A Travellerspoint blog

Trekking through the Troodos

Mountain Monasteries, and man replaces machine

sunny 74 °F

The Trodos mountains hold medieval monasteries that are home to some of the most stunning frescoes existing today

It was a day of winding mountain roads, hairpin turns, and sublime medieval frescoes. Jenny and I pointed our rental car towards the Troodos Mountains with a handful on the dozens and dozens of Troodos monasteries picked out to visit. We put our trust in our GPS "Jason", who had performed with mixed results yesterday. Before the day was out, Jason was fired and sequestered in the glove compartment. Man (me) replaced machine after Jason misdirected us, was horribly confused by every turn, and essentially proved himself worthless as a navigational aid. In all honesty, the signs on the road, combined with the map our hotel had given us that morning, proved sufficient. I'm pretty good at finding my way around, and once I got my bearings right after we locked Jason away, did a flawless job of navigating...if I must say so myself - ha, ha!

Troodos Mountain scenery

Tiny and plain on the outside, but ornate and spectacular inside - the Pedoulas and the Archangel Michael Church

With our first stop, Pedoulas and the Archangel Michael Church, we found that these medieval churches are a lot smaller than you'd expect. Despite its lofty name, this clay tile roofed stone building was smaller than my house. The inside was stunning,,though. Every bit of wall space was covered with frescoes painted on the walls. They depicted not only scenes from Jesus' life, but hosts of saints stared back at us as we slowly paced through the church. Like most churches with medieval frescoes, no photography was allowed. In Armenia a couple years ago, that had been the case except for one enlightened priest who realized no flash equals no damage to them thousand year old paintings. Would fortune smile on me today like it had in Armenia? I could only pray that it did.

Our rental car and the beautiful, Mediterranean hillside scenery

Spring is supposed to be the best time to visit Cyprus, and we were rewarded with the the gossamer blush of cherry trees in bloom near every village. The views from mountain top and valley were stunning. We were blessed with wide spots or places to pull off the road in the best vantage points, too. It seems others appreciated a good a panorama, and there were obvious places others had pulled off the narrow roads, and we followed suit when the urge to snap a photo took us. After our initial, nauseating drive from Limassol to Pedoulas, the other legs from one monastery to another seemed to go quicker. Of course, I'd like to take credit with my navigating, but I realize it was our longest stretch, with the most climbing....!

The most crowded and wealthy of the Troodos monasteries, Kykkos

Lots to see in Kykkos Monastery, including the monk's cells, museum, and treasury

Our second stop was at Kykkos Monastery, which is the largest and wealthiest in the Troodos Mountians. The monks throw open most of the complex -- including the gold-mosaiced hallways outside their rooms (hard to call the "cells" in such a magnificent building!). We wandered its corridors, which were the most crowded we'd see all day. The amount of mosaics on the walls was stunning. Every inch seemed to have a depiction of some saint or scene from the Bible. As crowded as it was, we were one of the few visitors who paid the 5 Euros to see the museum. As I slowly paced through the dimly lit, but treasure-packed rooms, one thing kept coming back to me. I remembered what I tell my 7th graders when I am explaining medieval Christian monasticism. In particular, I dwell in my instruction on a Mona's vows. I even have them recite a monk's vows , then spend a silent day in my classroom scriptorium creating an illuminated manuscript. But as I looked at glass case after glass case full of gold-plated crosses, censers, reliquaries, and elaborate, colorful vestments, the Vow of Poverty kept coming back to me. I acknowledge this is less excessive than the Vatican's treasure rooms, but it is a monastery! Poverty does not exist at Kykkos, and wealth was everywhere you looked. Before any Greek Orthodox challenges me on this, I do understand the difference between church and individual property.

Hill town in the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus

Difficult to find, the Kalopanayiotis Monastery

Our next stop proved difficult to find. We navigated to the village all right, but where inside Kalopanayiotis was it? the guidebook siad the three stone buildings were "clearly visible", but it took us awhile. Once again, no photos were allowed inside the actual church. The frescoes were every bit as gorgeous as those at at Archangel Michael. The church at Kykkos, by the way, was relatively modern...it had burnt down several times in its existence, the most recent in the 1800s. There was quite a bit of construction going on in the village. Many Cypriots come here from the plains and coasts to escape summer's heat. Some renovations were clearly going on at the monastery of Agios Ioannis Lampedistis. I imagine if I came back in 5 years I'd have a hard time recognizing the place.

Though the exterior doesn't look it, the interior of the Agios Panagia Forviotissa monastery was the highlight of the trip

The frescoes on the interior of the Agios Panagia Forviotissa monastery

Our final monastery on our itinerary turned out to be the best. It was the most remote -- out in the countryside, miles away from a farm village. Our guidebooks had said that if you can visit only one to make sure you saw Agios Panagia Forviotissa. It was our favorite, too, though I doubt that is what Forviotissa stands for...! The frescoes and subjects painted were so obviously medieval Byzantine. I recognized the clothing, armor, hair styles, and especially the deep, soulful eyes that appear on Byzantine art. After we had reverently paced our way through the tiny stone church, Jenny and I both remarked we'd seen nothing about photography not being allowed. We asked I the elderly attendant and he waved us onto snap pictures to our hearts content. I doubt he expected us to break out the tripods and camp out for 45 minutes like we did. We weathered the storms of other visitors, holding off on our shots while they visited (though most came in went within a few minutes). The pictures we got were amazing, inspiring, and simply made our day.

Even the ceiling of the Agios Panagia Forviotissa monastery are covered in medieval frescoes

We drove back to Limassol content and with beatific, monk-like smiles on our faces. We also had a much smoother trip...with Jason securely locked away in the glovebox. Earlier in the day, we had burst out laughing when his voice came out from the glovebox recommending a change to my route -- after I had hit the "sleep" button. Our route seemed much smoother under MY navigation. But, after all, "Michael" means "like unto The Lord" in Hebrew. Don't believe me? Look it up!

A fresco of Jesus' crucifixion on the medieval walls of the monastery

Posted by world_wide_mike 22:21 Archived in Cyprus Tagged cyprus monasteries michael troodos archangel kykkos pedoulas Comments (0)

Navigating our way around Cyprus

Sunshine, Roman and Greek ruins, mosaics...all add up to a beautiful first day!

sunny 72 °F

Spring on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, with the wildflowers blooming

Driving on the "wrong" side of the road is one of the few drawbacks of visiting Cyprus. I had my initiation last night, driving our rental car home from the airport in the dark, in an unfamiliar palace, and with a GPS that was speaking Russian to us. Today was Jenny's day, and she did great. We left Limassol on a beautiful, sunny morning and drove West towards Pafos. We navigated just fine, though "Natasha" babbled at us from time to time and provided no enlightenment. Jenny swore she had changed the language to English, and it wasn't until later that afternoon that I figured out that language and "voice" were two separate controls! Goodbye Natasha, and hello "Jason" (yes, Jason M, that was his assigned name!).

Cypriot military helicopter practices sea rescues along the island's gorgeous coastline

Rocks of Aphrodite - a limestone formation just off the coast

Our first stop was the Rocks of Aphrodite, a formation of limestone stacks off the coast. As we swung onto the coastal road, we noticed a military rescue helicopter practicing land and sea rescues. We weren't the only car pulled over to snap photos of it. We pulled off the road at a few spots to take photos of Aphrodite's Rocks, then continued on.

Byzantine church from the 9th century in the town of Paphos

Our next stop was a gorgeous 9th century Byzantine church. It's five domes are in a cross shape and were a beautiful oasis of peace in the town's hectic traffic. Inside, frescoes on the wall depicted Saints' lives and Biblical scenes. It was a lovely church, and I didn't even even resent that I couldn't take photos of the frescoes. Then it was on towards the west coast town of Paphos. This is a favorite retirement spot for Brits, and you could tell the town did a good job of catering to foreigners. Cafes line every street, and everywhere you go, someone is willing to sign you up for a boat cruise, snorkeling, car rental - you name it! It helps that the archeological ruins there are a UNESCO world heritage site. Our first stop was the Crusader castle guarding the harbor. From its rooftop, we got our bearings for our exploration of Paphos.

Paphos' tiny harbor crammed with boats

Paphos' highlight is the archeological park with a half dozen Roman era homes with stunning mosaics preserved. The homes and buildings themselves were often a jumble of toppled walls and columns, but the colorful mosaics with tiny stones depicting various scenes from Graeco-Roman mythology, were in excellent condition and brightly-colored. The best mosaics are under wooden or other rooftop coverings to protect them from the elements. Thankfully, there were no photo Nazis, and you were free to take pictures of them to your heart's content....which I did (big surprise!).

Paphos is know for its ancient ruins from the Roman era, like these columns

Stunning mosaic floor from a Roman domus (house)

Overview of the Paphos archeological area

We spent several hours there, wandering the ruins of the homes, as well as exploring the Roman theater, another Crusader fortress, and simply enjoying the bright flowers adding splashes of red and yellow to the sandy colored stones underneath the vivid blue sky.

Paphos' Ancient, Greek-style theater

After a late lunch, we journeyed on. Our next stop was the Tombs of the Kings. These rocky tombs in various states of disrepair were built during the Hellenistic age. That was when much of the Mediterranean and Asia was ruled by descendants of Alexander the Great. it was cool to wander the rolling, scrub-covered hills, listening to birds and the gentle rush of the ocean surf below us, while exploring the rocky tombs.

A tomb from the time of the Macedonian & Greek successors to Alexander the Great

The exterior of one of Cyprus' many Ancient tombs

Next,, we took in the lovely view from a hilltop village, and then drove up and over the hillsides to the northwest coast of Cyprus. We zipped along what was supposed to be a very scenic stretch, but found restaurants, hotels, and vacation homes squatted on all the best viewpoints. We stopped to hike through a botanical garden to the Baths of Aphrodite. Cyprus is supposed to be the birthplace of the Greek goddess of love, so a number of sites are sacred to her on the island. Frankly, it was a bit of a disappointment. It was nothing more than a tiny, wooded pool underneath a trickle of a waterfall.

View towards the coast from one of Cyprus' lovely, hilltop villages

Our drive back to Limassol and our hotel started out as a bit of an adventure. "Jason" steered us off the main road onto what turned into a dirt road that Jenny swore was someone's driveway. His help was problematic, at best. Add that to the GPS' non-intuitive interface, and the fact that every place in Cyprus has 4-5 English spellings of its name, and you have a navigational aid that often doesn't. We are a bit worried about how it will do in the Troodos Mountains, when we go to check out a bunch medieval monasteries. We'll pray for the best, though, and hope that our "wrong" driving stays limited to the side of the road...!

Even the birds admire Cyprus' amazing ancient ruins

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:38 Archived in Cyprus Tagged ruins tombs roman greek cyprus kings aphrodite mosaics paphos Comments (0)

At long last...Cyprus!

Flying towards the Mediterranean island I've yearned to visit for years...

sunny 64 °F


Most people seem to know vaguely that Cyprus is somewhere in the Mediterranean, so I thought I'd include this map. I have been wanting to visit the island for years. History's greatest civilizations washed over its shores, nearly all of them leaving behind relics that can be visited today. As some of you know, the island is divided into a southern Greek half and a northern Turkish one. Technically two separate countries, and even featuring a UN peacekeeping force, war has long since disappeared here. In 2003, the Turkish side opened its border to Greek Cypriots and there was a spontaneous to reconnect with their northern Turkish brethren. The Cypriots on both sides were, by their actions, telling their governments they didn't like being divided. The wealthier Greek Cypriots began to take weekend trips up to northern Cyprus, where they were warmly welcomed. Ever since then, there really hasn't been a need for a UN force. Doubtless, it is the easiest and most sought after posting in the United Nations! Sure, hard liners on both sides of the border can probably be found. Heck, there are anti-government separatists in America!

So, all this really means is I'll be visiting TWO countries on this short, Spring break trip. And for the curious, that will bring my total to 81 nations. For me, though, it means a chance to immerse myself again in Greek, Roman, Crusader, and Turkish history. Jenny and I will spend 5 days on this beautiful, warm island. The posts that follow will hopefully show why this island has been in my dreams for decades, but now will be part of my waking experiences.

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:06 Archived in Cyprus Tagged travel roman greek cyprus Comments (1)

Soaking in the Lagoon

Last Day in Iceland

sunny 48 °F

Our final day in Iceland was probably more like a "typical" American's spring break than any of the others. We were taking advantage of a service where the FlyBus will drop you off at the famous Blue Lagoon and store your luggage. After a few hours soaking, they will then shuttle you to the airport for your flight.

The Blue Lagoon is a man made pool of sorts, made to resemble a rocky bay. The milky bluish water comes from one of their geothermal plants nearby. Much of Iceland's heat and electricity comes naturally, from setting on a volcanic rift that is the cause of its frequent volcanoes and geysers. So, even though the water comes from a power plant, it IS natural, in a sense. There is also a silica that is produced that Icelanders insist is healthy to rub on your skin. When it dries, it looks like you've been the unfortunate victim of a pigeon dropping his load on you!

So, when you enter the very modern facility, you are briefed on the procedure. They give you a plastic bracelet with a magnetic chip in it. It is a combination ID bracelet and credit card for purchases. It allows you to use on of the lockers which are included in the admission. Men and women have different locker areas. I don't say of course because Scandinavians are known for their liberal views on those types of things! Scandinavians also tend to be particular about how to stay clean, so visitors to the Blue Lagoon are instructed to shower before they enter the water. I was able to navigate the lockers, showers and such, and was soon ready to go.

The day was sunny and relatively warm, so the brief walk in the open air before getting into the lagoon wasn't that bad. Still, steam rose off the water, which is heated to essentially "hot tub" temperatures. We found a little cove sheltered from the wind and kicked back and relaxed...and people watched. I'd say about one in four were smearing the white silica on their faces or heads. Being the bold adventurer, I chose not to do it. The idea of slathering myself in chemicals that looked like bird droppings didn't appeal. After awhile, we made a circuit of the lagoon, finding the main heating area which put out very, very warm water.

As I said, it was a more typical spring break day than walking on glaciers or hiking along sea coasts in 30-40 degree weather. Soaking in warm water and watching people wading through the water with beers or umbrella drinks in their hand fits more what the rest of my countrymen on spring break were probably doing! It wasn't long before it was time to shower, change and head back outside to catch our shuttle to the airport, though. We'd been able to print all of our boarding passes for our flights home, and the process went very smooth. Reykjavik is an easy airport to fly in and out of, compared to most European gateways.

Our biggest worry of the day, though, was our relatively short connection time in Boston. If we missed our USAirways flight from Boston to DC, we'd be spending the night in Paul Revere's very expensive city. Icelandair did us a huge favor, though. Not only did they move our seats near the door we'd deplane through, the flight attendant moved us and our luggage to the seats right next to the door and made sure we got off first. That, and the short passport control and customs lines made it a snap to make our flight with time to spare. I'm writing this on the 1-hour flight to DC. Assuming no problems ahead, we should make an easy connection home to Columbus.

Iceland was a gorgeous destination. I saw amazing sights, and had great experiences. It IS an expensive place to visit, though. I would encourage anyone not traveling alone to rent a car, though - rather than take the expensive excursions. You have to really be aggressive in seeking out bargain eats, though. Be prepared to research and walk around Reykjavik and check out the menus in the windows. It says something about their cuisine that our best meal was in a Pakistani restaurant! When your traditional dish is rotted shark meat, well, unless you are a seafood aficionado, prepare to be underwhelmed by the food. The people were friendly and polite on the whole, though. In an entire week, we only had one problem with not being able to communicate. So, if you've been considering Iceland, I highly recommend it! It is not as cold as you think, and much more beautiful than you imagined!

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:00 Archived in Iceland Tagged blue lagoon iceland icelandair keflavik Comments (0)

Prowling Around Reykjavik

Day Six in Iceland

overcast 46 °F

Colorful homes in downtown Reykjavik

I don't understand what force is at work, but it seems that every country I visit springs an unexpected and bizarre holiday during my trip to mess with my plans. Today is - get this - a holiday in honor of the day Jesus washed the apostles feet. So, the bus schedule we were depending upon to get to the Viking museum that has a reconstructed longship and lots of cool exhibits was non-existent. No biggie, really. I saw the Viking longship museum in Denmark, but Jenny was a bit disappointed. Still, I cobbled together a half-day sightseeing tour in the morning to replace it.

We had a good day waking around Reykjavik, checking out cool buildings and seeking out scenic views. We started off checking out the harbor area where we hadn't been, yet. Probably the most interesting building was a brand new concert hall and convention center right on the waterfront. It is constructed of tinted glass panes and its five stories are full of interesting views of the city and the building itself. A number of other travelers were doing the same, prowling around in search of cool angles and photos.

The modern concert hall and convention center in the harbor of Reykjavik, Iceland

From there, we climbed a short hill to a statue of the first Viking settler in Icekand, Ingolfsur Arnarson. The hill marks the spot where supposedly the wooden hall pillars he'd tossed overboard on his longship washed ashore. While we wer in a sculpture mood, we walked along the waterfront to the Sun Voyager. This metallic, stylized Viking longship is sited in a gorgeous spot with view of the bay, colorful buildings along the shore, and snow-capped mountains looming over them. It has become a "take your picture in front of it" kind of place. I resisted the temptation, but Jenny - in a tradition begun millennia ago by Eve, succumbed to temptation.

The Sun Voyager sculpture on Reykjavik's waterfront, meant to bring to mind a Viking longship

We also did some souvenir shopping, though neither of us made a bit purchase. My splurge was $10 for an ice blue pair of sunglasses. Not only will, it remind me of the glacier ice, it will make me match my car....ha, ha! The rest of the day was spent wandering around Reykjavik looking for iconic photos. It was a low key day, for sure. After 5 days of go-go-go, though, it is nice to have these once in awhile.

This one is for my friend, Keith. LOOK, Keith! Trees....in Iceland (He insisted before we went that Iceland had none)

Tomorrow we head to the Blue Lagoon to soak for a couple hours before our flights home. They have a really cool package that takes you there, gives you a place to store your luggage, then shuttles you to the airport. Should be a nice, soothing time before being cramped in an aircraft seat for hours.

Icelanders love their colorful graffiti!

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:52 Archived in Iceland Tagged sun concert center harbor voyager hall iceland convention reykjavik Comments (0)

Museum Day in Reykjavik

History, history, and guess what else?

overcast 38 °F

Golden brooch in the National Museum in Reykjavik

So, to illustrate how the weather has cooperated so far on this trip, consider today. We had several museums we'd planned to visit, along with some other indoor sights. Every day prior to this one has been sunny, but today was cloudy with drizzle off and on. Perfect museum weather! We were able to sleep in a bit today, and didn't get out and about until after 10 am. We did find out that the free breakfast is packed with the "sleep in" crowd.

Anyway, we began with the Reykjavik City Museum. They have taken a Viking era farmstead that was uncovered in downtown Reykjavik and designed a museum around it. The ruins lie in state, with only bare minimal reconstruction by archeologists. You walk around the outer edge of the bowed out rectangle. On the outer walls are exhibits and computer reconstructions of what the area or the farmstead looked like at that time. Towards the center are the actual ruins themselves, with explanations and strategic spotlights that point out what the text is talking about. Sound effects play, so you hear sheep bleating, bird calls, and even the graphic death throes of an auk - a flightless bird the Viking settlers quickly hunted to extinction. It was a high tech, clever exhibit. I wished it was brighter, though. It was so dim down there it bordered on out and out dark. Pictures were impossible - even if they were allowed (I never found out).

Viking era horns from the National Museum in Reykjavik

The best museum of the day was the next - the National Museum of Iceland. It covers the history of Iceland on two sprawling floors. My favorite parts were from the Viking era of course. In addition to weapons like you'd expect, they had actual graves, tools, carved wooden doors, church vestments for when they converted to Christianity, and much, much, more. The most amazing part was looking at my watch around 2 pm and realizing how much time I'd spent in there already! The upper level contains most of the 1800s to modern era exhibits, and was less interesting to me. There were lots of computer and video screens throughout the exhibits with audio-visual presentations on Viking halls, political infighting in the Viking age, and other interesting topics.

Viking swords and axes in the National Museum in Reykjavik

After lunch, we stopped in the Domkirkjan, which used to be the city's main church until they outgrew it. The inside was pretty, as our guidebook promised. From there, it was on to the Cultural Center, which has an exhibit on medieval manuscripts. The layout is very cool, with massive enlargements of manuscript pages, illuminated drawings, and other visuals. The second room had the actual book pages themselves, and because of that, no photos were allowed in the exhibit, of course. It focused mainly on the Icelandic sagas, but also dealt with medieval bibles, later reproductions of the sagas and other fictional versions, and so on. Visually, it was a very well done and cool exhibit. I know it wouldn't necessarily be everyone's cup of tea, but I liked it. I am certainly inspired to read the sagas, now (which I had wanted to do before I came here but ran out of time). I bet the online Gutenberg Project has online versions of them I could download for free.

Interior of Domkirkjan church in Reykjavik, Iceland

We did a little souvenir shopping afterwards, but didn't buy much. I'm going to pick up some inexpensive stuff to give as prizes for my students. I thought about getting my Mom an Icelandic wool sweater, but if she found out I spent $200 on one (the going rate) she would NOT be happy. Tomorrow is our last day in Reykjavik, and we plan to visit one more museum, but aren't sure what to do for the rest of the day.

Stay tuned to see...!

Medieval era bible from the National Museum - not the Cultural Center's manuscript exhibit (where no photos were allowed)

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:42 Archived in Iceland Tagged museum national medieval iceland reykjavik manuscript exhibit settlement Comments (5)

A Beautiful Lady Named Snaefellsness

Day 4 in Iceland and a drive around a peninsula

sunny 46 °F

I normally don't like photos of myself standing in front of places, but I could not resist this beauty...

So, there are two things I love when I travel: history and gorgeous scenery. Today was tops in the second category, as we drove our rental car around the Snaefellsness Peninsula. The peninsula is the westernmost arm of Iceland, and has a spine of tall, snow-capped mountains all along its length. Our plan was to circle the peninsula mostly along the coast. It would be a long day - taking more than 8 hours round trip from Reykjavik. We'd hoped for good weather and rewarded with the sunniest, warmest day in Iceland yet.

From the beginning, the image that captivated me most was the scattered homesteads, farms and villages, looking tiny - isolated by all of Iceland's towering wilderness. Again and again, I stopped the car to take a picture of a lonely farmhouse looking like a brightly colored doll house beneath a massive, snow-capped mountain range. Churches stood like shepherds by themselves, with sweeping views of the sea. Their bright primary colors contrasted sharply with nature's browns, blues, golds, and of course, the white of snow and black of volcanic rock. Here, the man-made structure, though it often looked lost on the landscape, was as much a part of the scenery as any mountain or lake. In fact, these houses with their bright blue, red and green roofs gleaming in the sunshine served as exclamation points on the peninsula.

Isolated farm house on the Snaefellsness Peninsula

We began our sweep around Snaefellsness on the southern coast. Our first real stop was the village of Beothir. It's black-painted church was more than three centuries old, and brooded amidst its graveyard, staring out to sea. The church sat surrounded by gnarled, lava rock fields that local legend says are home to elves. Most of the tombstones were from the 1800s. It seemed the village's population was slowly shrinking, because there were very few homes and farmsteads around. A signless hotel sat beneath the church, its large windows looking out on stunning views in every direction.

The parish church at Beothir

Next, we stopped in the village of Arnastapi. It was composed of mostly rental cottages. Try as we might, we couldn't find a place open to use the restroom or buy a soda. The village seemed shuttered for the winter, though its quiet homes basked in a very springlike sun. Just down the road from the village, though, we came upon a magical place. A tiny turnoff from the road was perched above a panorama of ice, mountain and snow that would be hard-pressed to be topped anywhere. To one side, the row of mountains stretched their black and white fins towards the blue sky. For miles in front, though, was a sloping lava field covered in snow making it look like a massive bowl of vanilla ice cream speckled liberally with black chocolate chips. Behind us, the dome of the glacier Snaefellsjokull was decorated like a wedding cake with tiny snow-covered spires. The view was simply delicious, and I prayed my photographs would do the landscape justice.

The icy scenery near Arnastapi, Iceland

We continued on, having the road and peninsula nearly to ourselves. The issue of a bathrooms stop was getting urgent, so we were getting a bit exasperated when we pulled into Hellnar and found it similarly deserted. Hotel Hellnar's front door was open, though nobody answered the desk bell when we rang it. So, we helped ourselves to their bathrooms, then drove down the road to the village's shuttered church. Perched on a hill overlooking the sea, its red and white colors were a bright stab of color against the clear blue sky. I wandered down to its tiny graveyard, drawn by the view those in their final resting place had been granted. If I had to choose a place to lie and peacefully contemplate the passing centuries, it would be hard to choose a more scenic spot. To one side, deep blue sea sparkled or dashed itself foaming against dark rocks. To the other, the spine of Snaefellsness' mountains brooded darkly down on the homes and farms far below them.

Gravestones at Hellnar church by the seaside

The day passed by with similar sights. I think I exasperated Jenny with my frequent stops to dash out and take pictures of a scene that caught my eye. In Malarrif, a huge stack of volcanic rock stood on the shoreline like a stone giant, it's arms outstretched in horror. The coastline became even rockier, and waves hurled themselves against the shore again and again, only to have their efforts end in white spray and foam. The sea was a deep blue, and the basalt columns and rocky coast reminded me of similar ones in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Seagulls wheeled overhead or nested in tiny nooks they found on the cliffs.

The sea shore and volcanic stack near Malarrif, Iceland

At one point, we rocketed past a scenic viewpoint only to nearly slam on the brakes. Unmentioned in either of our guidebooks was one of the best panoramas of the day. A wide, still lake reflected the curve of the snow-capped mountains that encircled it. Above the razor peaks, clear blue sky was similarly reflected on the quiet pool's surface. We'd inhaled hour after hour of incredible views to be stopped breathless by this one. Every angle I took to photograph it seemed inadequate to capture its beauty. Zooming in one the lake meant leaving out part of the sinuous curve of the mountains. Panning wide to capture the whole scene shrunk the lake's surface in the frame. It was like being asked to photograph the most beautiful model in the world, but being allowed to focus on only one feature. What to leave out?

An amazing lakeside view near Grundarfjordur, Iceland

We capped off the day with a visit to the peninsula's largest town, Stykkisholmur. We'd seen many pretty villages and towns over the course of the day, but Stykkisholmur rightly deserves its praise as the fairest. We crossed the causeway in its tiny harbor to the giant basalt island that guarded it. The views from atop it were immense. Out to sea, islands stretched across the bay to the Westfjord Peninsula. In olden days, many of the islands were inhabited by tiny villages of fisherfolk. Farmers would supplement the sparse grazing land by loading their animals on boats and dropping them off on uninhibited islands to gorge themselves on its vegetation for a week or two. Looking inward, Stykkisholmur reclined up its hillslopes with its brightly colored homes shining in the light of the setting sun.

The harbor at Stykkisholmur

It had been a wonderful day - my favorite of the trip, so far. Iceland had smiled on us, today. We'd seen one of her fairest regions, and in the warm sunshine the lady had flashed us her most dazzling smile.

Another beautiful view of the Snaefellsness Peninsula - the most scenic part of Iceland that I saw!

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:56 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland peninsula snaefellsjokull arnastapi snaefellsness hellnar stykkisholmur beothir Comments (1)

Wheels, water, and crampons

A day on the south coast of Iceland

sunny 45 °F

Worldwidemike, brave Arctic explorer

So, did we see the northern lights on Sunday? Yes. Cross it off the "bucket list." That said, the nearly full moon washed out the display, and it was not the most impressive sight. Nevertheless, as the photo below shows, I did see the aurora borealis. Thank god I brought my tripod, otherwise I think I would have seen little. To the naked eye, the arc of the aurora across the sky looked like wispy gray clouds. On my 15-second exposure, you could clearly see the green, though. Many people come to Iceland and never see them, so I shouldn't complain.

My admittedly weak northern lights photograph

We were up early once again the next morning to pick up our rental car. We wanted to see the south and west coasts of Iceland and renting a car was supposedly the most economical way. I'm always a bit daunted taking to the road as a driver in a foreign country. I'd much rather rely on public transport, which unfortunately is limited in winter here in Iceland. Excursions are fairly expensive, so we felt this was the way to go. As it turned out, we had zero problems on day one. A nice thing about renting a car is you can pull over nearly anywhere to take pictures of a scenic view that catches your eye. Plus, you can generally squeeze in way more sights than you ever could on public transport.

Our first stop was Skogarfoss waterfall. Yes, we'd gotten quite an eyeful at Gulfoss yesterday, but this one was smaller and more intimate. It was still impressive with a bright double rainbow gleaming in the day's sunshine, though. Plus, there is a set of metal stairs that climbs the hillside next to the falls, with several amazing viewpoints. Both of us were enchanted by it, and along with the perfect, yet relatively warm day, it was a perfect way to begin. Seagulls wheeled around it continuously, and the place was far less overrun with tourists than yesterday's sights.

Skogarfoss waterfall

Next, we drove to our glaciar hike we'd scheduled. Neither of us had been out on a glaciar, so we were looking forward to it. Our hike included only six of us and a guide. She quickly taught us how to strap on our metal-spiked crampons for walking on the ice and we were off. The glaciar we were hiking on is only a few miles from the volcano that erupted last summer in Iceland for a month. So, it's surface is speckled with black, volcanic ash - making it look like a quadruple scoop of vanilla ice cream with crumbled Oreo cookies on it. It wasn't the pristine landscape of ice I'd expected. Nor was it an amazing frozen world of blue ice and tunnels and crevices. It was more like a hike across a snowy mountain slope. Yes, we saw sinkholes the ice dug into the glaciar's surface. Yes, we saw snow-edged crevices where the glaciar cracked apart as it flowed downhill. It was cool how slick and how vertical a surface you can walk on with crampons. All in all, though, I found myself slightly disappointed with the glaciar walk.

Walking on a glacier in Iceland

Next, we drove to the rainiest town in Iceland, Vik. On the way, we experienced sun, rain, and sleet, but the skies cleared as we walked out onto Vik's black volcanic sand beaches. Some of Clint Eastwood's movie, "Flags of our Fathers" was filmed here to stand in for Iwo Jima. The sea was pounding, and made for an interesting mood with the black basalt columns looming off shore. Icelanders say they are the remains of three petrified trolls who were caught out in sunlight as they walked out of the surf after fishing. Our luck with the weather let up after we left, Vik, though. We crossed a causeway to the dramatic seascape of Dyrholaey. A rain squall closed in and then spun around, blowing onshore then back offshore - all the while refusing to leave. We could see sun and patches of blue out to sea, but the rain stayed with us, throwing showered of spray across the windshield as we tried to wait it out. Eventually, we gave up and headed back to Reykjavik, about two and a half hours away.

Petrified trolls in the rolling surf at Vik, Iceland

During the day, we'd taken full advantage of being able to stop and photograph iceland's spectacular scenery along the way. To me, that was one of the best parts of the day - having total control of what I could photograph. I snapped nearly 100 photographs today, and hope to be able to do the same tomorrow when we head north and west to check out the tongue-twisting Snaefellsnes Peninsula. If you'd like to see more photos than I uploaded here to the blog, check out my photobucket album, here: My Photobucket Iceland album.

Icelandic scenery not far from Vik

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:38 Archived in Iceland Tagged car walk glacier iceland vik renting skogarfoss crampons Comments (0)

Golden time on the Circle

Thingvellir, Gulfoss, Geysir, and more

sunny 42 °F

Gulfoss waterfall

The Golden Circle refers to three main sights not far from Iceland's capital, Reykjavik. We'd booked an excursion that took them in with Gateway to Iceland tour company. We picked them mainly because not only was their price competitive, they also used vans rather than huge tour buses. I'm not a fan of guided tours, and we figured the smaller the tour the less obtrusive it would be. As a bonus, when our driver Thorstein picked us up, he promised we'd make a number of surprise stops - in addition to the scheduled attractions.

Our first stop was the site of Iceland's first parliament - the Althing. Created by the Viking settlers in 930 A.D., it is a national park, now. Virtually all of Iceland would attend during the two weeks it was held each summer. The 12 chieftains were bound by law to attend, where they held court and judged disputes between their tribes. The Vikings chose a pretty significant spot for their meeting, too. Thingvellir just happens to be the spot where the North American and European geological plates are pulling apart at a rate of about an inch a year. This has created a large rift valley, with looming walls of stone on either side of you as you venture down to the historic sight. This is also the spot where Iceland voted to change their religion to Christianity in 1000 A.D. So, it there is a historic church located onsite, too.

Thingvellir, site of the Viking's first parliament

There really aren't a lot of physical remains of the Althing in the park. You can see some stone foundations of habitations the Vikings would build up over their two weeks camping out. Also, on site is the largest lake in all of Iceland. A dried, millennia old lava flow and surrounding snow-capped mountains complete the picture. This was the only part of the trip when I felt kind of rushed, being part of a tour. There was really no time to check out the visitor center. We pretty much just walked down into the rift, looked around a bit, snapped some photos, and then worked our way across the bridges to where our van was waiting. I'd read up a bit about the site, so didn't feel too mystified by it all. I just felt that, being on a guided tour, we'd get a little more...you know, guiding!

After we were all aboard the van, Thorstein sprang our first surprise stop on us. We pulled up not far from the lake shore and he took us down to taste the spring-fed, clear and pure water. It was also a nice chance to take some pictures of the lake itself, as there isn't an unobstructed view of it at Thingvellir. A short time later, we pulled off to the side of the road to pet a herd of Icelandic ponies. They were friendly and came right up to the barbed wire fence. Their shaggy appearance only made them look even stockier than they are. I made friends with one, and he let me scratch his ears and stroke the soft hair on his snout and nose.

Gulfoss waterfall

The highlight if the trip (at least for me) was next. We were given about 45 minutes to explore Gulfoss waterfalls. Although the wind howled along the edges of the great river cleft, the sun shone brightly making the water sparkle and its plumes of spray bright. Caked ice lined the shores in weird formations and gleamed in the sunshine. The waterfall was a constant drumming, and phantoms of mists made of fine droplets rose up like ghosts seeking a way out of the surging river. I alternated taking photos with shooting video with my new camera. To toggle the video camera's controls, I had to take off one glove. Although it was supposed to be in the 40s today, the wind ripped that temperature to shreds and kept me bundled up with my hood tied tightly around my head. I took several dozen shots, though - I would guess. Gulfoss drops in a series of falls, and every different angle promised a new panorama and spectacle.

Next up was a visit to the site of the original Geysir, which all other geothermal steam vents are named after. The area has a number of pools that are still, bubbling, percolating or gushing. The old man, Geysir, is no longer regular in its eruptions. His place has been taken over by a smaller geysir named Strokkur, which shoots off every 5-10 minutes. It was fun to sit there and try to catch it on camera or video. Thorstein warned us to NOT try to film it with the wind blowing in your face. He didn't warn us to beware of sudden 90 degree wind shifts, though. On the final eruption, the wind veered suddenly and soaked me with warm water and spray. Luckily, I was layering to stay warm in Iceland and my top layer was a rain jacket. I also turned away in time to protect my camera lens. It was funny watching the crowd scatter as the giant column of steam and water descended on us. All we needed to complete the humor was a Monty Python-esque, "Run away!"

Strokkur Geysir

I dried off in the visitor center cafeteria. The cheap food Thorstein described was anything but...so, I satisfied myself with a large bag of peanuts and a water bottle I'd saved from the flight. We looked around the souvenir shop. To get ideas for later in the week, but didn't buy anything.

We closed out the day with another surprise stop, Skaholt. We had the church to ourselves and it was obviously a favorite stop of Thorstein. He sat us down and told us about the building and history of the church in great detail. He even gave us a probably too lengthy run-down of the sanctity (or not) of various bishops of Iceland for the last 1,000 years. It was a pretty, graceful church decorated in sparing, Lutheran style. The original Skaholt's ruins were just outside the church door. This version is less than a century old, but has attractive stained glass that the sun was doings its best to illuminate for us.

Interior of Skaholt Cathedral

Thorstein was an entertaining guide, and regaled us with story after story about Icelanders and their history. He even gave us insights into the national psyche, answering and soliciting numerous questions. I learned a lot about what makes Icelanders tick...at least in the opinions of one of them. As I am finishing typing this, we are on board another minivan heading out into the night in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights. Hopefully, we succeed, and I'll be breathless with more wonders of Iceland to spin tales about...!

Frozen Spray at Gulfoss Waterfall

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:48 Archived in Iceland Tagged golden iceland circle geysir gulfoss strokkur thingvellir althing skaholt Comments (0)

It's not so cold...well, it's kind of cold, here...

Day 1 in Reykjavik, Iceland

Lake Tjornin in downtown Reykjavik

So my first thought was, "Nah, it isn't that cold here in Iceland!" Later in the day when the sun went away and we were exposed to the frigid blasts of Icelandic winds, I changed my tune a bit. It is definitely nippy here in Reykjavik when the winds catch you. And as our sunny day turned overcast about mid-afternoon, the hood was up and the alpaca wool gloves were on.

We arrived about 7 am on Saturday morning in Keflavik airport (about 40 minutes away from Reykjavik). At 4:45 minutes, it was my shortest flight to Europe, yet. I never sleep well on planes, but tried to squeeze in at least a couple hours. The only rough part of the trip was transferring in Boston from our USAirways flight to Icelandair. Logan Airport is still in the 1970s, with slow, inefficient buses between terminals. I predict a missed connection next week when we return, but that is just me being pessimistic, maybe...

Statue of Leif the Lucky (as he is known here) donated by the U.S.

Anyway, once in Reykjavik, we caught the Flybus from the airport to the empty bus terminal to a minivan to our hotel. About 5 other parties got off at the same stop, so Jenny and I hustled to be first through the doors. Hotel Klopp is well aware that many tired travelers show up in the morning and has a "milk 'em for some cash" scheme in place. "Normal check in time isn't until 2 pm, but for an extra 30 Euros we have a room ready for you right now!" Heh heh...the Viking spirit lives on in Iceland! Jenny and I took the bait just like the Midgard Serpent did when mighty Thor went fishing for it. Our room - about the size of a Benedictine monk's cell - was clean, warm, but a bit cozy for Jenny. The cost to upgrade to the Abbot's size is $200' so my guess is that we will remain there in hopes of being spared further furies of the Norsemen.

Another view of gorgeous downtown Reykjavik

After unpacking and a brief strategy session, we headed down to the extremely helpful Tourist Information Office. I had a long list of questions for them. Most were whether destinations were feasible in late winter and if places could be visited by public transport, or whether we needed a rental car or to buy a packaged day trip. The staff fielded all my questions well, and Jenny and I made plans to return later once we'd made our decisions. We then headed out into the bright northern sunshine to take a look around town. My day one plan after a transoceanic flight is to do outside things. And since the day was sunny, I pieced together an itinerary on the fly. We had a good time, checking out scenic views of Reykjavik around its downtown lake and from the top of Hallgrimskirkja church. Yes, that is all 16 letters of a typical Icelandic word. The view deserved all its vowels and consonants, but boy, was the wind whipping up there!

Our next big destination didn't work out that well. We were misdirected to the incorrect bus stop and missed the ferry to the island of Vithoey. The sky had clouded over, and the wind was biting harder, so it is probably a good thing. So, instead, we took the time to master the bus system (we think) and dash off to the Saga Museum. Iceland has a number of interesting museums. My thought was to save them for times when the weather proved nasty. We were stretching it a bit to call the afternoon nasty, but it was out of the way enough to justify doing it at a different time than the other ones. In the long run, I'd have to say I'm a bit underwhelmed by the Saga Museum. It was a bit...well, cheesy, to put a word on it. The wax mannequins were realistic. (creepy, almost - to use my 7th graders' favorite word). It just seemed a bit over the top. Too much drama and too little solid history. The gift shop was even cheesier. You'd think a museum with the name of "saga" would have copies of those Icelandic masterpieces of medieval literature for sale, but no. Why do that when you can sell cheesy fur hats, cheesy "Viking jewelry" and fluff books with Viking "recipes"?

Viking mayhem on wax figures in the Saga Museum

All is well that ends well (doubtless in the Viking Phrases book the gift shop had for sale). Jenny and I made it back to the hotel in time for happy hour and a much deserved Viking brand beer. Really. It is good....I swear - no sarcasm! The next 3 days are probably going to be the heart of our trip. We are making like Vikings and hacking up our silver jewelry to pay for 1 package tour followed by two days of a rental car. Toss in a Northern Lights watching package, and the next three days should be awesome if all works out like we've planned. Keep an eye out for my updates because the wireless Internet here kicks Georgia and Armenia's butt like Snorri Sturluson writes a mean saga!

Important safety tip from the fine folks at the Saga Museum...but shouldn't it be preceded by a No..."?

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:41 Archived in Iceland Tagged views hotel museum reykjavik saga hallgrímskirkja flybus klopp Comments (0)

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