Ice Ice Baby

Having arrived at Skaftafell wilderness area, we awoke early to enjoy a breakfast of free homemade waffles and prepare for a day of hiking. We looked out the window of our guesthouse only to discover that it had snowed overnight.

That’s not our guesthouse in the picture above, by the way.

We finished our waffles, boarded our trusty Duster, and set out, driving east along Highway 1 on our way to Skaftafell’s visitor centre. Here are a couple panoramas from when we pulled over during our drive:

We found during our trip that Iceland tends to be either completely flat or completely mountainous, with no intermediary stages. I like the contrast between the left and right sides of the road in the second picture.

We arrived at the park, filled our water bottles, and got a map from the large, deep-voiced, Paul-Bunyan-esque man behind the counter at the visitor centre, then set off on our hike.

Guess what the first stop was!?

Stop 1: Svartifoss Waterfall

If you guessed ‘yet another waterfall’, you would be correct!

Svartifoss is not a particularly large waterfall, and you can’t walk behind it like you can with Seljalandsfoss (I mean, you could, but it would probably be pretty uncomfortable). Instead, the draw of Svartifoss lies in the columnar basalt that surrounds the falls. Yes, those are the same rock formations that can be found at Reynisfjara beach, and if anything they are more prominent here:

Apparently the columns are what happens when liquid lava cools and solidifies, and they always form perpendicular to the cooling surface. In other words, vertical columns happen when a lava flow is cooled from above.

One of the neat aspects of Svartifoss is that the columns are slowly being eroded away piece by piece; you can see fallen chunks of hexagonal rock scattered near the waterfall pool and all along the river downstream of it.

Once we had seen all we wanted to see of Svartifoss, we continued on our way and hiked further upward into the scrubland. We saw many wonderful sights, including… scrub.

Sure, the scrub itself might not have looked like much, but the mountains in the distance were a sight to behold. The hike was also incredibly peaceful – we were the only ones on the trail, and due to the fact that Iceland has very little in the way of insects, birds, and small mammals, it was almost completely silent. The fog lifted as we kept walking, and the mountain in the second picture above became our point of reference. It was probably a volcano. We’re not sure.

End-to-end, our trek took about three hours. If you’re wondering why we invested so much time in climbing a muddy pathway up the side of a mountain, that would be for the spectacular view that could be found from the top:

The glacier you’re seeing in the pictures above is one of the tongues of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe. At the foot of the glacier is a glacial lake containing a few sad icebergs, and beyond that are the green floodplains featured in the third image. In that same image, you can see several winding rivers flowing out into the ocean.

There was actually a path that went all along the lakeside, but we opted not to take it, since the day was wearing on and we wanted to leave plenty of time for our next stop. This would be our last major sightseeing stop in Iceland, and it would prove to be the best one of the entire trip. I am, of course, talking about Glacier Lagoon.

Stop 2: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Jökulsárlón is one of Iceland’s most famous sights, and for good reason. At the side of the road east of Skaftafell (Highway 1, baby), you can pull over into a (free) parking lot, hike for about 10 seconds, and find yourself at the side of a glacial lake filled to the brim with icebergs of all shapes and sizes.

As has happened in this blog before, there are times when words just can’t do a place justice. Happily, we have pictures for that.

In the second picture above, you can catch a view of the glacier that is responsible for the bergs in the far distance.

One of the best things about Jökulsárlón is its interactivity. Because of the shape of the lagoon, bergs that are floating out to sea often wash up on the shore of the nearby beach, giving it the nickname ‘Diamond Beach’. Here you can walk among the bergs – some of which are big enough to stand on and others small enough to drop in a glass of water – and enjoy their presence in a myriad of ways. For example:

1. You can pose with them:

2. You can pick them up:

3. You can use them like funhouse mirrors to conceal your identity:

4. You can eat them:

I didn’t actually eat it. I was cold enough as it was. But there was something incredibly compelling about the bergs; The big ones had that cool blue colour that you don’t see anywhere else, and the small ones were so perfectly clear that they looked like they were made of glass (or diamond, I suppose).

Here is a ton of additional pictures:

(Note the tiny seal head in the last picture above. Jökulsárlón is known for its seal population, and they can often be seen swimming among the bergs or lounging on top of them. Unfortunately, we only saw the one during our visit).

We walked up and down Diamond Beach for over an hour, taking hundreds of pictures and videos. It wasn’t a particularly long walk, but we seemed to get a new angle on the icebergs every couple feet, and couldn’t keep ourselves from stopping one more time. By the end of the walk, we were both chilled by the wind, and my hands were freezing. It couldn’t have been from handling every single iceberg we came across, so it must have been for some other reason.

I should note that, as incredible as Jökulsárlón is, its existence is a reminder of the sad reality of climate change. icelagoon.is mentions on its homepage that the lagoon is a recent one – due to rising temperatures from 1920 – 1965, the lagoon has increased in size and the glacier has begun calving at increased speeds. It’s an easy thing to forget while you’re enjoying the spectacle of the lagoon as we were, but it would be remiss of me not to mention it now.

Having finally gotten our fill of the icebergs, we turned around and headed back to our car – and then took a hundred more pictures of the sunset over the lagoon. Then, once we were in the car, we immediately pulled over and took a hundred pictures of the sunset from the other direction.

By the way, that last picture above? That’s not the sunset – the sun was actually at our backs for that picture. When we first saw these rays of light on our way back from the lagoon, we were floored. They were massive – you can use the mountain in the bottom-left corner of the picture for scale – but they were on the wrong side of the sky. It looked like a second sun was rising opposite the for-realsies sun behind us. After getting home, we posted the picture online, where one of our friends (thanks Blake!) pointed out that they were probably anticrepuscular rays – regular sunrays that are actually parallel, but appear to be converging due to the fact that they’re running towards a vanishing point infinitely far out in space. Crazy.

With Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón under our belts, it was time to pack up and head back to Reykjavik. There we would be making two final stops before flying out from Keflavik airport; and while neither of them were quite as jaw-dropping as the Glacier Lagoon, both of them are worth blogging about!

Until then!

– The Eh Team

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Eastward

Following our day of being driven around in a Super Jeep, we took to the roads ourselves and began our trek to Skaftafell wilderness area, the most easterly point on our Icelandic tour. The drive from Hvolsvöllur takes about 3 hours of nonstop driving, but is peppered with cool sights, many of them right by the roadside (Iceland’s Route 1 is a highway that circles the entire island, and almost every notable city and sightseeing stop in the country is connected to it. It makes touring the island by car a very simple prospect). For that reason, we decided to dedicate day 5 of our tour solely to this drive, and take our time stopping at whatever piqued our interest along the way. Here’s a sampling of what we saw!

Stop 1: Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

Seljalandsfoss waterfall is a waterfall. It is right next to 2 other waterfalls whose names I can’t remember. Did I mention that we saw a lot of waterfalls on our trip?

Note in the picture above that the waterfall, particularly the group of mini falls to the left, are blowing more or less sideways in the wind, directly onto the group of hapless tourists below.

One the cool things about Seljalandsfoss that helps differentiate it from its fellows is that you can walk behind it, giving you a unique view of its backside. Unfortunately, getting a picture of said view without a poncho’d tourist entering the frame is next to impossible. It was also very wet and cold on the day of our visit, and standing behind a waterfall is not a great way to beat the cold. Needless to say, we walked the path, took our pictures, sprinted past the two other waterfalls, and then made our exit.

Stop 2: Skogafoss Waterfall

Did I do a “did I mention” joke about all the waterfalls we saw yet?

While Skogafoss made for a pretty impressive sight from below, the real treat was climbing up the side of the hill to its right (via a rickety, windswept metal walkway) and hiking along the bank of the river that fed it. As we trudged up the side of the river, still soaked from our previous outing, the sun decided to make an appearance, and I can honestly say that I have never appreciated its light to the same degree as that day.

An Aside: The Icelandic Sheep

There are two types of farm animals that Iceland is known for: one is the sturdy, diminutive, Icelandic horse, and the other is the shaggy, obstinate Icelandic sheep. We saw plenty of both during our trip, and learned many interesting things about the Icelandic sheep in particular. One of those things is that they do not like posing for pictures.

Another one of those things is that the Icelanders have an honestly baffling yearly tradition regarding their sheep. Every year at springtime, the farmers pack their sheep into cars and onto carts and drive them inland into the highlands of the country. They are then released into the wild, to roam and graze wherever they wish. Then, come September, farmers, family and friends across the island set out to find and recapture the wayward sheep in a country-wide event known as the Réttir, which also features much singing, dancing, and eating of traditional sheep-derived dishes (I am being dead serious). The sheep are gathered into massive, specialized pens and then sorted by their respective owners. Once sorted and shipped off to their rightful place, they are kept fenced in for the winter.

Of course, ‘fenced in’ is a relative term.

Yes, those tiny white dots you see speckled throughout the picture are in fact Icelandic sheep, allegedly in their proper place. I don’t know why, but the thought of the entire country coming together to trek into the highlands and wrangle 300,000 sheep is just hilarious to me, especially given pictures like this one.

By the way, Nicole did eventually manage to find a sheep that didn’t mind having its picture taken. I guess you could say it was a bit of a black sheep of the bunch.

Stop 3: An Impromptu Stop

Driving along Route 1, we spotted a turn-off, headed inland, that seemed to feature some cool scenery. Since we’d had much success making roadside stops in the past, we decided to take a brief detour and see what there was to see. The path went on for longer than expected, and turned to gravel before long. At the end of it all was a parking lot followed by a walking trail. We set out along it, still not sure what we were here for. A few minutes in, we caught a glimpse of it from around the hillside.

As we came closer, we saw this:

We have been to many places on our travels, but so far Iceland is the only one where you can turn off the highway, walk for five minutes, and run smack into a glacier. It was pretty awesome.

We lingered for a few minutes, snapping pictures and soaking in the sight. Tiny hikers wearing crampons could be seen clambering over the ice in the far distance. We didn’t opt for a glacier tour on this trip, but if we ever come back we’ll have to make it a priority.

Fun Fact: There is an Icelandic saying that goes, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, all you have to do is wait 15 minutes and it will change.” It was cloudy when we approached the glacier, but after about 15 minutes, it started to hail.

Then it got sunny. Then it got windy. Then we saw a rainbow. Then it rained. We fled for the car.

Stop 4: Reynisfjara Beach

Reynisfjara is one of Iceland’s many black sand beaches, a popular tourist destination due to its basalt rock formations and, well, black sand. To us, black sand sounds pretty cool, but then you realize that pretty much all of the ground in Iceland is black, and black sand is more the rule than the exception. That being said, Reynisfjara still made for an impressive sight.

Note the 5 layers of waves in the image above. Reynisfjara is not a swimming beach. In fact, there are signs posted all over the place warning tourists of deadly sneaker waves – random, unpredictable waves that are several times stronger than regular waves and climb high up the coastline. In the first picture above, you can see the water receding from a stronger-than-average wave, which came every few minutes and sent tourists running. These weren’t ‘real’ sneaker waves, however – we didn’t see any of those during our stay at the beach, and from the little YouTube footage we were able to find, we didn’t want to.

Turning left down the coast, you can see some coolio basalt columns which are perpetually crawling with tourists. After skirting the columns, you will find the cave of a thousand selfies.

Reynisfjara might have been a little touristy, but it was still a neat way to wrap up our day of driving. After visiting the beach, we promptly got lost trying to find our guesthouse and drove around in the dark for 20 minutes until a kindly local told us that we had missed our turn-off by about 5 kilometers. We drove back up the road, located our guesthouse, and checked in, tired but pleased with the day’s efforts.

Tomorrow we visit Skaftafell as well as the world-famous glacier lagoon! Until then!

-The Eh Team

Adventures in Midgard

Welcome back to The Eh Team: Iceland Edition! Our fourth day in Iceland was a doozy, so today’s blog post will focus solely on:

 

Day 4: Adventures in Midgard

Midgard Adventure is one of Iceland’s many “Super Jeep” tour companies, which specialize in driving small groups of tourists to some of Iceland’s more difficult-to-reach destinations.

If you were wondering what the heck a “Super Jeep” is, it’s one of these:

Midgard’s Jeeps were actually pretty tame compared to some of the other chariots we witnessed during our tour, which came equipped with features such as intake snorkels and devices which allowed for increasing and decreasing tire pressure from inside the car. Iceland being a country known for chewing cars up and spitting them out (see ‘they get blown away’, previous post), these upgrades could be considered at least partially justified.

Once we had climbed inside the Jeep among four fellow tourists and been introduced to our guide (Stefán, who in his wind-resistant overalls and knitted woolen sweater, was about as Icelandic as any one human can be), we set off for adventure. The first part of the tour was tame enough, but it wasn’t long before Stefán was letting air out of the tires so that we could drive along loose gravel paths and ford rivers.

As we crossed river after river and caught sight of many crumbling, unused roads, Stefán explained that much of the flat ground in this part of the country serves as floodplains for the glaciers further inland, and that the rivers are prone to dramatically changing volume and course season by season. For that reason, building roads is something of an uphill battle, and it’s very common for hikers etc. to become stranded by sudden changes in the landscape. In fact, it happens so often that portable metal bridges are left scattered near campsites and hiking trails so that they can be hauled into place when travelers inevitably get stuck and need extraction.

It was grey and windy on the open road, and rained on and off (generally ‘on’) throughout the day. But our spirits were high as we turned inland toward a roadside canyon that was our first stop of the tour.

 

Stop 1: The Cave

At first, our stop didn’t look like much. Iceland has no shortage of canyons, and this one didn’t particularly stand out from the crowd. We walked closer, and crossed a small river with the help of a makeshift wooden bridge.

(Pictured above: Stefán, in all of his windbreaker-bottomed and wool-topped glory)

We carried on, and soon turned into a cool little hidden gorge sheltered from the wind.

(Pictured above: the view when looking backwards down the length of the gorge. On the left you can see the path we took. In the far distance you can see the floodplains going on and on and on and…)

Finally we reached the far end of the gorge, and shimmied through a small fissure in the rock (we’re talking about three feet of clearance). We found ourselves in a small cave with a river running down its length – the same river we had crossed over a few minutes ago.

I was very tempted to follow the river upstream to see how far into the cave it went, but I didn’t want to get my feet wet. Little did I know.

 

Stop 2: The Hidden Waterfall

Our next stop was at the mouth of a valley, similar to the last in the sense that it had been carved out by a river that was still running down its length. In terms of scale, however, this valley was several times bigger than the one featured in our first stop. In other words…

…It was enormous. Note the teeny-tiny people in the bottom right corner of the picture above.

(Side note: Midgard offers several different tours covering the region southeast of Reykjavik. The name of the tour we took was called Þórsmörk, named after the Valley of Thor, the area in which it takes place. I’m pretty sure that name covers a larger region than what we saw, but I still like to think of the valley pictured above as the Valley of Thor itself. It certainly seemed worthy of the title).

We started our trek along the rightmost wall of the valley. Our guide let us know that we would want to be crossing the river at some point down the line, and let us know that he was looking for a better place to cross over.

Long story short: it turns out that a ‘better’ place to cross the river did not necessarily mean a ‘good’ place. The next half hour was spent feeling out relatively thin sections of river, hopping from rock to rock over the ice-cold river, and trying and failing to keep our shoes and socks from becoming 100% saturated with water. It didn’t help that water was also falling from the sky, and that the river seemed to be swelling minute by minute. At one point Stefán actually started gathering rocks from the shore and dropping them into the river to create paths for us to cross. It was a great effort, but it didn’t really work. By the end of the ordeal, not a single one of us had a dry toe to our name, and my wife had started to make trench foot jokes.

In the end, though, it was all worth it. We entered into a narrow passage filled with running water and climbed our way up a number of fallen boulders. What we found nestled at the end of the valley was a huge hidden waterfall, and one of the coolest sights of our trip so far:

After taking about a hundred pictures of the waterfall, we made our soggy way back down the valley to our jeep. As we left, we saw a wedding party complete with white-dressed bride heading into the valley for a photoshoot.

 

Stop 3: The Volcano

Our third and final stop of the day was at the glacier of Eyjafjallajökull, recently made famous for the 2010 volcanic eruption that grounded hundreds of transatlantic flights. The eruption also made some pretty dramatic changes to the countryside surrounding the glacier; by way of example, our guide pointed at his GPS was we were driving along the valley floor towards the mountain.

“This GPS is old,” he said, “so it thinks we’re driving through the middle of a lake right now. All of this used to be a lake, 30 meters deep. When the volcano erupted, that valley wall was blown away-“ he pointed at a gap in the hills- “and the whole lake drained away.”

Eyjafjallajökull itself was stunning. From the valley floor it more or less looked just like a mountain, but the sheer size of the thing can’t easily be explained in words or even pictures. In the first picture below, the lip of the crater is visible near the top, as the curved line between the two mountains.

Awesome.

Once we were done witnessing Eyjafjallajökull’s glory, we made our soggy way back home and spent the rest of the night trying to dry off  both our clothes and ourselves. After burning out a hair dryer in one of Nicole’s shoes, we used a space heater to turn a corner of our room into a clothing convection oven. Miraculously, everything was dry by the time we were ready to head out the next day.

 

Epilogue: The Origin of the Eh Team

Those of you who are familiar with the personal lives of the Eh Team probably know this story by now, but Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption is actually responsible for the Eh Team existing in the first place. You see, we were actually in Europe for a high school band trip at the time of the 2010 eruption, and as a result were stranded together, along with 90 of our bandmates, in Vienna, Austria for 8 days. It was during this difficult time of doing laundry in the hotel bathtub and almost being kicked out of said hotel for bad behaviour that we started spending time together. In our first months of dating, we jokingly said that we should visit Iceland on our honeymoon in order to give Eyjafjallajökull a proper thank-you for its matchmaking assistance. All that to say that the picture below has been eight and a half years in the making, and taking it felt pretty good:

Thanks, Eyjafjallajökull, for everything!

All right, enough mushy stuff for one post. Next time we check out an assortment of cool sights from Iceland’s southern coast on the way to our next destination: Skaftafell national park! Until then!

– The Eh Team

The Next Chapter

Why hello there! It’s been a while since The Eh Team’s last blog post, hasn’t it? A lot has happened since our adventures in Europe and Asia. Here’s the CliffsNotes version of what’s gone on since our 2015 adventures:

  • Toronto, moved to
  • Jobs, worked at
  • Married, got
  • Iceland, travelled to

That’s right, folks: after only eight and a half years together, The Eh Team is now officially a married couple! To celebrate our recent nuptials, we have decided to visit the country that, in a strange way, was responsible for bringing us together (more on that later). Enter: Iceland!

 

Day 1: The Arrival

Our flight into Iceland, specifically Keflavik airport, was courtesy of WOW air, Iceland’s premier budget airline. I use the term ‘premier’ loosely. Carried baggage cost $75 (that’s ‘carried’, not ‘checked’) and water was $3 a bottle. Needless to say, in-flight alcohol and moist towelettes were not provided.

Anyway, the first thing we did upon arrival at Keflavik was to scam us some free Icelandic hotdogs.

The Icelandic hotdog, featuring such condiments as crispy onions and relish mayonnaise, is a cut above its crude American cousin. It turns out that such hotdogs are a big deal in Iceland, and since arriving in Reykjavik, we have encountered several restaurants specializing in serving them.

Re: the scamming, I should elaborate. We landed in the airport at 4:30am, dog-tired and mad with hunger (see ‘water was $3’, above) and the first thing we saw was a food court where hotdogs (and fruit smoothies) were being served. We got our dogs and smoothie and got in line, fully intending to pay for them. But as we approached the register, we saw the following sign:

Oops.

We reached the register, and sure enough, the lady at the counter shook her head apologetically before snagging the fruit smoothie out of my hand. The hotdogs, however, were already half-eaten, and so she waved us through without making us pay. Score!

Upon leaving the airport, we were greeted by another sign:

The Icelandic Pledge, aka the “I Promise Not to Be a Crappy Tourist” sign. CliffsNotes version: don’t park where you’re not supposed to, don’t camp where you’re not supposed to, don’t get yourself killed by our crazy country, and don’t poop on stuff. Seems simple enough. Nicole and I both signed. We then went to pick up our rental car, determined not to steal any more hotdogs for the remainder of our trip.

Once at the rental office, however, we found that we had accidentally scammed the system yet again. The car I had selected for our tour, the Suzuki Jimny, was apparently not fit for winter driving in Iceland (exact quote from the rental office lady: “they get blown away”). So they had upgraded us to a Dacia Duster for free!

Oops.

We drove into Reykjavik in the cold, damp, dark, rainy, wet darkness of the Icelandic pre-dawn, and found ourselves experiencing Icelandic rush hour quite on accident. That might sound like a joke, but it was legitimately pretty busy. Protip: the Icelanders drive like maniacs, at least compared to Torontonians, who are pretty crazy drivers as far as Canadians go.

We arrived in the city at around 8:30am. The sun had technically come up, but since the sky was 100% grey, it was still quite dark outside. Our hostel wasn’t yet ready for us to move in, so we decided to drive to Grotta lighthouse, situated on Reykjavik’s western peninsula, to rest. We ended up falling asleep in the parking lot – an all-nighter on a cramped plane will do that to you.

Once our lodgings were ready, we dropped off our belongings and visited a nearby café for breakfast. The Grai Kotturinn, aka the Grey Cat, is one of Reykjavik’s best-rated breakfast restaurants, serving simple yet bracing meals at reasonable prices. I use the term ‘reasonable’ loosely, since eating out is universally very expensive in Iceland (ballpark: $20 – $30 CAD per person for breakfast or lunch, $30 – $50 CAD per person for dinner, not counting drinks or appetizers). But, we were tired and cold and hungry, and the cozy interior of the café and steaming-hot pancakes were more than enough to make up for the price.

After eating breakfast, we set out to explore Reykjavik itself. Situated on the country’s western coast, Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, and is its biggest city by a huge margin. Even so, the city’s population is under 130,000 as of 2017. In other words, Toronto, with its population of 2.7 million, is over 20 times more populous than Reykjavik. All that to say that touring Iceland’s capital on foot is more than possible, and the city retains a very cozy, small-town vibe, with a huge number of pubs, restaurants, and gift shops, and many twisting, crisscrossing, one-way streets.

Pictured above: your fearless author, wearing my signature outfit of blue jeans, leather gloves, and winter jacket w/ secondary rain jacket overtop. Did I mention that it was very wet and cold outside?

Once of the stops we made while wandering the city was to an authentic Icelandic grocery store. Protip: when travelling in a country where meals are $50+ apiece, save money by making yourself instant noodles purchased at the grocery store for dinner.

The white bottles pictured at the center of the first image below are none other than the mysterious sauce which makes Icelandic hotdogs so delicious. I’m not saying that it’s secretly ground baby puffin… but it’s definitely secretly ground baby puffin. Also, to the left of the puffin sauce: crispy onions, aka ‘cronions’, another key ingredient to the Icelandic hot dog.

Not pictured above: our supply of Skyr, an Icelandic staple which is basically like Greek yoghurt but better. It comes in many flavors, including but not limited to: lemon, pear, banana, baked apple, and vanilla rhubarb. Will report back on our favorites.

With our shopping done, our very long first day in Iceland drew to a close. Day 2 would mark the beginning of the tour proper, starting strong with Iceland’s best-known set of attractions: the golden circle!

 

Day 2: The Golden Circle

The golden circle is Iceland’s best-known driving route, so-called because

  1. It touches on a number of Iceland’s most impressive tourism sites
  2. It can be completed in a single day of driving from Reykjavik
  3. It is circular

Following a night of well-earned sleep, which was itself followed by a breakfast of peanut-butter sandwiches and vanilla rhubarb Skyr, Nicole and I set off to complete the golden circle for ourselves! We couldn’t have asked for better weather: in contrast to the day of our landing, the day dawned bright, blue-skied, and (relatively) warm.

Pictured below: our trusty steed, the ill-earned Dacia Duster itself, and a preview of what most of Iceland’s roads look like in October.

 

Stop 1: Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir (‘Thingvellir’ in lamo English) is a site of many natural wonders, including vast plains, fissures and crags of rock, pools of ice-cold, crystal-clear water, and the impressive waterfall of Öxarárfoss. It is also apparently where the Icelanders used to make all of their laws and hang all of their criminals, which is odd considering that it is located about 50 miles from nowhere. Weird. There must have been more people around back in the day.

More recently, Thingvellir has gained notoriety as the filming location for about 15 seconds’ worth of Game of Thrones – in one memorable episode, the wildlings hung out in the crag pictured in image #3 below and talked for a bit.

 

Stop 2: Geysir Geothermal Area

As you might have guessed, Geysir geothermal area is an area known for its geothermal activity (aka geysers). The area is named for its largest and most famous geyser – old Geysir itself, which, incredibly, is actually the root word for the English word ‘geyser’. True story!

While Geysir itself is unfortunately not very active, there are many other geysers in the area which are much more interesting. Like, holy crap interesting:

Pictured above is the geyser of Strokkur, the golden boy of the geothermal area, which erupts incredibly often: about once every three to five minutes. We saw it erupt about eight times during our stay, and each was as impressive as the last: a column of steaming-hot water shooting about 15 meters into the air. Here’s a video of it in action:

Geysir was also home to some impressive sights, including a hill where one could catch a view of the surrounding farmland:

It’s a little early on in our trip to say, but Strokkur’s performance will be a tough act to follow. It was seriously cool.

 

Stop 3: Gullfoss Waterfall

Fun Fact: ‘-foss’ is the Icelandic suffix for ‘waterfall’. This means that you will be seeing it a lot in the blogs to come. Iceland has a lot of waterfalls.

Among all of these waterfalls, Gullfoss is notable for being very large and having two distinct ‘steps’, which zigzag down the center of a large canyon. It makes for a pretty impressive sight.

Gullfoss has two viewing platforms, a higher one and a lower one: the first picture above has a view of the lower platform in the top-left. The lower platform was more up-close and personal, but the higher one was a little drier.

Cold, wet, and yet exhilarated, we jumped in our trusty Duster for one last stop, very different from the rest: the geothermal baths of the Secret Lagoon.

 

Stop 4: The Secret Lagoon

Being the volcano-ridden horrorshow that it is, Iceland is home to many a geothermal bath: a natural hot spring heated by the same sulphur-smelling water that feeds its geysers. The secret lagoon, located about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik, is one such bath. For the moderately reasonable fee of 2,800 ISK (about $31 CAD), one can enter the hot spring and enjoy the (purportedly) therapeutic effects of the hot water. We were more interested in the ‘hot’ part ourselves.

The secret lagoon was a lot of fun: the water was about 95 degrees Fahrenheit, about the temperature of a hot bath, and had a soft, soothing quality to it similar to salt water. It was murky and full of black particles, kind of like an old Brita filter, and hardly smelled at all of eggs.

A word of warning, though: for sanitary reasons, it is required that you shower naked in the changing room prior to entering any of Iceland’s public baths. This is common and readily accepted in Icelandic culture, and while ritzier baths, such as the Blue Lagoon, offer private shower stalls for bashful foreigners, the secret lagoon was not one of these. Helpful signs located in the changing room highlighted areas of the body needful of particular attention. Photo not included.

 

Stop 5: Home

Having walked the trails at Thingvellir and witnessed the enthusiastic eruptions of Strokkur geyser, we headed home to Reykjavik to rest. We ate dinner at a cozy restaurant called Icelandic Street Food, notable for the fact that it offers traditional Icelandic cuisine, and free refills – on food. Yes, you read that right: as long as you are still hungry, you are allowed to go back to counter and receive a free refill on your meal, or even a different meal should you so desire. There are also doughnuts and brownies scattered about the restaurant that are free for the taking; apparently, the restaurant was founded in honor of the owner’s grandmother, and her house rules are displayed near the entrance: nobody leaves grandma’s house hungry. How’s that for a store policy?

Just as we were finishing our meal, a man came into the restaurant from the Icelandic Craft Brewery, located two doors down and owned by the same people. “Free beers after your meal!” he said, pushing drink cards into our hands. We shrugged, grabbed a few extra brownies, and headed next door, where we promptly found three more drink cards left over from fellow visitors. Long story short, we drank $50 worth of free beer that night, aka five beers. Hurray for grandma, I guess!

 

Day 3: To Hvolsvöllur

Day 3 was a day of transition, as we left the bustling metropolis of Reykjavik for the small village of Hvolsvöllur, located southwest of Iceland’s capital. Before we left, we wrapped up a couple loose ends in Reykjavik, such as visiting the cathedral of Hallgrímskirkja:

Completed in 1986, Hallgrímskirkja (‘church of Hallgrímur’) is a Lutheran cathedral known for its impressive size and austere appearance. While riding the elevator to the top was a bit too pricey for us, we did enjoy its whitewashed interior and impressive church organ, pictured above.

After visiting the cathedral, we dined once more at the Grai Kotturinn, then departed for Hvolsvöllur. Once there – well, we worked on this blog post!

Tomorrow we embark on a jeep tour of the area around Hvolsvöllur – specifically, the infamous glacier and volcano of Eyjafjallajökull. Until then!

– The Eh Team

Here There Be A Dragon

Once done with Hungary, we moved north to Krakow, Poland. We’d heard that Krakow was one of the best budget destinations for Europe, and we’re happy to report that our information was correct. Krakow was a charming place that combined big city convenience with small town atmosphere and compactness. Best of all, it was cheap!

006047The old town, which is found in the middle of Krakow and is bounded by the city’s original imprint, is where we spent most of our time. Both of the pictures above were taken inside the old city— in fact, the guard tower at the end of the street in the second picture is one of many which used to mark the city’s perimeter. At the center of the old town is the main square, one of the largest public squares in Europe, and at the center of that is Cloth Hall, one of Krakow’s iconic buildings.

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Originally a trading post for— and I’m going out on a limb here— cloth, Cloth Hall remains a trading post to this day, but of a somewhat different nature: it is now a one-stop shop for any and all souvenirs you could possibly want to buy, and many that you wouldn’t.

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So, if you’re in Krakow and are looking for souvenirs, make sure not to go to Cloth Hall. The convenience and central location come at a price— usually about 50% more than you’d pay in Krakow’s many other souvenir shops.

Just across the way from Cloth Hall, we found St. Mary’s Basilica, another one of Krakow’s famous buildings:

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The Basilica is famous not just for its architecture, but for the bugler that plays out of its windows throughout the day. Yes, there is a person whose job it is to play a trumpet atop St. Mary’s Basilica every fifteen minutes of each day— once an hour in each different compass direction. The melody the trumpeter plays is cut short halfway through; according to legend, this is in honor of one of Krakow’s previous trumpeters, who was shot in the neck while trying to warn the city of an imminent Mongol invasion. It’s not true, of course, but still fun.

At the edge of the old town is another of Krakow’s well-known sights, the Wawel dragon.

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This awesome statue was inspired by an old Polish legend about a dragon that terrorized Krakow. The statue breathes fire every couple of minutes, which is always good for a laugh as you can watch all of the kids climbing on it scatter in fear.

Just down the way from the Wawel dragon is Wawel cathedral, a church which is rather… eclectic in its appearance.

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If it looks as though it was designed by ten different people, well, that’s because it was.

Krakow, of course, has its fair share of heavy history. Much of the country was destroyed by the German invasion in World War II, and Soviet occupation following the war left its mark, as well. Just outside the city proper can be found Nowa Huta, a city constructed by the Soviets as a ‘gift’ to the Polish. Designed by the Soviets to be the ideal communist city, it has a rather distinctive atmosphere.

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We also visited Krakow’s Jewish quarter— an area which clearly has seen its share of strife, but is now a thriving tourist destination known for its food and drink.

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You might recognize the archway and staircase in the third picture, as they were used as a locale in Schindler’s List. Oh, and those baguette things in the second picture are called zapiekanki, and they’re the most delicious food known to man.

The next day was the most sombre day trip we’ve taken on our travels; we went to Auschwitz.

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This is a place that bears no introduction, so we’ll get to a gallery of pictures with just a brief introduction. Auschwitz, more properly known as Auschwitz concentration camp, is actually three separate camps situated in the town of Oświęcim. The picture above is from the first camp, which during WWII mostly consisted of housing and today is home to the Auschwitz museum. The second camp, Birkenau, is accessible via a free shuttle, and has been left almost exactly as the Nazis left it at the end of the war. The pictures below are all of Birkenau.

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While the museum was somewhat poorly managed and mostly in Polish, the sheer scale of Birkenau and its untouched nature created an atmosphere with a heavy impact. The first picture shows the railway with which prisoners were brought into the camp during the war; the last is the path that prisoners walked en route to execution.

Auschwitz serves as a reminder that while World War 2 ended seventy years ago, much of Europe is still reeling from its after-effects, and its legacy will take some time to fade completely. But now that Krakow is done, we’re on to our last country, Denmark, and our second-last destination: Copenhagen.

Until then!

The Eh Team

Burning up in Budapest

Once we were finished planning the rest of our trip, we packed our effects and headed south to Budapest, Hungary, land of 1,000 degrees. Well, not quite, but close. Europe has been going through a heat wave as of late, and it was consistently above 35 degrees Celsius all throughout our stay in Budapest. It took us a while to see the city in these conditions, since we had to drag ourselves from fountain to fountain to keep ourselves from dying of thirst. Fortunately, fountains with free, drinkable water is something Budapest is known for!

But enough about that; here are some pictures.

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Budapest is a twin city, formed through the joining of two separate cities called (three guesses) Buda and Pest, on each side of the river Danube. That’s the river you can see in the pictures above, with Buda on the left and Pest on the right. Pest is where most of the fun is, and is where we spent our first couple days.

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A long street lined with restaurants on both sides. As with the Czech Republic before it, Hungary is known for its hearty food— in this case, goulash, meat stew, cabbage rolls, and anything to which paprika can be added.

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The Central Market hall, a huge food and souvenir market found in Pest, featuring stores selling everything from paprika to purses. As we were boiling at the time of our visit (surprise), we bought a quarter of a watermelon and ate the entire thing before resuming our tour.

Once we were finished with downtown Pest, we turned our attention to the Buda side of the river, and the number of interesting buildings found on the riverbank. Among them was the STONE CHURCH, unrelated to the BONE CHURCHES of previous posts.

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Unfortunately, the stone church was much more interesting on the outside than it was on the inside. The concept of a church placed inside a mountainside cave is a great one, and it probably would have been very engaging had the cave looked even one percent natural. As it was, the church was a little on the tacky side— or should we say stucco-y. Oh well.

We didn’t accomplish much the next day, due to an overindulgence in palinka the previous night— palinka being a local Hungarian fruit brandy that, by law, must be at least 100 proof and taste like vodka’s bad-tempered cousin. We moped around feeling sorry for ourselves, then got some cheap Vietnamese food from the restaurant below our lodgings and planned our trip to Buda’s crowning glory, Buda Castle.

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Buda Castle is a large, rambling structure that sits atop a hill on the bank of the Danube. The area around the castle is known as (oh my gosh) the castle district, and is known for its ritzy nature. However, neither Buda Castle nor the castle district are known for an abundance of shade, which is why we decided to visit at night-time.

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That last one is Matthias Church, situated in the castle district. From the castle, we also had a great view of Budapest’s parliament building, which faces the castle from across the water:

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While it may have taken us a painfully long time to crawl our way around Budapest in the blazing heat, it was still a highly enjoyable visit. Next on our list is Krakow, Poland!

Until then!

The Eh Team

Chilling in Czech

Hello everyone! It’s been some time since our last post; this is mostly because we spent the last little while planning the last couple stages of our trip. Here they are, in all their glory:

  • Cesky Budjovice, Czech Republic
  • Brno, Czech Republic
  • Budapest, Hungary
  • Krakow, Poland
  • Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Aarhus, Denmark
  • Toronto, Canada!

Most of our planning, which involved much desperate searching for reasonable flights back to Canada, was done here, in this square:

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This is the main square of Cesky Budjovice (or Cesky B as its friends call it), a small but very pleasant town in the Czech Republic. We spent most of our time there sitting outside the various cafes lining the square, taking advantage of their free WiFi and reasonably priced coffee. We did also climb Black Tower, the one other famous architectural feature of Cesky B— the picture above was taken from atop it.

Since Cesky B was a coffee and research sort of place, we only have one other picture of the city, a close-up of the fountain at the centre of the square.

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Focus your attention on the figure at the top of the fountain. Yes, that is a man prying open a lion’s mouth, who is in return perpetually vomiting water into his face. Certainly one of the more memorable fountain designs we’ve come across.

Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-biggest city, was next on our list. Among other things, it featured ANOTHER BONE CHURCH.

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The Brno Ossuary, with over 50,000 ‘inhabitants’, actually features more remains than the more famous Sedlec Ossuary in Kutna Hora. Sedlec Ossuary, however, still wins for creativity: you will see no chandeliers or coats of arms made of bones in Brno Ossuary. There were, however, some creepy tunes and a few darkened passages, which created a spooky atmosphere— something that was definitely lacking in Sedlec.

When we weren’t exploring the BONE CHURCH, we were wandering around the city’s old quarter, which, in typical European style, failed to betray Brno as a city where things actually happen.

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We also did a tour of Brno’s underground, a vast network of cellars and man-made tunnels which once served as larders, markets, studies, torture chambers, and a bunch of other interesting stuff.

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Our tour guide, unfortunately, only spoke in Czech, so we were forced to hang back from the group and listen to a deadpan audio guide instead. The underground had also undergone vast renovations, so it was kind of difficult to imagine or appreciate what it was really like back in the day. All in all, it was disappointing.

What wasn’t disappointing was this fountain:

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This might sound a little silly, but this fountain was possibly our favourite part of Brno. We sat and watched for half an hour as the sheet of water changed colour and formed pictures, abstract patterns, and words.

We may have ended the Czech Republic with a bit of a whimper, but it was all for a good cause: now our course for the rest of the trip is clear. Our next stop is Budapest, Hungary, land of one thousand goulash-serving restaurants.

Until then!

The Eh Team

The Blague From Prague

Having finished with Dresden, we resumed our trip southwards to Prague, Czech Republic. The first thing we did upon our arrival there was not go through customs, since apparently they don’t care who visits their country or how long they stay. Weird.

Anyway, Prague was great!

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Almost stereotypically Europey, Prague is a city of churches, canals, bridges, statues, roadside restaurants and absinthe parlours.

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Pro tip: while Prague might be world-famous for its abundance of absinthe, apparently the vast majority of the products for sale here are, as some would put it, crap. Happily, we didn’t have to worry too much about getting scammed, since the green fairy is out of our price range anyway. Hooray?

We spent our first day here as we spend most of our first days, walking around the city to get a feel for the place and to bump into some of the big sights. These included:

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A ginormous crowd of people waiting for a clock to strike. The clock in question is apparently the oldest surviving astrological clock or something like that. All I know is that when the clock struck, a model skeleton near its face rang the little bell it was holding, and it was neato.

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A giant metronome that overlooks the city, ticking away at an incredibly slow but somehow calming 5 beats per minute. It sits where a giant statue of Stalin used to stand, and is undoubtedly a marked improvement on the previous installation.

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A peacock standing on a bench. We ran into this guy (and about half a dozen others) while taking a shortcut through a park. We still have no idea why this courtyard was full of peacocks, which were incredibly tame but otherwise didn’t seem tied to it by anything in particular.

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Of course, our walk wasn’t all strange timepieces and peacock sightings. Overall, Prague was peaceful and pleasant, well-preserved and charming. As mentioned above, it was almost too perfect: cobbled streets, accordion-playing buskers, statues, fountains, and cafes. We got turned around and ended up back in the main square more times than we dare admit, but we enjoyed every second of it.

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The next day, we decided to take a train to the nearby town of Kutna Hora, which probably wouldn’t even be on the map if it weren’t for the totally awesome church made out of bones that you can find there. We’ll get to the BONE CHURCH in a second, but we have to let the excitement build a little before we do.

Kutna Hora itself is a pleasant, small town which suffers from the affliction of being about 45 minutes’ walking distance from its main train station. Seriously, who does that? Anyway, here’s what it looked like:

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The view in the picture above is offered from a walkway leading to one of the town’s many churches, which, like pretty much everything in all of the Czech Republic, has an entrance fee.

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Being the conniving rogues that we are, we snuck in at the tail end of a passing tour group. It was all right.

Now, on to the real reason anyone visits Kutna Hora: the BONE CHURCH.

Officially known as Sedlec Ossuary, the BONE CHURCH is a CHURCH made of BONES. Okay, so it’s not actually made of bones, there’s just a huge amount of them— 40,000 skeletons’ worth— in the crypt downstairs. The story runs that a jar of holy soil was sprinkled on the church grounds several hundred years ago, which resulted in many people wishing to be buried there. Having collected more bones than they knew what to do with, the church decided to do something useful with them and make a bunch of furniture and decorations out of them. The end result was this:

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To put it simply, it was pretty metal. Note that in the lower-right corner of the family crest in the last picture, there is a human skeleton having his eye pecked out by a bird skeleton— except that both skeletons are made of human bones. Crazy. The giant pile o’ bones in the second picture was about eight feet across, and was just one of four. Like we said, they have a lot of bones.

The next day we opted for something a little less macabre, and visited Prague Castle.

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Touted as the largest extant ancient castle in the world or somesuch, Prague Castle is a large walled complex of buildings, and as you might have guessed, a huge tourist attraction. Tickets were rather expensive, and there were about 500 different variations for sale, each of which granted you entrance to some subset of the Castle’s features (but never all of them— that was guaranteed to take at least two tickets). We went for the cheapest option, which turned out to be more than enough. It included entry to a church, basilica, part of the palace, and an alleyway with a grab-bag of features. Even with a ticket, you weren’t allowed to take pictures inside certain areas without purchasing an additional permit, so needless to say we don’t have footage of some of these places.

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The inside of the church. One of the grander examples we’ve been in, though to be honest they’re all starting to blend together in our memories.

The other area of note inside the castle was found in the aforementioned alleyway. It was a showcase of medieval weapons and armour, some of which we had a hard time believing were for realsies.

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If the bird armour wasn’t enough, check out this collection of totally practical weapons:

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Yes, you are looking at a gun, a gun-sword, a gun-axe, and off to the left, a gun-spear. Apparently people went through this phase where they thought that pretty much everything would be better with a gun attached to it. There was even a gun shield on display.

With the castle under our belts, we had one sight left to see: Charles Bridge, one of Prague’s most well-known landmarks. Though it’s only one of many bridges that span the Vltava river, it is the oldest and most ornate. Naturally, it is often obscenely crowded and covered with street vendors, caricature painters, and buskers.

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You may have noticed the ominous clouds in the second picture above. Our fellow tourists noticed them, too, which is partially why the bridge was relatively empty at the time of our visit. But we had planned to see the city at night, and weren’t about to be scared away by the threat of a storm.

Long story short, we got rained on. It was totally worth it, though.

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Prague was a great experience that was only somewhat marred by its high degree of tourism. Next, we’ll be visiting the town of Ceske Budejovice, where we’ll likely have the opposite problem.

Until then!

The Eh Team

Dresden Detour

We have one quick post left to make in Germany before we move on. This one is coming from Dresden, a town we hadn’t initially thought of visiting; we ended up making a stop here because it’s located halfway between the cities of Berlin and Prague. We’re very glad we decided to take the time to stay here!

Dresden, with its cobbled streets and Baroque architecture, is a very aesthetically beautiful city. As such, we didn’t do much here apart from wander around and soak in the sights. In this (fairly) short post, we’ll walk you through the main attractions we saw!

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Above you’ll see a handful of views of Dresden’s historical district, situated on the banks of the river Elbe. Try to identify which buildings carry over from picture to picture! After three days of touring around these buildings, I’d like to say that we’re now experts on which ones are which, but that honestly isn’t the case. It gets a little confusing keeping them all straight.

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The outside of Zwinger Palace, a grand old place with a funky name. There’s a paid museum built into one of the wings, but wandering the grounds is free.

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More Zwinger Palace. Fun Fact: the palace’s name comes from ‘zwinger’, a word designating the empty space between two walls in a fortification. This area is colloquially known as the ‘killing ground’, since that’s where enemy soldiers would generally die upon attacking the fort. The more you know!

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The view from atop one of Dresden’s many church towers, which, much like the one in Cologne, could be climbed for a modest fee. The view from this tower wasn’t as spectacular, but it was blessedly free of chain-link fences. The dome-shaped building in the centre of the picture is the Church of Our Lady; there’s a picture of the inside down below.

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A cool wall. We’d have read up on the history of the wall and why it looks the way it does, but, you know, everything was in German.

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The view from the inside of the Church of Our Lady. Entry was free (yay!) which is probably why it was packed, but it was still well worth it for the amazing architecture. We got a couple of seats and then spent some time soaking in the atmosphere.

Then we left to go eat currywurst and schnitzel.

From its grand architecture to its prominent counterculture to its cheap alcohol, Germany has been a wild ride. But now we’re off to Prague, Czech Republic, and we’ve heard the alcohol is even cheaper there!

Until then!

The Eh Team