Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland: Lögberg (Law Rock)

This is something of an odd place for a flag, but then again it's an odd place for a Parliament.

Iceland's legislative body started meeting in this area in 930, and continued to do so through 1798. It's a rather remarkable story. As settlers moved into the island, some sort of government was necessary. So each year, people would gather here to talk about the political matters of the day. It was an easy trip for most of the population, and the summer gatherings became something a festival in a sense. Temporary structures were set up for business and housing purposes.

Lögberg (Law Rock), which was in the area shown in the picture, was the center of the legislative action. At times, political readers would read some of the laws of the land aloud. There were discussions about the laws, so you could certainly say it was the Supreme Court of Iceland as well. Eventually, the place lost its legislative duties, but it still had a judicial functions. Executions often were carried out at that region. The region became a national park in 1930.

For more on Iceland in general, click here

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Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Time for a little geology lesson.

Is Iceland in Europe or North America? Actually, a little of both. The North American and Eurasian Plates actually collide in Iceland. About two-thirds of the country, therefore, is in Europe, which more or less matches the cultural influences of the two continents in Iceland. In other words, the nation feels most European.

The Thingvellir National Park, which is the English version of the name (the natives stick to Þingvellir), is right on the fault line. The guide called it "no man's land," and in a sense you can actually see the split between North American and Europe. It's also led to all sorts of interesting rock formations, such as the one shown here. That's partly why it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's easy to take a stroll along the fault and view the rocks, waterfalls, hills, etc.

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Haukadalsvegur, Iceland: Geysir

Thar she blows!

Geysir refers to the entire area of hot springs in the Haukadalsvegur valley area. Geysir itself is relatively famous as these things go. It's the first geyser that received some widespread publicity through the use of the printed word, and is therefore pretty famous. Yes, the word geyser comes from Geysir, although they are not pronounced the same.

When Geysir does erupt, water can go 70 meters in the air. But it doesn't go off that often. In fact, Geysir has been busy only once in the past 100 years. So don't count on seeing it.

Much more reliable in that sense is Strokkur, located nearby. It will erupt every few minutes. My camera was ready when it blew on one such occasion. There are other little cauldrons in the area, and the area does indeed smell.

There is a hotel across the street for those who want to take a longer look and also explore the area. There's also a big complex of services for tourists - the biggest we saw in a week of touring. There are all sorts of souvenirs for sale, and a couple of restaurants are on the grounds for a nice lunch.

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Gullfossi, Iceland: Gullfoss waterfall

It's two waterfalls for the price of one! And the price is free!

Here's Gullfoss - alert readers know that "Foss" signals a waterfall in Icelandic language. The Hvítá River is responsible for all this, as the water takes a few steps and then goes for a couple of plunges. The second one is relatively narrow and deep. From certain angles, it looks as if the water is plunging toward the center of the earth.

There's an interesting story about the area. Supposedly, investors were interested in putting up a hydroelectric dam in order to generate electricity (and money). However, they didn't have enough money for construction. Besides, early environmentalists weren't happy about the plans. Sigríður Tómasdóttir was the leader of that movement, and is said to have threatened to jump into the waters above the falls unless it was saved. She even led a protest march. It's hard to separate fact and fiction with all of this, but the waterfall was saved when the land was purchased by the national government. We can be thankful for that to this day.

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Selfoss, Iceland: Friðheimar

Friðheimar has a little bit of everything for visitors.

First of all, it's a farm of sorts. Owners grown a variety of vegetables in the greenhouses, particularly tomatoes and cucumbers. We got to see a cardboard box filled with bees, shipped to Iceland for pollination purposes. The box comes with a plastic top, so you can look inside and see the bees, well, buzzing around. There is a restaurant and gift shop in a greenhouse, so you can sample the products.

Then comes a short walk up a road to see some Icelandic horses, which are bred to be a little smaller and stronger than the typical horse. (Just don't call them ponies.) Tourists get to say hello the horses up-close, and then a short show is put on. The horses are steady runners, to the point where someone can drink a beer while riding. This staff member demonstrated that principle, and I actually got a decent picture as they went zipping by.

It's a family operation, and the members fit the part of farmers perfectly - strong and good-looking. It's a different sort of tourist stop, but an interesting one.

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Hekla, Iceland: Volcano

Welcome to "The Gateway to Hell."

At least that's what some Europeans called it when discussing the Hekla volcano, located in South Iceland. It's a little tough to get close to it, and that may not be such a bad idea. Hekla is one of Iceland's most active volcanoes, blowing up every so often.

The last eruption of note came around 2000, but one scientist in 2016 caused a bit of a stir when he said he thought Hekla was getting ready to blow again. We made it past the place without incident in June of that year.

Apparently the eruption of 1104 was particularly big, and it had the advantage of being seen in real time, so the monks of Europe passed the word that this was not a place for a vacation.

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Seljalandsfoss, Iceland: Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss is billed as Iceland's most popular waterfall. My guess is that there are two reasons for this. One, it is relatively close to the center of population, and thus more people get to see it. Two, you can walk right behind it. And how often do you get to do that?

A trail goes directly behind the fall and around the other side. It's an impressive site back there, although quick pictures don't come out particularly well because of the change in lighting - well, at least mine were dark in spot. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't bring a camera.

One warning: it's not a particularly easy hike to the falls and back. My guess is that in America, several lawsuits would have been filed already. There are good-sized steps on rocks and it is all a little slippery because of the spray. You can do it, and it's probably worth it, but some might want to stick to the right side - which is easier.

This video will give an idea of what the experience is like, and it will give you the chance to practice your Islandic language skills. Spiffy music, too:

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Suðurland, Iceland: Eyjafjallajökull

This family farm is greeted every morning with a spectacular view, but it comes with a price. There's a volcano lurking in those hills, and you never know when it might blow. The family has some bags packed at all times, just in case.

The people needed those bags in 2010, when Eyjafjallajökull did indeed erupt. A good amount of ash went into the air, messing up the world's air traffic system for a while. More immediately, the heat of the volcano melted part of the snow around it. That led to flooding, which rushed down the hills and through this property. You can imagine how much fun that is.

What do you do in such circumstances? Make the best of it. First you clean up, and the farmers of the area did that. Then, you open a tourist center. It took a year, but in 2011 the Þorvaldseyri Visitor Centre was ready to go. There's a 20-minute film on what happened that shows what took place on the mountain and on the farm. It's a good job that explains the situation well, and it worth the stop on the road. The Centre has a website.

Meanwhile, volanic eruptions are always fascinating to see ... on video.

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Skógar, Iceland: Skógafoss

You never get tired of waterfalls in Iceland. Here's another good one in South Iceland.

Skógafoss supposedly used to be right on the ocean as part of some sea cliffs, but when the shoreline changed it became part of the dividing line between the lowlands of the coast and the nation's highlands.

This checks in at 60 meters high and 25 meters across. There is a nice walk to the right of this camera view which consists of some stairs going up to the top of the waterfall. The view of the water isn't all of that impressive, but it's a nice way to look at the countryside. Besides, the stairs will get you in shape in no time. There is a hike up the hill from that point, and visitors say the scenery is terrific, but most will have to be content with this sort of view.

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Vik, Iceland: Reynisfjara Beach

Let's get this settled right away. Reynisfjara Beach might be the most impressive piece of waterfront property in the world.

It is absolutely stunning. The sand is black. There are caves that can hold cathedrals, mountains towering over the area, seastacks in the ocean, and - as shown here - stunning endless basalt columns.

Oh, and there are puffins in the area. They nest on the mountains.

It's simply impossible to take a bad picture of the place. You'll want to stay as long as possible and gawk.

But if you do, just be careful. Waves can come in and sweep people away without warning. We lost a tourist that way early in 2016.

One picture just doesn't do it for this place. So watch the video:

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