The towering basalt walls of Thingvellir National Park have impressed the early settlers of Iceland as much as the tourists today. Back then the settlers soon held their yearly council meetings in the area, which are in Iceland called “Althing”. Today, Thingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its historical importance. It is also a tourist attraction due to the geological uniqueness of deep rock fissures.
We are surprised to find a parking space right next to the Thingvellir Visitor Centre. Obviously, the place is geared to thousands of visitors a day, with parking lots spread over the whole plain. Thingvellir National Park is a must-see attraction on Iceland’s so-called Golden Circle in the south, along with some nearby waterfalls and geysirs.
Parliamentary meetings at Thingvellir
In 930 AD, some of the first settlers of Iceland, who had only arrived about 100 years earlier from Northern Europe, started to hold their meetings here. As in other Viking societies, the “thing” was a yearly assembly of free men to decide on laws and to rule on specific disputes or crimes. There were local thing meetings in the various areas of Iceland. In addition, for two weeks in summer the regional leaders would come together at Thingvellir and decide the course of the country.
For such a large and mountainous country as Iceland, Thingvellir is situated reasonably central and easily reached from most places. Nevertheless, some delegates had to travel as long as 17 days to get to the meeting place. Apart from the political and legal discussions, the Althing was also a good opportunity to meet some other people for business or marriage arrangements. The assembly only moved to Reykjavik in the 19th century.
The rock walls of Thingvellir and the technology of law speakers
Lying in a rift valley between two tectonic plates, Thingvellir is a broad, nearly level area bordered by a series of steep basalt walls forming deep canyons. The historical assembly place was moved at some point, but presumably the first meetings took place next to those walls. An official, the so-called law speaker, would stand on one of the rocks addressing the assembly seated below. This way, the acoustics of the rock walls ensured that everyone could hear him well. In a time before a written Icelandic language, the law speaker also had the responsibility to know all previous laws by heart so that he could recite them to the assembly. Not an easy job, we think, but at least he has help from natural acoustics.
The continental plates of Eurasia and America are meeting in Iceland, or rather, drifting apart. And there is a visible rift through the whole of Iceland. Thingvellir National Park is one part of this rift system, with the American plate on one side and a smaller subplate of the Eurasian plate on the other side. No wonder that the low shrubs and the ponds and streams of the valley floor reveal sudden depths. The ground is literally opening up.
Hiking in the Thingvellir National Park
When we hike away from the Althing memorials, we have to step over a trench once in a while, unsure how deep it is. Sometimes, the fissures are wider and several meters deep. In other places, clear water collects in narrow fissures. We stand for a while to watch the snorkellers who are guided in groups through one of these fissures. They have to wear dry suits to endure the icy water, but below them the water will be 40 m deep at one point. And that’s in spite of the fissure only measuring a few meters wide.
It’s a very popular adventure where Iceland overtourism really shows. But ten minutes down the path, we are alone, clambering over tectonic fissures and the volcanic rubble of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
In terms of scenery, the hiking path in the Thingvellir National Park was not exactly magnificent. But knowing that we were walking in the continuously opening gap between Europe and America did make it special.
Why should you visit the Thingvellir National Park?
Thingvellir is a very intriguing place. The deep fissures in the ground are unique as you can literally see continental plates drifting apart. Well, to notice them drifting apart you would have to watch quite long. Nevertheless you will get a good idea of the geological process that is happening. When you get away a little bit from the crowds you can feel the special energy of the area. For us, it was exciting to imagine that the old settlers had felt this too and therefore chose it as their meeting place.
We also visited the exhibition at the visitor centre which cost 1000 kronur entrance fee. The exhibition nicely presents the historical and geographical facts. Still, we found it is not worth the entrance fee as you find all the information also on panels onsite. To visit all the sites and do some hiking in the area you will need around five hours. Although we did enjoy our visit the the Thingvellir National Park it did not make it on our list of personal travel highlight in Iceland.
For the snorkelling tour you need to book in advance. You can compare offers at https://guidetoiceland.is/book-trips-holiday.
Note: We fully paid all costs of our visit to Iceland and the Thingvellir National Park.