Iceland 2015: Glacier Hike

This is the 8th post on our trip to Iceland. Find more here.

Day 8: Climbing the Ice

All this is glacier The next day we continued our glacial adventures by taking a trip up the Falljökull glacier near Skaftafell. We bought our tickets for the half-day hike the morning of, but the other guide company had already sold out so it’s clearly best to buy in advance. We arranged our tour through Glacier Guides, and had a great time.

After a 15 minute school bus ride we arrived near the base of the glacier. We were divided up into groups of six (us and two pairs of Canadians) plus a guide (Magnus, half Icelandic, half Mexican). Magnus led us through the black lava sand riverbed towards the glacier. In fact, the gravel we were walking on was only a few inches deep, and underneath lay the “dead ice”, more glacier that is insulated, keeping it from fully melting away. That section can actually be quite dangerous because you can’t tell whether the ice beneath you is solid or if it might crack open!

Ice tunnelCrampons and Ice AxeAll geared upIcelandic drinking fountain

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Iceland 2015: Glacial Lagoon

This is the 7th post on our trip to Iceland. Find more here.

Day 7 Part 2: Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon

After visiting the puffins, we continued our drive eastward to Jökulsárlón, an iceberg filled lake where the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier meets the Atlantic Ocean. We arrived just in time to hop on a boat for a tour. Floating through the lagoon are massive pieces of ice, many 20-30 feet tall and 50 feet or more wide. For the most part they are stationary, but slowly metling ice in a tidal lake is a dynamic system, and occasionally the balance will shift causing one of the icebergs to flip over onto its back.

The color of the ice was amazing, a mix of snowy white and a surprisingly deep blue. Before visiting Iceland I had always thought that blue slushies were an unnatural thing, but now I see they have their basis in nature!


Our boat tour included getting to taste a chunk of ice (cold!) and some interesting information on how the lake formed. The coloring of the ice is due to the densely packed water molecules that freeze together in the salty lake, squeezing out the air bubbles. Without the air, the water reveals its true blue color. When the top of an iceberg has set exposed for too long, the ice melts, letting air in and slowly changing the color to white. Of course the blue color of the ice is only visible because you are looking into so much ice (water)—when you hack off a chunk of the ice it is perfectly clear because there isn’t enough frozen water to make it blue.

IceIceThe ice manThe glacier reaching the lake

The lagoon was very cool, and such an incredible contrast to the sunny cliffs and black sands we had been walking in earlier in the day. It is amazing how an hour drive in Iceland can give you an incredibly different experience. The lagoon is a worthwhile site to visit, although we could have had a similar experience by just walking around the lake instead of paying for the boat tour.

Another boat tour

Running total:

Waterfalls: 68
Roundabouts: 37
Arctic Foxes: 1!
Rainbows: 4

This is the 7th post on our trip to Iceland. See Day 8 next, and find more here.

Iceland 2015: Puffins!

This is the 6th post on our trip to Iceland. Find more here.

Day 7 Part 1: Puffins

SkaftafellAfter spending the night at Hotel Katla (hotel was fine, but the dinner buffet was way overpriced ~$54 per person!), we drove further east. We caught our first glimpse of a “glacier tongue” as we headed past Skaftafell (more on that tomorrow). After a quick gas station lunch we headed to Ingólfshöfdi, an Icelandic nature preserve where you can take a guided puffin watching tour. Puffins are perhaps the most adorable little birds in existence, and the tour “almost guaranteed” that we would get to see some!

The trip started with a tractor ride through a wide black sand estuary. Between the haze and the sand blowing in the wind, it felt like we were on an entirely different planet.


On the tractor.Ingolfshofdi

Eventually we reached the coast, where a promontory rose up with steep cliffs on three sides. At the top, the black sand changed to rock and grass, and some large birds immediately made us aware that we were “trespassing” on their nesting grounds. The birds, Great Skau which are about the size of a hawk, would aggressively swoop around the areas where they lay their eggs, loudly screeching for us to stay away. Since they seem to lay their brown, well camouflaged eggs at random spots on the ground, it was helpful that they would keep us from accidentally stepping on them!

Great SkauGreat SkauShipwreck ShelterMonument to Ingólfur, Iceland's first settler

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Iceland 2015: Vestmannaeyjar Islands

This is the 5th post on our trip to Iceland. Find more here.

Day 6: Vestmannaeyjar Islands and East to Vik

rainbow!In the morning we had a rental car delivered to our hotel from Route 1 Cars. We got a bit worried that it wasn’t coming, only to discover the rental car people were sitting across from us in the hotel lobby the whole time. Oops!

This was the first time either of us had driven outside of the United States, but fortunately Iceland is pretty “normal”. The road signs are all quite clear, and since the island is basically uninhabited, there isn’t any real traffic to deal with.

We left the capitol and merged onto Route 1, the “Ring Road” that circles the entire island. The first part of the trip was a repeat of the drive to our horse farm from a few days earlier, but before long were headed off into new territory, discovering new mountains, sheep, waterfalls, and roundabouts.

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Iceland 2015: Snaefellsnes Peninsula

This is post #4 on our trip to Iceland. Find the others here.

Day 5: The Snaefellsnes Peninsula

At this point we had explored the city reasonably well, so we took a tour run by Iceland Excursions to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, a long piece of land that juts out north and west of Reykjavik. Our guide was DeeDee who was excellent and extremely energetic. She drove our small bus (holding 7 tourists) and gave us historical and cultural tidbits about the sights we passed. Our first stop was at Gerduberg, a long wall of basalt columns.


Megan and yet another volcano
From there we headed on to a beach with distant views of the Snaefellsjökull glacier (resting on top a dormant volcano). Apparently if we’d walked the other direction on the beach we would have seen seals. Oops! Instead we focused our attention on the gleaming white glacier rising over the mountains in the distance.

Snæfellsjökull in the distance
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Iceland 2015: Conference Days

This is post #3 on our trip to Iceland. Find the others here. This post is mainly my notes, check the others for more pretty pictures!

Days 3-4: In Reykjavik

This was the first day of Megan’s conference, so we took a taxi to Reykjavik University on the south side of town in the morning. The entire university fits inside one building, which is quite cute. The university also has excellent foosball facilities!

World Class foosball

While Megan spent the day at conference sessions, I took a walk back up to our hotel (about 40 minutes away). The weather was fantastically sunny, and I was able to take off my down jacket and hat, leaving on nothing but a long-sleeve shirt topped with a sweater… Now that is summer weather!

In general, the weather has tended to be quite chilly–highs in the low 50s and lows in the high 30s. However, the wind is the biggest factor and it is often blowing hard. We tend to dress in layers: a sweater over a long sleeve shirt, a lightweight down jacket, and then a midweight wind/rain jacket for particularly windy or rainy days. And of course a winter hat.

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Iceland 2015: Golden Circle

If you missed day one in Iceland, see it here. I also apologize to anyone with slow internet… lots of media on this page!

Day 2: Outside Reykjavik

Our second day began with a typical European breakfast of rolls, cheeses, and meats. Then we were picked up by Eld Hestar and driven to their horse farm east of the city. Along the way we caught our first glimpse of a distant glacier–a wall of white that dwarfed the mountains before it.

That isn't a band of white clouds, it's a wall of ice.

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Iceland 2015: Reykjavik

This is the first post on our trip to Iceland. See Day 2 next.

Day 1, May 30: Reykjavik

Icelandic flag at ThingvellirWe arrived in the early morning in Iceland and took a shuttle to Hotel Fron in Reykjavik. Before our flight, I had heard someone warn that the area around the airport is a bit disappointing compared to the rest of Iceland–that it is like “being on the moon”. That turned out to be pretty accurate. The landscape was rocky and barren, with bulbous outcroppings from the lava flows. A short scrub grass grew in some areas, but there were very few trees.

We reached the city around 7am, so not too surprisingly there was not a room ready for us yet at the hotel. We left our luggage and wandered out in the cool, gray day. The thermometer on the bus had said 8′ C, and with the wind blowing it got quite chilly at times.

Deserted streets before 7AM on a Saturday morning

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EuroTrip 2013: Barcelona

Although it arrives about six months late, this post concludes our trip to London, Paris, and now Barcelona.

Gal and MeganOn Day 6 (Saturday), we headed to Paris’ Orly airport (hooray for avoiding Charles de Gaulle!) to fly to Barcelona. It was a quick two hour flight. The easiest way to get to or from the airport in Barcelona is the AeroBus (A1 or A2 depending on your terminal), which goes to Plaza Espanya and Plaza Catalunya. We took the bus to Catalunya and switched to the Metro to go to Barceloneta for our “hotel”, Residencia Campus del Mar. We actually stayed in a university dorm, which also rents out single and double rooms on a daily basis. Our room was the largest of the trip (yet cheapest, at ~80 euro), and included a small kitchenette. It was about a 10 minute walk from the Barceloneta metro station, and about a five minute walk down to the beach (through some narrow streets with several bars and tapas places).

La Rambla At the hotel, we met our friend Gal, who was stopping in Barcelona for a few days to travel with us before going on to a wedding in Italy. Our first afternoon we fell for a tourist trap tapas restaurant near our hotel, where the waiter convinced us to try the “menu del dia”, which included several courses of mediocre meat and seafood. Afterwards we wandered around La Rambla and the Bari Gotic. La Rambla was packed with tourists from near and far. The gothic quarter’s old crooked streets were also fairly busy, but we were able to find a place to sit in a plaza to enjoy the afternoon. Later we found our way to La Catedral, where we sat and listened to spanish guitarists and opera singers.

Bari GoticCatedralEnjoying (or providing) entertainment in the cathedral's square A peak into a kitchen

At Taller de TapasAmazingly, we were able to keep to a true spanish schedule, and only headed out to find dinner around 8:30. We went to Taller de Tapas, an excellent tapas restuarant. We had patatas bravas, croquetes, pan con tomate, chorizo, and smoked beef. And a few bottles of wine. It was all quite delicious, and deifnitely worth returning to. The waiter was helpful and spoke good english. Apparently there are several locations, including one on La Rambla (we went to the Comtal location). It turns out that this is the same restaurant as Megan and I had been to on our previous trip in 2007. We loved it then, and we loved it this time too!


Our plan the next day was to take the cable car up to Montjuic, a large hill on the side of the city that hosts several museums, gardens, and the olympic park. However, we changed our mind since we didn’t think we would have enough time at one of the musuems that was closing early because it was a sunday. Instead, we headed back to La Rambla to try to visit Palau Guell, a townhouse mansion built by Gaudi for one of Barcelona’s richest familes (it is free on Sunday, but they only offer tickets at a few times; we got ours at 3PM). The house has spectacular architecture, and the audioguide did a good job explaining the sights. I would have liked to learn more about the history of the area and its inhabitants–we overheard a walking tour in the street explain that the area used to be Barcelona’s red light district, but that by building a magnificent mansion in the middle of it, Gaudi and Guell hoped to clean up the area. The home was incredibly ornate, with intricately designed wooden ceilings, tilework, stone columns, etc. It is also the only home I’ve been to with its own mini-church and (not-so-mini) organ. The home is also quite large, and the tour took us from the carriage house below (lined with wooden bricks to deaden the sound), up to the roof which was topped with typical gaudi curves and domes.

On top of Palau Guell

Delicious!For dinner, we headed to Casa Delfin, another excellent tapas restaurant (which apparently is owned by the same group as Taller de Tapas). We had a mix of tapas and main dishes, including slow roasted lamb and a beef stew. I had the stew and it was excellent. Our waiter was kind enough to help us practice our spanish, even though his English was clearly far better than our Castellano. I would definitely recommend returning! It is a little less classy than Taller de Tapas, and felt a bit more authentic.

On Day 8 (a Monday), we took the train to Montserrat, a monastery in the mountains about one and a half hours from Barcelona. It is easily accessible from the Espanga metro stop, from which you can buy a combined ticket including the train to the mountain and either a funicular or cable car ride up to the monastery. It also includes additional funicular rides higher in the mountain to the various walking trails.


Cable Car to MontserratWe arrived at Montserrat just in time to rush into the basilica to hear the boys choir, which sings daily at 1PM (do the kids go to school?). It was nice, but the place was packed with noisy people, so we could only huddle around the door. We bought some cheese and wandered partway up the hill to a scenic overlook to have a picnic lunch. The location is quite beautiful. The mountain is covered with strange looking rocky outcroppings that make it look un-earthly. The monastery has a large complex of building nestled between two ridges, from which you can walk, funnicular, or mountain climb up to a set of trails among the peaks. Scattered throughout the area are several other old church buildings, which make the area very picturesque. We rode the St. Joan funicular up, and then walked for about an hour down to the Flats de San Michel and eventually back to the monastery. We had planned to hike down by the Sacred Cave, where shepherds once found an image of the Virgin Mary, but the paths aren’t very well marked, and we weren’t sure how much time it would take. Instead, we bought some chocolate at the gift shop and rode the cable car back down to the train.

Montserrat Montserrat

You can take either a cable car or funicular up to the monastery, each leaving from a different (but well named) train station. The cable car is definitely more scenic, but the funicular has the advantage of getting you back down to the rail line earlier in its route, dramatically increasing your chance of being able to get a seat. Unfortunately, we were not so lucky, and ended up standing for the 1.5 hours back to Barcelona. We took the second to last train (leaving around 6PM) and got to be amused/annoyed by the loud antics of a gaggle of teenage spanish girls for much of the ride.

Taverna Can MargaritFor dinner that night we headed to Taverna Can Margarit in the Poble Sec area. Unfortunately, we reached there around 7:45…. far too early for a restaurant in Barcelona to be open for dinner! We ended up having to wait until 8:30PM before they opened. We were all exhausted and foot sore though, so sitting on some nearby steps and watching young spanish hudlums was fine entertainment. When the restaurant did open, we were first invited to taste some of the house wine. The waiter pointed us to some small glasses and some big casks of wine, and left us to ourselves! Taverna Can Margarit The wines were nice, including one very strong white that tasted more like a liquor. For dinner we had some of their small plates (asparagus, sliced meats, manchego), but unfortunately none of it was that exciting. For the main course, however, we had their braised rabit, which was truly delicious. It was indeed a rabit (including half its head, teeth, and brain), but perhaps the best parts of the dish were the incredible carmelized onions and roasted garlic. I ate about 12 cloves of garlic, which in retrospect may have been a mistake. Sorry Megan.

Montjuic gardens On Day 9 (Tuesday), we took a different cable car, this time from Barcelona’s port up to Montjuic. This provides a nice view of the city along the way, and costs 11 euro. Montjuic is filled with gardens and paths to various museums and a castle. We walked to the Fundacio de Joan Miro, and observed some strange modern art. As modern art museums go, it was fairly good, but that isn’t really my style. The fountain spewing mercury was pretty neat though.

Afterwards, we walked down the mountain through some pretty, terraced gardens. If we had been smart, we would have brought another picnic lunch along. Instead, we hungrily headed towards la Boqueria, the main market just off of La Rambla. It is packed with people and stalls selling fruit, meat, fish, and various snack foods. We bought some empanada type tarts and some fruit juice, which made a nice meal.


In the afternoon we took the metro to La Sagrada Familia, the most impressive church / alien fortress I’ve ever been in. Started early in the last century, Gaudi’s architectural masterpiece still has a ways to go before it will be finished. However, there had been significant progress (at least on the inside) since Megan and I had visited it in 2007. At that time, the nave was empty rough stone, while now it is filled with decorated columns and beautiful stained glass. We ooh’d and ahh’d before taking a trip up one of the towers, followed by a claustrophobe’s nightmare down the winding staircases.

Sagrada Familia interior

Sagrada FamiliaSagrada Familia

Luckily, we had planned ahead and bought tickets online, which meant that we were able to immediately enter the church grounds. Others were not so lucky, and the line wrapped around two and a half sides of the (very big) church. There was no line at all for those with online tickets!

Sagrada FamiliaSagrada FamiliaSagrada FamiliaSagrada Familia

P1020265After getting our fill of soaring columns and parabolic arches, we headed to a fine wine store where Gal purchased some undoubtedly delicious (and expensive) wine. We also visited their specialty food store and bought some manchego cheese, dried chorizo, and serano ham—ever so delicately sliced off of an aged leg. We took it home for a very quick dinner before heading to the Palau de Musica de Catalonia, for spanish guitar concert. The concert hall was extravagantly decorated with scultpures and mosiac tiles. Unfortunately, while our box seats gave us an exceptional view of the stage and the performer, they were very tight on leg room. I resisted the urge to put my legs over the lip of the balcony as we listened to a range of songs, some classic guitar pieces plus others by Bach and Mozart. The guitarist was able to make amazing noises out of his guitar! While others (*cough* Gal *cough*) thought the encore piece, (classic spanish guitar melodies periodically interrupted by the themes of pop songs) was too cheesy, I thought it was pretty awesome.

On Day 10, we reached the part of the trip which was why we’d actually come here — Megan’s conference. Gal left for the next leg of his trip to Italy. Megan spent her days at the conference center while I worked in our dorm and visited some researchers at the Barcelona Super Computing center.

On our last day we headed back up to Montjuic so that we could walk through some of the gardens we had missed. We visited the old fort which looks over the sea port to repel invaders, but also provides a good view of the city (and in fact the fortress was mainly used to imprison political dissidents for a while). Currently, it provides excellent views, as well as the opportunity to imagine you are firing the cannons at the gigantic cruise ships parked in the harbor below.


Overall, our trip gave us a great taste of three different cities and three different cultures. We look forward to exploring them all more thoroughly in the future!