I never imagined myself visiting what many Europeans call the most isolated place in their region: Iceland.
Never did I also imagine to be traveling there during a pandemic.
But in June 2022, I found myself strolling around Reykjavik, eating fermented shark, and being so cozy with the Nordic summer with single digit temperature.
The International Federation for Theatre Research (IFTR), a professional organization I am affiliated with, travelled to Iceland for its annual conference. I had to be physically present because the Asian Theatre Working Group (ATWG), a sub-organization of the federation elected me as its new convener (chair). Also, a meeting with the Executive Committee has been scheduled to finalize our bid at the University of the Philippines Diliman to host the federation’s annual conference in 2024.
Since the announcement in 2021, that IFTR would finally meet physically in 2022 at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, the idea of going to Iceland suddenly became so brutally exciting. I mean, Iceland has never been in my bucket list but all of a sudden, it had become so sexy and seductive.
Coming from the Philippines, going there was not easy: visa preparation, etcetera. But I reminded myself, going to Europe has never ever been really easy, especially with a very weak passport like ours. However, it was a totally different case because the pandemic was still hovering the globe. Several things to consider like vax cert, the yellow card from the Bureau of Immigration, and ensuring a healthy body especially for someone who has comorbidity like me. Truth be told, I contacted the virus when I returned to Manila after almost two weeks of stay in Iceland. But I don’t think it was from Iceland – I think it was from the airplane or from our stop-overs.
I think Iceland is not for everyone.
I mean, for nature lovers, this amazing island-nation is really for them. But for someone who is into ancient ruins, structural heritage, and historical sites – do no expect anything robust from her. Compared to the other countries in continental Europe, Iceland’s historical sites are not as spectacular as these European nations. However, they are as historically significant as those in mainland Europe.
One site in Iceland surrounded with historical significance is Þingvellir (Thingvellier). Þingvellir is part of the Golden Circle route (or the tourist route northwards coming from Reykjavik). In other words, it is a very popular site together with Gulfoss Waterfalls and the geothermal area in Haukadalur. That said, it was part of Iceland’s popular tourism itinerary and as everything else in Iceland, it is expensive. I guess this is another reason why going there is another consideration for someone from a developing state, unless an official business is part of the itinerary.
Anyhow, Þingvellir is a national park. To date, it is the only cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site of Iceland. Iceland has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The other two are Natural Heritage Sites: Surtsey in Vestmannaeyjar and Vatnajökull National Park in South-Eastern Iceland.
Literally, Thingvellier means assembly and gathering. This is where the Althing, an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland, was established in 930 and continued to meet until 1798. The whole of Iceland had to meet there at least two-weeks annually to set laws and to settle disputes.
The assembly at Þingvellir was Iceland’s supreme legislative and judicial authority. In the site, one will recognize the lögberg, the focal point of the assembly and a natural platform for holding speeches. From the overlooking platform opposite the assembly place, you will see a circular structure, almost like an amphitheater. Our guide told us, the structure was the assembly point. The head of the assembly was elected for a three-year term. He presided over the assembly and recited the law of the land. He was expected to recite the different laws from memory on the lögberg over the course of three summers along with the complete assembly procedures every summer. Anyone attending the assembly was entitled to present his case on important issues from the lögberg.
With the information above, Þingvellir is considered the birthplace of Iceland’s parliament and modern justice system. It was here where they voted their leaders. It was here where the laws were drafted, finalized, and approved. It was also here where justice was “performed.”
Our tour guide informed us that the Icelanders back then had fantastic but almost barbaric ways of settling disputes, especially if women were involved. During the heyday of the Þingvellir, the accused individuals (mostly women, because like other Middle Ages cities in Europe, women were not perceived as “citizens” of the nation-state) were thrown onto the lake, the first person to rise up from the water below was always found guilty.
In terms of geography, the park is in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia. Þingvellir National Park was founded in 1930, marking the 1000th anniversary of the Althing. The park was later expanded to protect the diverse and natural phenomena in the surrounding area, until its inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2004.
The site was recognized as a significant historical, cultural and natural landmark by UNESCO for two important reasons. First, according to UNESCO, “the Alþing and its hinterland, the Þingvellir National Park, represent, through the remains of the assembly ground, the booths for those who attended, and through landscape evidence of settlement extending back possibly to the time the assembly was established, a unique reflection of medieval Norse/Germanic culture and one that persisted in essence from its foundation in 930 AD until the 18th century.” Second, its insertion is based on the site’s “pride in the strong association of the Alþing to medieval Norse/Germanic governance, known through the 12th century Icelandic sagas and reinforced during the fight for independence in the 19th century, have, together with the powerful natural setting of the assembly grounds, given the site iconic status as a shrine for the national Icelandic identity.”
Today, the Þingvellir is a national symbol of Iceland’s democracy. At the same time, the national park is also a local favorite for diving. The lake Silfra is one of the best spots for diving in the entire island-nation. Not to mention, 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. And surrounding the national park are different camping sites for locals and tourists. I was told the park is one of the favorite spots to catch the aurora borealis during winter.
There are several hiking trails in Þingvellir. If you want to glimpse how dispute settlements were forged, I suggest do the so called execution place trail.
Unfortunately, I only had about an hour to be amazed with the grandiosity of the national park. The trail was about four-hour trek. Had I not been part of a tourist bus, I would have participated in this trail.