Cold Mist, Hot Mist and the Mother of Parliaments

Reykjavik, Iceland, August 31:  The “Golden Circle” was an invention of, I am told, Icelandic Airlines. The original low-cost pioneer.  It was licensed to fly people to and from Iceland, however the flight from New York to Keflevik would renumber and become a flight from Keflevik to Luxembourg, or wherever.  It flew prop planes into the 1970s, sometimes having to stop to refuel not only in Iceland but in Gander and Shannon as well.  They had the sometimes motto “The slowest and the lowest.”   It was popularly known as the “hippie express.”

The airline promoted 24 and 48-hour stopovers in Iceland at “no cost” in airfare.  This had an advantage for the airline that a flight from Glasgow may connect with a flight to New York 23 hours later but the traveler could have a nice tour of Iceland, “at no additional airfare cost” but with extra “ground accommodations” fees at a Hotel Loftleiðir, owned by the airline.   (There was a higher cost option at the Saga Hotel.)  Reykjavik city tours were one option.  The Golden Circle was another inducement.  Forty-Nine years ago Suzi and I took advantage of the low fares but could not afford the Icelandic Airlines packages (which were pretty inexpensive but we were broke) so we found a bed and breakfast and decided to skip the “Golden Circle.” But… The airline overbooked out of Reykjavik and, since we were willing to be bounced and were staying in an inexpensive B&B rather than a more expensive hotel it was cheaper for them to bounce us than someone else.  They payed Astrid Jonsdotter for or bed and breakfast and gave us pocket money for other meals, which we didn’t have to buy.  Astrid (Icelanders generally use first names) made sure we had a huge breakfast and we had another source of food.

Two of my St. Olaf classmates were kids of the US Ambassador to Iceland, Karl Rolvaag.  We were invited to an Embassy reception for Icelandic students going to the US and US students currently in Iceland.  Florence Rolvaag, knowing our situation, made sure we had more than enough food in “doggie bags” to get us by.  (We also got to see the inauguration of the Icelandic President.)  One day the airline called and asked us if we wanted to go on the “Golden Circle” tour free as partial compensation for our “inconvenience.”  “Sure” we said.  So, we went.   After 5 days or so we got a call from the airline “bad news, Mr. McClear” we have space for you today.”  They knew we were working the system, but we may have been the only people in the history of Icelandic tourism to, perhaps, leave with more money than when we arrived.  (Later in our lives Ambassador Rolvaag did some volunteer commentary for KAXE when we managed the station.)

Stops on the Golden Circle are Haukadalur to visit Geysir, Thingvellir, the site of the first parliament in the world, at a farm to look at Icelandic Horses, and a visit to Gulfoss, the Golden Falls.

Cold Mist – Hot Mist is the best way to describe our visit to Haukadalur, the home of Geysir.  Geysir was the original hot spring that shoots water into the air.  It’s the one for whom all other Geysers are named.  Geysir has become a geezer and is no longer spouting but a nearby hot spring, Strokker, has started acting up so gives us a good show.  Other springs nearby bubble and steam in this geothermal hot spot.  Yellow sulfur runs with the water. The day was cold and wet with a wind that drove the cold mist, except when it picked up the hot mist.

Our arrival in 1968 was on a small Icelandic Airlines bus.  Our arrival this time was in a similar mini-bus but not much else was the same.  Forty-Nine years-ago most of the tourists were so called “hippies” (even if we weren’t).  The bus pulled up in the middle of a steaming and rainy nowhere, we got out, the guide gave us a short rap on the area and we were free to roam.  No ropes — no fences.  Forty-Nine years later we pulled into a huge complex with tens of buses and thousands of people (Prinsendam was berthed in the “emergency overflow dock,” lots of cruise ships in), mostly older Americans (could be some of the exact same people, we were, but way more.)  There were at least three restaurants, a travel office and what can be best be described as a souvenir supermarket, shelves of stuff with lots of checkout counters.  To use the toilet, you must walk through this commercial madhouse.

Outside it was also a madhouse.  Dozens of guides with flags. umbrellas or placards were shepherding groups of people around the various boiling cauldrons and filling time with stories waiting for Strokker to erupt in boiling water and steam.  There were ropes to keep us in place and signs telling us that the water is hot and directing us not to throw coins into the springs or fly drones over the site.   Not much chance to commune with the boiling water gods.  But I still loved it.


Westminster likes to style itself as the Mother of Parliaments, it isn’t.  British MPs are relative newcomers compared with their Norse counterparts.  The House of Keys on the Isle of Man or the Alting in the Faroes are older.  But the oldest parliament in the world is the Icelandic, the Althing which historically met at Thingvellir (Parliament field).   The Althing first gathered in 930 CE.  It was a combination legislature, fair and marriage brokerage meeting.   The 36 regional chiefs, each accompanied by two farmers, met to hash things out.  A law speaker presided and each year, from “Law Rock” he recited one third of the body of Icelandic law.  The rock is backed by cliffs that reflected his voice back into the field.  The location had a lake with plenty of fish, and fresh water enough to support this annual gathering.  Law Rock now has an Icelandic flag and, while the legislature now meets in Reykjavik important national events and celebrations are played out at Thingvellir.

But even if this were not such an important place in human history it would still be interesting.  The field is in a tectonic valley 7 km wide.  The cliffs on the West, against which Law Rock is set are the North American plate, those on the East are the Eurasian plate.  The land in the middle is the spreading distance between the two plates, here spreading at about 2 cm a year.  All along the North American face the wall fractures creating narrow tectonic valleys with streams and waterfalls.

In 2004, it became a national park and has much more interpretation than it had 49 years ago.  At that point, it looked like a field and a cliff on a dreary day.   This time a sucker hole opened just over Thingvellir making this the brightest spot on our “Golden Circle” tour and allowing us a dry and pleasant mile long walk along the margins of North America.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.