“The Þingvellir National Park is a haven of peace. Drunkenness is inappropriate here and disturbs other visitors. The National Park reserves the right to expel inebriated visitors.” Þingvellir National Park visitor guide
As we approached the National Park, one of only two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Iceland, the road clung like velcro to the side of the picturesque lake Þingvallavatn, the largest freshwater lake in the country, that looked mean and moody under the heavy grey skies and whilst we would have preferred blue sky and sunshine this greyness seemed strangely appropriate to the location as we stopped at a lay-by and disposed of our empty beer cans.
It was mid afternoon when we arrived at Þingvellir and although the sun was poking through now and again the light was beginning to fade on the site of the historic Icelandic National Assembly. This was called the Althing and was an open-air assembly that represented the whole of Iceland that was established in the year 930 and continued to meet for eight hundred and fifty years or so after that. Over two weeks every year, the Assembly met at this site and set laws, handed down punishments to law breakers, dealt with nagging wives and bad husbands and settled neighbour disputes.
It continues to have deep historical and symbolic associations for Icelanders and the site includes what are said to be the remains of the Althing itself – fragments of around fifty meeting rooms built from turf and stone. There is Icelandic pride in the association of the Althing to the tradition of medieval Germanic/Norse governance, known through the twelfth century Icelandic sagas and resurrected and reinforced during the fight for independence in the nineteenth century.
Interestingly the Parliament of the Isle of Man, which claims to be the oldest continuous Parliament in the World is called the Tynwald which is a word that originates from the Old Norse Þingvǫllr.
This history and the powerful natural setting of the assembly grounds has given the site iconic status as a national shrine and on 17th June 1944 thousands of Icelanders flocked to this place for the historic foundation of the modern independent republic of Iceland.
We walked past great fissures in the landscape where the land is literally tearing itself apart in a sort of messy divorce settlement. The famous Almannagjá is the biggest of them and is evidence that here the tectonic plates of Europe and America meet and are in continual conflict with each other as they are drifting slowly apart at a rate of 3mm per year, which may not sound a lot but in geological terms is almost as fast as Usain Bolt! The relationship between the plates is fractious, they rub together, they pull apart and they allow the molten centre of the planet to come rushing to the surface. Iceland averages a major volcano eruption every five years.
There were few visitors and the site had an eerie beauty, ringed by black mountains with deep lava chasms, delicately balancing rocks looked set to topple over at any moment if anyone should so much as whisper, cold satanic lakes with deep secrets, sharp cobalt rocks and impatient waterfalls with exploding water cascading down the graphite walls and shattering into a thousand droplets of fine mist as it collided with the next stage of the river bed and continued its surging journey.
The National Park was founded in 1930, twenty-one years before the first UK National Park (the Peak District in Derbyshire), to protect the remains of the parliament site and was later expanded to protect natural phenomena in the surrounding area. It was the first national park in Iceland and was decreed “a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged”.
After we had walked along the ridge and to the waterfalls we returned to the car and debated the route home. The shortest route was by another gravel road but even though we were appropriately insured we didn’t really have the stomach for that again so we choose the longer tarmac route which took us about an hour to get back to Reykjavik.
It was still relatively early when we returned to the hotel and with the sun now making a belated afternoon appearance Mike and I went back onto the streets and walked for a while through the residential areas of the city before making our way back to the cathedral and the Leif Ericson statue and then through the city where we found a bar with ‘happy hour’ prices followed by a stroll to the seafront and the Sólfar Suncraft statue and then back to the hotel where Kim and Margaret were ready already for evening meal.
We didn’t have a great deal of debate about this and all quickly agreed to go back to ‘Harry’s Bar’ but there was a problem when we arrived because there were no available tables because all of the people that had pinched our rooms at the Best Western Hotel next door had been recommended the place for their evening meal. So we booked a table for a little later and walked back to the ‘happy hour’ pub which was a bit further away than we actually remembered and then we had to rush our drinks to be sure of getting back in time for our table.
We needn’t really have worried because the place was beginning to empty as people made their way to waiting coaches to go off on a search for the northern lights and the tables were not refilling at the same rate as they were being vacated so we had a nice second leisurely meal and even though there was a mix up over the orders and the final bill we resolved to come back a third time tomorrow evening.