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Andrew Evans
Andrew Evans
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Thingvellir National Park – What to See and Do

Tourists at Thingvellir always seem to be in a bit of a daze, as if unsure about what it is they’re supposed to be looking at. A constant barrage of tour buses doesn’t help the situation much, though the ‘tour’ that most experience is fairly straightforward: Almannagjá (or ‘all man’s gorge’) is the tallest and most visible cliff face and the original backdrop to the Althing. This rock face is essentially the edge of the North American plate, viewed best up close. The Icelandic flag flies above the lögberg (‘law rock’), surrounded by a ‘look-but-don’t touch’ wooden walkway. Most visitors follow the path and the trail that links the shelf above with the plain below. The Öxará (‘axe’) River meanders over the lava field (Kerlingahraun) and then tumbles over the cliff’s edge at the waterfall Öxaráfoss. Legend states that the river was diverted into the gorge to provide fresh-flowing water to attendees of the Althing – a believable tale given the landscape.

The cluster of buildings on the river’s edge consists of the church and Thingvallabær, a five-gabled farmhouse designed (by Guðjón Samúelsson) as a nostalgic tribute for the 1930 celebrations. It is now the official summer residence of Iceland’s sitting prime minister. The present-day Thingvellir church was built in 1859 on the same spot as the first church, constructed at the adoption of Christianity in AD 1000. In moments of bad weather, the Althing would meet inside the church. Interestingly, the interior strays from some of the more traditional features of an Icelandic church (summer 09.00–19.30). Encircled by lava rock, Iceland’s national cemetery (Þjóðargrafreitur) was added to the church grounds in 1939 as a final resting place for the country’s heroes. Einar Benediktsson and Jónas Hallgrímsson are both buried there. Twice a day (on weekdays), park rangers give free guided tours (1 hour) in English explaining the history and natural world of Thingvellir. Groups gather by the church.

To capture the real sense of Thingvellir, it is imperative to wander among the gorges and fissures. Footbridges cross Öxaráhólmi, the flat, grassy island in the middle of the river. Be careful in chilly temperatures as ice makes it slick. In the past, this was the approved site for duels, as neither party could run away (the old Icelandic word for ‘duel’, hólmganga, means ‘march to the island’). Flosagjá (‘Flosi’s gorge’) reveals groundwater just before it flows into the lake. An offshoot, Peningagjá (‘penny gorge’), is filled with the pennies of well-wishers. A parallel gorge (without water) is Brennugjá (‘burn gorge’) where sorcerers were once burned to death.

Hikers will quickly appreciate the peculiarities of this landscape. Small lumpy knolls rise up out of the at lava, and 100 or so open rock fissures make you watch your step (try not to fall inside). Foot trails criss-cross the valley floor and are wonderful for the most casual hiker. Walkers can easily reach the abandoned farm ruins of Skógarkot, Hrauntún, and Vatnskot. Another trail follows the north shore of the lake around the point at Lambhagi.

The greater portion of Thingvellir National Park lies outside the tourist hubbub and is well worth exploring. Climbers should go in for the accessible mountains, all of them volcanic ridges. Mt Syðstasúla (1,085m) forms the northern edge of the park and is the tallest and easiest to ascend. Mt Ármansfell (765m) offers less of a view, but holds great importance as the legendary home of Árman, a lost shepherd and the guardian spirit of Thingvellir. The ridge at the east end of the park is ‘mount raven’ or Mt Hrafnabörg (765m).

The Thingvellir Interpretive Centre offers an interactive multi-media display on the park and its history (1 Apr–1 Nov 09.00–17.00 daily; entrance free), and the adjoining information office offers local hiking maps. Walking through the deep gorges, across the lava landscape and around the lake should all take priority. No boating is allowed on the lake, but fishing permits are sold at the information centre. Arctic char and brown trout are your best bet.

Thingvellir is also a popular place for horseriding, with several day trails that offer the chance to explore some of the more dramatic areas of the park. Most tours cost just under US$100. Contact the horse farm at Skógarhólar (Thingvellir; ph. 566 7600; trvhorse@centrum.is; sveitir.is/gisting/tjaldsvaedi/skogarholar) for further information.

This travel tip is part of Andrew Evans’ ICELAND (Bradt 4th edition). Click on the banner below if you are interested in buying the book.

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