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Exploring Þingvellir

Þingvellir is no Versailles; the only visible remnants of the old parliamentary gatherings are hardly more than lumps in the ground. All the main historical sites are clustered in the southwest corner of the park, and the vast majority of visitors never venture farther. This area was a good assembly site because the cliffs served as a natural amphitheater, the river provided fish and drinking water, and the plains held plenty of room for encampments. The rest of the park is undeveloped except for walking trails.

The parking areas closest to the sights are at the interpretive center and down in the valley off Route 362, about 150m (492 ft.) from the church. From the interpretive center there's a nice view of the valley, and a broad, well-tended path leads a short distance down through the Almannagjá (Everyman's Fault) to the designated Lögberg (Law Rock), marked by a flagpole. (No one knows for certain where the original rock was.) The Lögsögumaður (Law Speaker), the only salaried official at the Altþing, recited the laws from this podium by memory. Christianity was proclaimed the national religion at the Law Rock in the year 1000. (All Icelanders had to get baptized, but they were allowed to wait and find a warm geothermal spring on their way home.) Facing toward the south and the river, you can see bulges of earth and stone, the remains of temporary encampments called búðir (booths). The fault of Flosagjá forms the eastern border of the assembly. Northeast of the Law Rock, across the river, are the Neðrivellir (Low Fields), thought to be the meeting place for the Lögretta (Law Council).

The Óxará (Axe River) -- so named when someone accidentally dropped an axe into it, never to find it again -- was probably diverted from its original course to provide drinking water for the assembly. A bit north along the river is the Drekkingarhylur (Drowning Pool), where at least 18 women convicted of incest, infanticide, witchcraft, or adultery were tied in sacks and held under water. An informational panel marks the supposed spot. In the Christian millennial celebrations of 2000, a wreath was placed here in atonement for the executions. (Capital punishment was never widely practiced in Iceland, and was phased out entirely by the mid-19th century. Even in the sagas, murderers are simply banished from Iceland for 3 years without imprisonment.) A short walk farther north is a pretty waterfall, Óxaráfoss.

Walking east from the Law Rock, you'll cross an islet in the river where duels were fought in the first decades of the Altþing. Dueling came to be known as hólmganga, which means "island-going." Duels drew big crowds, but were outlawed in 1008.

Across the river is the simple and charming Þingvallakirkja (Þingvellir Church) (Jun-Aug 9am-7pm), which seats about 35. The first church at the site was built around 1016, with a bell and timbers sent by King Olaf of Norway. The current church was consecrated in 1859 and restored in 1970 to something close to its original condition, with the notable exception of the new copper roof.

Next to the church is the unremarkable farmhouse Þingvellabær, a summer residence for the Prime Minister -- no security fence necessary. It was built in 1930 to commemorate the millennium of the first Altþing, and is not open to the public. Behind the church is Þjóðargrafreitur, a raised circular graveyard. The honor of burial at this spot has been bestowed to only two men, Jónas Hallgrímsson (1807-1845) and Einar Benediktsson (1864-1940), both poets and key figures in Iceland's nationalist revival.

By the nearest parking lot is a bridge overlooking the Peningagjá (Money Fault). Inside the fault is a clear, glistening pool that makes every kid fantasize about diving down to collect all the coins. Visitors have started throwing coins in pools all over the park, so the wardens plan to put up signs prohibiting this practice.

Why Does Þingvellir Church Have Two Altarpieces? -- Inside the church are two altarpieces. One depicts the Last Supper, and was painted on driftwood by local farmer and craftsman Ófeigur Jónsson in 1834. The other, "Christ Healing the Blind Man," from 1896, is by Danish painter Niels Anker Lund (1840-1922). Ófeigur's painting was the original altarpiece, but it was deemed too primitive and amateurish by church authorities and replaced by Lund's painting at great expense. Ófeigur's painting was bought for a pittance by a Victorian heiress named Mary Disney Leith (1840-1926). Leith, who had a lifelong fascination with Iceland, journeyed there 18 times, wrote travel memoirs, and translated some sagas. The piece ended up in the collection of St. Peter's Church, Shorwell, on the Isle of Wight, near Leith's estate. When Þingvellir church was renovated in 1970, Magnus Magnusson -- the prolific author, saga translator, and longtime "Quizmaster" on BBC1's Mastermind -- tracked it down with the help of Mrs. Leith's granddaughter. The congregation in Shorwell Church returned it in exchange for a replica made at Iceland's National Museum.

Near the Golden Circle

The sights below are listed in the order you would encounter them in a return trip from Gullfoss to Reykjavík. Kerið Crater and Skálholt are also included in some organized Golden Circle tours. With your own car, you might also consider a side trip to the Þjórsárdalur Valley or Hveragerði.

Skálholt -- Skálholt, about 40km (25 miles) from the town of Selfoss, is off Route 31, a short detour south from Route 35, which connects Gullfoss and Selfoss. Though few visible remnants exist today, Skálholt was once the most wealthy, populated, and influential settlement in Iceland. In 1056 it became the seat of Iceland's first Catholic bishop. A church built at Skálholt in the mid-12th century from two shiploads of Norwegian timber was the largest wooden structure in medieval Scandinavia (and twice the length of the current church). The clerical class got rich from land tenants, but was also an important force in democratizing education: laypersons of both sexes were enrolled, and classes were conducted in Icelandic as well as Latin. By the early 13th century Skálholt was Iceland's largest settlement, with 200 people; just before the Reformation it owned 10% of all land holdings in the country.

In 1550 Jón Arason, Iceland's last Catholic bishop -- in fact, the last Catholic bishop of any Nordic country -- was beheaded here along with his sons, after leading a rebellion against the Danish king's order to Lutheranize the country. They were buried without coffins in back of the church, and by the following year, the monarchy had appropriated all church lands. Eighty meters (262 ft.) from the current church lies a crude relief on two slabs of stone, a monument to Jón Arason, to whom most Icelanders today can trace their ancestry.

The current neo-Romanesque church was inaugurated in 1956. The altarpiece, by prominent Icelandic artist Nína Tryggvadóttir (1913-1968), is an enormous mosaic of Christ with arms outstretched. The pulpit, which long predates the church, has a panel featuring the old Icelandic coat of arms: a filet of cod.

As you enter the church, a door to your left leads to a museum (tel. 486-8872; admission 100kr ($1.60/80p); children under 12 free; mid-May to Aug daily 9am-7pm; Sept to mid-May; ask for key from the office building during working hours) in an underground passage that once connected the medieval church with its school buildings. Skálholt's history is well annotated here, but the centerpieces are the bishops' tombstones and the sarcophagus of Bishop Páll Jónsson (1196-1211), carved from a solid block of sandstone. The sarcophagus was discovered in a 1956 excavation, and the lid was raised in a formal ceremony. Páll's head lay on a stone pillow, his crosier (staff) still on his shoulder, but his Episcopal ring had been stolen by grave robbers.

Kerið Crater -- Passersby on Route 35 (15km/9 1/4 miles northeast of Selfoss) should hop out to see this small but shapely scoria crater, formed 6,500 years ago by a collapsing magma chamber at the end of a volcanic eruption. Kerið is 55m (180 ft.) deep, including the stagnant water at the bottom, and the sides are nicely streaked in red, black, and ochre. Björk once did a concert from a raft in the middle, but the acoustics weren't ideal. A path runs around the rim, but watch your footing.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.