. So if you fall in the waterfall or fall in the geysir, then we say that’s your problem.” You have been forewarned. Stay on the path and adopt the Icelandic mindset, a cautious respect for the natural forces around you.
Some other interesting notes from my tour – Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes that erupts every 10 years (and last erupted in 2000), was once thought to be the entrance to hell by people all over Medieval Europe. It was believed a large raven lived there among the ring of clouds at the top and clutched the souls of the damned in his claws. So every time you mutter, “What the heck!” when you stub your toe and want to avoid swearing, you are actually referring to Hekla, the hell volcano.
Also stood on the Lögberg, the Law Rock, at Þingvellir, the seat of Iceland’s democratic parliament for almost 1000 years. The world’s longest running democratic government and one of the first national assemblies met here in the plains set between a rift valley, literally between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe/Asia. The men of Iceland gathered here every year in the summer to recite and make the laws, settle disputes in an early court system, and arrange business deals and marriages. It was also a huge social gathering, thousands of Icelanders normally isolated to their small farming communities. The Alþing (national assembly) is the site of much of the events of the Sagas, so I stood on the Lögberg and felt shivers run down my spine as I looked out at the untamed, unruly landscape that so perfectly encapsulates the Icelandic nation.
I am discovering very quickly that Reykjavik is a city not meant to be sightseen, in rapid site to site fashion, but rather a city to be lived. In the name of living, I have soaked with the early morning local crowd at the nearby geothermal pool. 98% of homes in Iceland are heated by very cheap geothermal energy and the locals love their geothermal pools. It is a place to socialize and relax before or after work, sometimes every day. I have also discovered the coffee culture of Reykjavik. The strongest coffee I have ever found and so good! The cafes are quirky, fun, relaxed, and just my style. I already have a few favorites.
I attended mass on Sunday at the cathedral Hallgrimskirkja, a soaring modernist concrete structure on the outside that strikes me as more arrogant than humble, although the interior is inspired – all natural light and stone and windows and soaring vaulted ceiling. A typical Lutheran service and I was so proud of myself for being able to sing the hymns, even though I mostly had no clue what I was singing! My Icelandic study is paying off. The organ was tremendous, reverberating throughout the space.
Weekends are perfect for browsing the local flea market by the harbor, and I was not disappointed. A hodgepodge of random clothing, trinkets, crafts, food. Icelanders are prolific readers, with the highest literacy rate in the world (99.98%) and the market was overflowing with used book stalls. I found the first three Harry Potters in Icelandic for a steal. Very proud of my find!
A word on my health. The first couple days were intense on my muscles and joints. Especially the first couple days hiking. My knees still don’t like going up mountain passes, but after a couple days of carefully pacing my hikes and listening to my body, resting as necessary, the constant walking is paying off and I have never felt so alive and energetic. I am sure if you pushed on my neck or back right now I would shriek in pain, but my fatigue is almost nonexistent until after dinner, when it descends like a shroud of fog. I have also found the local habit of soaking in hot pots at the pool perfect for managing my pain. An hour’s soak and I am renewed! And the food in Iceland is a fibromite’s dream! The entire country is organic, no preservatives, no hormones added to meat. Food is expensive, but delicious and healthy. I am inspired!
So back out into Iceland I go to fling myself into a new adventure. Horse riding today, more coffee houses to find, live music in a pub, random artistic expressions cropping up all over the city (everyone here seems to be a musician, artist or writer.) I am continually inspired and renewed!