A Travellerspoint blog

August 2016

Snæfellsnes Peninsula

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large_5550_14729393979749.jpgIceland is green and Greenland is ice! They need to swap names.
Today was our first of three days with a rental car. We walked 15 mins to collect our very much pre-loved Toyota Corolla from SAD Cars (the name represents the initials of the three owners). After a few hours we thought we had the oldest car in the country.

Our first excursion was north to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, finishing at the village and ferry terminal of Stykkishólmur. It was our first experience of the Icelandic countryside and despite our experience with New Zealand and Scotland, we still found it stunning. The great weather helped a lot though.

The 2h drive took us through a 5.7 km under-sea tunnel. As with a lot of Iceland infrastructure (roads, buildings etc) we wonder how a nation of 300,000+ people fund such high-quality amenities normally associated with larger and well-developed nations.large_5550_14729394019170.jpgDrive into the countryside.

At Stykkishólmur we grabbed lunch at a cafe and walked up to the small headland for a magnificent view of the jagged inlets (which make up a disproportionate part of the Icelandic coastline).

On the way home, we picked up a Dutch hitch-hiker whose name was the Dutch equivalent of Roger. He was flying out in the morning and was planning to sleep at the airport. We offered to take him to the airport after we finish with the Blue Lagoon. That worked for him as he was able to book a slot at the Blue Lagoon at 2100 while we went in at 2000.

We made our way to the Blue Lagoon at 1900. I hadn’t realised that slots would be so limited and the 2000 slot was all we could find. It was priced at EUR45 (but Roger who booked later paid EUR50 due to dynamic pricing).large_5550_14729394071471.jpgDrive into the countryside.

After showering, we walked briskly through the chilly air to enter the milky blue water which seemed perfectly heated. That’s normally an indication (from spa pool experiences) that it wasn’t hot enough because after a while the body adapts. Strangely, the temperature felt good the whole time but it did vary a little through the different zones, giving us the incentive to wander around to explore the large area.

On the way to the airport, we took a few detours to find dark areas where we could view the northern lights. We waited a little and managed to get a decent performance in the heavens above us.

Dropping Roger off at the airport, we witnessed a spectacular sight of the lights despite the light pollution. It just shows that having clear skies is a big factor.

It seemed silly for us to have paid for a tour to go see the lights when we could have simply gone out with our rental car and just about driven anywhere in the countryside. But, it proved to be an OK decision as we had really clear weather the night we did the tour. The remaining three nights in Reykjavik [Reykjavik-travel-guide-1005102] were pretty cloudy. Once again, we returned to our hostel feeling lucky with our aurora sighting.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Northern Lights

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large_5550_14729386884801.jpgHallgrímskirkja Church.
The weather turned better today and we thought the Hallgrímskirkjachurch tower would offer a good view of the area. We walked there and had a look inside the stark interior before taking the lift up. Interestingly the lift allowed 6 people up but 8 down.

Yes, we did get a good view of the area including some of the colourful houses nearby. The nearby airport runway didn’t look very long and I was surprised to learn later that there are jet A319 flights here to the Faroe islands. Also learnt that propeller flights run from here to the west side of Greenland taking nearly 3.5h too! The fares are about NZD600 each way (or more depending on the fare type)!!!

I had read that the National Museum had free guided tours at 1100 on certain days (and today being “it”). We made our way there and paid the entrance before joining the tour.large_5550_14729386803999.jpgReykjavik and its colourful houses as viewed from the Hallgrímskirkja Church tower.It made the visit a lot more meaning ful as the guide explained the broad timeline of Icelandic history. The museum was also excellent with its interactive video screens.

We had lunch at a noodle house, which did very authentic Thai beef kwayteow soup. Strangely the chicken version employed the same dark herby soup which was far from authentic.

I had booked us on the free walking tour led by a history major at 1400, outside the small stone building which was the Icelandic parliament. He was serious about turning away people who had not pre-booked; and here I was thinking that he would appreciate the extra people and extra tips.

The sights around town weren’t significant but it was more the snippets of facts and factoids that added some depth to our visit.

1. Crime is very insignificant in this country of 300,000+ people.large_5550_1472938685976.jpgTraditional style buildings are clad with corrugated sheets over the wood.This is quite an irony considering the people are descended from murderers and rapists (typical perception of Vikings).

2. DNA testing suggests that Icelandic people are more Scottish/Irish than Viking. Perhaps they are descended from the Celtic slaves taken by the Viking.

3. The weather in Reykjavik [Reykjavik-travel-guide-1005102] is relatively mild for the latitude because the Labrador comes down from the north and the Gulfstream from the south. As the guide explained this I imagined a dog from the north and a small jetplane from the south! Funnily I also had similar visions when Kim told me he was going to put a seal in the oven when he gets home (he meant fix the oven door).large_5550_14729386904142.jpgWe were lucky to have a clear night to see the Aurora Borealis. We met people who stayed two weeks and only saw it at the end of their stay.

4. Gender equality is very deeply-rooted in Iceland. Likewise with rights for minorities like LGBT. Funnily I had noticed that the statue of Ingólfur Arnarson (first permanent settler in Iceland) had pink lipstick applied. It happened around the time of Gay Pride.

5. Due to a small population, there is a possibility that one is related to just about anyone you meet. There is a website when you have log your details and trace your genealogy. Linked to this is a smartphone app which warns you when you are near someone that you are closely related to; it is an anti-incest App for dating!

6. Iceland wasn’t in WWII but may have been a beneficiary of the war (in terms of infrastructure).large_5550_14729386722314.jpgWe were lucky to have a clear night to see the Aurora Borealis. We met people who stayed two weeks and only saw it at the end of their stay.We were also told that the country received a bit of incentive to stop them aligning themselves with Russia.

7. While Icelandic traditional cuisine includes minke whale, fermented shark and puffins, these are rarely consumed today by locals. It is more tourists trying them out that has led to the continuing or increasing demand. While these creatures may not exactly be endangered, they’re not far off. However, horse meat is still part of contemporary Icelandic cuisine and some visitors may not appreciate that. BTW, McDonald’s in Iceland shut down some years ago.

After making our own dinner in the hostel, we got picked up around 2030 for our attempt to go see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). Our driver/guide, who was a flight captain on small tour planes, took us to a geothermal area for a look-see (in near darkness).large_5550_14729386756190.jpgWe were lucky to have a clear night to see the Aurora Borealis. We met people who stayed two weeks and only saw it at the end of their stay.The plan was to continue to an old historic church further away for the viewing.

As we were preparing to leave the geothermal area, the guide noticed the beginnings of a good aurora display. He decided that we would stay and we ended up having a good sighting which he rated as 9+ out of 10.
At times the lights look like greyish smudges in the sky (perhaps cloud or smoke) but then they change quickly to become green. They are best when they start moving, dancing and varying in intensity. Green is the most common colour and with some imagination, I could see the hint of pink around the edges that the guide was telling me was there.

The guide told us a few interesting things about Iceland:

1. Tourists now outnumber (per year) locals by 7:1. Obviously the amount of tourists are spread through the year. The rise has only come about in recent years fuelled by high-profile events like the volcano blowing and low-cost carriers.

2. There are more rental cars than private cars.

3. Tap water is the same as bottled mineral (spring) water (just like in Christchurch). In the city centre, domestic hot water is hot-spring water while in the burbs, it is heated mineral water. For the former, it causes a rotten-egg smell in the bathroom which I detected on my first night. Both heating and water is cheap due to geothermal and springs respectively.

We returned to our hostel around 0030 feeling happy and lucky with our aurora sighting. We were only a few days into the aurora season. People who had been here for two weeks only just started seeing them yesterday. I had planned our visit to coincide with the early part of the season and the moonless period. But ultimately, cloudless skies are a big factor and we only had that for two nights during our entire stay. Actually, on a night with good activity, one can see it in the city or airport area (despite light pollution).


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

World's northernmost capital

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large_5550_14729380966930.jpgMany traditional buildings are clad in corrugated sheets over wood.
We arrived on-time into Keflavik [Keflavik-travel-guide-1005009] airport at 0200 where it was drizzling. The announcement said it was 18 degC but it felt more like 8 degC. The airport was quiet despite the impression I had got from flights schedules that many flights arrive in the wee hours of the morning.

As the airport is about 50km from Reykjavik [Reykjavik-travel-guide-1005102] (the world’s northernmost capital), we took the bus (45 min) which included a connecting shuttle bus service to our hostel. We showered and woke about 000 but slept again till 0900.

In need of breakfast, we wandered out into the grey weather. The 10-11 supermarket proved to be a bad introduction to prices in Iceland. Bread was about USD6, sandwiches about USD7. We did learn later that a cheaper supermarket was Bonus (but it has shorter opening hours). We ate a hot dog on-site and returned to the hostel with a sandwich for brunch and some milk.

In the afternoon, we explored the town centre and got some food from Bonus supermarket to make dinner. It would be the first of many meals we would make in the kitchen of Reykjavik Hostel Village.


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Killing a day (photos to come)

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In anticipation of our 5h night flight departing at 2300 to Reykjavik, we slept in and woke around 0800. We delayed our breakfast a little then packed up carefully. We wore our hot weather gear and packed our cold weather gear separately so we could change at the airport.

As we checked out at 1100, we still had no idea where we could kill our long day ahead. No optins presented to us really appealed. The receptionist suggested Trastavere, a traditional neighbourhood with some nice laid back restaurants and cafes. This had kinda crossed my mind but when the transport by bus “H” was made clear to us, it all seemed easier.

We took the bus from outside Termini station across the river Tiber and alighted. The restaurant that had been recommended to us was closed for the holidays so we wandered around until we found a reasonably priced place that was cool/shaded and also had wifi.

I ordered a salmon salad and Kim a breakfast, but as always, we swapped halfway. His meal was forgotten and he waited for quite a while but that (along with some admin on the computer) helped kill three hours.

The staff at the cafe were quite concerned with people who didn’t finished their meals (twice). I think they genuinely take pride in their food. In one case, they didn’t charge for the soup that the customer didn’t like (she thought it would be cold summer soup).

The weather became quite hot and the breeze felt like it was coming from a fan oven. We finished a whole “Absolut Vodka” bottle of water and more during our stay there and were still thirsty. Our idea of remaining cool and dry didn’t quite work.

I got sweatier going back by bus to collect our luggage, then walking the short distance to the airport bus at Termini station. It was quite a chaotic scene with large numbers of people waiting and four buses departing (three to Fiumicino [Fiumicino-travel-guide-1299304] and one to Ciampino). We managed to get on the least popular one which left before the others but we were still sweaty from waiting the five or so minutes on board.

I’d like to visit Italy during Autumn next time. This time, combined with northern Europe, it was a delicate balance between the summer finishing up there and being still too hot in Italy.

We arrived at the airport about 5h before departure, with a small hope that bag-drop for Vueling to Reykjavik would be open. Unfortunately, like most airlines, they only accept bags 3h prior. That took away our chance of using the airside lounge and having a shower. Waiting landside wasn’t any worse than waiting in a cafe in town, so no complaints.
We dropped our bags 3h prior and went airside. We managed to visit the lounge for about 15 minutes but it was hardly worth it. The food was getting quite dry and miserable but we had a cuppa tea and some soft drink before killing the rest of our time at the gate area.

The flight left on-time from a remote gate. We had three seats each near the front and took half a sleeping pill each. Kim slept the entire flight till descent while I dozed mildly.

Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Exploring the Vatican and Rome

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large_5550_147249006793.jpgThe Vatican uses “Allah” (last word in the picture) for God when writing in the Arabic language too. But for Jesus, they use "Yesua" rather than "Isa" (pbuh, which is normally used by Muslims to refer to their Prophet Jesus).
Locals tell us this summer isn’t too hot but the forecast was for 36 degC. We decided on an early start to see the sights of the Vatican. We took the metro to near the Vatican and walked in the general direction to be astounded by the queue for the Museum. It had gone around 3 corners and doubled back, making it 4 corners. I looked on Google Maps and estimated that it was 800m. I’m not sure if the queue was “normal” or because it is because the Museum is free today (being Sunday).

Instead, we went to St Peter’s Basilica. The queue for security was nearly non-existent in comparison. Once through, we wandered through the square into the basilica. Even though it wasn’t my first time, I was quite awe-struck for a few moments.large_5550_14724900706310.jpgInside St Peter's basilica.

Mass was on at the far end at the small altar behind the main one. We were still able to walk all around the cathedral and admire it. There were groups of pilgrims that brought a large crucifix per group.

We had seen the separate entrance for going to the cupola and papal tombs. We decided on doing both of those in turn. The former was EUR6 (or EUR8 if you take the lift). After paying for our ticket, we were somewhat ushered into the lift which saved the climb.

Half the dome was accessible to us but fenced for safety. We were able to see mass just finishing in the area below. We then exited to a large open area which was the roof of the basilica where we could walk all the way to the facade.

Then I noticed people in the cage/verandah near the top of the cupola.large_5550_14724900739439.jpgInside St Peter's basilica; canopy of the main altar.Oops! I had missed the fact that we could go all the way up there. We swiftly made our way back into the building and found the correct stairway (as an elevator can’t access a curved dome)! The stairway side-walls starting getting curved as we approached the top and we couldn’t stand up straight. It was more humid than hot and we were pleased to be out in the fresh air. The view of St Peter’s square, the Vatican and the city was spectacular.

We exited via the church then went into the tombs. That didn’t take long. It was one marble tomb after another, more or less the length of the entire of the church. Again we exited via the church, this time near the main altar. That made it three visits in one!

With our fingers crossed, we looked for the end of the queue for the Vatican Museum.large_5550_14724900765517.jpgCentre piece of the rear wall.We found it substantially shorter going only around two corners. It was fast moving and we were inside within 20 minutes. We got through at 1130, which was an hour before the 1230 last entry.

Security was swift. We took the escalator to the deck where the view was pale in comparison to the top of the cupola.
We went through room by room of the museum finishing at the Sistine chapel. Some of the paintings on the ceilings were so so stunning that the Sistine chapel didn’t stun me like it should have.

With the crowds, I found it difficult to have enough interest in reading all the captions and having a detailed understanding of we seeing. In total we were out in over an hour, being herded through the various souvenir kiosks before finally exiting the building.large_5550_14724900793636.jpgSt Peter's cupola.To be honest, I didn’t think the museum was over-commercialised. Food in the cafes were very reasonable.

We shared a lunch of curry and salad nearby before taking the metro back for a rest. We were pleased with how the day had turned out, especially with not having waited too long in queues.

In the afternoon, we metro’ed to the Circo Massimo and saw the hippodrome before buying a ticket into the Palatino. With the sun and the heat, I was quite “over” everything so we didn’t stay long. We walked across to the Colosseum nearby where it was more pleasant. We were able to explore more pleasantly until the late afternoon.

In the Colosseum, we were puzzled by the mix of brick and big blocks. It was only when we left, we realised that the exterior wall (no longer present in many areas but beautifully preserved in others) was block while the interior appeared to be more brick.large_5550_14724900839989.jpgCentre piece of the rear wall.

We grabbed dinner near the Colosseum attended to by a very nice Bangladehis waiter and an Egyptian from Alexandria (who looked quite Ethiopian). I must say, Bangladeshis and Chinese seem to run most of the shops in parts of Rome. Bangladeshis are definitely very prevalent in the food industry. I guess that’s why prices are so reasonable now.

The Egyptian said to some middle-eastern looking passers-by. “Good food, cheap food, all halal” even though they had ham on the menu ;-) I guess it is like some of the Iraqi places in New Zealand that have halal meat and bacon side-by-side for their burgers!


Posted by alexchan 17:00 Archived in Italy Comments (0)