Tuesday 26 September 2017--This is my seventh visit to Iceland. Win and I
spent five nights here in 1999, and I took a three-night layover in Reykjavķk in
2001. We returned in 2013, and I've taken short layovers in town every year
since. When I told people I was going to Iceland in 1999, the most common
reaction was "Why do you want to go there?" No one asks that now--the
country has been discovered, and has been a hot destination for years.
The plan today is to visit the standard tourist sites east of Reykjavķk: Gullfoss, the geyser Strokkur, and Žingvellir. We start by driving out to Gullfoss, the farthest of these, about an hour and three quarters from town. Reykjavķk is not a really big city, with a population of about 123,000 in the city proper, but it's a low-rise town with a good bit of urban sprawl. There's almost another 100,000 in the suburbs, mostly to the east. The main highway skirting the metropolitan area is one of those with a roundabout every few miles, and it's not until we negotiate the one just past Mosfellsbęr that we feel we are really out in the countryside. Getting to that point has taken all of twenty minutes; it's not exactly the Cross Bronx Expressway. But we're happy to be free of what has to be the most tedious driving zone in the country.
At Gullfoss, I begin to see how much tourism has changed in eighteen years. There's a new restaurant and souvenir shop with a large parking lot, and dozens of tourists are making their way down the trail to the various viewing points. The falls themselves are, if anything, more impressive than I remembered, two drops at nearly right angles to each other, falling into the gorge below. I found it difficult to capture in 1999; now, with a digital camera, I can afford to experiment. It's still difficult to get a photographic sense of the whole.
In the 1920s, the man who owned Gullfoss leased it to developers who hoped to tap the hydroelectric potential of the gorge. It's widely thought that the landowner's daughter put a stop to the scheme, but the fact is that there was never sufficient financing, and eventually the lease went unpaid. Nevertheless, Sigrķšur Tómasdóttir is credited with promoting an appreciation for the natural beauty of the falls and the surrounding area, which was eventually sold to the government. It's a curious story, given the eventual development of geothermal energy in the southwest of Iceland--there is now so much surplus hot water from the generation plants that pipes are coiled beneath the streets of Reykjavķk to keep ice and snow from accumulating. It's cheaper than plowing.
There is considerably more development at the geysers. In addition to a shop and restaurant, there is a hotel under construction. And there are scores of tourists...it's not like Niagara Falls, say, but it's many times more than we saw in '99, busloads of Japanese and Germans and who knows what else. Win and I stayed for an hour or two back then, mesmerized as Strokkur did its thing over and over. Once is enough for me today, and I'm relieved that Marc doesn't feel any need to stick around, either. Well, we do stay for lunch. Despite my misgivings, I have to admit the restaurant is pretty good.
We didn't get to Žingvellir in '99, but visited in 2013. As I noted then, this is a place of both historical and geological interest, being the traditional site of Iceland's Alžingi or parliament, sitting on the rift between the European and North American tectonic plates. We approach the site from below, stopping to see Öxarįrfoss, a picturesque waterfall dropping into the rift. Win and I missed that, having visited from above. We also missed a lot of tourists, it being early November. I can't say it's really crowded now, for that matter.
On the way back into town, we stop at Kringlan, Reykjavķk's largest shopping mall, to see if we can find a pair of waterproof pants for Marc. There's an outlet of 66°North, with the same prices as downtown. Another outdoor clothing store is no better. We're about to give up when I spy a sporting goods shop. They have just the thing, for $130--still far too much, but it feels like a victory.
I make a wrong turn coming out of Kringlan, and get caught up in the afternoon rush. Seems like an awful lot of traffic for a small city. Pass by town and out through Seltjarnarnes; I want to show Marc the little golf course out at the end of the peninsula. There are players out today, unlike last time I was here--I'd have sworn then that no one played in that wind, ever.
Dinner this evening is at Tapas Barinn, followed by pints in Mikkeller & Friends and Micro Bar. I'd tried to visit Mikkeller twice before, and thought it was closed. Turns out I just hadn't found the right door. Nice place, good beer.
Map of today's route