live slow, love nature, be adventurous

Monday, November 24, 2014

One Week in… Iceland!

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Back in April, I spent an epic week traveling along the South Coast of Iceland with three awesome friends. Flights from Norway to Iceland were relatively inexpensive since Norwegian Air had just started operating a route from Bergen to Reykjavik (will I ever live in a place where 150 € roundtrips to Iceland exist again?) and before I knew it, we were on the ultimate Iceland trip - and yet, I've barely written about it on my blog so far. I'm finally starting to admit to myself that I may never write the beautifully eloquent posts on Iceland that I planned on writing ever since sitting in the back of our rental car and cruising down the country's renowned Rind Road.

How do you write about a place that looks positively otherworldly? How do you find the right words to describe what is like nothing else you have ever seen before? So far, I feel that my writing has always come our short of conveying the beauty and the sense of adventure of Iceland. Maybe I will find the right phrases one day, but until then I figured it may be helpful to some and hopefully interesting to others to learn just how you can do in Europe's most accessible remote place in just one week. Side note: A whole lot!

One week was too short to do the entire Ring Road justice and so we decided to concentrate our efforts on Iceland's South Coast. I definitely want to go back one day with more time (and a larger budget!) to travel to the North, but this one week was the perfect introduction to Iceland. A week is a great amount of time to check out many of the country's most famous sights and also visit some more unknown spots and having our own set of four wheels gave us some great flexibility. Can I go back already, please?

Day 1: The Blue Lagoon & Thingvellir National Park

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You can't visit Iceland and not go to the Blue Lagoon, am I right? It may as well be the Eiffel Tower of Iceland as far as iconic places are concerned and while it's the most expensive pool visit of my life to date, we couldn't pass this up. Covering our faces in mud, seeking shelter from the occasional hail storm (sitting in warm water while your head is attacked by tiny ice droplets has got to be one of the most surreal feeling ever!) and constantly excitedly exclaiming that we were really in Iceland, made our visit to the Blue Lagoon a very memorable one.

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Once we managed to pull ourselves away from the cozy waters of the Blue Lagoon, we drove to Thingvellir National Park. It was about an hour's drive away from the Blue Lagoon and from the moment the first mountains could be seen in the distance, I was convinced that I had entered a fantasy world from Middle Earth or Game of Thrones. Thingvellir is a stop on the Golden Circle, a tourist route that links three major sights near Reykjavik, and one of the most culturally relevant place in Iceland. It was super cold, but the views were great and we almost had the place to ourselves.

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Day 2: The Golden Circle & A Whole Bunch of Things on the South Coast

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We started our day by visiting the remaining two sights of the Golden Circle, Geysir and Gullfoss. Geysir is the Geyser (yes, the words confuse me, too) all other Geysers are named after and while it rarely erupts these days, its next-door neighbor Strokkur is one of the most active Geysers in the world.  We arrived early in the morning, before the tour buses from Reykjavik arrive, and the lack of people and the fog creeping over the hot pools gave the place a pretty eerie feeling. Gullfoss was a much brighter sight to take in, because the sun finally decided to make an appearance and with its ice-covered rocks it was a very magical place.

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Luckily for me, the closer we got to the coast the warmer it got and I was extremely relieved to realize that I hadn't packed too inappropriate after all. We stopped at the stunning Seljalandsfoss, which was one of my favorite places in Iceland and had the most amazing time marveling at nature. There are moments in life, when everything just comes together perfectly and you are left with the most ridiculous grin on your face and this was one of those moments.

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We were spending the night in Vik, but decided to give in to our adventurous side by heading to Seljavallalaug, an abandoned hot water swimming pool of the 1920s, before. I can't quite fathom why people would build a swimming pool right there in the middle of nowhere and the rundown building certainly does do its best to convey a post-apocalyptic feeling, but I can honestly say that I have never gone for a swim with such an impressive backdrop. Most unique location I have ever gone swimming at? Definitely!

Day 3: Black Beaches & Spooky Mountains

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If there was one reoccurring theme of our Iceland trip, it was that the places we visited just kept on getting more and more unique. Before Iceland, I had never been to a black beach before (not that that's saying much, I haven't been to the beach very often in my life) and they were incredibly beautiful, in a wild sort of way. Our first beach was in Vik, near the rock formation Reynisdrangar, and we had it to ourselves the entire time. We weren't as lucky with the next one, because the buses from Reykjavik had already arrived, but it was still one heck of a place.

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Since we had spent spend a lot of time just driving in the days before, we went for a little hike at Hjörleifshöfdi, a supposedly haunted mountain that we only knew about because I obsessively read Young Adventuress in the months before our trip. The wind was blowing like crazy (you don't know what windy means, if you've never been to Iceland!) and there were moments when I thought I might just go tumbling down the slopes, but the views were outstanding. The final stop of our day was at the canyon Fjadrargljufur (can anyone pronounce that?), which further convinced me that Iceland may actually be the portal to another dimension.
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Day 4: On the Ice

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We spent the better part of our fourth day in Iceland on or near the ice - after all, Iceland isn't called the Land of Ice and Fire for nothing! We went on a fun little glacier walk on the glacier that some of you may recognize as a filming location of Interstellar. I honestly can't remember which company we went with, but this first experience got me curious to go on some other glacier walks in the future again. Afterwards, we quickly hiked up to Svartifoss, which was yet another super unique waterfall. The waterfalls in Iceland are all so different from each other that it's hard to say which one was my favorite!

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And, of course, we couldn't go to Iceland and not see the Glacier Lagoon. We were lucky enough to visit on a warm and sunny day and seeing the icebergs floating on the water was nothing short of magical. We spent a lot of time there just taking photos and relaxing from our ambitious travel schedule and I absolutely understand why people drive all the way from Reykjavik just to visit this place.

Day 5: Getting Spontaneous

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Day 5 called an end to our so far super-organized trip. We had planned to take the ferry over to the Westman Islands, but when we arrived at the port, we found out that the ferry was cancelled because of bad weather conditions. I guess that's just one more reason why I need to go back one day! After consulting our Lonely Planet guide, we ended up driving around to a couple of other towns in the area, before finally settling on taking a bath at Reykjadalur. That stream in the picture above? It's actually super warm and we spent an embarrassingly large amount of time just sitting in the water. When in Iceland, right?

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Day 6: Horseback Riding & Reykjavik

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Icelandic Horses must be just as iconic for the country as the Blue Lagoon and since most of us were big horse lovers, we jumped at the chance to go on a short ride together. I was really, really into horseback-riding when I was younger, but it had been years since the last time I had sat on a horse. I'm glad to say that horseback-riding is a little bit like riding a bicycle - it's something you never unlearn. But I'm still wondering: Has being on horseback always been this uncomfortable? I could hardly walk for the rest of the day!

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We drove to Reykjavik afterwards and spent the afternoon soaking up the atmosphere of Iceland's capital. I don't think anyone comes to Iceland just to visit Reykjavik (the city is pretty cool, but pales in comparison with the South Coast), but there are a few interesting sights and quirky shops. I'd love to spend a little bit more time there on my next visit to explore more of the city's coffee and hipster culture!

Day 7: Snaefellsnes Peninsula

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I can't believe how much we drove on our last day in Iceland! We headed to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula for no other reason than that it looked like an interesting drive. We took a couple of stops here and there, but for the most part we just enjoyed the view of the mountains that we passed and reminisced about the good old times by listening to 90s pop music. Road trips certainly are the best!

Iceland is a country that I was dreaming of visiting for a very long time and I still find it hard to believe that I have actually been there now. I just hope I will visit this beautiful country again and again in the future.

What's the greatest location you ever went on a road trip on?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

NORWAY | Conquering Trolltunga

We had barely been hiking for fifteen minutes, when I started questioning the sanity of our undertaking. With over twenty more kilometers to go - up the mountain, over rocks and through the mud - I just couldn't fathom any way how this could possibly end well for me. My legs were already burning, my back hurt and I felt chilled to the bone, but I tried to keep a brave face and kept on walking, because failure was just not an option.

Despite of what it may look like on this blog, I'm really not a fit person. The treadmill and me are in an uncommitted love-hate-relationship - I know I have to improve my stamina if I ever do want to go trekking in the Himalaya or the Andes and I do love the feeling of sheer exhaustion after a good workout. But realizing that most people in the Gym can run much faster and longer than me and still retain some kind of elegance while my face starts to resemble a tomato does make the weight room look like a much nicer place.

But I do love being outdoors and I'll be damned if I let my lack of physical fitness come between me and great encounters with nature and that's how I found myself on the way to Trolltunga one cold and rainy September morning last year.

Interest in Trolltunga seems to have absolutely exploded on the internet over the last couple of months. Barely a week goes by now without me seeing a picture somewhere on Social Media. What seemed to be a niche thing for hiking freaks and (crazy) study abroadees, has suddenly become a point of interest for the masses. I don't think there's anything wrong with that as Trolltunga is just too far out of the way to ever be as overrun by people as the Preikestolen, but I do think it says a lot about our society that one of the main reasons to go to Trolltunga these days seems to be to take some pictures for Facebook. I'll save the rant for some other time.

Trolltunga is about a three hours' car ride away from Bergen and located at the edge of the Hardangervidda, a high plateau in Central Norway. The landscape is rough, wild and magical and the sense of remoteness that was like none I had ever encountered before was only amplified by the wafts of mist that crept through the valleys.

The path to Trolltunga is just over 11 kilometers long (keeping in mind that you have to walk the same distance back) and it's only recommended to go on from Mid-June to Mid-September. We went on one of the last weekends when the path is still open and definitely noticed that the weather conditions weren't ideal anymore: Having to fight my way through rain, wind and mud definitely didn't make it any easier for me. And can you imagine what my hiking boots and pants looked like when I returned to Bergen?

The first part of the hike is also the hardest. Trolltunga lies about 700 meters higher than the starting point of the hike and you have to overcome the majority of this height difference during the first four kilometers. It was a at parts cruel ascent and breath-taking in the truest sense of the word: I had barely walked for a kilometer when I desperately wanted to sit down to catch my breath again. There used to be a cable car service up the steepest part of the mountain, but it closed in the early 2000s. These days, people often walk on the train tracks, but it's not supposed to be safe and just looking at them makes me glad that we opted for the path next to the tracks instead.

After the first two kilometers, we reached a plateau and not walking on an incline thankfully gave my heart the opportunity to lower its rate and me the chance to catch up with my friends. While I was relieved that the very steepest part of the hike was likely behind me, I tried to not pay too much thought to what was still come. If I had, I may have turned around right then and there. But the further we walked, the more resolved I felt to not let this hike break my spirit. My body would be stronger than my mind! Besides, what was the alternative? Sitting down and waiting to magically transport myself back into my bed probably wasn't going to happen.

The second ascent wasn't quite as harsh as the first one, if only because I knew that it was the last one, and led us quite literally across one giant rock. I felt elated because I figured the worst would be behind me now - surely, this would get easier now, wouldn't it? And in some ways it did. Since there weren't any other long ascents anymore, the only thing standing between us and Trolltunga was distance. To put the whole thing into perspective: The path starts at the very end of the lake in the picture above that was taken about three-quarters into the hike. Yeah, that's a whole lot of walking.

And while the path wasn't terribly challenging at this point, walking through barely changing landscape  - taunted by signs after every kilometer that not only let you know how much farther you have to go to Trolltunga, but also just how much more you'll have to go to get back to the parking lot - quickly became exhausting in its own way. I packed my camera away when the rain became to strong and focused my mind on the task on hand: One foot in front of the other. For all intents and purposes, I became a robot for an hour or two: Not taking breaks (stopping for rest, water or food would have meant freezing), not thinking, barely even talking. Just one foot in front of the other.

I barely remember being at Trolltunga. I was so exhausted at this point that the only thing that was really crossing my mind was relief that half of the hike was over. I somehow managed to hand my camera to a friend and wait in line to go on Trolltunga and then stood on this impressive rock formation rising 700 meters over the ground. The one thing that I do remember about Trolltunga is that it is much bigger in person than on pictures. What looks like a very narrow tip on photographs is actually quite solid rock, if memory serves me right. And my memory may be wrong, because I was seriously fried at this moment. So fried, that I didn't really care about anything anymore.

Not even about the fact that my red leather gloves had started to bleed because of the rain and I somehow transferred the color to my face making me look - as a friend so charmingly put it - like I had met and devoured a lamb somewhere on the path. Well, didn't you know I was a Cullen? I'm glad no one has a picture of me looking this way, but I have to admit that I'm secrectly sad that no one thought to document what must have been my most beautiful face ever.

The hike back to the parking lot was quiet - I think at this point, even the fittest of us were kind of longing to be back at the car again. It helped my morale that I now knew just how to gauge the distance and that there was a certain time constraint over our heads: If we wanted to be down the mountain before the darkness fell and on the last ferry, we better not take it slowly.

We lost each other somewhere along the way - making for a lot of solitude during the first descent that led me back across the giant rock through fog through which I could barely see the Red T's that mark hiking trails everywhere in Norway - but ran into each other again for the very last descent. If you have ever done any serious hiking before than you know that often times the hardest part is not going up - it's going down. And we all later agreed that the last part of the hike down the steepest incline was the hardest and potentially the most dangerous.

So, why would anyone in their right minds go hiking? I sometimes ask myself this question, especially when I'm on a hike that I really feel I'm not strong enough to finish. It's not for Facebook pictures, that's for certain. But there's nothing like the feeling of realizing that you are stronger than you thought you were. That your body is capable of so much more than you give it credit for.

After Trolltunga, I couldn't walk for two days, but the feeling of euphoria after overcoming a challenge just cannot be replaced. To this day, Trolltunga is my proudest physical accomplishment. There are obviously many people who have done much harder things than I have. But for little me, that hated Gym class and was almost always picked last, this was a very proud moment.

What other hikes should I put on my bucket list? 

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