Monday, April 4, 2016

Iceland - Golden Circle Tour, part 1

Our package from IcelandAir included airfare, hotel, and a tour. I'm not a fan of group tours, but this trip might just be curing me of that aversion. Each of our tours was fantastic. They did not include more time for shopping than sightseeing (a huge pet peeve of mine based on experiences in the US, Italy, and Japan). The people were great about getting back on the buses in a timely fashion, and the guides were knowledgeable and seemed to really enjoy their jobs.

Our Golden Circle Tour description was as follows:

This is a tour that combines the famous Golden Circle with visit to local farms and restaurants for delicious tastes made with pure Icelandic ingredients. We head out of Reykjavik and set our course through ├×ingvellir to the local greenhouse, Fri├░heimar. There we get a taste of their newly grown tomatoes and famous tomato soup. Next we visit the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall and the great Geysir geothermal area where the reliable Strokkur geyser spouts hot water up as high as 15 - 30m every 3-7 minutes. After enjoying these jewels of Icelandic nature, it is time to turn our attention back to our taste buds with a visit to the farm Efstidalur. There we get a few samples of their local products such as skyr (A kind of Icelandic yogurt that will have you checking your grocery stores when you are back home) and delicious ice cream. Afterwards, it´s time for some relaxation at the geothermal spa Fontana followed by a 2 course dinner at the local restaurant Lindin. After a nice meal, we head out to explore the mysterious nights of Iceland. In winter we go and search for the magical Northern Lights; but over the summer months we experience the calm summer night, hopefully followed by the Midnight Sun, all depending of course on the weather forecast.

We were picked up from our hotel at 11:30 AM by Max, one of the 19,000 people who have immigrated to Iceland. The plan was to return around midnight after looking for the Northern Lights. Max moved to Iceland 14 years ago from Northern France. He still has his French accent. Oddly enough he wasn't the only French person I encountered. Of all the languages spoken in the world, on this trip I heard English and Icelandic first, followed by French. Could be that my ears are attuned to French, but it really seemed to me the French are visiting Iceland more than the Germans, Italians, Dutch, etc. or at least were the week we were there.

The first person we met, Maggie, grew up in Lawrenceville about two miles from our house. She now lives further north. It is always jarring when out of the country we meet someone who knows our local landmarks. We picked up two more women (Tyra and Valerie) and tried again to pick up another couple, but they were missing. I spent the first part of the trip blogging about seeing the Northern Lights so I didn't mix up the experiences from the first night with those from the second night.

Our first stop was Thingveller (actually spelled with a funny looking "p," but our guide said use "th"): a national shrine of all Icelanders on the UNESCO World Heritage List. We were on a tour so we did what time allowed -- walk out to look around, hop inside to see a 3D map of the area, and hop back in the bus. Had we rented a car, we would have hiked along the trails. As is we took the bus around the trails and

ended up on the opposite side so we could get a close-up view of what we saw from a distance. We also would have hiked to the spot where you can stand and straddle two continents. This is where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.

Back to the top. Thingvellir's claim to fame is that about 160 years after Iceland was settled, the general assembly (Albingi) started meeting here from 930-1262/1264 (again that plus or minus 2). Though it looks like it is in the middle of nowhere, it was conveniently accessible by land routes. Fast forward to June 17, 1944 -- it was here where the Icelandic Republic was officially formed.

The little church in the picture is now used when Presidents are

inaugurated. The President of Iceland has limited powers, and can serve an unlimited number of four year terms until he (or she) is not voted back into office.The current president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, has been in office since 1996 and is up for reelection this June. Prior to him, was their first woman president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who served as their fourth president for 16 years (1980-1996). Ahh...the research I do while writing blog posts. The
stretch of buildings next to it is the Prime Minister's summer home. He is the one with the true power. He is Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson, and has been serving as their 25th prime minister since 2013. He is appointed by the President. Not sure what the rules are about prime ministers. Their dates of starting office are all over the place, seems like they can be prime minister for a while then someone else is, then they can have the position again. No, I don't understand all of this. They have had at least one woman serve as prime minister.

While doing some research for this blog, I discovered Thingvellir has a sense of humor:

Love seeing Ashley getting into the photo taking action, too.

Back to our day trip. We went in the van where he drove us around to the other side of the national park. He showed us the "National Treasure," a spot where people toss coins in the water and make a wish. He said it had been a recent earthquake shifted it. To me the spot looked like where mermaids live. Yes, we each tossed in a penny and made a

wish. Penny for your thoughts? 

Here we met up with the other couple who we were supposed to be traveling with. Lovely newlyweds, also from New Jersey. What is it about New Jerseyans? We really like to leave our state!

I think this is a good breaking point. I'll pick up with part 2 HERE.

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