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Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

I was delighted to learn that Iceland’s original legislature, formed in the year 930, was called “Althing.” I mean, can you imagine? “What are you going to talk about at the meeting?” “Oh, you know … all things.”

I love a historical site, and even more a whimsically named one. And I love a majestic natural vista. Thingvellir (“Parliament Plains,” or “The Place Where We Have the Thing,”) is both. And it’s spectacular.

As I described in my play-by-play of our Golden Circle Drive, we started our visit in the Visitor Center, which I recommend. It has some great interactive displays, and will help you understand the place you’re about to see. We arrived at around 4 p.m., an hour before it closed, but because our crew was getting tired, we only spent about half an hour in the exhibit. Toth, our 14-year-old, had really wanted to spend time with every display, and was disappointed to leave so early.

In this building, there is also a souvenir shop, a coffee shop and some really nice, private bathrooms.

You can step out of the visitor center onto the Hakid viewing platform, where you see the valley rolled out below you, veined with branches of the Oxara River and walking paths. The only thing that mars this view is the parking lot they inexplicably built in the middle of the valley.

Into the Gorge

From the viewing platform, you walk up two sets of stairs, which take you to the most iconic part of this national park. If you researched at all before your visit, the photo you probably saw was this: a walking path through a narrow gorge with steep rocky walls. Almannagja. This is the actual fissure between the European tectonic plate and the American one. Of course, the meeting between these two plates runs across the whole island of Iceland, but this is one of the best places to observe and appreciate it.

As we walked the boardwalk, the rocky walls rose higher on either side of us, until were walking down the corridor of the gods. The feeling was literally awesome, and I felt sad that the stairs had kept my parents from seeing this part of the park.

The boardwalk sloped down, bringing us level with the rest of the valley, and then ended, leaving us on a gravel path. On our left, the American plate towered thousands of feet above, but the European plate fell away, until we were walking in the open valley.

We came to the hill where the Allthing, Iceland’s first national assembly, met from 930 to 1798. An Icelandic flag marks the spot. Behind the knoll, the rock wall, which according to the visitor center exhibit provided the speakers with great acoustics.

Next, we came to a bridge over the river, with a beautiful clear pool off to the side.

The Drowning Pool

Thingvellir was not just a place for meetings. It was also an execution place. And this lovely, clear pool was Drekkingarhylur, where they offed the female offenders. It doesn’t look that deep, which is probably why they put the women into sacks before drowning them. We learned that the women’s “crimes” were usually incest or infanticide to hide the birth of a child. I stood quietly for a moment, looking into the limpid water, thinking of women and girls who were likely already victimized once, then executed here in such a horrible manner.

Öxarárfoss waterfall

As we walked around the valley paths, signs pointed this way and that with Icelandic names of other sights on them, but no explanation of what they were. Everything sounded enticing.

The next sign we saw pointed to Oxarafoss, which rang a bell. Besides, we heard rushing water. So we hurried across a parking lot and down a boardwalk to find the waterfall created when the river dumps over the American plate wall into the valley. Legend has it that the creators of the Allthing redirected the river here in order to provide water for their assemblies, but no one knows if this is true or how they would have even done that.

The Church

At this point we reversed direction, and walked toward the simple wooden church at the other end of the valley. We peeked in the windows at the simple wooden pews, and looked at the tiny cemetary next to it — labeled Icelandic National Cemetary. Such a grand name for a tiny churchyard burial plot seemed perfect for Iceland. There’s also a cute house that looks like a row of five houses, all with peaked rooves, walls touching. This, according to signs, is the summer home of Iceland’s prime minister. It looks quite modest!

Flosagja and Silfra?

At this point, Toth and I were trying to meet up with our family. As we wandered, we came across this very still, very clear water filling a fissure. It looks like a river, but it’s not moving. Later, we realized this was probably Flosagja, the gorge I had sent Erik and my parents to see by car. However, it could have also been the Silfra Fissure, the one that people scuba and snorkel in. I’m still not sure, but if I understand right, both are fissures where the land is being pulled apart by the movement of the two tectonic plates. Aren’t they gorgeous?

To wrap up our day, after we met up with the rest of the family, we drove to the disabled-only parking lot marked Flosagja, where, steps from the car, we could stare straight down into the deep Flosagja gorge. It was full of coins. “Nature doesn’t want your money!” we scolded, copying a sign we’d seen at the Geysir Hot Springs.

But there was no one there to hear our admonishment. It was about 6 p.m., and we had spectacular Thingvellir National Park all to ourselves.

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