Sunday, August 25, 2013

Thursday, 8/18/11, Cahersiveen to Waterville – Kinda Whiny on the Ring of Kerry.

Along with her new hubby, my Kelly will be taking off soon for a honeymoon in Scotland and Ireland.  Sweet!  Love both of those places, although that last walk in Ireland was a toughie.  I was inspired by Joan’s recent visit to Iceland to finish up the tale of our visit there; let’s see if I can finish up the account of our Ireland walk in August 2011.

The first day was a very long day but my energy didn’t flag.  It did, however, on the following day – perhaps because I was plum tuckered out from Wednesday.  So for me, Thursday was nine and half hours of muck and rock, gazillions of stiles to climb over, terrible directions, and cursing and blaspheming.  It occurred to me several times that I should not have come along on this walk with Kathie and Kathleen.

(For whatever reason, I posted the photos I took on Thursday with Wednesday’s account.  Guess that shows how closely Kathie reads my blogposts.  Sigh.  Here are some of Kathie’s pics from Thursday.)

BTW, cows are intimidated by the hands-on-your-hip stance.  Trust me, I have experience with this.

We arrived in Waterville after 7 p.m., had a bite at the Lobster Bar, and called our B&B for a pick-up.  Who picked us up but Anne, our Glenbeigh B&B’s hostess and sister of this evening’s hostess at the Golf Links View B&B?  Small world.

That evening, I noticed a blister growing under the edge of the nail on my left foot’s second toe.  What???  ARRRRGGGHHHH.  What a pain…literally.  If that baby popped while we were slogging through all that boggy muck, I would get a nasty infection.  Kathie took one look at it and suggested I take a cab the next day.  Damn.  She was right though.  

So, Kath, feel free to jump in any time here with your account of what happened over the next two days of walking with Kathleen.  I was MIA.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Wrapping it up.

I’m going to wrap this up now, k?

Sunday, August 28, 2011, the first day of clouds and rain in Reykjavik since we arrived.  We were supposed to travel home today, but due to Hurricane Irene’s closing JFK, we were stuck in Iceland for a few more days.  Oh darn!   Our apartment was already reserved by someone else, so Ellert agreed to move us into another of his apartments.  We left our bags in his office and walked over to the National Museum.   Here we learned, as Joan mentioned in her post,  that the male DNA of Icelanders is from Scandinavia and the female DNA is from the British Isles, meaning that when the Vikings’ women told the boys to go on without them, those plundering maniacs hit the drive-through for some girls to go.  Otherwise, we might have been Icelanders, Kath.

Leaving the museum, we hiked back to check in with Ellert, stopped at Bonus for groceries, and then walked on home for tuna sandwiches.  Delta had rebooked our return for six days later, so we spent the afternoon trying to find other flights that would get us home sooner.  Really, Delta?  Luckily, we were able to get flights out on Wednesday via Iceland Air.  This accomplished, we were whooped!  Kathie cooked chicken for salad and we watched CNN for a while, then went to bed.  (Post script:  In Delta’s defense, I understand from Kathie that Delta later refunded our fares.)

Monday, August 29th – my birthday.  We slept in, had some breakfast, finished working on details for our return trip, showered, and had lunch.  We then walked along the shore drive, enjoying sculptures and architecture. 

If you can't read the sign on that last sculpture, be sure to enlarge it so you can.  

Back home for more salad, CNN, and reading.  The sun showed up exactly at 4 p.m. as predicted by  

On Tuesday, August 30th, we checked out of the apartment, left our bags with Ellert, and took off for the sculpture garden which we found was closed until 2 p.m.  Oh well, we’ll have to see that one when we visit again.   Along the way, we passed this interesting house.  

Yes, that’s grass on the roof.  Perhaps they have guinea pigs up there to eat the grass and keep it from getting too high?  I don’t suppose you could get a mower up there.

We strolled on over to the Nordic House on the campus of the University of Iceland.  

Nordic House was designed by Finnish modernist architect Aalvar Aalto in the sixties to house the university’s Nordic Languages department.  The building is one of his later works and features his signature traits, such as the ultramarine blue ceramic rooftop that takes its organic shape from the mountain row in the background, the central well in the library, and the extensive use of white, tile, and wood.  He also designed and installed the furnishings – lamps, furniture, book shelves, everything.  I so like Scandinavian design.

By now we were hungry so we decided to lunch in the facility’s Restaurant Dill, which serves “New Nordic” food.  We had some tasty Arctic char, while through the window we kept an eye on a fellow diner’s shepherd and another’s baby (left outside in its stroller).  Then we took a tour of the building with Aalvar (actually an actor since the real Aalvar has been dead since 1976), who told us that Restaurant Dill is the best in the city – or was that the best in Iceland?  

We hustled back to Ellert’s office to be picked up by Úlfar for the ride to our airport hotel (Hotel Keflavik).  Since it rained the rest of the afternoon and evening and there really wasn’t much to do outside the hotel, Kathie and I lazed around and read, had dinner, and went to bed – sad that we would leave Iceland in the morning.

Thus ended our fabulous trip to Iceland.  I hope you all don’t mind my memorializing these trips here – I think it’s so much nicer to read later than a diary.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The South Coast

Saturday, August 27, 2011.  This was to be our last day in Iceland.  Helke picked us up for the South Coast tour, along with Stephen and Kelly, a couple from Texas by way of DC.  It was a fun day with beautiful weather, sheep, cattle, Icelandic horses, volcanoes, cool rock formations, and waterfalls.

We drove along Route 1 down through the lava fields to get to the South Coast.  11% of the country is covered in lava fields.  A rather self-limiting factor when it comes to population growth, I would think.

We stopped for a bit in Eyrarbakki, an old trading/shipping village.  The church was built in 1890; its altarpiece was painted by Queen Louise of Denmark.  I was so stunned by the electric blue picket fence, however, that I didn’t notice any queenly altarpieces.

According to Wikipedia, Eyrarbakki was the main port on the south coast.  A young merchant sailed in 985 AD from Eyrarbakki for Greenland, but instead reached North America. On his return trip, he landed in Greenland where he told Leif Eriksson of his discovery and sold him his boat, which Eriksson used for his own journey to North America.  Today, Eyrarbakki’s primary employer is a prison, the largest in Iceland.  Can’t be a very big employer, though – I read somewhere that there are no more than 200 prisoners in the whole country.

If the light was different in the pic above of Eyrarbakki’s beach, you could almost imagine you’re looking at someone’s vacation photos from the Big Island of Hawaii.

We stopped and walked up to Skógafoss, this lovely waterfall.  I think the boys and Kathie ascended the stairs to the top.  Lump that I am, I did not.

Volcanoes.  On average, there is a volcanic eruption every five years.  From the van, Helke pointed out Hekla in the distance, but I’ll be honest with you – there were so many hills/mountains/glaciers in the area that I wouldn’t be able to tell you which one was which.  Hekla, however, was once believed to be the entrance to Hell.  We also passed Eyjafjallojokull, the one that erupted in 2010 and stopped air traffic to Europe for weeks.  Helke described the aftermath to us – volcanic ash turning the day to night, etc.  Frightening, and yet the farmers still work their land there just as they did before.

This must have been a volcano at some time.
We traveled on to Vik, where we stopped for lunch.  Such a scenic place!  We thought this church was maybe the one on the cover of our guidebook, and indeed it was – although the lovely lupines on the book had either all died or been photoshopped in.

The basalt needles in the photo above can be seen from Vik.  Legend has it that they were three trolls waiting to sink a ship.  The two on either side of the middle one look like they maybe should have spent some more time at the gym.

Check out this cool rock formation.  It’s called Dyrholaey.  It reminded me of an elephant with a very, very heavy trunk.  Poor guy.  Can elephants get elephantiasis?

On the other side of Dyrholaey from Vik is Reynisfjara, where Helke pointed to the puffins way out in the water.  There was a very cool audio effect here - the waves receding on the lava pebbles sounded a bit like going through a shell curtain.  The puffins and tinkling shell curtain sound, combined with the weird rectangular rock cubes covering the slope of Reynisfjall around this sea cave (Hálsanefshellir), make this off-the-beaten-path place unforgettable.  

There are so many waterfalls in Iceland, all generated from glacial meltwater.  After seeing Gullfoss yesterday and Skógafoss this morning, I figured I’d seen enough.  I mean, you see one waterfall, you’ve seen them all, right?  At this point, we stopped at yet another one, Seljalandsfoss.  Everyone, and I mean everyone, was climbing the path to get behind the waterfall.  Not being one for crowds, I started to hang back but Stephen coaxed me into walking behind it.  I’m glad he did because, back there, it was like looking at a sheer sparkly white curtain of tiny moving droplets.  I tried to focus on one drop and trace its crashing drive to oblivion – mind-altering!

Another 11% of the country is covered in glaciers.  Our last stop for the day was at a glacier.  We walked up to the edge.  Look at the photo below – who needs color film?  There were some teens/twenty-somethings climbing up the steep face of the glacier in sneakers.  One slip and someone would have been severely injured – at least.  In response to Helke’s concerned call up to them, the young (overweight) man at the far left of the photo yelled back, “I’ve been doing this for 15 years”.  The girls looked scared, however.  

Kids.  Glad they weren’t mine.

All fun days must come to an end.  When we got back to Reykjavik, Kathie and I had dinner at Geysir (again) and then went home to watch CNN coverage of Hurricane Irene worrying the US’s East Coast.

Viking Poems

From a visitor’s guide that we picked up in Reykjavik:  “Hávamál are words of wisdom which served as spiritual provisions for the Vikings on their long journeys over rough sea to discover new lands.  These sayings are more than a thousand years old and give a valuable insight into the Viking way of thinking.”  Here are some examples.

A true friend
whom you trust well
and wish for his good will:
Go to him often
exchange gifts
and keep company.

Better weight
than wisdom
a traveler cannot carry.
The poor man’s strength
in a strange place,
worth more than wealth.

Huh?  How about this one…

He is truly wise
who's travelled far
and knows the ways of the world.
He who has travelled
can tell what spirit
governs the men he meets.

That’s kind of a no-brainer, hm, Kath?

No man should call
himself clever
but manage his mind.
A sage visitor
is a silent guest.
The cautious evades evil.
Never a friend
more faithful,
nor greater wealth, than wisdom.

Hmm.  Well, I think I get that one.  Here’s one I definitely get.

has too often
been praised by poets.
The longer you drink
the less sense
your mind makes of things.

Let’s try to keep that last one in mind as we’re walking pub to pub across England next month – ok, Pint Virgin?

Friday, August 09, 2013

Such Wisdom

Being a relatively small population, the people of Iceland are not only up on their current events, they are engaged.  While driving us along, our South Coast tour guide Helke candidly told us about the 2008 Icelandic bank failure that occurred when, he said, the banks were privatized to make them “more efficient”.  From a February 2013 Forbes article:  

Instead of allowing the criminals responsible for bank fraud to run free as the years passed by, Iceland thought it might be wise to actually indict bankers who committed serious financial crimes that contributed to the collapse. By paying off loans for consumers, forgiving homeowner debt (up to 110% of the property value), and throwing the offenders in prison, Iceland was able to bounce back. Now, its economy is “recovered” and is growing faster than both the US and European economies.

Their president’s comment, as quoted by Forbes:

"Why are the banks considered to be the holy churches of the modern economy?  Why are private banks not like airlines and telecommunication companies and allowed to go bankrupt if they have been run in an irresponsible way? The theory that you have to bail out banks is a theory that you allow bankers enjoy for their own profit, their success, and then let ordinary people bear their failure through taxes and austerity. 
People in enlightened democracies are not going to accept that in the long run.”

Such wisdom.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Golden Circle, Extreme

Friday, August 26th.  This morning, a lady driver by the name of Rex (pronounced like Rags) picked us up late for the Golden Circle Extreme tour.  Already in the van was Daniel, a photographer from Seattle.  Our itinerary – big rocks, big glacier-going buses, big waterfalls, and, well, not so big geysers.

We had a set time to get to the glacier, so we pretty much flew through Þingvellir, a narrow valley between two walls of rock.  What’s really nifty about this place is that you can stand in one spot and have one foot on the American continental plate and the other one on the European continental plate.  Honest!  It’s the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which runs north and south through the country.  The plates are slowly drifting apart, resulting in volcanic eruptions, geothermal activity (geysers and hot springs), and the occasional earthquake.  Check it out.

The first Icelandic parliament convened in this area in 930 AD, making Iceland’s one of the oldest continuously operating parliaments.  The flagpole in the pic below marks the Law Rock, where the law speaker recited the laws by memory.  The cliff behind created a natural amphitheater.

The surrounding plain hosted the campers who came for the festivities.  It’s full of small crevices caused by the plate movement.  Kind of like stretch marks.

On to snow (ice) mobiling on a glacier.  It was a long, bumpy road to get to the glacier…

…and an equally bumpy ride on the snowmobile.  Good thing Kathie drove.

After lunch (at 4 p.m.!), we visited Gullfoss, or Golden Falls.  Massive and deafening.

Then on to Strokkur, a geyser that erupts every 5 minutes or so.  Waiting between eruptions, Kathie and I watched the guys sitting on the benches with their cameras poised to get a great shot.  The longer the wait between eruptions, the more spectacular the blow.  Fun!

On the way back, we stopped by Kerith crater.  Nice colors.

Back home, we hiked to the little shop down the street for pizza and Coke carryout, the universal Friday night dinner.

Great things about Iceland

Taking a break from the account of our stay in Iceland – just to catch my breath and assemble pics from Kathie’s SmugMug page.  In the meantime, let’s talk about the advantages of living in Iceland.  (Whenever I visit another place, I find myself occupied by how cool it would be to live there.  There was no shortage of coolness about Iceland, imho.) 
  • Great water!  You always have lots of hot water – don’t need a hot water heater because the geothermal water is already hot when it comes through the pipes to your house.  Cold water from the tap is pure spring water without any additives.  And you always have great shower pressure.
  • No tipping – not even in restaurants or taxies.  Tipping is never expected, but if you do tip, you are unlikely to offend anyone; it would be graciously accepted or politely refused. 
  • The simple design of everything gives you the impression that life is simple.  Nice!
  • Everyone calls each other by their first name, regardless of social status.  Iceland is the only Scandinavian country to retain the Old Norse system of patronymics.  If a man named Jon has a son named Pall and a daughter named Olof, their names are Pall Jonsson and Olof Jonsdottir.  Women do not change names when they marry, so if a married couple has a son and a daughter, every family member has a different last name.  THE PHONE BOOK IS ALPHABETIZED BY FIRST NAME! 
  • The whole country’s population is just over 300,000, more than a third of whom live in Reykjavik - where you can feel safe walking at night.  The people are decent and hard-working, willing to adapt and learn.  A little more than a century ago, Icelanders were scattered around the island, living in turf huts and fishing only for their own needs.  Illiteracy was common.  Today, they are well educated and the standard of living is amongst the highest in the world.  Industry is very competitive, whether in genetic research, power plant engineering or the fishing industry.  I mean, where else might you find a tree wearing a sweater?
  • The Aurora Borealis plays in the sky in spring and autumn, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.  (Saves on the cable TV bill.)
  • Believe it or not, Iceland averages 14.9 hours of daylight – more than in Miami.  (Yeah, yeah – I know – there’s a bit of variation throughout the year!)
  • No pollution.  90% of Icelandic homes are heated by geothermal power – fossil fuels are used only for transportation.  So if you drive a Prius, your total footprint is virtually nothing.
  • The oceanic climate with warm Gulf Stream thrown in along the western and southern coasts is much milder than you would expect for its location (66 degrees north latitude).  The clash of the Gulf Stream and arctic air do make the weather unstable and windy, but in January, it’s warmer than New York City.  Snowball fights (in the dark) wearing just shorts and t-shirts!
  • Between the silica mud at the Blue Lagoon and the pumice from nearby volcanoes, your skin would be eternally soft.  Chapped, maybe, but eternally soft.
Other potential positives – if you live close to the Mid-Atlantic rift (next post), you might find yourself owning beachfront property at some point.  Little to no need for deodorant.  Snowmobiling on a glacier over your lunch hour.  I could go on and on.  Then again, I’ve not been there during the winter.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

A Magical Mystery Tour

On Thursday morning, we were picked up by “Hershey” (he knew we wouldn’t be able to pronounce his Icelandic name so he, taking pity on us poor Americans, gave us a name we could remember), who took us on a mystery tour – around the University of Iceland, by Perlan, or the Pearl (a mirrored spherical dome that sits on top of a circle of six large - 4 million liters each - geothermal water containers, all situated on top of a hill so you can see it from everywhere – and revolving restaurant we’ll have to visit next time), to the house along the water where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986…

…past the president’s house (which has no security, by the way)...

...through lava fields, and to the light house and cliffs of Reykjanes.

What a view!  If that wind had reversed itself, Hershey and I would have been just a greasy slick on the rocks far below.  Kathie, of course, stood well back from the edge of the cliff – probably nibbling on her fingernails ‘til we removed ourselves to a safer location.

Wherever we went in Iceland, I was struck by how close the sky seemed.  Surely this was an optical illusion, perhaps due to the fact that there are very few trees and it seems like you can see forever.  Phenomenal.

Hershey dropped us at the Blue Lagoon, where we soaked/floated about for an hour in the geothermal seawater with a couple hundred of our closest friends. 

Along the edge of the pool, there are spots where you can scoop up some white silica mud to paint on your face.  When you wash it off, your skin is ultra soft.  Honest, everyone does it – not just the kids.  There is even a psoriasis treatment place next door.  Cool place.  (Kath, I read in the guidebook that the best time to visit is on a winter night when you can watch the Northern Lights while icicles form in your hair.  Let’s try it, ok?)

On the way back home that afternoon, our driver (not Hershey) dropped us off at Geysir for dinner.  It was so good, and the wait staff were very nice.  Highly recommend, Joan!

Monday, August 05, 2013

Iceland 2011, Part 1

Joan's taking off for Iceland has inspired me to write about Kathie's and my trip there in late August 2011.  We actually stopped there on our way back from Ireland.  Here are some notes from our first day in Reykjavik.

On Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011, we left the Mystic Rose in Killarney and parted ways in Limerick with Kathleen.  She left for home and we took off for Iceland – a place I had wanted to visit for a very long time. 

We were greeted at the airport by a tall young Viking employed by the tour company through which Kathie had booked our Iceland day tours.  We chatted as he drove us to Reykjavik through the dark; he told us he had lived for a short while in the town where Kathie lives.  We arrived at our apartment at 2 in the morning.  Even though exhausted from the long day of travel, we still noticed how nice our apartment was – it had a kitchenette, big screen TV attached to the wall in the small living area, and was essentially white on white – even the stone outer wall of our basement level bedroom was painted white.  It was very Scandinavian, yet homey and calming.  We brushed our teeth, threw ourselves into our white duvet-covered twin beds, and fell fast asleep.

On Wednesday morning we grabbed some breakfast at a bakery on Bergstathastraeti, hit up an ATM for some kronur, and headed for the 871+/-2 Settlement Museum.  Along the way we passed a tree wearing a sweater…

…and the parliament house with this lovely garden across the street.

About 871+/-2 in Frommer’s Iceland guidebook:

“In 2001…workers excavating an underground parking garage stumbled upon the remains of a Viking longhouse.  It turned out to be the oldest known evidence of human habitation in Reykjavik, dating from 871 plus or minus 2 years – thus the name of this engaging new museum.  The excavated ruin lies amid a large room, surrounded by high-tech panoramic displays that tackle the larger questions of why the Vikings came to Reykjavik, how they adapted to the conditions, and what the landscape originally looked like.  The ruin itself is basically just a wall foundation, and the museum’s greatest feat is to bring the longhouse back to life using digital projectors.”

I thought it was pretty cool to be right there where the early settlers actually lived and to be able to imagine their everyday lives with their families.

After that, we did lunch at the Sea Baron in the old port area, where we had some yummy lobster bisque with bread and some vegetable kebabs.  Of course, we followed all of this with ice cream before hitting the streets to do some sightseeing.

Hard to miss along the harbor is the huge national opera house that opened in May 2011.  Harpa is home to the Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra and the Icelandic Opera, and it hosts conferences, art exhibits, and small concerts.  Wouldn’t it be cool to go to a conference or concert here?

Of course, that last photo - the artsy one - is Kathie's.

On to Hallgrimskirkja, or Hallgrims’ Church.  If you’ve seen the movie “Thor”, you have a pretty good idea of what Hallgrimskirkja looks like.  Such a cool place but you can’t appreciate it fully until after you’ve been to Reynisfjara.  The architecture is striking, both inside and out.  That day, the light reminded me of Ohio in the winter.  I meditated in a ray of sun as we listened to an older gentleman practice on the massive (50 feet tall) organ, which was built in Germany in 1992 and has over 5,000 pipes.  Heaven.

After picking up some groceries at Bonus, Kathie and I had dinner at Salon, which was not fabulous.  Kathie developed an MSG headache.  Major drag.