Iceland Day 2 – The Golden Circle

After four hours sleep (at best) it was time for breakfast. The breakfast was better than some we’d had, but not that filling. The bus from the hotel is the same no matter which trip you’re on. It stops of at Reykjavik Excursions which is kind of like a hub for the trips. It’s also handy that the coach has a Wi-Fi connection. The trip we were on this day was the “Golden Circle” tour booked through Iceland Air, one of the most popular tours in the country.

Skálholt Cathedral

The bus journey was about 1hr30 to the first proper stop of the day. All this time it snowed with varying levels of accompanying fog. The first stop was a place called Skálholt where there was little more than a church (though it was referred to as a cathedral). We had to hurry though as it was going to be off limits to tourists not long after arriving for the Sunday mass. Inside there were many stained glass windows on each side (made by Gerður Helgadóttir), a large piece of art behind the altar, and an organ that was being played with accompanying vocals.

There were a few buildings outside the cathedral as well including a cafe and some figures carved into stone. This area is an important part of the Church of Iceland, and although was only built for the Millennium celebrations there had been previous churches that have stood there since the Icelanders converted to Catholicism in the 10th Century.

At present the majority of Icelanders are Protestant, though as they are the descendants of Viking settlers their ancestors worshipped Odin, Thor, Loki and the other Norse gods. When travelling around this is often evident in the names of places, buildings and companies. Although they are now Christian, they have not forgotten their roots.

Gullfoss, The Golden Waterfall

Quite a way down the road we stopped at Gullfoss (which can be translated into English as Golden Falls) which is part of the Hvítá river. By this time the snow had increased considerably to the point where it was difficult to stop my camera getting drenched. The falls were pretty amazing though. I liked the ice formations around the rock too. It’s possible to get several different views as you walk along the path on the cliff edge, or down some wooden stairs (which are tricky to go down when icy) to another viewing area. The falls themselves are actually made up of three stages with a total height of 64 metres.

At various points in Iceland’s history both foreign investors and the government itself have wanted to harness the waterfalls for generating electricity – though this has met opposition and financial issues. Although providing renewable energy sources is important I think it would be an incredible shame if they ruined these incredible waterfalls.

Strokkur: The Water Bulges

After that was the lunch stop travelling for 15 minutes back the way we’d come, to a place called Geysir. It seemed to make sense to get lunch first as we’d then know how much time we’d have left for looking around – and it meant we could get into the queue quickly. It’s possible to eat at a hotel there which serves a warm buffet meal, though we expected this to take too long so would eat into our photography time. Instead we went to Geysir Verslun which is the building that contains fast-food, souvenirs, and a multimedia museum. Lunch consisted of a chicken burger and macaroni cheese dips for 1860 krona with a drink.

By the time we’d finished eating this left us with about an hour to look around the geysers. The snowfall changed from bad to extremely bad which made it harder to take photos. I suspect this entire area would have looked far more impressive if the snowfall hadn’t been so heavy.

Geysir: Blesi

The area where the geysers Great Geysir and Strokkur are located is over the road from the shops and food place and areas are roped off to avoid you getting to close to boiling water. The geyser known as the Great Geysir is classed as a High Temperature Geothermal Geyser – so not one you want to get too close to anyway. The first sign of geological activity was a small pit of bubbling water, but eventually we got to Strokkur where we saw it “erupt” a couple of times before we moved on to look around the rest.

At the top of the path is a pool of extremely milky blue water indicating it is filled with glacial water (it is the mineral content that causes this milky cloud). Heading slowly back to the shops we stopped and watched Strokkur erupt a couple more times, but as it was getting colder we didn’t stick around too long. Inside the shopping area they also have a multimedia tour of sorts where you can learn about the geysers in Geysir and how all other instances of this phenomena are named after the one in Iceland. We found these shops were prone to people jumping the queue, but that of course is down to the tourists visiting  rather than the shop. The shops sell the usual Icelandic souvenirs such as model viking ships and t-shirts, but they also have an extensive clothes department selling woollen products.

Geysir – The snow covers all

Apparently the hot springs in Geysir have been there for around 10,000 years, though was first recorded in 1294. The activity of Geysir varies greatly and can often spend many years practically dormant until another earthquake, such as the massive one they had in 1630 wakes it up again.

From here we continued our journey back to Reykjavik via two places in Thingvellir (spelt Þingvellir in Icelandic, and meaning Thing Fields in English) where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet to form the mid-Atlantic ridge. The path at the first place leads you over this ridge and you can see how the plates have separated causing a small crevice filled with water. There is also a good view point from here where you can look back over the path and the largest natural lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn.

Between tectonic plates

At the time we were there it was entirely frozen over. Apparently it had been here where the National Parliament had formed in the year 930. There is also some good areas around there for scuba diving in fissures, and we did see one group doing this. Sadly this was not something we had time for, but probably could have if we’d had an extra day in Iceland.

At some point prior to our visit it had been possible to walk from the first viewing point to the second, but apparently one day a hole started to form in the path. This eventually collapsed to reveal that for some time the path had been there with nothing beneath it. On the way to this second viewing point we passed another bus from Reykjavik Excursions which had broken down.

Þingvellir National Park

It was a change for us to not be the ones on the bus that was broken, so we stopped briefly to pick up a couple of extra passengers. This second viewing point gave a better view of the lake and also had facilities and a shop. We didn’t really get any good photographs from this viewpoint as the snow was blowing the wrong way which meant any attempts resulted in a snow coated lens. It was a pretty good view though, at least what we could see of it, and I imagine on dry days it would have made a good picture.

From here we then started the long journey back to our hotel, though on the way we suspected the Northern Lights tour for the evening would be cancelled as although by this time the snow was easing off there was very little chance that the clouds would clear in time. Sure enough, by the time we got back to the hotel they had confirmed that the tour would be cancelled. We’d also heard it had been cancelled due to the weather for a few days previous as well, and that the last time the tour had actually run there had been no solar activity to produce the light show.

As we knew there was no tour that night it seemed like a good opportunity to get a shower and go out for food. The hotel receptionist recommended a place around the corner from the Klettur Hotel called Potturinn Og Pannan (I believe this would translate to English as Pot and Kettle). They’re about mid-range in terms of pricing but do pasta dishes for between 2000 and 3000kr. The salad there was also very good, so is recommended if you feel you need something healthy.

The remainder of the evening was spent watching The Mummy on ITV1. By some miracle the hotel had most the UK terrestrial channels. Although BBC 2 didn’t work so we couldn’t watch Top Gear.

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