Sunday, July 19, 2015

Hella to Reykjavik via the Golden Circle

The last day of our trip outside Reykjavik was spent doing the Golden Circle, which is the circle of really touristy sites to see that are in close proximity to Reykjavik. It is what many tourists do if they just have 2 or 3 days to spend in Reykjavik.

And it didn't disappoint. There were certain features of the GC for which there were better iterations in other parts of Iceland. But those other iterations were substantially further from Reykjavik. So realistically, for the person just spending time in the capital region, these are perfect.

We drove a little bit off our intended route to a little town called Hveragerdi. It's a beautiful little place and not far from there is Reykjadalur, the Smoky Valley. There are steam vents all over the valley and you can see their billows everywhere. There is also a geothermal park right in town, which is the only one of its kind in Iceland. The rest are all outside of urban areas. Unfortunately, they charge for entry to the park. Kind of defeats the purpose of a park if you ask me. One thing we noticed though was the abundance of greenhouses, which will become significant later.

After that we proceeded to the Golden Circle proper. First was Kerid, a massive crater formed thousands of years ago, roughly 6500. It is 180 ft deep, 560 ft wide and 890 ft long. The scale of it is really hard to put into words. It's enormous, no matter how you put it.

Shortly after Kerid was Fridheimar, a family run greenhouse specializing in tomatoes and cucumbers. Iceland is actually ideal for greenhouses for a lot of reasons. Because of its somewhat unforgiving climate, there are very few natural plant pests and diseases. As well, during the summer, they get nearly 24 hours of sunlight. The abundant geothermal resources allow for efficient heating of the greenhouses, as well as an abundant supply of carbon dioxide gas to aid photosynthesis. All of this combines to make the area around Hveragerdi and Fridheimar ideal for greenhouse growing, and it shows. 80-90% of the cucumbers and tomatoes consumed in Iceland are grown domestically, which is impressive if you think about its location and that the RECORD HIGH for Reykjavik is 26.2 Celsius. Seriously. The record high. Like the highest temperature every recorded.

Anyways, I digress. The coolest thing about Fridheimar is the restaurant they built in the greenhouse. It is only open for four hours for lunch and the menu is really simple. Homemade tomato soup and artisan bread. The tomatoes all come from their greenhouse, naturally. As does the basil they put on your table that you can snip into your soup. It is a perfect example of beauty in simplicity. The other interesting thing was the bee box. They have about 300 bees that service the greenhouse to aid with pollination. They had one box with a plexiglass top that you could observe. I enjoyed watching the worker bees buzz about busily, while the queen just chilled out and watched them as well. Of course behind the safety of a plexiglass barrier. I do not like bees particularly much.

Next was Faxafoss, a beautiful waterfall that looks like something you'd see on A River Runs Through It. And right next to the waterfall was an old fish ladder. If you've never seen one, it is essentially a series of steps, with holes on alternating sides for each step. The river water flows down it as well as continuing to flow down whatever obstacle the ladder is aiding the fish to pass. This helps the fish continue migrating up the river where they spawn.

Geysir was next. This is an active geothermal area with an abnormally high collection of geysers. The original Geysir is located here, but only activates after earthquakes and volcanoes. But it is from which all other geysers got their name. The active one here is called Strokkur, and it bursts every 2-3 minutes, sometimes up to 35 m up. It is really quite miraculous to watch. The way they work is best explained as hot springs that have screwy plumbing.

Just like any other hot spring, a below ground geothermal heat source heats the water coming from the spring. But most of them just bubble nicely to the surface, pour out above ground, and create hot pools or just run off into rivers. The unique "plumbing" of the geyser leads to the eruptions that occur. As the water source is below ground, and that is where the heat source is, the water is hottest closest to the heat source, obviously. But the column of water above the water at the heat source exerts incredible pressure on the hot water below. This raises the boiling point of the water, just as occurs in a pressure cooker. This means that the geothermal heat source continues to heat the water to incredibly high temperatures before it finally starts boiling.

When it does start boiling, the turbulence created below push some of the water in the column above out of the geyser. You see this when you watch them. They sort of heave and what looks like is going to be a bubble just subsides, but some of the water ends up spilling out of the geyser.

What this does though is suddenly release some pressure from the water at the heat source that is currently boiling. Now that the pressure has dropped, so too has the boiling point. This has the effect of causing the currently boiling water to instantaneously convert to steam, causing a steam flash. As water in its gaseous form takes up a much greater volume than the liquid form, it expands rapidly and pushes everything above it out of the top, causing the glorious explosions that define the beauty of geysers. Pretty cool, right?

The visitor's centre at Geysir had an interesting exhibit on the volcanoes in the country, many of which I've written about already. One I haven't is Hekla, one of the most active volcanoes in the country. For a long time, it erupted every 10-15 years. It is predicted that it will be the next major eruption in Iceland, and those predictions took on greater importance when Keflavik, near Reykjavik, experienced about 200 earthquakes in a single day at the beginning of July 2015. Scientists are monitoring the instability to determine if it is going to cause any activity at Hekla.

Next was Gullfoss. This is a beautiful and stunning waterfall near Geysir. It's story is even more interesting. In the early 1900s some investors wanted to install a hydroelectric plant at Gullfoss to harness its immense energy. The farmer that owned the land would not allow it but the investors were persistent. The farmer's daughter, Sigridur Tomasdottir, worked with her lawyer and the government to protect the waterfall from corporate interests, which was achieved when it was purchased by the nation in the mid-20th century.

The last thing we saw was Thingvellir, which was one of the things I was most excited about seeing when we planned this trip. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for two reasons. First of all is that it is one of only two places in the world where you can observe a rift valley between two continental plates. The North American plate and the Eurasian plate are slowly moving away from each other. This creates a relatively flat and low valley between them which is most markedly noticeable at this site. The rest of the rift travels right through the middle of Iceland in the highlands and glaciers, so is not easily accessible. But here it is gloriously apparent. This formation of the rift is also why divergent plate boundaries are so volcanically active. Something needs to come up from within the earth to fill this space, and often it is molten eruptions forming flood basalt that covers massive tracts of land.

Thingvellir is also the site of the first formation of the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, which more or less means "general assembly". As the people settled the land, they realized they needed laws and rules to govern life in this land. So they would meet at Thingvellir and discuss what these laws should look like, as well as pass judgment on judicial concerns. The Parliament today is still called the Althing and considered the oldest still existent parliamentary institution in the world, and Icelanders are rightly proud of it. The site of the meetings is still visible at Thingvellir, especially the Law Rock, where the Law Speaker (kind of like today's Speaker of the House), stood and read the new laws and conducted the meetings. Early on this was an extremely prestigious position because the laws were not written. The Law Speaker's job was to memorize all the laws and recite them when needed. Finally they decided it would probably be pretty wise to start writing stuff down.

The night ended brilliantly with a trip to Matur og Drykkur (Food and Drink), a phenomenal restaurant near Reykjavik's harbour. The food was masterfully prepared and artfully presented and a true treat for our tastebuds.

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