Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Iceland: The Golden Circle

The "Golden Circle" is a 300km route through central and southern Iceland taking in some of the famous tourist attractions near Reykjavik. Including Þingvellir, Gullfoss and Haukadalur geothermal area.

Þingvellir National park is the site of the world's oldest parliament, existing there since 930 CE. It is also the site of a rift valley between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates which are moving apart at the rate of around 2cm per year. The site is of significant historical and natural significance to Iceland, and so has been declared a UNESCO world heritage area.


Rift valley
1000 year old church
The site of the Alþingi

The Alþingi was held here from 930 to 1798 and functioned both as a parliament and a court. Each year it would meet to make laws and hand out judgements. Criminal sanctions were harsh - often handing out the death penalty. This was usually carried out by drowning the guilty in the nearby frozen spring.


The frozen spring where the death penalty was carried out in the 1200s

From the Þingvellir the Golden circle continues to the Haukadalur geothermal area where there are several geysers and many hot springs. The most famous is Geysir (from where the word geyser comes from) however, this geyser is no longer active - in contrast to Strokkur which erupts every 10 minutes or so.


Yes tourists - hot springs are actually hot!
Strokkur erupting

In addition to the impressive Strokkur geyser, there are many other hot springs around this area.


Little geyser
Hot spring
Sunset over the valley

From here the Golden Circle continued to Gullfoss.


Gullfoss
The river feeding the Gullfoss

The Gullfoss is a spectacular waterfall but it only exists today because of the efforts of the owner of the farm on which the falls were in the early 20th century.

A businessman wanted to dam the river for hydro electric power. The daughter of the owner of the farm, Sigríður Tómasdóttir, objected - likening it to "killing a friend". She built a protest movement against the damming of the river, at one stage threatening to this herself into the Gullfoss. The project was eventually abandoned and the government protected the Gullfoss.

Sigríður Tómasdóttir is widely celebrated as one of Iceland's first environmental campaigners and a statue of her is at the top of the Gullfoss.

After seeing the beauty of the Gullfoss, it was time to relax in one of Iceland's oldest public hot spring baths: The secret lagoon.


The geyser feeding to pool

The secret lagoon is fed by several hot springs which have been artificially dammed to create a pool.

Public bathing in geothermally heated water is a big thing in Iceland (there are several public pools in Reykjavik). There are only a few natural pools near the city - the secret lagoon and the more famous (and touristy) blue lagoon.

Icelanders take the cleanliness of bathing very seriously. Bathers are expected to strip down and was *thoroughly* with soap. The signs explaining this are quite explicit in describing how bathers should clean.

This is quite understandable since the natural pools are not chlorinated. The cleaning procedure is very much like that for onsen in Japan, except the pools are mixed gender so bathers are worn after showering.

The pools are incredibly relaxing and the secret lagoon particularly so since it was far away from the city. It also has a mini geyser that erupts and its hot water flows into the pool - this contributes to the otherworldliness of the experience.

Although the man made public pools in Reykjavik are also relaxing - nothing quite compared to the secret lagoon.