Árnessýsla County begins just a few kilometres east of the Reykjavík city limits. Stretching from the black beaches of the south deep into the dusty Highlands, it’s an 8,287 km² tract of land perhaps best known as the region that contains natural wonders like Geysir, the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, the stunning historic site of Þingvellir, and the colourful Kerið volcano crater—known collectively as the Golden Circle.
But there’s much more to Árnessýsla than that. Those visiting the main sightseeing spots might also notice how people have put this powerful nature to work. Vast clouds of steam float upwards from geothermal power stations; ranks upon ranks of neat, brightly lit greenhouses line the small, well-kept towns, and various handmade signs beckon passers-by to buy local produce and products at tucked-away farmer’s markets. For those who aren’t on a tight schedule, there’s much to discover just off the beaten track.
With this in mind, we set out from Reykjavík under a cloud-studded spring sky on “The Green Circle”—a list of less-travelled eco-friendly stops. The first stop on the Green Circle is the Hellisheiðarvirkjun Power Station, located just before the Hellisheiði mountain pass over the volcanic mountain of Hengill. As well as powering much of Reykjavík and the surrounding area, it’s home to a Geothermal Power Exhibition. We peel off route one and glide towards the huge bulk of the power station, passing under power lines and past several geodesic domes that guard bore holes down to the naturally boiling hot water in the earth’s crust.
The entrance hall of the power station is huge, with huge glass windows and a grand staircase leading up to several floors of exhibits. A timeline leads from the early uses of geothermal resources by Icelanders—such as bathing in the Sagas, growing potatoes in warm fields, and washing clothes in geothermal springs in the 18th Century—through to today’s exploitation of natural warmth to create electricity. Windows look into the cavernous, clean, quietly humming turbine halls, which produce 303MW of electricity, making Hellisheiðarvirkjun one of the largest single unit power plants in the world.
Over the mountain pass, the road circuitously winds down into Hveragerði. This town is quite literally steaming, with a small geothermal park in its centre, a beautiful municipal pool with a steam room built over a bubbling geothermal vent, and the Ölverk bar serving geothermally-brewed beer. Jets of steam shoot up from the surrounding mountains, and the environmentally friendly resources are put to work to power a village of greenhouses growing fruits and vegetables.
They also produce other kinds of flora. Rósakaffi is a pleasant bistro that serves cakes, soups and snacks in a verdant greenhouse environment. Up the street, the Flóra Garðyrkjustöð is a gardening nerd’s mecca. Also located in a greenhouse, it sells plants of all descriptions, from tough English ivy in hanging baskets to delicate fronds of fern, and from giant, teeming Monstera to sculptural orchids. It’s a quite literal breath of fresh air, and the colours, shapes and scents of the thriving flora stir the senses.
Farm to table
We turn inland at Selfoss, taking in the easterly view over the flatlands to the snowy peak of Eyjafjallajökull. The car park of the Kerið crater is packed, so we instead take a left to the Snæfoksstaðir forest area. There’s not a soul to be seen on the walking trails, which meander through some rich woodland, heathery clearings and fir copses to a perfect tucked away picnic spot.
We don’t stop to eat, as tempting as it is, because we’ve a reservation at the Fríðheimar café. The tables of this popular lunch stop are nestled between high walls of tomato vines, and the bar is overgrown with creeping tendrils and broad green leaves. Groups meander around on guided tours of the facilities, and diners tuck into the house speciality of fruity and delicious farm-to-table tomato soup and the buffet of freshly-baked bread. Each table has basil plants with scissors to trim your own garnish. Bees buzz through the air, and there’s a quite civilised burble of conversation. Despite the bustling crowd, Fríðheimar remains a blissfully restful lunch stop.
All eco everything
Just up the road is the Sólheimar Ecovillage. This small community is home to around 100 people, many of whom have special needs. It’s open to the public, with a shop selling objects made on site, a second-hand market, and a café. Calm radiates through the community, from the sculpture garden, to the burbling riverside walking path, to the friendly smiles of the staff and residents.
Nearby Flúðir is another geothermally active town that’s opening its doors to the curious public. The Flúðasveppir mushroom farm offers a fascinating tour of its zero-waste facility, with an airy bistro to taste the eye-opening freshness of their produce first hand.
The nearby Secret Lagoon spa is glittering in the late afternoon sun as we arrive. We walk around the bubbling, sulphurous hot pots and the thigh-high mini-Geysir before sinking into the naturally hot water and letting any last shred of tension vanish into the ether.
We wend our way back to Reykjavík through the knotty forests of Þingvellir and the rolling farmlands of Mosfellsbær, and as we complete The Green Circle, our eyes glow from this energising brush with the Earth’s natural energy, and everything that mushrooms around it. Gold may be considered the top prize, I think to myself; but perhaps beneath that shiny veneer lies a bright and sumptuous green.
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