Recent Travel Reminders

Travel, even if it’s a short trip away, always opens you up. You have to make decisions along the way, the unexpected may happen, your daily routines might be left for a while, freeing time for something else or a new day rhythm. You remember or refresh things that might be useful, and discard others that are not. I love making lists and my brain starts buzzing with the random, the practical and the sentimental as I make my way to a given destination.

So here’s a selection from my recent trip

Have a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer readily accessible. Or wet wipes. Big fan, yes. And never again shall you be unpleasantly surprised by the absence of soap in the airport bathroom when you eagerly press the dispenser button or hopefully flap your hands in an attempt to activate the motion sensor.

There’s never really a bad time for a cup of hot chocolate, if you want one, but maybe there’s more variety around than Starbucks? And if not, heck, go for that Wifi.

Phones, tablets etc. are indispensable, but sometimes it’s so nice to read an actual book or magazine while waiting for boarding or during train journeys. It’s getting a tinge of rarity around it and rare is chic.

Browsing a good bookshop, if there is one in the train station or airport, is a very absorbing way to fill the time, even a nice ritual I like to follow before departure. It’s kind of like a final tourist activity to do in the place and you might find something interesting to bring home.

Headphones are the ultimate blessing and accessory for anyone wanting to be left alone in their seat, and you don’t have to actually listen to anything – I can’t get over the coolness of that one. Chatting to someone is always easy, but this bubble of time for yourself only before you return to everyday life is just too luxurious an opportunity to pass up.

 

 

 

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Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 2

If you’re thinking where to go out after arriving, especially if it’s closer to the evening, the Bornheim Mitte district is a good suggestion. Just a few minutes on the U4 subway line from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) and get out at the stop called…you guessed it, Bornheim Mitte. It’s a cosy, lively area full of cafés, bars, restaurants and shops, also great for meeting up with friends.

The next day is open to me and I can do whatever I want, so I set off towards a classic destination, the old town, planning to walk around and refresh my memories. Frankfurt’s city center around its cathedral, Dom Römer, had been severely destroyed during air bombings in the 1940s and painstakingly restored since then. Arriving at the square that is still relatively quiet for a Friday morning, I pause to take it all in. It’s a pretty sight.

I’m about to go all around the square first, but then when I start I walk past a sign next to the cathedral pointing towards the entrance to the tower. It seems encouraging and I make the detour. Hamburg doesn’t have a cathedral and I’ve had a hankering for visiting them ever since seeing Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in my youth (yes, I know the book is vastly different) and going on my first trip to Paris shortly after. There’s a bit of construction going on around the ticket office of the Dom, I contribute 3 euros to preserving this historical structure and pull open a heavy metal door. It shuts behind me with a resounding bang after I enter.

The next 10 minutes that feel like half an hour are spent climbing a tightly spiraling narrow stone staircase, holding on to a rail on one side and gripping a rope on the other. A few other visitors make their way down as I’m going up and we carefully maneuver around each other, me pausing to let them by. One size stairs fits all! A sign next to a caged door that’s locked despite providing the first view of what seems like a balcony points upwards to the observation deck and I cover a few more flights. So that’s my morning workout and suspense kick sorted, but the views from the top of the cathedral tower are more than worth it. Like this classic one of the Frankfurt city skyline (contributing to the fact that many people think it’s a metropolis – there’s just something about skyscrapers):

Or this one of the Main river:

I love finding a place to get a good view of a city from above when I travel, it just adds something special to your day and provides some reflection time to scope out the area before joining the action on the ground. Going up the cathedral tower was more taxing physically then going down, but going down is also more likely to make you slightly dizzy.  Feeling proud of myself for being a good tourist, I walk around the square, going into every side street and passing a chattering class of French exchange students clearly just beginning their journey through snooty puberty.

I make my way towards the Kleinmarkthalle on foot, everything is close – it’s a covered marketplace that I’ve briefly been to years ago and decide to explore more after a tip from my friend. But first there’s a bookstore right by the entrance that pulls me in. While the massive volumes about Vogue shoes or Hitchcock’s blondes are way out of both my budget and suitcase range, it’s fun to leaf through them, and then I spot a small discounted daily desk calendar for 2019 with screenshots from Disney animated films. And what do you know, I actually don’t have a desk calendar for this year yet. Thank you, Frankfurt.

The market is filled with people, but it’s easy to move along, and colours, food, smells, sounds all take up my attention for a while.

Plenty of stalls offer lunch, and I settle on one that promises homey food. “Here you go, my dear, enjoy and come again,” – well, thank you. The breaded salmon with fried potatoes and a minty green sauce is delicious and it’s fun to listen to what the other diners around me are talking about. After that I treat myself to some homemade chocolates and conclude the day’s walk by doing that thing all the tourists here do.

Frankfurt Winter Weekend, Part 1

The first month of 2019 is coming to an end and even if I already live in a big city, I felt like a city weekend in another city. That’s enough times saying “city” in one sentence! So Frankfurt it is, with the added pleasure of having friends living there.

6 AM rising and successful arrival at the train station in Hamburg with 20 minutes to spare. One of my friends once told me with a smile, incidentally one of the people I’m visiting this time, “The train will not leave earlier.” That’s true! But you never know how other elements of getting to your platform will work out. If you’re going from Hamburg to Frankfurt by train, some of the options available are leaving either from the Central Station (Hauptbahnhof) or Dammtor station. The former is always busy and bigger, the latter is usually quieter and it’s a smaller space.

My early morning train choice was cancelled, something I found out only upon arriving at the platform. Not to worry, my organized (German) thinking switched on. Down to the travel center (Reisezentrum) of the Deutsche Bahn I go. I get a free ticket and a free reserved seat for another direct train. My first adventure of the day, practically a classic for any train traveler, has been mastered. I while away the remaining half hour in the bakery next door and reward myself with a cup of hot chocolate for my common sense. It’s not 8 AM yet, but the station is already bustling with commuters and other travelers rolling their suitcases past me. I think once again that as much as you love playing tourist in the place where you live, it’s good to get out of that zone every now and then by being an actual tourist.

I have a spot at a table by the window, the sun is shining and all around me people are quietly working on their laptops, or reading and watching stuff. There is Wifi, halleluja. I wonder if I’m the only one heading to Frankfurt for a vacation, since it’s the kind of city that typically attracts a steady stream of business people, many of whom take the train due to the good connection as far as long distances go.

Hamburg’s familiarly flat landscape has given way to hilly forests wherever we are now, and so far I see it has snowed here too, like it did in Hamburg last night. I’m not sleepy at all, though very comfortable, and it’s nice to think I didn’t panic one bit when I saw my original train was cancelled. “Oh, so this is what’s happening now, OK.” Looking forward to Part 2.

Reykjavik: Travel Tips for First-Timers

If you go to Reykjavik in September…

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Pack warm clothes!

Not your whole winter wardrobe, but it’s true what they say – layers are the best solution. Comfortable T-shirts, jerseys, cardigans, stretchy sweaters or hoodies, plenty of socks, waterproof coats. Absolute musts: a hat or two (if you’ll have to wear one every day, you might feel like a fresh one at some point); a scarf (or two), gloves and, yes, leg-warmers. I used to think I would only use these as part of an 80s costume, but then a friend clued me in on the real thing during a cold Hamburg winter when the local wind seemed to reach my ankles no matter what I wore. It might be either chilly, or windy, or both in Reykjavik at this time of year, and you can always take them off if it gets warm. They work well with both sneakers and boots, and they are easy to pack while you’re out on a tour or walking around the city. Bottom line: get all this together and test it out at home before the trip. Shopping for suitable outfits and gear in the city is possible, but it will take time and it’s also very expensive.

Shoes!

Everyone’s different, but I would not recommend putting on anything other than sneakers or worn-in, low-heeled boots for walking around the city. Hiking or outdoor shoes are a must. Obviously they can also be used for getting around Reykjavik, which is sometimes quite hilly, but mine, for example, were a bit too heavy for that. If you go out of the city to take in the fantastic  scenery Iceland has or trek around during the Golden Circle Tour, there is no other option than hiking boots. This became especially obvious as soon as we were walking between the tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park or making our way to the Gulfloss Waterfall. The terrain underfoot changed at intervals, and I heard more than one person lamenting their sneakers slipped on rocky outcrops or natural steps one had to clamber up. Be safe!

It’s in the bag!

A backpack with firm, wide straps that don’t cut in to your shoulders, padded back and easy to reach pockets on either side for a water bottle and an umbrella could become your best friend while walking around (after the shoes, of course). Unless you stop for a meal, you might not take it off for a while, just reach for those pockets, so make sure it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging you down backwards.

And a few other useful things to know…

Somewhat by chance I read on a blog before my trip that tap water was safe for drinking in Iceland and that there was no reason to buy bottled water. It was one of the first things I saw on a sign in the airport and in my hotel room. And it’s true! The water is clean and obviously it’s a great way to save money if you do treat yourself to a meal out – just ask for tap water. In many cafes and restaurants you’ll see a counter or a shelf with filled jugs standing at the ready.

Based on this first experience in Reykjavik and around it, women traveling alone can be assured that getting around is comfortable and safe. I wasn’t stared at or approached in any unwanted way. In fact, the only time it did happen was with a group of foreign football fans who were insisting on getting my attention even if I thought I was being clear about wanting to be left alone. True, during this trip I didn’t go out in the evening, because I was simply tired out from walking so much, so I don’t know what the situation is there, but it felt very natural to stop and sit somewhere by myself for as long as I wanted, whether outside or inside, no questions asked. There were plenty of other women of various ages doing the same.

Not just museums offer guided tours, but also various other places – check websites and book a few if you like to do that sort of thing. In most cases the tours are done by locals and it’s inspiring to hear how much they know about the place in question, as well as Iceland in general.

Nature and the unique Icelandic environment are treated with and spoken about with deep respect. This leaves a lasting impression.

The Reykjavik City Card is your ticket for local bus transport and it covers many local museums that round off discovering Iceland’s history.

Download a currency converter app on your phone! This will come in handy when you stop in front of a shop, transfixed by a pair of shoes that turn out to cost 10 times more than your last shopping trip to H&M.

Locals make a calm, relaxed impression. Any question you might have has most likely been asked by someone before you and the FAQ sections on any Icelandic websites you might be using to plan your trip are worth checking out. Otherwise, if you have any particular questions, which often happens in the case of booking a transfer, for example, someone usually gets back to you quickly.

Booking a transfer to and from Keflavik Airport is recommended. It’ll spare you time and effort, as taxi prices might be unpredictable and the whole transfer industry in general is very well organized. Pick-ups can be booked for any time, which was a blessing when I had to get up at 4 AM to catch my flight. The larger transfer companies also have desks right in the arrivals hall in the airport, so you can organize that right there, though it is better to book in advance! Allow time for getting through the airport after arrival and upon departure. It may not be too big, but it gets busy.

Think carefully before you buy a book of spells.

Educate yourself about Icelandic runes and bring back a nice souvenir with a suitable symbol.

And above all, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iceland: The Golden Circle

I put my phone away after taking pictures and spend a long stretch of time just staring at the Gulfloss Waterfall. The air is full of wet mist. The overwhelming beauty in front of me has absolutely nothing to do with us humans. I’d like to cry, but I can’t – maybe there’s simply already enough water thundering down before me in a never-ending stream. Such poetry. In motion. See what I keep doing there?

Before setting off down some steps and a path that brings me closer and closer to the Gulfloss, we are warned that some tourists have previously complained about getting wet on the way. Um. I open up the umbrella I brought with me (Yes! Hamburg rain love shout-out) and proceed.

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A few hours previously I’d boarded the bus to embark on the Golden Circle Tour that I’d booked with Gray Line before I left Hamburg. The scheduled pick-up from my hotel wasn’t as early as for the whale watching tour, meaning I had a bit more time to continue digesting seeing whales before being completely blown away by what I saw on the Golden Circle.

Most of you have probably heard about this tour or come across numerous mentions while doing research for a possible trip to Iceland. The Golden Circle is a wonderful way to get a first and lasting impression of Iceland’s unique natural wonders when you’re based in Reykjavik. It’s not a natural trail, but a carefully developed trip across very good roads, so a drive is a great idea as well, if you’d rather rent a car. I enjoyed the bus trip of roughly an hour out of Reykjavik before our first stop in Thingvellir National Park.

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We walk between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, just a stroll between two continents, as you do, and listen to stories from our fantastic guide about how things worked around here when Iceland’s parliament first started its existence where we are walking now, with new laws been shouted down to the people by an appointed member with exceptionally strong lungs. Slightly higher up from the path we took between the plates, our guide turns her back to us and suddenly shouts something in what sounds like very forceful Icelandic. She then turns back around and calmly explains to her wide-eyed audience that the acoustics worked very well, carrying the information down clearly to the population below.

Before we left the bus, we were told we would hear about the executions that took place here in the olden days. This is something I had not read up on at all before my trip to Reykjavik. What I hear takes me completely by surprise. It’s also very easy to let your imagination surrender when there are no distractions around and you’re not in the city. We stand above a beautiful stream, the rocks in it contrasting with the clear water, the higher tectonic plate visible on one side, and the untouched landscape, except for boardwalks, stretching out in every direction in front of us. The stream becomes both beautiful and terrible as I learn that women, most of them young, were drowned in this very place. The crime? Supposed adultery. If the woman had a child as a result of the affair, or what might very well have been rape, the child was spared, while the mother was doomed. When I ask why drowning was the execution method for the women, our guide said it was simply so. I don’t feel like examining the reasons further. As for being burnt at the stake, according to records only men were executed this way in Iceland, following accusations of sorcery. An interesting twist, if you can call it that, on what one has heard about this macabre part of European history in other countries.

After the revelations at Thingvellir and Gulfloss, we stop to look at geysirs and this provides some natural (literally) levity. I mean, curls of steam, huge jets of water shooting up in the air at regular intervals, that well-known stinky smell (which wasn’t all that intense) and the burbling noises of smaller boiling geysirs, not to mention grown men dipping their hands into puddles your guide expressly asks you not to touch and a sign that the nearest hospital is 62 km away? We also stop at the smaller Faxi Waterfall with its salmon ladder and the Skalholt church, a significant part of Iceland’s Christian history.

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Our guide told us quite a few interesting things about Reykjavik as well – population numbers (some 127,000 compared to roughly 350,700 in the whole country), universities, nationalities, language (based on old Norsk), salmon fishing (there’s a river where the mayor has to make the first catch of the season before everyone else is allowed to fish), chocolate production (it was imported from Poland before the 1930s). The water in Iceland is so clean that we could safely drink from rivers in the area. Eating whale meat is NOT a traditional Icelandic meal, it’s just a horrible thing perpetuated by the tourism industry. Meanwhile, if you really want to go local and get a taste (no puns intended) of history, there are still places where you can try marinated sheep testicles. I spent a while digesting (no pun intended once again) that one before I was able to refocus my brain.

I get plenty of glimpses of volcanoes – it’s mind-boggling to think that they are so close, so sleepy-looking, yet with massive violent potential, while the surrounding landscape with its mix of mountains, rocks and moss, fields and  farms popping up every now and then is encompassing in its tranquility and vastness.

We’re ushered back on the bus at the end of the tour and it starts to rain a little. The clouds are hanging low, there’s a first hint of the day growing darker, and suddenly I get a very strong feeling that we need to go now. It’s been a full day with impressions that will stay with me for the rest of my life, but if we don’t leave now, I’m sure trolls will crawl out from underneath all those mossy rocks. I’ve felt welcome and humble here, but it’s quite possible that the hour of the “hidden people” is drawing nearer, and it’s time for me to go back. I am, after all, yet again a visitor here. I might not have been asked to come, but I’m happy that I was allowed to.

 

Reykjavik: Whale Watching

I woke up feeling nervous and excited, so I guess it was just nervous excitement. Oh my God, I’ve been dreaming about doing this and now the day has arrived! Out on a boat! In open waters! With WHALES swimming around there somewhere! How will I even deal? Will I get sick on board? When was the last time I’d been on a boat other than on a river? Will I be cold? Are those overalls they say you get uncomfortable? Will I be able to hold my camera steady? How will I FEEL if I see a whale? How close will it get? Perhaps I will just sit down on the floor of the boat and cry?

My practical inner voice overrules all these questions and barks to put on some warm tights. A little while later I’m standing outside my hotel. It’s an 8:15 AM pick-up and a quick drive to the Old Harbour in Reykjavik. It’s entirely possible to get there on your own, but since it’s only my second full day here and I’m not yet well versed in local buses, I booked a shuttle. Once at the harbour, all my nerves immediately quiet down. The water is calm, the air smells of seawater, everything is clean and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. I’m also not cold, so I’m definitely dressed right! It’s immediately obvious that you can take your pick of whale watching excursions and companies, all of their small ticket houses lining one side, colorful posters, fantastic promises and Whale, hello there! included. My boat is easy to spot.

In no time at all I board the boat, and I see that our passenger crowd is split mainly in two groups: a laughing, chattering gathering of middle-aged Chinese women who exhibit levels of selfie taking obsession I have never seen before, everywhere on the boat, and a few quiet Japanese couples who carefully snap their own selfies, before sitting down and calmly waiting until we depart. In addition, there’s a smattering of British and German tourists who stick to their own little groups. One poor English guy promptly gets grabbed by one of the Chinese ladies for a selfie and receives no answer to his “Why me?”, except giggles and imperious pointing. We’re going to be a merry party.

The overalls are hanging on the lower deck, lined up by size.

Step one, check the pockets of the suit you picked aren’t torn. Step two, check that all the zippers work. Step 3, read the instructions on how to put on the overalls. Unzip the front and leg zippers, undo the velcro cuffs, take your shoes off, and then one by one, obviously starting with the legs, stick all your limbs in. Whether you take off your coat is up to you, my suit fit comfortably over everything I was already wearing. But, caution! It might be hard to slide your shoes back on and especially to tie them up if you’re wearing sneakers or lace-up ones when you’re all…puffy.

We set sail and it’s wonderful as the boat gets further and further away from the city. Our guide; Diana, reveals that there are sea sickness pills on board, but I didn’t know that they take half an hour to work, so bummer for whoever didn’t think to take one at the beginning of the trip. By the way, there are clearly labeled SICK BAGS all over the boat, and the instructions for the overalls included a request to give it to the crew member “if vomited on” by the point of return. I don’t want to be that person. However, Diana assures us that shouldn’t be a problem as conditions are good. Also, in the 18 years of the company history no one has fallen overboard. I’m feeling fine. Oh, to be at sea.

South Iceland and the waters around Reykjavik are home to porpoises, dolphins, orcas and whales. All of these together are referred to as cetaceans when talking about sightings, so thanks to Diana, who explains this, I learn a new word. Other tips on identifying the possible proximity of a whale: water blowing up (guessed) and a certain smell – fish breath!

About an hour in to our trip we have our very first sighting of a group of white-beaked dolphins at a distance from the boat, but still close enough to see one of them jump out of the water in that fast, graceful arc before it dives again. A collective, quiet “Wow” escapes us and everyone falls silent, now in full-on sighting mode. For picture taking or filming it’s advised to hold on to something with one hand and hold the camera or your phone with the other. Preferably not extending your arm too far out beyond the railing, but that might just be me. The dolphins pop up from time to time as we sail along.

We spot some peaceful porpoises during the next half hour as well – you could say they are the smaller, plumper cousins of the dolphins, and they are adorable, although in length they can reach two meters, which is bigger than my tall dad.

We’re very far out at sea now, and I can’t see Reykjavik’s shoreline anymore. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, Diana is quiet for a while, but I notice the boat is gradually slowing down. Two other small whale watching boats, with passengers wearing life vests and sitting much closer to the water than we are, are sailing at a distance alongside us, and they do the same. Eventually we stop completely. The only sounds I hear now  is the lapping of the water and the occasional seagull. Of course, the shadows playing on the water between tiny waves make you jump a few times. And then…

Diana reports the first whale sighting, and I see it, a long, streamlined dark back just grazing the silvery surface, moving along parallel to the boat, followed by another! The excitement in Diana’s voice can be heard as she explains that is the minke whale, and it’s not often you see more than one at the same time. The two whales follow each other, then disappear beneath the surface and appear again a few minutes later. This YouTube clip gives a good view of what they look like:

I don’t cry, because I simply can’t. The first moment it was clear that something so much larger than any of us, yet so graceful, so quiet, was swimming out there, I became speechless. Seeing a whale strips you of whatever you might have imagined the encounter to be like beforehand and leaves a humbling sense of respect. We were just visitors in this environment that didn’t belong to us, among these beautiful, breath-taking creatures who are still being hunted (don’t support, 100%).

Diana sensibly reminded us during the tour that as with all wildlife, we had to be patient and there is never a fixed guarantee when and where you will see an animal. The company follows a code that is printed and taped up inside the boat. Basically, respect the whales, or the cetaceans, boats can only come closer up to a certain limit, otherwise we wait for them to come to us, not the other way around. Like I said, we are the visitors here.

Reykjavik: Along the Water

After spending some time in the church and losing myself in various streets and shops, I check my phone and then an actual paper map (it’s nice to switch). It looks like I can easily walk to the Harpa concert hall from where I am and make it in time for the next guided tour. It’s an architectural landmark visible from any point of Saebraut and another useful orientation point for walking around. Cloudy skies greet me when I arrive, but every pane of glass of the box fitted atop the staircases inside still reflects and catches the light differently.

The building is still young and our guide tells us of the massive amounts of attention and effort that went in to the acoustic design of the various halls of the Harpa. Wood, felt, moving panels – everything has a role. Each hall has a name inspired by Icelandic nature and while our guide talks, it strikes me once again how patriotic and protective locals are about the unique landscapes and natural wonders in the country. At the end of the tour the meaning behind the name is disclosed. Also based on votes from citizens,  Harpa means “harp” in Icelandic, and it’s also a common female name or surname. Finally, harpa is a month in the old Nordic calendar, and the first day of that month meant the beginning of summer, a time of brightness and awakening. A poetic combination.

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After glimpsing the rocky coastline and the water from one of the Harpa’s many windows, I can’t wait to get there myself. Taking a closer look once I reach the walk, masses and masses of small stones piled straight up meet the eye, each resting in the middle of an enormous rock. The effect is both amusing and impressive. While I do see some tourists attempting to carefully clamber further out and leave some art of their own, I know that most of these must have been left by local trolls in the night.

Walking further down along the water, I eventually catch my first glimpse of The Sun Voyager. I’d guess that most people recognize or have seen the image even before they knew what it was. The sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason is arresting from any angle and it’s fascinating to see it change depending on the light and time of day. What I like most about the concept is that it’s open to interpretation and that there is no single answer to the question about what it actually is.

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On another day I take a peaceful stroll around the Old Harbour area – there’s just something about water that I can’t resist. I’m lucky to catch the harbour in different light and spend some time joyfully snapping, then stop for a delicious meal in the Höfnin restaurant not far away. It’s been a good day.

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