Iceland was settled around 870, and its parliament was founded in 930. Therefore, it has the northernmost sovereign capitol and the oldest parliament in the world. One of the more interesting things we learned was that they actually voted to establish Christianity over Paganism. When a volcano blew up, someone on the losing side said the gods were angry; someone else replied, “What were the gods angry about last year?”
Reykjavik, the capitol, was not established as a city until 1786. The entire island only has a population of about three hundred and thirty thousand people, and of that, about 200,000 live in or near Reykjavik. Perhaps there is a good reason for the concentration. Reykjavik, despite being just north of 64 degrees latitude, is on the southern side of Iceland, benefits from the North Atlantic Drift and usually has warmer winters than New York City. An indication of how far north we are talking is that the Arctic Circle is at 66 2/3 degrees.
Fishing is still the principal industry. With the small population to support infrastructure, there are not too many highways nor large buildings. The Harpa Concert Hall by the Harbor is an interesting building as is the Lutheran Church, the Hallgrímskirkja.
In front of Hallgrímskirkja is a statue of Liefr Eiricsson, a hometown boy who discovered Vinland also known as Greenland and settled briefly on Newfoundland. The statue was a 1930 gift from the United States on the one thousandth anniversary of the Althing, Iceland’s parliament.
Only 25 percent of Iceland is inhabited. A visitor needs to get out into this unique environment. They have a 105-foot wide double waterfall, Gallfoss, the largest in Europe. But having only one day, we chose instead to ride in a large four-wheel drive vehicle to a hill overlooking the city. The steep rugged dirt road was built by the British during World War II.
We then followed a pipeline that brings the city hot water from thermal power plants. Cold water comes from underground reservoirs up to a thousand years old.
Iceland was created by the up-thrust of lava at the point where the Eurasian tectonic plate meets the North American plate. We actually saw a fissure where the two plates meet as well as a lake. Iceland is still growing by a couple centimeters a year, and there are still active volcanoes. One was erupting along a fault line while we were there, but it was miles away and not spewing anything into the air, so we did not see it.
The government of Iceland has bored holes into the ground releasing super-heated steam formed underground where soaking rainwater meets the hot earth. Where we visited, steam at 350 degrees Celsius was cooled by water from a nearby lake, the largest in Iceland, to 120 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Celcius is the boiling point of water).
The cooled steam drives turbines to produce electricity. The water used to cool the steam, now hot, is piped to Reykjavik for use in homes – showers, etc. Other sources of hot water are used to heat homes, and the waste hot water is even used to keep driveways free of ice in the winter.
Our driver had created his vehicle by welding the front half of a Ford 350 diesel truck to the back part of a Ford Excursion. He liked to talk about it and it was interesting, but I wish he had given us more stops to take pictures of the fascinating countryside.
For the most part, there were only very low trees. But many people have small summer homes and have imported and planted pines near them.
As in the Shetlands, we saw sheep and Shetland ponies. But our guide was quick to point out that these were horses, not ponies. They were small Icelandic horses. There are around one hundred thousand on the island, and they are raised both to ride and for export. There are frequent horse shows. The horses are naturally quite tame and trainable. And while they are small, they are unusual in that they can be trained for five gaits. One gait is extremely smooth enabling one to ride in comfort for hours. That gait is the principal reason their popularity has led to a large export market.
Our ride, not as smooth, took us over rough roads and up a river where there was no road. We passed spots where wells had been bored to heat private homes as well as larger facilities for public use. It was an efficient ride and took us only four hours, so we had time to see the city before our ship left. But it is a small city, and we would like to see more of the countryside on another visit.