Day two: in which I visited a Thing
I booked a coach tour, with some trepidation, since coach tours aren’t really my favourite thing. But since I’m here for such a short time, it did seem like the most sensible way of doing quite a lot. In retrospect, I wish I’d arranged my time slightly differently so that I could do something else tomorrow, but I will explain that later. As it was, I went on this tour of the Golden Circle which included a stop at the Fontana geothermal spa. It was a long trip, from 8.30am to 6pm but the bus company picks you up and drops you off at your hotel, so it is very easy.
In that time, we made five stops and the actual journeys were 20-40 minutes each, so we never had long hours of sitting on the coach looking at boring roads. And, in fact, the landscape here is so extraordinary that it was never boring anyway. The guide told us when we were looking at interesting things and included various general background details about Iceland, but very sensibly did not feel obliged to fill every moment with commentary. We were outside more than we were on the coach and apart from the very last bit, we were free to do whatever we wanted during the coach stops, so that was good.
The first stop was at a ‘farm’. When I say ‘farm’, I mean ‘very expensive coffee shop and gift shop with a few Icelandic ponies in pens outside’. The ponies were lovely, however, and the guide had bread for us to feed them with (I was surprised by this – is this a normal thing to feed horses? Maybe in Iceland it is.) The ponies come in all different colours – dark bay, bright chestnut, grey, palomino, and more – with long flowing manes and tails. They still have their winter coats. Apparently you’re not supposed to ride them in winter, because that makes them lose their winter coats and then they freeze. Farms in Iceland raise horses (for meat as well as riding) or sheep (for wool and meat). There is some agriculture – small amounts of wheat and barley, and some horticulture – we saw several greenhouses and polytunnels. Farmers are also subsidised to plant trees. Mostly conifers but we also saw a lot of birch. So although they’ll tell you there are no trees in Iceland, there are actually quite a lot, at least in this area.
Next stop, Gulfoss. ‘Foss’ means waterfall and this one is pretty spectacular. I am not good with heights so I did not go out on the walkway over the river and stayed safely on the alternative path well away from the edge. There was one guy on our bus in a wheelchair and I was very impressed by how easily accessible everywhere we went was. All the paths were wide and smooth to make even the rocky lava terrain suitable for wheels.
Third stop, Geysir. This was my favourite. I could have stayed all day watching the pools of bubbling water and the shooting spurts of steaming water from the one active geysir. The big Geysir (after which all the others are named) is currently inactive, but there is a smaller one which shoots up to 20-30m high every few minutes. You can feel the streams of water several metres away from the geysirs and it is still warmish, even on a freezing cold day. But in the pools it is boiling and there are warning signs all over the place telling you it is 80-100 degrees (celsius). There was one little one which looked just like a boiling cauldron. In Stokkur you can watch the water cycle through between eruptions. It begins to roil and surge, then it burps out little spurts, and then it blows up. Afterwards, you can clearly see the central pipe and all the water falling back in from the surrounding area to fill it until it’s level again. Two small bursts and then one big one. The sulphur in the air smells so revolting that it must be doing you good.
I had lunch at the cafe at Geysir: smoked lamb on flatbreads. Very delicious.
Fourth stop, Fontana spa. Okay, this was my favourite. First we dug up the bread which had been put in the ground yesterday to cook for us. Only about a foot deep and you could see the hole filling with boiling water. The pan was taken out and cooled in the water of the lake – at the shore, the water was luke warm, though the brave souls who went out to swim in it said it got very cold very quickly as you went out. The pan held rye bread. This is bread under the definition of ‘something you spread butter on’. It’s not yeasted and it’s quite sweet. It tastes almost spicy, though that’s just the rye. It was very delicious. Then we got to use the spa for a couple of hours. There were steam rooms and saunas but mostly I just sat in the hot pools and swam a little bit in the bigger, cooler pool. And sat under the waterfall. And looked out over the lake while sitting in the hot pool again. It was blissful. Particularly once the loud, officious woman who was trying to organise us all had left. I am glad I am not in her family. And I am glad her family was not on our coach. One of the things that was lovely was that, because it is still very early in the season here, our coach was half empty, so there were only about 20 of us in the spa. 20 people divided between 4 pools, 3 steam rooms, a sauna, a lake and a cafe is not very many. Blissful.
To be honest, I would have happily come back to the hotel after the spa. I was in that lovely, relaxed, sleepy state. But we had one more thing to visit. Sorry, Thing. We went to Thingvellir, the traditional home of Iceland’s parliament and the place where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet. Or don’t meet. Or something. The geology is not completely clear to me. It is pretty spectacular, but not ideal for people who are scared of heights. We got out of the bus and walked across to the cliff face. And then climbed up it. On a path. It was fine until we got near the top and the guide pointed out that because the tectonic plates are moving apart, sometimes the rocks crack. Over the crack there was a wooden bridge.
It was a millenium bridge moment. Especially when the guide kept stopping and telling us to look over the side to see how deep it went. I did not look. I kept my eyes firmly facing forward towards the solid ground and made my feet keep moving.
Anyway, that is my second Thing. They found one in Dingwall car park a couple of years ago and I’ve been there too. I think, on balance, Thingvellir has the edge.
Tomorrow’s plan: shopping and lunch in Reykjavik, fly to DC.
If I were planning this again, I would have done Reykjavik this morning, taken the later tour without the Fontana spa, and then gone to the Blue Lagoon tomorrow. I had thought I would try to go to Alafoss tomorrow morning, but I think it’s going to be too stressful to try to work out the buses and be sure of getting to the airport. So I’m going to buy yarn here. I’ve found a couple of likely places to try and I’ll have time to see a little bit of the city too.