The fast and comfortable Afrosiyob train brought us from Bukhara to Samarkand in the evening.
In vain we searched for the downtown bus and then negotiated a ride with the driver of a beat up taxi to our little hotel close to Registan. Thank goodness for any and all remnants of Mirek’s school Russian! Yes, you can operate with simple English, but fluent Russian is spoken by everyone. After we dropped off our bags and took a look at the lovely green courtyard and colorful furnishings
I made Mirek go out again. We walked a few minutes to Registan, the heart of Samarkand, as I couldn’t wait to see it all beautifully lit in a flood of golden light, just like in the many pictures I saw.
I nearly started crying when I beheld the gaudy light show with loud music. To each it’s own, I guess, but I don’t appreciate this kind of “artistic licence” with world heritage.
The next morning we met with Anora, our guide for the day and I was still traumatised and refused to go back. We took a taxi instead to Bibi Khanum mosque. It is still impressive today, but in the 15th century, it was one of the largest and most magnificent mosques in the Islamic world. We started our guided tour by walking through the Siyob Bazar where my soul was soothed by the lovely colors of first spring fruits; orange apricots, red cherries, unripe green plums
and mounds of luscious strawberries
The blue-green tiles of the domes beckoned
and a goofy boy in a blue shirt with green eyes smiled at me and all was good with the world again.
Walking around the enormous mosque we heard plenty of stories. Guides love legends and tales. We were told the well known story of Bibi and the impudent architect who demanded that she allowed him to kiss her on the cheek in order to finish the mosque in time for her husband Timur’s return from war. The kiss left a permanent stain and the architect lost his head when Timur found out. It is in truth Timur that built the mosque in honor of his wife Sara Mulk aka Bibi Khanum (really just a honorific title of “Lady, Khan’s daughter).
Perhaps this is a good time to say a few words about Amir Timur, because Samarkand’s biggest treasures are inextricably connected to this larger than life figure. He was the first ruler of the long and ilustrious Timurid dynasty. He is going down in annals of history as one of the most ruthless conquerors (killing an estimated 17 million people) and at the same time a huge patron of the arts (even if many of his artists and architects were captives brought from afar).
Timur (Iron) or Timurlenk (Timur the Lame) anglicized as Tamerlane was born on the steppes close to modern day Samarkand as a Turkified Mongol. He was quite tall but indeed lame in his leg with a withered arm due to injuries. (Sustained either stealing sheep or in battle – take your pick.) That drawback did not prevent him from conquering the world atop a horse
and taking many wives. Many were widows of rulers of conquered lands, killed by Timur. It was customary to take on the harem of the enemy you defeated. Nobody asked the ladies, but I guess they thought it was a pretty good alternative to being raped and slaughtered.
Beautiful Bibi was one such case and she became Timur’s most favored wife. It did help that she was a direct descendant of Genghis Khan which solidified Timur’s leadership legitimacy. So you see there was much more to picking from the harem of defeated enemy than just a conqueror choosing beautiful spoils of war for himself. In general women, married to or taken as concubines by high powered leaders were always of high birth themselves and offered alliances and diplomatic powers to the men. They had wealth of their own and built and endowed mosques, schools, and hospitals.
For anyone interested in this subject I recommend a fascinating book: The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford, about the impact and legacy of Genghis Khan’s daughters and Mongol queens.
For the arial view of Bibi’s mosque,
we climbed to the mausoleum of the former president Islam Karimov. Here is another of the controversial leaders, ruthless communist authoritarian and the father of Uzbeksitan independent nation. The many devoted visitors there and especially school children on field trips most likely subscribe to the latter notion.
Nearby lays the important Shah-I-Zinda necropolis where many of Timur’s female relatives have been entombed. Normally quite keen on graveyards of all sorts, this one somehow failed to impress. Rather than trying to remember the nieces, wives, and even Timur’s wet nurse, we enjoyed people-watching.
As was a daily occurence we were again besieged by members of a school trip for a group photo.
I quickly took advantage of the situation and asked for some portraits. Every girl was keen to have hers taken and they enjoyed seeing them on my iPhone screen.
Timur himself is NOT buried there. He wanted to be buried in a simple structure in his nearby home town of Sahrisabz but since he died in winter during his military expedition to China and passes were snowed in they put him to rest in Samarkand. He is interred in a mausoleum that was originally intended to be the tomb of his beloved grandson and heir apparent Muhhamad Shah who died young just two years before Timur. It then became a Timurid dynastic mausoleum.
And what a splendid place it is. The outside is just another one of the pleasing brick-tile combos, but it would eventually inspire the glorious Taj Mahal, built by Timur’s descendants who established the Mughal (the very word a corruption of “Mongol”) dynasty in India.
But, oh, the inside… a breathtaking shimmering blue and gold jewel box
cocooning a collection of different sarcophagi from the male Timurid line. Remember, the ladies had their own individual pretty mausolea at Shah-I-Zinda?
It is one of those places that defies description, one simply has to experience it. Preferably without the crowds and loud guides. If I was in charge I would prohibit all guided tours. Explain anything you want outside and then let people just savor the harmony of the space and the deep sense of history. People come here to pay respects.
and say a prayer.
If there was one thing that I absolutely wanted to see in Samarkand it was Ulugh Beg Observatory. He was the grandson of Timur the Great but loved astronomy and mathematics a bit more than conquering and pillaging.
Sixty astronomers and mathematicians were invited to work at the observatory and the celestial measurements they obtained were extremely accurate. Don’t ask me how, there is of course a perfectly logical explanation, but despite going through the excellent museum on site I can not explain any of it. Still, wow, to do that kind of astronomy in 15th century without powerful telescopes and computers and space probes!
The observatory was destroyed by Ulug Beg’s own son soon after he had his father killed on his pilgrimage to Mecca. Very pious, these guys, really!
Married for the first time at 10, Ulugh Beg became a governor of Samarkand at 16, after his own father’s death. He had 13 wives and lots of enemies. When did the dude find time to build observatories and universities?
The University I am talking about is his madrasah in the Registan complex that was known as one of the best universities of Muslim world. It transformed what was medieval Samarkand’s large and vibrant commercial centre where camels unloaded their precious Silk Road cargo into educational center as well. Ulug Beg himself taught astronomy there.
So we have come full circle. After initial evening disappointment I did return to Registan and not only once but thrice: once with the guide, once with Mirek and once by myself. At different times of day with the sun illuminating different parts of the three buildings it revealed many faces and hidden corners.
Opposite Ulug Beg Madrasa an early 17th century governor Yalangtush built its near mirror image – the Sher Dor madrasah. The facade is striking (and memorable) for the two lions/tigers/fantastical cats and human-faced suns chasing two deer that guard the portal, an unexpected return to pre-Islamic Zoroastrian symbolism.
Daring indeed as Islam prohibits depictions of animals or human faces. To get away with it we were told the lions were seen as symbols of students with a hunger for knowledge, the deer as knowledge and the sun as enlightenment. There are also reverse swastikas, which symbolized abundance and fertility in ancient times.
To enclose the square in pleasing harmony, Yalangtush had a third madrasah built on the ruins of a mosque constructed by Bibi Khanum.
Because of its lavish interior, swathed in golden leaf, very much reminiscent of Timur’s mausoleum, it is called Tillya Kari (“the gilded one”). It was to become the city’s main mosque.
We were glad to have structured our trip starting in charming little Khiva and culminating with the lavish Samarkand instead of the other way around.
With the foreign tourists scarce, the interactions with local families were precious.
Before saying goodbye to Samarkand we should not forget to mention the friendly encounter with some special Servas people. For some of you who have been following us from the beginning of our empty nest adventures you might remember our stays with Servas members in New Zealand and Australia. Servas International is an organization that brings together people from around the world to promote peace and understanding.
After many emails exchanged and 2 year delay in our arrival to Uzbekistan we finally met up with Anatoly and Irina who in turn introduced us to their Servas friend Rafik. It felt like we were a living poster child for the international (and local) peace and understanding as Anatoly was of mixed Armenian and Russian ancestry, his wife was Tatar and Rafik Tajiki.
We spent a lovely afternoon at his fruit farm being plied with food at a traditional Uzbekistani or should we rather call it Central Asian feast. The table was overflowing with sumptuous homemade dishes that magically appeared from the kitchen, hidden to our eyes and occupied by the elfin hands of Rafik’s wife and daughter-in-law.
A wonderful send off to the last part of our Uzbekistan travels to Tashkent and Fergana valley.
When our long longed for Patagonia trip had to be cancelled for the third time, not many easy replacement presented themselves in wintry February Europe. At the end it was a choice between Oman and Madeira. Madeira won because I remembered our dentist telling me once that he dreamed of moving to Madeira and opening a dental clinic there. Did I mention we really like our dentist?
While it is easy to fly to Madeira’s one and only Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport directly from Prague it most certainly isn’t easy to land. While our landing was a bit cramped with one wing dipping into the sea and the other scraping the nearby hills, we only realized how lucky we were when we talked to other travelers. We arrived on Monday afternoon but all flights on Sunday and Tuesday were returned or rerouted because of high winds.
And high winds there were. We did look at the weather report before we flew out and were so taken aback by basically 7 days of predicted rain that we paid no attention to the wind. Luckily the high winds also scattered the clouds some, so the first few days it rained just at night and we had great skies for photography.
While Madeira is well known for its subtropical climate and warm sunny weather it was a foggy forest up North that I was most interested in. After a great big breakfast in our cosy B&B we drove up to the hills of Fanal first thing in the morning.
Just a quick stop at the viewpoint of
and hard break for some out-of-nowhere itinerant cows
Bundle up, it is foggy and windy, indeed.
I have seen superb photos of these gnarled Madeira trees in a magazine once and they didn’t disappoint in real life. Clutching my iPhone with frozen fingers I was more than excited for wonderful iconic images of our own. Every day for the rest of the week I debated whether we should go back, but the first impression was so special and strong I didn’t want to disappoint myself.
On the way down the sun started to break through and we soon went from this:
Certainly, the sea is not warm enough for swimming in the winter, but still great to admire.
As you can imagine getting up to these viewpoints isn’t easy no matter what but especially in a car with a MANUAL transmission. The roads are not only narrow but so steep that I had to fight the thought of failing breaks numerous times a day while driving down and close my eyes when the trucks or buses were hurtling towards us on the uphill. Due to Mirek’s many years of driving in crazy places around the world, we escaped unscathed.
It would only take about 4 hours to drive all around the island. The island of Madeira is a temporary dormant volcano about three times the size of the U.S. island of Nantucket, twice the area of the British Isle of Wight, and slightly larger than Singapore island.
It has a fantastic network of roads and unbelievable multitudes of new tunnels that make travel easy. But it also has many deep canyons and ridge roads and portions of old coastal roads that one can still drive. This means fun old narrow one-way tunnels and sometimes a free car wash when you drive under a waterfall.
Now, if you are not lazy old farts like us you have another network to explore. There are more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas that you can walk and many people come to Madeira for exactly this purpose. Levadas are irrigation channels used to bring water to the fields in olden times and many do so till today. But they also offer great exercise and views and some people return each year to walk different ones. There are books and apps and guided levada tours.
We only did a short little levada walk on the last full day of our stay but it was so pretty and full of colorful flowers I was sorry we hadn’t considered doing more.
We probably would have if we didn’t have a few days of pouring rain in the middle of our stay. So we did some inside activities like the Whale and Wine museum, not both under the same roof.
We did skip the native son Cristiano Ronaldo’s Museum. The closest we came to this soccer idol was parking in the garage of his CR7 hotel. I did make a fool of myself asking what CR7 stands for. That’s how much I know about soccer: zilch, zero. (Just in case you, too, are on my team, it is his initials and his jersey number.)
That meant we had to go to the marina of Funchal, the capital. To our surprise, we found there a perfect replica of Cristopher Columbus’ Santa Maria ship.
Turns out Columbus spent a little time on Madeira, more precisely on Porto Santo, the small island next to it. Long enough to get married and sire his only son. And learn about navigation from the charts of his father-in-law.
45% of a quarter million of inhabitants of Madeira live in the capital, so you can imagine it is pretty dense. Not to mention that pre-Covid nearly a million tourists came in and most stayed in Funchal or close by on the Southern sunnier beaches.
We didn’t spend enough time in the old town to give you a proper report, but it does have the historical charm.
The sad part was that we encountered a small group of Ukrainians protesting the start of the war.
At that point, none of us knew how truly horrendous it will become.
It certainly made the rest of our trip soberer and we felt guilty enjoying the simple luxuries of free life.
Speaking of old, not much of old is left on Madeira outside the historical center. Even the further-flung villages mostly have fancy new houses, some built by Madeirans working hard in other EU countries
or owned by foreigners and foreign retirees. life is very affordable for those, but that, unfortunately means the service industry salaries are kept very low. We had quite a lot of conversations with the young people who all dream of leaving for England or the World.
As a traveler, I have always loved the Portuguese the best. but Madeirans are even a notch above in their friendly, kind, and welcoming ways. From free drinks to free room upgrades they couldn’t do enough to make us feel at home. Our B&B ladies were absolutely darling, our day trip jeep driver was willing to answer any and all personal questions, our car rental attendant made sure we got the best car on the lot.
One evening we were driving “home” when we noticed a beautiful new quinta vacation compound. We stopped to ask for availability. Turned out they were just getting ready for the grand opening the next day but of course, we had to come and try some of their homemade Madeira wine. We ended up staying for an hour talking and laughing with the family and of course, they invited us to the grand opening, too.
We would be amiss not to mention the yummy food. Again, we were plied with huge amounts of side dishes and or extra seafod in our Portuguese version of paella “because we like you”. When we returned for our last meal to the same local restaurant, where they pointed out the local policeman having his dinner and beer, they must have doubled the seafood again.
Madeira is often called The Flower Island and rightly so. Even though the high season and the Flower Festival are held in April or May, already in February flowers were blooming everywhere. From tiny roadside flowers to grand tropical birds of paradise
and clivias there are swaths of color brightening the lush green of the island. The land is at a premium so terraced vegetable gardens are clambering impossibly high and banana plantations are squeezing around the homes.
Many public and private gardens be on for a tour. We managed only one, the Monte Palace Tropical garden, but it was a great relaxing morning excursion before our flight out. At times Madeira reminded us of California or Hawaii, and this garden visit surprisingly brought us back to Japan and the Japanese gardens that we love so much.
They say when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. We say when travel life gives you maddening Corona restrictions make Madeira. It will welcome you with open arms, this Little Island that Could.
The first Icelandic Vikings live on in the Íslendingar (Icelanders) of today. Well, their good parts do: their self reliance, yet close knit community values, hard work, sportsmanship, intelligence, and love of written language. Unfortunately the image of Iceland and Icelandic population has been molded over the years by a variety of very popular TV series showing the original settlers of Iceland as a bunch of ruthless killers
filling all the other peoples with horror whenever they showed up on the horizon in their fast moving open boats. After binge watching Vikings and The Last Kingdom we then laughed through the lighthearted “Norsemen” series. The Viking women and men are portrayed as beautiful and strong, wielding axes and/or swords ferociously while their long blond mane is streaking behind them.
After half an hour glued to our iPad in the darkness of our bedroom, we feel like we have to get up and wash our sheets soaked in blood, before starting another episode. If it were not for the entertainment industry we would have come to Iceland completely uninitiated. There were only a few rare Iceland related flashbacks from the past in my memory:
-in 1972 American wonder child/weirdo Bobby Fisher getting his Chess World title by
beating Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavík (appropriately so, when not plundering or ravaging the Vikings spent long winter evenings playing chess in lighthearted friendly competition),
-in 1986 President Reagan beating the Russians and beginning the end of the Cold War with Perestroyka man General Secretary Gorbachev during the Reykjavík summit (a peace-loving nation without a standing army providing a peaceful milieu for two Nuclear Superpowers?)
-in 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic names are difficult to write and impossible to say)
volcano eruption beating and all together stopping the air traffic over North Atlantic and in Europe for days with 10 million tourists stranded. A devastating mayhem airport precursor to the COVID-19 impact in March 2020.
When we finally land in Keflavík International the first impressions upon arrival are rather confusing as no blood could be traced anywhere while walking from the gate to immigration. Smiling Icelanders guide us through the airport not to the bloodthirsty executioners as we might expect but to young attractive nurses taking us one by one into a private room and….no swords nor knives. Instead they stick long cotton swabs up our nostrils and down our throats to collect samples of our bodily fluids with pleasant smiles on their lips!
All of that in still gentle manner before we are allowed to pickup our Hertz rental and drive to our pre-booked Hilton
to wait there in the luxury otherwise unheard of in the Icelandic history of simple housing. There we are nervously awaiting the ruling on our fate. Positive or negative? Luckily, over the generous breakfast served by lovely Icelanfic waitresses the merciful verdict is handed over in the form of an anxiously anticipated text message:
Thank you, it’s very kind of you, runs through my mind as we embark on our ten day drive, hoping to figure out, amongst other things what kind of transformation converted this bloodthirsty Norsemen tribe to pleasant peace loving cultural society.
We did read that Norwegian Vikings were actually not the first to land here. A few lonely Celtic priests found their way there in 7th – 8th Century AD, but they left terribly disappointed by absolute lack of women on this empty island. About two centuries later in AD874 the history of Viking settlement started when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson
became the first permanent Norseman settler. He landed with his wife and brother on the southern coast. After surviving the first winter he founded Icelandic capital Reykjavík (translated as Bay of Smokes) and the rest is history. Other Norwegians and to some extent other Scandinavians followed, bringing with them slaves, mostly women of Gaelic origin. After about one third of Icelanders very cooperatively signed up for DNA analysis the results prove that indeed their roots are a healthy mix between Nordic Y chromosomes and X chromosomes from the British Isles. Some speculate that some British women might not even have been taken as slaves. They actually followed Norsemen voluntarily! Why? There is an interesting theory that women enjoyed enormously watching those raiders and traders bathing regularly and combing their shiny long hair, thus making themselves attractively clean, nicely smelling creatures, after using a practice unknown to their own men of that time!
In the initial period called The Settlement, Icelandic population ballooned in less than 60 years to above 30,000! Good reproduction activities combined with immigration can produce miracles. And even as Iceland population jumped more than twelve times, now standing at 364,000+ the country is still more or less empty. With total area of about 40,000 square miles it has barely 9 Icelanders per square miles. And with its shore line almost 3,100 miles long and Iceland maintaining a 200 nautical-miles exclusive economic area there can be plenty of space for enthusiastic fishermen and fisherwomen. Less than 120 Iceland residents can enjoying exquisite fishing per each mile of their precious coast.
It did not mean necessarily that the Norsemen would be happy sitting at home fishing and farming. “Go West, Young Man!” was a rallying “Call of the Wild” for them. The North Atlantic some thousand years ago was a much warmer place (the first Global Warming without Greenhouse Gases?) and they happily visited and even settled in a place they called Greenland.
They ventured even further to another dry piece of land they named Vinland which by sheer coincidence was re-discovered by Mr. Columbus some five hundred years later and renamed America.
Unfortunately when arriving in Vinland, some locals were already claiming the living space there. As Norsemen preferred to be Masters of their own Universe nasty conflicts evolved. After killing some, but not enough to change the equation, Norsemen packed, turned around and left for Iceland just content to be killing each other back home! Life in “Splendid Isolation” was hard enough through harsh winters without having to constantly look over your shoulder anticipating the next raid from your neighbors. Living conditions were poor and much energy went into keeping the simple dwellings warm. The dwellings of modern day Icelanders are still quite simple,
but the innovation in clean geothermal energy for heating provides for significant improvement and enjoyment of indoor spaces. The typical housing in the time of Leif Eiríksson,
a super-Star of Iceland history, the first known European discoverer of Americas, can be seen at the historical site called Eiríksstaðír.
It is a former homestead of Erik the Red, a person of almost mythical standing for Icelanders, and father of Leif Eirícksson. When not sailing the vast waters of North Atlantic, contemplating the future of their nation, and occasionally spilling blood, they spent their days and long winter nights in this rather poor housing. This is supposed to be a place for a nobleman, something we would call high end of the real estate market of that time! A longhouse of about 550 sq.ft. area with turf walls five foot thick set on base of rocks. In spite of the walls’ thickness its thermal insulation was so poor, that a permanent fire had to be kept in the long central fire place
filling the interior and lungs of residents with well conserving 24/7 smoke. The original Icelandic forests paid the final price for such poor heating management. Those forests are long gone, and the by-product of their disappearance are enough pastures for those idyllically beautiful sheep and Icelandic horses! If you think the longhouse interior could be a little bit more attractive and comfy you better think thrice. Guiding us through this excellent specimen of architecture was extremely knowledgeable local woman, seen on the photo above in the background. She provided us with interesting details from the life of rich and famous of Norsemen High Society, insight to the treatment of slaves (always very cruel and bloody), the facts of sharing the very private elements of life with the whole family (not always cruel, but not very romantic either,
considering limited square footage available for the number of people and animals during the long winter nights close to the Arctic Circle!), and the ways of solving issues between neighbors (even more blood all over the place). Erik the Red, the original owner of this homestead, was a gentleman with temper running on a very short fuse, always embroiled in disputes. After yet another conflict with the neighbor who killed all his thralls (understand “slaves”) he slaughtered the neighbor in revenge, and was expelled from Iceland. He left for Orkney where he killed two more guys, and on and on and on. Good job, Erik, good job!
By now you would think: “Oh my, is there anything in those times indicating that Norsemen had started mellowing just a little bit?” Well, there were some hopeful signs. If you are browsing throughout the official history of human mankind you would get a strange impression that the other half of humans (with few sweet exceptions like Cleopatra, Mary Stuart, Jean d’Arc, etc ; you know how they ended, right?) were delegated to light physical disciplines such as working fields, collecting firewood and water, weaving warm blankets,
washing dishes, bearing children, treating injuries of their strongmen and after a full day’s of back breaking labor in the last resort of desperation whispering gently in their husband‘s ear:“Anything else I can do for you, honey?” Icelandic women were, I visualize, different. Actually physically quite strong, and remarkably independent they could own property (to the contrary in the rest of Europe women were the husband’s property; oh wow!) and could ask for divorce. To this day Icelandic women continue to build on those strong fundamentals and are considered to be in the position of the most equality in the world. Quite by coincidence we came across the statue of this remarkable strong woman explorer who undertook eight sea journeys!
Her name was Guðríður Þorbjarnadóttir, born AD980 and outlived three husbands. Read on how her special position in the history of Iceland and America is secured forever! Around the year AD1000 at twenty years old, already widowed twice, Gudrid organized an expedition with her third husband Þorfinnur to that piece of North America oothey called Vinland. They intended to settle there and she was the first white woman to bear a child, a son, the first born American of European descend! His name was Snorri, born in Vinland, and we all know the law: “Born in America, American for life automatically!” On the photo above, Snorri is carried on the shoulder of his mom in the memorial raised close to town of her birth on the southern shore of Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Guðríður’s life is a fascinating story intertwined with important figures of history of Iceland. Her second husband was the younger son of our hot headed friend Erik the Red. Gudrid was mentioned in historical sagas
Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders. Guðríður converted from paganism of early Norsemen settlers to Christianity, and some of her descendants were either Bishops (males) or spouses of Bishops (females) in Iceland. Her son Snorri built a church at their farm in Glambaer.
Later in her life after the death of her third husband, she traveled to Rome to meet the pope – what an accomplishment for a woman, a single woman. There were not many like her, I remember just Eléonore of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and mother of Richard the Lionhearted. She made it to the Holy Land, a little bit further than Guðríður, but more than a century later. And Eléonore to her advantage was definitely a lady of higher means!
I, as a person with lack of religious belief, do have strong doubts that Christian religious fervor could have seriously contributed to the mellowing of the hard core Norsemen society. The human history teaches otherwise. Probably more effective must have been establishment of Alþingi (“Althing” in English transcript), the oldest surviving Parliament in the world, in the year AD930. Yes, long before Magna Carta, my friends! This body did not have just legislative arm. It functioned as the highest judicial arm of Icelandic self-government; wow! ALL free men could attend Althing, the longest running parliament in the world. Those sessions were usually the main social event of the year and they drew large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal (remember judicial function?) disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travelers. It managed to end the blood feuds and corporal punishments.
The center of the gathering was the Law Rock, a rocky outcrop on which the elected Lögsögumaður guy (Lawspeaker) took his seat as the presiding official of the assembly. For a country with such an early start in democracy and state institutions it is strange to know that it got independence from Denmark only in 1944, when Denmark was too busy being occupied by Germans. It probably helped that at the beginning of WWII British, Canadian and then US forces arrived in Iceland in large numbers. An interesting repeat of history then happened as recounted by our Erikstadir guide. Icelandic women very really really impressed with the spick and span clean shaven soldiers in lieu of their fish smelling compatriots. And you bet that didn’t go down well with the local guys. If you want to see Althing, it is quite close to Reykjavík on the shore of large Lake Þingvellir (Thingvellir) lying on the impressive seismic fault line between
North American and Scandinavian tectonic plates. It was here that Althing was forced by Norwegian king Olaf to accept Christianity as the State religion early on in AD1000. There is a small historical church in this location which
is consistent with simplicity of all religious as well as secular buildings you can find in this country. Of course, with slight exception of Reykjavík and a nice contemporary chain of Foss Hotels we had the opportunity to enjoy a few times during our trip. Move a half millennia forward to see how far the standard of living improved. The progress is quite visible in its front view.
The reduction of turf usage helps visually quite a bit, and where it was still heavily used, the window openings make
its interior space surprisingly lighter as well as the usage of stoves for heating much healthier. The complex has its own church and cemetery around it
always as simple as possible. We found a varied palette of colors for churches, like this beautiful sample in a rather innovative black in combination with white trimming:
Truly a daring design in pure shapes and simple lines on the backdrop of distant, snow sprinkled mountains with a sensitive complement of the sheep family arranged in front of the compound’s front gate every morning and evening by the staff of a nearby luxury hotel for photographic needs of the hotel guests.
Icelanding churches might be small and simple, but they do come in a variety of colors.
Icelandic builders must have faced lack of wood as the forests, mentioned before, were mercilessly decimated for heating. Driving around we came to a small village of Hólar, which was the Episcopal See for Northern Iceland. Hólar’s current church was built in the middle of the 18th century at the site of five other, older ones!
Wars, religious transformations, or fires do not treat wooden structures kindly, so parishioners decided: “Enough is enough! Let us use something more durable!” and erected the church front from the nearby mountain‘s red rock.
You can see in these two pictures taken a few minutes apart, how changeable the weather in Iceland can be. This can not be said of Icelanders, they are steadfastly pleasant and friendly. Here we were welcomed by another knowledgeable guide who knew practically everything about his church and answered kindly all the questions we bothered him with during our long visit. We could not believe our eyes seeing fantastic workmanship and art.
The special surprise were two very old bibles, one in the church itself
and one, a rare copy of Old Testament in Hebrew displayed in the replica of the bishop’s house from 14th century.
All those wonderfully simple and aesthetically pleasing churches of Iceland reminded me of the cultural shock I experienced during my teenage years when I first traveled to the Baltic Coast. After heavy dosage of Central European dark, overly dramatic, heavily gilded baroque churches I could hardly believe that church interior could be almost
unbearably light, pure, and simple, almost gay in its expression. What a feast for the eyes! Everything warmed up by the kindly guide/priest’s presence. His big fluffy dog was a pleasant addition.
We were taken by surprise at how few dogs we encountered in Iceland. Yes, there were some hard working Icelandic sheep dogs out in the pastures, descendants of dogs brought by Viking settlers, but few pets. It seems that Iceland is more of a cat country. It didn’t come by total surprise then to find a bizarre total ban of dogs in the capital. The dog ban was issued in 1924 at a time when the population was overwhelmingly rural (just opposite of today) and Reykjavík was still small, but rapidly growing and overcrowded fishing town. The ban was only lifted in 1984.
Talking about bans, a few years after the dog ban was lifted, in 1989 exactly the Beer Ban was lifted as well, and after 74 years of only drinking wine and spirits the Icelanders could say Skál again with beer. It would not be fair to leave unattended the progress of regular Icelandic housing in the last 50-100 years. Driving around the country you cannot help observe local preferences not to overspend on major ticket items with focus instead on cost effective functionality and comfort. Indeed Icelanders did stop using turf as a cost-effective material and built the simple light comfortable houses (the initial idea for Tiny Houses?) which serve them and us, tourists, very well.
The money saved on the house is then invested in a swimming pool or at least a hot tub. Icelanders are crazy about their hot water baths, another relic of the Viking times.
You can hardly see many Ferraris on the mostly two lane local highways with uniform speed limit which is barely 55 miles per hour and frequent signs banning overtaking on long stretches of straight roads. Only a complete idiot would not figure out that Ferrari is for Icelandic traffic seriously over designed and a complete waste of money! But with no public buses plying the countryside (ok, we did see ONE in our ten days) people do buy lots of cars and there is probably no country in the world where there is such a mix of cars. Icelanders are a brave and hardy stock, and they are used to driving under driving rain and on sleek ice. (And camping on ice, too, brrr). They also love crossing deep rivers and driving on glaciers and not all are smart enough to use big monster trucks so Search and Rescue teams are assured life long secure employment. We did also notice a certain modesty when it came to sculptures and public art.
This one was one of the more grandiose memorials which at first looked more like a decorative pile of rocks.
The Bárður Snæfellsás statue was created by local artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Who was that Bárður guy? He was a half-man, half-troll who lived here after fleeing Norway. Another violent individual involved in a severe family argument, he exiled himself to the Snæfellsnes Glacier. This hot headed guy fortunately did not kill anybody, at least not that I am aware of! For centuries, the locals believed he was their protector and called him the Guardian Spirit of Snæfell.
On the way to this memorial I was slightly misled by my co-traveler (it happens rarely and mostly not intentionally, but still it does and she knows how to get my attention!). I was convinced there was to be a memorial to my favorite writer Jules Verne who located one of his many fictional adventure novel to a volcano
crater here in Snæfellsnes Penninsula. We drove in circles around the Google maps dot proclaiming Jules Verne memorial, but could not find it.
Only partially disappointed by finding this other (for me) impressive piece of art l was happy to admire it for simple use of readily available material. As a matter of fact there is so much good quality rock lying all over Iceland that it would be quite easy to make a killing exporting their rocks all over the world.
The best in our view are the basalt columns (formed when magma cools slowly and cracks into columns) found in many places. On Reynisfjara’s Black Beach
are the most striking hexagonal basalt columns of the Halsanefshellir cave.
They are supposedly the inspiration behind the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík.
We saved this one for our last afternoon. Just as any other Icelandic place of worship we found it blessedly empty, confirming the population’s laidback attitude towards any religion. They prefer to worship the sun in the plentiful outdoor coffee shops.
Hallgrímskirkja Church belongs to (Lutheran) Church of Iceland, the largest denomination in the country. It was not planned for it to be the tallest religious building in Iceland but….the church leaders wanted its spire to be taller just to outshine Landakot’s Church, the cathedral of the Catholic Church of Iceland standing a few blocks away. And their ego beat the State architect’s Gudjon Samuelsson’s design! The church, which is quite recent, from the second half of the 20th century, did not impress on arrival. But it does grow on you, the longer you look at it.
After the stark exterior the interior is a wonderful surprise of luminous light.
Back outside the kids were happily playing around the statue of Leif Eriksson.
No wonder, their parents come up close to the top in worldwide happiness surveys.
They have lost their zeal for shedding blood, and live in harmony and equality.
With so many places closed and few people about due to COVID we had, to our chagrin, less opportunities to meet the locals. But those that we did, were just wonderful.
Here again is my horse guide Helga.
We had such an immediate warm connection that she offered me a summer job on the farm and I was sorely tempted.
Ad here is an artist in Reykjavik, who dropped what he was doing and told us all about his family of sculptors and potters and Icelanders’ affinity for skulls.
I promised in the last blog to tell you about the Shark Sign. We were desperately looking for a morning cup of coffee all over the Snaeffelsness peninsula and came to a farm that was also a big shark museum. Normally we would be really interested in shark exhibits but that afternoon the coffee craving took over. While the museum was opened, its coffee shop was closed. But when the owner Gudjón
saw our need, he opened it just for us and personally made us two cappuccinos and then recounted his family’s history of hard work. And then wouldn’t let us pay for the coffee!
It is fascinating to know that most Icelanders can trace their family roots all the way back to the .first settlers and that despite the fact that they don’t even have family names, but use a patronymic system. Their names are set up from their father’s (occasionally mother’s) name plus ending of son or dóttir. So Stefán Gunnarsson (son of Gunnar) would have a son named Y Stefánsson and a daughter called X Stéfansdóttir. Add to this the fact that you can only pick first names from a list of preapproved names by Icelandic Naming Committe and I don’t know how many people then end up having the exact same names.
Even the nameless brief encounters with fellow Icelandic travellers were lovely. As in willing cooperation of this young lady to model for our photoshoot her hand-made Icelandic sweater at the famous Kirkjufell waterfall.
The sweaters were attractive, but only appropriate for the hardy Icelandic stock of Viking descent, because the wool was way too itchy for us.
We were told that the best way to meet Icelanders is to jump into one of the many hot pots. With the sharp wind always rearing its cold head we were not tempted until the very last day. We spent a few hours awaiting our returning flight’s midnight departure at the man-made Blue Lagoon
disposing of the runoff water from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant, conveniently located some 10 miles from Keflavík International Airport. At this COVID time the normally overcrowded ”spa” was nearly empty and we did not have a chance to encounter many locals, but in the best of Icelandic traditions we submerged in the pleasant water with a free drink in hand. Your choice: non-alcoholic or alcoholic. Guess which for us? No need to guess twice.
P.S. This is our 3rd and last post on Iceland. We are now home in California, enjoying the adventures with our newborn granddaughter.
We still have some posts in the works and would also be happy to hear your suggestions or questions. And yes, our Bucket List continues to grow longer!
Iceland, we have done you wrong! Please forgive us, we will sing your praises, in repentance, forevermore.
Iceland was never high on our Bucket list.
And there were good reasons for that. Firstly, it was, like other Scandinavian destinations, always exceedingly expensive. Secondly, it became excessively crowded, peaking at 2,3 million visitors in a country of only 360,000 people.
Well, not anymore. In this crazy 2020 year of travel, Iceland was empty,
like every other country around the globe. Except that Iceland was incredibly successful in fighting COVID-19 and hence poised to open up to tourists first.
And your intrepid crazyparents were on the first flight from Prague to Keflavík international airport on June 17th.
Despite much trepidation (will the flight go, or the airlines file for bankruptcy first, will they let us in…?) our one and only plane was met with efficiency and speed. After two quick COVID swabs, yes, unpleasant, but free and totally worth it, we were in.
For once Hertz was there, the only rental company opened at night. The girl at the desk was so excited to see us, her only customers, that she gave us a triple upgrade.
And off we went into the late sunset, or actually early sunrise.
That’s the thing, with June days so very long we could drive to all late hours of the night on totally empty roads.
The few local cars we met, whizzed by, or overtook us immediately, stupid tourists following the limit signs.
Well, not only were we forewarned about the speed traps, more importantly, it was lambing season and the sheep moms with their cute little twin babies often wandered into the road.
Our plan was to drive the main Ring Road or Route 1, the only road that goes around Iceland.
Theoretically one could drive its mere 1,332 km (828 miles) in a few days, but with the awe struck photographer on the passenger seat the stops were exceedingly frequent. How could they not be?
We added two days on the Snaefellsnes peninsula and minimized our Reykjavik stay to one last day. A few extra days would have been good, but then, aren’t they always?
Never have we slept so little on any of our travel explorations because even when we finally got to bed, it was impossible to close our eyes. The show outside of the panoramic windows was ongoing and ever-changing.
Just when you would think that the sun has finally set in a blaze of pinks and purples and oranges, there would be a burst of sun rays from the clouds or fog and the sun would start rising again.
Despite the catastrophic weather prognosis of 10 days of 80% rain, the Norse gods smiled upon us and all together we only had two days of drizzle.
We had plenty of sun and dramatic clouds often chased by cold blustery winds.
One day there was even a record-breaking 24 degrees C (75F) which to us seemed a good time to peel off our puffy jacket layer,
while the tough Viking descendants stripped down to shorts and spaghetti straps. No wonder…
As the country’s name denotes we did expect plenty of ice, but found the presence of glaciers so close to the road astounding. It would have been cool to take a super Jeep and go walking on the glaciers, but even with a short hike one could get really close.
For those of you who haven’t met a glacier up close, there is often a lot of black mixed with white, especially nowadays with global warming and pollution.
The one place that was top on my Iceland list was the Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón)
and especially the unique Diamond Beach at its mouth.
I was looking forward to spending some creative fun time photographing the many pieces of ice on the black sand. Alas, this was our one day of rain, so the stop was very short.
Still, a few fun shapes emerged from the shots taken from under the umbrella.
Snow and ice for sure, but what really surprised us was how green Iceland was. From the large swaths of green pastures
munched on by sheep and horses to moss-covered glacier-fed stream banks, glorious green was jumping at us.
And there were many different colorful flowers. Some were tiny, brave, alpine flowers growing in tough rocky conditions
and some were surprisingly scarce radiant Arctic poppies.
The biggest surprise was seeing the enormous areas of blue and purple lupines by the sides of the roads or creeping up the mountains.
Lupines are a nonnative plant, considered by some an undesirable invasive species. It was introduced in the 1970s to help combat soil erosion. When Vikings came to Iceland from Norway in the late 9th century, they found a land so thick with woods they could only explore it by ways of rivers. Very soon they managed to cut all the trees down to build their homes and keep them warm in the long winters. The few forests of trees now standing were replanted only some 120 years ago.
Weeds or no, lupines are an impressive sight that we enjoyed again and again.
Now, where are the famous Icelandic waterfalls, you might wonder and why have you kept us waiting? Well, I guess the waterfalls are an Icelandic cliche, but honestly, they were indeed exceedingly beautiful and each unique, so we never tired of them, even though we are not real waterfall chasers. There are hundreds of waterfalls, small and big, gushing off of the side of mountains and canyons.
Because of the sunny weather we were treated to rainbow shows in many places.
Some waterfalls show two different faces, front
Some are easy to get to, like Godafoss, where the pagan gods’ statues were thrown into the water, if not oblivion, after the switch to Christianity.
Others demand an early morning hike, like Hengifoss.
We have to share all this wild beauty with just a few other travelers, and it feels like we are back in the golden olden days when travelers were few and everyone actually talked to each other and asked for advice on closed roads and opened coffee shops.
Comparing notes is helpful indeed because sometimes road signs have not been removed after winter.
And the roads have not been repaired either… still, we bravely press on and after a lot of bouncing, we arrive at Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.
I guess that is enough waterfalls for now. Then there are other phenomenal sights like geysers and more.
Through futuristic sunflower fields sown thickly with sleek New Age wind mills we slipped into Romania. ￼On small country roads, only occasionally passing a horse and cart loaded to the brim with fresh hay,￼ we sped towards a tiny village of Plopul on Sfante Gheorghe arm of Danube. There we had arranged for a private boat tour and a stay at a restored traditional house. The house was absolutely charming in its authenticity and simplicity except for a crucial detail: it did not have the promised air conditioner. With mosquitos descending with the evening we hightailed it out of there. “No worries, there are plenty of other accommodations on Booking.com,” I said as we turned towards the bigger village of Murighiol. “I am not booking anything until I see it,” my husband was adamant.
Well, let me tell you, only at the height of Sakura season in Japan did we have such a hard time finding a decent bed. I will spare you the crazy details of being turned away from guest houses that showed availability online to people not calling us back with directions to their place. The first night we ended up in a ridiculously overpriced old communist resort where an International conference of Fisheries was in its final stages with a “traditional” music group performing. With the secure knowledge of the air conditioner humming away in our drab room and an introduction to excellent Romanian dark beer I was able to join in the festivities with a few rounds of kolo circle dance. Afterwards I transferred my enthusiasm to killing some nearly frozen mosquitos on the ceiling of our room. Do you know what is the most effective way of their extermination? You take a bed pillow and you throw it up at them with all your might. Compared to a hand or actowel, the large thick pillow surface prevents their escape.
The next morning our search for accommodations continued. It was only through an accountant at a very fancy resort kindly calling her friend that we got a cute apartment at a place that was actually sold out. Our disappointment continued with surly slow services, and mediocre food, including the boniest fish in the world. When we recounted our frustrating experiences to traveling Romanians, they had no good explanation.
“It is the Delta,” said a young chap on vacation with his family. “We don’t get treated any better. Please do not let this spoil your Romanian experience. You will find it much more developed and tourist friendly anywhere else. ” And he was right. At the end Romania was our favorite Balkan country and the Delta, too, redeemed itself at the end.
I absolutely fell in love with the sweet little white and blue thatch covered village houses, many dating back centuries and some beautifully restored. Folk architecture of perfect proportions with lovely hand carved details. In our wanderings through the countryside we came across white and blue churches, too, with gleaming cupolas and golden altars.They were quite a richly adorned apparition in otherwise poor Delta villages.Turns out the blue communities are the descendants of Russian-Ukrainian Lipoveni, the dissenters (Old Believers) from the Russian Orthodox Church, who in the 18th century wanted to escape the persecution of their sect.
But it was the early morning boat trip to the Delta that sealed the deal. To avoid the tourist trail and explore the smaller channels we first drove a good way on the banks past old homesteads and haystacks to the edge of the water. As we climbed into our small floating boat all the troubles were forgotten and our hearts expanded reveling in Nature’s beauty. We soon turned into smaller and smaller channels Some were so narrow we had to watch for reeds and grasses hitting our faces. We saw water snakes and otters, but it was the abundance of bird life that Delta is famous for that had us transfixed. We were in good hands with our naturalist guide Alma, who seemed as excited for every even small encounter as us. The Danube Deltais where river Danube after flowing through nine European countries ends its journey and flows to the Black Sea. It has thethird largest biodiversity in the world(over 5,500 flora & fauna species) spreading over 5,050 square km offering a sanctuary for birds, fish, and animals.Even for non binocular clad non birders the bird encounters are easy and frequent. From small colorful bee eaters to large white tailed eagles birds abound in the quiet of the morning. There are around 300 bird species– and among those, we saw flocks of pelicans, cormorants, wild ducks, geese, storks, herons, ibises, and swans. The Delta is a pleasant resting stop for the migratory birds.It was especially joyous to observe proud papa swans protecting their young by puffing up and patrolling the waters. Did you know nearly 30 bird species mate for life, amongst them three kinds of swans? Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 60% of the Delta is protected from human development and indeed we encountered nary a human being except for a few fishermen. After an exciting day in the Delta appetites are sated by all fish specialties: sliced, diced, smoked, pickled, fried and rolled into phyllo dough. How lucky we have been with the weather! Looks like some rain is coming in. Leaving the Delta it catches up with us just before the Moldova border in the town of Braila on the Danube River. We watch the bride and bridesmaids quickly ushered into a limo and are left with the umbrellas just (singing and) dancing in the rain…