We have, we think, become used to some of the more ‘unusual’ aspects of Iceland and are not expecting anything but a peaceful walk through this unique, glorious, setting at Þingvellir (it is pronounced Thingvellir.).
We had left our small cabin in the hills near Akranes to wind our way around Hvalfjörður in the ever-shifting light. Through light snow breezing across the single track cleared by the ploughs, we have driven past small, scattered, colourful farms nestling lonely in snow fields at the base of high, ruggedly-rounded hills. We have seen dozens of small, hardy Icelandic ponies, and skidoos gliding over the smooth-as-icing landscape.
Now we are at Þingvellir, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was home to the world’s first Parliament in 930 AD when Icelanders started the first annual camp out for a few summer days in the plain below high rocks from which they were addressed by the country’s various leaders or chieftains.
There is a stunning view from the rocks. Snow has rounded and softened what would be, in the summer, a rocky, sparse landscape. A river runs quietly through the plain to feed into Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake. On the banks of the river stand the only visible buildings in the whole vista: a small church with its distinctive spire and simple structure and five houses standing side by side a short distance from the river. The weak, watery sun, barely peaking over the horizon on this midwinter afternoon, is glowing onto the plain and still waters through wispy clouds. Mountains surround the scene on all sides except the north.
So the signs warning us to watch out for divers - then the actual sight of divers - is head-shakingly bemusing.
These divers are not the avian type. We’re talking about scuba gear and oxygen cylinders - in ice- cold water. In the sub-arctic.
And you need to watch out for them on the roads, climbing up out of ponds, lumbering through the snow. It is very disconcerting to the unprepared, but is easily explained.
Þingvellir is placed on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The high rocks from which the chieftains addressed the early Icelanders are the crest of this 65,000km long ridge - regarded as the largest mountain range in the world.
The continental rift at Þingvellir means diving enthusiasts can swim between the continents. You can take diving tours to explore the clear, glacial water which runs between the European and North American tectonic plates. Pictures and videos show waters as clear, clean and colourful as you would expect to find at a tropical reef, although, of course, the scuba gear is dry gear. Anybody who is over 12 years old, weighs more than 45 kg and is higher than 150 cms can go. You can be picked up from your accommodation in Reykjavik 45 minutes away or meet the qualified PADI guide at the site.
So we left Þingvellir much wiser than when we arrived. Not only had we learned about the history of the site, but also that, geologically speaking, we had walked from North America to Europe and, had we known, we could have swum across too.