Tuesday, July 15, 2014

falleg ísland

So. I'm a little stunned right now.

You know how they said Iceland is incredibly beautiful? And you'll never want to leave? They were right. Only a little under-appreciative, if you ask me.

It started out on the ride in from the airport, which isn't even the most scenic part of Iceland. Doesn't matter. The rocks jutting out of the ground, the mist rising over the hills - it looked like a land carved by the gods themselves. The colours look so bright that they can't be real. The whole place seems raw, in a very primal way. I can certainly see why they filmed Game of Thrones there. Since my Scandinavia iPod playlist does not cover Iceland (I neglected to fill up on Bjork and Sigur Ros beforehand), I put the show's theme song on instead, and it fit perfectly. Iceland is a land well-suited to the epic.

Reykjavik is a lovely city, totally safe, very clean, with fascinating architecture and lots of funky design, sometimes verging on the dilapidated, though if I had to deal with Icelandic weather I probably wouldn't repaint either. And I think it's part of its charm, really. It has a very similar vibe to the funkier parts of Vancouver, British Columbia. Or maybe certain spots on Vancouver Island. Completely modern in every way, but very conscious of nature and its power.

What strikes me most about Iceland is its uniqueness. It's not quite Europe, it's not quite North America. It's just sitting there in the North Atlantic, doing its own thing. There's nowhere on earth like it. I imagine its isolation has something to do with it. The Icelanders I've spoken to really give the impression that they've cultivated it deliberately, of course. This is one country that's fiercely proud of its culture.

Getting from Copenhagen to Reykjavik was actually my easiest city transfer so far, probably because there are airports involved rather than bus stations. Walk five minutes from my hostel, hop on the Metro, walk five minutes to the airport, get checked in, cram yourself onto one of those weird discount European airlines that charge you to breathe (actually, WOW Air provided pretty competent no-frills service, and it got us there intact, so that's something), take the FlyBus directly to your hostel. Pretty smooth all around. My hostel is nice - the rooms aren't quite as good as some of the other places, but it has a relaxing bar and really cool decor. The first night was, of course, the World Cup, and so I joined everyone in the standing-room-only bar to watch Germany win. (Everyone there was slightly pro-Germany, though we had a ton of sympathy for the sad Argentineans the screen kept showing - and by the time the match was nearly finished, I think most people were team "just-score-a-goal-already".) It was pretty cool to watch the usually professional Angela Merkel jump around gleefully like a five-year-old on Pixie Sticks.

Monday morning, I got up and went to Reykjavik's most infamous attraction. Don't kid yourself. You know what it was.

Honestly, it's not as ribald as it sounds - if anything, it's more of a nature museum than erotic. The whale and walrus specimens were pretty darn impressive, though, and I could hear a lot of giggling. From the other tourists, of course.

I wandered along Reykjavik's main street, stopping in to get coffee and look for souvenirs, then met up with a walking tour for a quick guide to the city centre. Our guide was pretty knowledgeable and funny, and he showed us a lot of weird things that most tourists wouldn't figure out on their own. Reykjavik's downtown is very pretty with a distinct style, and small enough to be managed in one day pretty easily. The entire country is only slightly larger than the region surrounding my hometown!

It happened to be Bastille Day, and in the middle of downtown Reykjavik, I wound up celebrating my first French national holiday.These two French guys had opened a bistro and were celebrating their restaurant's first year. They had a free French buffet! So instead of whale meat and puffin, my first luch in Iceland was frog legs and coq au vin. Can't say I minded. After that, more wandering. I headed up to Hallgrimskirkja, this gorgeous Icelandic church. I know I ranted about Orthodox vs Catholic vs Protestant design earlier, and the Protestants came out losers, but when you think about it - there is a lot of beauty in simplicity. A concept all of Scandinavia seems to have embraced, incidentally.

The next day started early with a trip up to Thingvallir National Park (my computer doesn't do Icelandic characters), home of the Althing and a bunch of waterfalls and geysers. However, I had a slightly more specific purpose in mind. I was going to snorkel.

Now, most of you think of the Bahamas or Hawaii when you imagine snorkelling, and are probably looking at me like I'm insane. Add that to the fact that it was my first snorkel trip ever, and you're probably wondering if I have a death wish. The trip took us through Silfra, a rift near a large lake which basically divides the European and North American plates. At some points, you could literally reach your hands out and touch both continents at the same time. Though you probably shouldn't because of rock slides. The tour company took great care to warn us about the extreme conditions, terrifying everyone present (no one had ever done drysuit before), but the truth is, it really wasn't a big deal. The water is extremely cold - around two degrees Celsius - but the drysuits and undersuits kept us so warm that it was as if we had never entered the water. The gloves aren't enough to hold the water back, and of course there was nothing around the mask part, so my hands and face were numb and purplish by the end, but overall it was quite comfortable. There's a slight current, letting you sort of drift along and appreciate the beauty.

And Silfra is beautiful. The water is crystal clear (and drinkable!), and though there is little to no wildlife, the geological formations are more than enough to look at. I was particularly fascinated with the "now we're in Europe, now we're in North America" thing. And the divers' bubbles - they shone so silvery bright. Sometimes it was so deep that the locals called it "the Cathedral", other times the rocks were so close that we had to crawl. All the colours looked like Day-Glo, and the whole scene was bathed in bright blue. An Icelander told me later that the visibility was considered quite poor that day, as the great number of tourists had kicked up the silt. I never noticed. We were in there forty minutes, and it felt much too short, though we did finish off with some fun cliff jumping - still in the drysuit, of course. Add "snorkelling in Iceland" to the list of Awesome Things Rachael Has Done.

After the snorkel trip, I had to pack and make arrangements for tomorrow's flight. The truth is, my pace has slowed way down since the beginning of my trip. I'm tired. Every night for the past week or so has ended up in a haze, and at this point, I just want to curl up and sleep for a few days - not an option when you're visiting all these cool places. It'll be a relief to snooze in the back of the car all the way home from Winnipeg. I just hope I don't have to be nice to anyone. So today I was lazy, and I regret nothing. However, in the evening I managed to pop over to Harpa Concert Hall, the famous fishy-looking building that is responsible for a good chunk of Iceland's economic woes. What great cultural event was I to see? A travelling symphony orchestra? Maybe a serious Icelandic drama about a farmer named Magnus?

It was a comedy about becoming a proper Icelander, led by a "teacher" with a fantastic gift for physical comedy and a slight obsession with sheep testicles. Sometimes the humor fell flat, but overall it was a great quickie guide to Icelandic culture, including a tour de force 60-second rendition of the sagas. The Canadian jokes ran rampant. Iceland spends a lot of time making fun of Canada, as many of its citizens moved there way back when - my ancestors were among them. I guess you can say I got in touch with my roots - or at the very least, learned how to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull. 

This is my very last post from Europe. Tomorrow, I will fly from Reykjavik to Toronto, staying with friends for a couple of days before reuniting with my family in Winnipeg and driving on to British Columbia. Basically, I took the most roundabout route possible to get home. I'm exhausted and eager to be settled, but in the meantime, I've made some extraordinary memories. These great cities will stay with me forever - especially Stockholm, which is so dear to my heart. It's been a wild ride, folks, and Iceland was easily the wildest and most magnificent stop. I'm ready for my homeland - but saying goodbye to the Nordics is tough indeed.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Another thing that makes me weird. I love the travel part of travelling more than the actual destination. Forget the place I'm about to see - I'm much more excited about driving across Saskatchewan in the midst of a thunderstorm, flying over Turkey with a sky so clear that I can see little villages, or taking the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The bus ride I took from Oslo to Copenhagen the other day was no exception. First, it was really long, and I adore a long day on the road. Second, we passed through three countries while doing so. This gave me a brief chance to be reunited with my beloved Sweden, and to get a glimpse at Goteborg and Malmo (and the former even had "Lisbeth's hospital"!). For most of the trip, I simply sat there and stared out the window, not wanting to miss a second. To get to Denmark, we crossed the Oresund Bridge, which offers an absolutely stunning view of the strait and completely owns Confederation Bridge in this regard. As we crossed the Danish border, my iPod spontaneously changed from ABBA to Aqua. Coincidence? I think not.

On the way to the hostel, I got lost once again, only to be helped by a young woman on her bike. All the Danes I've met so far are very kind and helpful, actually. That the woman was a cyclist is even more remarkable, as Danes on bikes seem to be hell-bent on playing target practice with unsuspecting tourists. I eventually found the place, and honestly, it's one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in. Huge rooftop terrace, an excellent bar/cafe, two (TWO!) outlets per bed, huge storage lockers, a petanque court. Who ever heard of a hostel with a petanque court? I can tell you, once you've found one, you can never stay anywhere else.

My first morning was taken up with wandering around the downtown on a walking tour, where we took in some of Copenhagen's most memorable sights. Disappointingly, when we arrived at Amalienborg Palace, we did not find the Royal Family strolling around in their underwear. However, the tour guide was hilarious and we got a good introduction to the downtown. From there it was the obligatory trip to see the Little Mermaid, then a long, meandering walk back to the hostel, with some shopping along the way. I am dog tired and at this point in the game, it's all about preserving energy - so nightlife is not exactly my game right now. Relaxing with a Coke is about my speed.

The next day, I headed out to Helsingor, which some of you might recognize as Elsinore, the setting for Shakespeare's Hamlet. Apart from the giant (and gorgeous!) castle on the sea, I found a charming little town with a laid-back style (though come to think of it, that vibe just seems to be a Danish thing). The castle is totally worth exploring, too, especially the Royal Apartments. I also liked walking along the water, where you are so close to Sweden you can practically spit there. It was a gorgeous sunny day, and I was at the castle I had dreamed of since Grade 12 English Lit. What could be better?

Getting to Helsingor from Copenhagen is easy. At first I assumed that it would be too far for a day trip, but in fact, it's so close you can get there on the metro. For a return trip, get the 24-hour pass (130 DKK). It's about forty-five minutes each way. The only problem is that currently there's construction on the track, which means you have to change at Klampenborg. A minor issue, but it did throw me a bit when figuring out where to go. (Copenhagen's  transit system is HUGE. In fact, you can even use it to get to Malmo. Imagine, going to another country on your city's system. Europe.)

The weather cooled down a bit - somewhat of a relief, as it's been pretty hot by Scandinavian standards lately - and so I decided to spend the day out at Tivoli. Basically, it's one of the oldest amusement parks on earth. It was part of the inspiration for Disneyland, brings in more visitors per year than the entire population of Denmark, and is beloved by Danes and visitors alike. It's fantastically decorated. It's cheerful. There are tons of things to do for many interests - shopping, food, live performances. But best of all are the RIDES. There were times when I thought I would be catapulted clear into Germany, which was terrifically thrilling. The Demon, their biggest and wildest rollercoaster, is enough to make you cling to the handlebar with white knuckles and pray. It's that awesome. There's also an old-fashioned wooden rollercoaster (reportedly the oldest on earth) and a crazy whirly thing that SPINS you as you are flung a zillion feet into the air. It's AWESOME. If you go, be sure to get the multi-ride pass rather than using the ticket system, as you can pay it off in three or four rides pretty easily.

While on Aquila (a giant spinning monstrosity), I befriended a family of New Zealanders. In fact, I was riding with one of the kids, as there was only the dad and both children were too short to ride unaccompanied. Chatting with the dad (upside-down, I might add), I found out that he not only knows where my hometown is, but has been there to ski several times. This is the first time in a year that I've met someone who knows my city. I was stunned. Go figure.

Tomorrow I am off for a brief visit to Iceland! I'll be exploring Reyjavik and snorkeling. Yes, snorkeling in the freezing Silfra. That's my final stop before arriving - finally - in my homeland. I can't believe it's over so quickly, and yet I'm ready to go home. For now, though, I'll enjoy the precious travel time that's left. I've absolutely adored Denmark. It's chill, it's friendly and laid-back, quite manageable for a solo traveller. Let's hope Iceland is more of the same. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Norske Eventyr

Ah yes. I'm in Oslo. This will be just a short post, as I have to pack before leaving for Copenhagen in the morning (seriously, it was a very quick stop). Let's recap.

I left Stockholm early on the morning of 6th July, feeling pretty sad to do so. For the entire Swedish side of the train trip, I listened to my Triumphant ABBA Playlist (now my Sad ABBA Playlist) and stared at the Swedish scenery, hoping to remember as much as possible. We crossed over to the Norwegian side - since it's Schengen, there was no passport check, just an announcement over the speakers - and suddenly things got a hell of a lot more beautiful. Seriously. This isn't even the prettiest part of Norway, and it was already pretty awesome. I switched over to Aqua and carried on watching the trees.

Arriving in Oslo, I was initially a little disappointed. It's unusually rough-looking for a Scandinavian city, full of shady-looking people and much less of a...well, magical Nordic utopia. The buildings are grayer, the neighbourhoods are a bit dodgier, and you have to watch yourself much more. (On the other hand, I could imagine the Harry Hole books taking place here quite easily, while I must admit that Stockholm seemed a little too perfect for Lisbeth Salander to happen, which I guess is the point Larsson was trying to make. But I digress.) It's very austere and a tad offputting. I had to sort of train myself to feel safe outside, getting more and more confident roaming around each time I went out.

It sounds like a total downer now that I read it, but really, Oslo does have a lot going for it. I had a great hostel. It's clean and has a huge common room, their security is wonderful (huge lockers!), and they even have free breakfast, something which is totally unheard of in Scandinavia. This helped make Norway's insane costs much more manageable. I've even managed to stay under budget the entire time! Will wonders never cease. The weather was mixed, with rain the first day and sun the second. To be honest, I preferred the rain. There's something about mist over the ocean that's absolutely intoxicating to me. I went over to the opera house on the first day and just stared out at the harbour for ages. I'm not a warm-weather person, really - it seems my destiny is to stick with the North.

The first day, I got up and headed over on the Tunnelbana to the Munch museum. It's actually very well done. Most art museums operate on the philosophy of "stick some paintings on the wall and mention his sex life a couple of times", but this one went into serious detail about the scientific roots of his work, the way he created his materials, and even his flirtation with eugenics, which I'm actually kind of impressed they didn't leave out. The Scream is there, of course, along with dozens of his sketches and paintings and prints. I knew next to nothing about him before, and found him quite interesting. No art pictures, but here's the museum.

(I should also add here that although Norway has a reputation for being expensive, most of this has to do with food and accommodation. Attractions are generally comparable to the rest of Europe - maybe a little pricey, but not outrageous.)

After that, it was back to the city centre for a visit to the Nobel Prize Museum, Part II. Since the Peace Prize is given in Norway, and they like to trumpet that fact a bit, they've built their own museum to show it off. It's pretty much comparable to the one in Stockholm, offering nice guided tours (in fact, I'd say Oslo's was better) and a lot of interactive activities. I particularly enjoyed the opportunities they gave guests to express themselves on their Twitter and website, speaking out on anything from the Internet's role in democracy to Malala Yousafzai shout-outs. (They had a whole exhibit on Malala, actually, which I guess is their way of saying "my bad".)

There's a lot of space dedicated to winners who were persecuted for their actions, such as MLK Jr. and Elie Wiesel, and an entire room for Liu Xiaobo's empty chair. You're supposed to sit in it and tweet a picture of it with the #FreeLiu hashtag. As well, there is great emphasis placed on the most recent recipients, which is how I came to learn a lot about OPCW and chemical weapons. They also have children's exhibits and a really interesting gift shop full of books that my wallet (and bulging duffle bag) would love to be able to accommodate. It was a great companion to the Stockholm museum, but honestly left me feeling rather - well, hopeless. Yes, it's supposed to celebrate the people who worked so hard to make this world a better place, but all I could see was the terrible situations that drove them to do so, and the persecution that plagues some of them to this day. Sometimes that one good person just seems so small. I had my cynic hat on that day, I guess.

From there, it was a walk along the water to the Opera House, which is awesome in so many ways. Located along the beautiful harbour, it's basically a giant slanted ramp, which you can climb to the top for an incredible view of Oslo. It's an amazing building, though would admittedly be more fun with some floor wax and a toboggan.

(PS: Skateboarding, for some reason, is absolutely huge in Oslo. You can't turn around without seeing a skate park/almost getting run over by some errant young punk. What gives, Norwegians?)

The next day was sunny and downright hot, which made a nice change from the on-and-off weather typical of Scandinavia. I'm even getting a tan for the first time in my life. After a lazy morning, I went over to Akershus Fortress, which holds several military museums and a hell of a lot of interesting architecture. I was most interested in the Museum of the Norwegian Resistance. Through the clever use of model scenes alongside real artifacts from the era, they tell the story of the thousands of incredibly brave and creative "ordinary Norwegians" who fought against the Nazi occupation, sometimes actively seeking to destroy them, sometimes in methods most mundane, though always under an ever-present danger. As I knew next to nothing about Norway's role in the war, it was quite fascinating to learn of its perceived strategic potential to both sides (though it never wound up being a key battleground) and the sheer scale of its citizens' efforts against the Nazis. Their audacity was unbelievable! Just goes to show, never cross a Scandinavian. Winter makes you fierce. 

After this came a walk up to the National Theatre, which features lots of nice parks and squares, and a stop at the Royal Palace. Situated on beautiful grounds, and quite a nice building in its own right, it's a quite suitable location for the Norwegian king (which, by the way, is a role that has only existed since 1905). I spent most of it hanging out with this guard. Who smiles, and even talks, unlike his British counterparts.

Then I took a detour back to the Opera House and sighed over the beauty of this area.

So. Did I fall in love with Oslo? No, not quite. It's an incredibly charming city, though, and I enjoyed its sights and culture. One day, I would like to return to Norway and see more of its countryside, as I am told that this is the nation's true gem, but in the meantime, it was a fun, peaceful (if brief, if expensive) visit. After the emotional intensity of my dear Stockholm, I needed some time to cool down and just enjoy myself, and these days in Oslo fulfilled that perfectly. Tomorrow, I am off to Copenhagen - my last stop on the European continent!