Thingvellir National Park is formed around a split in the earth where two tectonic plates are quite literally pulling apart. I was determined to witness this and my intrepid sister traveler, Suzanna, felt the same. The place touched something deep in me, a thrumming ancient part.
From Keflavik Airport
My trip to Iceland was almost accidental. I was headed to Berchtesgaden, Germany to hike in the Bavarian Alps (blogposts soon to follow.) But Iceland Air has this layover policy—a brilliant move to attract tourism—that allows you to stay in Iceland up to five days without having to pay an additional flight cost when you continue on.
Suzanna and I arrived at 6 am Icelandic time (2 am for us ) and, though sleep deprived, we were eager to begin exploring, as the sign at the airport suggested.
After a quick breakfast, we picked up our rental car. (Note: it’s a lot cheaper to rent a stick shift, and the skills do come back to one. The roads are flat and well maintained, at least in summer when we went.)
Enormous lava fields surround the airport, basically flat plains with what look like burlap-covered stones all over, with shoots of green intermingled, and various uprisings of earth interrupting the plain with bumps. They are weird. Fascinating. By the time I left the country, I found them downright loveable.
We stopped at a grocery for lunch-makings and snacks, then headed to Thingvellir National Park, about an hour-and-a-quarter’s drive away. The driving was easy except for the nine thousand rotaries (exaggerating just a little) that tested my downshifting skills and my foggy brain, this now being several hours later into our all-nighter. The speed limit was generally 80 kph, or 48 mph, which felt just about right.
We pulled over for a scenic stop to view some mountains, mountains appearing all over the place in Iceland, and parked next to an empty bus whose driver sat inside reading a newspaper.
Many of the larger mountains we saw on our first day were barren, devoid of any softening green, simply mud brown or sand brown, and dry. You don’t notice the dust for the first few hours, until you can’t seem to drink enough water and your eyes tinge pink and your hands feel gritty. It’s a hard-looking land, left over from the violence of volcanoes. Mountains seem ripped apart, oddly shaped, pounded. A land that could, and as I’ve read, did, beget unusual people and hard tales. (Though every Icelander we met was friendly and warm.)
I walked over to the bus driver and asked if he knew the name of the mountain we were staring at. He did. I went back to relay the name to Suzanna, a name I’ve now forgotten. But what I’ll always remember is that he then came over to tell us the story of the area, our first Icelandic Saga:
An aged man named Egill Skallagrimsson decided he wanted to ride to the national assembly (like a parliament) bearing two trunks filled with silver. He longed to toss his silver into the crowd and watch everyone fight over the treasure. His daughter—a kinder person or looking out for her inheritance—refused to let him go. To punish her, he had slaves bury the silver. He then killed the slaves and refused to tell anyone where his treasure lay.
I have no idea what Icelanders derive from this Saga, but I found it unsettling. How does it affect you?
Thingvellir National Park
We were reminded of Egill and his silver when we reached the National Park which is also home to Law Rock, around which the parliament met in an assembly, the very rock from which Egill wished to fling his riches and enjoy the mayhem. “Thingvellir” literally means “Assembly Plains.” The parliament was established in 930 AD and continued to meet there until 1798.
I should have been more impressed by Law Rock and the long Icelandic parliamentary tradition, but I was stunned by the riven landscape. This happened often to me in Iceland, that much of the culture and art that I longed to learn in other countries, took second place when I was faced with the repressed furies of the land itself.
Iceland was formed from the actions of two different sources: the diverging North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and a mantle plume, i.e., a hotspot on the earth where unusually hot rock swells from earth’s core to the surface. Today the plates continue to move, one pulling west and the other east, creating a fissure zone, of which Thingvellir National Park is one part. The result is what you see below, fissures in the land, and long columns of basalt, rock formed from cooled lava. The whole area is covered with a 10,000-year-old lava field.
In some cases, stones are marked with what look like sections of a labyrinth or maze. These formed when the top layer of lava cooled more quickly than the hotter lava flowing beneath, much like the “skin” that forms on a saucepan full of heated milk or a mug of hot chocolate.
Because of the parliament and Law Rock, a church was built here, originally from wood sent as a gift from King Olaf the Stout of Norway. The present church dates back to 1859 and sits next to the official summer residence of the Icelandic Prime Minister, though the residence is mostly used for receptions for visiting dignitaries. It’s a sweet little church, but you can see it and the residence just as well from the park, no need to go visit up close; you can’t get inside, and if you are wanting to see other sights of the Golden Circle, you can save yourself a bit of time here.
I know this because we spent way too long getting over there by car and were unable to visit the geysers and get to our “hotel” a several-hour drive away. However, from the church area we did see a wedding photo shoot back at the rift. Turning around to see brides and grooms pop up out of nowhere became a theme of our Icelandic stay, as you’ll see when you read successive posts.