It was another busy day for this 83 year old first time traveler and she didn’t miss a step as we took a private Golden Circle tour with Jon (pronounced Yon). While it can be very touristy, and some will say not very good – I actually love some parts of the tour and Jon actually took us to a few places I’d not been to before, which was great.
The Friendship Forest was opened in 1990 where two trees were planted by then President Vigdis Finnbogadottir and Queen Elizabeth II. From there, a tree is planted by visiting heads of states and other dignitaries. Okay, a ‘real forest’ in Iceland is not what a California girl like me views as a forest. When you come from the land of giant Sequoias that reach up to 300 feet and pine trees that reach 160 feet or more, the ‘forests’ of Iceland are quite different. But, as an Icelandic girl, I willingly embrace the idea of an Icelandic forest. After all, just like the Icelandic ponies, the forests are stunted. My guess has been it is because of the weather — to survive, you grow smaller — smaller potatoes, smaller ponies, smaller forests. It works for me! I’m only 4’ 11” and Edna used to be 5’ but has shrunk to 4’9” so shrinking maybe is an Icelandic thing.
But back to Friendship Forest- there are two pillars at the entrance that explain how this forest came to be and also lists the heads of state and dignitaries who have planted trees here. It was my first visit and I loved the idea!
Gullfoss is a monstrous waterfall which you can stand above it or you can take a walk to get closer. We of course took the walk. After going a certain distance, Edna was concerned about the unevenness of the somewhat rocky dirt path so we stopped for a photo op and also for her to rest. Two Asian ladies saw her and came over to have a chat, asking where she was from (California) and how old she was (83 1/2). At that they started cheering and clapping and genuinely excited telling her how awesome she was. One of the ladies said she was 73 and was struggling to manage the walk so she thought Edna was amazing. The 2nd lady yelled to some younger people in their group letting them know that Edna was now a ‘hero.’
It was sheer delight to watch Edna beam at their excitement and chat with them for a few minutes about how this was her first trip outside of the US and how much fun she was having.
Gullfoss itself is spectacular. With two stages, the waterfall is fed by the glacier Langjokull. You can watch the mist float upwards as the water pounds over the over the rocks and down through the canyon walls. And if you get closer, you will get drenched by the spray of the water. While Edna stayed lower down, I walked up to the edge of the powerful Gullfoss.
Did you know that the word geyser is originally geysir – an Icelandic word? It’s true! We stopped at the Strokkur geyser, even though neither Edna and I were too excited about it. I guess once you’ve seen Old Faithful and other ones in the US, it’s just less fun to watch a small geyser blast out of the ground but a lot of people love it and were patiently waiting for the geyser to shoot into the air.
Our stop at Thingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of my favorite places to visit in Iceland. The Althingi, the site where the Icelandic Congress met for over nearly 1000 years is one of my favorite places. There’s a sort of peace when you stand between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. And there’s also a certain energy that you feel when you go down to where the Congress used to meet. I find it interesting that it was here, where the tecktonic plates meet that the clans of Iceland would gather every year to address politics, needs to help those clans who might need food or other support, address ‘laws’ of the land. Why here? I’d love to know!
It was also the place where punishment was addressed for breaking rules. For women, they drowned those who had been sentenced to death – whether it was for being a ‘witch’ or infidelity (women were drowned, men were not – go figure), or other crimes that the Congress determined met the penalty of death. Thingvellir is the original point where the world’s longest running parliament started.
If you have the time, and if it is open, the visitor center which opened in 2018 is very nicely done providing a history of the area.
We walked down the path to the waterfall which like other areas around the meeting place, held a certain positive energy that was palpable. There’s something very special about Thingvellir. Every time I return to Iceland, I feel the need to go there.
Skalholt was new for me and I was grateful for the change. For eight centuries, it was one of the most important places in Iceland, having been established as early as 1056. The current cathedral was built from 1956 and finished in 1963. Skalholt was a religious and educational center for hundreds of years. When first established it was Catholic and then with the reformation, it became Lutheran.
While we were there a man, and his wife came in and Jon chatted with them. It turned out the woman was a member of a special choir that was going to sing in the church, and she offered to sing for us. It took her a bit of time to warm up, but once she did, it was such a treat to hear someone sing in this acoustically perfect church.
The church had other secrets which was that in the basement there was a secret passage where the priests escaped the Vikings who were invading. They went through the secret tunnel and were able to save their lives. The remnants of the buildings are marked and date back to the 13th century.
Our final stop of the day was another new place for me. Faxi Waterfall is much smaller than Gullfoss but it is so beautiful with the white rapids running into the blue pool of water. Next to it, salmon runs have been built so the fish can make their way up river to spawn.
Nearby are sheep pens where the sheep are brought in from September to October and sorted in these sheepcotes. The sheep are sorted according to the markings on them, denoting who they belong to. This treasured tradition is called Rettir and dates backs hundreds of years. Families and friends gather to help out and there are festivities throughout the sorting period.
It was another lovely day in Iceland where I continue to get to share our heritage with my Aunt Edna. We even managed to turn a pigs ear into a silk purse — or rather — we saw a pig who dressed up to be as beautiful as she could be and make us smile.