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Visual Symphony in Svaneti

Natural and man-made beauty

sunny 85 °F

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View of Svaneti from our flight in

This was going to be the highlight of the trip. I'd been telling people I was going to the "Caucasus mountains nations of Georgia and Armenia." Well, now I was finally heading to the Caucasus mountains themselves. The trip there depended on a 17-seater flight that had a reputation for canceling. You can get there by a combination of overnight train and marshrutka mini-bus, but that takes almost two days of travel. To save time, the idea was to fly up and do the train back.

We took a cab from Telavi to the airport rather than the marshrutka. It is little over an hour, and the price was reasonable ($40 for the two of us). A short time after we arrived, they made an announcement that our flight was delayed three hours. Fearing the worst, I began to make backup plans to get there by ground if it canceled. No need to worry, though, as the cloud cover in Mestia lifted sooner than they guessed. They were checking us in just two hours after they'd announced the delay. Once on board the tiny, twin-engine turboprop (De Haviland 6, for my airplane buff friends), we chatted with the captain. He was Canadian, like the plane, and had been hired by the Georgian government to fly the route. He was very interesting, and had spent much of his life flying polar routes for his company, Ken Borek Air (which is what most of their business was). The flight up was spectacular, as we cruised at only 10,000 feet. We watched the terrain steadily climb upwards until we all began gawking at the jagged, snow-capped peaks the plane was banking around. It was a picturesque way to begin a three scenic days in Svaneti - the name for this region of Georgia.

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Mestia's Svan towers - 12th century defensive fortifications

Neither of us were very thrilled with our guesthouse. Once again, a highly recommended Lonely Planet accommodation was lacking. The room was stale and musty smelling. There were (of course) too many guests for the number of restroom/showers. And the water had a tendency to simply go out. No water to flush the toilet, wash your hands or take a shower. I understand that this is a small town in the Upper Caucasus, and that a certain amount of "roughing it" might be required. So, we decided to stick it out. After all, the host Roza was friendly, helpful and spoke English (apparently the only three qualities needed to secure a LP "highly recommended" rating!

With our delay, we had lost a good chunk of sightseeing time. We adjusted our schedule, deciding to just explore the town today, do our day trip to the UNESCO world heritage village of Ushguli tomorrow, and our hike on our final day. The tourist information office was moderately helpful, but had no useful maps of either Mestia or hiking trails. Mestia is incredibly scenic, and it was great just to wander around the small town. Unfortunately, like Telavi, it is essentially be reconstructed right now. The sound of electric saws, hammering and huge construction vehicles is a constant buzz and occasional roar. I've decided that Georgia is going to be an awesome place to visit in two years! Although we weren't crazy about our room, one advantage of this type of accommodation is you meet and befriend other travelers from all over the world.

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Ushguli, UNESCO World Heritage site

One key meeting was with a Ukrainian couple who agreed to join us on our one-day excursion to Ushguli. The price for the car and driver was "per car," so this cut our cost in half. The drive was along a rutted, muddy "jeep road," and dove deep into the mountains, hugging cliff faces, fording streams and jostling us about in the small jeep like a blender on four wheels. I say "small" because they sent a 4-seater for our trip with four tourists and a driver. Those of us in the back seat were crammed in...I think our rear end width exceeded the seat width!

All of us were awestruck when we arrived in Ushguli. The village has more than 20 Svan towers, and looks straight out of the Middle Ages. The stone towers are three stories tall, and were built by extended families as safe points during enemy raids. They loom up all throughout the town of single story, stone cottages. They are four sided and taper to the top, where they widen out into a fighting platform with a wooden roof. There are no doors on the ground level. Ladders would be removed once all the family and valuables were safely inside. Arrow slits allow them to cover neighbor towers, as well as fight off attackers. As we drove slowly into town, I knew the village would be a sight I would always remember.

Ushguli's setting matches its striking look. The village is nestled amid high hills with an outstanding backdrop of snow-capped mountains. It is reputed to be the highest inhabited village in Europe. A rushing mountain stream races through the village, bordered by colorful Alpine meadows. We spent the first part of our 3 1/2 hour visit finding scenic vantage points to photograph the village. Cows, pigs, chickens and dogs wandered by as we went on to poke our way through Ushguli. We stopped in a couple of family-run museums, including one housed in a Svan tower. We worked our way through Ushguli's lower, middle and upper clusters of buildings. Once beyond the village, we climbed a hill with a majestic view of the snow-capped mountains. The mountains peaked through a wide gap between two, grassy slopes. Far away, we could see cattle grazing on the slopes. Nearer, horses cropped the grass or nuzzled one another. A steady breeze blew across the grassland as we ate a impromptu lunch of Cliff Bar and a bottle of water.

Our time in Ushguli went quickly, and soon were were bouncing our way back to Mestia. For our third day, we had decided to escape the stuffy guesthouse and splurge on the town's nicest hotel. Built on a slope above the main part of Mestia, it did not disappoint. We had a clean, Western style bathroom, balcony, and cozy comfort. Of course, at $100 a night, it should be awesome. We had paid only $12 each for Roza's Guesthouse.

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An easier portion of our Mestia hike

Our plan for the day, once we'd checked in and spread our stuff out in the closet and drawers (our room at Roza's had a closet, but it was full of the family's winter clothes!), was to do some hiking. The destination was a hilltop far above town, marked by an iron cross barely visible from below. The tourist information office and guidebook said it was a four-hour hike, round trip. I have a bad tendency to lose trails, but the directions in the guidebook and Jenny's ability to spot the "blazes" - yellow and white marks on stones and trees kept us on track. It was a very hot, cloudless day. Even in shorts, I was quickly soaked in sweat. The trail was steep - incredibly steep, in some places. Eventually, though, it linked up with a jeep track. From there on, the walking was not only easier but much more scenic.

As we hiked, we'd been catching glimpses of the town spread out beneath us through the trees, as well as majestic mountains. The trees thinned out and we were walking through Swiss-style alpine meadows. More mountains began to appear as we steadily ascended. Almost three hours after we began, we finally trudged the last few yards to the cross. We were wrapped in a gorgeous, 360 degree panorama. On all sides, rocky mountains, glaciers, forest-clad mountains, and meadows bright with flowers encircled us. The view was stunning, and everything I was hoping to see in the Caucasus. Even the persistent flies that had buzzed us for the last hour seemed to disappear. We were left with beauty all around, and just as our legs basked in the rest from climbing, our souls drank in the sight.

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Thinking that nothing would surpass nature's beauty, we were given another gift that evening of man's ability to impress. As we dined on the hotel's terrace, we were able to see the entire spectacle of Mestia's more than 30 Svan towers displayed below us like a necklace of yellow stone. The view from the hotel was superb. It only became better as dusk slowly descended on town. Floodlights blazed out to strike a peach-colored glow from the thousand year old stone sides of the towers. Once again, I knew I was seeing a sight I would always remember. Nighttime gave a new dimension to the beauty of the Svaneti landscape. Somehow, modern electric lights, when combined with medieval stone work and God's age-old landscape created a symphony that struck chords in all who saw it. I'd come to Svaneti hoping it would be the highlight of the trip, and it did not disappoint.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 07:04 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia caucasus svaneti mestia ushguli Comments (0)

Tblisi and My Taste of Georgia

End of a monthlong trip

sunny 90 °F

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Former Georgian capital of Mtskheta

The journey from Svaneti - high in the Caucasus Mountains - to Tblisi was a long one full of beauty, boredom and frustration. After way more hassle than should have happened, our previously arranged cab ride to the town of Zugdidi was under way. The hotel forgot to arrange it when we requested it, and had trouble finding someone to do it for the agreed upon price the next day. The drive itself was gorgeous, though. For most of it, we paralleled a wide, chalky green river lined with towering limestone cliffs. Beyond the hilltops was the breakaway nation of Abkhazia - formerly part of Georgia. Once in Zugdidi, we had about five hours to kill before our overnight train to Tblisi. We found a restaurant with wifi and seized the opportunity to update our blogs and such. The train ride itself was a perfect example of why the Soviet Union was such an inefficient nation, doomed to fail. Our Soviet-era train was equipped with first class cabins, one of which we'd booked. They had air conditioning, so the windows were designed NOT to open. The only problem was the AC kicked on only at the train's highest speed. And our route was designed to stop every six minutes or so at the next Podunk town. So, the AC rarely kicked on as we were always accelerating from a stop or decelerating for one. Our cabin was a first class sweat box.

Back in Tblisi, we were dragging a bit from lack of sleep in our sleeper compartment. So, we took it easy, seeing the sights of Tblisi. It was a Sunday, so many of the churches we visited had services going on. We also walked through the riverfront park, saw the gilded Presidential Palace on its hill, and walked across the lit up, techno Peace Bridge. We wandered through bits of the Old Town I had not visited on my first stop. We saw the medieval town walls, the funky Clock Tower and more churches - including one from the 500s A.D.

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worldwidemike and his favorite U.S. president

We continued the historical theme with a visit to the State Museum of Georgia. The jewelry and relics from the pre-Greek, Greek and Roman periods were amazing. The displays were all in English, Georgian and Russian. The artistry of the people with gold was exquisite - tiny, gold lions, ram's head bracelets, turtle pendants - all were done with beauty and style. The other part of the museum dealing with the Soviet occupation was really interesting, as well. I had not realized how deliberately the Soviets had set out to destroy Georgian culture. There were copies of Soviet orders to target and eliminate Georgian aristocrats, church leaders, artists, poets, academics - anyone who could preserve, lead or speak for Georgian culture. Truly, as Ronald Reagan once put it (and there is a park bench statue of him in Tblisis), it was an evil empire. I realize those of Russian descent may be offended by this, but the facts in the museum speak for themselves. The world does not call what they did in Georgia genocide, but it is only one step down from what the Armenian Genocide Museum documented in Yerevan.

The next day would be my last in Georgia. Jenny had asked that I save the day trip to Mtskheta until she arrived. The marshrutka ride to this former capital of Georgia was a quick 15 minutes or so. There were a trio of churches or monasteries we wanted to see. The minibus dropped us off right in front of the first one, the nunnery of Samtavro. The main church was built in the 11th century. The nuns meticulously clean and polish it every morning. They scrub the marble floor by putting steel wool on their shoes and buff the stone until it shines. Unlike in some churches I've visited, where the patrons or nuns or monks seem to tolerate your presence at best, the nuns here were different. One old nun found out what language we spoke, then grabbed one of the younger nuns who spoke English and made her translate the story of the church for us. Both were very sweet and seemed genuinely glad we visited. One of the more interesting parts were two stone sarcophagi where the king and queen who built the church were entombed. The carvings on the white stone told the story of their lives and death. Within the walls of the nunnery, there was also a late medieval bell tower and a tiny church built in the 4th century. St. Nino herself is supposedly buried beneath the church.

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Tiny 4th century chapel at Samtavro

Next, we walked to the cathedral in Svetitskhoveli. The walls surrounding it are impressive, with towers and ornately-carved gates. There was a large crowd of tourists, here, unlike at most places I've visited in the Caucasus. The cathedral inside was massive - every bit as soaring as Alaverdi, near Telavi, Georgia. Surprisingly, you were free to take photographs - even of the centuries old frescoes. The decoration inside the church was thrilling, and rivaled the intricate carving on the outside. We circled it from the outside, too - enjoying the peaceful pine trees and grape vineyard.

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Mtskheta's premier attraction, the Cathedral of Svetitskhoveli

For the next part, we needed to hire a taxi. We wanted to visit a picturesque castle ruin on the outskirts of town, a palace for the Greek era and of course, what most people come to Mtskheta for, Jvari monastery. We knew the supposed going rate for Jvari, and decided we'd pay 10 lari more to include the other two sites. Amazingly, that was the same rate our taxi driver proposed, so we were off with none of the normal price haggling. There wasn't a lot to the castle, but it was perched on a hill above town, and hey! It was a castle...who can resist a crumbling castle ruin with a great view?

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We were both surprised and somewhat disappointed by Jvari Monastery. It is billed as one of the top sites of Georgia. Compared to other churches or monasteries I'd visited on this trip, though, it was very small and plain. It's most impressive aspect is its location on a steep hill overlooking the countryside for miles around. But once you're at the monastery itself, it is not that stunning. Jvari is also known for the carvings on the outside of the octagonal building. One wall of those were being restored and was covered by scaffolding. The carvings that were visible, except for one of two angels over the entrance, were very worn and hard to make out. A potbellied monk dozed at the desk selling icons and candles to light in the chapel. He got up for a breath of fresh air as we exited, so I snuck a picture of him contemplating the view.

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Georgian monk at Jvari Monastery

The final trip to the Hellenistic (think Alexander the Great) era palace of Georgia's Iverian kings, was a wonderful surprise. Expecting little more than a field with piles of stone, we found an excellently signposted and explained site. There were two Roman style baths, a temple, palace, burial sarcophagus and more. It stretched out across the hillside opposite from Mtskheta, giving wonderful views of the town as well as Jvari monastery. We were the only ones there, too. No other visitors, no staff manning the site - just us and what was obviously a labor of love for some historian or archeologist.

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The ruins of Amarztsikhe-Bagineti in Mltskheta

Later that evening in Tblisi, we went down to the riverfront park to take some pictures of the city lit up at night. The castle's yellow stone glowed in floodlights, but it had a hard time competing with the gaudier, flashing lights that bedeck the city like a Las Vegas Christmas tree. The peace bridge is a flood of tiny white lights, while a TV tower atop a nearby hill shoots pulsating green laser beams skyward. Tblisi even has a lighted fountain show like Yerevan. We joined the throngs by buying an ice cream cone, and I savored the tang of black currant on the walk back to the hotel.

It was the end of my monthlong journey in Georgia, Armenia and Karabakh. I had seen many amazing sights over the course of the month. Some images, like the 360 degree panorama of mountains and hills in Svaneti, I know will linger for years. The serene monasteries atop hills, the stone Svan towers rising specter like above rustic villages, and the incredible rumpled landscape of the Caucasus, are tastes of the world that I can still savor in my mind like my black currant ice cream.

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Jvari Monastery overlooking the Hellenistic era ruins of a Georgian town

Posted by world_wide_mike 11:14 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia caucasus mtskheta samtavro svetitskhoveli jvari amarztsikhe-bagineti Comments (0)

Iceland...for Spring Break...?

Some would say I'm flying the wrong direction...!

28 °F

Okay, so I know most Spring Breakers head to sunny climes, like the beaches of Florida or even the Caribbean. And I know that by March most people are fed up with the cold and snow - at least people from Ohio, like me. However, I have been wanting to visit Iceland for more than a decade. And when Jenny and I saw a package including 6-nights hotel and airfare for around $600, we couldn't resist. Sure, there will be things I won't be able to do that I could if I visited in summer. It'll be cold there, but usually no worse than the Midwest of the United States. The Gulf Stream current warms Iceland though its tip touches the Arctic Circle. Add to that the possibility that I might see something I wouldn't be able to if I visited in summer: the northern lights,or aurora borealis. I have been dreaming of seeing those most of my life. One vacation in northern Michigan I went out late several clear nights, hoping to spot them. So far, no luck. Iceland is smack in the middle of the swath where they are most visible, though. With luck and clear nights, I may finally attain that goal.

So, that is only one of the reasons I'm heading to Iceland. I have always been fascinated by Viking history, and Iceland is a living museum of it. Toss in natural wonders like glaciers, waterfalls and geysers, and the lures outweigh the negatives of a nippy spring break in the far north. I leave in 3 days, so look for my updates once again. I hope to have some great stories and photos for readers, soon. Until then, cross your fingers for clear nights and bright northern lights...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 18:03 Archived in Iceland Tagged lights spring northern break iceland aurora borealis Comments (0)

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

Day 1 in Reykjavik, Iceland

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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...

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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.

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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"?

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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!

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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)

Golden time on the Circle

Thingvellir, Gulfoss, Geysir, and more

sunny 42 °F

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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.

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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.

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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!"

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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.

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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...!

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

Wheels, water, and crampons

A day on the south coast of Iceland

sunny 45 °F

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

A Beautiful Lady Named Snaefellsness

Day 4 in Iceland and a drive around a peninsula

sunny 46 °F

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I normally don't like photos of myse,f 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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

Museum Day in Reykjavik

History, history, and guess what else?

overcast 38 °F

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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...!

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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)

Prowling Around Reykjavik

Day Six in Iceland

overcast 46 °F

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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)

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