photo IMG_4387_zpsba20ee16.jpg

Golden Circle to Hella

The day’s plan was to see the popular tourist attractions near Reykjavik that make up the Golden Circle — Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gulfoss — and then begin our weeklong journey around the circumference of the island, spending the night on a horse farm in the south. I saw more tourists on this one day than the rest of the week combined. Actually, that’s an overstatement — of how many tourists I saw the rest of the week. If you’re planning to go to Iceland to “get away from it all,” you’ll need to get further away from Reykjavik than the Golden Circle.

Tip: We never exchanged currency at the beginning of our trip, and it became clear at the Þingvellir visitor center, where we could pay with credit card for dollar vending machine coffee and fifty cent public restroom access, that we probably wouldn’t need to. We never did, and I only regretted not having cash once. Exchange $50 and you’ll be fine.

 photo IMG_4359_zps123bc068.jpg
The ridge and valley that comprise Þingvellir.

Þingvellir is situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the North American and European continental plates and is moving apart at a rate of 7 milimeters per year at the site. It’s geographically striking — a deep chasm runs north-south here, and you descend into it at the site, walking between two high cliffs, and come out just above a large plain with a river. As such, I can see why it might have held appeal to early Icelanders: a ridge and river both lead to it, the river is a good water source, and the rock face creates a natural amphitheater.

Fittingly, Þingvellir is the site of the Alþing, an annual meeting of Viking tribal chiefs to discuss, debate, and recite laws from 930 until 1798. Iceland had no written language until the arrival of Christianity in the Middle Ages, so laws were committed to memory for the first few hundred years of Icelandic history. I’m sure someone pulled the old, “Wait, so I can’t murder my best friend for hitting on my daughter, but I can if he hits on my wife? Honest mistake, guys, won’t happen again.” And then they’d drown the wife because it was her fault and she was a witch. (Seriously, women accused of being witches were drowned at Þingvellir, in a bubbling brook fed by a cute little waterfall.)

 photo IMG_4364_zpsfe7f774b.jpg
Said bubbling brook.

Tip: That “Þ” character in Þingvellir and AlÞing is pronounced like “th.” Icelanders also pronounce the letter “v” the way we would use a “w,” so if you hear a local going on about “weeking” history and “weeking” beer, they’re saying the word you know and love as Viking.

Our next stop along the Golden Circle was Geysir. Because it was the first geyser to be described in print and the first known to Europeans, we have it to thank for the word “geyser.” Geysir is capable of shooting a massive amount of hot water 70 meters into the air, but around the middle of the twentieth century, tourists took to throwing things into it to encourage it to erupt, and it has responded by erupting much less frequently. It’s rare to visit Geysir and actually catch it erupting, as it can go days without so much as a sputter. (I wouldn’t wait around.)

Fortunately, there’s a smaller but still highly impressive geyser right next to Geysir in the same geothermal field, Strokkur, and it erupts every ten or fifteen minutes at a height of about 30 meters. We parked at the visitor center and crossed the street to the geothermal field, and the smell of sulfur was strong. As we approached Strokkur, I noticed that the outside temperature was the coldest we’d yet experienced on the trip, and it was raining lightly, and yet our feet were warm. I dipped my fingers in one of a number of little streams running through the roped-off pathways around the site, and the water was seriously hot. Before long, we were rewarded with a powerful eruption from Strokkur. Like most of the other tourists, we stood upwind, gawking and taking pictures.

 photo IMG_4370_zps109c027f.jpg
Strokkur, erupting.

We checked out Geysir from the roped-off path, which was basically a pit, and returned to Strokkur. This time, my guy thought it would be fun if we stood downwind. I had an umbrella, so I thought I wouldn’t get that wet if it erupted. Yeah, no. I got soaked. Apparently, the water vapor coming off a geyser that big can and will travel horizontally and give your face a hot splash of rotting eggs.

Geysir is a company as well as a geyser, and the visitor center includes a sprawling gift shop of Geysir branded souvenirs and apparel, and an elegant cafeteria. We could choose from pizzas, soups, and meat and vegetable platters, none of them under $15, but I waited in line shivering and watching plates get made long enough to work through the rationalization needed to order the pricy fish plate and a glass of red wine for myself. The fish plate was well worthwhile, with a pleasantly pink Arctic char steak, a fish cake, a creamy fish and vegetable salad, roasted root vegetables, and red potatoes, all covered with a soothing white, floury gravy. Needless to say, we skipped the gelato bar for dessert. On our way out, my guy bought me an Icelandic wool hat with ear flaps and a big pom pom from the gift shop. I loved it. And I needed it.

 photo IMG_4376_zps9fa220bd.jpg
My lunch at Geysir.

Our last stop of the Golden Circle tour was Gulfoss, a huge waterfall at a bend in the river Hvítá. Of Iceland’s thousands of waterfalls, it’s not the tallest or most powerful, but it is beautiful. And close to Reykjavik.

Tip: If you only have time to see two of the three attractions that comprise the Golden Circle tour, see Þingvellir and Geysir.

I nodded off to sleep a few times during the long ride from Gulfoss to Hótel Lækur, a horse farm and guesthouse just outside Hella in southern Iceland. My guy and I stopped at a hot springs tucked away on a farm at one point — he’d gotten the tip and a hand-drawn map on a napkin from the barista at a youth hostel and coffee shop in the morning — but there were already a few older men there when we got there, and it was the size of a small hot tub. Only when we were already deterred did my guy mention that the wooden structure a few meters downstream that one of the men was changing in had served as a slaughterhouse for sheep, and that the blood was washed away by the hot spring.

As we hiked back to the car, we noticed the plush ground cover beneath us. It looked dull and weedy yet felt springy and soft under our step. It wasn’t everywhere we went in Iceland, but it was a huge treat when we came across it, for the sensation of walking on pillows.

 photo IMG_4399_zps81796ea6.jpg
Sheep along the route.

We arrived to Hótel Lækur in the late afternoon. It was a few kilometers down a gravel road, inland from Hella. (Observe my embrace of the metric system.) The view east out our window appeared to be endless farmland under an overcast sky, and it was getting dark quickly. The weather had taken a turn for the worse — it was astonishingly windy, and raining lightly. I’d seen a cheeky coffee mug at the Geysir gift shop with a drawing of a clock and a caption, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait 15 minutes,” but this would last through the night. After we thought we’d unloaded all of our suitcases and supplies to our charming second-floor room, we had to play rock-paper-scissors to determine who had to run out to the car to retrieve the boxed wine.

Our room was cozy, with a puffy white duvet cover decorated with bright flowers, and a small TV, desk, and couch. When I showered, the water felt soapy, right up until I dried myself off. I’d come across this again — and I much preferred it to when the water smelled like sulfur.

Isolated as we were, we’d made a reservation at the guesthouse restaurant right beneath us, which served everyone the same meal and took advantage of local ingredients. The menu that night consisted of a smoked salmon appetizer, which was served with red peppers, brown bread, and butter; an enormous roasted lamb shank with two haystacks of mashed potatoes and roasted vegetables; and skyr cake and berries, which is similar to cheesecake. The lamb was my favorite I’d ever had in my life, and it still held the distinction at the end of the trip, after another half dozen other expertly cooked lamb dinners. I asked how it was cooked, given that it was so tender, and our server (unbeknownst to me at the time, the owner of the guest house) reported that the chef (his wife) cooked the shanks for seven to ten minutes, five times, over four hours. Garlic was involved. Why I didn’t ask for the whole recipe, I’ll never know.

We went to bed early, knowing we had a big day the next day, but it was there that I began a routine of waking up a few times in the middle of the night to see if we could see the Northern Lights.

No such luck. Yet.