Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Having explored much of many of the sights of the historic city centre, I needed to take a day trip or two to see some important locations near Kraków. There were two main ones: the Wieliczka Salt Mine, which I ended up not going to, and Auschwitz Concentration Camp. I booked a tour with my hostel and waited to be picked up the following morning.

I saw a minibus drive by outside as I was walking down the stairs and worried that I’d missed it; twenty minutes or so later, I got picked up by a people carrier. I was the last one on. A young American guy in the passenger seat was talking to a couple of middle-aged Danish chaps on the middle seats next to me; there were two or three people in the back row.

The drive out took about an hour. Once we got there, we had some time to use the bathrooms and get some refreshments. As is often the case, no backpacks were allowed, so I left my water in the car. Eventually, everyone was gathered together into a large group consisting of people ferried in in various vehicles belonging to the same tour company. (So I may, indeed, have missed an earlier ride.)

Auschwitz and Birkenau are the German names for a pair of Polish towns, Oświęcim and Brzezinka. Our tour was given by a Polish woman; she had a microphone and everyone was given earphones so we could still hear the tour even if we weren’t close to her. She did a good job; she wasn’t overly charismatic, but she was pleasant to listen to. Her English was near-perfect, but she pronounced ‘prisoners’ like ‘prisoneers’.

Auschwitz was originally a Polish army base, so the barracks were built of brick and they have survived intact and in number where the wooden cabins of Sachsenhausen, for instance, have largely gone. The weather was bright and hot and there were lots of trees clothed in green foliage around the buildings. It had the incongruous seeming of an aspiring middle class housing estate.

We toured through various of the barracks buildings, seeing examples of paperwork, photographs, restored prisoner accommodation and so on. Gruesomely fascinating were the collections of items taken from incoming prisoners – suitcases, shoes, brushes, enamel bowls etc. The pile of children’s shoes and the huge mounds of hair shorn from inmates were especially moving. We went into the crematorium, looked up at the holes in the roof where tins of Cyclone B were poured in to gas the prisoners, and at the cremation equipment itself.

After a short break to look in the giftshops and whatnot, we were taken to Birkenau, a short distance away. Having been built of wood, there wasn’t as much left to see here. There was, of course, the iconic tower building, railway tracks, a train carriage and a row of barracks; the whole area was still surrounded by a forbidding barbed-wire fence punctuated with guard towers. A large group of Israeli students was there when we visited, walking up the rail tracks carrying flags.

The whole place had been built on marshy ground, so disease had been rife. Apparently, working in the barracks cleaning the toilet trough, up to your knees in shit and piss, was one of the better jobs because you weren’t supervised as closely by the guards.

The tour was a little briefer than the leaflets had led me to believe, but it was certainly worth doing. I don’t know how easy or expensive it would have been to have gone on public transport, but I’m pretty sure you could only enter as part of a tour group.

Habiba and I had watched Triumph of the Spirit not long before. While the plot was somewhat lacking in energy – it was based on a true story – the details of life in Auschwitz seemed grimly realistic. Visiting the camp, I saw the same cramped bunks that were crammed full of prisoners, the same yards where people were executed as were depicted in the film.

On the way back, I chatted with the young American – he was quite interested in my experiences in India. I didn’t do much in my remaining time in Kraków – walked around more, took more pictures – especially of the Barbican in the ring of park that surrounded the ring of buildings that surrounded the main square. On my last night, I realised I hadn’t taken a picture of the little toy turtle my sister had given me, so I spent quite some trying to find a spot with enough light and enough shelter from the rain to make a decent photo; I eventually managed this sitting at a table in front of one of the many restaurants waiting for my order. It turned out to be agood opportunity to take some night shots of the illuminated sights (before it started raining, anyway).

I had to move back to a four-bed room for my last night and spoke to a Canadian fellow sharing the room. It turned out he was getting the same EasyJet flight to Gatwick the next day. We got the bus to the airport together and talked of this and that.

My trip home was quite well planned, I think. I would arrive at about one o’clock, get a coach up to Manchester a couple of hours later and arrive there just in time to get the last train to my sister’s village. I had a relaxing lunch at Costa at the airport and the coach left on time.

I hadn’t realised that the Olympic torch would be being run through London at the time, and, with a change at Victoria Coach Station, this would have a serious impact on my journey. The coach to Manchester arrived at Victoria half an hour or so later than it was due to leave. Then there was bad traffic in the capital. The driver called out to other drivers, ‘What’s the best way to the A4?’ on a couple of occasions. Once we were on the road, he took a detour to avoid an accident on the motorway.

So I was an hour or more late arriving in Manchester – too late for the train. I stayed in the coach station all night – leaving only to go to McDonalds for some food (or should that be ‘food’?). Coaches arrived and left several times during the night. The attendant on duty went round waking up people who put their head down to get some shut-eye. I plugged my laptop in to try to get on the internet or do some writing, but the power outlet was key-operated and my computer was low on juice. (This reminded me of a thought I’d had lately that, in the future, coffee shops would probably introduce coin-operated electrical sockets to make more money.)

I bought a ticket for the 6:50 train to Whaley Bridge – £8 or so – early the next morning. No inspector came through the train, though, so I needn’t have bothered. My sister welcomed me at the station with a hug and we walked back to hers. It was the first day of the Olympics and the last day of five months of travel that had started in Korea with Habiba and ended back home in Britain alone.


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The bus from Poprad took me generally north through or around the High Tatras, passing by lots of nice countryside, and to the southern Polish town of Zakopane. Entering the town, we passed a small parade of people in traditional dress and either on horses or in horse-drawn carriages. Once there, I changed some euros for złoty and bought a train ticket for Kraków. Most of the rest of the time, I sat in a café with a drink and my laptop.

I returned to the train station in plenty of time for my train and ate the food I’d brought with me. Earlier, there had been a couple in front of me in the queue at the station and they were asking the woman on the ticket counter if there wasn’t an earlier train. As I sat with my lunch, I saw that there was a train standing at the far platform. Once I’d done eating, I crossed the lines (something you can do in this part of the world) and found that the train was going to Kraków, even though the time was different from the one on my ticket. I got on and then got off again to ask a member of staff on the platform, and was told my ticket wasn’t valid as this was an express train. Express sounded good, so I went and changed my ticket – and got some change back.

In hindsight, the later train I’d originally got a ticket for must have been a super-express, no doubt arriving earlier, even though it left later (the train I took made some longish stops to change direction). Strange, however, that the woman on the ticket desk didn’t give anyone any option to get earlier, slower (and cheaper) trains.

I arrived in the city in the early evening and, after searching around a while for the stop, took a tram to the vicinity of my hostel, Premium Hostel. The hostel’s directions said to get off at the fourth stop, but this was incorrect; I walked a little further to just beyond the fifth stop. The hostel was nice enough – the furnishings were all in pretty good condition and the kitchen was clean and spacious (although the functional bits were a bit limited – there was only one fridge and that was packed with guests’ food). There was a Swedish guy and his son in my four-bed dormitory, who I chatted to for a bit.

I went for a walk to the main square and Wawel Castle (the ‘w’s are pronounced like ‘v’s). All very impressive and beautiful. I came back, picked up some food at a small, 24-hour supermarket on the way, prepared and ate it in the kitchen and went to bed. It was pretty warm in the room – which can be a big barrier to me getting a good night’s sleep – and then another guy came in and started snoring (once he’d got into bed and fallen asleep) loudly and continuously.

I tried to put up with it, but eventually decided I couldn’t, so I got dressed and asked at reception if I could move into a private (well, twin) room. The girl contacted some superior at another branch and then gave me the go-ahead. I spent that and the next two nights in my own room, although I ended up packing all my stuff up before check-out time each morning because I was told I might need to move again – but I didn’t – until my penultimate day, when I transferred back to my original room. The private room was only about £20 a night.

On my first full day in Kraków, I did a lot of walking around. I headed straight for the main square, Rynek Główny (‘Main Square’). This is a pretty huge and beautiful square dominated by three features – the long Cloth Hall or Sukiennice and the Town Hall Tower in the centre, and St Mary’s Basilica on the east side. All around there are shaded tables and chairs belonging to the numerous cafés and restaurants lining the square; I ate at several of these places.

I went up the Town Hall Tower, which contains a kind of mini-museum-cum-gallery. The way up is through original winding stone passageways and staircases lit only by occasional lights and windows. At the foot of the tower is a sculpture of a massive head … or a massive sculpture of a head – not sure which. A nearby sign-pillar was topped with a musical goat.

After that, I had a look in St Mary’s Basilica and then walked towards the castle. On the way, I stopped at the Church of Sts Peter and Paul – which stood out for having a very good – and free – audio guide that directed you to various parts of the church before describing them. I don’t like donating to churches, but I left a złoty or two.

Wawel Castle stands on a promontory, Wawel Hill, overlooking the river, the Vistula and is surrounded by a big wall, grassy slopes and a few trees. I walked around the area, passing by a few souvenir stalls by the riverside and found a statue of the Wawel Dragon – a statue that actually breathed fire every few minutes.


I went into the grounds on another occasion. I didn’t get a ticket for whatever was in there that required a ticket for entry, but I went into the catchily entitled Cathedral Basilica of Sts Stanislaus and Wenceslaus and had a wander round the spacious, grassy courtyard. I didn’t explore it as much as I would have liked – something I’ll have to do if I ever go back to Kraków.

After walking by the dragon statue, I went on to have a look around the Kazimierz area, site of various churches and synagogues and a Jewish Cemetery. Then, back along the river, into the Augustinian Monastery and the adjoining Church of St Catherine and St Margaret.

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Banská Štiavnica is a picturesque town somewhere in the middle of Slovakia. Our drive there was punctuated by a stop in Kremnica and by inadvertant detours caused by the confusing road layout. Once there, Bo dropped me at my accommodation, Hostel 6 (when the young woman on duty opened the front door – which was at the back – I told her I had a reservation and she said, ‘I know’; then she was confused by the fact that there were two of us, but only I was staying) and we went for pizza and a look around. I thanked Botond for everything he’d done for me in the past fortnight and we said goodbye.

In the morning, I did a bit of shopping for breakfast – including getting some individual teabags for about six cents each because I’d left all my tea at So-young’s apartment – ate and then got on with some sightseeing.

The town itself is very pretty, at least in the centre, with lots of cobble stone streets that are pretty noisy when driven over, yellow-painted buildings and various churches.

The Old Castle was an interesting stop. You got a few laminated sheets to read as you went around and could visit all of the towers (one contained cells and torture chambers) and the church in the centre – although the walk up on the inner side of the walls was off-limits.

I walked out to the Kalvária, a big procession of shrines and churches on the side of a hill outside the town, each representing a station of the cross. There were people, lots of youngsters, at work renovating it. The weather was bright and warm and it was pretty tiring. I rested for a while at the top and took pictures of butterflies. On the way back I went through the grounds of the Academy of Mining and Forestry (Banská Štiavnica was very important as a mining centre). It had lots of trees; not so many mines.

When I got to the New Castle at half past four or something, it was closed. There were quite a few people around the entrance; evidently they’d already been told it was closed, but they still hung around. I went back in the morning. It’s a square, white tower that looks a bit like a rocket and contains a modest museum with information about the wars with the Turks. Disappointingly, the only view from the top was through some small windows.

The previous evening, I’d wanted to walk to the railway station to see how far it was, but gave up part-way when a thunderstorm started. I went into a hotel for dinner – I was the only one dining (I had some not-very-spicy spicy chicken and pepper with rice and pancakes for dessert). After visiting the New Castle, I packed up an set off on the walk to the station; it was a fair distance – two kilometres – but it wasn’t too bad. The man at the station (a young guy with long hair and a beard – much like the two men who’d given me my tickets at each of the castles) wrote down all my connections to Poprad for me – of which there were three or four.

Everything went well until my final transfer, when I got on the train coming from Poprad to Bratislava along with the majority of the crowd of people who were waiting. It had arrived at about the right time, but left a couple of minutes early, so I should have known better. Even when the ticket inspector looked at my ticket, she didn’t say anything and I went after her to double-check. Of course, she didn’t speak any English, but she managed to communicate that I should get off at the next stop.

Having gone in the wrong direction for an hour and waited for the right train for another hour, I was about four hours late arriving in Poprad, which is in the north of Slovakia. On the train, I chatted briefly to an attractive, moderately pregnant (‘moderately pregnant’ being midway between ‘slightly pregnant’ and ‘heavily pregnant’) woman who was going home – to Poprad – to see her family. She told me she worked in the Gulf (UAE or Jordan or somewhere – I forget exactly) as a flight attendant for a private jet company.

Poprad Station is pretty big for what seems to moderately sized town (a ‘moderately sized town’ is midway between a ‘slightly sized’ one and a ‘heavily sized’ one). After orienting myself, I made my way to my hotel, Hotel Gerlach – which was just the other side of a park outside the station. Being in a proper hotel is always nice – for privacy if for nothing else. This one was cheap (I was in a twin room) and quite pleasant, considering.

In the morning I had a walk around the town; there’s not that much to see. After lots of toing and froing in one particular area, I located the tourist information centre and found out that getting a train the following day to Kraków would take all day; a bus to Zakopane just inside Poland would be better. I also got information on a couple of lakes in the area that Bo recommended I visit.

I headed back to the railway station and took a train up into the hills. Poprad is a popular tourist destination because it’s in a mountain range called the High Tatras (which sounds a bit like it should refer to the perky breasts of a tall woman). I didn’t many clear glimpses of them because the weather was cloudy most of the time I was there, but some of the peaks I saw were impressively jagged.

The lake at the end of the train journey was the tongue-tripping Štrbské Pleso. When I got there, the place was basically in the clouds, so there wasn’t much in the way of scenery to be seen. I walked around the lake – it was quite pleasant, but very wet – even more so when it started raining in earnest. It was quite touristy – there were lots of hotels and restaurants by the station – but, a short walk away, the small lake was surrounded by forest … I assume – it was impossible to see more than a few metres.

I had been planning on hiking up to the other lake, Popradské Pleso, but in view of the weather (and in view of the lack of a view), I just took the train back. Dinner was a nicely spicy pizza at a popular international restaurant on the main square.

In the morning, I got up early, checked out and headed over to the bus station. There weren’t too many people around, but there were a few. As I was waiting, an elderly woman came up to me and asked me something; I apologised and said I didn’t speak Slovak – but that didn’t stop her trying to tell me something for a minute. At the designated time, I got on the small bus and set off for Poland.

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Zürich to Bratislava was a fairly long journey: three local trains got me to Bregenz in western Austria then I took a seven or eight hour train ride to Vienna and finally another hour on to Bratislava Petržalka, the western, communist-era part of the city across the Danube from the castle and the old town. Botond was there to pick me up and we headed over to his estranged wife So-young’s place; she’d just left for a couple of weeks in Korea.

I didn’t do much sightseeing in Bratislava while I was there. I went into the centre a couple of times and had coffee and lunch at Shtoor, the café Habiba and I had been to when we had been in the city a few weeks earlier. My inclination to sightsee was pretty minimal – I was looking forward to having no responsibilities or schedule. I spent a lot of time on the internet.

On maybe the second or third day there, I managed to drop the shower door on my foot. The injury didn’t seem too bad at first and there was no sign that I’d broken a bone. My foot swelled up a bit and there was a fairly hard lump on my instep close to my middle toes. Afterwards, it developed a purple bruise that spread in a ring across my toes and down the side of my foot over a period of several days. I went out one day, walking to the centre, and when I came back, it was very sore. Bo and I talked about me going to a doctor, but I semi-deliberately prevaricated over it and eventually it showed signs of getting better.

On the first weekend, Botond’s brother, Zsombor (in Hungarian, ‘zs’ represents the ‘s’ sound in ‘measure’), joined us and we (ie, Bo) drove to Austria for a camping/swimming/hiking weekend. With my foot, I wasn’t up for too much hiking, but we found an ‘experience trail’ – a trail leading through a narrow gorge and up a stream with games and activities for children. It wasn’t too long, so I didn’t suffer too much.

We stayed near Erlaufsee, a lake nestled between forested mountains that reminded me a lot of the Lake District. There were probably hundreds of people sunbathing and swimming along its grassy shores. The weather was hot and sunny until early evening when it suddenly turned stormy. I’m not a keen swimmer, but I went for a dip in my borrowed shorts; the water was chilly compared to the air, but not bad once you got used to it. In the evenings, a few fireflies floated around like burning motes from a fire. I’ve never seen fireflies in the flesh before.

On the Saturday evening, we visited Mariazell to have a look at the church and have dinner before returning to our borrowed and partially erected tent. The following day, we visited Lunzer See, another pretty but less touristy lake, had a look at some ski lifts and stopped at Melk to see the palatial monastery on the way back to Slovakia.

The next weekend, Botond took me to Lake Balaton, a large lake in Hungary, where we stayed at a holiday home – actually two homes consisting of a pair of semi-detached houses – along with a group of Bo’s old friends, their girlfriends and a couple of their newer friends. The lake had no actual beach – its shore was ringed by reeds and a concrete wall from communist times – but there were grassy areas nearby for people to set up their towels and whatnot.

I went swimming with the men. Well, only Bo was interested in swimming in earnest; everyone else was content to wade out – the lake bed went down at a very shallow angle, so you could walk out a long way without getting a drop of water above the waist – and throw a frisbee and ball around (in some sort of ball-frisbee combo game that was either just improvised play or I didn’t get at all).

Everyone seemed to speak English pretty well, but I suppose when it became apparent I was quiet, they mostly chatted in Hungarian. Still, it wasn’t a bad experience, just seeing the area and getting some reading done (I was enjoying Lord Jim).

On the second day, Botond and I went for a short bike ride together. Then, after lunch and icecream, everyone went their separate ways. Bo had lent me a Teach Yourself Hungarian book – which I didn’t make too much use of – but I learnt that the Hungarian name for the double-kiss greeting performed by Hungarian friends regardless of gender is a called puszi (sounds like ‘pussy’). I shook hands with the men when we said goodbye (one of whom said ‘Hello’, which functions like ‘ciao’) and puszied the women.

For the rest of the day, Botond took me to some nearby sights – the town of Keszthely and its palace and lakeside area, Szigliget Castle perched on one of several volcanic hills and the mill pond in a town called Tapolca.

Before I left Bratislava I was determined to do some sightseeing on my own and one day took the train back to Vienna to go to Schloss Schönbrunn. Getting to Vienna was easy enough – a return ticket from Bratislava’s main station was about €10. Navigating Vienna wasn’t quite so easy. I thought I’d take the subway but it turns out line 1 is closed, so I had to figure out which tram to take and from where.

I got there eventually, though, and queued up for a ‘classic’ ticket, which grants entry to all visitor areas of the palace and most of the grounds. The audioguide tour was pretty good and it wasn’t too crowded, so it was possible to linger comfortably and get a good look at the Imperial apartments of the Hapsburgs. A couple of my favourite rooms were one completely panelled with black and gold oriental lacquer work and another lined with dozens of frames painted blue to simulate porcelain, the frames filled with oriental-style drawings made by members of the imperial family.

I wandered around the grounds afterwards – much of which is free to access, but my ticket got me into the orangerie immediately behind the palace, the Gloriette up on the hill and the maze and labyrinth (which are mainly for children).

After that, I walked towards the city centre, had a look in the Schottenkirche, passed the film festival going on at the Rathaus and dropped by the Votive Church. Then I got a tram back to the station and the train back to Bratislava. Due to a misunderstanding, I got a bus home while Botond was waiting for me at the station.

It was great to spend time with Botond and to stay in So-young’s very nice apartment. Bo showed me how to make lecso (‘lecho’), a simple Hungarian dish of bell pepper, tomato, paprika and smoked sausage (or egg); we made and ate quite a lot of it. And, although I didn’t spend much time in the historic centre, Bratislava is a very pleasant place to hang out in. For the next stage of my travels, Bo took me to a town in the middle of Slovakia on his way home to Gödöllő near Budapest.

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Katharina, or Aliya, to use her Sufi name, one of the leaders of the camp, took us to the railway station at Biasca and we headed to Zurich for our last night together. We stayed at a hotel – although it described itself as Marc Aurel Apartments on Booking.com (a good website for finding accommodation that I’ve just started using) – that had no reception staff. We had to type part of our reservation number into a machine by the back door (one of the other guests helped us find it), which then produced our key.

We didn’t have long in the city, but, as we’d left early, we had enough time to look around with Isabel, who came over specially from Basel to meet us. We walked around, went to an English language bookshop, Orell Füssli, where I bought the book I’m reading now (you can see the title if you look at the text under my picture at the top right of this page), went to the lake, where the ladies fed crackers and pretzels to a flock of swans that gathered for the feast. Earlier on, I’d bought my ex-girlfriend a Swiss Army Knife as an early birthday present (she later reported that it had been stolen from her suitcase when she flew home).

Isabel went home and we returned to our room. In the morning we exchanged rather strained farewells, and thus ended another phase in both our travels and our lives. She took a train to the airport to fly to the States; I took a series of trains east through Switzerland, through the whole of Austria and arrived in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia once again. Botond picked me up late that evening and I spent nearly two weeks staying with him and travelling together at the weekends.

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The family with whom we stayed in Basel were a family that my girlfriend had been an au pair for several years ago in New Jersey. They consisted of the mum, the dad – who’s worked for a pharmeceutical company in Switzerland for a couple of years – and the young twins, a boy and a girl. They were a nice family – the kids, especially, were charming and full of life.

H was quite happy that we would be spending a week and a half with them. We spent a fair amount of time at hanging out at home. The family’s son and I built a structure out of simple wooden building blocks; we promised to work on another design, but never did. We watched Spaceballs (only a fraction as good as I remember it being), played card games, cooked and ate food.

We didn’t do too much earnest sight-seeing in Basel. We went for a walk around with H’s friend on our first day there, stopping for a champagne truffle from a fancy chocolate shop and to have a look at the rich red town hall.

On another occasion, we took the tram to a suburb called Therwil to watch the son play baseball. H, her friend and I wandered away from the pitch to walk between some nearby fields and pick strawberries.

Another day, we met Isabel, the Basler we’d befriended in Iceland, and her friend Lukas and they took us around. We took one of the small ferries across the Rhine – the boat was connected to a line strung across the river and moved perpendicular to the flow simply by angling its hull one way or another, like a sail in the wind.

We also went to the Basel Paper Mill, a museum housed in an old paper mill dedicated to the history of paper, writing and printing. Although not a big place, it was pretty comprehensive – although the section about modern printing was perhaps too comprehensive (how many printing machines does one need to look at?). It also had lots of hands on stuff to do – from interactive displays that ask you questions and have windows, doors and rollable drums with answers, to activities like calligraphy and paper-making. We both had a go at Japanese calligraphy and each made a sheet of paper from a vat full of watery pulp.

Another time, we took a couple of the family’s bikes and rode out into the countryside, through Therwil and beyond.

Towards the end of our stay, the mum told us that she had a friend who had spare VIP tickets for Art Basel, the ‘Olympics of the art world’. The three of us spent an afternoon wandering around the two buildings – one large building holding a vast array of works by different artists organised by gallery (thus, pieces by the same artist cropped up in various random places) and one hangar-like building adjacent to the first that housed larger artworks.

The whole place was bustling. H’s friend enjoyed pointing out people from the ‘New York’ contingent – expensively over-dressed arty types. Many of the works looked nice, but weren’t too interesting. Some, though, were pretty good. A lot of the stuff in the hangar was impressive for its sheer size. One piece from New Zealand caught my eye because it had some Metallica-related stuff, but it was otherwise uninteresting. The whole experience was reminiscent of being in a popular art gallery – except that it was well-lit and taking photographs was practically de rigeur.

Although we liked Basel and the people, it was not the happiest stop on our trip – we had a bit of a relationship crisis to deal with.

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The day after we got back to Reykjavik, we took it fairly easy. We returned the car to the rental place at the city airport. We went to the flea market – which is held at weekends in a big hall near the harbour – where Habiba bought herself a nice, blue Icelandic woolly jumper. We got hotdogs from a nearby stand that is apparently quite famous; they have a framed photo of Bill Clinton eating there. The hotdogs were pretty bland. We hung out in the Harpa for a bit, taking pictures. Later, we walked out to a beach; there was no way down to the sand apart from climbing down the breakwater-like embankment of boulders. We stayed up top.

The following day, we went on a whale-watching trip, on a boat out into the bay. (This trip was a change to our – well, Habiba’s – expectations. She’d had her heart set on going to the Blue Lagoon, a fancy geothermal spa that’s actually formed from the run-off from a power plant. When I’d told her a day or two before that I wasn’t interested in going there, she’d got upset and told me I needed to bring up my thoughts and objections much earlier – which was a fair point: I’m pretty scared of any face-to-face conflict. She gave up her plans for the Blue Lagoon in favour of going on the boat ride – and I think she didn’t regret it in the end.) We got 10% off with our Europcar coupons; we paid about £35 each, I think.

We boarded the boat, entering through another boat converted into a gift shop with a whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling. We got on board early and snagged places for ourselves at the back of the upper deck. First stop on the trip was ‘Puffin Island’. The guide told everyone that puffin numbers had collapsed in recent years, but that this year there seemed to be a lot more around. We didn’t get to see them close up, but there were lots of them on the small island, more in the water around it and plenty flying to and from the islet, zipping through the air close to surface of the sea.

Next, the boat headed further out into the bay (Reykjavik actually means ‘smoke bay’ – because of the geothermal activity the first settlers saw when they arrived). The guide told to that we would probably spend an hour, maybe two, searching for whales. However, within half an hour we encountered a few minke whales feeding. The guide was very impressed with how quickly we found them and how many we saw; the three-hour trip lasted only two and a half hours for this reason. the guide was kept busy letting everyone know where the whales could be found.

There were maybe half a dozen to ten whales around the boat at various distances – sometimes as close as ten or twenty metres. They swam mostly in straight lines, surfacing a few times in relatively quick succession then arching their backs to dive deeper to feed. Predicting when and where a whale would surface became quite an entertaining guessing game, standing there ready with your camera focused on a patch of sea, set to infinite burst. The limitations of our cameras made it a little frustrating trying to get perfect shots. Still, it was a great experience. On the way back, we saw a distant seal.

In the afternoon, we went to the Reykjavik Art Museum building near the harbour. Habiba was particularly entranced by a house made of wool. I liked the room of works about the USA/USSR summit held in Iceland; there was an interactive piece that measured facial expressions; another focused on the intrigue surrounding a missing Tom and Jerry video tape.

The day after that, we got up early to go on a six-hour tour of the Golden Circle – some of the main natural attraction in Iceland within easy driving distance of the capital. We got picked up at our hostel by one bus, taken a few metres down the road and asked to transfer to another bus, our actual tour bus. The driver narrated most of the journey and he was very charismatic, full of dry humour as well as lots of facts.

First stop was Kerið, a little volcano with a caldera lake – more of a pond, actually.

A little further down the road, we stopped to take a few pictures of Faxifoss, a wide waterfall with a salmon lift – a kind of stream-cum-staircase – thoughtfully constructed to one side.

Next, we visited Geysir, the geysir from which we get the word ‘geysir’. The Geysir geysir itself doesn’t erupt any more since an earthquake that presumably changed the underground watercourses. Instead, water periodically spouts from the Strokkur geysir – every four to ten minutes, maybe. Shorter intervals between eruptions result in smaller spouts. We were there for an hour – including time in the visitor centre – so we saw it go up several times.

After that, we headed to Gullfoss (‘gold waterfall’), a large, split-level waterfall that has a very convenient rock outcrop right next to both stages of the fall.

The driver had promised to try to find somewhere to stop so we could see, pet, take pictures of Icelandic horses. These are a special breed of equine for a couple of reasons: they have six gaits (instead of the normal four – walk, trot, canter, gallop), the extra ones (the tölt and the skeið) being, apparently, very smooth and ideally suited to travelling over rocky ground; they are smaller than most horses and are able to lie on their sides and even roll over – something other breeds can’t do without rupturing their innards. They are keenly protected and once one leaves the country it can’t come back.

Finally, we went to Þingvellir (‘THING-vet-leer’), the site of the original Icelandic parliament or Althing, the world’s oldest currently sitting parliament (it dates from the 10th century). There was no building at the original site – it was just a meeting place. The place is very interesting, though – it’s in a rift valley formed by the movement of the European and North America continental plates moving away from each other.

We stopped in the valley – for far too short a time – then again up at the top of the cliff. And then it was time to return to Reykjavik. It was a very satisfying tour.

The next day, we got picked up again, ferried to a larger bus and taken to Keflavik Airport. From there, we flew to Gatwick. I waited about half an hour or so for Habiba to clear the queue and Immigration; she talked to the officer about the flagging of her passport and was reassured that it was nothing too serious – it just told future officers what had happened previously. Then we caught our separate flight to Basel, where Habiba’s friend picked us up and took us to her home.

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