The Thingvellir plain is a geological marvel. Southwest of Reyjkavik, it is where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and, geologically you can walk from Europe to America in a matter of minutes.
It is also the birthplace of Icelandic democracy. The Althing was founded here as an open air assembly in 930 AD and is the oldest continuous parliament in the world. Held in what is now part of the Thingvellir National Park, all the most important men of the island gathered to meet, change and make laws. All free men were allowed to attend, and the assembly continued to meet even after Iceland was annexed by Norway in the C13th. Only when Denmark took over was its power significantly reduced, but even then the Althing continued to surprise – giving women the vote in 1915.
It perhaps makes up for what I termed the ‘murder pool’ a stone’s throw from the Althing, and where justice was summarily meted out on – primarily on women. There they were drowned.
The white house is, coincidentally, the holiday home of Iceland’s Prime Minister. A story, perhaps apocryphal, involves an American tourist exploring the church and the house and accosting a stranger for information about the two buildings. On being told it was the Prime Minister’s private residence he was surprised, telling the Icelander that in America, the President’s private residence would have been well guarded with no tourists allowed anywhere near it. As they said their goodbyes the tourist introduced himself, as did the Icelander. ‘I’m the Prime Minister,’ he said.
Next to the house is Thingvellir Church built in the C10th but destroyed by a great storm in 1118. This present church was built in 1859 and had three bells, the original ancient bell, a bell from 1968 and the 1944 bell installed when Iceland got its independence from Denmark.
The circular green to one side of the church, is the National Cemetery of Iceland holding just two graves. The first grave is that of Einar Benediktsson, a C20th nationalist and poet. There followed a period of headscratching when it transpired that nobody else wanted to be buried in the middle of nowhere. Then they decided they would dig up the body of an even old poet Jonas Hallgrimsson who died in Denmark in 1845. Such a great Icelandic poet must surely be buried in Iceland! Unfortunately it is likely that they exhumed and transported the wrong body – that of a Danish baker. So, poet and baker lie side by side in the National Cemetery of Iceland.
When you see for yourself the bleakness, and imagine it at night or in mist, it's easy to imagine an alternative world.
The Huldrefolk or hidden folk are the Icelandic equivalent of elves seen by few but believed in by many. One story traces their origins to Adam and Eve, and yet again blames the woman. Eve was washing her four children. Two were clean, two were not when God came a calling. Ashamed of showing her two dirty children, Eve hid them from God’s sight. To prove a point, perhaps, though God knows what, the Good Lord decreed that henceforth these two children and their descendants should be hidden from man. A variant of the story explains how the Elves were neutral in the great conflict between Lucifer and God. Lucifer was bound to Hell, the Elves were punished by being hidden from man. One thing for sure, those stones associated with the Hidden Folk are treated with huge respect, to the extent that roads are narrowed or skirt around them.
Volcanic gorges like these resemble roughly hewn castles, perhaps built by Trolls.
Trolls were or are, man-eaters, slow and dull-witted, but on occasions, surprisingly helpful and loyal to those who come to their aid. Their big problem is sunlight, which turns them to rock.
And of course there are geysers and waterfalls. Lots of waterfalls
Gulfoss (Golden Falls)