The Old Town: My New Love

On my second day in Stockholm, I decided to check out some of the free museums in the Gamlastad or the Old Town.
On my way to the Medieval Museum, I was distracted by a boutique gift shop, which had some beautiful souvenirs. I was particularly delighted to find some which featured Hello Kitty.

Needing sustenance after shopping, I stopped in a cafe claiming to be Stockholm’s “cutest”. I had a massive lunch of moussaka with a bowl of chai latte and, as previous diners before me had done, I left my mark on the autographed walls.


  

I wandered around the old town, passing important and impressive buildings at every turn!


   

While I attempted once again to make it to the Medieval Museum, it started to pour, so I ducked into the nearest doorway, which just happened to be the Palace Armoury Museum. And it had free admission! The rooms were dimly lit with exposed brick archways and a mysterious atmosphere.

The Armoury had an exhibition focussing on the deaths and funerals of their monarchs. It was fascinating to see all of the costumes and artefacts used over the centuries. I have always been really intrigued by the idea of death masks and this exhibition delivered not one but two for my macabre enjoyment.

            

This exhibition was set up really well for children to understand and had cutouts of the deceased royals explaining who they were. I made sure I got selfies with the important ones.

  

At the end, there was a large play room for dressing up as princes and princesses, but they were all children’s sizes. Luckily, the royal carriage was one size fits all!

In the lower levels were armour, weapons and vehicles. There were gilt carriages pulled by really glamorous mannequin horses and even a royal sled for the winter months!

                            

As I left the depths of the Armoury, I was surprisingly blinded by the sunlight. The rain clouds had been replaced by a brilliant blue sky. I took the opportunity to take some photos of the fleeting marvel, then headed to my original intended destination, the Medieval Museum.

      

The museum houses fragments of medieval walls, complete with a skeleton! There was also a recreated indoor village where one could stroll around. The space was almost deserted, with only a handful of other present day tourists, so it did have the feel of exploring the Stockholm of the past.


  
  
  
  
  
  

In the evening, I was reunited with Taz and Toby, and we celebrated the weekend with kebab-topped pizzas!

 

The next day, we and I returned to the city and were treated to more medieval Stockholm, this time in the form of a fair in King’s Garden!
  

I had my heart set on a boat ride around the canals so we booked a tour of the royal canals, sitting outside for maximum photo opportunities.


  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

The onboard commentary was informative and entertaining, pointing out landmarks such as the retirement home that was mistaken by a foreign navy as the royal palace and detailing the scandal surrounding the marriage of the crown princess to her personal trainer.
The rest of the day was spent eating burgers and shopping for gloves in the city whilst Marcus watched hockey in a pub. A win for everyone!


Dutch Ship Builders, Swedish Royals and Swiss Cheese

On Thursday, I caught the high speed train from Ludvika to Stockholm, acquired an SL card (Stockholm’s GoCard) from a ticket seller who thought I was under 18, then headed to Kungsträgården as per Taren’s kindly detailed instructions.


  
  
When I emerged from the depths of the tunnelbana and into the light, I fell in love with Stockholm at first sight.



  
  
  
The buildings are tall and majestic, intricately decorated and painted in delicate pastel colours, with gold gilt edges that glitter in the sunlight. Despite Stockholmers discarding their waste into the canals for hundreds of years, the water still maintains a deep royal blue, reflecting the sky and the buildings that hug the water’s edge. As you wander through the narrow cobblestone alleyways of the old town, you turn a corner and suddenly there is a statue-filled square, surprise museum or another spectacular waterfront view (or in many cases, all three!)

At the top of my sightseeing list for Sweden’s capital was the Vasa Museum and being the kind of person who takes to do lists seriously, I made this my first stop upon arriving in the city.

The Vasa was a 17th century Swedish warship which sank 1.3km into its maiden voyage after a gust of wind resulted in the boat taking in too much water. Instead of merely admiring the beauty of the preserved and restored wreck, the tour and exhibits roused my inner crash investigator and really made me want to know how all the holes in the swiss cheese lined up to result in such a tragedy.


  
  
  
  
  
  
  

Here are some of the contributing factors from what I could gather…

Refusing to do the bidding of the major stakeholder was tantamount to treason. The ship was commissioned by the king and a lot of the spectacular specifications for the vessel were specified by him as God’s chosen vessel. You can’t question a ship-load of cannons if his majesty asks for it! When your stakeholder asks for something that is stupid (unsafe), you really need to have the ability to say so without fearing the loss of your head.

Despite failing the stability pre-testing, the lord admiral still commissioned the ship. The stability test consisted of 30 men doing a beep test style run across the deck, six times. The Vasa only got to three before it became too unstable to continue. This should have been the point at which the admiral should have refused to sign off on the ship, but he didn’t. We all know it is absolutely crucial that acceptance criteria for testing are defined and adhered to. You can’t just let something that could kill people pass because there is a war with Prussia going on!

There was no actual design. This sounds quite irresponsible, but it was best practice at the time. Ship builders used their experience and intuition to build boats that were proportioned appropriately. However, given this was the biggest warship ever built at the time, one can understand how, without the mathematics to model the outcome, the Dutch ship builders’ “feeling in their waters” just didn’t cut it.  The construction was handed over half way during completion, which would have been a nightmare without any plans!

The gun ports were open and it was windy. This situation was likely to arise given that wind is used to sail sailing ships and the gun ports have to be opened in order to use the cannons. So this really isn’t an excuse.  Perhaps the number of fatalities would have been even greater if these events had happened out in the open sea.

The official inquest found that no one was at fault for the disaster which killed the 30 men and women who went down with the ship, although blame was believed to rest with the shipbuilder who began the construction but who handed over halfway through, and died around the ship’s launch.

The guide at the museum attempted to put a positive spin on the situation; if the Vasa hadn’t sunk in the optimal brackish conditions in Stockholm harbour, we would not have her today.

Accompanying the ship and artefacts in the museum were reconstructions of the victims, based on their recovered skulls. They were incredibly lifelike and it was eerie to be in their presence. Especially, since they had been given names. The one I posed with was called Adam.



#vosstip – If you’re going to this museum look at the times that the English language tour and film showing are, and plan your visit around them.

The Vasa Museum, like the other high-quality Swedish exhibitions that I would see in the following days, was beautifully presented, curated in a captivating way, lit creatively and a Nordic must-see!

Darling Dalarna

For the last nine days, I have been staying in Ludvika in Dalarna, Sweden, with my friend Taren and her precocious ragdoll cat, Toby.

My almost normal blood pressure readings are testament to the incredibly relaxing time I’ve had here in Dalarna, so, instead of a sequential narration of each nap Toby and I took, I’m just going to subject you to the highlights, by topic.

The History

The day after I arrived, Taren and I attempted to find some museums that were open. Darlana has a multitude of tourist attractions relating to “industrial heritage” and railways but unfortunately for me, they only open between June and August. However, we were able to discover one little museet, tucked away in an alley in Borlänge – the CTH Hat Factory Museum! I loved seeing the tools used to handmake the hats, like the shape moulds for all the different styles!

Borlänge (pronounced bore-langer, with an emphasis on the bore due to the lack of interesting attractions) was also the home of a famous tenor and had some golden dalahäst statues that made suitable posing partners for my photos.

Dalahäst are the little wooden horses iconic of Dalarna.  While we were browsing in a second hand shop (one of Taren’s weaknesses), I found some dalahäst to buy as souvenirs, which were significantly cheaper than in the tourist information stores.  They also had a poster explaining the distinguishing features of horses from different areas.   I got a little red horse, which is the popular colour, today, and an orange one, which is the more historically traditional colour.  I discovered when we got in the car that the little red horse had a date written on it and turned out to have the same birthday as Adam, although the dalahäst is a little younger.

On Sunday, while Taren’s husband, Marcus, was in town, we visited the Falun Mine.  This mine is a World Heritage listed site and, at one time, supplied two-thirds of the copper in Europe.  The social impact of the mine was so significant due to the amount of money that Sweden made from the mine and the wars waged from its revenue that it is considered to have changed European history.  Falun mine has produced iron, copper, gold, lead, zinc and silver, as well as the iconic red paint which covers most houses in the countryside.

The mine is said to have been discovered in the 10th century by a goat named Köre who came home one day with rust coloured horns from lying down in ore.  This makes Falun Mine older than the country of Sweden!

We had a wander around the surface and saw buildings where ore was sorted by child labourers and the shaft house with its annoying, but potentially lifesaving, bell, which rings as notification that the pumps are still working underground.  There are also eagle owls who nest in the mine, although we didn’t see them on our visit.  The open cut pit wasn’t actually intentional.  On midsummer’s day in 1687, all the miners were out celebrating when the mine collapsed so no one was injured.  It was touted as a miracle!

We were also lucky enough to visit on a day that the mine museum was open.  It was a brilliant exhibit and I especially enjoyed dressing up in medieval peasant clothes, playing the ore vs rock game and seeing the original mine charter from the 1300s!

Taren had booked the three of us on an underground tour.  We got kitted up in hard hats and rain coats and descended the stairs, knocking on our way in as a sign of respect for The Lady of the Mine.  This mystical guardian had four rules: no whistling (singing hymns was okay), no cursing, no screaming and no spitting.  If you broke the rules, you might see the Lady wearing white as a warning, or black when you are past a warning…

The mine is full of vitriolic water which preserves organic material.  This meant that there were 300-year-old wooden structures which were covered in water but still structurally sound after all that time.  We were told also about a miner in the 17th century who died mysteriously in the mine, only to be found completely preserved 42 years later.  His name was Fat Matt (although the Swedish word, “fett” for “fat”, meant more “buff” at that time).  He disappeared, wearing his Sunday best, into the mine two weeks before his wedding was supposed to take place.  He was identified when his body was discovered by his then 65-year-old fiancee.  Instead of giving Matt the overdue burial he deserved, his body was put on display as an attraction.  Thankfully, his bones were buried finally in the 1930s.

In the mine, we learnt about the mining method of fire-setting used here and how hoisted buckets were used as transport, although they didn’t stop at each level, so one had to swing the bucket to get off.

We also saw the signatures of royalty who had visited the mine and a completely preserved Christmas tree!  And there were some rock bolts, but not as many as I would have expected.

Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and he jokingly (I think?) claimed that the reason for his expertise on the mine was that he would be turning 326 at the end of the month, having been perfectly preserved by exposure to the mine water!

If you ever find yourself in Dalarna, Falun Mine is a must see!

We also stopped at a mine which has been re-purposed as a concert venue and an old railway round house on our day out on Saturday.

The Nature

Behind Taren’s apartment is the forest of Högberget.  I went for a little wander around there for some exercise.

I took a stroll around a duck pond and the banks of Lake Väsman, which is overlooked by Ludvika, on a day with the most beautiful, fine weather!

The Culture

I have always admired Taren’s style, which was clearly evident in the way she has decorated her 1940s, wall-papered apartment.

I think that my Grandmother would especially like the Easter Tree of birch branches and feathers, which is traditional for Spring in Sweden.

No proper visit to Sweden would be complete without a visit to the unofficial Swedish embassy – IKEA!  I made Taren take a photo of me in a model kitchen to prove I was there.

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I had probably more fun than I should have wandering around Swedish supermarkets, trying to work out what the products were.  My favourite was a rice pudding called Risifrutti.  A dessert taste for breakfast calories!  And I noticed as well that you buy jam in sausages.  Marcus explained it is because you only buy jars the first time, then you buy sausage refills.  Makes sense!

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Dining Out

My impression of Dalarna, based on the restaurants that we went to, is that they have pretty good Chinese food.  We went to a lunch buffet in Ludvika called Chinatown, which catered to Chinese, Thai and Swedish tastes, with traditional Swedish food for those not willing to try Asian. Of course, there was also a traditional Dalarna horse on the wall!

After our mining tour in Faluna, we stopped at a Chinese restaurant for a massive lunch-dinner feast, culminating in banana fritters!

And to top it off, I had a delicious chocolate frog cake and hot chocolate at a patisserie!

Dining In

Taren went to great lengths to make sure I had a proper Swedish culinary experience serving me salmon with dill and leek sauce, meatballs with lingonberries and Falun sausage casserole. (Falun sausage is traditionally made from the oxen whose hide was used to make the mine ropes but nowadays, it’s like a giant cheerio made of pork.)  We had bruschetta and cheese, and went to the state-run bottelo to find me some stouts to try.

I repaid the favour with some Icelandic meat soup and a baked cheese cake with blueberries, which literally turned our teeth blue.  I particularly enjoyed the novelty of baking in a climate where you can leave your dish on the windowsill to cool!

Staying In

As boring as it may sound to others, I had a really marvellous time – staying in, watching the rain from the window, enjoying Swedish netflix, snuggling Toby, painting, drinking tea, gossiping with Taren, practising yoga, writing and taking it really easy.  It was so nice to take it slow without any worries, and I am so glad that Taren kindly let me indulge in my self-care in her picturesque European apartment with her very snuggly cat!  Tack, Tazza!

Blue Lagoon and Farewells

My last full day in Iceland was incredibly relaxing. We had a free day to explore Reykjavik so I took up Dora’s offer to go for some pampering at the Blue Lagoon. I had a 9am timeslot booked so I was one of the very first people in the geothermally-heated water.

First, I followed Dora’s advice to coat my hair in conditioner before getting into the water to prevent damage to my hair from the minerals.


  

Icelanders believe that hell is cold and icy compared to the usual fire and brimstone belief. This now makes sense to me given how heavenly their hot springs are!

Due to the silica particles in the water reflecting sunlight, the water appears a beautiful turquoise colour. With a mix of natural volcanic rocks and resort walkways surrounding the lagoon, there is a choice of whether you want to feel engulfed by nature or modern luxury.

There was so much steam coming off the water’s surface that it felt as if I was the only person there, because the few others there were obscured from my view.

I spent a few hours wading through the water (and swimming sometimes in the deeper parts because I am vertically challenged), getting a silica mud mask (which repaired all the damage done to my face by the icy cold winds) and having a skyr banana smoothie at the in-lagoon bar without needing to get out of the water.

When I was done, I helped a bunch of American tourists understand the electronic locker system, showered, took some more photos and bought myself a shiny memento from the gift shop.


  
  

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped for “Iceland’s unofficial national dish”, according to Dora – a hotdog with everything and a coke! Apparently, when Bill Clinton visited this iconic hotdog stand, he ordered mustard only. Dora urged us not to make the same mistake!

In the evening, I walked through the city to where we were meeting up for one last dinner.


  
  

Dora explained to us the Icelandic patronymic naming system where one’s second name describes that you are your father’s son or daughter. She also wrote us lovely postcards addressed to our official Icelandic names!

It was wonderful to have spent this trip with such an easy going and fun group of people. Being stuck in a bus for hours with strangers could have been a nightmare but with this group, it was brilliant! I also highly recommend the Intrepid Northern Lights Escape if anyone is planning to follow in my footsteps to see Iceland in the Winter.

And I’m hoping that you all do because there is nowhere on earth quite like Iceland!

Walk like an Icelander

When we woke on Sunday morning, we received a lovely surprise to discover that the Easter Bunny had found us and left us all festive eggs in the mini-van – and each egg had a special message inside!


  

Mine said, “Sínum gjöfum er hver líkastur”, which means “The gift is a reflection of the giver”.

Not only was it Easter, but it was also Jana’s birthday!

Our first activity of the day was the experience we were all anticipating the most – walking on Vatnajokull glacier!  We got kitted out with crampons, helmets, harnesses and axes. The harnesses are not connected to anything usually. One just wears them routinely so that one is easier to rescue if one falls into a fault! I had to borrow proper hiking shoes for the occasion. It was soooo much easier to walk, even before we reached the ice. I wished I had had them for the whole trip. Another item to add to the 30th birthday wish list!


  
  

It only took a short time to get used to walking on the ice, which is kind of like walking like a cowboy – with bow legs, bent knees and feet apart so that you don’t catch your crampons on your other leg.


  

It was fascinating to see the layers of blue, white and grey ice and ash that were between 500 and 1000 years old! It reminded me of a magical blue viennetta cake!

We also got to have a look in (and pose with) a crevasse that descended into the glacier about 20 metres!


  
  
  
  

After our glacier walk, we stopped for lunch. I had pizza and tea to warm myself up after becoming a bit like a glacier after walking on one.


Because it was Jana’s birthday, she was given a special apple cake (probably technically a tart) with a candle. She blew out the candle and made a wish, which she promised would make us all happy when it came true!


Dora told us the story of two Icelandic nuns who were executed, one for being a heretic who said blasphemous things about the Pope and one for having an affair with a priest (and committing some other sins involving communion bread?). They were both buried at Sisters Rock. Years later, flowers sprouted on one of the graves. The community assumed that the flowers were on the grave of the sister who had spoken against the Pope and she was exonerated as a martyr, given that the country is now predominantly Lutheran.

The waterfall we visited after lunch was called the Sisters Falls, named after these nuns. At Dora’s instruction, we filled our water bottles from the falls and enjoyed cool, glacial, Icelandic water, free of charge!


  

It was a considerable drive back to Reykjavik in the afternoon, but we had the opporunity to stop and see E15, the volcano which shut down the airways in 2010 and another beautiful waterfall, complete with rainbow.


  

I was feeling a bit stiff and tired by the time we got to the waterfall, so I did a bit of yoga surrounded by the natural beauty.


  

In the evening, we had a free night before we had to meet Dora again at 10pm, so we wandered down the high street and eventually decided on dinner at the Chuck Norris Bar, which was decorated with “facts” about Mr Norris.


  
  

On the way back to the hotel, I also found some Hello Kitty Easter eggs and claimed them for Adam in the usual way!

After dinner, Dora picked us up in the “good” minibus (which we had to stop and check for a mysterious rattle) and we drove to the bridge between the tectonic plates in order to see the Northern Lights. Before we had even parked the bus, we could see them.  We were all so excited, fighting each other to scramble out of the car with cameras.

It took me a while to get my camera to capture the lights properly and it didn’t help that I could no longer feel my hands from the cold. But I got there in the end. And it was truly spectacular! The lights were pearly grey to the naked eye and viridescent when photographed.


  
  
  

  

We took a great number of photos and watched as the lights snaked across the sky. I don’t have the words to describe how in awe I was. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before!

This was the birthday wish that Jana had made. It turns out that wishes do actually come true in magical Iceland!

 

Of Elves and Gods

Our fearless leader, Dora, had the worst combination of food allergies for sampling iconic Icelandic cuisine – no fish and no dairy (for a start). So she told us it was a requirement that we sample the skyr provided at breakfast, so that she could live vicariously through our experience. Skyr is a bit like creamy Greek yoghurt, but has a less sour, sort of mild cheesy taste. I was an instant fan!

We spent the morning at not one, but two waterfalls.  (Dora threw in a bonus one because, no doubt, we were such an awesome group!)

The first, unofficial waterfall had several rocky layers and the water had carved away at the rock so that the fall wasn’t fully visible externally. It had quite a mysterious vibe!


  
  
  
  

After I had gone to bed the night before, Dora had told the Canadians (and honorary Canadians) about the hidden people, the elves who live in the rocks in Iceland.

Most Icelanders are open to accepting the existence of the elves (and rightly so, in my opinion), but it seems that those who don’t, tend to be staunchly Christian and give that as their reason for dismissing the elves as myth. Interestingly, one of the explanations for the origins of the hidden people are that they are the children of Adam and Eve who weren’t washed and were consequently hidden in (behind?) a rock instead of presented when God paid an unexpected visit. God knew that the children had been hidden so he decided that they would be kept hidden from humans forever. However, elves can choose to reveal themselves to you if you perform certain rituals around their rock houses.
It isn’t uncommon for building projects to build around rocks that are suspected of being elf houses rather than demolish them and to hire elf consultants on projects that appear to have nature-related misfortunes befall them (presumably as a consequence of annoying the elves).

Our hotel in Reykjavik was called Hotel Klettur, Hotel Rock in English, because it includes an elf rock as part of its foundation.

I did a little googling about the hidden people and found myself in a search snowball which ended up in my reading about the reasons Icelanders believe in ultra natural forces and then, facts about the very small percentage of Icelandic women of the 18th century who were married, only 47%. So, more than half of the women would expect to become servants in their relatives’ households, rather than having the opportunity to have their own families. One of the articles I read attributed the sadly common tradition of “carrying out children” to the lack of opportunity that many women had to seek love legitimately. When a child was born out of wedlock, it would be carried out to the forest and left to die in the cold. This is quite humane compared to what was done to the unwed mothers. But certainly, this kind of treatment was not unique to Iceland at the time period. Trust me to find information relating volcanic rocks to the oppression of women …

Along the road to the second waterfall, we spotted a rock house in the hillside and Dora stopped so that we could get a better look. We were all convinced that it was an elf house, but Dora ruined the magic by informing us that it was actually for sheep.


I was pretty impressed with the first waterfall of the day, but Skogafoss was really something else! I can see why it was chosen to represent the entrance to Asgard, the home of Odin and Thor.


  
  
  
  

I took lots of photos with rainbows, stones, Paddington and Canadians, but I don’t think I was able to capture the majesty as well as my fellow traveller, Sam, did here: Sam’s Instagram

Next was the Black Beach. If you know me, you will know that I’m not a beach person. I make an exception for this beach. The cliffs are prisms of rock in basalt stacks and the beach is made of smooth black pebbles. The tide is deceptively calm but apparently deadly, often sweeping naive tourists out to sea. I earmarked the cliff at the other end of the beach as the site for my future dream cottage.


  
  
  
  
  

Dora pointed out to us the importance of following the rules because “Iceland is actively trying to kill you.” Four tourists had already died in Iceland by the time we arrived. We were already in the bad books for trespassing to get a photo with the sheep house so I vowed to keep to the path and stay out of the water, although one of us ended up with wet shoes after being attacked by the ocean. I was still living down my horse attack so I was glad it wasn’t me.

After the beach, we stopped for some lunch. The restaurant had some special chip spice on the table, so naturally, I had to have a burger and chips to get the full cultural experience.

Back in the mini-van, Dora told us the story of Búkolla the magic cow, as a way of introducing us to the concept of trolls. This is a good translation of the story if you’d like to know about Búkolla.

Icelandic trolls seem to be like the Middle Earth trolls I am familiar with – stupid, gross and with the unfortunate habit of turning to stone in sunlight.

This story was the perfect segue to the moss-covered lava fields which were our next destination. The lava flow occurred between 1782 and 1783, but it took another 200 years before the ecosystem recovered sufficiently for the moss to grow.

We took some selfies, while sticking to the snow and not touching the “protected” moss.


  
  


On this drive, Dora also pointed out the house of the giant who protects the South. I think this is why I took this photo …

On the roadside was a mangled steel structure which used to be a bridge, until Icelandic nature decided it wasn’t going to be anymore. As it turns out, it still works as a slide …


  

Last stop of the day was the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. We’d made very good time and our accommodation for the night was really close by, so we had lots of time to spend walking along the shore and photographing the friendly, photogenic seals who posed for us.


  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

This day in Iceland really made me feel like I was in a David Attenborough documentary. (Perhaps it also indicates that I’ve watched Frozen Planet too many times!)  There were birds nesting in cliffs, waterfalls, glaciers, seals … the only thing missing were (live) arctic foxes (we did technically see some foxes in a gift shop, but they were pelts rather than predators by then).

My cabin for the night had a great view and the kitchen served amazing peanut chocolate cake, but was a bit chilly. It seemed that the heater was missing. Luckily, I had a chemical heat pack, the doona from the second bed and Paddington to keep me warm through the night!

Iceland Gold

My first full day in Iceland began with a slow sunrise over the many cranes viewable from my hotel room window.

I had some breakfast in the basement restaurant and was impressed by the fine pattern on the tea cup and saucer, which I discovered was a design found on the crockery in most of the places we stayed in Iceland.

The first activity of the day was a wander around the town centre of Reykjavik.

We stopped in front of the parliament for some photos of the building, built of volcanic rock and featuring the four guardians of the country – the dragon of the East, the eagle of the North, the giant of the South and the bull of the West. Dora told us that the giant is considered the most important because we know where he lives. This is why he’s featured on the back of Icelandic money.


  
  

In the square is a statue of President Jon, who wasn’t actually a president and couldn’t have been because he lived during the time that Iceland was ruled by Denmark.

We walked around the town a little more with Dora pointing out the Norwegian “kit homes”, which were shipped in pieces, and the rare volcanic rock buildings, which weathered more than the cement holding them together.


  
  
  

I was delighted to see swans, ducks and geese in the pond in the city centre!


  

Our next stop was the Lutheran Hallgrimskirkja Church (which isn’t the cathedral), designed by Iceland’s most famous architect. It has an impressive pipe organ and reversible pews so that concerts can be held with the audience looking at the organist.

  
  
  

There are also some Russian Orthodox and Catholic artefacts given to the church as gifts…


Outside the church was a statue of Leif Erikson, early discoverer of North America. Leif was also the son of Erik the Red, the founder of Greenland and the person responsible for naming the country after the tiny cluster of trees near where he landed, rather than after the rest of the landscape (which was covered in ice).

#jonestip The streets around the church are all named after Norse gods – Loki street, Thor street and so on. I was just thinking how much this would appeal to you Adam, and then, as if it were a sign from Thor himself, I saw the sign for Hotel Adam. You belong here and the gods have already prepared your accommodation!


After the church visit, Dora drove our minibus away from Reykjavik, across the edge of the North American tectonic plate, over the Icelandic tectonic plate, and then onto the European plate. It didn’t take nearly as much time as you may imagine. Just a few minutes.
Dora told us some stories about the Icelandic parliament which had been meeting in this area since 930AD. It sounds a bit more like a folk festival combined with a law court than what my understanding of parliament is, but what would I know? My home state doesn’t even bother having an upper house of parliament! It really does sound like the Viking place to be!

The first stop following our Golden Circle route was Þingvellir National Park, otherwise known as the entrance to The Vale, a kingdom of Westeros in Game of Thrones. I went for a wander, pretending to be Ayra Stark, and took some photos.


  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

We continued our drive, stopping to pose in the snow and with some Icelandic horses.

Dora instructed us not to call the horses “ponies” (despite their small stature), but one of the Canadians did. The horses were so offended that one of them bit me on the stomach! Interestingly, in Iceland, horses are fair game for cuisine, so I assume at some point I shall be avenged.


  
  
  
  
  

The horse bite left quite a bruise, but did make an interesting souvenir of my holiday in Iceland!

The next natural wonder on the list was Geysir. The Strokkur was the most active while we were there so I got several photos of the jets of water shooting up into the air! I also found it very calming to look at the Blesi pools, one which is boiling hot and clear while its matching pair is blue and cold.


  
  
  
  

  

At the adjoining building, I had Icelandic meat soup for lunch, which was very similar to the soup I usually make when I’m feeling under the weather, except the locals use lamb instead of chicken, which makes sense given the prevalence of sheep in the country.


Dora was explaining to us how much lamb would have been eaten by Icelanders of yesteryear. This would explain why eating fermented shark (an Icelandic delicacy) would have been desirable – simply because it was something different!

The last stop on our Golden Circle drive was Gullfoss, The Golden Falls, which is the reason the Golden Circle is called Golden. The Golden Falls are so called because of the rainbow which is usually seen there.

We were lucky enough to be visiting on a fine day, so we could just glimpse the rainbow. It was incredibly windy, though, and the spray from the waterfall stung my face as I was trying to enjoy it from a park bench, so I eventually retreated back to the mini-van.


  
  

Dora drove us to our home for the night, Hvolsvollur, a secluded farmhouse guarded by two bulls (one of which was named Onsie).


  

The bed in my room was like a giant marshmallow and I really appreciated the underfloor heating!

We had a pork and lamb buffet for dinner with incredible potatoes and life-changing homemade bread, and then I retired early to snuggle into my marshmallow bed and dream of snow and rainbows.

A Series of Logistical Near Misses

I had been putting off blogging for a while because I was having very exciting adventures in Iceland, and because the next day I was scheduled to write about was a bit of a downer.
It started with saying goodbye to Harriet and Adam, and catching a bus to Oxford railway station.

I wasn’t exactly sure if I had boarded the correct train because there was neither an announcement when the train left nor a guard checking tickets. Needless to say, I was a little stressed until we arrived in Reading, which is closer to London than Oxford, so I relaxed for the rest of the journey.

I ended up in Paddington and I felt a bit lost and alone. Luckily, I ran into an old childhood friend, Paddington!

Paddington agreed to accompany me on the remainder of my adventures and so we tubed to Nottinghill Gate and the British Museum.


I had most of my essential belongings in my backpack and it was really exacerbating my pain, so I headed to the cloak room to try to have a break from it for a while.

I put my purse (my tiny change purse) on the counter while I was instructed to weigh my backpack. While I was doing this, the other cloakroom attendant swooped on the “unattended” purse as a potential terror threat and I watched it leave with a security guard, despite my protests. I had just enough change in my pocket to pay to leave my bag to go to reclaim my purse.

It was at the information desk that my purse was returned to me, with a stern lecture about how central London is a horrible place and how stupid I was and that I didn’t belong here if I couldn’t be more careful, delivered by a horrible woman who had once had her iPod stolen while she was listening to it (as an example of how truly horrible central London is!).

So I wasn’t feeling overly happy about The British Museum or its staff. But things started to pick up a little after that. I had some lunch on some beautiful China, while listening to some American tourists complaining about the food prices and how the Denver museum had better artefacts.

The British Museum is huge, so I picked Asia and Medieval Europe as my focus areas.
Unfortunately, my camera battery had died again, so all of my photos had to be taken on my phone.

I saw lots of amazing things!


  
  
  

I was surprisingly drawn to this Japanese figurine of Long Arms and Long Legs.

Of all the marvellous items in the museum, my favourites were the beautiful tiles, collected from various cultures.


  
  

I also found the tiny, sample, blue willow pattern plates quite fascinating, particularly as my grandmother is a keen willow ware collector.


And I was able to see the rest of the chess set that Adam and I saw last year at the roaming Medieval Power exhibition that visited the Queensland Museum!


  

As I’d become a little weary from walking around so much, I stopped at the cafe for some carrot cake and a drawing break.


After drawing for a while, I caught the tube to East Putney, where I was staying with Huggies that night. I stopped in at a pub called The Railway while I waited, and watched the model train go round the ceiling.


Huggies cooked an AMAZING chicken pie for dinner and although it was supposed to be “Wine Wednesday”, I actually had quite an early night.

On Thursday morning, I tried to catch the tube to the airport, but the line was out due to strike action. I eventually managed to get to the airport after a bit of a panic, and it cost me much more than I was hoping.


I celebrated my arrival at the airport with a full English breakfast. However, I didn’t realise that my gate was a 20-minute walk from where I’d stopped for breakfast, so I had to jog to make the plane on time.

I loved the way Iceland Air’s cabin lights are the Northern Lights!

I had also made another major mistake, confusing Reykjavik Airport (RVN) (just 6 minutes from my hotel) with Keflavik Reykjavik Airport (KEF) (50 minutes from my hotel). This wouldn’t have been a problem if I hadn’t been trying to meet my tour group at 6pm and if I hadn’t selected the bus company to the city that waited at the airport for an extra half hour after I bought my ticket and got on the bus to depart.

I sat (not so patiently) on my bus, waiting to leave the airport, taking selfies, and watching the snow and three other bus company’s buses depart.

Regrettably, I ended up missing the whole introduction to the Northern Lights Escape, but our tour leader, Dora “the Original Explorer”,  gave me a run down over dinner (which was fish and chocolate soufflés), at which I managed to lose all my itinerary paperwork.


  
A final logistical misadventure to end 48 hours of things not exactly going to plan.

But at least I had made it to Iceland!

Oxford xoxo

On Sunday evening, after the Search Party, I caught the bus to Oxford to visit my former yoga teacher and wholefood guru, Harriet of www.harrietbyhand.com .
I had a restful bus ride through the countryside, watching The Muppet Christmas Carol on my iPad because it was viewable without requiring streaming. I’d also been thinking about the opening sequence from this movie as I was travelling around London. The skyline is almost unchanged from Jim Henson’s interpretation of Dickensian times.


A smiling Harriet met me in Oxford and together we caught the bus to Abingdon, where she and her husband Adam now reside. Abingdon is the oldest, continuously settled town in England and the birthplace of MG. It also kind of looks like a village from Midsomer Murders and incidentally, the area has quite a high crime rate. Apparently, someone was stabbed at the one-pound shop around the corner from Harriet’s.


 #jonestip – Surely “Scarlett” would want you to see her home town…? You’ll have to come to Abingdon and stay with Harriet. Her B&B is 6 stars and she makes mince-topped pizza and curry with dumplings!

It’s difficult to determine whether I love Harriet more for her calming and wise influence or her penchant for feeding me incredible homemade food. But I got ample of both this trip!
For dinner we had amazing homemade pizza, and blueberry and plum cake, and then I curled up to sleep in the kitchen next to the heater, like a spoilt cat.


  
  
On Monday, Harriet had taken the day off, so we had plenty of time to have a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and (my contribution) Croatian hazelnut spread.


We started out our day by walking around the village, through the market and around the historic ruins. I was also ridiculously excited to see local ducks, rats and squirrels.


  
  
  
  

  
  
Then we caught the bus to Oxford, continuing the excellent good luck I’d been having with being able to get the front seat on the top storey of the bus each time.

We walked through the high street, then through the covered market, looking at cakes, boars and other fresh fare.

After all this hard sight-seeing, we had to stop for a coffee at The Missing Bean, where Adam works in the back room, cooking, not the cakes, but the books!

Being caffeinated meant that we had the energy to get some more touristing done. I bought some secondhand books from Blackwell‘s, saw Tolkien’s favourite pub (The Eagle and Child), saw Inspector Morse’s favourite pub (The White Horse), and had my photo taken with the doorway and lamppost which inspired C.S. Lewis’s Aslan and Mr Tumnus.


  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

I also delighted in taking in the incredible architecture of the colleges and libraries around the area – and purchased an official Oxford hoodie!



 We stopped for burritos for lunch, then headed to the National History and Pitt Rivers Museums.
The National History Museum has some impressive dinosaur skeletons, but I was most impressed with the dodo, who was surrounded by other taxidermied, Alice in Wonderland characters.


  
  
Adjoining the National History Museum is the Pitt Rivers Museum, home of an enormous anthropological artefact collection. In contrast to the way usual collections would be displayed by culture or by time, this museum is organised by function with all of the reed instruments in the same cabinet and all of the shrunken heads on another cabinet. It would be impossible (and foolish) to attempt to enjoy it all in one hit. Harriet’s suggestion was to pick a theme and do that in detail. I looked at the musical instruments and requested dispensation to look at the second category of body modification, where I managed to see some tiny, lotus flower shoes and lament the effects of the oppression of the Chinese patriarchy on the owners of the shoes.


  
  

 Unfortunately, the History of Science Museum wasn’t open on Mondays so we commiserated with a piece of courgette and lime cake.

I know Harriet because she used to teach me yoga in Brisbane. She now teaches on weekends at Oxford’s Yoga Quota. This is a cosy little studio tucked up above a restaurant, where they run a class for an underprivileged group for every 50 paid class attendees.
#vosstip – If you find yourself in Oxford, do a class with Yoga Quota. You can pre-book here.
We did the Flow at Tea Time, which was a really dynamic class. It was great to salute the sun while looking out at the leafless trees and historic bell tower. It was so good to do some proper yoga, rather than my very very yin self-led practice. I was also chuffed when Harriet commented how strong my practice was getting. She hadn’t seen me since about August last year so I was really happy that the progress was noticeable, even if it wasn’t to me…


 Harriet and I did our après-yoga at The Bear, the oldest pub in Oxford and home of a impressive (but weird) tie clipping collection.


  
We bussed home and had a beautifully clean dinner of tofu, rice and veg.


The next morning, I had a very leisurely sleep in curled up in the morning sun. Harriet woke me briefly for a healthy brekky, but I continued to doze until about midday.


Eventually, I caught the bus into Oxford for lunch at Pieminister in the covered market. I had a Deer Stalker – venison, bacon and lentils, topped with fried shallots, cheddar and gravy, with sides of creamy mash and mint mushy peas. It was amazing! I found it enlightening to enjoy my pie and coke while listening to Oxford intellectuals talk about Russian literature patrons of the 17th century. Such a British experience!


  
 I spent the afternoon wandering around shops, visiting the History of Science Museum (particularly to see Einstein’s chalkboard) and then stopped for tea and scones at The Beefeater.
  
  
  
 Then, it was yoga time again. This was the second day in a row that I managed to have sweets before quite an active yoga class, but I endured for the hip opening benefits.
In the evening, we ate delicious curry with dumplings and I did a little watercolour postcard of Harriet and Adam’s house while Adam, very generously, drew me a squirrel to colour in. (I still haven’t had time to sit down and do it justice, but I shall post an update when it’s done.)


   


In the morning, it was time for me to leave Abingdon. I did so reluctantly, because I had had such a beautiful, relaxing time seeing Harriet and Adam, and getting to know Oxford. I really loved seeing places of historical significance, without being shoved by crowds!
Love you, Oxford xoxo

Search Party with the Mighty Morphin Flower Arrangers 

Sunday was the day of the Search Party, a scavenger hunt organised by the Mayor of London in the aim of encouraging locals to explore their own city. Through Huggies, I was invited to join a team, the Mighty Morphin Flower Arrangers! 
  
Our registration was at the Guildhall Gallery. This was the first clue.


It led us to the basement of the gallery where there were the ruins of a Roman amphitheatre. The likely structure was highlighted by Tron-like, viridescent lines. At the amphitheatre, we went into battle against another team, playing thumbs up or down with Roman trivia. We were tied, but eventually went away defeated due to the last round, where the quizmaster just picked a winning team at random.




We were awarded this clue.


This led us to Love Lane, where the Beatles‘ lyrics (which I sang out loud for the benefit of my team mates) directed us to Postman’s Park. In this park, there were ceramic plaques dedicated to those who had died in the line of duty or in the process of saving others. Our challenge in this park was to find someone who had perished in a gas explosion and report back to the volunteer to receive a clue. We selected PC Edward George of the Metropolitan Police, who died in 1917 saving lives during an explosion.




  
After having a “butcher’s hook” in this window, we were directed to a delightful Punch and Judy show, which revealed the next destination, St John’s.


  
At St John’s, we sang with a monk and then completed a crossword, briefly getting stuck on 1 down – “a land full of holes”. Eventually, we realised it was the Holy Land – Jerusalem! The crossword gave us our next instruction and we walked through Jerusalem Passage to Clerkenwell Green, site of many significant protests.


  
  Our challenge here was to protest against the abolition of fun, and we did so very enthusiastically:


The clue we were awarded by protesting led us to The Apple Tree, a quaint little pub where we tried out some apple juice and had a proper drink stop.


  
Our next stop was also a pub, where we had to convince the beautifully dressed, but disgruntled, Edwardian lady to hand over our clue.


This led us to a park where we played games to win our clue – limbo, duck fishing, coconuts and quoits. I was the victor at quoits, presumably due to receiving this game as a Christmas present from my cousins last year!


  
Looking at my watch, I realised it was time to return to Guildhall to retrieve my bag from cloak check-in, so I left my search party team. They went on to the final party location, which was a fifties-themed party in a large church hall, complete with music and dancing lessons.
I, on the other hand, attempted to catch the tube back to Mansion House and found the Circle Line completely suspended. I managed to get to Bank and run the rest of the way. I arrived, sweaty and wheezing at the gallery three minutes before closing, only to find they had already closed. However, I was determined to retrieve my possessions as they were the belongings I needed for my trip to Oxford, so I talked to three different security guards using various “negotiation techniques” (being on the verge of hysteria, being eternally grateful and allowing one of them to call me “babe” without my usual feminist tirade response).
So, although I didn’t manage to make it to the Mayor’s party, I did manage to reach my final destination for the evening, Oxford, with my essential belongings, so the day ended up a success!

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