Iceland: Fire, Ice, and Elves

The last stop on our Round-The-World-From-Scratch included a week in Iceland. Iceland Air offers a deal, when traveling from North America to Europe, to have a free stop over for up to 7 days.

Making the most of our time there, while still allowing ourselves to relax and enjoy the last of our travels, the Reykjavik city pass allows you free entry to some of the city hot pools and many of the museums, with discounts to other museums, hot pools, and restaurants. (available at the tourist info centre, by the Knitting association shop where you can pic yourself up a nice Icelandic jumper.)

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One of the free things to do is to take a ferry over to Viðey island just off Reykjavik. Once on the island, the small hiking trails take you on a maze of the small island where you can see artwork my various artists including Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace Tower.

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Beyond the city, which is home to 2/3rds of the population of Iceland, remains the almost desolate expanse of green and black (the remnants of lava flows) with the occasional waterfall, (10’s of thousands just that are known by locals, not including the ones inland or away from popularly traveled routes.)

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The two most popular tours through many of the tour companies include the Golden Circle, And the South Coast.

The Golden Circle journeys inland and will normally stop at the Geothermal Powerplant (which powers the nation), The National Park (the location of the first parliament, the rift between the North American and European plates, and filming location for Game of Thrones), Two of the major waterfalls, The geysers (including ‘Geyser’, the one that we got the name from,) and the crater lake in the sunk-in remains of a volcano.

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The South Coast goes, you guessed it, along the Southern coast. The Highlights include The Black Sand Beach, Eyjafjallajokull (‘ay-ya-fall-ya-yoke-ul’,  the volcano that stopped the world in 2010), Seljalandsfoss (the waterfall you can walk behind), The glacier, and Vik (a small farming town along the south coast.) We got lucky, and at the Black Sand Beach, even though it was foggy and rainy, there were more puffin than our guide had ever seen before!

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dsc_5293And bonus! We got to see an elf rock, and some of the Icelandic horses.

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The two tour companies we recommend are

Extreme Iceland

https://www.extremeiceland.is/en/

and Your Day Tours

http://www.yourdaytours.is

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West Norway; Bergan to Myrdal and the Flam Railway

After Bergen we needed to make our way to Flam, where our reservation was for the night. We needed to make the trains that the previous day we were told were booked out.

Arriving at the train station early, a Bergen-Oslo train was leaving in a few hours, and it was a train that didn’t require a booking. We booked our onward tickets, strapped on our bags and began the next leg of our journey.

The journey is the most scenic I have ever taken. Waterfalls around every corner and the flora in multiple shades of green around the still lakes, lined with fishing cottages. Avalanche shelters shield the winding tracks from the steep mountainsides which in winter become slick with snow.

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It snowed in the western highlands.

From Myrdal we ran onto the Flam railway which was leaving a few minutes later. Tip: when booking tickets, leave some time between connections. The Flam railway is very popular and fills up quick, so arriving early for a window seat is recommended.

The Flam railway runs from Myrdal to Flam, and boasts being the steepest railway in the world with a 1 to 18 slope along the side of the mountains, into a valley, ending at the beginning of the Fjord. Flam, the small town at the end of the line, is a tourist destination that caters for fjord cruises, and the railway. If you want to get out of town, the Brekke Guard Hostel is a quite series of cottages about a half a kilometre out of town. The cottages provide shared or private rooms with a communal kitchen. If on a budget you can get groceries at the local store in the town, or if you feel like treating yourself, the local restaurant and brewery is made to look like a viking lodge.

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Switchback and waterfall in Flam

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The old town of Flam as seen by the Flam railway.

For the adventurers out there, I highly recommend taking a Kayaking tour on the fjord. Before arriving, I had my heart set on getting out paddling around the fjord. The smaller trip (3 hours) was already sold out, and the longer (4 hour) tour included a hike, which was even more appealing to me. The morning started clear, but some rain moved in, and thinking ‘well, were going to be in Kayaks on the water’, rain didn’t change our decision to go on an epic adventure. And Epic it was. Our guide, Marta, was full of wonderful local tales and knowledge about the area. We Kayaked to a small beach and began the hike to a waterfall, the trail lined with wild raspberries and edible mushrooms. Just above the beach along the cliff face are small rock mounds amongst the bright green moss. The boulder on the side of the trail hosted a small sign that points out that these mounds are part of a UNESCO world heritage site. The mounds are the remnants of burials of prominent vikings of the time. The seven mounds ran along the ridge, with the boulder separating 2 from the other 5. Automatically the archaeologist in me asks if the boulder may have always been there, or if it was a recent addition, and if there may have been a grave under it. Its unsure if there is another grave, but if there was, it would be squished by the 4mX4mx4m boulder.

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Viking burial mound and the waterfall we hiked to.

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Mum all geared up for our adventure!

Even with the rain, the small group we were in had an amazing time. we ate a snack by the Viking graves, swapping stories of our travels, and looking out at the scenery of the surrounding fjord. On the way back into the town, a seal made an appearance bobbing around the harbour.

Time Traveling in Denmark: Ribe

Ribe is a virtually untouched historical city that has maintained its character over the last century. Boasted as Denmark’s oldest town, Ribe (said as “Reeb”) has nightly Watchman tours that leave from the charming inn/restaurant, Weiss Stue.

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The old town hall doubles as a small city museum, with information and artefacts from the towns colourful history. Across the street from the train station is a Viking museum which explains viking burials and culture that was an active part of Ribe’s early years. While the town doesn’t have much for museums, the town is steeped in antiquity, and walking down the cobbled streets installs the feeling that you have stepped into a postcard.

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The small shop fronts house everything from cellphone repair, to handmade waffle cones to hold the homemade ice-cream, to art galleries. But if you take 3 right turns you’re back in the town centre. The courtyard of which, belonging to the church, had been excavated during the church renovation to reveal graves older than 5 centuries.

Just outside of town, accessible by a foot and bike path, is an open air museum that focuses on viking recreation archaeology, with some showmanship thrown in for good fun.

You can buy jewellery that is handcrafted with traditional methods, watch a viking battle, or ask the people about their daily lives.

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Time Traveling in Denmark: Roskilde and Lejre

A 30 minute train from Copenhagen brings you to the quite town of Roskilde. It is easy enough to stay at your accommodation in the city and make the day trip, however we found that if we did the trip again, we would have stayed at the Danhostel in Roskide and taken a day trip to Copenhagen. The hostel, which was more of a hotel, is located about a hundred meters from the Viking Maritime Museum. The museum focuses on recreation archaeology, putting the theories about how the ancient mariners ‘did it’ to the test. for 100 danish Krona extra to the Museum ticket you can go for a sail around the fjord in a replica of one of the viking ships that they had discovered at the bottom of the fjord as a defence.

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The 5 ships that were discovered had been purposely sunk, theoretically to block the deep and easy passages into the fjord, causing any ‘visitors’ (including attacking ships) to take a more risky route that would require the navigation of a local who knows the waters. The ships were brought up in the 1960’s as a large archaeological project, and were treated and now on display in the museum. (Free guided tours are available in English.) The manmade island where the viking ships sail from also hosts an open air style museum, with blacksmithing, rope making, and even the shipbuilding as in-situe recreation archaeology. In addition, if you want to get your hands dirty, you can chisel runes into a thors hammer pendant, or mint a coin in ‘ye olde’ way with a hammer and minting stamp.  if you want to join the kids table, they even have a wooden shield and sword.

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From Roskilde, taking a train to Lejre, and bus 233 from the station, you can visit ‘Land of Legends’, a open air museum dedicated to Denmarks’ history form the Stone age, through the Viking age, into the Iron and Middle Ages. The encourage getting your hands dirty and joining in the activities. learn to flake stones or make rope with the cave men, you can buy naturally died yarns from the weaver, or pots and mugs thrown by the potter. The park can be seen comfortably in 3-5 hours, longer if you participate in the settlements.

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Getting to Norway

The journey to Bergen was a 36 hour whirlwind adventure. We left Hirtshals Denmark on the “short ferry” to Kristiansand. Originally our plan was to take the overnight ferry to Bergen, and pick up there to continue traveling.

A few days early I go into the information centre and ask if the clerk can help me book some of the journey that requires booking, such as our ferry to Norway and first few trains. When I give her the dates, we find that the overnight ferry is sold out. Rather than continuing booking for another ferry (which we had our backup in mind) she throws her hands up and says that she can’t do it because it has to do with Norway and she doesn’t know their system. So mum and I book our ferry separately, giving up the discount that we should have gotten for our Eurail pass, but hey, at least we get the buffet on our crossing.


A few trains and many hours later, mum and I roll into Hirtshals, and lug our bags the 1.5 km to the ferry terminal. It was overcrowded and we thought we were waiting in line for check in, really, a family had decided to wait for the ferry right in front of the check in. A really nice kid who knew English told us that there wasn’t a line and we weaved our way around the crowds and checked in. The crowd was for another ferry and cleared out a few minutes later, leaving the terminal virtually to ourselves. When we boarded the ferry, we were seated in the buffet section and joined the people at our assigned table to start on the buffet before leaving dock. That turned out to be a really good thing, since once out of the harbour the waves had built to 4-6 m. It was enough to make the ferry roll, sway, and pitch with just enough force to get a good portion of the passengers seasick. The poor cabin crew, who were so lovely, would be constantly reminding people to get to the lower deck if they didn’t feel well. I, however, felt like suave as I pulled out my sea legs and was able to walk the 30 m to the toilets without stumbling as most everyone else was. (I even noticed a few admiring glances. Not at me, but more the fact I could walk.) The rough North Sea added an hour to our commute, but our accommodation was wonderfully close. We went straight there, as our train to Oslo, then on to Bergen was set for 4:45 am.


When it came time to wait at the train platform, however, we noticed all the boards said that the train didn’t depart until 10 am, which would make us late for our connection. Google maps had been giving us the departure time for Sunday… And Monday. (Fun fact: that additional time they list is not labeled with a date.)

Now remember, when we were in Denmark the lady wouldn’t make our bookings for us for Norway. Mum and I were planning on using our layover to book the rest of our journey in Norway. The next best thing was google maps said there was an early morning bus. It would get us into Oslo 45 mins before the train we needed to take to Bergen. The drive was great. The different shades of green that blanketed a rocky mountainside was picturesque. When we arrive at Oslo, we aim straight for the ticket counter to get our tickets for the next week. I ended up talking to two ladies, the first a bit grumpy, I asked for two tickets for the twelve oh three to Bergen, and she doesn’t miss a beat before saying “that’s impossible”. The second lady explains that the train is booked full (though the Eurail planner does not show that reservations are even an option) and that getting on now would be up to the conductor.

As the train pulls into the station, I go to the head of the train to meet with the conductor, and I notice a guy right behind me. Ryan had been told the same thing, and we went in search of the conductor. The conductor that checks tickets got off, and Ryan and I met him on the platform and explained our situation. He told us where to hang around on the train, and it would be up to the other conductor. We waited. We tried getting seats. People with reservations would show up. We would move. This happened a few times until we felt safest bet was the dining car. Ryan went out to check one last time and came back with 3 seat numbers we could occupy. We watched the clock. 12:01. People walking up the car as we hold our breath they aren’t looking for the seats were in. 12:02. See the occasional person on the platform, but no one getting on or off. 12:03. We ease out of the station and breath a sigh of relief. The seats were ours.

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The train ride was breathtaking. From fjords to glaciers to waterfalls. Ryan, who sat across the isle from us, and I talked for a while till a nice Norwegian guy came to take the seat next to him. We chatted periodically through the ride, but mostly mum and I would be pressed to the window to see the scenery.

We arrived in Bergen too late to get the tickets for the week, and went looking for our hostel. As we were leaving the train station it started to rain, then we got turned around in our directions. We decided for the 500 m to our hostel we would get a taxi and not walk in the rain with all our gear. The taxi we got was a bit too eager, which was the first red flag, then he pointed down the road and said ‘oh yeah, it’s just over there.’ And proceeded to drive THE OPPOSITE DIRECTION. The driver, who was from Somalia, pulled in front of the building, and helped us with our bag while trying to distract us with pleasantries about how much he likes America, and his fellow Somalian taxi driver had pulled up behind him. As were walking into the hostel, I hear him yelling at our taxi driver. While I could t understand the language, the meaning was universal. He was calling him out about driving us the long way, when we were only one block away from the train station.

At this point we’ve been up since 4, traveling all day, and we’re hungry. We just call it a day, grab a pizza from a local take-away, and go back to the hostel.

Now for our next trick… Getting from Bergen to Flåm on the morning train without previously booking.

Copenhagen

First impressions of Copenhagen, after having just left Stockholm, was a little underwhelming. Coming out of central station the litter and homeless that crowded the exit made us worried that we weren’t going to enjoy Copenhagen as much as Stockholm. Our hostel was only a few blocks away, but the feeling in the area was very different. The old buildings bright colours had faded but still looked cheerful, restaurants along the street situated couples and friends out for a night of good food and company. At dinner I ordered a beer, and mum (who doesn’t drink at all) had about half. Mum, who is allergic to additives to most alcoholic beverages, goes straight to headach and stuffy nose when drinking. I ordered a Erdinger Weissbrau, and it was great. One, amazing, additive free, glass of beer.

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The next day we wondered around the city, stopping at a small cafe on the edge of a park no larger than a one car garage and filled with character. After some chocolate croissants and a chai we continued to visit some of the iconic sites. The Little Mermaid statue, based on the fairy tale by Hans Christain Anderson, lays along a beautiful scenic walk, marked in most guidebooks and tourist maps.

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In the heart of the city, we walked along the canal that was lined with old ships and bright buildings. While wondering down random streets we came across a large square, and realised that the large building across from us must have been a government building and we arrived just in time to see the changing of the guard.

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Copenhagen has a lively bike culture. The bike lanes, as wide as a cars lane, are elevated from the street. Random bikes, unicycles, family bikes, and bikes with side cars. They were in all types and everywhere. While walking around I felt that I should have been listening to a Queen song.

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Copenhagen is a maze of wonderful scenes, and worth the time to explore.

Visby… Or ‘Breckenridge: the Island’

In the middle of the Baltic is the isle of Gotland. The largest town, Visby, has a rich history as a trade port that used to be as important as London or Paris back in ‘ye olde times’ when trade across the baltic was best done by boat as opposed to the newer methods of trains and planes.

From Stockholm, we took the bus connection to the ferry from Nynäshamn. The trip was fairly uneventful other than the doppelgänger of Rollo from Vikings, or Brock O’Hurn, across the isle from us. Oden bless the Scandinavians.

When we arrived, we had missed the bus to the resort, and decided to keep our gear as we wondered around the narrow, winding, cobbled streets of Visby. The whole island had an air of ‘vacation’ with tourists of Sweden and foreign vacationing the island. The old buildings had been repurposed, with a church ruin playing host to a cafe’s outdoor seating.  Other ruins allowed you to walk up stairways and across catwalks, and into dark crevices of the historic structure.

The town, which is only about 20 minutes to walk across, provided plenty of sights for us to visit while lugging our bags around. Under advisement from the tourist information desk we cut through the botanic gardens and went up one of the lookout towers that remain on the old city wall that has been standing since the 13th century.

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When we were done poking around the town, we caught the bus to the resort south of Visby, where we stayed the night. The resort hosts two theme parks (a water park and giant ‘playground’ with mini-putt, bumper cars, and go-charts), and Pippi Longstocking’s house.

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The accommodation, which was cabin/camp style, was reasonable for the proximity it provided to the attractions. The tourist atmosphere felt like Breckenridge. A place that even the locals go to to vacation.

The busses don’t run as frequently to the resort, and don’t start till late morning, so if visiting overnight like we did, a taxi is an option.

Kiki Lathrop