The Golden “Circle”

One of the big tourist circuits in Iceland is called the “Golden Circle”. It primarily includes three sights to the east of Reykjavik, and it’s doable in a day trip which makes it popular for bus tours and people on long layovers. Now, don’t ask me why it’s called the Golden Circle because I certainly can’t explain that to you. I would assume that the “golden” part has something to do with the fact that these are major sightseeing destinations and one of them is called “Golden Falls”. Okay, I can get behind that. It’s really the “circle” part that I have an issue with. Please refer to the map below and tell me what shape you would use to describe the route.

This. Is. Not. A. Circle.

If you said “circle”, get out. I know it’s been a long time since I took geometry, but that is a LINE(ish). Some versions of the route include some other sights a little further south, but when the essentials are all in a line and the optional extras are what makes it a circle(ish), I think calling it a circle is a stretch. So, the conclusion of that completely necessary rant is that I will be unapologetically referring to our route as the Golden Line.

Mike and I planned to hit the Golden Line sights on our second day. I want to take this opportunity to give a HUGE shout out to my Aunt Judy because she was the MVP of our trip. The amount of planning that we put into this trip was far from ideal… it was close to zero. Anytime I tried to research, I was completely overwhelmed by information and quickly put off further efforts until “later” (a later that never came). Aunt Judy sent us her research notes from their trip to Iceland a few years ago, and those notes became our guidebook. We didn’t follow them completely, but at least we had a starting point to make sure we didn’t miss anything major.

Our day started later than planned. Mike wanted to leave at 8:30, and considering what time we went to bed the night before (we ate dinner at 10PM, so you can extrapolate from there), I had no confidence in that actually happening. Sure enough, we ended up leaving at closer to 9:30. The first stop on the tour was Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park.

Thingvellir, as I explained in the Iceland History post, is considered the founding location of Iceland. This is where the first parliament (the Althing) met back in the days of the chieftains, making laws and settling disputes. So historically, it’s a very important place for the Icelandic nation. We, of course, knew none of this when we arrived and had no idea what we were supposed to do there, so we parked the car (and paid for parking, so we were hoping it was worth it), pep-talked ourselves out of the car (it sounded like we were in the middle of a world-ending rainstorm), realized the weather wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounded from in the car, and went to do some exploring.

Our first glimpse of Thingvellir

I’m doing a great job of pretending that I’m not cold or getting rained on, right?

There was a nice view of the valley near our parking lot, and after reading the signs, we realized that another thing on Aunt Judy’s list, Öxarárfoss (waterfall… “foss” is the ending that they put on the name of a waterfall in Icelandic), was inside the park. Also, it’s another place situated between the two tectonic plates. We walked beneath the cliffs at the edge of the North American plate on our way to the waterfall. I guess that kind of means that we were on no-man’s land, floating between two continents. Weird. There are some places in the park where you can scuba dive between the plates. That would be crazy!

The land on the left is the edge of the North American plate

Walking through no-man’s land

Mike and me with Oxararfoss

We eventually made it to Öxarárfoss, our first of many waterfalls. Unlike most of the others we saw, Öxarárfoss is man-made! The Öxará River was re-routed hundreds of years ago to bring water closer to the meeting point of the Althing, and it flows over the edge of the North American plate. It’s basically a waterfall off the end of the earth! I thought it was pretty, and Mike liked it because he likes waterfalls that “have some substance”. None of those little trickle waterfalls for Mike!

On our way out of Thingvellir, we drove by the largest natural lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn (Thingvallavatn. “vatn” is the usual ending on a name of a lake). It’s about 32mi2 (84km2) in area and is known for its crystal-clear water and monstrous fish. I don’t know much about fishing, but they say that it’s not uncommon to find trout over 20lbs (9kg)! The lake is in the valley between the two tectonic plates, and it sounds like a good place to explore if you want to feel like you’re swimming on another planet and enjoy being cold.

Thingvallavatn in the distance

If you prefer warm/scalding water, then you might be better suited to our next stop, Geysir. I bet you’ll never guess what that is. Yup, it’s a geyser! It might seem like the people who named Geysir aren’t very creative, but it’s actually the other way around. The English word “geyser” comes from its name and the Icelandic verb meaning “to gush”. Geysir is just one geyser in a much larger geothermal area, Haukadalur, but it is the oldest and most powerful, capable of sending 480oF (250oC) water over 230ft (70m) into the air. It is currently inactive, last erupting from 2000-2003 after it was temporarily reactivated by an earthquake. The big crowd-pleaser now is Strokkur, erupting every 8-10 minutes and shooting water about 100ft (30m) into the air.

First glimpses of the geothermal area

Before we checked out Strokkur, we admired the sleeping beast that is Geysir and a few other pools in the area. The water was beautiful. It’s so clear and so blue… and then you get a whiff of it, and the sulfur smell is overwhelmingly gross. But I was cold and in a constant internal conflict of whether I should stand in the steam to feel warm or if I should stay away from it because it reeked.

Konungshver hot spring. It started boiling vigorously – as in, water flying up to 1m high – after the earthquake that reawakened Geysir. There are boulders blocking its vent, so there’s a chance it could be a geyser if those were removed. Check out that water! So blue!

Don’t be fooled by this calm-looking pool. Here we have The Great Geysir (I didn’t just make that name up, that’s a real thing), just biding its time until another earthquake shakes it into action again.

We joined the crowds to watch Strokkur erupt a few times. The eruption is super cool, and while that’s not happening, it’s entertaining to just watch the people… everyone’s standing around staring at this steaming, bubbling pool, and anytime there’s the slightest change in movement, you can hear people bracing for the eruption. Then, when it’s finally time, it looks like a massive water orb is coming out of the pool, water shoots into the air, and you hear it raining down. When you really think about it, it’s baffling. No wonder people used to believe in all sorts of monsters and stuff because if you told me there was a whale-dragon hybrid living in the earth and superheating/spitting out water at that spot, I’d probably say that sounds like a reasonable explanation.

I spent equal time watching the people at Strokkur and watching the geyser. Everyone had their phones at-the-ready for an eruption at any second. I imagine there were a lot of 10-minute videos waiting for the 5-second eruption.

Strokkur!

Mike had fun touching all of the water… well, not all of it because some of it probably would have burned his hand off… but a lot of the water in various places and guessing whether it was going to be hot or cold. It was usually disappointingly cold, but we did touch the water runoff from right after the geyser erupted, and that was definitely hot.

Mike confirming the warmth of Strokkur’s runoff water. By the time it got to this point, it had plenty of time to cool down, so it wasn’t boiling hot anymore (lucky for Mike’s fingertips).

More hot springs in the area

The last big stop of the day was Gullfoss, another waterfall, as you can see by the name. Again, we knew nothing about it until we got there, but it’s “the Niagara Falls of Iceland”. There are signs determined to convince you that it’s even better than Niagara, but I’m going to say that they are both cool and there’s no need to choose a winner. Gullfoss is interesting because it has two tiers of waterfalls. The volume of water flowing is incredible, and it’s the same, beautiful, clear blue as the lakes. So darn pretty!

Gullfoss! When it’s not so icy, you can walk along a path that runs next to the waterfall. I guess that means we need to plan another trip (oh, darn), this time in the summer!

There were actually plans to build Iceland’s first hydroelectric power plant at Gullfoss, but the owner’s daughter, Sigríður, loved the waterfall and was determined to preserve it. She frequently walked to Reykjavic to gather support (75 miles or 120km) for her cause, and when it seemed that all hope was lost, she threatened to throw herself into the falls. Thanks to her efforts, Gullfoss was saved and eventually declared a national park, protected against any future development.

The second layer of the waterfall crashes down into this ravine.

I can’t get enough of that blue water!

So pretty so pretty so pretty!

One more Gullfoss story – there’s a sign that tells a 17th-century love story about a boy and girl who kept watch over sheep on opposite sides of the river above the falls. They also “kept a keen eye on each other”, and the girl asked the boy to cross over to her. Despite the strong currents, the boy made it across. The sign concludes the story by saying that “little is known about how the girl responded, except that they married and had many well-respected descendants”. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m just happy that none of their descendants turned out to be disreputable. Phew.

Unlike the love story characters, we were more than happy to have a waterfall separating us 😆 hehe

The water that lover boy supposedly waded across.

The only stop left was our campsite for the night. It was still kind of early, but that was good because Mike got a new tent before the trip, and it was our first time setting it up outside (we did a test run in Tony and Alex’s apartment the night before). We spent our first hour at the campsite sitting in the car because we were cold and it was raining and we didn’t want to get out. Productive. Finally, we convinced ourselves that it would be best to get the tent up before dark. Of course, it was crazy windy and raining, and our attempts to be strategic and use the rain fly to keep the tent from getting wet while we were putting it up completely failed. Live and learn! We successfully assembled it (a task that included driving about 18 stakes into the ground) and then fled to the safety of the car again until Tony and Alex showed up. They were joining us for the next phase of the adventure, and we wanted to be able to leave straight from the campsite in the morning.

Mike and I grudgingly got out of the car again, the four of us piled into the tent, and we played card games until we were ready to fall asleep. Oh yeah, and it was dry inside, so despite our struggles, tent set-up attempt #1 was a success!

We did make ONE other stop – to see some Icelandic horses! I gave this one a little pat on the head. The Icelandic breed was developed to withstand the harsh Icelandic winters, and there are very few horse diseases on the island. That means the horses have basically no immunity to disease, so foreign horses aren’t allowed on Icelandic soil, and if an Icelandic horse leaves, it’s not allowed to come back. Even horse equipment is required to be new or thoroughly disinfected!

Our beautiful and spacious home.

Ghosts, Trolls, and Giant Worm Monsters

Last time we left off at a tense moment (not really). Mike and I had just come across a cave hole in the ground and were trying to decide whether or not to go in. I could tell that Mike wasn’t sure about it, but if I said yes, he would be all in. He’s used to going on vacation with a friend who is also ridiculous, and the two of them take pride in things like doing two days’ worth of hiking in one day. Knowing that, my general attitude towards the trip was “don’t hold Mike back.” So, I said we should go for it.

Down he goes! Byeee Mike!

We ran back to the car to grab flashlights (and learned our lesson about travelling prepared for anything) before climbing down into a big, open space. It looked like it ended right there until Mike found another hole in the back. That led us into a hallway-like area with a high ceiling, and at the end of that, there was a short hole into one final room at the back. That had a low ceiling and was much wider. The ground was all very soft dirt, and it was the definition of pitch black. Maybe there was a tiny hole that would have let us keep going, but we decided to turn around. Our curiosity was satisfied, and I personally wasn’t interested in getting even dirtier.

Journey to the center of the earth

Explorer Mike

Check out the colors on those rocks!

Turns out that there was no need for me to worry about climbing out. It was way easier than expected because it wasn’t a hanging rope climb… I just used the rope to support my arms, walked up the cave wall, and found a ledge to stand on while I squeezed out through the hole to the surface.

Me, climbing out

I’m glad we went. Otherwise we would have spent forever wondering about what was down there and how far it stretched and if maybe it was a passageway to the center of the earth or a troll treasure trove.  (I don’t even know if troll treasure is a thing, but if it is, Iceland would be an ideal place to go looking.) Plus, when adventure calls, I want to be the kind of person who responds with an enthusiastic “YES!” I’m going to say that I passed my adventure test of the day.

The colors! We saw these rocks during our hike back to the car.

Love those groundscape shots!

On the way back to the car, we stopped at Gunnuhver, a geothermal area. It’s different from other hot springs because it’s so close to the ocean that it uses seawater. The steam coming out is 570⁰F (300⁰C)! Eek! The name of the hot spring comes from a legend. This was our first exposure to an Icelandic legend, and they quickly became another of my favorite things about Iceland.

Gunnuhver from afar

This story is about a woman named Gunna who lived on a farm owned by a lawyer. She failed to pay her rent, and the lawyer took away the only thing she owned – a cooking pot. Gunna grew furious to the point of madness and died. On the day of her funeral, the men carrying the coffin felt it get lighter, and people heard a voice during the grave-digging, saying, “No need deep to dig, no plans long to lie.” The obvious conclusion to all of this was that Gunna was a ghost, and she soon took her revenge on the lawyer who was found dead and beaten. Gunna continued to wreak havoc on the peninsula, killing the lawyer’s wife and leading to the deaths of others who saw her. Finally, a group of men was sent to seek the help of a sorcerer. He gave them a ball of yarn and explained that if Gunna grabbed the loose end, the ball would roll her to a place where she could no longer cause harm. It worked (because I guess ghosts really like yarn?), and the yarn rolled Gunna into the spring. It is said that those with “the second sight” can still see Gunna following the ball around the edge and screaming as she falls. (Story adapted from the sign at Gunnuhver.)

Gunna was hungry and she ate this formerly-functional bridge. But actually, the geothermal area expanded and consumed the former viewing area… who’s to say it wasn’t Gunna’s doing?

One of the interesting things about the story, to me, is the fact that since the Icelandic settlers kept such complete records, there’s a census from 1703 that lists her name. So a woman actually existed and lived in the area… and some freaky things happened that may or may not have been caused by her ghost… that’s up to you to decide, but it’s a fact that she lived. Creepy.

The census listing Gunna’s name is one example of the meticulous recordkeeping that allowed the creation of an incredibly complete genealogic database. Nearly all Icelanders can trace their genealogy back to the original settlers. In the early 1990s, an Icelandic software engineer started the first electronic database. This got even further developed in the late 90s when a genetics company signed on. With the help of census data and marriage, birth, and death records, the database is said to include 95% of Icelanders who lived in the last 300 years. It’s been used for genetics research as a way to trace genes to understand how diseases are passed down through generations. The information is available to all Icelanders, so people can see how they’re related to famous Icelanders or their friends and coworkers. When two Icelanders meet for the first time, it’s common to exchange the question, “Who are your people?” as a way to understand someone’s lineage since family names aren’t passed down. There are also jokes about using the database to make sure that no one is dating a family member, but in practice, that’s likely not a problem because most people know their close relatives.

After learning all about Gunna’s demise, we hopped in the car and made it about three minutes before getting sucked in by another sign. This one was for Brimketill, a naturally-formed rock pool along the coast. It looks like a little hot tub (ignoring the facts that the water is frigid and if you tried to sit in it, you’d get crushed within minutes by the waves and the rocks).

The waves were nice and calm near Brimketill… scroll down for the aftereffects.

It wouldn’t be Iceland without a troll-related legend about the pool. This one is about the night troll Oddný. She frequently bathed in the “surf cauldron” (that’s what Brimketill translates to), and on one particular night, she went to retrieve a whale carcass that had washed up on shore. On her way home, she stopped for a rest in her pool, and it was so relaxing that she stayed much longer than intended. She rushed to get home before the sun came up, but she didn’t make it in time and was turned to stone. The pool is sometimes also called Oddnýjarlaug, meaning Oddný’s pool, after her. There was a sign at Brimketill that told the whole story, including specific details like where she lived and the names of her husband and son. Those Icelanders don’t mess around with their legends! Or maybe those details mean it really happened, just like the story of Gunna.

Can you see it? The little hot tub?

We started heading in the direction of Reykjavik and only made two more stops along the way. I’m pretty sure that both of them were unplanned (Mike was driving and did the “planning”, so maybe he knew they were there or maybe it was just luck… I think the latter). We also had to really pep-talk ourselves out of the car because the weather was getting grosser and grosser by the second. Essential Iceland packing list: waterproof jacket. And shoes. And pants.

Despite the fact that one of our stops was at a geothermal area aka where heat from inside the earth is coming up to the surface, it was still freezing. Maybe you have to throw yourself into the bubbling mud in order to feel any warmth. Anyway, the area is called Krýsuvík, and – wait for it – it’s super weird. The soil is multicolored and seems like it couldn’t possibly be natural. Have you ever seen red, yellow, green, and grey soil in the same place? It was baffling. I guess the grey was mud, but still. It was bubbling up like there was a lava monster living under the surface.

Bubbly mud

Count the colors

Weird.

Mike insisted on touching whatever water we were close to in order to report on its temperature. That seemed pretty dumb to me, but it’s not my hand, so go ahead, Mike. He did, fortunately, steer clear of the spots with signs warning you to stay away or the ones with steam pouring out.

 

There were some hiking trails leading up a nearby hill which Mike wanted to check out, but it was getting late and I was starving and my big toe was still not recovered from whatever I did to it in the UK *facepalm*. And my nose was running because I was trying to fight off a cold. You can’t do it all. (And just like that, my “don’t hold Mike back” mantra completely failed. Oh well.)

Boardwalks that hopefully won’t get consumed by steam like the one at Gunnuhver

What is this place?!?!

We were sure that we were going to go straight to Reykjavik from there… butttt then we drove past this beautiful lake, Kleifarvatn, and we HAD to stop and get out to stare at it. And then get back in and drive another couple feet and get back out and stare at it again. And touch the water. Temperature report: FREEZING. Mike said that he would swim in it. I stared at him like he must be some sort of alien because my fingertips almost froze off in the one instant they were immersed, and you couldn’t have possibly paid me enough to make me go in there. Plus, there’s supposedly a whale-sized, worm-shaped monster living in it, and I’m not interested in getting ingested by a giant water worm (I’m telling you, if there’s anywhere that the stories of these funky creatures would be true, it’s Iceland). If Mike and I didn’t look exactly the same, I would question our relation.

A pretty view with a goofy Mike on the side

Pretending I’m not cold. Are you convinced?

Funkyyy rocks

The black sand shores of Kleifarvatn and the water that almost froze my fingers off.

After THAT stop (x4), we went STRAIGHT to Reykjavik to meet up with Mike’s friends, Tony and Alex, who were living in Iceland for a month. We went out to dinner at about 10PM, it was still as bright as day outside, and we ate the most expensive Thai food of my life. The End.

Our drive along the lake

Dinner! From left to right: Tony, me, Alex, and Mike

Into the (Icelandic) Wild

My thoughts for our entire time in Iceland can be summarized into one sentence… “WHAT IS THIS PLACE??” Yeah, I know that doesn’t make it sound like there’s much going on in my mind, but oh well. I could NOT get over the landscape. Everything looked like nothing I had ever seen before and was completely baffling to me.

Mike on the moon

Many things seem to defy logic. When Mike and I were trying to put together plans for our first day (okay, to be fair, any credit for the miniscule amount of planning that happened belongs to Mike), we looked at going to the Blue Lagoon. If you’ve ever seen the pictures of people in massive hot springs with seemingly unnatural blue-green water, that’s probably where they were. So the question is, “Hmm. Do you want to put on a bathing suit and go outside in this place where a winter coat is much more appropriate? Don’t worry, the water is warm.” Right but then there’s the air. Which is NOT warm. At all. “Want to go sit in some lava-heated water?” LAVA?? Does that really sound wise?

We ultimately decided to skip it (not because of any of my questions) because it’s not cheap (nearly $100 each) and neither of us had any strong feelings about going. The Blue Lagoon takes the output water from a nearby geothermal power plant and feeds it into a man-made pool. I was more interested in hunting down some natural hot springs (because going in unregulated lava-heated water sounds like a much better idea, doesn’t it?). Fun facts though: the mineral-rich water at the Blue Lagoon is thought to help with certain skin conditions like psoriasis (there’s even a research facility there). Icelandic doctors will literally prescribe visits as part of treatment, and patients visit for free.

What is this place??

Instead, we went in a completely different direction (geographically and conceptually) and made our way to Garður, once the most populous town in Iceland… but definitely not anymore. Now, the population is around 1,500, and as far as we could tell, the major (only) sights there are two lighthouses. The first was built in 1897, replacing a giant, 50-year-old pile of stones that was used for wayfinding. The second was built in 1944 and is much taller than the first – 28m compared to 12.5m. That makes it the tallest lighthouse on the island, and according to a survey, it’s the second most favorite lighthouse of the Icelandic people. No, I didn’t make that up. These are the divisive questions facing the people of Iceland.

Very confusing beach-scape

Spot the lighthouses! The one on the right is the second favorite. Can you see why? (Don’t ask me, I have no idea.)

When we got out of the car, we 1. almost blew away because the wind was completely out of control, and 2. got our first glimpse of the Icelandic terrain. Well, make that Icelandic terrain type 1 because as we soon learned, nowhere looks like anywhere else on the island, but everything looks weird. In Garður, there are white sand beaches… but they’re spotted with big black lava rocks, in case you managed to forget for a second that you’re on a volcanic island. If I wasn’t worried about unintentionally taking flight, I probably would have spent longer admiring the combination of pretty blue water, dark lava rocks, and light sand. Fair warning that I’m going to completely overuse the word “weird” anytime I try to explain what anything looked like. But like… weird.

Blowing away

From there, we went to a bridge that’s probably not what you imagine when you think “bridge”. This one doesn’t span a river… nope, it spans the gap between two tectonic plates. Like I explained in my Iceland History post, Iceland is along the ridge between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, so there are a few places on the island where you can see a gorge that I guess is basically a giant earth crack. How weird is that? (I know, I said it again.) This was also where we had our first experience with black sand. I was completely fascinated by it and took a picture of my feet, kicking off my trip-long obsession with Icelandic groundscapes.

Headed to the bridge between continents…

Black sand!

The bridge!

Mike is hiding again. Also, this sign makes it seem like you’re standing on two continents at once, but really, you’re on neither.

Spot camouflage Mike in the earth crack!

During his research, Mike spotted some craters on Google satellite view, so that was our next target. The only issue was that he wasn’t sure exactly where they were along the road or what they were called… good, right? And you might think that it would be clear, but there are pull-offs and places to turn to see different things about every 5 feet, so the chances of you finding what you’re looking for are slim. We saw a car pulled off the road somewhere, decided to check out whatever they were checking out (this is like 90% of our decision-making process, “Oh, there are a lot of people there so it must be something cool. Let’s go.”), and realized it was Mike’s craters. Of course they have a name, the Stampar craters, because everything in Iceland has a name. Again, weird and spacey, but this time a different planet. There were some places where the rock looked like it had been liquid lava only seconds before. It was cool to be able to see so clearly how it was formed. Also, totally insane because like… lava.

Crater field

Colorful!

Me and some craters

LAVA!

We were exploring the southwest corner for the day, and there’s another popular lighthouse in the area called Reykjanesviti. Let’s take a moment to talk about Icelandic names. I mentioned this when talking about my first impressions of Iceland, but they’re ridiculous so I’m going to rant again. I don’t know much about Icelandic, but it’s one of those languages where they like to mash things together, especially in names, so instead of it being Reykjanes Lighthouse (yes, I realize that’s longer but SHH!), they just put their word for lighthouse, viti, onto the end. That leads to a lot of incredibly long names and a lot of laughing while attempting to pronounce ANYTHING correctly. Usually you get halfway through the word, reach the point where you’re just tired of making so many sounds, and give up. When you’re driving, you read about half of the word and then you’ve driven past the sign so it’s a lost cause anyway.

Reykjanes Lighthouse

Anyway, as I was saying. Reykjanesviti. It was built to replace the island’s first lighthouse because they were worried it was going to fall into the sea. So, they blew it up (you can still see the foundations) and built a new one farther inland. The same erosion (caused by a combination of storms, the sea, and earthquakes) that threatened the first lighthouse formed cliffs, Valahnúkamöl (see what I mean about the names??). They are beautiful! We climbed up to the top of one of the cliffs and were mesmerized by the sight and sound of the waves crashing into the rocks. We were also absolutely freezing, and it was windy enough to make you think you were going to get blown into the ocean. On the positive side, it wasn’t raining at that particular moment (it was off and on all day).

Valahnukamol cliffs

View from the cliff

The coastline was really pretty, so when Mike suggested we follow some ATV tracks that went out in that direction, I was all in. We walked through expanses of colorful ground plants (I’m not sure if those are natural or if they were planted as part of the efforts to stabilize the soil to eventually reforest) and finally made it to the lava-rocky coast. Again, baffling. I’m not going to waste my time trying to describe it and instead will just direct your attention to the pictures.

Views from our walk

The coastline

Other-worldly

When we’d had enough of getting drenched with sea spray, we kept moving. I think Mike was getting annoyed at me because I was walking like a lost child. I was definitely not going quickly because how was I supposed to walk and take in the fascinating landscape at the same time?? Like I said, every other thought was, “WHAT IS THIS PLACE??” I stepped off the path to see what the ground felt like where the plants were (I know, you’re probably not supposed to do that but I was curious!), and it was like stepping on a pile of cotton balls. No impact, just a slowww sink of your foot.

We eventually ended up at a crater where Mike found a cave opening with ropes hanging down. I’m sure there’s some technical name and explanation for what it is and how it was formed, but I’m going to call it a cave because I don’t know any of that. We couldn’t see very far because it was pitch black. If we wanted to know what, if anything, was down there, our only choice was to go in. We looked at each other, the question hanging between us. I, for one, wasn’t worried about the cave or what was in it. I was primarily concerned about having to trust the sufficiency of my upper body strength to get back out because I haven’t done a rope-climb since elementary school. I don’t know what Mike was thinking, but he didn’t come up with a quick answer either. Explore or play it safe? What do you think we should have done? What do you think we did?

The crater where we found the cave

The cave in question

This is a PERFECT time to leave you with a “to be continued…” cavehanger (it’s like a cliffhanger but this was a cave, soo…).

Iceland History

Iceland is the world’s largest volcanically-formed island. Like other volcanic islands, it’s located on a “hot spot” on the earth’s surface. These hot spots occur where magma from the earth’s mantle layer (the one between the crust and the core) breaks through the crust. In the cases of islands like Hawaii, the hot spot is in the middle of a tectonic plate (the big pieces of the earth’s crust that the different land masses are attached to), and as the plates shift, the hot spot leaves a trail of islands behind it. In the case of Iceland, the hot spot coincides with a ridge between two tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian. There are a few places on the island where you can actually go and stand between the two continental plates! They continue to drift farther and farther apart, moving at a rate of about 2cm per year (a little less than an inch). That maybe doesn’t sound like much, but we’re talking about massive portions of the earth’s crust. That’s insane!!

This is one of the areas where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible on land. The North American plate is on the right, and the Eurasian plate is on the left. I’m standing on a bridge that spans the gap between the two.

Here’s a helpful sign showing the locations of the tectonic plates with a star on Iceland

According to estimates, the island started to form around 20 million years ago when magma broke through the earth’s crust, came up through the seafloor, and quickly cooled and hardened. This area grew and grew over time, and due to its location on the ridge line, there are a lot of earthquakes, geysers, and volcanoes. The volcanoes grew the island even more, adding new land with each eruption. On average, there’s a volcanic eruption in Iceland every three years! One-third of the lava that has reached earth’s surface in recorded history has come from eruptions in Iceland.

It looks like this lava could have cooled about 5 seconds ago…

Iceland is considered very young in the scheme of the world’s land masses, but get this: between 1963 and 1967, a new volcanic island was formed about 32km (20mi) off the coast of Iceland! It’s called Surtsey, and it was quickly claimed by the Icelandic government. In 1967, it was about 2.7km2 (1mi2) in area, and now, less than 50 years later, it has eroded to half that size. It’s really cool because it’s completely uninhabited by humans, and scientists are using it to understand more about how plants begin to grow on new land and how animals move in and affect its development. There are currently more than 65 plant species and 16 bird species found on the island! In some places, the land is still incredibly hot. Temperatures can be as high as 100 degrees C (over 200 degrees F) just slightly below the surface!

There are plenty of places where you can see steam rising up from the ground in Iceland. They have an abundance of geothermal heat! That’s the primary source of energy for heating homes and water, and there are some geothermal power plants. They also produce a lot of hydropower from all of the glacial rivers and waterfalls on the island.

The first serious settlers came to Iceland around 870AD. Before that, Nordic Viking explorers came and went, learning more about the island and seeing if it would be feasible to settle there. It started with just a couple families, and at the end of the 9th century, there was an influx of settlers from the British Isles and the Nordic countries, especially Norway due to the oppressive and barbaric king at the time.

This is a statue of Ingolfur Arnarson. He and his crew were the first to settle in Iceland, specifically in the now-capital, Reykjavik. They named it Reykjavic, or “Smoke Cove”, after the steam coming from the hot springs. The statue also depicts various figures from Norse mythology.

People were free to claim land as they came, and within about 60 years, the habitable land on the island was fully settled. During this time of settlement, the people were mostly led by various chieftains, but by 1930, they recognized that there needed to be greater coordination to establish order. As a result, the “Althing”, the world’s oldest nationwide parliament, was formed. It met each summer at Thingvellir to make laws, settle disputes, and organize trade.

The settlers arrived as pagans, mostly worshipping the Norse gods (you’re probably familiar with at least one of them, Thor). When a new king came to power in Norway in 995AD, he decided to make a project of converting the people of Iceland. He sent missionaries who were semi-successful, and this led to conflict both on the island and between Iceland and Norway. To avoid civil war, the pagan Law Speaker (responsible for reciting the laws at Althing sessions) at the time was given the authority to decide the official religion. He concluded that Iceland should become Christian, mostly to avoid further conflict, but people should be allowed to continue their pagan worship practices in private.

This flagpole marks the believed location of Law Rock, where the Law Speaker would stand to read the laws to the attendees at the beginning of each annual Althing session.

This picture (from a sign at Thingvellir) shows the Law Speaker standing on Law Rock. He is reciting the laws to the people standing below.

The rocky area near Law Rock.

This picture (from a sign at Thingvellir) shows a meeting of the Law Council. This was the time when new laws were enacted and legal disputes were settled. The people were then responsible for the enforcement of the laws. The Law Speaker was elected by the chieftains and served as the moderator.

And so, all was generally calm for a while. Writing was introduced in the early 12th century, and this led to the Age of Writing. A written lawbook came first in 1117 and was followed by various history books and sagas. Then, in 1220, the peace was broken when power struggles arose between one of the most powerful clans on the island, the Sturlung clan, and others. During this “Age of Sturlungs”, the clans fought each other in a bloody civil war. Even after the Sturlungs were defeated, fighting continued sporadically for years and years. Finally, in 1262, the Althing signed the “Old Covenant” with Norway, agreeing to become a province of the Kingdom of Norway and ending the clan conflicts.

Iceland was part of the Norwegian kingdom until 1380 when Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were unified. Denmark was the dominant power, and unlike Norway, it didn’t have a need for Icelandic goods, and it didn’t care much about Iceland. Without this trade, the Icelanders struggled, and the next few centuries under Danish rule were difficult. The Black Death and other widespread diseases wiped out large portions of the population. A climate shift made it difficult to grow crops. Hundreds of people were kidnapped into slavery by pirates from North Africa. A volcanic eruption killed thousands, eliminated most of the livestock, and caused the eventual starvation of thousands more. A trade monopoly implemented by Denmark made it impossible for the economy to grow.

Finally, in 1843, Iceland started to make moves towards independence again. The Althing, which had been virtually powerless for centuries and shut down in 1800 by the Danish king, was reestablished. In 1874, Denmark granted the Althing limited power and allowed the creation of a new constitution! One thousand years after Iceland’s settlement, the people were finally back on track to become independent. In 1904, Denmark recognized Iceland as a sovereign state, and Iceland continued to use Denmark for defense until World War II when Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany.

Iceland was declared neutral and was determined to stay out of the war. After the occupation of neutral Denmark by the Nazis, the UK worried that Iceland was next. Despite Iceland’s insistence that they be left alone, British troops were sent to occupy the island. Iceland protested the invasion for violating its neutrality but cooperated under the assurance that the troops would leave after the war.

This sculpture, Sun Voyager, is located in Reykjavik and is “a dream boat and ode to the sun”. It symbolizes “the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.”

Interestingly enough, the war helped to turn Iceland’s economy around. The occupiers flooded the economy with foreign money and hired locals to work on their projects, dramatically lowering the unemployment rate. Meanwhile, the people voted to become a fully independent republic in 1944. After the war, Iceland received aid that the new government used to improve the country’s industrial infrastructure, ensuring that the prosperity and high employment levels enjoyed during the war would continue.

I don’t know about you, but my head is just about spinning. It’s crazy how quickly Iceland’s luck turned around! Within 100 years, it went from poor and weak to thriving and independent. Now, it has booming tourism, aluminum, and fishing industries, among others, and is in no danger of returning to its pre-WWII economic struggle.

Usually, historical context is helpful for understanding the sights in a place. Since Iceland’s most well-known features are primarily natural, that doesn’t necessarily apply as much in this situation. Even so, I think it’s interesting to see how different countries have gotten to where they are today and how they’ve interacted with the countries around them in the past. Recently, I’ve changed the way I think about history, seeing it as a big, complicated story instead of just a school subject where you’re forced to memorize lots of dates and names. It’s changed everything for me because who doesn’t like stories?? (I know, it’s right there in the name. Silly Lara.) Now, when I go to a new place, I can’t wait to learn another part of the story of the world.

Welcome to Iceland!

My flight to Iceland left London Stansted at 6AM, so I decided that there was no point in paying for a hostel the night before because there was no chance I’d go to bed early enough to make it worth it. I took the tube to a bus to the airport, and that whole adventure took close to two hours. I was pretty darn tired by the time I got on the bus and fell asleep the instant I sat down. That was a solid 1:15 of sleep, plus the hour and a half maybe that I slept at the airport… So I was running on about 3 hours as I attempted to navigate my way to the gate which may not sound like a big deal, but I am a zombie mess without enough sleep.

Stansted does the same stupid thing as Heathrow where they don’t just announce your gate when you get to the airport. Instead, they wait until ~ 45 minutes before to release that information. My flight was at 6, the board said that the gate info would be up at 5:15, my ticket said that the gates close 30 minutes before the takeoff time, and the airport estimated that it would take at least 10 minutes to get to my gate. Does that not sound like maybe they should come up with a new system?

As usual, there was someone sitting in my seat on the plane. I thought that everyone consistently had this problem, but it seems to be just me. On at least 4/5 flights, someone is either in my seat or asks me to trade from my carefully-selected window seat to a middle seat. I like to sleep against the side of the plane, so unless my neighbors are cool with me drooling on them, it’s best if I’m left to the window.

Getting off the plane in Iceland, I was super excited about the fact that someone was waiting for me! I met my brother Mike there, and it was a nice change to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar place.

Reunited! And both practically falling asleep but not Mike because he was driving…

We picked up our rental car and headed out into the weird alien landscape that is Iceland. Here are some of my first impressions/random observations:

      1. Groundscape – I think I spent 90% of my time in Iceland staring at the ground. No, it’s not because I have terrible self-esteem. It’s because the ground is so freaking cool-looking, and in every place we went, it looked completely different. The colors, the plants, the rock formations… they’re like nothing I’d ever seen before.

        Try to tell me this isn’t awesome

      2. Prices – This is something that everyone who’s ever been to Iceland will mention. The prices are incredibly high. I’m used to going to countries where the US dollar is stronger than the local currency, but that’s totally not the case in Iceland. $1 is about 100 krónur which sounds nice, but when the cheapest meal you’ll find is 1600 krónur ($16), it’s a little less so. And that was the price for essentially ramen noodles with some chicken. An actual restaurant meal would be at least 5000 krónur ($50). I bought a 1000 krónur ($10) magnet for my cousin’s magnet collection.

        Front of Icelandic money

        Backside


      3. Language – Icelandic is VERY low on my list of languages to ever try learning. Partly because it’s almost completely worthless if you’re not in Iceland (about 90% of speakers live in Iceland), but also because it’s one of those languages where the names of things are so long that you need to stop halfway through to take a breath. Most of the letters are the same as the ones we use in English, but there are enough accented letters and extras like ð, þ, and æ to make it look very foreign. Mike and I never got sick of laughing at each other’s attempts to read the street signs.

        Here’s a good example of the kinds of place names we were dealing with. I would get as far as like “Kirkjubae…” and then shake my head and say gibberish because trying to sound out the entire thing is hopeless.

      4. Trees – Namely that there aren’t very many, and the ones that do exist are planted in VERY natural-looking rows. The island used to be about 25% forest, and after it was settled in the 9th century, the trees were gone within 300 years. They’re working on re-planting trees, but it’s an incredibly slow process because they have to stabilize the soil with smaller plants first. At the rate they’re going now, estimates are that it will take 150 years to reforest to just 5%.

        Reforestation. The trees are very well-organized

      5. Wind – I’m sure that the wind isn’t helping with the reforestation efforts. I’ve never been somewhere so consistently windy, and not only is it consistent, it’s STRONG. There were plenty of times that Mike and I had trouble even walking through it. The rental car doors had warnings on them telling you to hold on tightly when opening so that they don’t blow open too far and get damaged.
      6. Rain – Constantly. I’m sure this depends on the season, but we were there in April, and it was always raining. Usually it was a light rain, but still. Always. Raining.

        Smiling despite the wind and the rain

      7. Credit cards – You can use credit cards everywhere. Even the bathrooms that cost 100 kroner ($1) had credit card machines outside. I was especially thrown off by this because I was coming from 9 months of living in a completely cash-based culture, and we would have been almost completely fine without ANY cash in Iceland (we only needed cash at one campsite).
      8. Landscape – Even though the entire island looks like another planet, it doesn’t all necessarily look like the SAME another planet. In one place, you have black sand beaches. In another, there’s white sand. There are mountains and craters, black rocks and red rocks, glaciers and geysers. And waterfalls everywhere. I kind of thought that we were going to get tired of seeing the same thing over and over again because it’s just a little island and how much variety could there be? But no matter how many similarities things had, they were also COMPLETELY different.

        Alien. Landscape.

        Another planet.
        Can you spot Mike in this picture?

        Like… what is this place???

        Stairs at one of the random sights we stopped at along the road

      9. There are things to see everywhere – Literally. We had pretty loose plans, so a lot of the things we checked out were just what we happened to be driving past. It seemed like there was a sign announcing something to see every two seconds, so we had to start filtering some out because otherwise we’d never make it to the things we planned.
      10. Well-maintained – And despite the fact that there are things to see everywhere, it’s not like they’re falling into disrepair or there’s no tourist infrastructure there. I seriously don’t know how they keep up with maintenance. Everything we stopped at had a parking area, a path with those plastic ground-grate things to keep it from getting slippery, and a built viewing area if necessary. And nothing was falling apart or looked like it had seen better days, even at the tiny little sights that weren’t super popular.
      11. Everything has a name – Like EVERYTHING. This mountain range has a name, and so does every single mountain in it. This rock has a name. This little trickle of a waterfall. That crater… and the other one and the other one. They all have names. Probably, when they reforest, they give each tree a name too. And each blade of grass and ant and so on.
      12. Legends – Similarly, everything has a legend for how/why it exists. I loved the legends in Armenia, but honestly, I think Icelandic folklore is even a step above that. It’s filled with stories of elves and trolls, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
      13. People names – Obviously all of the people have names… that’s not what I was going to say. But people names are taken from lists of pre-approved boy and girl names, unless their parents go through the process to submit a new name that must meet all of the criteria, such as: names must be grammatically compatible with Icelandic, girls must be given girl names and boys boy names, names must not cause the bearer embarrassment. Also, for last names, people generally don’t use family names. Instead, last names depend on the person’s parents’ first names; for example Jónsson “Jon’s son” or Jónsdóttir “Jon’s daughter”. Sometimes, mothers’ names are used. In the phone book, people are listed by first name, and first names are used almost exclusively for addressing others. Even when speaking to someone like the president, you would use his first name.

I could probably write 20 pages about my first impressions and things that I thought were absolutely fascinating, but I’ll leave you with these for now. Next time, I’ll get into a little history before taking you along with us on a sightseeing tour of the island!

Inside the Tower

In my last post, I explained some of the history behind the Tower of London. Obviously, many things look a lot different than they did during the palace and prison and torture days, but there are some things that haven’t changed much.

Outer wall of the Tower

Certain parts of the Tower have been tourist attractions since the 17th century. One of these is the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept! I made a beeline for the jewels when I got inside because everyone says that the line gets very long later in the day. I don’t know much about precious gemstones and jewelry, but even I could tell that the stuff they have in the Jewel House is ridiculous. They have the coronation crown which weighs 7 pounds. Imagine having to wear that on your head! There’s also the world’s largest clear-cut diamond. It’s 530 carats which means nothing to me but apparently the average size for an engagement ring diamond is around 1 carat, soooo… it’s 530 times that. The oldest object, the anointing spoon used in coronations, is from the 1300s. Most of the other objects are much newer because the originals were melted down when the monarchy was abolished in the English Civil War (1649).

The Jewel House

My personal favorite object in the Jewel House was a “punch bowl” that was made of solid gold and, according to the sign, could hold 144 bottles of wine. 144 BOTTLES. Now, I know I’m just a commoner who doesn’t know how anything works, but could someone PLEASE explain to me why that’s necessary?? I couldn’t wrap my head around most of the things in the room, to be honest. The gemstones weren’t that impressive because my brain couldn’t comprehend that they weren’t rhinestones, they were real. I thought about how people save up to buy gold jewelry… how many rings and necklaces do you think you could make with a 144-bottles-of-wine-sized punch bowl? Insanity.

When I was finished gaping at the jewels, I went on a Yeoman Warder tour. The Yeoman Warders, popularly called Beefeaters (though the origin of that name is unknown), are the keepers of the Tower, responsible for guarding any prisoners (historically) and watching over the crown jewels. There are 37 of them who live within the Tower walls with their families. To qualify, they must have served in the armed forces for at least 22 years and been awarded a good conduct medal. They give free tours throughout the day, explaining the history of and telling stories about the Tower. The whole thing is a kind of theatrical experience and is very well done.

Tower views

The Tower complex is HUGE. After the Beefeater tour, I checked out the torture devices, walked along the walls, and explored a bunch of different towers before going into the White Tower. Today, it’s filled with exhibitions of armor and weaponry. I can’t say I’m terribly interested in either, but the collection was still impressive which is pretty much the point. Originally, its purpose was to show the monarch’s right to rule and awe visitors.

While I was walking around, I bumped into a big group that was part of an interactive skit. I don’t know how well you can see, but one of the guys in this picture is dressed up as a knight. They explained all of the different groups in history who tried to seize control of the Tower. At the end, they explained that the only group that ever successfully infiltrated the castle was the peasants during the Peasants Revolt. It was a fun way to learn about history! (Definitely geared towards kids, but no matter.)

View from the White Tower looking towards Tower Green

Armor display in the White Tower

This book made me laugh because it’s HUGE. According to the label, it’s 914 pages of inventory, spanning from 1675-1679. Imagine if it was your job to write in this monstrosity.

One of the unsolved mysteries of the Tower of London took place in the White Tower. In 1483, King Edward IV died. His son, Edward V, was next in line for the throne, but he was only 12 years old. Edward V’s uncle was put in charge until he was old enough to rule, and he brought Edward and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, to the Tower of London. After their uncle was crowned king, the boys disappeared and were thought to have been murdered, though their bodies were nowhere to be found. In 1674, during some construction work, the bones of two children were found underneath a staircase in the White Tower. They were assumed to be the bones Edward and Richard and were reburied in Westminster Abbey; however, they haven’t been tested to confirm that assumption. And so, the mystery continues.

The building in the corner is the Queen’s House. It is the home of the Resident Governor of the Tower of London. It was built around 1540 and is architecturally significant because most other buildings in London from this time period burned down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. This one survived thanks to its location within the Tower’s stone walls.

Interior Tower views

The Traitors’ Gate was the water entrance to the Tower. A lot of the prisoners kept in the Tower throughout history were brought in through the Traitors’ Gate.

As you can see, it was a slightly foggy day… Crazy how the tops of those buildings completely vanish.

Me with the White Tower!

Another former attraction at the Tower was the “Menagerie”, basically a predecessor of modern-day zoos but way less functional. The royalty used to receive exotic animals as gifts from leaders of other nations (actually, fun fact: the Queen STILL receives animals as gifts – what?!?! – but now they’re sent to the London Zoo). The Tower housed this collection starting the early 13th century, including now-extinct Barbary lions, leopards, a polar bear that used to fish for food in the Thames River, monkeys, bears, an African elephant that was fed wine every day in an attempt to keep it warm (!?!? And then it died after four years because obviously that didn’t work), a hyena, wolves, an ostrich that died from eating too many nails thanks to ignorant visitors who thought ostriches ate iron, birds, snakes that were wrapped in blankets and put on a stove to keep them warm, and more. They weren’t terribly well-kept, partly because the people in charge didn’t know much about how to take care of some of them, and would attack each other and sometimes visitors. The Menagerie was opened to the public in the 18th century, and admission was either 3 half-pence (cents) or a dog or cat to feed to the lions. I promise I didn’t make that up. In the 19th century, the animals were moved to Regent’s Park, now the site of the London Zoo where they are properly cared for.

There are animal sculptures around the Tower as a reminder of the good ‘ole Menagerie days.

Spotted! The Tower ravens are allowed to roam freely within the complex, and I stumbled upon one of them during my explorations

There are still some animals on the Tower grounds… ravens. Six ravens are kept due to the superstition that if the ravens depart, the Tower will crumble and the kingdom will follow. No one is completely sure how or why the superstition and tradition came to be, but there’s no turning back now! The Tower ravens are cared for by one of the Beefeaters, the Ravenmaster. One of the signs said that they each eat 170g of raw meat and bird biscuits soaked in blood each day. So that’s gross. And sometimes, for a special treat, they get a sheep’s heart. Double ew.

The ravens’ cages

By the time I left the Tower, it was about to close, along with everything else I was considering seeing. So much for my ambitious plans for the day! I should have known, though, because never in my life have I gone through a museum quickly.

You can see the two layers of walls and the White Tower rising up behind them. Imagine planning to attack the Tower and seeing this view as you approached (plus a moat!)… I don’t think I would have very high hopes for my chances.

Walking across the bridge.

I made one last stop at Tower Bridge, the famous bridge next to the Tower. Even though the two look similar, the bridge was built during Victorian times (late 1800s). It was required to “blend in” with its surroundings and be built in the Gothic style, hence why it stylistically looks much older than it is. Even though it’s not THAT old comparatively, it’s still pretty impressive that they made an operable bridge 120 years ago that worked for 70 years (the hydraulic system was replaced in the 1970s).

Me with Tower Bridge!

Tower Bridge! It’s a little weird to see a bridge built in Gothic style but with steel components. Those absolutely give it away as a modern (relatively) addition.

View of the Tower of London from Tower Bridge. I know, the view is simply breathtaking because it was such a beautiful and clear day.

After that, I went snack shopping (my favorite part of travel days!) and headed back to my hostel to get ready to go to the airport. Next stop: Iceland!

I had to take a picture of this sign because I don’t think I agree with its claim that the Tower Bridge is the most famous bridge in the world. Personally, I would have guessed that the Golden Gate Bridge is more famous, though I’m not sure how you measure fame. What do you think is the world’s most famous bridge?

History of the Tower of London

I had ambitious plans for my last day in London, and of course, they were way too ambitious. I thought I’d spend maybe four hours at the Tower of London and then I could go to either the National Gallery (one of my favorite London museums) or the Tate Britain (Maddy’s favorite museum which I haven’t been to).

From the very beginning, I failed to follow the plan. I wanted to get there at 9:30 because it opens at 10, but I read that they usually let people in a bit early. I had to pack my stuff up before heading out for the day because I was headed to the airport that night, so I didn’t leave even close to on time. I made it to the Tower around 11:30 and surprisingly still managed to beat the crowds. Maybe people were slowed down because of the dreary weather.

I didn’t know much about the Tower before I went, but now my brain is full. My gosh there’s a lot of history in that place. Here’s where I attempt to summarize masses of information and not bore you to tears…

The White Tower, the central structure in the Tower of London complex, was the first structure built in the mid-11th century by William the Conqueror. He believed that he had a rightful claim to the throne of England, and when it was given to another, he and his army successfully invaded from Normandy. He was declared king in 1066. As a show of his power and in an attempt to intimidate the Londoners, he ordered the construction of the 90-foot-tall tower (with 15’ wide walls!!) which would have been, by far, the tallest building they’d ever seen.

The White Tower

During its early years, the Tower was used as a royal residence and prison for wealthy and high-profile people. Many of the kings were afraid of the people, making the idea of living in an easily-defensible castle very appealing. It did a decent job of keeping people out and a much worse job of keeping people in. In fact, the very first prisoner, Bishop Ranulf Flambard, escaped! As the legend goes, he organized a bit of a party for his guards, got them drunk on wine, and snuck out using a rope that was smuggled in at the bottom of the wine container. He wasn’t the last person to escape either… others successfully bribed the guards to help them out!

There aren’t many original furnishings and decorations in the Tower, but in some spaces, historians have tried to recreate what the royal living quarters might have looked like.

Ceiling in one of the towers

The Tower was expanded a few times. An inner ring of walls was constructed and was soon followed up by a second layer of walls, giving it 21 more towers and a moat. Generally, the monarchs who were most concerned with the upkeep of the Tower were the ones who were most disconnected from and fearful of their subjects.

There were multiple times throughout history when people tried to siege the Tower. The only time anyone was successful was during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. They were protesting excessive taxation and managed to make it inside the White Tower. They found the Lord Chancellor and Lord High Treasurer in this chapel inside, two of the men leading the government on behalf of 14-year-old King Richard II, dragged them out to Tower Hill, and executed them. There’s speculation that the peasants were let into the Tower by guards who were sympathetic to their cause.

This pathway runs between the inner and outer walls. I’m standing on an inner wall.

Archer defending the Tower!

The outer walls and the area that used to be the moat

The rack

Starting in the 16th century, the Tower was less popular as a residence among the royals, and it transitioned into other roles. Mostly, it became known as a terrifying prison with horrible conditions and widespread torture. In reality, prisoners were still generally of high-status, were imprisoned for only short time periods, and with enough money, could live in comfort. Torture, while rare, did happen. There were less than 50 recorded incidents of torture at the Tower, but the methods were rather brutal. The most well-known method (though not often used) is probably the rack, where a person’s wrists and ankles are fastened and pulled in opposite directions, stretching the body and dislocating the joints. Another less-used contraption compresses the body by pushing down on the back of someone curled up with their shins on the ground. Others were put in shackles, sometimes hanging from the ceiling. One of the most famous people tortured at the Tower was Guy Fawkes who was part of a plot to blow up Parliament on 5 November 1605 (if you’ve seen the movie V for Vendetta, you’re probably familiar with his name).

“Besides the Rack, the principal kind of torture in England is called the ‘Scavenger’s Daughter’. It is the complete opposite of the rack… The prisoner’s body is folded into three with the shins up against the thighs and the thighs against the stomach. The torturer then forces the ends of two iron bows together and locks the prisoner inside, almost crushing his body with a hellish compression. The is an inhuman torture, in every way worse than the rack…”.

There are carvings all over the various rooms of the Tower where people were imprisoned. Some of them were what I expected, little scratchings that are about as profound as “Lara wuz here”, but then there were also impressive works of art like this one.

Many of the prisoners held in the Tower were eventually executed, either by hanging or beheading. The majority were taken to a nearby hill (Tower Hill) where their deaths were public spectacles. A select few were given the honor of being killed inside the Tower walls on Tower Green, including Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. Apparently, out of “kindness”, he hired an expert swordsman for her execution (to me, “kindness” is a strong word in this situation because he still had her killed…), ensuring that she would be successfully beheaded on the first strike. In other cases, it wasn’t uncommon for the executioner to have to take a few swings before hitting accurately enough to kill the person. That. Sounds. HORRIBLE. I read somewhere that executioners didn’t perform enough executions to become truly skilled (I guess that’s a good thing) and were probably a little drunk because how else could you do that job?

More prisoner carvings.

A memorial in remembrance of the people who were killed on Tower Green.

This big, grassy area is Tower Green, where the most important people were executed, away from the eyes of the public.

This church, the Royal Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, is the burial place of some of the most famous people who were executed on Tower Green and Tower Hill.

In the 1800s, the moat was filled in with dirt because the water was gross, and people were getting sick from it. The Tower was used to hold prisoners for the last time during WWI and WWII, and some were executed by firing squad within the Tower walls. The final execution was of a German spy in 1941.

Now, the Tower is mostly used for ceremonial purposes and is a huge tourist attraction. I’ll tell you about my visit in my next post