Sometimes you just have to give in, be a tourist, do touristy things, and go sightseeing.
With continued brilliant weather ahead, we hopped on the popular excursion known as the Golden Circle. From coastal Reykjavik, the day-long bus tour travels inland to visit such historical and natural sites as Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss (“golden falls”) waterfall, the geothermal area of Geysir, with its more active neighbor, Strokkur.
The route passes through a part of Iceland where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It’s the shifting of these plates, as tectonic things tend to do, that accounts for much of the country’s rugged terrain, built up through years of volcanic activity. As unusual as the landscape is, there’s also something familiar about it, reminiscent of Hawaii’s volcanic lava fields, Yes album covers, and Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
In the midst of Þingvellir National Park, sits Alþingi (above), the original home of Icelandic parliament. Established in 930 AD, this seemingly isolated site played a prominent role in Icelandic history, serving as a cultural as well as political center, and is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This water-filled rift (above, left) is called Nikulásargjá, but is better known as Peningagjá, or coin fissure, for the coins thrown from the bridge built for the King of Denmark in 1907.
Next on the tour is Gullfoss (above); the trail to the left of the waterfall gives a sense of the enormous scale of this spectacular series of cascading drops.
After a chilly hike around the falls, we’re fortified by an obligatory bowl of kjötsúpa for lunch. This traditional Icelandic soup is made from a hearty combination of simple ingredients brimming of place — cabbage, carrots, potatoes and rutabaga, simmered with an inexpensive cut of lamb. Even more of a discovery was the deliciously creamy, bright yellow Icelandic butter that accompanied our rolls.
Feeling sleepy after lunch, we almost sat out this part of the trip to Geysir. Joining the crowds to watch steam come out of the ground seemed, well, silly.
True to its name, the geyser Strokkur churned away, then rewarded our patience by erupting not once, but several times. It was hard not to take childish delight in this impressive gush of energy.
The human scale of Skálholt was a welcome change from the overwhelming beauty of the land around us. It served as the ancient seat of Icelandic Bishops, and, as with Alþingi, is of cultural and historical significance. The cathedral’s has been rebuilt in modern times, and a plainer chapel sits in its shadow, allowing a closer view of vernacular construction using layers of insulating sod and volcanic rock.
Conversation turned towards Hekla, a nearby volcano and one of Iceland’s most active, and Eyjafjallajökull, a little further south and which erupted in 2010 — both constant reminders of the land’s origins and the power of nature.
The tour found itself ahead of schedule, and we found we had time for some extra sights. First, Kerið (above), a volcanic crater lake in Grimsnes, and part of Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone.
Then the waterfall, Faxi (below), which means “mane.” At the far left, a salmon ladder is built into the very edge of the falls. Since sea fishing for Atlantic salmon is not permitted, it’s highly sought-after as a fresh-water fish.
The geothermal power plant, Hellisheiði, is our final stop. Iceland is proud of leading the world in harnessing this abundant source of renewable energy, and rightly so. As the largest plant in the country, this highly efficient station is run by a crew of 18 during the week, and only 2 employees on the week-ends.
Heading back to Reykjavik, we’re mesmerized by the passing grey-green landscape of lichen-covered lava fields. Also known as Icelandic moss, this native lichen can be found in teas, used as a seasoning, and to amend flour for baking during hard times.
Dinner that night was at Þrír Frakkar, or “3 Overcoats,” a cozy restaurant that’s the favorite of many, including the Icelandic president. The menu features traditional ingredients, and we sampled such Icelandic specialties as “Hreindýrapaté með cumberland sósu,” reindeer pate complemented with a fruity Cumberland sauce (above, left), and “Gratineraður Plokkfiskur með rúgbrauði,” or fish hash spiked with a beguiling hint of curry, draped over a bed of sliced potatoes, napped in béchamel, and served with black bread, a near cousin of New England Brown Bread.
Upon finding out that it was my first time in-country, the table next to ours insisted on sharing their order of Hákarl, or fermented shark, and bought us shots of Brennivín to wash it down with. The shark was as expected, chewy, and with a distinctive after-taste of ammonia. The Brennivín, notoriously nicknamed “Black Death,” is similar to Aquavit or vodka. This Icelandic version of schnapps is steeped with botanicals such as caraway, cumin and angelica, giving it a haunting and somewhat addicting flavor — Skál!
As we walked back to our hotel sometime after 10, the sun was beginning to set and cast a glow on the city. The day ended with a delightful find — a matching red car parked serendipitously in front of the little red house across the street from us.
• Iceland Excursions: The Golden Circle
• Þingvellir National Park
• Hellisheiði Geothermal Plant
• Þrír Frakkar
• Reykyavik, Part 1: Icelandic Daze
• Reykjavik, Part 3: Settlement Life
• Reykjavik, Part 4: Cod Wars and Hot Dogs