I admit I was wrong. Alighting in the stark and featureless environment of the airport made me wonder if I had undertaken this voyage without sufficient thought. I gazed at the dark, rocky and forbidding land around me and assumed what I was seeing was the sum total of Iceland. I was wrong.
This morning after climbing into my car and nosing out into the traffic of Rejkavik unsure in which direction I’d advance, I simply chose what seemed to be a busy thoroughfare and set out. I was sure that — knowing the smallish size of the city — I’d eventually emerge to street signs that told me where I was. In this, at least, I wasn’t wrong. I soon saw the signs for Geysir, the exact direction in which I was headed and turned on that line of black pavement.
Soon after I exited the city, the landscape changed. Dramatically. Flat, black rock was replaced by irregularly shaped patches of lupine, tall mountains with snow slopping down their sides like ice cream in a cone, majestic lakes, still basically treeless but now with scenery that encompassed an incredible variety of hues. This was the Iceland I expected.
The clouds sent ever-changing shadows over the mountains and plains. Azure lupine was joined by yellow dandelions and lesser flowers that clung close to the ground. Icelandic ponies of all colors seemingly grazed in every field. Small hand-painted signs for “Pony Rides” were scattered along the road and I longed to turn into one of the lanes. But my time today is precious and I’ll let pony-riding wait for another day.
Fluffy Icelandic sheep — white, black and brown — nipped at the tall grass. They are mostly free ranging and little resemble American sheep. Their tails are long and their coats a bushy, dense jungle that I imagine protects them from the winter and cold.
In this type of landscape it’s difficult not to stop every 15 minutes or so to snap photos; so I didn’t restrict myself. What a joy — to immerse myself in the beauty of a foreign place. I imagine that anyone in a car that found itself behind me was cursing the driver who slowed down and stopped at every chance.
After about an hour, I came upon a bizarre double ridge of rocks that sprouted from the ground. Pulling off the road, I spotted a trail the wound its way up the hillside. I set off. The vista that greeted me at the top of the incline was, to say the least, magical and spectacular. It was a green valley cut into a narrow cleft between two towering walls of basalt columns. Birds fluttered overhead, swooping to catch small ivory butterflies in their slender bills. I heard a deep thrumming, like a Southern bullfrog on steroids. Bruuummm. Bruummm. Although I searched for it, I could never locate the origin of the sound. Elves? Trolls?
I had stumbled upon one of the most important pieces of cultural history in Iceland. Þingvellir National Park. It’s also a geologic wonder created by the upward shifts of the tectonic plates beneath the earth here, a wild rending of the very ground itself created by volcanic activity.
Further down, the narrow valley opened to reveal a wider-gauge gap, the space between the basalt cliffs spreading to reveal a tumbling stream. It was this deep valley, in AD 930, where Iceland’s 36 Viking chieftains agreed they would meet for their annual Alþingi, or National Assembly.
It was the island’s cultural hub for centuries.
The island’s entire population, 60,000 people, would gather here between the basalt cliffs to revise their laws and hold “court.” Some people journeyed for as along as two weeks to reach the site and it is rumored an entire river was diverted to provide water for the gathered throng. Discussions would be held on “Law Rock,” Lögberg in Icelandic, which towered above the valley. Here, the “Lawspeaker,” who was elected every three years, would preside.
Tents and temporary housing was quickly thrown up between the basalt cliffs to shelter the mobs who attended. All sorts of crafts were sold on the grounds and games and contests were frequent. Sometimes disputes were settled by actual combat. The last assembly was held in 1798.
I found it hard to even imagine the teaming mass of humanity that descended on this sacred spot every year. The valley must have been filled from basalt rim to basalt rim.
It fell into disuse but opened as a park in 1930. Þingvellir was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
Standing on the same ground where ancient Vikings trod was an almost spiritual experience. Iceland is so much more than I originally thought and I look forward to proving myself even more wrong in the coming days.