The Golden Circle is the name given to a route passing through the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland, including the big three of Geysir, Gullfoss and Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park. The 300km circuit makes it an ideal day trip from Reykjavík, and a number of companies offer guided bus tours of the route, with a few extra destinations thrown in for good measure. I don’t usually join guided tours, preferring to discover things for myself, but a full-day trip with Reykjavík Excursions was 9800ISK (about £48), around the same cost as the scheduled bus to the sites, so I thought why not give it a go?
As we left Reykjavík the weather closed in, and the sunshine of the past few days was replaced by dreich grey and drizzle. Climbing out of the city towards our first destination, we were soon thick inside the clouds hugging the mountains. Being inside the cosy bus was immediately preferable to sitting in a wet, windy bus-stop, and our guide tried valiantly to explain the views that we couldn’t see.
As we descended into Hveragerði, the clouds began to lift a little. The small town is the centre of Iceland’s tomato growing industry, tapping into geothermal power to heat vast glasshouses, but this also makes the area extremely volatile. Large earthquakes a few years ago opened up a new area of hot springs and geysers near the town and destroyed a number of buildings; luckily no-one was killed. In the small visitor centre, we try an earthquake simulator which replicates the force of the magnitude 6.3 quake. We stand inside a little shed, and the lights go out. After a moment of dreadful anticipation, there is a growing rumbling, followed by a loud bang then the floor jolts upward. It continues to shake and judder, and lights flash inside the shed so we can see each other’s wide-eyed expressions. After 30 seconds, which feels like forever, the noise and movement stop. I can’t imagine how utterly terrifying it would be to experience that for real, with no warning, and no knowledge of when it would end.
Our next stop is a church, an important site for Icelandic Christianity. The stained glass windows are beautiful, but this is not nearly as impressive as Reykjavík’s Hallgrímskirkja. What does interest me though are several brightly coloured little houses, about the size of bird nest boxes, next to boulders by the roadside that we drive past near the church. These are houses belonging to elves, according to our guide, and the road had to be routed around the homes of the elves when it was built.
We soon arrive at Gullfoss, which even in the drizzle is a spectacular waterfall, pouring into a narrow gully. The name means golden falls, and our guide tells us the story of how these falls were saved from being developed into a hydro-electric power station by a local woman and her family. She also chats about the current state of Icelandic politics and the impending presidential elections, giving a rundown of the main candidates, which include a woman, Thora Arnorsdottir, who has just taken a few days break from her campaign to give birth to her third child (sixth when including step-children).
After a short time at the falls, we rejoin the bus and head to the hotsprings around Geysir, the eponymous waterspout that lends its name to all others. Geysir itself stopped erupting with any regularity back in the 1930s, now only producing its immense plumes of steam and boiling water following earthquakes in the area. Nearby lies Strokkur, which erupts around every 7 minutes or so, sending a fountain of boiling water up to 20metres high. We gather around the basin, watching and waiting, setting cameras, anticipation building. The centre of the basin starts to churn, water bulging out of the vent, and then it blows, drawing sounds of appreciation from the crowd.
Our next stop is Thingvelllir, the highlight of the Golden Circle tour, and a place close to the heart of every Icelander. The first foundations of the Icelandic parliament were laid here in Viking times, and it was here that independence from Denmark was celebrated on 17th June 1944. The views from the top of the gorge are stunning, despite the weather.
Although the sites have been amazing, the tour left me with a bit of an “exit through the giftshop” feeling. It has really just been a taster of what Iceland offers, with a few anecdotes thrown in to make up for the lack of real feeling from the places we visit. For me, visiting a new place is about experiencing all that it has to offer, spending time there and not just taking a photograph and getting back on a coach. I’m pleased that I’ve tried the tourist experience, but now I have the next couple of weeks to really be a traveller and get to know Iceland.
Is there a difference between a traveller and a tourist? What do you call yourself?