Riga City Tour

This morning we were planning to explore Riga’s Old Town which was founded in 1201 and is a former Hanseatic League state. Riga’s gorgeous old historical town centre has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997 and is well known for its blend of medieval architecture and, oddly, Art Nouveau buildings.

The first place on our ‘to visit’, list (largely due to the proximity to our hotel), was St. Peter’s Church which is the largest Lutheran church in Riga. St Peter’s first turns up in records dating from the very early 1200s after a fire swept through Riga in 1209, but the church was undamaged because it one of the few builgins in town of masonry construction. The history of the church’s construction is a weird blend of architectural styles – having elements of Gothic, Romanesque and early Baroque influences. During World War II, the church lost this rather imposing bronze candelabrum that dates from 1596.  It was taken by the Germans to the town of Włocławek during the actions to annexed Polish territories. It is seriously huge – 3.1m high, 3.8m wide and was bought by the Riga City Council from a local metal founder.  After the war, it stayed on display at the Basilica Cathedral of the St. Mary of Assumption in Włocławek – Riga literally only got it back in 2012 as a result of a recent repatriation agreement relating to stolen cultural properties.  While we are walking through this amazing Gothic/Romanesque/Baroque cathedral, I found it (yet again) rather jarring to be met with a modern art exhibition.  I have experienced this same discombobulation on a number of occasions – most notably at the Hagia Sofia, which should most definitely NOT be used a space for a modern art exhibition – and I got the same feeling today.  Historical cathedral, fabulous. Vaulted ceilings, lovely. Gothic timberwork, beautiful. Medieval stained glass, stunning… such a shame about the modern art.If any of you have ever seen the Hugh Grant movie, ‘Mickey Blue Eyes’, you’ll know where I am coming from with this…  :/  This piece no more belongs in this church than it does in a fancy auction house.  :/ Anyway – if any of you ever happen to be curating spaces in fancy Gothic cathedrals, can you please please please – spare us the fucking modern art.  It’s just not what people are here for. Cheers. Ta.

Directly across the road from St Peter’s is an odd little shop that caught my attention and we thought we’d pop in.  It is called Baltu Rotas – here is their website: http://www.balturotas.lv/us In their little store they have some amazing recreations as well as some authentic extant relics of medieval Latvian jewellery! Colour me surprised.  Most of the pieces in store are either copies of local found extant pieces or inspired by extant pieces found in the Baltic area.  Absolutely gorgeous stuff… I may have come home with some new pieces which I am very happy about (who said money can’t buy you happiness?).  These are just a few pictures of their small ‘museum’ room.

Next we went to a walk to the House of the Blackheads – no, it’s not a house for fans of /r/popping (ewww!) but rather a building that was originally erected between 1300-1350AD for the  Brotherhood of Blackheads.  The Brotherhood was a guild for unmarried merchants, shipowners, and foreigners.  The building had major construction works done later in 1560 and again in 1886 when lots of the sculptures and ornamentations were added – but like nearly everything else in Europe, it was bombed to hell by the Germans on June 28, 1941, leaving the building somewhat decimated so that the Soviets could come and totally leave the building in ruins in 1948 when they came marching through bombing things.  The current incarnation of the building was created from 1995 to 1999, and I have to say, it is very very impressive.  Gorgeous brickwork, beautiful sculptures and I love the bright clock.Most of the Blackheads members were of German descent and they would travel and supply exotic goods from overseas. Being part of the guild provided protection for their ships and caravans from pirates and robbers. The Blackheads had St. Maurice as a patron saint, and he was usually as a black soldier in knight’s armour, hence Blackheads. The Blackheads were effectively Riga’s ruling elite, serving as councillors and members of the Great Guild.   Nearby we found a cute little indoor market.  Mostly handicrafts being sold by matronly little grandmas huddling in the cold.  The weather was not so bad if you keep moving, but when you stop moving it gets pretty brutally cold pretty quick. Glassware, knitted goods, leatherwork, woodwork and all sorts.   Spat back out on the street, we walked past the National Academy of Drama.
I love their building… mostly for the bees.BEES?We then came across the touristy touristy square of restaurants that must be absolutely packed in the summer season.  Lots of afresco dining and food to suit every taste – you could even by sausage here by the metre!

Around the corner is the Rigan monument to the Baltic Way that matches the ones we saw in Vilnius and Tallinn.  Still such a mindblowing yet peaceful protest… 2,000,000 people holding hands across 675kms.  I can’t really picture it.
Across the river is the Freedom Monument which is a memorial honouring all the soldiers that were killed during the Latvian War of Independence (1918–1920). They are commemorating the 100th anniversary of this war at the moment and ‘Latvia100’ is everywhere.  The monument is very much considered to be an important symbol of the freedom and the independent sovereignty of Latvia.  It was unveiled in 1935, and even though Lativa was occupied by both Germany and the Soviets since, this independence monument serves as the focal point of public gatherings and official ceremonies in Riga. In the 1940s the Soviet Union authorities considered demolishing the monument, but thankfully the concept was never enacted.  The original sculptor was a Soviet, named Vera Mukhina and some claim she personally saved the monument by convincing authorities of its purely artistic merit.  is sometimes credited for rescuing the monument, because she considered it to be of high artistic value. In the ’60s, the idea of demolishing it came up again – but was fortunately dismissed by Soviet authorities as they recognised that the action would have deepened the indignation and tension that existed in Latvian society towards the Soviets.  Instead, the Soviet attempted to alter the symbolic meaning of the monument by imbuing it with Communist ideology, but the propaganda campaign failed and it retained its symbolism of national independence to the general public.  We happened to be along during the changing of the guard at midday. And what I said about those poor Nonnas selling their knitted goods in the tents at the market goes double for these poor soldiers who are standing dead still at their post until relieved.  It is way too cold to be not moving about.

Just past the Freedom Monument is the National History Museum of Latvia, which promised to house all sorts of wonderful medieval Baltic artefacts. Riga is situated on the Daugava River which has been a trade route since forever and was part of the Vikings primary navigation routes to the Byzantine Empire. The Daugava was settled as early as the 2nd century and had several tribes in the region including the Livs and the ancient Finnic tribes. Riga was a major centre of Viking trade during the early Middle Ages – most of the people who lived in the region were fishermen, farmers and traders – trading craft works made of bone, wood, amber and iron.  Evidence demonstrates that Riga was a going port well up until the 12th century when German traders began to dominate the area… so I was really looking forward to the museum.

Unfortunately, however, a good deal of the information available in the museum was not in English and as much as I wish I had dedicated myself to learning Latvian over the last few years (???), I have not. Which means that I saw some amazing artefacts here that I am keen to share with all our medieval friends, it is, however, going to take a considerable amount of time to decipher what is what – especially when on some cabinets all they gave me was ‘Brooches from the 2nd century to the 14th century’.  Ho-hum.

Highlights were definitely the dress accessories, jewellery items and some beautiful reconstructed full outfits from extant pieces.   So many more photos to follow when I can figure out some cohesive manner to present them in…

The War Museum is located in this tower, though to be honest, I am not sure which war they are referring to – there have been so many that have affected this region.  Riga started out as a bishopric after some dude named Bishop Albert gained a papal bull stating that Riga is a Christian province/state?  Nice power play that. After that the Polish, the Swedish, the Germans, the Prussians, the Russians and god knows who else have been in charge here before Latvia gained true independence. I’m a little bit ‘warred out’ these days – and we are likely to be getting into more WWII stuff tomorrow so decided to pass the War Museum to go find the Cat House. The Cat House (no, not that sort of cathouse) was built in 1909 in what is a unique medieval style but with some obvious Art Nouveau design elements (have a look at the door frame for example). The house is most well known for its two cat sculptures that are perched on the roof. The legend claims that the original owner/builder of the house wanted the cats to be placed with their arses turned towards the house of the Great Guild – who had apparently snubbed him as a member.  Instead, the cats on the turrets actually face the Great Guild Hall which demonstrates quite adequately the extent of the power the guilds held over the craftsmen and tradesmen at the time… screw the client, do what we want.
Weird how two little cat statues can sort of take over the entire town’s imagination.  There are Fat Cat cafes and Black Cat restaurants, and of course more cat stuff than you can poke a stick at in the local souvenir stores.

Lunch time we kinda went out on a limb and tried a local canteen.  It was supercheap student type fare.  Massive bowls of soup for €2 and dumplings paid for by weight.

Lunch was hot and salty.  That’s all I got.  It was edible but not great.
After lunch we continued our exploration of the Old Town looking for the Three Brothers and the Riga Cathedral. Around every corner was another cute little building or a quaint little restaurant or historical house.  Made me realise that you never trip over tourists taking photos in my home town, but it happens in places like this all the time.  Does Brisbane even have architecture that foreigners think are worth photographing?

Anyway, we found the Riga Cathedral which is the main Evangelical Lutheran cathedral in Riga and has been the seat of the Archbishop of Riga since Bishop Albert made the city into a Christian state as I mentioned earlier.  The cathedral is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the entire country and often ends up on all the Latvia travel catalogues etc.  It is also well known for its weathercock (which now resides inside the church).  The church is also called Dome Cathedral, which I found vaguely amusing as the world ‘Dome’ comes from the German ‘Dom’, meaning, wait for it, ‘cathedral’. So it’s commonly called the Cathedral Cathedral. Tautologies ahoy. I loved this door and thought it was a mighty impressive entrance, only to discover we were entering through the peasants’ side entrance, and there is another larger door to our right somewhere. The church was built near the River Daugava in 1211 by Bishop Albert of Riga, who originally came from Lower Saxony. It is considered the largest medieval church in the Baltic states and of course has undergone many modifications over the course of its 800 year history.
Some bronze Landsknechts dudes guard the staircase that leads up to the organ. Like most Lutheran churches, this one was somewhat austere and sparse in its decorative motifs and not as over the top as a Catholic or Orthodox cathedral.  The choir loft: I have been unable to find out anything on when these stained glass windows were actually made.  There have been renovations in the cathedral following fires in the 13th and 16th centuries and following wars in the 17th, 18th centuries and of course post the World Wars and Soviet occupations of the 20th century. For all I can tell, these may have been recreated in the last decade – they are certainly vibrant and detailed enough..? Weathercock

Religious services were completely prohibited here during the Soviet occupation from 1939 to 1989, and the cathedral was appropriated for use as a concert hall. Riga Cathedral’s organ was built by E.F. Walcker & Sons of Ludwigsburg in 1882–83, It has four manuals and one pedalboard and plays 116 voices, 124 stops, 144 ranks, and has 6,718 pipes. It includes 18 combinations and General Crescendo… none of which means anything to me, but I heard someone playing it for a while when I was in here today and it could play the most delicate high notes that resonated around the cavernous cathedral as well as the lowest resonant notes that reverberated through your chest. Very cool! Bishop Albert’s cloistered courtyard:
Around the cloisters were a collection of artefacts that seem to have been put here for storage?  An older version of the tower clock face, pieces of carved stone and canons – lots of canons. It was like the national musuems of Latvia said ‘We have no where to house all these 16th to 19th century canons, any ideas?’ and then some gardener scratched his beard and said ‘We could put them in the cloisters until summer’, and there they remained…?! Weird. Bishop Albert.

Dom Square:

A little further on we found the Three Brothers…

The Three Brothers is a building consisting of three conjoined dwellings in the Old Town.  The houses form the oldest medieval complex of houses in Riga. oldest complex of dwelling houses in Riga. The houses are at 17, 19 and 21 Maza Pils Street (which amusingly is ‘Mazā Pils iela’ in Latvian, but the GPS can’t pronounce ‘iela’ and wil say ‘I-E-L-A’ every time it wants to say ‘street’.) This is the White Tower of the Riga Castel, now the Riga Presidential Palace – apparently they won’t let us go in there… it’s like full of goverment officials and stuff. Anglican church – St Something… not Mary. Everywhere you look is a cute little alleyway with nooks and crannies and interesting little cafes and shops. In Iceland, we got used to driving around a hillside and being greeting with yet another stunning landscape – here you walk around a corner and are greeted by yet another stunningly restore/kept historical building.  It’s phenomenal. We saw a shop that said ‘wool and linen’ on the outside sign and decided to pop in and have a look at the fabrics for sale.  We found ourselves in a national costume shop called, Senaklets: http://www.senaklets.lv/eng.php where one can go to buy well, national costumes, fabrics to make the same and dress accessories to go with them.The first things I noticed was all the crazy expensive tablet woven bands in lengths up to 3m (patterns rather too modern but lovely). And then we moved into another room and there they were… all the medieval costumes I had laboriously been trying to photograph through glass this morning at the national history museum.  Le sigh.

So this outfit has a set of chains, brooches, and spacers I have been researching, and figuring out how to make, since I first saw a similar set at the British Museum in 2015… it seems here, if you have the Euros – you can just buy a set!
Fucking expensive.  But urgh, I rolled my eyes.  So much effort gone into researching these… Gorgeous Finnish/Baltic shawls all done.  Couldn’t find a price tag on this one – I imagine if you have to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it.  I can tell you that if I had a spare few thousand Euro I would have walked out of there well kitted out.  After that we found ourselves back in the Square in front of the House of the Blackheads and the state of Roland that I failed to capture earlier.   I had a lovely day out in Riga.  There is plenty more to see here, but we have a big day ahead of us tomorrow, so we called it quits just as it was starting to get dark – mostly because it was also starting to get much colder too!

Viking Village, Estonia

Left Tallinn in the pouring rain this morning.  Not so much pouring rain as frozen rain.  It was a bit on the miserable and bloody cold side, and we are driving to Riga today, so I was really hoping it didn’t keep up. We had decided to stop by a place called, Viikingite Küla – or Viking Village – on our way out of Tallinn, more out of curiosity than anything else.  It is a large area of land that sounds like it started off as a restaurant and reenactment tournament area that has grown into a bit of a local ‘theme’ park (though I am reluctant to use the word, as images of Medieval Times pop into mind immediately).
It was interesting to see what some really motivated and moderately well-monied Viking era enthusiasts could come up with up.  I knew it was going to potentially be a bit ‘medJevial’ with a capital J, but had made my mind up to view it through a, ‘Would my friends and I have a good time doing medieval stuff in this space?’ lens.  The answer is a resounding ‘HELLS YES!’  It is not the most authentically researched Viking village someone could have come up with, and it is not as meticulous on the details as your average Lochac Laurel would applaud – but it looked like a great place to be able to hold a camping event with a couple of hundred people.

There was a trout stream for fishing, though I imagine if it weren’t being used to supply the restaurant, and the weather was warmer than the current 7C feels like 3C, it would be great for swimming. There is a large children’s play fort: With cubby houses in various sizes for kids of varying ages.Poles for climbing and sliding about on.
A couple of different forts connected by a rope bridge, a bucking boar underneath over a sandpit.
Some more climbing equipment. A longship for children to go conquer the seven seas. A larger fort for older children equipped with shields and swords.All up – I think our kids would have had a rollicking good time here.  There was a sign out front of the playground saying that it had won some national awards for playground structures (couldn’t quite make out the details – but it was obviously a winner).

Not far around the complex from there was a large open area with viewing pavilion/bleacher type seating that would obviously make a great tournament field.
It also gets used for archery and for axe throwing (don’t worry about signing an indemnity at the gate – they have a blanket, ‘anything that happens to you here is your problem’ policy, up to and including drowing!). The tournament field was about 30 x 10 and would be great for SCA style tourneys.  Even large ones like FAT at Festival. I’m not sure how long this village has been here – but it has lived through a few harsh winters and was in need of some love and attention and repairs here and there.  A few rotted timbers were apparent in the roof structures and it could use a good oil, but the overall effect of the spaces were pretty good in my opinion. Oh and they have totally tame fluffy bunnies everywhere that are not at all bothered by the people. The other end of the trout stream. Shaman style teepee for a see-er or something?  I don’t know. Not a lot of the information we could put our hands on was in English. A ‘period’ game where men throw a stick through the female figure’s ‘slot’, and women throw a hoop onto the male figure’s ‘rod’.  Would never fly in the SCA – people would get too uptight about the gender representations or something!  😛  More fuzzy bunnies.They have a longboat that people can hire and take canoeing around a creeky system.  It holds up to 13 people and you need at least four to row it.Private picnic pavilion spaces that can be hired and you can do your own BBQ or self catering.  The walk back across the creek to the tavern/restaurant area. A small outdoor beer garden space which is currently unoccupied, due to 1) it being early morning, and 2) it being bloody cold!We thought we would pop in the tavern and have a warming hot drink before we had to hit the road.
There were lots of small spaces and large spaces to suit different groups – this one had a roof height of barely 5 feet, and was either designed for kids or for very intimate dining groups! We had a look at the menu and were tempted to have an early lunch snack.  I ordered the field mushrooms on rye bread…and yale ordered some sort of beef dumplings.  It was very tasty and well presented. I know yale would disagree with me when I say I thought the Viking Village was awesome.  He felt it was a bit too twee (and it is), but I have had medieval fun in places that looked a whole lot less likely than this place – you know like an old shearing shed, or a basketball court hidden by a gazillion banners.  So, if you take it for what it is, a medieval styled space that hasn’t been documented to within an inch of its life designed for good times – then yes, I think you’d have a grand old time here.  It would be great fun to come with a large group of friends all dressed up and have big feast/banquet… which is exactly what the place caters for. After our warming drinks and a sit by the fire for half an hour to warm up – we hit the road and were heading through the Lithuanian countryside, pottering around some back roads before we would end up on the highways again.

We saw this gorgeous little country farmhouse, complete, with sheep, horse, chickens and lord knows what else.  For a fleeting moment, I thought, “I could live there,” and then I remembered myself, and how much I love things like late night visitors, fresh sushi and V-Max cinema seating… and decided instead, “I could spend a few months there.”  Mind you, they are in the middle of nowhere but probably have better Internet than I do at home.
The drive had a few err, interesting moments.  Many of which were caused by the road rules here which allow overtaking on certain roads even if someone is coming towards you.  That is, when the line of the road on the should is broken – drivers are supposed to drive right up the dotted line and allow other drivers to go around them, even if there is oncoming traffic.  Great in theory, but in practice, there were way too many drivers who were way too cocky at this being able to overtake whenever you wanted to, leaving us driving three abreast a two-lane road A LOT.We stopped briefly at the cheap discount liquor store at what was once the Estonian/Latvian border.  Found some souvenir shopping, some not so discounted grog and some rather questionable food offerings in the loosely labelled ‘bistro’ before heading to Riga.On the way into Riga we saw the first sign of a major metropolis on our left – and were reminded that we were not really in Eastern Europe anymore but in the Baltic/Northern Europe area… so like we saw in Iceland, we expect all our hotels to be decorated in nothing but Ikea from now on.  😉 We checked into the Rixwell Riga Old Palace Hotel where we had booked a ‘designer studio room’ only to be given a key to what would make a good playroom for some midgets – about 14sqm and barely a 7′ ceiling.  It looked nice enough but was totally impractical*.
*not the actual room we were given – this one you could walk all the way around the bed, whereas the room we were allocated had a bed up against the wall on the right-hand side.

So naturally I didn’t mind the room that much at all, other than the fact there was no where to lay out suitcases or walk around the furniture – but yale was going to hit his head on everything and the room was son tiny that you seriously couldn’t swing a cat in here.  So I went down to the reception and had a word with the customer service staff.  I did my best ‘sorry to bother you’ and had already looked online – it’s October, and plenty of rooms were showing up as available in the online booking websites, so I knew they had vacancies… the following conversation then ensued:

Me:  ‘Hi, our room is not suitable… what else have you got?’
Customer Service Chickie: *dithered with the computer*, ‘Yes, I can find you larger room but you will have to pay more.’
Me: ‘Great, I said, let’s do it, how much?’
CSC:  ‘€5.00 a night.’
Me: *deadpan* ‘Would you like that now in cash?’

Seriously for an extra€5.00 a night a night, we were given a to a traditionally decorated superior balcony room that was about three times the size of the hipster ‘designer studio’ and it has 12′ ceilings…
*insert me rolling my eyes here*
Once happily situated, and yale had ascertained that the wifi was up to his exacting standards, we decided to find a nice restaurant with local food and head out.  It turned out that not 150m from our hotel was a restaurant called, ‘Milda’ which is rated about 8th out of over 800 restaurants in Riga and we thought that sounded like a bit of us.  Was a bit fancier than anticipated, so I am glad I made yale change out of his blue otter t-shirt.  😛
The menu was superb – yale ordered the beef heart tartar. I ordered the potato dumplings – which were much more asian style dumplings than stodgy eastern European ones. yale had a soup course of porcini mushroom soup served in a fruit cob loaf.   And for mains I had the fillet mignon with sweet potato puree… And yale ordered the boiled beef potato dumplings with bacon and onions and all good things.   We shared a small honey cake for dessert. The entire meal was superb – they also served us some bread with some of the best pate I have ever tried, and that was easily the best steak I have had in months.  The staff were excellent and I would highly recommend this place if you are ever in town.   After that, it was back to the hotel and hopefully an early night, because I am stuffed.  Been waking up way too early – my back has still not settled back down to its usual dull roar from having ramped up the day we went to Chernobyl, and it’s not like I’ve been resting since then.  There is just too much to do, so I have probably extended this out way longer than necessarily by my continuing to do my damnedest to ignore it.  :/

Kiev City Tour

Today we had planned a drive/walking tour of Kiev.  After yesterday’s super long day out to Chernobyl and the way my back was feeling, I was doubting the sanity of lining up for another long day out. This morning my back is still not back down to its usual dull roar, but we only have limited time, I just have to push on and hopefully not pull the pin too early.  Seriously, I really need a sea day!

Monument to Kyiv, Shchek and Khoryv, the are three legendary brothers, often mentioned along with their sister Lybid who are believed to be the founders of the medieval city of Kyiv. According to legend, Kyiv, the eldest brother, was a prince from Polonia and he named the city after himself.  There are also mountains named after his brothers and a river named after Lybid around here somewhere.Bridal couples like to visit this monument and turn their back to the longship throwing their bouquets onto the ship – if the flowers land on the deck of the ship, they wll have a long and happy marriage.This is called the ‘Tree of Happiness’ and it is full of ribbons and tokens placed here from the parents of the aforemented bridal couples.
Banks of the Dneiper River.The Motherland Monument stands high on the hills over the Dnieper River and is a part of the Ukraine World War II Museum – it is the only remaining monument in Ukraine bearing Soviet imagery, and the reason is that no one can decide how/what to replace it with.  At 102m tall, it is an imposing structure designed to convey the power and strength of the Soviet Union. The WWII Musuem is lined with tanks and helicopters, many of which are from the 1980s wars with Afghanistan.  Thanks Charlie Wilson – Ukraine has plenty of young vets with PTSD.Our next stop was the National “Holodomor Victims Memorial”.  The Holodomor (literally “to kill by starvation”) of 1932-1933 was effectively the Ukraine’s version of the Halocaust.  It was a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine that killed millions of Ukrainians. The museum was opened on the day of the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor in 2008 and gained the status of a national museum in 2010. The museum is located on the Pechersk Hills on the right bank of the Dnieper river in Kiev, adjacent to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. During the Holodomor, millions of inhabitants of Ukraine, the majority of whom were ethnic Ukrainians, died of starvation in an unprecedented, deliberate and orchestrated famine that was carried out against the Ukranian people by the Soviet Government. Fatalities are uncertain, but up to 12 million ethnic Ukrainians were said to have died as a result of the famine. As it was explained to us, the Soviet Union has always tried to subjugate the ethnic Ukrainians and this famine was an effort to try and ‘eradicate’ the region of the Ukrainians altogether.   Children as young as 12 would be jailed for possessing more than five stalks of grain, foodstuffs were confiscated allegedly for military efforts, and people became so desperate that evidence of widespread cannibalism (literally thousands of people resorted to eating people) was documented during the Holodomor, with children quite commonly ending up victims. The World War II obelisk and to the right, what was designed and built to be a ‘youth skating rink centre’ but by the time corruption and government was through with it, it opened as a bar for diplomats with topless waitresses on roller skates.  :/ 

Kalyna berries are one of the national symbols of Ukraine. The red fiery colour of the berries represents beauty in Russian and Ukrainian culture and they symbolise the passionate love of a beautiful woman.  They are seen quite commonly in folk painting and embroidery designs, and are used in decorations at holidays and weddings etc. Somewhat incongruously, right beside the impressive St Michael’s Monastery sits the official Department of Foreign Affairs building.

St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery is located on the right bank of the Dnieper River in middle of the historic administrative/governmental, Uppertown.  It overlooks the city’s historical commercial and merchant quarter known as the Podil.  Originally it was built in

Originally built in the Middle Ages by Sviatopolk II Iziaslavych, who was the supreme ruler of the Kievan Rus for about 20 years (1093 to 1113), the monastery is made up of a Cathedral, the Refectory of St. John the Divine, the Economic Gates, and the monastery’s bell tower, which were all added in the 18th century. The exterior of the monastery was rebuilt in the Ukrainian Baroque style at that time while the interior is in the original Byzantine style… none of which really means anything because the original cathedral was completely demolished by Soviet authorities in the 1930s, and was then completely reconstructed and opened in 1999 following Ukrainian independence that happened in 1991!  So the whole thing is new anyway. No photography is allowed inside, so I have totally stolen a picture from the Internet*:
*I would normally list a photo credit, but I found this image on Pinterest, which as you all know is where all copyright and image credit information, goes to die. 🙁
Fountain on the monastery grounds – and the first of several ‘wishing spot’ today.  Wet a coin and see if you can get it to stick to the metal fountain taps, if it sticks, the wish will come true.  My Australian 5c piece was just too heavy for the task (or the powers that be in the Monastery Business know I atheist/heathen type, and aren’t into granting wishes to people like me!) 

Directly outside St Michael’s Monastery is where Kiev lived through its most recent violent political upheaval. The Revolution of Dignity, as referred to as Euromaidan was a nationwide Ukrainian protest movement that lasted from November 2013 to February 2014.  The historic events that took place here were precipitated from the abject rejection of the European foreign policy development vector, and the last minute refusal of the Ukranian government to sign the EU Association Agreement.  The protests started peaceably enough but after ten days of peaceful protesting, the government resorted to violence and sent in Special Forces troops to Kiev’s main square Maidan Nezalezhnotsti (Independence Square) to disperse the protestors which saw many young protestors brutally beaten. The protestors took to the Monastery for shelter and the church turned into a makeshift kitchen, clothing distribution point, information and press distribution centre, and even emergency operating room. The protest turned into a longstanding civil disobedience campaign against unchecked state power, corruption and blatant human rights abuses and one hundred people died in the uprising.  The ‘Heavenly Hundred’ are commemorated all over this part of the city – in particular on the street outside our hotel, the Ukraine Hotel, which was sadly used by the government as a sniper tower when dispersing the protests.

Our next point of interest was hopefully something a little less morose, St Andrew’s Church, which is a major Baroque church constructed between 1747 and 1754,  It overlooks the historic Podil neighbourhood and is situation on a steep embankment called Andriyivska Hill.  Currently, the church have become a major headache for local conservationists as the foundations have started to shift, causing worry that the entire building may collapse… pieces of the church’s decor have been found down the hill called St Andrew’s Descent.  :/ 

The Descent is considered ‘Kiev’s Montemarte’ and is a parade full of the work of local artists visible from the viewing platform at the base of the church. The diversity of architecture in the city is quite stunning.

After St Andrew’s we headed to see the Theramin Fountain, which is one of seven iron fountains manufactured in the factory Alexei Theremin, in the pre-revolutionary era. Theremin had been commissioned to build several fountains for the city and was known for being an abusive and foul-mouthed boss.  This fountain, which ended up bearing his name was the final fountain in the commission and unfortunately for Alexei, he left town a few days before it was completed and placed in situ. His workers, who were apparently all fed up with his abuse replaced several lions heads that were intended for the fountain with a representation of Alexei’s face – spewing water forth like the vitriol he spewed at his worker.  When he came back and saw his likeness on the fountain, he was apparently none too impressed and attempted to buy back the fountain from the commissioning authority, but they were having none of it and so it remained.Nearby a piece of art designed to draw attention to the world’s plastic plight.  There’s a cat thing in this city – not sure why… Just around the corner from the fountain is the Golden Gates of Kyiv which was where the main fortification gates of the city were located in the 11th century. It was named in imitation of the Golden Gate of Constantinople (not Istanbul!) but the structure was destroyed in the middle ages, so there were only ruins on this site and no one knew what they original gates looked like.  In 1982, the Soviet government decided they should be rebuilt and this is what was created even though many different reconstructions were proposed?!  So the original medieval gates probably looked nothing like this at all… Nearby is a statue of a cat named Pantyusha who lived in the kitchen of a local restaurant. He was a well-mannered one and was loved by the cooks, waiters and diners alike. At some point, poor Pantyusha died in a kitchen fire, and not long after that some of the restaurant’s regular patrons donated a statue to a nearby park.  People visiting the statue stroke Pantyusha’s head and tail and whisper wishes into his ears. Across the street from the Golden Gate is this marvellously elaborate building that was called the Renaissance Kiev Hotel, built by a millionaire who went bust and had made the exteriors of the building so elaborate that he didn’t have money to fit it out properly. It was eventually bought by someone else who finished it and it became a popular dining place during the Soviet era, where buying a table (bribing the maitre d’hotel to give you someone else’s table) would cost you as much as your entire meal.  More recently, it is seeing its own history repeating itself as it was purchased by a new owner was were going to restore the hotel to its former glory, but apparently hasn’t had the funds to complete the plan, so it’s been boarded up for about five years now. After wandering around the Golden Gate area, we made our way to the Kiev metro so we could jump a train to get to the Kiev Pechersk Lavra Monastery via the ‘deepest Metro Station in the World’– Arsenalna station which is 105.5 meters deep.  First thing I noticed is how fast the escalators are moving in these stations – if you weren’t paying attention, I could imagine plenty it’d be pretty easy to be put your arse by them.  The decor is a little austere – very much in the Soviet-style not at all like the elaborate Art Nouveau and Art Deco metros in Moscow and St Petersburg, where some of the metro stations are also pretty deep – but this one takes the cake.  It took a full three and a half minutes standing on the escalator to get to the surface at our destination, even with the fastest escalators I have ever seen. At the other end of the Metro, we took a walk along the banks of the Dnieper River towards the Lavra and got a closer look at some of the landmarks we had already briefly past.  I loved this statue… it rotated which allowed you to turn it however you wanted, which meant the light was always going to be able to be on the best side for a photo.On it are represented many of the famous cathedrals, churches and monasteries of Kiev. ‘The city is a little foggy and misty’, said our guide whose name I can’t pronounce and definitely couldn’t spell… foggy?  poluted?  potayto?  potarto?  It looked like this at 10am and was still ‘foggy and misty’ at 4pm. The Gate Church of the Trinity is a historic church of the ancient cave monastery of Pechersk Lavra and was originally being built in the Kievan Rus style, but is now decorated in a Ukrainian Baroque style, because like everything else in this city it appears to have been destroyed and reconstructed many times.The massive Pechersk Lavra monastery complex covers nearly 30 hectares on the hillsides of Kiev overlooking the Dnieper River. Since its foundation as the cave monastery in 1051, the Lavra has been a the centre of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe (so, kinda like the Eastern Orthodox, Mecca) and attracts many pilgrims each year who come to pray at the relics of saints that are preserved in the caves.  It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and built on a massive hillside, so a bugger of a walk to get down to the caves and back up again. The caves are built into the hillside and are touted as being ‘catacombs’.  But if you have ever seen any catacombs in Paris or Rome or somewhere, this place is completely different – it is a series of small paved and stuccoed tunnels connecting some rooms where the relics of saints have been preserved. No photos allowed in the caves at Lavra, just plenty of noisily praying pilgrims.  It is said that every Eastern Orthodox adherent should come to the caves of Lavra at least once in their lifetime.  The dehydrated preserved relics of the ‘saints” reminded me of somewhere else I had seen a catacomb-like this – but I would have to go back through my travel photos to figure out where that was… St Petersberg maybe?  Not sure.

After our tour of the city, we went back to the hotel to rest my stupid back.  I had made it through the itinerary without piking until we got to the last section of the Lavra Monastery and I looked at the hill and went, that’s a big ‘nope’.  Seeing the Ukraine Hotel again after hearing its involvement in the recent uprisings – it looked different to me now, knowing that it had been used by the Soviet authorities as a sniper tower to quell the protesting population, made it less impressive and somewhat menacing.  :/ Another statue of the three founding brothers and their sister.  The main monument in Independence Square is the 62m victory Column of Independence. The figure atop the column is Berehynia, a national goddess or earth mother type.  She holds a guelder rose branch which is the symbol of life, love and motherland. Some people love it, some people hate it apparently. We had asked our guide earlier where to go for dinner and she recommended a restaurant called ‘Chicken Kyiv’… really – that is what the restaurant was called. We were seated and presented with menus that looked as thick as a bible! Only it turned out they were coreflut pop up books!  Cute.  Food was cheap and plenty of options. yale tried the chicken and mushroom tart for a starter which was very tasty… And I splashed out and ordered the sturgeon caviar (which turned out to be a quarter of the entire price of our bill). It was so totally worth it – absolultely delicious. For mains, we tried their signature dish – when in Rome and all that – and ordered the Chicken Kyiv.  It was a little disappointing to be honest, loaded with dill rather than the garlicky goodness we were expecting, it wasn’t exactly a taste sensation, but by the time we had put away a few more vodkas we didn’t really care. For dessert – proper honey cake!  It was so good. And yale had a Kiev cake – some sort of meringue and chocolate and pistachio concoction… but he liked my honey cake so much he went and ordered one of those as well. Throughout the meal we worked out way down the vodka menu starting at the top – drinks were so cheap we just kept ordering the next one down the list… and we made a pretty good dent in it, if I sawy so myself.
All up our dinner – three courses each including the ludicrously expensive caviar at (€27 for 30gms), plus about 12 vodkas was barely AUD$100.  Woo-hoo!  We’re not in Iceland anymore, Toto!  Gotta love that exchange rate in Eastern Europe!

We stumbled and laughed our way back to the hotel, via a supermarket to pick up more alcohol, of course. We picked up a few things and at the checkout, three rather average Ukrainian men roughly about 5’8″ – 5’10”, but you know, stocky Ukrainian types came to line up behind us and started immediately commenting on Yale’s height (for those that don’t know him, he’s 6’9″. Naturally, we couldn’t understand what they were saying but with all the gesturing it was really obvious they were remarking how ridiculously tall he is, and of course standing beside him at 5’1″ (on a good day) I look equally ridiculous. It seemed in good natured and we weren’t feeling outnumbered or threatened at all, so as we made our purchase and as they moved to the register, yale started walking towards me, and I moved aside from him and put up two fingers about ten inches apart and winked at these guys, before turning on my heel and walking off. These poor guys fucking lost it!  It was hilarious.  🙂  

All up another great day out and a lovely evening, even though it was supposed be a lighter day than yesterday! Tomorrow, tomorrow will be a lighter day!  *looks skywards*

Warsaw via the Wieliczka Salt Mine

New room with new bed proved to be worth its weight in gold.  Slept much better, which is to say I feel like I had some sleep compared to last night on the ‘you people knew this stupid bed was broken and I bet it will still be broken next month’. So be it. Someone else’s problem now and a really shitty Trip Advisor review for you guys.

We are heading to Warsaw today, but first, we are planning on heading a ways in the opposite direction to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  Located in the town of the same name, the mine has been open since the 13th century and produced table salt right up until 2007, making it one of the oldest salt mines in operation. Throughout that entire time, the royal mine was run by the Żupy krakowskie Salt Mines company.

The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a total depth of 327 meters and is over 287 kilometres long. Since the mined ceased commercial operations it has become a major tourist attraction – there are underground chapels and an enormous reception room that is used for private functions, including weddings, loads of statues and some underground brine lakes.  The tourist route goes only 135m underground (which is plenty, trust me!) and follows a 3 km guided tour.  To initially get down to the first levels of the tours, visitors need to go down 64m via a timber spiral staircase of some 380 steps – which, given the low ceilings and tight space is a bit like walking down a 40 storey building fire escape stairwell.  There are many more sets of wooden steps so that visitors end up on the third level down at 135m and a total of approximately 800 steps down to get to that level.

Thankfully, a ridiculously claustrophobic lift returns you to the surface in an elevator that has four cars and holds 36 persons (nine per car) and takes about 45 seconds to make the trip. Everywhere we look is salt. Salt walls, salt floors, salt ledges, nooks and crannies.  The rock salt naturally occurs in various shades of grey and looks more like unpolished granite. There are many pully systems and horse treadmills throughout the mine to assist miners in moving large amounts of the heavy product to the surface. Throughout the mine, there are many statues carved out of salt.  Some, more contemporary artworks have been carved by modern sculptors, but many have been carved by amateurs – gifted miners who worked on these sculptures during their own time.

Copernicus statue carved from salt:

The story of how the mine allegedly came into being…

“In the 13the century a young Polish prince, called Bolesław, of the Piast Dynasty, decided to get married and for his wife chose a beautiful Hungarian princess of the Arpad Dynasty, the daughter of King Bela IV, Kinga (or Kunegund, as she is sometimes called).

When Bolesław’s proposal was accepted, the loving father asked Kinga what she would like to get from him as a wedding present, what she would like to take to her husband and the new country. Kinga replied that she wanted no gold and jewels since they only brought unhappiness and tears. She wanted something that could serve the people she was going to live with. Her request surprised the king greatly – she asked for salt.

The king was determined to keep his promise. He offered Kinga the biggest and most prosperous salt deposits in Hungary* – the Marmaros salt mine. However, nobody knew what Kinga could do with the treasure.

On her way to Poland, the princess visited the mine. She kneeled to pray next to the entrance and – to everyone’s surprise – suddenly threw her engagement ring inside. She gathered a group of the best Hungarian salt miners and told them to follow her.

When the party arrived in Poland and was approaching Kraków, Kinga stopped and asked the miners to look for salt. They started digging and suddenly hit something very hard. It was a lump of salt. When they broke it, everyone saw what was hidden inside – Kinga’s engagement ring!

That is how the Hungarian princess brought salt to our country. Right now in Wieliczka, there is the most famous salt mine museum.”

*This area once was in Hungarian territory.
And the scene depicted is a diorama carved of salt. The St Anthony’s Chapel. Secondary crystalised salt forms on the walls and ceiling of the mine as water seeps through the rock above. One of the most dangerous things about mining salt (indeed about mining anything this far underground) is the risk of fire.  The salt mines were particularly prone to fires from gas escaping as new veins of salt were mine.  Therefore one of the most dangerous jobs down the mine was to crawl down the newly created tunnels with a long flaming torch literally burning out pockets of colourless gas, which could cause explosions if the gas deposits were large enough.  It was a very dangerous job but apparetly very well paid work. The visible patterns and designs have been hand cut into the walls and floors. There were many workhorses used in the salt mines – once down the mine, they spent their entire lives down there as it was difficult to get them in or out.  So naturally, they needed stables, with feed storage and all sorts.  Hay stocks would bring mice, which meant they eventually brought down cats and the whole place sounded like a bit of a menagerie.  An old winch system: This photo is unfortunately not very clear, but these were 14th century stairs that miners would use to descend the mine, carved into the salt. Looking down to the second level: Gnomes start to appear dotted around the place, carved out of very clear white rock salt. Where we just came from: A brine creek directed to a bowl.  Our guide kept telling us to lick the walls or taste the water – it’s so salty that no bacteria can survive on the surface, and even though the mine has over 1.2 million visitors a year, she assures us that no one ever gets sick from licking the walls.  I kinda believe her, but didn’t feel the need to try it. The water however was extremely salty.

A recreated foreman’s office off a mine tunnel: A vignette of many gnomes doing various mine jobs: Another small chapel space to the virgin Mary:
Love the salt floor ’tiles’…  Some of the chambers have been reinforced with timber, which miners kept painted white.  They had no electric lighting down here and had small tallow lamps or torches only.  The white allowed for the light to be reflected around more easily and create better lit conditions.

A chandelier made of salt rock crystals: Another small chapel.  Mining is serious business that needs a lot of praying. So then we enter the King’s Chapel – a chamber which has the world’s largest underground church.   Lit by five enormous rock salt chandeliers, a huge wooden staircase bring visitors to the salt floor which is 64m underground now.Lining the walls are carvings of various artistic execution done by miners:
I love the floor! The salt rock crystal chandeliers are over two meters in drop: The King’s Chapel. Salt rock statues, salt rock columns, salt rock candlesticks, salt rock altar, salt rock kneelers, pews, salt rock tabernacle… Even the bollards to keep the tourists in line are carved out of salt. Further down the mine there are some enormous salt water lakes. 

The largest salt rock crystal chandelier in the complex – over 3 m long, hangs in a chamber near an enormous timber structure that was used to move salt up through the mine.  Carpentry was another important job here.  Goethe: Looking down towars the third level of the tourist route: Apparently tourists used to be moved about using ferry boat rides here through some of the smaller tunnels of the mine until a tragic drowning incident occurred in the Jozef Pilsudski Chamber.A ferry boat capsized and five people were trapped underneath it. In theory it should be impossible to drown in water this salty as everyone is so bouyant, but the boat was so heavy that the people couldn’t get out from under it, so they suffocated. That is why there is now a statue of St. John Nepomuk, the patron saint of the drowning.
This is the tallest chamber in the tourist route – at 36m high.  It is also the location of the World Record Deepest Underground Bungee jump.   Reception centre for weddings etc. There are multiple gift shops mostly selling gifts made from – you guessed it – salt.  None of which would last very long in a humid tropical environment like Brisbane.  Another small chapel on the way out of the mine. All up it was a very slick tourist operation that takes you on a visit through the mine. Our guide was interesting and informative and she only made one joke about us being nice to her because she was the only person in the group who knew the way out.  It is a veritable labyrinth of tunnels and chambers and you could see how easily you could get lost.

After our mine visit, it was time to hit the road and head to Warsaw.  Thankfully we had a trusty hire car for this segment of the journey and we were not going to find ourselves standing around for two hours on a train platform in yet another shitty transit.

Polish drivers are mad bastards though – dashing in and out of traffic without indicating.  Speed limit signs appear to be ‘suggestions’ only, and the route from one major city to another kept changing from fantastically fast dual carriageway to windy little back streets through small villages.
Amazingly dodgy servo lunch:
High speed landscape photography of the Polish countryside.Beautiful though  🙂 
Again we got to experience the feeling of standing still while going 130kmph as crazy Audi and BMW drivers went flying past us weaving in and out of traffic… to be honest, I was kinda glad that out little Corolla wasn’t capable of it, or perhaps yale would have put his foot down even more. Amazingly we only saw one small car accident…

We arrived in Warsaw and went to the place that Booking.com said our accommodation was booked at – only to be met in a carpark by a woman who led us to a different location about two blocks away, and to what appeared to be a private apartment.  I was seriously unimpressed to discover the apartment (while having all the amenities of what we had booked) was nothing like what we had actually booked… for a start, we could not get our luggage all the way to the apartment without taking a very dodgy old lift up 15 stories and then going up through a maze of not very well kept corridors and two flights of stairs.

After the strange woman showed us to our weird accommdations, we immediately went in search of quick food not too far away.  yale opted for massive loaded hotdogs and I had a swiss cheese and mushroom burger at a place called The Brooklyn Bar.
I was not actually sure the owner/designer had ever been to Brooklyn or to a bar in Brooklyn in the last decade – but the food was mostly edible, the loud hip-hop was totally dreadful, but the cheap shots of vodka made the whole thing bearable.Back to the apartment and yale carried everything up the flights of stairs after taking the scary antique lift to the 15ht floor.  Back in the apartment – bedroom is up a flight of narrow twisty stairs to a low ceilinged loft, that I was going to have to navigate coming down first thing in the morning when my back is at it’s absolute worst and walking is sometimes problematic let alone weird odd height staircases. I mean, it was a nice enough space, but I would not have booked it had these been the pictures on the booking website.

We laughed about most of it – especially the tiny pokey shower cubicle – the vodkas over dinner helped.  yale for scale: Oh well, we are supposed to be staying here again in a few days time – but have decided to cancel and find something that 1) has no stairs to bed and 2) has a decent chance of a shower that yale can fit it!  Another interesting review coming up for these guys too!

Myrdalsjokull, and Svartifoss and Jökulsárlón, oh my!

Today is ALL the pictures of all the pretty scenery of southern Iceland.  Woke up (early again) at the Hunkubakkar guesthouse to wondrous blue skies and gorgeous sunlight spilling onto the slopes and onto the sheeps dotting the slopes.  Our little log cabin was comfy enough but not really cosy… log cabins aren’t really supposed to have Scandinavian austerity interior design principles imho.  We were up and out early this morning with lots to see and do today.

First stop was a quick photo opp at Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon.  The canyon is about 100m deep and 2kms long having been cut in the last Ice Age by the Fjaðrá River that flows through it. It would be amazing to go walk through the canyon but alas, we have only so much time and so many things to do today. Unrelated, but directly adjacent to the canyon, we found the first of a bunch of ‘No Pooping’ signs on the side of the road… Why the fuck do people need to be told not to take a dump at a car park on the side of the road at the beginning of a nature hike?  People suck.We were heading back a bit to Vik this morning and with the sun out, everything looked completely different to last night in the dark and rain.
The gorgeous views just go on for miles – and around every corner some other truly beautiful vista greets you. Snow over the lava fields.

Mýrdalsjökull glacier is the name given to the enormous ice cap in the south of Iceland that covers an active volcano called Katla.  Katla and Mýrdalsjökull are just to the north of the township of Vik, and just easter of the much smaller icecap, Eyjafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010 causing much global havoc – particularly with airlines as half of Europe’s air fleets were grounded due to the hazards of airborne volcanic ash and jet engines.  Katla is one of Iceland’s biggest immediate threats.  The volcano erupts approximately every 40–80 years, however, the last eruption occurred in 1918, which means that Katla is seriously overdue. Scientists are actively monitoring the volcano, particularly after the eruption of nearby Eyjafjallajökull began in 2010. Since the year 930, 16 eruptions have been documented.

Katla is so big and such a threat that an area of glacier estimated to be 100km2 will instantly turn to flood waters causing five times as much water volume as the Amazon River to be flowing over the lowlands of Iceland.  100km2 – that’s an area larger than Manhattan (84km2).  People have trouble envisaging an amount of land that big.  last time Katla erupted the subsequent ash cloud affected the entire earth’s atmosphere so as to see a 3C drop in global temperatures following the eruption.  When Katla does erupt there is no doubt it will be a landscape-altering event for Southern Iceland; the 1918 eruption saw the coastline extended by an entire 5 km by laharic flood deposits.

Seeing Katla is so long overdue, it seemed like the perfect time to go for a walk through an ice cave that is *under* the Katla Volcano.  To do so, we arranged a guided tour to take us out through the lava fields and to the caves.

First we needed to

A small selling point for some – the walls of the glacier are ‘The Wall’ in the Game of Thrones tv show.  Film crews came out here in the winter to film sections of the glacier wall to use as a model/basis. Stefan informed us that ‘They film these wall, and then the rest is they make in the computer.

So not sorry that there are so many pictures being added to this post – everywhere we looked was beautiful vistas, stunning ice formations and interesting light. The ice caves change every year as the warmth of summer brings rapid erosion, and the frosts of winter stabilize newly formed caverns and tunnels. So every season the spaces that people can safely access are altered. These ice caves are among the most extraordinary and mesmerizing wonders of nature. They are some of the most breath-taking sights I have ever experienced and this is just a little taste of what the ice caves offer – some of the most impressive ice caves you can visit in Iceland are not open until the full winter season due to their unpredictability.  Just a few weeks ago, the ice cave known as the Crystal Cathedral (a large underground ice cavern) collapsed under the weight of the moving ice.   We are literally standing inside a glacier, it’s all around us. It feels really solid and safe, but in the back of your mind is the fact that glaciers are moving natural phenomena, all around us the ice is slowly moving and creaking its way down the mountainside.. which in this case is an enormous live volcano.

The ice walls covered in volcanic ash make for a very dramatic backdrop. Stefan, our guide who repeatedly claimed it was his first day with a drivers license and then continued to drive that monster truck like a maniac for our (and possibly his) amusement, explains to some American tourists that Katla is overdue to erupt and when this happens, ‘All Iceland is probably fucked.’

I can’t get over these images – this place is truly special.

After our stunning visit to the Mýrdalsjökull ice caves (even after being here I am no closer to being able to pronounce that properly) we entrusted ourselves back into Stefan’s hands for the race back to Vik… and race he did, except for the moments he was cracking donuts out on the lava field showing us that the monster truck won’t tip, or the bits where he was tearing up lava dunes so steep all you could see out the windscreen was sky.

After our tour, we were back on the road heading northeast.  The Hringvegur road (the main ring road around the island) is quite challenging.  Maximum speed is 90kmph, though there are many, many bridges which are one lane only and people are required to slow to 50kmph and give way to any vehicles already crossing the bridge.  The larger challenge though comes from people darting off the road trying to find vantage points to take photographs when the road literally has no shoulder to it. The next part of today’s adventure was taking us to Vatnajökull National Park to see the famous Svartifoss waterfall.  Svartifoss (literally, black waterfall) is part of the Skaftafell wilderness area in Vatnajökull. It is surrounded by dark lava columns made of basalt similar to those that are seen at places like Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and the Island of Staffa and Fingal Caves in Scotland. There are also similar basalt column formations on Reynisdrangar beach which we visited yesterday.

So we get to the National Park and check out the Visitor’s Centre – I was saying yesterday that many of the places of interest around Iceland seem to be connecting the dots on the Route 1, Hringvegur Road… this one not so much.  We had a look at the map and noted that to get to the waterfall there was a 1.8km walk of which one part of the map was marked ‘mountainous’ close to the waterfall… I kinda failed to notice how close together the contour lines were for the entire first half of the walk. Much to my detriment. I took these photos on the way back – on the way there I was using all my energy to focus on keeping my head down (it reduces the clicking and grinding feelings that I get in my neck when going up inclines and steps) and reminding myself not to hold my breath.   Many of you probably already know that I am a chronic pain sufferer and I kinda anticipated the energy required to do the ice-caving walk and planned to walk around a glacier lake this afternoon, but this ‘hike’, I had not anticipated. Which meant from about 200m in, it was a struggle.  I was ramping up my neck/back pain, my Kyoto knee was not happy with me (I stepped oddly off a bus in Kyoto in 2015 and did something weird to my knee and its never forgiven me), I literally stopped about six times because I was going to throw up – not because I am unfit, though I am, but because the clicking and grinding in my neck drags against my oesophagus causing a gag reflex to induce feelings of impending vomiting.  Yes, me and steep slopes/steps simply do not mix and have not since 2007.  The other big problem with pain is fighting the urge to hold your breath – you know that thing you do when you kick your toe hard into a piece of furniture and you go ‘Shit!’ and then hop around holding your breath until the pain subsides to stop yourself from exclaiming more?  Yeah that.  When my pain levels are amped right up to 11, I have a tendency to hold my breath, which is not ideal when hiking unless passing out is your goal. I looked at these paths on the way back and simply could not believe I walked up them.  They were very steep and about 1.2km of the 1.8km walk was all like this.  Eventually, we got to a viewing platform where we could see the falls in the distance and I could also see the track in front of me – straight down for about 300m.  I looked at it and thought I can not go down there because I have to come back up.  But after a few minutes rest and some water to get the peristalsis moving back in a downwards direction, I got to the ‘Fuck it, I’ve come this far, I’m not missing out on seeing this damn waterfall.’So, after basically getting there on pure pigheadedness, I managed to see the Svartifoss waterfall. It really is a unique natural formation with the tall black basalt columns and the broken pieces of columns all scattered around below the falls.  It was late afternoon, so the light could have been better but still, just beautiful.

yale looking wistfully out over the landscape on the way back to the visitor’s centre.  Okay, may be wistful, may be, ‘Hurry up and take your damn picture, woman.’
After I hobbled back to the car (and yes, hobbling was seen as my back was just screaming at me and all the drugs were in the car), we then continued our journey towards Höfn and at every turn, we were marvelling at the scenery.  You literally drive another five minutes and are greeted with completely different landscapes.  It’s incredible.  The impulse to keep taking photographs is overwhelming and the ever-changing landscape boggles the mind wiith its diversity. I’m in the car as we drive along, queuing up some 80s tunes to try and take my mind off the ill-advised hike to the waterfall. We were heading toHöfn for the evening and on the way is the Jökulsárlón glacier lake (Jökulsárlón literally means, ‘glacial river lagoon’) which is on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. The lagoon has formed at the base of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier which used to just spill into the Atlantic, but developed into a lake as the glacier has receded from the sea, as glaciers are wont to do.  This is the stunning result of this incredibly unusual naturally formed glacial lagoon:
The lake is constantly changing size and shape depending on the varying melting rate of the glacier. Currently, the lake is about 1.5 km from the ocean and is about 18 km2  in size. In 2009 it was surveyed and is reportedly the deepest lake in Iceland, at over 248m deep! As the glacier continues to retreat the size of the lake continues to increase and has quadrupled in size since the 1970s. I haven’t included it in any of these photos, but on the other side of the lake, there are small buildings that house the many tour operators that you can book through to go out in a zodiac and explore the lake, its icebergs and wildlife (mostly birds and seals).  I discovered fairly quickly that the buildings immediately gave you a frame of reference for the size of everything – from the size of the glacier face to the distances across the lake, to the estimated size of the icebergs.
One of the weirdnesses of Antarctica was the impossibility of trying to estimate the distances to a glacier or the approximate size of an iceberg… you’d think something is only 500m away, and then you’d move towards it in the zodiac and keep going and keep going and it would get larger and larger and yet you still wouldn’t reach it.  Without any trees, vehicles, buildings or people – Antarctica is without perspective.  The buildings across the lake helped you immediately lock in how large the lake and the icebergs in it, were.
I am pleasantly surprised to see that I can still be amazed at the size and beauty of the icebergs – in spite of having seen many of them in both Alaska and Antarctica. Maybe I am not as travel weary and jaded as I think I am – mind you, it probably really helped that there were no hordes of other tourists here while I was admiring their beauty and enjoying the serenity… Iceland Tourism considers Lake Jökulsárlón to be one natural wonders of Iceland – gotta say, they won’t get any argument from us! It was early evening by the time we left the glacier lake, and totally dark by the time we arrived in Höfn.  As we checked into the House On The Hill Guesthouse, I was elated by the beautiful places I had seen today but also completely regretful of my ridiculous stubborn streak that saw me march into Svartifoss like a healthy person. I am in so much pain I can’t describe it.  Tomorrow is going to be a real struggle…  I hope I get some decent sleep tonight.