Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon

On Monday we hired a car to do the "Golden Circle" tour - we were going to go with a tour company but Helgi and Paul insisted it would be cheaper and easier to drive ourselves. The car didn't come with satnav, so I appointed George the cuddly puffin to do the job instead. I'd bought George the day before to assuage my guilt (see earlier post!).

The Golden Circle tour consists of four sites relatively close together: Geysir, the Gullfoss waterfall, Þingvellir, a national park containing the site of the oldest parliament in the world, and Skálholt, one of the oldest Christian sites in Iceland.

Geysir marked the beginning of what were to be a fairly surreal couple of days. The Haukadalur valley in which Geysir is situated features a field full of holes pouring steam, man-sized pools of boiling water, and rings of expectant tourists clustered around larger stone pools waiting to say "blimey" in their native tongue as they get soaked through by rather pleasantly warm towers of water. All of the major geysers are named - Strokkur is a regular chap, belching wetly every six or seven minutes, but the great Geysir only graced us with one eruption, which none of us managed to get on film. All of the geysers confirmed our egg-sulphur theory however, as the whole place had a familiar whiff of rotten eggs to it.

Leaving Haukadalur valley we drove on to Hvítárgljúfur canyon, where the Gullfoss waterfall was ready to boggle our braincells with terror. The terror started some time before reaching the waterfall, when I stepped onto the wooden walkway to the visitor centre and found it immensely slippery. "Jeezaforfucksakes" exclaimed and flailing dances performed we all wandered gingerly down the hillside. At the bottom of the hilariously iced-up wooden steps we reached the path that followed the edge of the top of the canyon, trailing slightly upward around to the peak of the waterfall itself. To describe this path as "a bit icy" would be akin to describing a pavement as "a bit concretey" - the entire thing was one long (and rather cambered) strip of ice. At the peak there was a safety rope, which reminded me of previous conversations about Icelandic health and safety, because it was lying on the ground in the main. Of course that means nothing gets in the way of the photos :)

Þingvellir is an immensely peaceful place. We didn't see a lot of it as it's not the best time of year to go - most of the wildlife has done the sensible thing and buggered off for the Winter. But the Almannagjá ravine was still very impressive. It leads to the site where the Alþingi (Icelandic parliament) convened, from 930 AD. What I found most interesting is that the parliament convened there annually right up until the end of the 18th century. The view from the cliff above the ravine is beautiful - huge plains broken by small streams and the occasional tiny lake stretching out to the horizon, bounded by shining snow-speckled mountains. The plains are actually much more rugged close up - the land is broken quite a lot by fissures and caves because the whole area is right on the join between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

Tuesday morning saw another early rise - we were due to do the only thing we booked in Iceland before leaving the UK: our trip to the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is an artificial outdoor pool created by filling a large natural gully through volcanic rock with waste water from the geothermal power plant next door. The result is a pool of water coloured blue from the minerals in the rocks, at a temperature of 37-39 degrees celsius. It steams immensely, and the steam is carried by the wind, so you can't see further than about 25m - you certainly can't ever see one side from the other. There is a restaurant in the building where we had lunch - including a white chocolate Skyr mousse, yum yum. The restaurant is called "Lava" because two of it's walls are carved out of the volcanic rock. The other two were almost entirely glass, looking out onto the lagoon. The architecture and lighting left me with the distinct impression we were guests of some archenemy of James Bond.. there was a pretty neat "supervillain's volcano hideaway" vibe to the whole place. I had an hour-long massage while I was there too, which was very nice. I was impressed (and slightly disturbed) when the masseur said, ten minutes in, "You work in IT, right?". I said "Yeah, but what specifically?". He didn't even pause - "Games". Masseur and psychic, clever stuff. We chatted quite a lot; by bizarre coincidence in his previous job as a carpenter he helped build CCP's studio in Reykjavik. Small world..

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