Today I had booked myself a hideously expensive but well-worth it bus tour around the Golden Circle, Iceland's most popular tourist day trip from the capital. I woke up an hour too early at hideous o'clock, leaving myself more than enough time to eat a pot of instant porridge abandoned in my dorm and catch the bus from outside the hostel. The Icelandic tourist industry works like a well-oiled machine; shuttles pick everyone up from their various hostels and deposit us all in front of the coach at the main bus station, on which there is wifi! WIFI! However I was forced to remark again at that constant phenomenon of how American tourists always manage to identify each other instantly and cheerily share their life stories with an enthusiasm undampened by the glares of every other nationality present. It was hard to hate the particular selection on our bus as they were all elderly couples celebrating anniversaries and making new friends much more effectively than us youth at the back, but as Europeans we felt we should try hard to disapprove nonetheless.
The drive towards our first destination took us through a bleak landscape of volcanic hills wreathed in clouds so low you could almost pop them with a pin. Houses cropped up colourfully across the planes, as did the swishy-tailed Icelandic horses that look more like Shetland ponies than anything else, and we all craned our necks to look at the smoky islands lining the horizon. Sulphurous fumes snuck through the windows on the way through a moss-covered lava field. Apparently one third of the world's lava flow in the last 10,000 years has taken place in Iceland, a country where when a volcano erupts "we run towards it, not away from it!".
The countryside is perfectly picturesque. Puffs of steam prick the mountainsides and crystal clear little streams wind down the slopes. We pass a fishermen thigh-high in a rushing fjord, and the deep red of an earth path cuts through the endless green towards a little log church framed so perfectly against the blues and greys of the sky and a sunbathing mountain that it might as well be an oil painting. We skirt a lava hillock inconveniently positioned in the middle of the road, and our tour guide tells us that road construction had to proceed around it as it is said to be home to elves. 55% of Icelanders believe in them.
Our first stop seemed to be purely a vehicle to advertise Iceland's vast superiority to the rest of Europe when it comes to energy generation; no fossil fuels or nuclear power used on this island, and in fact much of the country's power is appropriately produced by geothermal energy. This is certainly the case for Friðheimar, a predominantly tomato-based farming operation housed in greenhouses that suck up as much as electricity per day as 3000 average Icelanders. Run by an almost offensively Nordic-looking family of gorgeous aryans, a cafe is housed in one of these cosy glass longhouses that serves deliciously fresh tomato soup with poppyseed and sugar and cinnamon breads. I gave in to my more luxurious instincts and bought myself a mug and a roll because you definitely wouldn't get this stuff out of tin (although maybe you would in Iceland), and it was so filling that I have actually yet to eat since.
Giant bumble bees bustle around the green houses pollinating everything, and workers plugged into their iPods and balancing on ladders line each row, poking and prodding the still-green tomatoes. Every plant has to be replaced every 9 months - what a faff, especially since the greenhouse we got to peek around is only one of many. Lucky for Icelanders, courtesy of the geothermal energy at their fingertips the natives have little need of importing anything. It's Europe's largest producer of bananas (what an accolade) and has even tried its hand at coffee and oranges - although "just for fun" according to our tour guide. Just for fun.
As we cruise into the Geysir area we all ooh and ah at an enormous spout from afar - hastily reassured by our guide that there'll be another one within fifteen minutes. The eponymous mother of all future geysers unfortunately no longer erupts so regularly after getting blocked up with rocks thrown by the hooligan tourists of the 50s; in her hey day in the 19th century her plumes would reach up to 170m, and although recent earthquakes have helped to revive her somewhat she was sulking underground for our visit. The big performance nowadays is from Strokkur. It stayed silent for half an hour before erupting in three massive plumes of water and steam in quick succession, the smell of sulphur spraying out over the crowd before the water retreated back into the rock as if down a gigantic plughole. I can well imagine the hot springs as a jacuzzi for one of the Giants of Norse myth, as radioactive blue pools bubble away like cauldrons of potion and steam floats menacingly across the rocky landscape.
The geysers are all well and good if you're into steam and furious fumes, but what I enjoyed most about this stop was climbing to the top of the mossy peaks that survey the area. The summit overlooks a lush green valley on one side and the hot springs on the other, and was teeming with tourists (and myself) taking egregious amounts of panoramas (and selfies). The view of the geysers erupting was admittedly great from up at the top, but I sat for a while on a tuft on the cliff face and GAZED CONTEMPLATIVELY out over the fields scattered with horses grazing and little red cabins, and bisected by the archetypal babbling brook. The landscape in this country really does belong in the illustrations of a fairy tale.
The Gullfoss waterfall is one of the largest in Iceland, consisting of two separate shelves that combine to make it a whopping 30m high. No Victoria Falls, but an impressive place to be able to visit on a "city break". As we descended to get a closer look, a mist of vapour rose up rather like the steam from the hot springs, and left me raw and red in the face. The water pounds down so hard that it rises out of the narrow gorge in clouds, and roars thunderously until your ears ring with the torrents. It's very spectacular, and quite hard to believe that the waterfall has had to survive several attempts at its destruction. A century ago an Englishman (ugh, obviously) wanting to harness its epic power was foiled by a simple farmer, and then decades later his daughter threatened the Icelandic government with hurling herself into the waves if they did not stop contractors from constructing a hydroelectric dam. Another local myth tells of a shepherd and a maiden living on opposite sides of the mighty river before he finally braved the flow to wade across and produce "many well-thought of descendants". It's an awesome sight, nature at work etc etc; apparently on sunny days a rainbow arches through the spray. Curse the weather.
As well as the magnificent waterfall, Gullfoss boasts a view out towards the glacier from whence it flows, packed in by black mountains streaked with snow. I do wish that the day had been sunnier, as the whole view was wreathed in the mists of cloud and rain - which sounds romantic but was in fact just irritating.
Þingvellir was probably my favourite stop today. A National Park that "straddles two continents" as my leaflet so dramatically tells me, between 930 and 1798 it was home to the gatherings of Iceland's general assembly (the Alþingi). Its steep crags and location on the edge of the country's largest lake (Þingvallavatn) give it the perfect acoustics for oratory and loud law-making, which is exactly what would happen when the parliament gathered there back in the day. Also what happened when Iceland converted to Christianity in 1000AD, and when it declared itself a republic independent from Denmark almost a millenium later; it's still a pretty relevant place in the national mind. Other exciting things it played host to were countless gruesome punishments and executions! Many of Iceland's male sorcerers were burned at the stake here, and women were drowned for crimes like incest and fornication.
The main pathway that leads up to the summit and the parliamentary site itself is flanked by jutting rock-faces and mossy crags that start to morph into troll faces if you stare for long enough. A mini waterfall appears halfway through the ascent, a picture-perfect blend of greens and blues whose depths are lined with hoards of glittering coins tossed in by patriotic Icelanders and lemming-like tourists alike. Þingvellir's position across two tectonic plates means that the crags are littered with cracks and fissures and nooks and crannies that create pleasant little pockets of silence away from the buzz of the tour bus masses, and from the summit you can look out over the lake itself and an angular church surrounded by streams - on the very same spot as one of the first religious buildings in the country all those centuries ago. I wish we'd had more time here, as it's very beautiful.
We wend our way back through the countryside as our tour guide fills us with tales of doom and gloom about climate change and electricity bills. We pass a tiny field of delicately balanced piles of rocks, and multiple clusters of sheep shouldering through tall grass and brush. Apparently sheep are specially cut to signify who owns them and then allowed to roam across the fields at will for the summer months. We rumble over a dark blue fjord with a shimmer on its surface from the sun that has finally decided to appear, and a grim-faced cyclist battled against the wind alongside us for a while. Clusters of pines appear around the base of the hills shielding hidden log holiday cabins with all the mod cons - I can't wait to return to this country.
I wish I could come back to Iceland with a car, a tent, and a salary. Hitch-hikers line the roads looking rough and ready to go, and I spy a beautiful blonde couple stopping to smooch and fill up their water bottles at a brook running alongside the ring road. Hostel tales of driving for hours along that one road that loops around the whole island and only seeing perhaps one or two cars maximum really sound like a dream to me; being able to pull over and stand and stare out at the glaciers or the smoky mountains (without craning to see over that fat Australian woman in front) would truly be bliss.
As we roll towards Reykjavik our guide tells us that the Icelandic language is really just undiluted old Norse - spoken by most of Scandinavia at one point before mass abandonment and becoming unique to Iceland. A pointy church appears at the end of a tree-lined path, where the lead player in the famous Egil's Saga was laid to rest. Perfect.
After collapsing onto my bed for some reading and writing, my chirpy Canadian roommate persuaded me downstairs for beers and bar snacks and failed attempts to remember how to play any form of card games. We were eventually enticed out to The Laundromat by a selection of other ladies from the hostel, one of Reykjavik's trademark hip bars with shelves of colour-coded paperbacks and a wide selection of Icelandic beers. Some of us decided to take on the vibrant nightlife marking the start of gay pride weekend, but I shuffled home to my bunk just past midnight, exhausted of energy (and cash).