Notes taken from my travel diary in 1995, when I took a tourist bus around the Golden Circle in Iceland. It’s quite long, so I’ll post it over a few days.
Iceland – The Golden Circle
Out of Reykjavik, travelling southeast to Hveragerdi on a bus full of tourists. A thin covering of snow dusts the sides of the road. Suddenly the snow is gone, and we’re looking out over a valley – in the distance is the sea, I think. Or something. Wish I’d bought the map. We descend to a small, ugly town, redeemed by purple mountains in the distance. There’s a huge greenhouse here, stuffed with tropical plants. It’s heated from the hot springs; 300 degrees when they reach the surface, so the water has to be cooled before it can be used. The tourists scoot around the greenhouse and spend most of their time in the gift shop. There’s a beautifully carved ship there, a mini-viking ship, with seats for two people, one behind the other. Turning round a stuffed arctic fox in its summer coat snarls down from shelves of woollens, whilst puffins and a raveny thing stare aloofly over our heads. I go back outside and breath the air and look at the mountains whilst the others bulk buy tacky plastic mementos, hardly glancing at the local, handcrafted goods.
Then to Kerid, past summerhouses strewn around the lava fields, dwarfed by the mountains behind them. The couple behind me exclaim at the size of the tiny houses and come to the conclusion that they’re just storage sheds and the actual houses are somewhere else, hidden from view. Kerid. The name sounds like something out of a fairy tale – a shining, fairy castle. It’s actually an extinct volcano crater housing a lake of deep, rich, emerald green-blue water, which to me is every bit as beautiful. From the top you can see for miles, and Hekla sits placidly in the distance, silently watching every tourist, every sprig of moss, every movement. On its summit one tiny black dot peeps ominously through the snow. Hot? Melted? Around here, we’re told, there have been numerous earthquakes lately. Small but significant. They don’t know why. Later on, we’re told that Hekla usually warns of imminent eruptions with earthquakes. Hmmm. I draw my own conclusion and wonder if the rest of the tourists are planning on taking a closer look at Hekla. There’s a cairn. Why? They’re everywhere. Perhaps they were built by elves. Go to bed, wake up, look out the winder and zap! A cairn’s appeared. Kerid is beautiful and I don’t want to leave. I wait until the others trudge back down to the bus, then take my solitary photos and soak up the glorious desolation. The water is coloured by silica (GEL – DO NOT EAT) in the rocks. Then we continue north, through farmland. A veritable tussock-farm. The tussocks are caused by ice under the grass, and they get bigger as time goes by. The farmers dig trenches to help drain the ground and curb the swelling of the tussocks. On un-drained land the tussocks are huge. I’ve always liked tussocks. It’s a good word too, is tussocks. Tussocks, tussocks, tussocks. Worth over-using. The grass is a light beige colour now, and the sun suddenly lights up the field, turning it into an undulating golden sea. We pass Icelandic horses, but none are doing the tolt.
Approaching Skalholt we’re told how the Catholic bishop rode out here to protest against the conversion of Iceland to Lutheran. We pass the site where they lopped his head off, rather than try to get him back to Reykjavik to stand trial. This is a big church, with beautiful stained glass windows and a bizarre painting of Christ over the altar. The colours in the painting are the colours of the distant mountains outside, all dusky blues and purples. Breathtaking. Like other Icelandic churches, it’s very bare inside. That’s not a criticism. There’s nothing else here, just the massive white church, and a couple of other buildings, one of which is some kind of school, I think. And a little dog, which runs round in circles yapping as we board the bus and trundle back off up the road past the place where the bishop lost his head.