Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park (pronounced Thingvellir) is a national park in South Iceland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is home to the world's longest running Parliament, first established in 930 AD, and also has a dramatic landscape formed as a result of sitting along the border between the North American and European tectonic plates.
The history of Þingvellir is closely linked with the history of Iceland. It is where the parliament of Iceland was first founded around the year 930 and where it continued to meet until 1798. The history began in the Age of Settlements (c. 870-930) when large numbers of settlers arrived in Iceland, mainly from Norway, Ireland and the Scottish islands, and claimed land in most of the country. Initially the original settlers controlled their respective areas of land, but as the Age of Settlements wore on, people began to establish a formal system of government. District assemblies were set up with a general assembly, the Alþing, which first convened at Þingvellir just before 930. This laid the foundation for the Icelandic Commonwealth, which was largely controlled by chieftains (goðar) with some participation by ordinary people.
The Alþing was Iceland's legislative and chief judicial authority for the duration of the Commonwealth, until 1271. Executive power was in the hands of the chieftains and parties to individual cases at each time. This proved to be quite an adequate arrangement for as long as the balance of power remained in the hands of the Alþing but was gradually transferred to the Norwegian and later Danish rulers until the King of Denmark became absolute monarch of Iceland in 1662.
Þingvellir was conveniently situated on ancient travel routes and was hardly a day's journey on horseback from the main districts of south and west Iceland. Fairly easy routes could be taken from the most populated districts of north Iceland. People from the northeast and east Iceland could cross the highlands, while Þingvellir took 17 days to reach from the farthest flung parts of east Iceland.
Þingvellir was the centre of Icelandic culture. Every year during the Commonwealth period people would flock to Þingvellir from all over the country, sometimes numbering in the thousands. They set up booths with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing and stayed in them for the two weeks of the assembly. Although the duties of the assembly were the real reason for going there, ordinary people gathered at Þingvellir for a wide variety of reasons. Merchants, sword sharpeners and tanners could all sell their goods and services, clowns performed and ale-makers brewed drinks for the assembly guests. News were told from distant parts; games and feasts were held. Itinerant farmhands looked for work and vagrants begged. Þingvellir was a meeting place for everyone in Iceland, laying the foundation for the language and literature that have been a prominent part of people's lives right up to the present day.
Lögberg, the Law Rock, was the focal point of the Alþing and a natural platform for holding speeches. The Lawspeaker, a kind of chairman of the assembly, recited the law of the land. Before the law was written down he was expected to memorise the laws and recite them from the Law Rock over the course of three summers. Inauguration and dissolution of the assembly took place at Lögberg, where rulings by the Law Council were announced, the calendar was confirmed, legal actions were brought and other announcements made which concerned the entire nation. Anyone attending the assembly was entitled to present his case on important issues from the Law Rock.
In effect the Law Council served both as a parliament and as a supreme court. Laws were passed and approved there, and rulings made on points of law. Unlike the Law Rock, the Law Council was a closed body in which only certain people enjoyed full rights: chieftains who held the office of "goðar", their advisers and later also bishops. However, everyone at the assembly was entitled to watch and listen to the Law Council work.
When Iceland became part of the Norwegian realm in 1262, the structure of the Alþing was changed, and when the legal code "Iron Side" was adopted in 1271-73 the Law Rock lost its function. Assembly duties were then largely confined to the Law Council.
When Iceland swore allegiance to the King of Denmark as absolute monarch in 1662, the last vestiges of independence disappeared. From then on, the Law Council mainly performed a judicial function. Harsher punishments were adopted and Þingvellir became an execution site. Many names in the landscape give testament to the cruelty of those times.
Although the Alþing had largely lost its function Icelanders continued to visit the assembly to keep informed and socialise, although they were no longer obliged to attend. Thus Þingvellir to some extent preserved its role as the focal point of Icelandic social life right until the end of the 18th century. During the struggle for independence the site became an important symbol of national unity. It became a symbol of a unified, independent nation. It was the scene of Iceland's most glorious and darkest moments and still serves as a forum for commemorating major events.
Þingvellir was declared a national park in 1930. A law was passed designating Þingvellir as "a protected national shrine for all Icelanders, the perpetual property of the Icelandic nation under the preservation of the parliament, never to be sold or mortgaged."
The Þingvellir area forms part of the volcanic fissure zone running right through Iceland, In turn, this zone is part of the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which extend the length of the Atlantic from north to south.
The Þingvellir plains are the westernmost part of a rift valley stretching from the mountains in the northeast and down towards lake Þingvallavatn. The horsts delimiting the valley are the cliffs of Almannagjá fault to the west and the Heiðargjá fault to the east. Over the past 10,000 years the valley’s appearance has been shaped by the spreading and sinking of the Earth’s crust. The tectonic plates west of Almannagjá and east of Heiðargjá are gradually moving apart by an average of 3 mm per year. Measurements suggest that the graben (the floor of the valley) has widened 70 meters in the space of 10,000 years, and sunk by 40 meters at the same time – the difference between the top of Almannagjá and the plains below.
As well as moving gradually, the land displaces at intervals of several hundred years. In 1789 Þingvellir was struck by a wave of earthquakes lasting ten days. The valley floor between Almannagjá and Heiðargjá sank by almost 2 meters then, mostly in the middle, and spread considerably too.
Þingvallavatn is the largest natural lake in Iceland, with a surface area of 84 square kilometers. It lies at an altitude of around 100 m above sea level. At its deepest point it measures 114 meters, while the average depth is 34 meters. There are three islands in the lake. Almost nine-tenths of the water inflow comes from springs and fissures on the bed of the lake or at its shore. The wide underground catchment area for water extends as far as Langjökull glacier. Only one-tenth of the inflow is surface water from brooks and rivers, the largest of which is Öxará. Average outflow at the only drainage point, the river Sog, is around 110 cubic meters per second.
The Lake Þingvallavatn biosphere clearly testifies to the fact that it straddles on the border between the continents of Europe and North America. The great northern diver, a bird native to North America, breeds around the lake and gathers in flocks at the lake in autumn. Other migrant birds from North America are barrow’s goldeneye and the harlequin duck. White-tailed eagles nested on the slopes of Dráttarhlíða and Arnarfell in olden times, but are rarely seen now. Mink live by the lake, preying on small birds and foxes make occasional appearances.
The greatest biological wonder at Þingvallavatn, however, is its fish population. No other lake in the world supports four separate species of arctic charr. At the top of the food chain is the brown trout. Some brown trout are known to have weighed more than 30 lbs, but even at their peak, the average was around 11 lbs. However, the fish stocks in the lake went into serious decline after the upper Sog river was harnessed for hydroelectricity production in 1959, which disrupted the largest spawning grounds of the brown trout. Large brown trout can still be seen in Öxará, however, during the autumn spawning season.
Flora and fauna
Birch woodland is characteristic of the Þingvellir area, indicated by the original name of the area in Icelandic: Bláskógar (literally "Blue Woods"). In the National Park, 172 species of higher plants have been found, or about 40% of the Icelandic flora, so variety is not wanting. Birch, along with willow, plants of the heath family, and dwarf birch, transform the appearance of Þingvellir in autumn, and many make their way there to enjoy the beauty of its pastel colours.
Lake Þingvallavatn is particularly deep and thus does not attract as many waterfowl as do shallower lakes such as Lake Mývatn. Generally, 52 bird species live by the lake, while 30 others come and go. The most famous bird is the great northern diver, which nests in a few places by the lake. It's grouchy and protects its territory energetically. Iceland is the easternmost point for the great northern diver, which has its roots in North America.
Fox sneaks around hillocks and high spots. It has shared the countryside with humans since the settlement and can be found by Lake Þingvallavatn, as well as elsewhere in Iceland. The newest resident of Lake Þingvallavatn is probably the mink, which was first brought to Iceland in 1931 for its fur. Soon afterwards, a few mink escaped from their cages, and now mink can be found everywhere around the country. Like so many other creatures, the mink thrives at Þingvallavatn and can often be seen by the shoreline of the lake.
Þingvellir is generally considered to be one of the "weather paradises" of Iceland. This is due to the fact that when the weather is good it is usually best in this area. The weather, like everywhere else in Iceland, is swift to change though. The temperature drop from day to night is considerable and even though the day was sunny and warm the night might be quite cold. During winter it can snow quite a lot and those driving smaller vehicles are advised to familiarise themselves with the road conditions before heading out.
The national park is an easy one hour trip from the capital Reykjavík. If driving from Reykjavík it is necessary to drive to route 1 via Mosfellsbaer. From there it is possible to access route 36 which runs through Þingvellir.
Buses also run from BSÍ bus terminal in the centre of Reykjavik during the summer season. The fare (in 2008) is 1,700 kr and the bus departs in the morning and leaves for Reykjavík in the late afternoon.
Entrance into the park is free of charge. Fishing permits are sold in the Service Centre and cost 1,500 kr for the day.
By car or tourbus on the roads. Elsewhere, on foot.
The most popular site in the national park is the old parliament site. There are no real visible remains there but signposts and a visit to the visitor's centre give a good feel for the area.
The lava field in the fault valley is also home to several deserted farms. The farms are reached by fairly easy hiking routes and are a good chance to see a different side of this much visited park.
Have a look inside the Visitor Centre. It is in a new building close to the view spot at Hakið, where a footpath leads down into the great Almannagjá fault. The exhibition in the Visitor Centre is almost exclusively based on interactive multimedia and is the first of its kind in Iceland. The exhibition is therefore quite modern in design, although good care has been taken to make it easily accessible to the visitors. The history and nature of Þingvellir and its surroundings literally "come alive" on large TV monitors, playing a wide variety of illustrative video and audio material. Using conveniently placed touch screens, you can choose narrative (and subtitles) in four different languages: Danish, English, German, French and Icelandic (a wider selection of languages will be added to the program later) then decide for yourself which particular sections of the multimedia program you want to view. For instance, you might be prompted to "dive into" the habitat of lake Þingvallavatn and view unique close-up footage of fish in the lake, such as the brown trout. It takes about 40 minutes to view the whole multimedia program, but, as indicated before, visitors use the touch-screen interface to select which parts they prefer to view. Each program section is intended to provide the general national park visitor with some interesting and useful information about the subject at hand.
The exhibition is open daily from 9AM to 5PM. Admission is free.
Take a walk around the old parliament seat and have a look inside the church which is open daily during the summer months. Every Sunday in the summertime there is mass in the church at 2PM and all visitors are welcome.
Diving is permitted in two submerged rifts in the Park, Silfra and Davíðsgjá. Silfra is one of the best spots for diving in Iceland and many people find the rift unique on an international scale.
The reason for its fame is the astounding visibility in the clear, cold ground water and the magnificent surroundings. Davíðsgjá is in the north-eastern part of Lake Þingvallavatn. The rift is in the lake itself and to reach it you have to swim some distance. It is quite shallow nearest to the bank, but deepens and widens further out.
Divers have to fulfill all regulations and conditions regarding qualification and equipment for diving. They must abide by all rules concerning diving and agree to respect the National Park regulations. It is prohibited to dive alone, to enter caves while diving and to dive to a greater depth than 18 metres. You need to contact a guide if you wish to go diving in the rifts. Diving is entirely at the divers' own responsibility and risk.
A fishing permit and have a go at the fish in the lake. You might catch charr for dinner or even one of the lake's famous brown trout.
A small café is in the Service Centre which sells hot dogs, soft drinks, sandwiches, cookies, ice cream and candy. The hotel has a restaurant and a café and is conveniently located on the outskirts of the main attraction (but it burned down in 2009), the old parliament site. Note that the cafe/book-shop is located a few kilometers past the visitor information center (if coming from the direction of Reykjavik).
You can drink as much as you like; there is no restriction any time anywhere.
No lodging in the national park is available but park rangers in the Information Center can provide information about lodging in the general area.
Camping is only permitted in two areas in the National Park. At Leirar, which is within a 5 minutes walking distance from the Information Center, and in Vatnskot, by lake Þingvallavatn. At Leirar there are four camping grounds: Fagrabrekka, Syðri-Leirar, Hvannabrekka and Nyrðri-Leirar. The Vatnskot camp ground is situated at an abandoned farm site by the lake.
Camping and angling permits should be obtained at the Information Center on arrival.
Children under the age of 13 can stay overnight, free of charge. Groups (10 adults or more) get a 15% discount if they pay in one sum at the time of reservation. The cost of camping is 1000 kr per person per night. If staying for more than three nights the fourth night is free of charge and every other night after that.
The camping grounds are mowed each week and the toilet facilities are cleaned at least once a day. Garbage does not have to be sorted before being put into the disposal cans, except that special containers for aluminum soda cans, glass bottles and plastic bottles are provided. Charcoal and ash from the barbecues should also be disposed of into separate containers.
During the summer Park Rangers look after the camping areas every day and during the weekends they keep nightshifts, to make sure everything is quiet after midnight.
When hiking in Þingvellir, you may encounter a variety of spectacular fissures in the ground. It might be tempting to lean over the edge and look into them, but be careful - the rocks near the edge may be unstable. Use your best judgement and watch out for your kids.