Iceland’s national tourism slogan really should just be,
“Iceland: It’s Stupid-Beautiful Here And Sometimes The Sun Never Sets.”
It’s tough to explain how disorienting it is to take off from DC early evening, fly five hours to Reykjavik, and land at about 1:00 am local time only to have it look like 4:00 in the afternoon outside. My friend Julie and I had booked cheap tickets on IcelandAir a few months earlier, and as soon as we got off the plane we realized how little homework we had done about this part of the world. “Is the sun just honestly not going to go down? Is it never dark?” we asked the customs and immigration agents, who assured us that there was at least a 45-minute window of time starting at about 2:30 am when it sort of looks like the sun is setting before it starts to look like it’s rising again. But that’s as much as you get this time of year. For about three months it’s just bright around the clock. Then things level off for a bit until it’s pretty much dark 24/7 for four months. So Iceland is like Alaska, but, you know … with culture.
It’s weird how much the sunlight can mess with your equilibrium. We got cash from an ATM and then stopped in one of the airport cafes. I ordered a beer and a blueberry parfait because I literally couldn’t figure out what an appropriate snack would be.
The next “morning” (I was truthfully never positive if it was A.M. or P.M. for the entire four days we were in Iceland) we met up with my old pal, Huld, who is a Reykjavik native. She tricked us into hiking up a mountain, which is not my usual travel activity. The views were incredible. Half the time it’s unclear if what you’re seeing in Iceland is a cloud rolling on top of you, or steam coming off a hot spring.
For two days Huld and her amazing son, Ísak, drove us all around the Golden Circle, showing us mind-blowing waterfalls, ridiculous geysers, and beautifully untouched hillsides. My favorite stop was Þingvellir, a national park in Bláskógabyggð, near the Hengill volcanoes. It sits at the northern end of Þingvallavatn, the largest lake in Iceland. (Yes, I know how to pronounce all of those names flawlessly.) Its natural beauty justifies the drive from Reykjavík for a visit, but I was particularly pumped to see this place for a couple of other interesting tidbits.
Þingvellir literally translates as “Parliament Plains” because the first Icelandic Alþing (general assembly) was established there around the year 930 and continued to meet until 1798. The Lögberg (Law Rock) was the focal point of the Alþingi and served as a natural platform for holding speeches. The Lawspeaker – elected for three years at a time – presided over the assembly. Before any new law of the land was written down, he was expected to recite it from memory on the Lögberg.
Þingvellir was the center of Icelandic culture. Every year, people would flock to Þingvellir from all over the country. Merchants, sword-sharpeners, and tanners would sell their goods and services, entertainers performed, and ale-makers brewed drinks for the assembly guests. News was told from distant parts; games and feasts were held. In other words, Þingvellir was a meeting place for everyone in Iceland, laying the foundation for the language and literature that continue to define Iceland today.
Why else is Þingvellir fascinating, you ask? I’ll tell you why: it’s the point where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. That’s right, North America and Eurasia literally bump up against each other here in this park that was the center of Icelandic history, politics, and culture for nearly a millennium. This is the only place where the continental drift (the movement of the Earth’s continents relative to each other) is visible above the ocean’s floor. Evidently the drift widens by about 2cm each year. Right now it’s wide enough that the valley it creates is something you can walk through. We walked through a continental divide. Wild.