Bleary eyed and jet lagged, we selected an easy tour for today, a mere ten hours. Only 340,000 people live in Iceland, 80% of them in Reykjavik, the capital. No one lives in the middle of the country since it is covered with glaciers, although they are receding. Tourism has really taken off since that Eyjafjnallajökull volcano erupted in 2010 tying up European air traffic and bringing world attention to this little island. The dramatic scenery shown in Game of Thrones didn't hurt either. This means that countless tours originate in town and disperse tourists as far as they can round trip in a day. It was all very well organized; a small van picked us up and at the Grayline terminal, everyone scrambled and got on their tour for the day.
Iceland is about the size of Kentucky and wouldn't be here at all if it weren't on the fault line between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian one. All this pulling and tugging gave rise to the volcanoes that created this land. Today the rift valley that is still being stretched is thin and flat, but in other areas volcanoes erupt on average every four years. Pingvellir National Park was created here in 1930, long before people knew about plate tectonics. It commemorated the 1000th anniversary of a sort of self ruling tradition where people gathered annually to create law and make decisions for themselves in this flat place. Today the rock walls between the two continental plates are very easy to see with the ever growing flat valley in the middle. The park is better known now for geology than history.
Viking men first arrived here in 870 fleeing a sort of civil war between the chieftains in Norway. Their isolation allowed them to maintain their original language, while their Scandinavian cousins wandered off in other linguistic directions and can scarcely understand Icelandic today. I can puzzle out some of the signs, but the pronunciation is a huge challenge. People lived primitively as farmers until Word War II. There are hardly any trees, so people got creative with volcanic boulders and turf burying themselves and their animals into the hillsides trying to keep warm. They recycled wood from ship wrecks or driftwood when they could find it. On our tour we went to a turf house, restored by the grandson of the farmer who lived there last. Besides the house where the family lived in a motor home worth of space, there were buildings for animals, cooking, black smithing, etc.
Nearly all the turf houses have collapsed back into the ground, because World War II caused a huge cultural shift in Iceland. First the British, then the Americans arrived to build air strips and military outposts. They needed lots of laborers to get the job done. Farmers streamed into Reykjavik, leaving their farms behind. Once they saw big city life, few went back. Today the city is plain and utilitarian looking. The climate doesn't allow for much in the way of plantings. No one litters.
Some have found ways to make lemons out of lemonade. Iceland is the most ecological country on earth. Electricity is produced from a combination of hydro and steam power, harnessing all that volcanic energy just below the surface. Some of the streets are heated with thermal energy and never need to be plowed. We visited Friøheimar, a tomato green house where plants are grown year round. Since electricity is so cheap, they can run the sun lamps 18 hours a day. The heat comes from below ground, water is plentiful, CO2 is pumped in from volcanic areas. Bees are flown in weekly from Holland to pollinate the blossoms. Fresh flowers and many other vegetables are grown here. There is even a tiny banana plantation. The electricity is so cheap, aluminum ore is brought here from countries as far away as South America, smelted, and then sent on to be used. Six huge factories are in production.
But recently tourism has become the #1 revenue producer. Everyone speaks English, the lingua franca of tourists. Besides sightseeing as we are, adventure tourism is big here as well. The small, but strong Icelandic ponies that used to work the farms, are still here in great numbers for recreational riding. They have a special gait which enables riders to gallop without bounding up and down.
We toured what is commonly known as The Golden Ring, a circular route that most tourists take when they first visit. Because our tour was also a food tour, we stopped every so often for a taste of something locally produced. The Icelandic surf and turf lunch, which was lamb and trout, was a highlight. We heard that souse, a sort of seaweed is also popular, but mostly we got lots of dairy products. We stopped at an unimpressive geyser field, which would have impressed us much more if we hadn't been to Yellowstone or Rotorua, New Zealand. But the Gollfuss waterfall was awesome from above and below. We're looking forward to seeing more of them!