Þingvellir National Park, alongside Gullfoss and Geysir, is one of the three stops on the famous Golden Circle route, the most popular tourist trail in the country. Many visitors to Iceland will, therefore, be familiar with Þingvellir’s most famous natural and cultural attractions. But there are stranger facets of Þingvellir you may not yet be enlightened to…
You maybe are aware, for example, that the ridge that runs through the park is composed of the exposed Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. But did you know the river that runs through the park is rumoured to have run red with both wine and blood? Let us explore some of the more unusual facts and legends about Þingvellir.
A Church for the Godless
When Iceland was legitimately Christianized in 1000 AD Icelanders were lawfully baptised and technically Christian but many were still, in fact, secretly pagan.
The sovereign of Norway at the time, King Olaf, was so worried about such a godless state of affairs that he donated and shipped timber and a big brass bell intended for a church. The Icelanders dutifully started construction at Þingvellir, the home of the Icelandic parliament, the Alþingi, and a church has been standing on the same site for over 1000 years now.
Read more about Icelandic churches here.
The Alþingi would always be inaugurated with a church service, a tradition which still goes on today and in times of bad weather, the parliament would gather inside the church for shelter.
If you are visiting between April and September, you can explore the inside of the building as you discover the Golden Circle for yourself! Otherwise, you can enjoy its picturesque appearance from most viewpoints in the park.
Crazy Freediver Swam Silfra in a Bikini
Sifra is a fissure within Þingvellir National Park filled with ancient glacial spring water. Due to its idyllic location and high visibility of up to 100-metres, it is broadly considered one of the top diving and snorkelling sites in the world.
You might have known it possible to dive and snorkel through this beautiful stretch of water but did you know that in 2017, a very brave or a very silly Dutch freediver—depending on your sensibilities—swam in the 2°C water in nothing more than a bikini.
Kiki Bosch caused waves in Iceland by releasing footage of herself freediving without any sort of dry suit or protective gear. The video shows her swimming in the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón, which might look more impressive, but is, in fact, not as cold as the water in Silfra.
Find snorkeling tours here.
Even though Silfra is inland and not riddled with glacial icebergs, the pure spring water comes straight from the earth taking approximately 30-100 years to travel through the lava making it extremely cold as well as crystal clear.
The main park ranger at Þingvellir National Park was rightfully annoyed as there have been a handful of accidents where people have died after exposure to the extremely cold water in Silfra. The video, without much intention or forethought, seemingly promotes this downright dangerous behaviour. Do not try it yourself.
For those interested in taking part in a snorkelling tour, don’t worry; with the correct equipment, it’s totally safe to explore this stunning glacial ravine.
People were Literally Dying to Get There
One of the better-known facts about Þingvellir is that it was the meeting place for the world’s longest-running parliament. Chieftains would come from all over Iceland to discuss matters of importance, consulting law speakers and peers in the hope of resolving disagreements and matters of contention.
Some had further to travel than others. Those coming from the northeast faced the furthest distance and since the middle of the country is desert, the smartest and safest route would be around the South coast, passing through inhabited areas.
Fierce competition to whisper in the judge’s ear before one’s bitter rivals, hence why warring parties from the same region would try to outrace each other. Sometimes this would tempt Medieval Icelanders to cross the harsh and unforgiving Sprengisandur.
Sprengisandur is an ancient pass that crosses the Highlands. It is only accessible in the summer as it is blocked by vast amounts of snow in the Spring and Winter seasons.
The name ‘sandur’ refers the vast desert it crosses. The words prefix comes from the verb ‘sprengja’, which means “to ride a horse to death; to be on the point of bursting after running for too long”.
The mountain pass is hundreds of kilometres long with no fodder for the horses and no shelter for their human riders. It was generally avoided at all costs except when there were life and death issues to be brought to the parliament at once.
The first landmark that one reaches on the perilous journey from northeast Iceland to Þingvellir is Hjálparfoss, which translates to ‘Help Falls’. Its name is derived from the fact that it was the first place after Sprengisandur that had water, shelter and was at all hospitable to living creatures.
For all these reasons, the Sprengisandur route is rumoured to be haunted, with many of the ghosts featuring in the famous Icelandic folk song, ‘Á Sprengisandi’.
A River that Tells the Future
An ancient story tells of two priests who were staying at a cabin close to the waterfall during New Year’s Eve. Around midnight, one of the priests became thirsty and so trekked to the river to collect some water. When he returned to the cabin, he realised the water was bright red…
Cautiously, the priests decided to taste the mysterious scarlet liquid. To their surprise, they found it to be a delicious fine wine, prompting them to fill their cups late into the night. When the sun rose, they noticed that what was left in the bottle had turned back to water and, quite rightly, thought the whole scenario curious.
The spring and summer that followed were bountiful in Þingvellir; the crops were healthy, the lakes and rivers were full of fish, and the people were in good health.
Come the next New Year’s Eve, the priests met back at the cabin, eager to repeat their previous merriment. When midnight arrived, the priests returned to the river and collected its contents in a bottle. Afterwards, they rushed back to the cabin to delight in their spoils.
To their dismay, upon tasting the fluid, instead of sweet fine wine, they found the liquid to be blood!
Disappointed, the priests set the bottle aside and when dawn broke, they once more found its contents reverted to water. The following spring witnessed a gruesome battle play out at the Alþingi: the parliament was in chaos and the fields at Þingvellir were stained with blood.
So it would seem that the river is imbued with the power to predict the year to come! Well, at least according to legend.
Book your Golden Circle tour here.