late night arrival in iceland, check-in to reykjavik, & a trip around the golden circle. first stop: Þingvellir national park

Saturday, August 13:  Many people these days take advantage of the Iceland Air Stopover , which allows a 7-night stopover for travelers en route from the USA to Europe.  We don’t do the stopover, but instead opt to focus our entire vacation on Iceland.  Our plan is to spend eleven full days driving around the famous Ring Road in a rented car. In retrospect, we should have planned our trip for a minimum of 14 days.  I’m always a firm believer in spending at least two weeks in a country, if not more, because I like to be immersed, to take on the culture of a place, to feel like I belong.  To drive the Ring Road in a leisurely fashion (some of it is not paved, though it’s in decent shape), to do some longer hikes and other activities, like glacier walking and horseback-riding, we could certainly have used more time.

While waiting at Dulles International Airport for our 2:10 pm flight, I use the bathroom and then walk to the end of the gate corridor.  I realize when I check my steps that my Fitbit has disappeared from my wrist!  I figure the only place I could have lost it was the bathroom, where I took off and put back on my backpack.  Luckily, when I go back, the cleaning lady has found it and hands it directly to me.  This will be the first of many times during our trip that my Fitbit goes missing. 🙂

Our flight from Dulles to Reykjavik is 5 1/2 hours.  During the flight on Iceland Air, we watch a hilarious Icelandic movie, Albatross.  We don’t have any earphones with us, and, as Iceland Air charges for EVERY SINGLE THING except sodas, juice or water, we opt not to dish out $5 for earphones.  Instead, we watch the movie by subtitles only, which is still enjoyable. No matter, the Icelandic would have been unintelligible to us.  In the movie, city boy Tommi, who has big plans for the future, chases his girlfriend to the wild Westfjords.  Soon after he arrives, she dumps him, and he is stuck with a strange cast of characters working at a golf course.

In one scene, the three guys working at the golf course have a long discussion about toilet paper.  One of the guys comes out of the bathroom naked after his bathroom use; he says he shits naked because he doesn’t want to get his shirt dirty!  A conversation ensues with the other two guys giving him grief:  “You just pull up your shirt!”  Then they ask each other whether they wipe from front to back and how much toilet paper they use. One says he uses two pieces and the other two tease him for wiping like a woman. Another says he rolls a bunch around his hand.  One mentions that if you wipe from the back to the front, you get it on your balls, and the other says, No!  You tuck them in!

I’m laughing so hard, I’m crying.

In another scene, the golf course owner is trying to win a competitive bid for an important golf tournament.  The sponsors want a driving range, but the terns have built nests all over the driving range and every time someone tries to use it, the terns dive bomb them.  Of course, an environmentalist is on the scene, arguing against disturbing the terns.  In a hilarious, slow-motion scene, the guys at the golf course have to move the tern nests to the other side of the road, with the terns attacking them from all sides.

A funny and heartwarming movie, watched only with subtitles and no sound. 🙂  Later, as Mike and I travel around Iceland, we notice the multitudes of golf courses and can’t help but think fondly of these Icelandic characters.

me at Dulles International Airport, waiting for our flight to Iceland
me at Dulles International Airport, waiting for our flight to Iceland

When we arrive at the Keflavik Airport at 11:40 pm, we have to deal with the Budget Rental Car person, who tries to charge us over $600 for car insurance.  Iceland is extremely expensive in every way imaginable, so we’ve already paid a fortune for the rental car — about $1,200 for 11 days!  Our confirmation isn’t clear on whether we’d purchased car insurance when we’d booked, and we honestly can’t remember.  In one place on our confirmation, it says we have the Collision Damage Waiver, and in another place it says we have only travel insurance.  The woman at the Budget counter tells us she has no record of any insurance purchased.  After much confusion, we decline the coverage, figuring the credit card that we used for booking through CheapTickets.com provides coverage.  We do opt to rent the Garmin GPS, to help us navigate our way around Iceland.

When we exit the airport in pouring rain, we search the parking lot for a red VW Polo.  When we finally find it, we try like hell to get the trunk open but our key doesn’t seem to do it, and we can’t figure out how to open it in the dark.  Finally we throw both our suitcases in the back seat and try to start the car.  It won’t start.  It’s like a Three Stooges movie, but with only two stooges!  As Mike tries unsuccessfully to start the car, I notice instructions on the dashboard to put your foot on the brake to start the car.  What amazing things happen when you read directions!

Next, we have to figure out how to use the Garmin.  We’re used to using our phones for directions, but neither of our phones work here.  We keep putting in the address of the BGB Guesthouse, Hafnargata 58,  but the Garmin says the address isn’t found.  We figure we’ll try to find it using Mike’s printed directions, but they’re pathetic and we can barely see them in the dark.  We end up driving around in circles in the airport parking lot about three times before finding our way out.  Finally, after driving in the dark rain for a while, not having any idea where we’re going, we find the Ace Guesthouse, which is open.  A woman inside tells Mike to “go to the lights and turn right” to find BGB Guesthouse.  I ask Mike what lights she is talking about?  We drive down the road and see many lights but finally we come to some low traffic signals and turn right.  We’re still not on the right road, but I see the sign for Hafnargata intersecting our road.  We head down Hafnargata and finally come to #58, BGB Guesthouse.  We’ve been given a code to get in as it’s a self-service guesthouse.  With the code, I open a lockbox and remove the key, but I can’t get it to work.  Finally, by 2:30 a.m., after many attempts, we find our way inside an itsy-bitsy room with birds flying above our pillows and reindeer on the pillows.  We collapse, relieved to finally reach our destination.

Our very tiny room at BGB Guesthouse
Our very tiny room at BGB Guesthouse

Sunday, August 14:  In the morning, we wake up early and use the shared bathrooms, with showers the size of telephone booths, at the far end of the hall.  About half of our guesthouses or hotels in Iceland will have shared bathrooms, which I hate!  But, even though we booked two months ahead, many of the more ideal places were already booked.  In a country that normally has a population of ~330,000, there are not enough accommodation options to serve the swells of summer tourists.  The accommodation that we find is very expensive and, at the same time, very simple.  Many people opt to camp or rent campers during the tourist season.

BGB Guesthouse
BGB Guesthouse

We pack up and get ready to head to Reykjavik. It’s dark, dreary, wet and cold.  Our plan is to check into Freyja Guesthouse , which we found on Airbnb, and then head immediately to The Golden Circle for the day.

Our VW Polo rental car
Our VW Polo rental car

After checking into one of our favorite guesthouses in Iceland, we take off for the Golden Circle, an artificial tourist circuit which encompasses three major attractions: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss and Geysir.  This route is only about 100 km from the capital and can be done in one day; it’s not to be confused with the Ring Road, which circles the entire country and takes over a week to complete.

By this time, it’s about 12:30 and we’re hungry for lunch.  We’ve heard the hot dogs in Iceland’s gas stations are fantastic, so we stop at a gas station to taste for ourselves.  The hot dogs are wrapped in bacon and are normally served on a bed of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, fried and fresh onions.  I have mine with only mustard and fried onions.  They’re certainly tasty, but I’m not sure they live up to their reputation! We might have tried one of the healthier options, shown below, in the same gas station.

a gas station outside of Reykjavik
a gas station outside of Reykjavik

Outside the gas station, we encounter this little fella peeing on a rock.  Mike says there ought to be a girl squatting behind the rock with a piece of bronze toilet paper left behind.  We see toilet paper evidence of women peeing all over the country, and I have to admit I was a guilty party in this regard as well.  Sadly, bathroom facilities are few and far between around Iceland’s Ring Road.

a representation of what most people have to do in Iceland because there aren't enough facilities :-)
a statue showing what most people have to do in Iceland because there aren’t enough facilities 🙂

We begin our drive of The Golden Circle, gasping at every scene before us.  I ask Mike to pull over the car for pictures too many times to count.  This will happen during our entire trip.

a farmhouse along the Golden Circle
a farmhouse along the Golden Circle

It’s not easy to pull off to take myriad pictures because the roads in Iceland are generally two-lane highways on a raised bed with no shoulders.  Every once in a while there is a gravel pull-off or a farm driveway where you can pull off; whatever view you have from that spot is the picture you’ll get.

another pretty view along The Golden Circle
another pretty view along The Golden Circle
Driving, and stopping.
Driving, and stopping.

We almost miss the entrance to Þingvellir National Park, but we turn around at the first opportunity and go back.  Þingvellir, anglicized as Thingvellir, is a spot of natural beauty, situated as it is on a tectonic plate boundary where North America and Europe are tearing away from each other at a rate of 1mm to 18mm per year.  Dramatic fissures, ponds and rivers scar the plain. (Lonely Planet Iceland)

Here, the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþingi (pronounced al-thingk-ee), in 930.  Þingvellir, the “assembly fields” or “Parliament Plains,” sits approximately 45 kilometres (28 mi) east of what later became the country’s capital, Reykjavik. This event marked the beginning of the Icelandic Commonwealth. Even after Iceland’s union with Norway in 1262, the Althing still held its sessions at Þingvellir until 1799, when it was discontinued for 45 years. It was restored in 1844 and moved to Reykjavík, where it has resided ever since.

Þingvellir National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.

First views over Þingvellir National Park
First views over Þingvellir National Park

From the cliff-top visitor’s center, we can see over the great rift, Almannagjá.

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

Below us, we can also see the farmhouse known as Pingvallabaer at the bottom of the rift.  It was built in 1930 for the 1000th anniversary of the Alþingi and is the official summer residence of the Prime Minister of Iceland.  It is used for receptions hosted by the Prime Minister’s office.

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
Icelandic rocks and flora
Icelandic rocks and flora

We take the path that runs along the fault between the cliff-top and Alþingi site.

The Tectonic Plates
The Tectonic Plates

The meetings of the Alþingi were conducted outside, and as with many saga sites, only the stone foundations of the ancient encampments remain.

view of the tectonic plates where Europe and North America are tearing away from each other
view of the tectonic plates where Europe and North America are tearing away from each other
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the tectonic plates
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the Tectonic Plates
flora and rocks at Þingvellir National Park
flora and rocks at Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir lay adjacent to a lake abundant with fish on land with plenty of firewood; it was a dramatic setting perfect for political oratory.  Every important decision regarding Iceland was made on this plain: laws were passed, marriage contracts were made, and even the country’s religion was decided here.  The annual parliament was also a great social occasion, where people met and exchanged news, feasted and played games.  Entertainers performed, merchants sold goods and services, and ale-makers brewed drinks for the assembly.

Almannagjá, the plain scarred by fissures
Almannagjá, the rift plain scarred by fissures

It’s fairly difficult to take pictures here today as it alternately rains steadily or spits periodically.  I keep wiping off raindrop smudges on my lens and have to keep putting my lens cap back on immediately after taking photos.  Many times, I tuck my camera into my raincoat or under my arm.  So, if you see some blurry-looking spots on my photos, that’s why. 🙂

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park: rocks and flora
Þingvellir National Park: rocks and flora
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Þingvellir National Park
vegetation at Þingvellir National Park
vegetation at Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
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me at Þingvellir National Park
Pingvallabaer
Pingvallabaer
Almannagjá
Almannagjá
pretty flora of Almannagjá
pretty flora of Almannagjá
Almannagjá
Almannagjá

The church, Pingvallakirkja, has been at Þingvellir since shortly after Christianity was formally adopted by the Alþingi in the year AD 1000.  In the Kristnisaga, it’s stated that Olaf the Holy, King of Norway, who came to power in AD 1015, provided wood in order to build a church here.  It’s not known for sure where the original church stood and most likely there were in fact two churches in Þingvellir, one for the parliamentarians and one for the local parish.  Research shows that the church was moved to the place where it now stands around AD 1500.  The current church was built in 1859 and consecrated on Christmas Day that year.  The tower was added in 1907.

Pingvallakirkja
Pingvallakirkja

The parish cemetery serves the local community that surrounds Þingvellir.  Many lie here that originate from farms now long abandoned.  The last church priest buried here was Heimir Steinsson (d. 2000), who also served as the National Parks manager.  In 2009, a new gate was built by students from Hafnarfjordur Technical College using traditional woodworking skills.

entrance to Pingvallakirkja's cemetery
entrance to Pingvallakirkja’s cemetery
Pingvallakirkja's cemetery
Pingvallakirkja’s cemetery
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
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Þingvellir National Park
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Þingvellir National Park
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Þingvellir National Park
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Þingvellir National Park

We continue to walk along the many trails here, eventually ending up at the most impressive spot where the river Öxará cuts across the western plate, at Öxarárfoss.  By this time it’s raining quite steadily and it’s hard to get a good picture.  I keep putting my lens cap back on my camera and wiping the lens off.

Öxarárfoss
Öxarárfoss
the river Öxará cuts the plate
the river Öxará cuts the plate
the boardwalk along the "Law Rock"
the boardwalk along the “Law Rock”
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park
the river Öxará
the river Öxará
the river Öxará
the river Öxará

It’s a long walk back to the Visitor’s Center, and after quite a distance, I pull my camera out from inside my raincoat and find my lens cap is missing.  We walk back quite a way along the path, but we can never find it.  It’s such a bummer to lose my lens cap right at the beginning or our trip!  Between that and my Fitbit, which keeps falling off every time I put on or take off my back pack, I’m definitely being challenged at every turn!

the greens of Iceland
the greens of Iceland
green foliage of Iceland
green foliage of Iceland
Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

One of the great things about Iceland’s national parks is that most of them are free.  However, you sometimes have to pay for parking, as we do here, and you often have to pay to use the toilets, which are few and far between.

Finally, we make it back to the Visitor’s Center, where we hop back in the car and make our way to the next stop on the Golden Circle.  On the way, I nudge Mike several times to pull off for pictures.

views along The Golden Circle
views along The Golden Circle
mist-covered mountains
mist-covered mountains

We see the famous Icelandic horses and sheep all over Iceland during our trip.  Every time I see them, I want to stop and take pictures!  Horses have always been one of my favorite animals, and the sheep are adorable.

the Icelandic horses
the Icelandic horses
view along the Golden Circle
view along the Golden Circle

Our next stop along The Golden Circle: Gullfoss.