Visiting the ‘Golden Circle’ is the most common tourist activity in Iceland, and its thoroughly worth it. Its sometimes crowded, everyone has done it, and there’s a million pictures of the features of the Golden Circle on Instagram. But it is amazing, and I’d like to tell you about my experience of it.
To the contrarian ‘proper’ travellers, roll those eyes back forward. Stop it.
After doing a bit of online research before we travelled we came across the Golden Circle coach tours, and knew that we could book them when we were there (lots of reviews mentioned that people just rocked up and bought a ticket either on the day or the day before). So on the first day we took a bus in to central Reykjavik and looked for the bus operator’s depot. Then we realised that we passed it on the bus on the way into town, so trudged back out for about 15 minutes through the snow to get there. We booked tickets for the next day.
There are two main coach companies that we came across a lot while we were in Iceland, Grayline, and Reykjavik Excursions (RE). Now we are a bit more familiar with the country we know there are dozens of smaller independent companies offering tours that are awesome. We went with RE.
I cant do that Michael Palin thing of describing the journey through the alien, and yet eerily familiar, effervescent landscape of the nordic trolls, so I’m not going to. The coach journey was the same as every coach journey I’ve ever taken. Only with more Americans.
(Disclaimer: I cant remember the exact order of these stops, so I’ve gone with what feels right. I could have just left it, but I didn’t want you going to Iceland and being peeved that the stops aren’t in the order I said they would be. Sorry.)
Stop 1 – Pingvellir National Park
This place is beautiful. It’s the first thing you’ll probably think when you step off the coach. Geographically its fascinating because as you walk down towards the large viewing platform you’ll pass through a gorge. Its actually the end points of two tectonic plates that are inching away from each other like people who don’t want to talk to each other at a party. Roughly at a rate of 2.5cm per year.
Realising that you are stood between two gargantuan and powerful plates is a little humbling, and we did take our time walking up, and just imagining the forces that are at work in our planet that we never see. Like the snobby traveller that I am I was somewhat disappointed that some others didn’t seem to have this realisation, running through them to the gift shop back at the top of the hill.
That being said, it’s a pretty awesome gift shop. I saw a book there about an Icelandic Historical conference that was really interesting (honestly), but decided to buy it when I got home on Amazon. Natch. Except it wasn’t on Amazon, or any book selling websites. Imagine the scene a year later when I was back in Pingvellir, now with the entire family in tow, and I bound out of the gift shop with a book held high above my head shouting “they’ve still got it here! I’ve bought it!”. My younger brother was pointing at the rock formations “isn’t that the earth’s crust over there? And you’re excited by that book?”.
Anyway. Geographically its an amazing place. But historically? Pretty interesting too.
According to local elves (and wikipedia) the historic owner of the Pingvellir region was convicted of murder around the year 900, and all his land was seized and passed into public control. Around this time a man named Grimur Geitskor was charged with finding an appropriate location for a national assembly for Icelanders, and upon arriving in Pingvellir decreed that the first Icelandic parliament would be held there (you can stand on the spot where the first Allsherjargodi sanctified the assembly).
Quick note – an Allsherjargodi was someone who descended from Ingolfr Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland.
So Pingvellir became the location where the national parliament would meet, bringing all Icelandic godis (chiefs) together in one place. Until 1262 when they pledged loyalty to the Norwegian crown. Since 1928 it’s been a protected site of historical interest, and you’re free to wander around it.
Stop 2 – Geysir
Geysir is the name of a famous Icelandic geyser. In fact, its where the word geyser comes from. It named itself, like the brain.
We disembarked the coach at the visitor centre across the road from the geyser park, and nipped in to use the toilets. On a coach trip its important to get to the toilets quickly before everybody else does. At the waterfalls called Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss theres only a couple of porta-potties.
Walking into the geysir park is a really cool experience. There’s rising steam everywhere from the geothermal activity, red soil from the iron deposits, and if you go in winter there’s also suprisingly lethal ice everywhere. Like the sort of ice that you can kill yourself on. I literally saw an Icelandic family strapping crampons on in a leisurely fashion before going in. I also saw lots of tourists like me falling on their arses.
There are lots of geysirs, but only one that erupts – it’s called Strokkur, and is incredible to see up close. Pro tip – when you’re waiting for the first time in anticipation for it to erupt, just stand there and take in the beauty of your surroundings, don’t immediately reach for your phone and try to photograph it. Honestly I’m not trying to be funny here, I saw so many people doing this and I’m sure it totally detracted from the experience.
The first time we were there, lined up against the totally foolproof piece of rope that stops you falling in Strokkur, it was a little like Christmas Eve – the anticipation of something we had never seen was amazing. Then when it did erupt it was so much larger and more powerful than we expected, and led to little squeals of joy from people who were watching with us. I might have started laughing really hard and shouting “that was awesome!”, subsequently ruining the home videos of other tourists in the process.
Stop 3 – Gullfoss
I wasn’t expecting the grandeur of Gullfoss. It’s a massive waterfall that you can stand above, and I’d seen pictures, but there was so much I wasn’t ready for, and which made it an incredible experience.
Firstly, the sound. The sheer scale of this waterfall means that there is a constant crashing, tumbling noise, which seemingly permeates the air around the area. When we walked up the very long stairs to the top, and along the cliff edge, it was near impossible to have a conversation. It was such a different sort of sound though. It wasn’t oppressive, it didn’t give me a headache, it didn’t frustrate me. Instead it was like a sort of enforced silence. I couldn’t hear anything because Gullfoss said that I didn’t need to. A noisy silence bled directly from the Icelandic glaciers.
Secondly the smell. The water pouring over Gullfoss is fresh water from the glacier, and the fresh, clean atmosphere sits over the area like a cloud. On the way to the cliff edge is a path made from wooden grates so that people don’t damage the local fauna, and at one point I stopped, and just breathed it in. People milled around me, heading here and there, and I took a meditative moment to try and remember what it smelt like. Dew, moss, ice.
Lots of blogs will show you pictures of Iceland which are incredible. I ask that when you go, stop and use your other senses to experience it as well. Find a little bench and close your eyes. At Pingvellir, feel the rock face of a tectonic plate. At Geysir listen to the boom and crash of Strokkur.
Maybe I’m overly romantic about it, but Iceland is the place in the world where I have felt the awe of nature first hand.