Wawel Castle and Auschwitz-Birkenau

The rattling of trams woke us up this morning from, for my part, the worst night sleep I have had in a long time.  Not even the Valium helped. I think the bed was broken – it had no support under it and it was sloping to the side somewhat, every time I rolled over, (which was often because I felt like I was constantly going to fall out of bed) something creaked and clunked under the bed frame. So yay, welcome to another busy day and this time with about four hours sleep.    Walking up to Wawel Castle… We were planning on visiting the historic district of Wawel Castle just for the morning.  It is located pretty much in the centre of Kraków and was built by King Kazimierz III, also known as Casimir III the Great, in the 13th and 14th centuries.  The castle is actually a large complex made up of a number of Medieval/Renaissance/ Baroque buildings around a very large Italian style courtyard making it one of the largest in Poland. Most of the Wawel Royal Castle and the Wawel Hill area are considered the most culturally/historically significant areas in the entire country. Sometimes I feel like I am travelling the world ticking off UNESCO World Heritage Sites, as this is another one of them Buying tickets proved quite the experience. There was a (thankfully, short) queue of about 20 people waiting to buy tickets to enter the caste.  We couldn’t figure out why the line was moving so slowly.  Turns out you don’t just buy a ticket to the Castle and wander on it following a structured flow through the museum, but rather you choose which sections of the castle you wish to see and then are told when you can go see them.So we arrive around 10:00, go wait in line for a rather complex ticketing system and find ourselves unable to enter anywhere for another 20 minutes.  :/ I understand the concept is probably about crowd control during the busiest of summer periods but none of this information is easily available online (it is once you know to look for it), and you can’t buy tickets in advance, and of course, there is only one person serving all the somewhat confused visitors.  We were told if we wanted to visit the Royal Apartments we wouldn’t get an entry time until 14:00, and once inside we saw plenty of people loitering around the courtyard waiting for their appointed times to go in.

The city was very foggy when we left the hotel this morning, but it was going to be a lovely day. Side entrance to the cathedral part of the complex. Forecourt: Main courtyard. And that, my friends, is pretty much the limit of the photos I was able to take at Wawel Castle.  The castle contains an important collection of Renaissance art, some Ghirlandaio, Cranach, at least two Rubens, a Tintoretto, Tiepolo, and a few Dossi among others; lots of famous pieces, but NO PHOTOGRAPHY was allowed:





The castle also contains a famous collection of Gobelin tapestries known as the Sigismund II Augustus tapestry collection, a collection of Crown jewels and coronation pieces, a very impressive armoury and many period household furnishings – chairs, trunks, tables, light fittings, fireplaces, and smaller domestic items like jugs, plates, bowls etc.  It is a huge loss not to be able to photograph these things, as they never appear in catalogues or books.

The armoury, in particular, was extremely frustrating, there was an enormous collection of polearms, swords, crossbows, early firearms and daggers – and NONE of it was well marked.  Honestly, they had a wall of about 30 daggers with a tag that read something like “Daggers from Austria, Germany, Italy, France, and Spain; 14th to 16th century”.  I could take a stab at the provenance of some of them, but it was really annoying to know each of these artefacts have a unique origin and history, but the primary goal of the curators of the museum seems not to be one of education, but of traffic flow.  Most of the rooms we accessed were of a similarly poorly labelled – you enter an enormous chamber, surrounded by tapestries, paintings, obviously period furniture items, there is one small A3 plaque with six people huddled around it trying to figure out which item is which using the shoddily numbered diagram, with very little information. Honestly, whoever set this place up cares not a whit for educating those that visit.

We walked out after having seen some of the most wonderful objects, with no photos to share with other medieval enthusiasts back home, and zero information on what we had been looking at.  We hightailed it to the two bookshops and found only the most basic of touristy guidebooks – you know the one, it is basically the Wikipedia page of the castle in print form.  So disappointed.  I asked one of the staff members if there was a book on the armoury, and he didn’t even know if there was one.  We eventually found a very weighty academic 300-page tome solely addressing polearms, but not just ones in the Wawel Castle collection, when I was really interested in the crossbows and early firearms.

If you are going to prohibit guests from taking photographs, then for crying out loud sell decent guidebooks to the various exhibits.  It’s just such a let down to travel halfway around the world to see these magnificent things and not to be able to recall them or share them.  Particularly from a research and education standpoint.  This must be one of the most frustrating and disappointing museum visits I have ever encountered.

On more than one occasion we saw small groups entering rooms that we weren’t allowed to enter because they were on an organised tour. Museums should not be like this.  It is a cluster.  My advice for anyone planning on attending Wawel Castle is to set aside the entire day for it so you can visit on their scheduled time slots.  I would probably also use a private tour operator to access the ‘non-public’ spaces… and I’d probably anticipate a disappointing visit anyway due to photography not being allowed, and the lack of decent books to make up for the whole photography is not allowed thing.  :/   

After grabbing a quick and dirty roadside bite to eat we head out to the countryside about an hour south of Krakow to Oświęcim to visit the Auschwitz-Birkenau museums and memorials.  I have based a lot of the following text on information boards that were dotted around the complex.  I have found it hard to find my own words to express what happened here, and how it makes you feel as you progress through this very important historical site.  So I have paraphrased a lot of the more thoughtful words that have been placed before us for our introspection as we visited.

Throughout the world, Auschwitz has become a symbol of terror, genocide and the Holocaust. The German forces occupying Poland during the Second World War established a concentration camp on the outskirts of the town of Oświęcim in 1940. The Germans called the town, ‘Auschwitz’ and that is the name by which the camp was known. Over the next years it was expanded into three main camps: Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II- Birkenau and Auschwitz III- Planowitz with more than 40 subcamps in the area. The first people to be brought to Auschwitz as prisoners and murdered here were Poles. They were soon followed by Soviet prisoners of war, Gypsies, and deportees from other nationalities. Beginning in 1942, however, Auschwitz became the setting of the most massive murder campaign in history, when the Nazis put into operation their plan to destroy the entire Jewish population of Europe. The great majority of Jews who were deported to Auschwitz – men, women and children – were sent immediately upon arrival to deal in the gas chambers of Birkenau.

When the SS realized that the end of the war was near, they attempted to remove the evidence of the atrocities committed here. They dismantled the gas chambers, crematoria, and other buildings, burned documents and evacuation all those prisoners who could walk to the interior of Germany. Those who were not evacuated were liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945.

On July 2, 1974, the Polish Parliament established the State Museum of Oświęcim – Brezinka on the sites of the former camps at Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. In 1979, these camps were formally recognized by UNESCO by their inclusion on the World Heritage List.

In the years 1940 – 1941 German occupants expelled the Polish inhabitants of the following villages:  Brzezinka, Harmęże, Pławy, Bór, Rajsko,  Klucnikowice, Babice Broszkowice and from Zasole District of Oświęcim. They took this land and founded the death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camp’s economic and industrial base is on the site of the demolished or taken buildings from those villages.

Auschwitz was the largest Nazi German Concentration Camp and Death Camp. In the years 1940 – 1945, the Nazis deported at least 1,300,000 people to Auschwitz:

1,100,000 Jews
140,000 – 150,000 Poles
23,000 Roma (Gypsies)
15,000 Soviet Prisoners of War
25,000 Prisoners from other ethnic groups.

1,100,000 of these people died in Auschwitz, approximately 90% of the victims were Jews. The SS murdered the majority of these people in the gas chambers.

Model of the massive L-Shaped gas chamber and crematoria complex located at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

Transports of Jews deported to Auschwitz would arrive at a specially constructed railway ramp at Birkenau. The ramp was obscured from the camp so that prisoners could not see arriving deportees and deportees could not see the state of the prisoners. At this unloading ramp, women and children were immediately separated from men. Subsequently, SS doctors would carry out an extremely perfunctory ‘selection’. Those who were considered fit for work were directed to the work camp to be registered as prisoners. This amounted to approximately 25 per cent of the arrivals. The remainder were led directly to the gas chambers. In order to avoid panic spreading, people condemned to death were assured that they were going to take a shower after their train travel for disinfection purposes. Sometimes entire trainloads of deportees were directed straight to the gas chambers without any selections taking place.

A map covering part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and death camp. The yellow area is a series of warehouses known as ‘Kanada’ in Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the red area is the ‘Kanada’ of the Auschwitz KL camp (I will come back to them later). After the selection process on the railway platform, those who were going to be murdered in the gas chambers were assured that they were going to take a shower. They were divided from their belongings and made to strip naked. Fake showerheads were fixed to the ceiling of the gas chambers.

Beaten and intimidated by SS dogs, 2,000 victims were crammed into the underground chamber, an area of approximately 210M2. The chamber door would be locked and Zyklon B was poured into the chamber from holes in the ceiling. The bodies were then stripped of gold teeth and jewellery as war spoils for the Reich, their hair was cut off and sold to PKR textiles manufacturer to be made into bedding, clothing etc, then the bodies were burnt in the crematorium. All the victims’ personal documents were destroyed, effectively erasing all evidence of that person having been executed there.

In Barracks numbered 5 – 10, contains items relating to the atrocities committed on this site by the Nazis. They have been assembled to demonstrate to visitors the extent of the mass extermination of the predominantly Jewish prisoners at the camp.

Zyklon B canisters found on site after liberation: Piles of spectacles removed from deportees who were murdered in the gas chambers.


June 1940 – Beginning of the deportation of Poles, the Nazis sent 140,000 – 150,000 Polish prisoners to the camp, where half of them perished.

June 1941 – Beginning of deportations of 25,000 prisoners of various nationalities, about half of these prisoners perished in the camp.

Summer 1941 – Beginning of deportations of 15,000 Soviet POWs. Most died during their imprisonment. Only a few survived.

March 1942 – Beginning of deportations of 1.1million Jews. Auschwitz started fulfilling two functions; whilst remaining a concentration camp, it became yet another site of the Holocaust, the biggest mass murder in the history of mankind, perpetrated by the Nazis. About one million deported Jews, were murdered by the SS, mainly in gas chambers.

February 1943 – Beginning of deportations of 23,000 Roma (Gypsies), of this number, 21,000 perished.

One thing these disparate groups had in common was that any disabled people who arrived at the camp would be immediately set to the death chambers. They were identified during the selection process and never registered as prisoners.

People arriving at the camps had many personal belongings with them that were taken and sorted, including household goods and kitchen items:
Piles of suitcases each one once carrying the entire worldly goods of a deportee: Mountains of shoes taken from the dead or about to be killed:
The shoes of children who were murdered at the camps:
Personal brushes and shaving brushes:

When the camp was first administered, every prisoner who arrived at Auschwitz would have an identification number given to them and a card made with three photographs of the individual for identification. This photography system proved time-consuming and expensive and as many prisoners did not survive the camp long enough to justify the process. KL Auschwitz was the only Nazi camp where prisoners had their camp numbers tattooed onto their person – on their left arm, though some smaller children had numbers tattooed onto their legs. The tattooing saved money due to the right mortality rate and assisted with difficulties in identifying corpses. From Autumn 1941 Soviet prisoners of war as well as other groups, were tattooed also. From Spring 1943, tattooing for identification was used to mark all prisoners.
Camp uniforms were issued to prisoners who made it through the selection process to become registered prisoner/workers.  They were often filthy and lice-ridden.
Each of these people had a family, an occupation, a home. Here, they were dehumanized and turned into a number only. 

the windows of the barracks were the constant reminders of the failure to comply with orders.  Barbed wire fences, guard towers and the ever-present threat of violence and death.

Prisoners held in the concentration camp died from being overworked, from starvation, from deliberately sadistic punishments, from sheer exhaustion at prolonged roll-calls, by being tortured, from appalling living conditions, by being used for medical experiments or through arbitrary executions. Those too weak, or too sick to work were selected by the SS during the roll-calls, or in the infirmary, and either sent to the chambers for extermination or murdered with an injection of phenol.

Constant starvation was one of the main factors in the degradation and extermination of prisoners. The daily food ration of each prisoner consisted of approximately 1,200-1,700 kilocalories. Most prisoners had to survive on these rations whilst working approximately 11 hours every day. Prisoners who could not find any additional sources of food usually died after just a few months imprisonments in the camp.

For all their claims to the contrary, the Nazis deported several hundred thousand children to the concentration camps.  The Nazis deported about 232,000 children and young people to KL Auschwitz, including 216,000 Jewish children, 11,000 Roma (Gypsy) children, 3,000 Polish children and 1,000 children of other nationalities. The majority of the children perished in the gas chambers immediately after arrival. However, a ‘lucky’ few who had the right ‘features’ ie: were of desirable Aryan appearance with blonde hair and blue eyes, would be taken from their parents and given to good German families to raise. Altogether about 22,000 children and young people of various nationalities were registered as prisoners at KL Auschwitz, meaning the other 200,000 children who arrived at Auschwitz were killed on arrival.   On 27 January 1945, the Red Army soldiers liberated only about 650 children and young people from the camp, of which 450 were under 15 years old.

At the time of liberation, there were many children in the camp who were taken there so young as to not know their full names or what towns and regions their families had come from. Many of these children were never reunited with families and several never knew their identities.
Map of the Block 11 Punishment Unit.  This was effectively the prison within the prison.  If prisoner committed offences while in the camp, they could expect any sort of retribution – immediate execution, solitary confinement for a period of time, confinement to starvation with the intention of murdering the prisoner, or face a firing squad at an unknown future time. Note Section 22 in the left hand building – it has what is know as ‘standing cells’ where prisoners entered through a two foot door in a wall and were put in a cell approximatedly two foot square and six foot tall.  Prisoners would be locked in this standing cell in complete darkness for indeterminate periods of time. Prisoners were led to this wall for execution by firing squad. The barracks beside the execution courtyard were blocked from seeing what was happening during the executions. Prisoners avoided having anything to do with Block 11 and tried hard to stay away from it when going about their duties. A guardhouse used by SS officials for shelter during the harsh roll-calls that prisoners were forced to endure: In the centre of Auschwitz KL, the SS officer in charge would hold a roll call in the courtyard above. The roll call contained reports on the number of prisoners present. If there seemed to be anyone missing, prisoners had to continue to stand at attention until the SS were satisfied – regardless of the weather, sometimes for up to twelve hours or more. To intimidate the prisoners, the SS would also conduct public hangings in full view of the roll-call area. The largest such execution was carried out on 19 July 1943 when twelve Poles suspected of helping three other prisoners escape, and of maintaining contacts with the outside world, were hanged together on a purpose-built gallows.

Rudolf Höss was the German SS officer who was the longest-serving  Commandant of Auschwitz. He tested and carried into Hitler’s plan to systematically exterminate the Jewish population. Höss lived in a home with his wife and family that is in surprisingly close proximity (about 50m) from the gas chamber and crematorium of Auschwitz KL. It is unbelievable how he could live a regular family life and raise his children so close this horrifying place of daily mass murder. Later, after the war, and after the trials for war crimes, a special gallows was built here and Rudolph Höss was hanged on 16 April 1947, after a trial before the Polish Supreme National Tribunal. Fittingly he was executed at Auschwitz, in between of his former home and the gas chambers. It is not possible to believe that the Höss family didn’t hear, smell and see the airborne ash remains of the prisoners emerging from the chimneys, who met their fate in the gas chambers.
The small gas chamber at KL (Konzentrationslager) Auschwitz: The creamation works directly beside the gas chamber. All of which is only divided from the worker/prisoner barracks by two rows of patrolled barbed wire.  The prisoners must have also know the fates of those who entered the chambers.

It was at this point we had a break in our tour and I took the opportunity to talk to our guide, Marta, who I had noticed handled the appalling and traumatizing material that she was imparting in a professional, yet very sensitive manner. She was managing to share some truly harrowing content with us in a matter of fact manner, and I wanted to commend her on what I thought must be a difficult and delicate balance between educating visitors and yet now allowing the recitation of bland facts to overwhelm the truly unbelievably vile events that occurred here. I was also curious to know how long she had been guiding visitors through Auschwitz, how many times each day would she go through the complex and how did she manage to not allow the horrific nature of the events that she was constantly discussing not to affect her personally on a psychological level? It turns out that Marta is not actually one of the main tour guides. She is a historian and curator at the museum and she only takes tours on rare occasions.

yale looked Marta up online later to find out more about her background and we discovered she is one of the preeminent specialists in educational projects connected to the Auschwitz memorials and museums.

After reading her biography I can see now why she was so willing to engage in a discussion with me, regarding the important role she feels the museum plays in educating generations of people who are now less directly connected to the atrocities committed here. She said that 15 years ago, many of their visitors all knew someone or had met someone who was directly connected to the concentration camps… now the living memories of what happened here during the Holocaust were starting to fade, as the survivors themselves were passing away. It was obvious that Marta was very connected to the material having visited Auschwitz many times. Before she started working for the museum she worked with survivors and participated in helping to collect testimonies of peoples’ experiences at Auschwitz. While Marta somehow managed to maintain the professionalism of an academic, it was obvious that her empathy for these people and this place was genuine but also somehow composed, calm and tempered. I am not sure I could do this work – though I do believe her role in educating future generations on the atrocities committed at Auschwitz is vitally important… in the current political climate, perhaps now more than ever.

Our tour continued after a short bus ride to the larger camp area of Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Whereupon we were greeted by rows and rows of brick or timber barracks as far as the eye could see. I had no idea the sheer scale of this camp. I guess you read that it is 180ha and accommodated up to 130,000 prisoners, but the size of this place and the human misery that it must have seen is on a scale that I found difficult to comprehend.   We approached by the famous brick rail gate and started walking into the camp. To our right were the timber barracks belonging to the male prisoners, in sections B1, B2, B3, B4, B5 all the way back to ‘Kanada’.

‘Kanada’ was a series of warehouses where the belongings of the murdered prisoners were taken to be sorted and redistributed to the Reich. Many of the goods acquired here were the portable items of value that the deported Jews were able to bring with them when they were hastily removed from their homes and then removed again from the ghettos.  Jobs in Kanada were highly prized and often given to the ‘favourite’ prisoners of powerful SS officers.  Having friends in Kanada could mean access to warmer clothing, and possible food to supplement rations or goods to barter with. It was during this part of the tour that the sheer scale of the camp hits visitors hard.  One hundred and eighty hectares of organised misery, degradation and for most, eventual death. A replica of the railway cars which were used to transport most of the deportees to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Eighty to one hundred people were crammed into these cars for journeys lasting days with no food, no water and no toileting facilities.  Tens of thousands of people arrived at the camp in cars just like this one. The further into the camp we walked, the size of the camp became more and more apparent. At the ramps at the end of the train tracks where the selection processes were carried out.  Behind us is the massive L shaped gas chamber and industrial creamatoria complex. The underground undressing chamber.  Destroyed by departing Nazis as the end of the war became a certainty. The collapsed roof of the gas chambers: The ruins of the cremation ovens: Much of the terrible work carried out in the mass extermination of the Jewish population was Sonderkommandos.  The Sonderkommandos were a work detail made up of prisoners from the death camp. They were not civilian workers but were prisoners – usually Jewish – who were forced to work and aid in the management of victims, the looting of the bodies, and the disposal of the corpses in the gas chambers during the Holocaust. They were forced to complete this gruesome work or be killed themselves. 

Red brick barracks made from building materials repurposed from the villages that were destroyed to make way for the camp: Inside Barracks 16A.  ‘Beds’, such as they were, were three stories high and housed four to five people in each space. Necessary for warmth in winter but swelteringly uncomfortable and unsanitary in summer. There were no washing facilities in the buildings.  Any bathing had to occur outside. There is much more that could be said about Auschwitz-Birkenau, and there are incalculable books on the topic that adequately demonstrate that.  But there is little that captures the feeling of being here and physically taking in this history in person. As I was saying to Marta, I don’t remember a time in my life where I learned about the atrocities committed by the Nazis during WWI.  I don’t remember gleaning this knowledge for the first time and being shocked and appalled by the inhumanity of it.  I grew up seemingly always aware of Hitler, of Nazism, of the concentration camps almost by osmosis. The knowledge I always had merely grown in depth and detail as I got older… but having said this, I feel much like I didn’t really understand the extent of the horrors committed here until today.  The scale of the brutality is unimaginable until you are faced with it. “The last thing to die is hope…”
I have had to put this post aside several times as writing this all down and compiling these images have been exhausting.  After we drove back to Krakow, we went hunting for something a bit more uplifting to finish the day.  We found it in the form of a quaint and quirky little restaurant in the Jewish Quarter called, “Once Upon a Time in Kazimierz”. There was live music and great local food on the menu – exactly what we could have hoped for.
Weird and wonderful decor – one couple found themselves seated at a table that was actually an old treadle sewing machine. Jewish Caviar – chopped chicken livers with eggs in truffle aroma, served with rye bread and whipped butter. Beef and thyme pierogi, half and half (friend and boiled). Fillet of trout with vegetables in orange butter sauce (zucchini, leek and carrot).Jerusalem mix – chicken breast, liver, hearts in oriental spices and onion. Delicious! We were the last to leave the restaurant after a couple more ciders!Dessert for yale:  Pecan pie with vanilla ice cream: And for me – steaming mead.Long day.  Need good sleep. Thankfully my, “can I speak to the manager” chat with the night conceirge guy has yielded a different room in the hotel with a better bed. Fingers crossed!

Iceland Cruise – Akureyri

Iceland! I’m in Iceland! And we are sure not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Hell, we came through the Arctic Circle last night! In fact, I’m pretty sure you can’t get further from Kansas if you tried. We are in Akureyri today which is considered the capital of northern Iceland – which, btw is only about 103,000 sqkm, or as our guide has said, roughly the size of Kentucky… Being Australian, that means SFA to me, but the Americans all smiled and nodded knowingly, so yeah, all good. 😀 There is also only about 325,000 people in Iceland which equates to 3 bods per sqkm, compared to 10 bodies per sqkm in US and about 250 people per sqkm in UK. Can’t remember what Australia comes in at… WHO knows? 

Iceland’s incredible tundra-like landscape is shaped by fire and ice, primarily through the last Ice Age and more recently, through extensive volcanic action. Earthquakes can occur quite frequently and are usually about 6.5-7.0 on the Richter Scale, as the constant venting of geothermal energy means it never builds up enough for anything stronger… Which the Icelanders are quite happy about. They also have a very active volcanic geography, as you would expect, and volcanoes erupt about every four years or so, as the magma under the island is really quite close to the surface here. The landscape is simply ‘incomparable’ as our shore destination expert, Ken, would say.

There are no mineable minerals or oil in Iceland, but they do drill for hot water to power large geothermal power stations. Icelanders pay about 1/3 of the cost of what people pay for electricity and heating in the UK or other Scandinavian countries which probably makes up for the earthquake thing a bit.
The official language is Icelandic – when the first settlers came to Iceland nearly all Scandinavians spoke approximately the same language. However, due to its isolation, Icelandic has remained closest to the older traditional Scandinavian language. The closest language to Icelandic is Faroese which shares about 50% common words – a bit like Italian and Spanish. Children used to learn Danish in schools as a second language, but now everyone learns English in primary school, adds Danish in high school and if they go to college (and apparently most do?) they end up learning at least one more language usually German, French, Italian or Spanish.
Ingólfur Arnarson was chieftain of first Norse settlers who arrived in 874AD in Reyjavik. Yay!!! Vikings!!! Woo!!! Sorry, bit excited to be here. Anyway, they built a farm to see if they could make a life here and, importantly, to decide if they could make it through the winter! After a couple of years, things must have been going ok because in 930AD, the first Icelandic Parliament was settled in Þingvellir (going there, day after tomorrow) and the Parliament stood until 1798… Though it is not exactly a Parliament as we know it, they met for only two weeks every summer and would set law and carry out arbitrations and judgements etc. but no politicians.
Things must have gone swimmingly for quite a while until a period of unrest started when all the power and influence had gathered into just a few families. In 1264, the Icelanders signed a treaty with the Norwegian and then became subjects of Norway, and subsequently became part of Denmark when Norway did.
In 1602, Akureyri was still primarily a merchant port and it wasn’t until 1862 that they formed a town charter for their enormous population of some 150 people. A century and a half later and there is now 18,000 people living here.

Iceland didn’t become independent until 1944 but it was Jóhann UnpronounceableSurname who was almost solely responsible for Icelandic independence. He studied politics in Denmark and felt Iceland would never truly progress without independence.

In 1864 King Christian IX came to Iceland to celebrate the 1000 year jubilee of continuous Icelandic settlement and he gave Iceland a copy of their Constitution, which was meant to be symbolic gesture, but was taken by the people as encouragement to make moves towards an independent Iceland.
In 1918, Iceland became independent but was still sort of under Denmark, much like the Faroe Islands still are now, and it was not until 1944 that Iceland became completely independent from Denmark. Iceland was occupied by Germany at the time so poor old Denmark didn’t really get to have much to say about the matter. Relations remain really good though, and many Icelanders go to Denmark to study and live – about 5000 of them live there now.

Our first stop today was the Laufas Folk museum which sounded kinda twee (as anything ‘folk’ tends to!) but was really kinda cool. The museum consists of a series of connected traditional Icelandic farmhouses. The farmhouses are dug into a hillside with minimal wood in the construction, instead using turf and stone. Mostly built in 19thC, some sections of the farmhouses date back to the 16thC. Most of the first settlers made their homes out of wood, as they were traditionally used to doing, but they used up all the timber in Iceland in just a couple of decades so they needed to find other ways to build… hence the stone and turf. It is estimated that 25% of Iceland was covered in timber originally, but now it’s only about 2% and even some of that planted. The newer building technique of digging their homes into the ground used minimal timber, only for the gables and roofs.

The farmhouses are all connected inside so the inhabitants did not have to go outside during the depths of winter to visit their neighbours – so many families would have lived in the interconnecting houses. The occupants of the farmhouses raised sheep, spun and wove wool, and bred and raised eider ducks. Eider is very, very soft but very expensive as it takes a lot of ducks to make eider items. The ducks were quite prized and very well cared for and protected, so the farmers can keep collecting the eider. Eider ducks are still raised in Iceland as eider is still so much In demand, that the locals call it, ‘soft gold’.
Our next stop was to Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods. As local history tells it, the Parliament, in 1000AD, gave the (not inconsiderable) responsibility to Lawspeaker and Chieftain Þorgeir Þorkelsson to decide if Iceland should become Christian or stick to their older Viking/pagan ways. He apparently laid down under a rug and contemplated for 24 hours, and eventually decided that Iceland should be Christian. People were still allowed to worship their Norse gods privately in their homes and it was a very peaceful transition with no persecution – which hardly sounds very religious! Anyway, to set a good example for the people Þorgeir threw his idol statues of the Norse gods Odin and Thor into the waterfalls and they say the waterfalls have been called the Waterfalls of the Gods ever since. Nowadays, most Icelanders belong to the Lutheran Evangelical church.

 People travel to Iceland specifically for the fishing – Icelandic salmon and trout in the fresh water rivers. Sheep farming – sheep released into the wild slopes at the beginning of summer in June. And rounded up September in a community effort and all the sheep are divided back up and given back to the right farms. It might take a whole day to round the sheep up. A whole day!

 The main trees here are birch ‘what do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? stand up ‘ trees font grow very high in these conditions.
We also stopped in at the Botanical gardens, which are one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world. Started by two very determined amateur gardeners, (I didn’t catch their names, but I imagine they were probably Ester and Betty, or some thing similar) who planted over 2000 exotic trees and flowers… many of which shouldn’t really grow in these conditions but have somehow survived.
Currently, Akureyri is having their coldest summer in 30 to 40 years – seems climate change is messing up shit everywhere. Generally the snow starts in end of September and will go away by May and Akureyri’s climate is heavily affected by ocean temperstures which have been really cold this summer: 0° to -1°/-2°. The hottest recorded temperature was about 31° and coldest recorded about -30°, and apparently the weather is very unpredictable which makes agricultural pursuits diffucult. The only vegetable grown outdoors here are potatoes and turnips, and all other vegetables are grown in greenhouses – tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers etc. Iceland grows about half their vegetables can’t grow any fruit at all. So all fruit needs to be imported along with the other half of their veggies.

After wandering the Botanical Gardens for a while and admiring the late summer blooms, and gorgeous enormous bumblebees, we went for a walk down town to hunt for some Brennavin for my extra special, second very best friend, JarlNiall, who asked me to keep an eye out for it. As luck would have it, alcohol is only sold in state controlled stores run by disapproving grannies, and this afternoon was likely to be my only chance to look for it. Walking about ‘down town’ was rather strange – things felt shut and it was difficult to tell 1) if a building was a store, 2) if it was a store, what the hell are they selling and, 3) are they even bloody open?! I ended up asking a little lady from the Red Cross stall in the centre of town for help : “Excuse me. I’m obviously an annoying tourist and have no idea… but can you point me to the hard liquor please?”
The poor lovey was very helpful, but I couldn’t understand her directions and she ended up abandoning her stall and walking me down the street to point out an ugly distant grey building called the Vin Buildun (*facepalm* … the Wine Building). Anyway, managed to acquire the required Brennavin though I have no idea how much I paid as both the ISK and the AUD are fluctuating like mad! And now all I have to do is nurse it through 20 more days of travel and get it home in one piece! Wish me luck. 😀

 PS – tastes fucking foul!

Jarlshof… Where the history comes from.

Woo-hoo! I’m in the Shetland Islands! Last time I was Scotland was in 1995 with BigSal and BluddyMary as part of our huge Slappers Grand Tour of Europe, but we never made it quite this far north. The Shetlands are an archipelago of some 100 islands, barely 16 of which are permanently inhabited and today we visited Lerwick – pronounced either ‘Lerrick’ if you’re from any else where in Scotland or ‘Lerwick’, if you’re from the creatively named, Mainland – Shetland’s largest island. Lerwick, meaning literally, ‘muddy bay’ is a home to about 7,500 of the Shetland’s 23,000 people. It’s really sort of nice to be talking about population in the thousands after the ‘small towns’ of China coming in at around 5 million. 

TIL Lerwick is officially only a town, not a city… In the UK, you have to have a cathedral and associated bishopric in order to be a city. I did not know that. Anyway, in the remote ‘township’ of Lerwick our first stop was Fort Charlotte. Built in 1665, Fort Charlotte is a coastal defense fort on the Bressay Sound during the Second Dutch War. It was reconstructed in 1781-82 during the American war of Independence and named after George III’s Queen. The Fort has a battery of cannon facing the Sound and is one of several pentagonal forts built around that time – much like the Dutch inspired pentagon fort we visited in Hakodate Japan a couple of months ago.  

  After the Fort, we happened upon the Lerwick Town Hall, which might be the most beautiful civic building I have ever seen. With a gorgeous and imposing stone exterior, the town hall is comprised of offices and small conference rooms downstairs, and a function room upstairs in which every wall is covered in the most amazing stained glass l. The north wall had an enormous rose window covered with heraldry, one assumes belonged to important people connected to Lerwick, and the other two exterior walls were covered in windows depicting important persons from the Shetland’s Scottish/Scandinavian history. Absolutely stunning room for a town hall… actually scratch that, it was a stunning room to be in any sort of public building. 




 After admiring the stained glass we made our way down to Commercial Road and Market Cross to do a spot of shopping (again with the crazy creative names). We stopped in on some lovely knitwear stores, gift shops and some jewelry stores that all selling lovingly crafted local items inspired by the Shetlands and their traditional arts and crafts – including the famous Fair Isle knitwear. I particularly loved the De Rosa-Rinconada ceramics collection complete with gorgeous otters and puffins (totally would have bought some of these if I thought I could get them home safely), the Mirrie Dancers Northern Lights of the Shetlands jewelry collection (which I might have bought if they came in gold as well as silver) and the Fraser Knitwear (which I nearly did buy because it’s bloody cold!). I did buy a lovely woolen scarf (predictably, in burgundy) and of course a tourist pin for my collection. Mostly I’m just listing these other things here so I can look them up later. 😀

Next on our agenda was the Shetland Museum and Archive. Situated down on the waterfront this free museum is full of all the cool history of the Shetlands spanning back to the Stone Age. I took so many photos here of Scots, Norse and Viking artifacts that I think it might have to go into a post of its own to keep it all straight… The museum covered everything local from stone axes through to Victorian mourning attire. It was very interesting. 

After having been wait listed to get on a ship your to visit the Jarlshof Ruins, I can’t tell you how pleased and relieved I was to be getting the chance to see this unique site – and that is what our afternoon had in store for us. We met up with our tour group back at the tender pier and set off with our local guide, Melvyn, towards the ruins. 

On the way there, Melvyn caught us up on plenty of local Shetland colour and trivia. Housing in Lerwick can be as much as £500,000 with the price going up the further up the hillside the property was located. All the ‘wicks’ – Sanwick, Hoswick, Lerwick – refer to square shaped bays. The little Shetland ponies we saw as we were driving through the countryside were originally beasts of burden, particularly sturdy and useful for collecting peat, but now are of little commercial use, but people love them anyway. In fact, Shetland ponies and sheep are the only domestic animals that thrive up here, and I can fully believe it – conditions today at the end of summer were a bit iffy, but it looked like it would be downright bleak in winter. What else? Ahhh, the locals believe that if the cows are sitting down its a sure sign it’s going to rain (not a bad bet – they seem to have pretty high average rainfalls). And the black fishing nets that seem to live on every other street corner are used to cover rubbish to keep seagulls out of the trash. He told us how people used to harvest peat from the bogs by cutting it into banks to use as winter fuel, but this was falling out of fashion as it is very labour intensive and time consuming. It’s hard work to dig up the peat, it takes weeks to dry it out and you have to transport it home. Peat is like a precursor to coal and is a finite resource as it doesn’t replenish… But Melvyn seemed to think Scotland had plenty of it and mentioned that some people were turning back to peat due to the rising cost of oil and other fuels. I wasn’t aware of this, but a large storms can shift an entire peat bogs by causing landslides when the water gets underneath the peat layer. He also told us how many Shetland graveyards are located close to the coastlines, as many visitors coming to funerals and to grave sites, are often coming by boat. Melvyn was full of weird and wonderful informative tidbits… And I just realized I probably should have dot pointed that wall of text, but too bad! 🙂 

Then there were the Jarshof Ruins, that evidences 5000 years of continuous and uninterrupted human history. It is rightly considered the most important historic site of the Shetlands and no doubt lists right up there with Newgrange in Ireland for somewhat obscure yet intrinsically important historical sites worldwide that document human history.  


 Jarlshof, literally means, ‘earls house’ and the site provides evidence for how humans had lived uninterrupted in the area from the Neolithic Period right up until the 1600s. Each new era building beside, rather than on top of, their predecessors dwellings… So in a rather condensed space you can see how people moved from one area to the next, abandoning the previous building styles. 

Originally the archeological site would have been far more extensive, but it’s precarious location by the sea has seen much of the site destroyed by erosion. What remains however is fascinating. The site was unearthed in 1905 unearthed by a storm which gave a glimpse to the stone work below what would have looked like an ordinary grassy mound. Excavation of the area commenced and in 1925 the site was claimed as a historic site. In 1950 all excavation was finished and the site is now as it was then. Visitors can move through the complex and observe the changing conditions of the people who lived here at the different eras…

Neolithic period is the oldest period represented as being the earliest dwellings on site. Pottery fragments dating from 2500BC were found in these late stone age period residences, dating this section of the ruins to be 4500 years old. 


 Further on are Bronze Age dwellings, the age of which was (obviously) determined by objects made of bronze in what was a working smithy. Remarkable about these bronze finds is they also provide evidence of extensive trade some 4000 years ago – bronze, as we know, is a copper and tin alloy, and while the Shetlands do have copper deposits and copper mines, the nearest tin mines are in Cornwall in the very south of England and must have been traded north. The bronze artifacts found here are similar those those found in Dublin from the same period. The residences in these Bronze Age homes were rounded alcoves that would have had conical wooden roofs… Though wood is no longer plentiful in the Shetlands. 

The next residences belong to the Early Iron Age and are similar in construction (conjoined round alcove housing) to the Bronze Age homes but are slightly more elaborate in comparison. They have also found several soutterrains – underground natural fridge spaces in two of the Early Iron Age dwellings.  


 The Mid Iron Age homes nearby are in the form of a typical Scottish broch – a multi storied round stone building that would have housed several families living in one space. The circular, double brick building had no windows and a timber roof and were built up to 15m high and approximately 16m across at the base. The broch at Jarlshof was built around 400BC-100AD and only half on the circular building remains as the other half has long since been claimed by the sea. 


 The next era represented is the Late Iron Age ‘wheelhouses’ which were built approximately 200-300AD. So named because they resemble a wheel when viewed from above, the wheelhouses again had no windows, were circular in construction, but this time had only one entrance, a small central ‘hall/hearth’ area with alcoves emitting from the central space. The stone pillars supporting the ‘spokes’ widen as they are built higher providing a triangular support which would have enabled a heavier stone and timber roof. Again these wheelhouses housed several families in one structure and would have been particularly cramped – with storage areas but no sleeping areas, people probably huddled together to sleep rather than laid down.


 From there the next period is that of the Viking longhouses from approximately 800AD. The Viking Norsemen came to Scotland looking for farming land – as there were limited agricultural lands left in various Scandinavian/Viking areas. The change in architecture is very noticeable. Gone are the round alcove housing and in their place the long rectangular Viking longhouses are apparent. Corners are square, buildings are more structured, people lived at one end of the long house and animals at the other. Future houses were built perpendicular to the main Viking longhouse. The Vikings brought to Scotland their language, their building techniques and their boat building techniques… much of which is still evident in the modern Shetlands. 

After the Viking period which flourished for some 400 years came the Medieval farmhouse, which was established around 1200AD and was characterized by yet another style of building. These buildings were of drystone construction and had internal and external walls with an earthenware core. 

  Following on from the Medieval farmhouses, the most recent buildings wee from the period where the Scottish took over the Shetlands. The Scottish period started when James III of Scotland married Margaret, daughter of King Christian of Denmark in 1469. Margaret brought the Shetlands as dowry to James III, and even though Christian intended to eventually purchase them back, he never had the capital. For some time the property remained occupied by the Norwegian Sumburghs. Eventually, the Laird’s House and Hall were built and given to Sir Robert Stewart (an illegitimate uncle to James VI) to maintain Scottish governorship of the Shetlands. In 1593 Earl Robert died leaving the property to his son, Earl Patrick Stewart who built further on the property in the rubble bedded lime and mortar style. Earl Patrick met a messy end after being arrested and incarcerated for six years for tyrannous treatment of his tenants. Eventually he was executed in 1615 (the six years of incarceration was apparently because he had to recite the Lord’s Prayer before being executed, and because he was illiterate and took him that long to learn it…stalling much?). After the Stewarts downfall, the Scottish Bruce family took over but without being occupied, by the end of the 1600s the buildings were in ruins. 


 1969 saw the 500th anniversary of the Union of the Shetlands into Scotland which was marked by finally designing a Shetland flag – being a beautifully simple, ‘Azure, an offset cross Argent’. The design is intended to equal symbolic weight to the fact that Shetland was part of Norway for 500 years and Scotland for 500 years, so it is a combination of the typically Scandinavian offset cross and the national colours of Scotland. Very cool… But I wonder what took them so long. 

Other than all these crazy cool things, the Shetlands are known for fishing and fish processing – including salmon and mussels and all good seafoody things. They’re also pretty reliant on oil and natural gas, tourism and agriculture. The only other thing the Shetlands are really known for are their midgees…. Fucking annoying little sand flies getting about biting you when ever the wind dies down. I don’t think I could live in a place that had them year round like this. Little buggers. 
Then there’s the Up-Helly-Aa Fire Festival that is held on the last Tuesday of every January to mark the end of winter. About 800-900 torch bearers walk through the streets in full Viking costumes to the main park in town for the main event of the festival which is the burning of a Viking long ship! People spend months making their Viking costumes (sound familiar?) and the festival lasts nearly 24 hours ending in the 2.5mile procession where participants then throw their torch into the longship. Participants are called Guizers and they follow the GuizerJarl or Earl of the Festival. There is also a junior Up-Helly-Aa held with about 120 kids. Much like the Iditarod – I think it’s something I’d love to attend but can’t quite see myself coming to the Shetlands or Alaska in the winter time! 
Oh, and tomorrow marks the day that Queen Elizabeth II breaks Queen Victoria’s record as longest serving British monarch. I wonder if the royalists will be celebrating in the streets back in London… If they are, we will unfortunately miss it as we will be on the open sea heading for Iceland via the Arctic Circle! 😀 

If I had landed at Plymouth, I would have kept on going!

Ah, nothing like having the prettiest room in the house with the largest, most magnificent bed… and the soggiest soft mattress you have ever encountered in your entire life. The direct result of this was being awake off and on from about 0230 and definitely being awake enough to watch the dawn peep through the curtains. new-haven-dawn.jpgWe are off to Plymouth today, via a town called Mystic, which is renown for its beautiful seaport and being the place where the a replica of the Amistad slave ship resides. Unfortunately, being a moving target, the Amistad was not in residence at the Mystic Seaport Museum and Shipyard today – probably had the good sense to seek warmer climes – so we decided the $USD50 for us to go into the remainder of the museum was a bit on the steep side.mystic-seaport-anchor.jpgInstead, we had a look around the port area and the funkiest nautical themed gift shop ever. *curses American Airlines yet again for their luggage capacity rules!*mystic-seaport-shop-hat.jpgmystic-seaport-1.jpgmystic-seaport-boat.jpgmystic-seaport-2.jpg
After staying outdoors as long as we dared, we took a bit of a drive around Mystic to check out the houses (did I mention how much I love the property market up this way?), and to try and find the Mystic Pizza shop. 🙂 Yes, I know it’s an old movie and I am pretty sure I saw it at some point, but stuffed if I can remember anything but it!
mystic-real-estate-1.jpgmystic-seaport-3.jpgmystic-seaport-2.jpgimageTa da!
Then it was back on the road again and heading for Plymouth. We wanted to take the scenic route and stay by the coastline, but that was altogether too much for Sondra (our GPS) and she ended up taking us via the highways all the way there, which was quicker, but I dare say, not as pretty. Eventually we get to Plymouth Bay and discover that the town of Plymouth is pretty much NOT open for business yet… maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day, but it seems like most of them are kinda holding out for better weather. Now the upsides of this is that we were able to find a park no problem (heaps of beach side parking here!), and no need to view this seemingly sacred but actually kinda ordinary rock surrounded by tonnes of screaming 8th Graders, but the downsides were – it’s still freezing, and hardly any of the shops or bars and restaurants in the area were open! So Plymouth felt rather… inhospitable on the whole.plymouth-bay.jpgplymouth-rock-cover.jpgplymouth-rock.jpgNaturally, there is also in the area some little National Park bookshops full of books on the history of Plymouth and the Pilgrims, and trinkets made by local artist and not so local artists (you’d be surprised how many ‘souvenirs’ you turn over and find out they are stamped ‘Made In China’). pilgrim-huts.jpgplymouth-tourist-ready-.jpg
Nearby is a commemorative memorial recognizing the contributions of the Women of the Mayflower voyage, donated by the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) on the 300th anniversary of the historic landing in 1920.pilgrim-women-statue.jpgIf you have a look at the ‘not yet cleaned up for tourist season’ pond around this statue, you will see it’s partially frozen even though it faces due East and probably gets plenty of sun!! Nearby is a replica of the Mayflower itself, and I have to say, it is a LOT smaller than I was expecting. Having traversed a few seas by modern cruise ship, I’m not so sure I’d have the intestinal fortitude to get on a dinky little ship like this and cross the North Atlantic, no doubt the crossing was less than pleasant for many on board.mayflower-1.jpgmayflower-2.jpg
Yet again, we found ourselves driven indoors by the absolutely brutal weather on the coast. It wasn’t quite as bad as previously at East Haven, but the strong winds made it exceedingly enticing to seek refuge where ever possible. I haven’t done my research, but something tells me the pilgrims did NOT land on Plymouth Rock in winter, else they would have kept on sailing until they hit some more agreeable weather for certain! Luckily, we did find one establishment that was keeping its doors open in spite of the weather – The Office Bistro, where we were forced to order the Kentucky Bourbon boneless short ribs, and the local Scallops wrapped in bacon, all served with delicious fresh veggies. It’s a hard life, but someone has to do it.