Iceland Day One

I’ve made it to Reykjavik.

Icelandair was a good experience. Comfortable seats with decent leg room and they give you pillows. I actually managed to sleep for around 3 hours which is the longest I have ever slept on a flight.

I decided to walk to my hostel from the bus terminal rather than pay extra to get a bus to drop me off. The temperature was fine – 8 c – and there was only really light drizzle. The wind though. It’s enough that you have to actually physically fight with it.

I ran into these swans floating around in the pond.

After dropping a bag off at my hostel I decided to go for walk to find some food. Even though it was 10am most of the grocery stores were still closed – probably because the sun was nowhere to be seen. The closest one open was right next to Hallgrimskirkja, the famous and very large church in Reykjavik. By this point the wind had only strengthened and the rain much bolder. I battled my way down the (beautiful) street. Just as my will was fading I noticed that the church’s doors were open so I stumbled inside.

Looking down one of the main streets with Hallgrimskirkja in the distance

 

The second I made it through the doors the organ music started filling the exquisitely minimalist structure. I’m not a religious person but it was a powerful experience. I just sat there for a little while. Unable or unwilling to go back to the bitter cold.

I could spend hours here listening to the organ

Look at those pipes

Iceland is expensive. You’ve probably heard this before. Flights to get there are probably the most reasonable part. It costs about 25.000 ISK (~$30 CAD) to take a bus to downtown from the airport. Restaurants seem to range from 20.000 ISK to 80.000 ISK for a meal. On the low side though we are mostly talking simple soups/sandwiches, not really huge filling meals. To get a filling meal at a sit-down restaurant I’m guessing $35 CAD is a minimum.

Grocery stores are a bit better. As long as you stay away from things that are difficult to import to Iceland (fruit etc.) it’s expensive but not completely ridiculous. I’m sure you could throw together a big sandwich for around 6.000 ISK.

After leaving the sanctuary of the church I raced to the hostel, had a small lunch (an 8.000 ISK pre-made sandwich from a grocery store if you are wondering), signed up for a “free” walking tour, and then promptly dozed off in the hostel lounge for an hour.

The walking tour was really interesting. Everything from Iceland’s interesting political situation (numerous peaceful protests that forced governments to resign) to its gender equality (“We are the best of a dismal field. We still have a lot of work to do”) and elf rocks (“Icelanders don’t broadly believe in them, but we tolerate people who do”). The best part – the wind only got worse!

This building is bland

After relaxing at the hostel, writing some of this blog, and finding out that my tour for tomorrow is cancelled I decided it was time to relax the proper Icelandic way: at a thermal pool. I’m completely sold on Icelandic pool culture. Alternating between laps in a “cool” pool, relaxing in an outdoor hot pool with snow falling on my head, and the steam room is glorious. Once I’m back in Toronto I want to get back into swimming although I know the experience won’t quite be the same.

I also ate a world-famous hot dog.

Bonus: Harpa!

Hanged, drawn and quartered

Today I went into the core of London. On the recommendations of the receptionist at my hostel I decided to go to the free Natural History Museum first. Located in a beautiful old building in the core of London, this museum houses lots of great exhibits ranging from an exhibit on dinosaurs to one on earthquakes.

After waiting in line for about 10 minutes, I entered and immediately went to the dinosaur exhibit. While there were lots of cool elements, it was crammed full of kids which killed much of the appeal. There is a surprisingly realistic animatronic tyrannosaurus rex which I found impressive. Sadly, hundreds of children also found it impressive so it was a little too packed.

After the dino exhibit things got better though. The enormous mammal exhibit was full of taxidermied animals from around the world. I found it to be an extremely interesting collection and it kept me captivated despite it being my second natural history museum on this trip.

Other exhibits on arthropods and on the human impact on the world were also good. The geology stuff tends to be on the boring side to me personally, but the presentation here was quite good. They even had a earthquake simulator.

After some time checking out the museum I crossed town to the Tower of London. This expensive exhibit is completely worth it. It includes a guided tour by a Yeoman Warder, more commonly known as a beefeater. This tour was one of the highlights of my trip. My guide, @BillyBeefeater (yes, he has a twitter account…), mixed humour and history perfectly. If you go to the Tower of London, do not miss out on these tours.

The crown jewels were amazing. Considerably better than the Scottish crown jewels. They also pretty much perfectly highlight why I am a staunch republican (in the traditional sense of the word, not the American republican party). This ridiculous ostentatious displays of wealth and pomp and circumstance is a little much for me. Apparently the Queen’s Jubilee cost about a billion dollars to host (according to a newspaper I read today). I have no idea how expensive these jewels are, but with the sceptre having the worlds largest diamond, I imagine pretty expensive.

The castle is cool, but not quite up there with Edinburgh Castle. The royal armory is full of past kings’ suits of armour as well as loads of weapons. Now that I think of it, go to the Tower of London if there is a zombie apocalypse. There are enormous gates, and thousands of weapons of all sorts.

The Natural History Museum

The lobby in the Natural History Museum

Outer walls of the Tower of London

Traitor’s Gate

Our “beefeater” guide

Tower bridge with the olympic rings up

Cambridge

I wanted to go to Oxford but getting to Cambridge was significantly cheaper.

It’s a neat little town. Sadly the weather was awful. It rained almost the entire time I was there and by the time I left my jeans were soaking wet.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about Cambridge. The museum I was going to go to was closed so I mostly just wandered around. The town has a certain charm to it, and the university is quite beautiful.

Here are a few pictures.

A church

King’s College if I remember correctly

Another college

The library

Lazy Day

Despite thinking that I have been getting a decent amount of sleep over the last week or so, I must not have. I have pretty consistently been tired for much of my trip. For my last week or so I want to take it easy, get lots of sleep, and relax before coming home to refocus on important things.

I probably slept close to 10 hours. Not all in one go, as I woke up and drifted back to sleep a few times.  When I finally woke up I didn’t feel like doing much so I ate some breakfast out in the nice weather (by London standards) and then went for a walk through the park.

This park protects the grassy wetlands that extend along the river Lee. I probably walked for about two hours, somewhat aimlessly. I passed boats, ducks, a swan, and lots and lots of Olympic security personnel. Many of them soldiers. For those who don’t follow British news, there has been a lot of controversy lately because the company staffing Olympic security is some 3000 security guards short so the military has had to step in. I believe the park will host the whitewater rafting and canoeing events and even with the Olympics more than a week off, there already seems to be a huge security presence.

The rest of the day was mostly spent reading, catching up on blog posts, and surfing the web.

Lee Valley Park

A swan in Lee Valley Park – hard to believe this is 25 minutes from London

It was actually a decent day for London

I finally found a corgi

Castle Black

I never realized the similarities between the Wall in Game of Thrones and Britain’s Hadrian’s Wall. Well, to be honest I barely knew anything about Hadrian’s Wall. If you didn’t read my post a few days back with a brief introduction you can read it here. This wall crossed from the west coast near the current border between England and Scotland, to the east coast near Newcastle. Along it were towers and forts garrisoned with troops to guard the wall from the Barbarians to the north. While there is no parallel to the Night’s Watch, the Roman guards weren’t allowed to marry and would often serve along the wall for quite some time.

The Roman fort was pretty cool. At its peak it held about 800 soldiers while the general area would also have many civilians. While the fort is now quite ruinous, you still get a strong sense of its original purpose, layout, and massive size. The Romans amaze me with their engineering prowess. The fort had a sewage system, and later incorporated a bath house. The view from the fort was also impressive. You could see miles north and south.

After the fort was a lot of driving. About 2.5 hours to Nottingham, where we stopped to eat at a pub. It took forever but my lamb meatballs and couscous were worth it. Nottingham seemed pretty cool on our brief drive through it. Although there was no sign of Robin Hood…

Then another 2 hours of driving to my hostel, although with a quick detour on the way to drive by Silverstone Raceway. We didn’t get to see much there but it was cool anyways.

My hostel, situated 25 minutes north of London by train is interesting. It’s fairly cheap, even once you include the wifi which isn’t free. It’s also quite nice. It is just outside Lee Valley Park, a massive park that stretches from London far out into the neighboring towns following the river Lee. I’m really close to London, so getting into town is easy, but the hostel has a very rural vibe. The rooms are in cabins and are quite spacious. It seems to largely bring in the under 18 and over 40 crowd so I stand out a bit. But at this point in my trip peace and quiet is nice.

To get to the wall you had to walk through a field of sheep

This tower was built hundreds of years after the Romans left

You can see the huge scale of the fort

The northwest corner tower with the wall stretching out past it

My hostel

From Edinburgh to Newcastle

Leaving Glasgow was easy. Both mentally as I didn’t much miss it, and in reality as traffic in Glasgow doesn’t appear to be too bad. It is also the one place we went to do that doesn’t have roundabouts everywhere.

Edinburgh is amazing. It’s absolutely beautiful. Possible the best looking city I have seen in the United Kingdom. Building after building and street after street is stunning. I was blown away by Edinburgh. I would highly recommend a visit to this city.

We walked through the gardens on our way to Edinburgh Castle. These gardens are simple but elegant with an interesting fountain. At the end of the gardens is the Scottish National Gallery, a free art museum. Free is good but art galleries are rapidly losing their interest for me. I pretty quickly walked through it and ended up waiting around outside for the others for quite some time. They seemed to like it, me less so.

And then we reached Edinburgh Castle. It is expensive to enter, but completely worth it. This castle sits atop a steep hill right in the middle of the city. You enter through a gate on the one part that isn’t a sheer cliff, and you enter under the watchful gaze of 10 or so cannons. The view of the city is one of the best I have seen. It really highlights how great this city is.

After fueling up with a scone and cup of tea, I visited the Scottish War Museum in the castle. While there are a few interesting items in there, and some interesting information, I was a little disappointed. It was mostly about the last 200 years after unification with England. I was hoping for more about the conflicts between the English and the Scottish.

The castle also houses the Scottish crown jewels. After a rather large buildup of information which I found a little overdone, the stone, sceptre and sword were really cool. The history of their capture and return is interesting. One factoid that I liked is that they were hidden during WWII in case the Germans invaded. Only four individuals were told the location. The King, two others, and the Governor General of Canada. At first that seemed a little odd but it makes sense. If the United Kingdom was to fall, Canada was probably the safest commonwealth country. It had the United States as protection and a large ocean in between.

Next to the castle was a large whisky store where I bought a few tiny bottles of scotch to try when I get back home. For any whisky aficionado this store would probably be close to heaven.

After the whisky we found a nearby pub and had lunch. I had a delicious smoked salmon salad and tried a bit of haggis, which was actually quite good. I kind of wish I ordered it while in Scotland but I suppose there will always be other opportunities.

And then we drove for a few hours to Newcastle where we pretty quickly fell asleep from complete exhaustion.

The Edinburgh gardens

View from the outer wall towards the inner keep

The castle had many cannons

Smoked salmon salad

Edinburgh Castle

My friend excited to be heading back into England

Onwards to Scotland

Driving in Britain has been an experience. I should say that I haven’t actually driven because our rental is only for one driver, and the fact that I can’t drive stick. With that being said, here are some observations. A lot of roads in Britain would probably be illegal in Canada. Tiny country roads with blind corners are everywhere. Roads that are a bit better but still really windy and narrow often have a speed limit of 60 mph, which is faster than you can drive on highways in Canada in many cases. While sometimes I think these roads are a little ridiculous, I think Canada could learn from Britain. They appear to trust drivers more and let drivers drive at speeds they are comfortable driving at. Speed limits are almost uniformly higher than on similar roads in Canada although they do have a lot of speed cameras to keep you under them.

After eating some food we wiggled our way out of Birmingham and headed towards Liverpool. As we then wiggled our way into Liverpool we cranked some Beatles and eventually found a place to park. Downtown Liverpool is pretty cool which an interesting mixture of ultra-modern, post-WWII and considerably older architecture. Our main destination that day was the Beatles museum.

The Beatles Museum was interesting, but it doesn’t utilize the fact that you are there in person in any meaningful way. I feel like watching a documentary would have worked just as well. There aren’t many original items that are particularly interesting. Still, it was worth a brief visit and if you are a big Beatles fan probably worth it for the novelty factor alone. As a fairly big Beatles fan it was pretty cool to just be there.

We had lunch at a nearby pub where I had my first English fish & chips experience. It was good, especially the massive chips, but oily fried fish isn’t really my thing.

And then it was onwards to Scotland. The drive from Liverpool to Scotland was going to be about 4 hours so we decided to stop roughly half way and take a look at a part of the ruinous Hadrian’s wall. For those who don’t know, around 120 AD, Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered a wall to be built from coast to coast near to the present day border of Scotland. This wall allowed the Romans to hold the conquered southern lands easier but also signified in some sense defeat. These walls remained Roman controlled, most of the time, for around 300 years.

This small segment of the wall was interesting, and the view from that area was stunning. Because it was late however, we couldn’t visit the more impressive remaining portions.

Onwards we went towards Glasgow. This country is really beautiful, but it is fairly repetitive. Rolling hills with fields of sheep and stone walls are everywhere. Towns of brick buildings centred around a church is the norm. It’s a little weird when you are from British Columbia where you can quite quickly go from a sandy beach to grassy wetlands to snow covered mountains to a semi-arid dessert.

Our admittedly brief time in Glasgow was pretty underwhelming. Other than the place we stayed which was a “budget” hotel only in name. It has a massive glass shower and a towel warmer. A budget hotel had a towel warmer. If you find yourself in Glasgow I recommend checking out Queen’s Park Budget Hotel. We also had delicious Indian food nearby. I ordered Naan bread which was massive and fresh. Definitely the best Naan I have had. We then walked downtown to a pub which was pretty mediocre. A drunk Scottish teen came up to use, after running away from some other guys who looked like they wanted to beat him up. He went on and on, with only a small portion of it being comprehensible to us, about how he has our back if anyone gives us a trouble. It was all a little odd.

A remake of The Cavern, a club the Beatles played in many times

Fish & Chips

A view from the wall

Indian food for dinner

Peugeot 107

I was picked up by my compatriots at the Bristol train station. Even getting out of Bristol and back to our hotel was a challenge. I used my phone as a GPS but I was running out of battery so we had to switch it on and off. I am used to roads that are at least in a semi-grid. In England, the roads go all over. Eventually we made it to the highway which we thought would make the rest easy.

We blew past our exit and the next one wasn’t for 7 miles so we ended up spending an extra 20 minutes or so. Not the end of the world.

The next morning we ate some food and departed south towards Beaulieu where the National Motor Museum is as well as the ruins of a 15th century abbey. Before making it all the way south we stopped at Bath. Imaginatively named due to the Roman Bath ruins in the core of the city. These ruins are up there with the best I have seen. If you are visiting Britain you definitely want to see this place. The Romans believed the place to be of religious importance due to the natural hot springs. The water still flows, heated, through much of the original bath despite it being about 2000 years old. Unlike some ruins, it is preserved enough to really get an understanding for what the place was about.

The motor museum was one of my favourite attractions so far. They had an exhibit of cars from Top Gear challenges which made my inner Top Gear fan positively giddy. Top Gear is one of my favourite television shows so this part of the museum alone was worth the fairly steep entry price. The rest of the museum was interesting but not quite to the same extent. There was an exhibit of bond cars with lots of iconic bond cars from the Roger Moore days up to a boring Ford Mondeo from “Casino Royale”.

The nearby abbey was interesting although barely standing. A few of the smaller structures and a few walls are all that remains but you do get a feeling for the massive size of the structure back when it was fully intact. Not the most interesting ruins but worth a quick look after the motor museum.

English countryside is beautiful. The rolling hills, the fields full of grazing sheep, the bush lined country roads, and the beautiful quaint little country houses. Canada has a lot of natural beauty, but in Canada the man-made rarely blends in with the natural. In England, the earthy tones of bricks, and the enormous fields blend in perfectly with nature.

After being slowed down by the setup for the Olympic torch relay, we finally made it to Stonehenge just before it closed. It costs slightly over $10 to get up fairly close but it is free to see it from the road which isn’t far off so I just did that. I would rather spend $10 on food then get slightly closer to Stonehenge. To be honest, the best view is from a mile off. Seeing it for the first time as we reached the top of a nearby hill was breathtaking. Up close you lose perspective.

We then went to the best looking pub I have ever seen. Not on the inside, which was fairly standard, but the on the outside. The entire building is covered in vines and moss. For 10 pounds I had a massive “traditional” english breakfast and tea. Not too bad of a deal.

I found a great deal on a hotel in Birmingham. We got a room for about 45 pounds which usually costs about 100. Definitely the nicest place I have stayed so far on this trip. For hotels, last minute booking seems to work quite well, although there is always the risk there will only be rooms in the bad hotels left.

The main bath in the Roman Baths

An underground excavated area in the Roman Baths

Toyota Hilux that still works after being blown up, sunk, battered an all together treated rather terribly.

Top Gear made a spaceship! It didn’t quite work but still, completely awesome.

I think everyone knows what this is.

The coolest pub exterior.

A Warship on the Thames

(Note, for some stupid reason I put the bike picture and the title for this post on the last)

After sleeping in a bit we decided to head out for lunch. We arrived at London Bridge on the train and crossed over the bridge towards cannon street. You can also see the warship that the Olympic security forces brought into the Thames. I’m not really sure if it has a purpose other than security theatre. The whole security apparatus for the Olympics seems a little overdone but that would be a large aside.

The place we ended up at for lunch was clearly a hangout for the business lunch crowd. Nearly everyone else was dressed up in suits or business casual so we stood out a little. The food was pretty good but the tea platter was what really made it. It came with a little shot-glass of smarties. Tea is almost uniformly great in England outside of cheap places like Subway.

We then saw the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Both are just as stunning the second time. Next to Abbey there was a bike rental place so we rented two bikes and attempted to make it to St. James Park. If you know London, you know that the Abbey and that park are not far from each other, but it took forever. Between trying to stay off of main roads and London’s streets being completely nonsensical, we constantly found ourselves going the wrong way. Still, biking through London is actually quite enjoyable, at least off of the main streets, and it made for a lovely afternoon. If you are in London I highly recommend it. A couple of hours is only going to cost you a few pounds.

We then did some shopping. I bought some jeans which are the one clothing item I have been missing over this last month. While I wouldn’t have actually wanted to wear them in the 30+ heat of all the places I went to, I am glad I have some for the damp chill of Great Britain.

And then it was time for afternoon tea. Afternoon tea is great. Delicious scones, a simple but tasty sandwich and a decadent cupcake combined with good tea. You can’t really go wrong with that combination. It almost makes me want to go for the a more authentic experience at the Empress Hotel in Victoria next time I am there, but I don’t think I could convince myself to spend that much.

And then after that I hopped on a double-decker bus, a metro train and then an actual train to Bristol. In Bristol I met up with my road-tripping companions. More about that in my next update.

The Warship on the Thames

The perfect cuppa

Afternoon tea

I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike

Today I only spent about 3 hours in Victoria Station!

I began the morning with a trip to the British Museum. This massive museum full of some of the greatest artifacts in the world is completely free. Donations are encouraged but they aren’t pushy about it. I got there a little after 10 and left at about 2 and I did not see it all. This is the kind of place you really need to go to for a few hours on multiple days to appreciate. They have lots of free guided tours for most of the major areas of the museum, which is divided up into countries or civilizations/empires. If I had more time I would love to go for each of these guided tours but doing too many on one day would probably be tiring. If you go to London, give yourself two mornings for this place if you are a history or civilizations buff.

They have some really interesting pieces such as the Rosetta Stone, the mummified remains of Cleopatra and the earliest known tool used by humans. The museum isn’t exactly narrative, which is a slight downside, but their collection is likely second to none. Nowhere else can you see many of the best preserved artifacts from the Parthenon as well as multiple Egyptian mummies.

After the British Museum I headed over to Victoria Station to wait for my sister. After waiting around for about an hour and a half hoping that the two British Transit Police officers with assault rifles aren’t watching me after getting put on the watch list for waiting around yesterday for 5 hours, my sister arrived and we went for some food. We rocked the salad bar which was surprisingly good and full of ham and fish as well as the usual salad things.

After that my day was basically lots of time spent in transit, some time spent shopping and wandering around London’s Oxford Street and eating one of the best meals of my trip. Our mom treated us to dinner so I spent far more than I have on my own. I ate a delicious goat cheese salad with chicken, then gelato and hot chocolate for dessert. Delicious.

The British Museum

My bicycle

Goat Cheese Salad

Dessert