10 January 2014

Day 7 - London

For the London part of my trip, I really only had a few "must-sees" since I've been to all the major tourist attractions that I want to see (haven't ridden the London Eye and don't plan to!) Since it was a nice and sunny day, I thought it would be a good idea to start doing those, and just be open to changing my plans along the way if something else interesting came up. I think that is something I wish I did more often when travelling; I love the planning part, all the research, making an itinerary. But you lose out on the more spontaneous aspects, and sometimes the best memories come from things you didn't plan. 

I started the day by taking a bus to Waterloo Bridge, so I could stroll the South Bank where I lived during the summer. 
I love the view from Waterloo Bridge, seeing St Pauls on one side and the other the Houses of Parliament. 

After popping into a few shops, I went to invesitgate to see if the skate park was still there, and it was! With new additional artwork being added:

A little further along was the book stalls:

And a walk wouldn't be complete without a picture of my favorite bridge:

It was low tide on the Thames, and it was really tempting to go down on the beach and look for goodies like old pipe stems, and when I found a not-so-sandy area, I went down for a bit of a treasure hunt. 

Only found a few nice pieces of sea glass, or should I rather say river glass...no pipe stems today. 

I stumbled across a stand with brochures for London Walks, which is a really great company I've gone on walking tours with before, and there was one starting in a few hours called "Old London" which spoke of secret beaches and narrow alleys, starting from St. Paul's where I was headed. It gave just enough time between for lunch and a visit to the Museum of London, which is really terrific museum and more relevant to me this time around since I had the chance to visit their archaeological archives over the summer. 

The walk was really good, exploring the City of London, which is its own little entity within London. The City of London was the original square mile of the first settlement; back when William the Conqueror landed, he negotiated with the City to accept him as king and in return they could keep governing themselves, so the City has different priviledges than the rest of London. It's also the financial heart of London, with not many people actually living there. Walking through the alleyways with names like Milk Street, Poultry Street, Garlic Street, you were able to visual how back in medieval times, this was still the financial area, where you went to trade in goods. 

Along the way, we saw of the big sights, but also little areas like a hidden public garden, that if you were just walking by you'd never was there. The tour ended at the Tower of London, one of my favorite castles in England, I don't understand why the Queen doesn't live there! Probably because its overrun with tourists, but its just a great example of a Norman castle. And I learned on the tour that it wasn't so much to keep London safe, but to keep the king safe from the City of London!

After the tour I went back to the halls and warmed up because as soon as the sun went down, it got so chilly! It's good to have a night in after a lot of travelling. 

09 January 2014

Day 6 - London!

My first full day in London began in the rain, how fitting. But it is so much warmer than in Iceland, that I didn't need to wear my super-warm coat nor a hat! I'm staying in the London School of Economics Residences Halls, Rosebery Hall, which they rent out for tourists during spring break. I wish the US would get dorms like the ones here in the UK! Single rooms seem to be the norm here, and though there are shared bathrooms, each room has a sink in it which is super helpful. 

Here is the hall:

One thing I really wanted to do was do some shopping at my favourite UK stores, Primark and Dorothy Perkins. And since it was a rainy day, it seemed like a good plan, so I spent most of the day shopping and took a nap in the afternoon. I kept really weird hours in Iceland, so it was nice to catch up on sleep in my own room. 

The first thing I did when I left the room was head out to a theatre to see if I could grab a £10 day ticket to see a play called Mojo, starring Rupert Grint! I managed to get the last one, and it was right in the front row:
The front row probably isn't the best seat to have in a theatre, since you're looking up, and I couldn't see anything that happened to the extreme left, but the actors were very often standing directly in front of me which was really neat. From the description of the play, it was not at all what I was expecting, but the acting was terrific and its just a fun experience being out at the theatre. Plus seeing Rupert Grint in person; now Emma Watson just needs to do some stage acting and I'll have seen the trio!

After the play I headed straight back to the room - which has a surprisingly comfy bed and pillow - and went right to bed. A more touristy-type day was yet to come the next day!

08 January 2014

Day 5 - Blue Lagoon and then London!

For my last day in Iceland, I decided to spend it at the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal pool, which has been turned into a spa, and it is in the middle of nowhere surrounded by a lava field. The water is this milky blue color from the algae in it and every fifteen minutes its completely new and fresh. It is on the way to Keflavik airport, so the plan was to go to the Lagoon, spend a few hours, then head to the airport, and luckily there is a bus service just for that!

View out the window at 8:30am:

Arriving at the Blue Lagoon:

It was in the 30s but luckily not too windy! I rented a robe so after being in the water I could rush into something kinda warm. 

Different parts were warmer than others, and there was temperature board to let you know; I stayed in the warmest part, 110 degrees, and it was absolutely delightful but you had to keep under the water to stay warm! There was silica mud to put on your face and body in different parts of the lagoon, and my skin felt so smooth when I came out. I spent an hour in the water, then had lunch, and then another 45 minutes. There were also saunas to go in, but I was happy just being in the water. And they have a full service spa, which if I had more time it may have been nice to get a massage in the water. And just a side note, but I've never seen so many adults wearing swimmies than here! 

I'm really glad I went; when I first arrived, I was wondering what exactly I'd do in the three and a half hours I had there, but it was so very relaxing and a nice way to end the Iceland part of my trip. 

Iceland was so much more beautiful than I expected, even though I knew it was supposed to be stunning scenery. I think going in winter really made a difference, because there were fewer tourists, and you felt like you had the view all to yourself, without worrying about people getting into your pictures! Though now I kinda want to go in summer, just to see the difference, and to take advantage of the really long days. I think that was the worst part of the trip, the very few hours of daylight. For both tours, it was a rush at times to fit everything in before the sun went down. 

It was definitely my most adventurous trip in terms of trying different foods...which if you know me, then you know that I'd be perfectly happy eating just bread and butter for every meal. I tried: lamb, puffin (don't hate me!), lobster, squid, and pad thai - out of all those I really liked the pad thai and although I was hating myself for eating it, the lamb was pretty good too. I have to credit Thijs with gently nudging me to try new things; if not for him, it would've been pizza for me every night. Oh and the hot chocolate they make in Iceland is absolutely divine. Would come back just for the hot chocolate alone. 

Then it was onto a plane and to London! As soon as I got on the Tube, I was happy to be back in my favouritest city. Though the scenery is nowhere close to Iceland! I arrived at about 10.30pm at the residence hall, and immediately went to bed. Much more exploring to be done the next few days!

07 January 2014

Day 4 - Golden Circle Tour

I haven't been keeping up very well the past few days - I apologize to any readers! I'm currently in London, having arrived last night, and will now write about the past two days. 

Unfortunately the day of the Golden Circle Tour...I inadvertantly left my memory card for my camera back at the hostel. My excuse is I wasn't thinking straight after having a night with barely any sleep. This is where hostels can be not so good; they are a great way to meet people, but you have no control over who you share a room with. In my room was a mother and a son, and the son was awake playing video games and/or humming until 3am when I finally managed to fall asleep...and he was still awake when I woke up again at 7am! The first thing I did that morning was go down to reception and ask to switch rooms; even though I only had one more night, I really needed sleep. So I currently have no pictures, but will have some eventually, as a friend did the same tour, only in his own car rather than with a group, so saw the same things! Yay for making friends!

The Golden Circle is a loop of famous sights in Iceland; there actually isn't really a gold circle somewhere! The first stop of our day was Pingvellir and in North America - so I was back on the same continent as home! The North American and Eurasia plates meet up in Iceland, where it is pretty clear where one starts and the other ends, as the MidAtlantic Ridge is seen above the ground. There is a beautiful lake in the center of the meeting point, which is sinking at a rate of 2cm per year as each plate pulls apart from the other. We were there before the sun was fully risen, but it was really pretty. Then we walked from above the lake down to where the first Icelandic form of government met, in the 9th century. As we left the sight, we crossed back into Europe! Our guide, Greta, decided to drive the scenic route, which was basically a sheet of ice - but it was really pretty! She did stop once when we spotted some sheep! There were four, a mother and three babies, which she told us was unusual because all the sheep around rounded up in the autumn to spend the winter indoors. So she reported it to the park ranger and someone was heading out to get the sheep - its amazing they were able to survive this long outside, its so cold and the ground is mainly covered in ice. 

Our next stop was at Geysir - there is one specific geysir named Geysir, and its this one that all the others in the world got their name. Unfortunately that specific one is now dormant, but there were quie a few others in the same area, one of which spouted every three to five minutes. It felt like being on a different planet, with all the steam coming up from the ground. And it was also extremely windy once again, so after watching the more regular geysir spout twice, I headed in to lunch. 

A short drive away was Gulfoss, the Golden Waterfall. So earlier I saw the Black Waterfall, and now I've also seen the Golden one! It was a massive, two layered waterfall. The wind was blowing so hard that even being quite a ways away, I got spray from the water on my face. The reason Iceland has so many waterfalls is because it is a geologically young country, and the rivers haven't had time yet to wear away the rock. I also didn't realize how volcanically active Iceland is, plus Greta showed us a report that over the last two days there were over 20 earthquakes in the country, none higher than a 1.6 and they usually feel nothing from them. There is just a lot of activity going on below the surface of the Earth there. And some day Iceland will cease to exist, as the two tectonic plates will eventually pull apart and the country will sink down below sea level; hopefully that is millions of years in the future. 

We had a couple more quick stops for photos, one at another waterfall, and then we headed to my favorite part of the day - we got to feed the Icelandic horses! Greta had brought bread, and she knew of a farm where the horses were really friendly. As we pulled up, the farmer was there feeding them hay, but they immediately trotted over to see what goodies we had. It was really nice having the farmer there, as he explained they were all one family, and the mother horse was 31 and her name was Freya. There was one foal, who was adorable! And they ate right out of our hands, letting us pat their noses and feel their thick coats of fur. That was really special and I'm so glad we were able to do it! Plus I felt like a horse feeding expert, since I knew you had to hold your hand out flat - everyone was afraid of getting bit, and one girl had her mitten get pulled off her hand! 

Then it was back to Reykjavik. With the daylight hours being so short, there was no power plant visit, which I am perfectly fine with, as I'd much rather see the natural sights. It does make me want to come back in the summer though, just to see what everything is like in longer daylight plus to see what the landscape looks like, if it gets more green and things. 

04 January 2014

Day 3- Jokurlason Tour

Today has just been amazing, and it isn't even over yet! I'm beginning this entry during our lunch break (and its 3pm, so its been a very busy day so far) and will finish later tonight, I hope!

After breakfast this morning, where there were many delicious fresh baked breads to choose from, we set out to go to the glacier lagoon. It was still dark at 9am, and the idea was to be at the lagoon as the sun rose. We are now at the south of Iceland, so the sun rises a lil bit earlier, 10:45am! The lagoon is formed from melting ice, which flows into a river and then into the ocean. There are floating little ice bergs, that have broken off the glacier itself, and the color is this opaque bluey-white. I'm doing a terrible job describing it, so here are pictures - and you can see the change as the sun rose:

Then we stopped at what has been my absolute favorite thing so far (and will probably continue to be!): the beach at the end of the river where the ice from the glacier goes into the ocean. Chunks of ice wash up on the black sand...and it is just absolutely beautiful. Clear ice and white ice on the black sand...yeah I love it! 

On our drive to the part of the glacier we would walk on - which is the largest glacier in Europe - Ingo drove us through a village, or rather settlement; I'm not sure these little towns are even large enough to be villages, they are more a cluster of farm houses. He pointed out the school, which has 13 students currently. And this church built in a traditional Icelandic style with turf and stone, from the early 19th century:

Finally the glacier walk! So I'm a bit scared of walking on ice...I always worry about falling, which is something that I did just a few weeks ago walking to work, slipping outside the Fens! Clearly I didn't think things through, otherwise I may not have wanted to walk on the glacier since you are walking on ice - its been warm (high 30s, even was supposed to be 40 today!) and there is no snow cover. We had crampons on our shoes, helmets, and an ice axe! Everything was fine, walking in a line, I was concentrating on looking down at where I was stepping, when someone behind me says "don't look down" and we were walking on a ridge that dropped off on one side! That was a bit scary, and there was one steep part we walked down. But no falling happened! I'm so glad I was able to do this tour, its been an amazing experience to see all these sights, and even though its a bit on the cold side, I think seeing it in winter makes it more stunning. 

This is the part we walked on..

Each dirt line is one year; you can see which years were icier than others:

After lunch we raced to Skafatell National Park to try to see the Black Waterfall before it was fully dark, its normally a 20 minute hike to it, and we did it in 10! It was worth it to see the waterfall set among the basalt columns, especially how the ice froze up almost in a cup at the base, catching the water:

 Once the sun fully set, it was time for a four hour drive back to Reykjavik...which when you are driving, it seems like you are the only one in the whole of Iceland - its a dual lane highway, but rarely were other cars near us and there was just nothing around til we got closer to the city. And while I did nap some, I kept peeking out the window, hoping to catch a sighting of the northern lights! But still nothing. I have one more night tomorrow...and since Thijs has a car...mayyybe we'll get lucky. 

Tomorrow is a tour called the Golden Circle - seeing a geothermal power plant, a few waterfalls, a geysir, and other things! I'm very glad I chose to visit Iceland on the way to London, I love it so far. 

Jokurlason Tour, Day 2

Yesterday was the start of the two day tour to a glacier...and it was everything I imagined and then some! Iceland has such stunning scenery, and it was a very nice day weather-wise - high 30s all day, except for when the wind blew. 

I was picked up by the guide from the hostel at 9am, and we just went straight out until 11pm, visiting so many different sights. Since it was dark at 9am, it took a little bit before I could start taking pictures...this was the first scenerey I could see:

Iceland is very flat, except for the volcanos and glaciers. And I knew there were volcanos, but I didn't realize that all the volcanos are located with glaciers! So when they erupt, they don't just worry about the ash, but there is always a lot of flooding from the snow and ice melting. 

Our first stop was a waterfall, which you are able to walk behind, except that it was too icy...it was hard enough just walking up the path to get close to the waterfall:

It was just amazing to be driving for hours and see no signs of people; there are only about 300,000 in the whole country, most of whom live in/near Reykjavik. Ingo, our guide, told us that it was only in 1974 that they built a road around the entire country; before that, there were places you could only get to by plane. 

My first favorite part of the day was when we stopped to visit some Icelandic ponies! They live outside year-round, and in the winter grow a really thick coat. They are absolutely adorable, we got really close but were told not to touch them, since they are a little more wild than regular horses, being outside all the time. 

Next big stop was another waterfall...this one had a set of stairs next to it, that you could climb for a great view, which I did - over 800 steps! Definitely got the day's work out in!

Then we went to what I was waiting for: a visit to a black sand beach. I had been afraid that the beach might be covered in snow or ice, but it wasn't at all and it quickly became my favorite stop of the day. There is a terrible current here, so even in summer you can't go in the water. I'd love to just lay out on the beach though; what was also strange was there were no shells, no seaweed, absolutely nothing on the beach except sand. 

What the pictures don't show is how extremely windy it was! I never got too close to the top of one of the cliffs, because you could've seriously been blown over. Walking into the wind was extremely difficult, and when it was blowing at your back, it pushed you along. It was just such a constant force; I've felt wind gusts that feel like it could blow you over before, but this was different since it wasn't gusting, it just wasn't letting up! I thought it was interesting that most beaches in Iceland are black sand, from the volcanos, but there are a few white beaches in the northeast, from shells. 

Next we had a very late lunch stop in Vik, which is the village closest to the black sand beaches we visited. 

Unfortunately the sun soon set, and then you have no idea what you are missing outside the window. We spent the night in a village called Hali, close to the glacier lagoon. After dinner, Ingo took us out to try to see the Northern Lights, which he almost didn't because the forecast was for low activity and clouds. We spent an hour and a half outside the glacier lagoon, which was beautiful and eerie in the dark, but no lights. The sky though, when the clouds broke, was amazing - so many stars, quite a few falling stars! Standing on a hill, surrounded by a lagoon, looking up you just felt so very small with these stars beaming down on you. 

It was a day full of amazing sights - I'm excited about what today will bring! We hope to see the sun rising over the lagoon.