a cruise up the danube bend — first stop: esztergom

Sunday, September 24:  Today, we get up early to catch a hydrofoil run by MAHART PassNave Ltd up the Danube Bend to Esztergom and Visegrád.  The Danube Bend is a region of hills and charming towns along a series of curves in the river north of Budapest.

If we want to do this cruise during our stay, we have to do it today or Tuesday, as MAHART doesn’t run the hydrofoil on Mondays. As Tuesday’s our last day in Budapest, we don’t want to do it then. We are lucky enough to be here in September, as the company runs the hydrofoils only through October 1.

The hydrofoil leaves the dock at Vigadó Square in Budapest at 10:00.  We reserved our tickets online, but we must be at the dock a half hour before to pay for them. The cruise makes three stops: 1) Vác at 10:40; 2) Visegrád at 11:00; and 3) Esztergom at 11:30.  We’ve decided to take the boat to the furthest point, Esztergom, across the river from Slovakia, and then take a bus to Visegrád.  We hope the timing will be right and there will be seats available to get the hydrofoil back from Visegrád when it stops there at 6:00 p.m., but if it doesn’t work out, we’ll take a bus back to Budapest. Sadly, the hydrofoil only goes up and back down the Danube Bend once each day, so we can’t hop on and off at the various points.

During the 1 1/2 hour cruise up the Danube, we’re disheartened by the rain and clouds we see out the window.  Periodically, hints of blue peek through the clouds, so we’re hopeful the weather will clear up by the time we get to Esztergom.

At 11:30, we disembark from the hydrofoil just past the Mária Valéria Bridge and start heading up a narrow road, where we stop to study a large town map. At the map, we chat briefly with an amiable solo-traveling Irishman named John.  He’s staying in Budapest for a week and doing a series of day trips into Hungary’s countryside.  He’s planning to take the hydrofoil back from Esztergom when it departs at 5:30 and wonders if he’ll find enough to do here for six hours.  We tell him our complicated plan to take the bus to Visegrád, and he wishes us luck in our quest.

The Mahart hydrofoil

We can’t miss the huge Esztergom Basilica on the hill south of the bridge. It’s simply a matter of how to make our way up there.  Mike studies the map and figures out the way.  We’ve decided he’s good with paper maps, and I’m good with GoogleMaps, which provides bus & train routes and timetables, and even helps us find our way when we’re lost.  I depended completely on this app while in Japan.

The Danube & Esztergom Basilica

We pass by the local restaurant, SZALMA CSÁRDA, but it’s a little too early to stop for lunch.

cute eatery

Mike, a big cycling fan, is happy to see a well-organized time trial taking place with all ages of well-kitted teams involved.  At the same time, a half marathon is going on in the town.  While he is excited to see lively athletics going on in the historic town, I feel that it takes away from the old-world nostalgia that should be evident in an old European town.  I know, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon in that regard. 🙂

These two photos are Mike’s.

Of course, we have to walk over the 500-meter-long Mária Valéria Bridge to see the views of the Basilica and to say we crossed the border into Štúrovo, Slovakia.

Mária Valéria Bridge

The bridge is named after Archduchess Marie Valerie of Austria (1868-1924), the fourth child of Franz Josef and Elisabeth, also known as Sisi. Since its opening in September of 1895, the bridge has been destroyed twice. In July of 1919 the bridge was destroyed by a detonation at its first pier on its western side but the bridge was renovated in 1922 and completely reconstructed in 1926. During World War II, retreating German troops blew up the bridge on 26 December 1944 along with other bridges near Esztergom.  The bridge finally reopened in 2001 (Wikipedia: Mária Valéria Bridge).

statue as we climb to the Mária Valéria bridge

We find some coats of arms on the bridge, but I can’t tell you their significance.

We also find some fantastic views of Esztergom Basilica on the bridge, along with the Danube cruise boats.

view of Esztergom Basilica from the Mária Valéria bridge

We cross over into Slovakia, but I won’t count it in my list of countries visited (29 so far) until I actually visit it properly.  I hope to do that within the next couple of years.

The border of Slovakia

The Danube is Europe’s second largest river, after the Volga River. Today, it flows through ten countries, more than any other river in the world.  Originating in Germany, it flows southeast for 2,860 km (1,780 mi) before emptying into the Black Sea.

the Danube

Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen, was born in Esztergom in 975.  From the 10th till the mid-13th century, Esztergom was the capital of Hungary, until King Béla IV of Hungary moved the royal seat to Buda following the Mongul invasion in 1241.  Today, the town is the seat of the prímás of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary, and the former seat of the Constitutional Court of Hungary. Esztergom Basilica is the largest church in Hungary.

Esztergom Basilica

After seeing the views down the Danube and of the Basilica, we turn around on the bridge and cross back into Hungary.

Back across the border into Hungary
me on the Mária Valéria bridge
Mike on the Mária Valéria bridge
Cruise ship on the Danube in front of Esztergom Basilica

We make our way toward Castle Hill and Esztergom Basilica, crossing a bridge and passing by the pretty Vizivaros Parish Church.  We have to be careful of the bicyclists and the runners as we cross the street!

heading up Castle Hill & Vizivaros Parish Church
small canal
Vizivaros Parish Church and Castle Hill
Vizivaros Parish Church
Castle Hill
Vizivaros Parish Church

I’m sure it would be fun to see the Budapest Circus. 🙂

sign for the Budapest Circus

We walk up and up through the town, trying to find the entrance to the Basilica.

Inside Esztergom Basilica, consecrated in 1856 with a sung mass composed by Franz Liszt, a copy of Titian’s Assumption hangs over the main altar.  It is said to be the world’s largest painting on a single canvas, according to Lonely Planet Hungary.

the main altar in Esztergom Basilica
copy of Titian’s Assumption over the main altar
ceiling painting in Esztergom Basilica

The Basilica’s 72m-high dome beckons, so up the 400 steps we go to the top.  At a midway point we can peek through an arch to the town below; there is also a small museum displaying a model of the Basilica.  Then back inside the increasingly narrow spiral staircase we go to continue our climb.

views of Esztergom as we climb up to the dome
Model of the Castle
view from Esztergom Basilica

Around the perimeter of the dome is a wooden-plank fenced platform. It seems sturdy enough, but not like the concrete balcony on St. Stephen’s in Budapest.

view of the Danube and Mária Valéria bridge from Esztergom Basilica

Across the Danube, we can see Štúrovo, Slovakia.

Štúrovo, Slovakia across the Danube

We also have fabulous views of Esztergom.

view from the Basilica
view of Castle Hill
view from Esztergom Basilica
Esztergom Basilica
Esztergom Basilica
Esztergom Basilica
view from Esztergom Basilica
Esztergom Basilica of Esztergom, the Danube and the Mária Valéria bridge
view from Esztergom Basilica

When we complete the circle around the dome, we’re stopped by a gatekeeper who tells us we must wait five minutes until everyone finishes coming up the stairs.  I’m relieved in one sense, because the steps are so narrow I dreaded going down and having to share the steps with the climbers.  However, five minutes pass, then 10, 15 and 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, a steady file of people has emerged from the stairwell onto the planked balcony and I can’t help but worry about the structure’s ability to hold so many people!  I say to Mike, “I wonder if they have a system — if anyone below is stopping the people from coming up, or if we have to wait here indefinitely!”  After several extensions of our 5-minute waits, I ask the gatekeeper, “Do you have a system?  Is someone down below stopping the people from coming up?”  He assures me the man below is at work, but I’m not sure I believe him!  Finally, after what seems like an eternity, we’re allowed to descend. Whew!

We finally get down!

front facade of Esztergom Basilica

Now we have to make our way to the bus station.  We know the direction we need to go as we had scoped out the location when we looked at the large town map when we first disembarked from the boat.  We just have no idea how long it will take.

leaving Esztergom Basilica

Walking nearly a mile along the town streets, we pass some lunchtime eateries, but we decide we should wait until we get to the bus station so we’ll know what time the bus leaves.  Then we can seek out a cafe near the station.

a peeling building we pass walking to the bus station

When we get to the rather decrepit bus station, there is no one manning the station.  Most of the building is closed off to outsiders.  In one room, a bunch of bus drivers are hanging out and chatting. We had seen a long yellow bus with “Visegrád” on its front pass us by on the street at around 1:40, as we walked to the station.  When we arrive at around 2:00, we try to figure out what’s going on, and finally we see a big yellow bus pull up. We ask, “Visegrád?” and he indicates “3” with his fingers.  We thus assume the bus will depart at 3:00.

There don’t seem to be any cafes about. After wandering around the station, we find a small bakery and order breaded snacks.  I get a small cold pizza which I don’t care for at all as it seems to use ketchup instead of tomato sauce (I hate ketchup!). Mike calls this lunch “bus stop grub,” quick and cheap ($5).  We have to eat our snacks sitting on a bus station bench.

I’m pretty grumpy because I wanted to sit at a cafe and I also wanted to use a bathroom before getting on the bus. There doesn’t seem to be a bathroom at the station.

Finally, a Hungarian woman comes and sits next to us on the bench.  She informs us in her halting English that the bus actually leaves at 2:40, so it’s a good thing we didn’t count on the bus driver’s 3:00 indication!  I ask about a bathroom and she points to the end of the station, where I see a key is required.  She tells me it costs 50 Forints.  I go into the room full of bus drivers and ask for a key. They give it to me, I use the bathroom and return the key, handing the man 50 Forints, but he refuses it.  Apparently the 50 Forints is the required deposit, which one is supposed to pay when originally getting the key!

At 2:40, we hop on the local bus to Visegrád, about 26 km away.  It takes about 45 minutes, as we make over a dozen stops along the way for all the locals.

 

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a walking tour of pest & a confusing (but fun!) visit to the széchenyi thermal bath

Saturday, September 23:  After lunch, following a Lonely Planet Hungary walking tour of Budapest, we stroll up Andrássy út, the most expensive street in Hungary. On this grand street, we find the Hungarian State Opera, and though we missed the final 3:00 English tour, we determine to return another day. Statues of opera muses adorn the first floor façade while great composers such as Verdi and Mozart line the second floor.

Hungarian State Opera House

A side street, Dalszínház utca, leads us to the New Theatre, a 1990 reconstruction of the original by Béla Latja (1909). On the façade parapet, nine gilded ceramic angels carry tablets spelling out the name of the theatre, and globes and geometric designs feature shades of early Art Deco.

New Theatre
New Theatre
Fanciful balconies
splashes of color

A block up from the Hungarian State Opera, on Nagymező Street, we find the “Broadway of Budapest,” with the Budapest Operetta (Budapesti Operettszínház) at Number 17. This musical theater with its pink facade features 500 performances per year of Hungarian operettas and contemporary musicals, as well as historical-literary musicals aimed at the younger generation, making it one of the most frequented theaters in Hungary.  I love its fancy wrought iron canopy and old world elegance.

The Budapest Operetta
The Budapest Operetta
inside the Budapest Operetta

Mike stops on a bench for a brief chat with Emmerich (or Imre) Kálmán (24 October 1882 – 30 October 1953), a Hungarian operetta composer who was one of Adolph Hitler’s favorite composers despite his Jewish origins. After Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany in 1938, he rejected Hitler’s offer to become an “honorary Aryan” and was forced to move to Paris. After his emigration, performances of his works were prohibited in Nazi Germany. He eventually settled in California in 1940, returning to Vienna from New York in 1949 before moving in 1951 to Paris, where he died.

Mike has a chat with Imre Kálmán

The eight-story Neo-Renaissance Mai Manó House houses the Hungarian House of Photography, a photo gallery, featuring world-class exhibitions.  After it was built in 1894 as a photo studio, it was the home and workplace of Manó Mai, the former imperial and royal court photographer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Mai Manó House
Mai Manó House – photo taken by Mike Dutchak

We find the leaning statue of Miklós Radnóti, a Hungarian poet who was shot by the Nazis in 1944 and tossed into a mass grave.  When his body was found, a small notebook of poems was retrieved from his overcoat pocket.  From love poems to the wife he’d never see again to poems depicting the gruesome horrors of the Nazi regime, his small collection is a chilling masterpiece about the barbarism experienced during the Holocaust.

Miklós Radnóti, the leaning statue

Across the street from the Hungarian Operetta is Thália Színház, a performance art theatre.

Thália Színház

Our Budapest Walking Tour would have taken us ever-so-slowly to Heroes’ Square, but we are in a hurry to visit the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath before dinner.  Instead of walking, we take our Airbnb host Charlie’s advice and take the Metro 1, known in Budapest as “the underground” (“a földalatti”), the oldest line of the Budapest Metro system, built from 1894 to 1896. In 2002, it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  After many frustrating moments figuring out how to buy tickets, Mike finally figures it out and we’re on board.

Metro 1, also known as The Underground

At Heroes’ Square, we get out and look out for the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath.  We follow the signpost shown below.

Signs at Heroes’ Square

How confounded we are by the workings of the Széchenyi Thermal Bath! Of course the language barrier makes it difficult, but the impatient attitude of the ticket salesperson also puts us off to the point where we almost consider walking away. Almost.  In the end, I’m glad we persevere.  It’s quite the experience.

The daily ticket with locker usage is 5,100 Forints, about $19.55 each. Simple enough.  But, there’s the issue of the towels. We didn’t bring our own towels, so we need to rent them.  The ticket salesperson mutters something about 3,000 Forints, which is about $11.50.  Surely, the entry fee can’t be nearly $20 and the towels nearly $12?!! That seems rather outrageous. It takes us quite some time to figure out that we must pay 3,000 Forints per towel, but 2,000 of that is simply a deposit that will be returned to us when we return the towels.  We finally commit and pay our fees, heading inside the locker rooms wearing electronic wristbands to lock the lockers.

It’s confusing because there is only one locker room for both men and women.  Where on earth are we supposed to change?  By watching other people, we find there are little cabins with doors on two sides, one leading into the locker room, and one to an outer area. Mike and I change in one shared cabin.  Mike figures out that to lock both doors, we must fold down a panel on the bench seat, which in effect blocks both doors.  We change and carry our heaps of discarded clothing into the locker room, stuff them into lockers #150 and #151, double test them, and then proceed into the pool area wearing our wristbands.  We are both worried about this procedure as all our money, credit cards and passports are in our bags.  We had trouble in the Blue Lagoon in Iceland with locking the lockers and then having them accidentally open when we thought they were locked! All seems to work fine here in the end.

We walk through the indoor pools, take a short dip, then head for the outdoor pools.  The outdoor pools are not quite hot enough, in my opinion, for the cold air temperatures.  I don’t bring a phone or camera to take pictures, because for one, I don’t want my camera to get wet, and two, I’m not sure of the protocol.  However, I desperately want to take photos!

After we soak in the outdoor pools for a while, I see a few people walking around the pool decks taking pictures with their phones or iPads, so I go back inside to my locker and grab my phone, stopping to take a picture of one of the indoor baths.

inside the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

As I’m taking another picture, a man happily jumps into the middle of my picture, a hilarious photobomb!  I crack up laughing.

a photobomber at Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Most of all, I want pictures of the outside pools.  So, I take a deep breath and head out into the cold, wearing a towel wrapped around me.  Brrrr!  I have to make this quick.

Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

I love the men playing a serious chess game on the steps of the pool.

an engaging game of chess

Can you spot Mike in the pool below?

Mike in the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Széchenyi Thermal Bath was designed by Gyozo Czigler and built in 1913. The Bath was expanded in 1927 with a public bathing department for gentlemen and ladies and a beach site. In the middle of the 1960s, further transformations took place.

Reconstructing the pools of the swimming section, completed in 1999, included equipping them with water filtering and circulation devices. The so-called fancy bath includes a whirling corridor, underwater effervescence production, neck shower and water beam back massage.  These were installed in the sitting banks, according to the Baths website.

Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

I am determined to take pictures all the way from the far end.  I have to walk past the thermal pool, alongside the 50-meter-long swimming pool, and past the activity pool. The pool at the far end has a spiral whirlpool, which makes for interesting photos. As I walk along the 50-meter swimming pool, which is only 26 degrees C (almost 80F) according to the sign, I see a few hardy souls swimming laps in it. It’s hard to imagine swimming in the cooler water, but I guess the water is still warmer than the air.

swimming pool at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
whirlpool end of the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

The panorama picture I take makes the pool look strangely distorted.

a strangely distorted panorama shot of the whirlpool end of the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

Can you spot me in the bath?  I make Mike get out of the nice warm pool to take the picture.  He isn’t too happy about standing outside in the cold.

Me at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath
Széchenyi Medicinal Bath

After we stop in at one of the indoor pools, we return to the locker room to change.  Mike takes the towels to the drop-off to get our 4,000 Forints deposit returned.  He faces a bit more confusion as the woman asks him to give her 1,000 Forints, so she can give him a 5,000 Forint bill. He searches through all his coins to put together 1,000, struggling to decipher the values of the coins and becoming flustered in the process.

How disconcerting it is when you first arrive in a new culture and have to figure out all the nuances of language, currency, signage, direction and proper etiquette!

After we finish at the baths, we take Metro 1 back to the Opera and then, beginning on a perpendicular street, take a series of streets back to our Airbnb apartment.  We pass by a little playground park with a pretty mural on the background building.  We’ll pass by this every evening as we make our way “home.”

mural on the wall behind a city park

At the far end of the park is a more graphic and less pastoral scene.

another mural at the city park

We pass more interesting street art along the way.

Budapest Street Art
Budapest Street Art

On the block before our street, we poke our heads into a couple of restaurants and finally go inside the inviting Gettó Gulyás. They don’t have any empty tables so we happily sit at the bar.

Sitting at the bar at Gettó Gulyás

I order a tall skinny beer, while Mike gets a short squat one.

a tall beer at Gettó Gulyás

Our meal starts out well, but in the end, we’re not wholly satisfied. The goose crackling pate and red onion spread on the fresh bread are delicious, as is the beet salad.  But my mushroom stew with egg noodles (what I’d call spätzle) is not that great because of the texture of some of the mushrooms and the strange flavor of the noodles.  Mike’s beef stew is very chewy and he ends up leaving half of it behind.  We resolve not to return to this restaurant despite its cozy ambiance.

Back at Kazinczy utca, our home street, we stop in at an outdoor covered food court, Karaván Budapest, with 10 kiosks.  Here, we each get small cups of ice cream.  I order a brownie topped with vanilla ice cream and Mike gets an apple crumble. It’s a little cold for ice cream, but that doesn’t stop us!

food arcade

I know one of the benefits of staying in an apartment when traveling is that you can eat breakfast in and prepare lunches as well. We could even cook dinner in, but I enjoy eating out too much to do that!  After all, I’m on vacation, even from cooking.  So after we finish our ice cream, we walk to the nearest market to stock up on some food.

How I hate going to markets for mundane things when I’m on holiday!! The market is small and crowded and we can’t figure out what is what.  We finally buy yogurt, granola, cheese, crackers, bread, bananas (which I don’t care for unless they’re in a smoothie but Mike can’t seem to live without), and beers so, as Mike says, “we can stop by the apartment and enjoy afternoon beers before going out for dinner.”  It’s way too much food, and it turns out we never even have time to drink the beers as we usually grab dinner out in the areas where we’re sightseeing, thus never returning to the apartment first.  At the end of our shopping spree, we find that people have brought their own bags and the market doesn’t provide bags!  We stuff all our groceries into our backpacks and resolve to bring bags with us on our next shopping trip.

We have a great first day in Budapest, even though we pushed ourselves to go all day on less than an hour’s sleep the night before, and despite the gloomy weather.  My favorite experiences were enjoying the views from St. Stephen’s Basilica and dipping into the pools at the Széchenyi Medicinal Bath.

Total steps today: 13,840 (5.87 miles). 🙂

 

a gloomy saturday in budapest

Friday to Saturday, September 22-23:  Four days in Budapest and this is our first, but only after Lufthansa carries us, miserably uncomfortable in economy class aisle seats, for 7:55 hours through a six-hour time zone change and across the north Atlantic to Frankfurt.

While airborne, I squirm and wriggle and try to sleep, but manage to snooze less than a half hour, instead captivated by a series of shows on the small screen inset into the seatback: first, a German-language movie Die Reste Mienes Lebens, in which Schimon lives his life following his pregnant wife’s death by clinging to a sentence his grandfather once told him, “Everything in life happens the way it should.” Second, Mama Mia and its exuberant ABBA songs delight me once again (how many times have I watched that movie?), although our destination will be nothing like the Greek island where that magical love story takes place. Finally, I watch the first of seven episodes of the TV-miniseries, Big Little Lies, which took away eight Emmys this year.

We wait in Frankfurt for nearly three hours, where Mike gets a little shut-eye while splayed across the seats in the airport.  All airports should ban armrests and have sets of lounge chairs like Frankfurt does so people can relax between flights. Meanwhile, I busy myself with a fancy coffee and pastry, in what will become a 2-week pastry extravaganza — resulting in a few extra pounds!

Mike taking a nap in Frankfurt

Finally, the airline lifts us the last hour and a half to our destination. We taxi to our Pest neighborhood in a steady drizzle under heavy clouds, bringing to mind the 1999 movie, Gloomy Sunday, which takes place in 1930s Budapest and features the famous melancholic melody which, according to urban legend, triggered a chain of suicides.  The suicide connection is unsubstantiated, but it’s probable that events in the decade in which the song was written, such as famine, poverty and the rise of Nazi Germany, may have influenced the high number of suicides at that time.

Instead it is a Gloomy Saturday, but our enthusiasm at exploring a new city is not one bit dampened.

The taxi drops us off on Kazinczy utca, the street on which Charlie’s Budapest is located; we booked the apartment through Airbnb.  Number 7 is simply a weathered door in a long nondescript wall.  We beep for apartment 7 and soon Charlie arrives with his two lively little girls, Chia and Eliye, to let us in. We enter through two large disheveled 4-story courtyards with peeling yellow paint, hinting at Old World charm. The apartment has a large bright bedroom, a nice well-stocked kitchen with an instant espresso machine, and a patio out the back door which we will use if the weather improves and if we’re able to open and close the door easily (for some reason it’s rather challenging).

The apartment sits on the ground floor in the far corner of two adjoining four-story courtyards.  Our door is to the left of the two pink chairs.

Our apartment door is on the far left bottom corner
the apartment building at Charlie’s Budapest

After Charlie gives us the rundown on Budapest, we put on our raincoats and venture out into the drizzle.

a rainy morning in Budapest

Kazinczy Street is in Budapest’s old District VII neighborhood, the old Jewish quarter, and since spring of 2012 has been dubbed as Street of Culture (a Kultúra utcája). Here in the decaying buildings left by World War II, funky bars and a lively nightlife scene have sprung up amidst the ruins. These so-called “ruin bars” line our street. We plan to visit one during our stay, so I’ll talk more about them when that time comes.

Szimpla Kert, the city’s first and most famous ruin bar, set in a dilapidated apartment complex, sits a few doors down and across the narrow street from our apartment complex.  Tour groups and lone travelers wander down the street, snapping photos of the colorful ruin bars and eatery exteriors with cameras, iPads and smart phones.

the street of ruin bars
our neighborhood

Can you find Waldo in the picture below?

Rapido
wayward signs
Szimpla Kert

Immediately, Mike throws my detailed plan (outlined in an extensive spreadsheet) out the window, pointing out that going across the Danube to the Buda side doesn’t make sense for today as our apartment is on the Pest side and we’re getting a late start. He’s right of course, so I shrug and we meander through grand pastel-colored baroque, neoclassical, eclectic and Art Nouveau buildings to Szent István tér.

the pastels of Budapest

We wander streets garnished with enigmatic street art, curvaceous facades, vibrant flower stalls, and empty outdoor cafes.

Dressing Room
curvaceous buildings

The outdoor cafes would look inviting but for the light drizzle and cool temps.

outdoor cafe
fierce facade
flower shop

I fall in love with the vintage signs found through Budapest and even end up buying one later in our stay.

Coca-Cola please

The neo-renaissance Roman Catholic St. Stephen’s Basilica looms in front of us at Szent István tér and we must of course climb the 364 steps to the dome’s observation deck. Both the Basilica and the Parliament Building are 96 meters tall, and regulations don’t permit any other buildings in Budapest to be taller than these. The equal heights of these buildings represent a power balance between church and state in Hungary; they also represent the balance between worldly and spiritual thinking.

The patron saint of the church is St. Stephen (c. 975-1038), the first king of Hungary. His mummified right hand is kept in a glass case in the reliquary.

St. Stephen’s Basilica

We find a statue of St. Gregorius in a niche on the wall of the Basilica.

St. Gregorius

We also find Gothic looking details on a building across the way.

Gothic details

After climbing the increasingly narrow and claustrophobic 364 steps to the dome, we find fabulous panoramic views of Budapest from the solid balcony.  The Parliament Building, one of the Basilica’s bell towers, the Buda Hills, and the Budapest Eye Ferris Wheel on Erzsébet Square sprawl out before us.  At this point, I don’t know enough about the city to identify other sites.

View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica
View of Budapest from St. Stephen’s Basilica

Inside the church, we’re awed by the red marble and gold interior.

Interior of St. Stephen’s Basilica

Doing things in reverse order, we view the front facade of St. Stephen’s Basilica as we exit the building.

front facade of St. Stephen’s Basilica

We’re hungry by this time, and though there are Hungarian restaurants aplenty, we opt for the Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant across the street from the Basilica.  The menu out front looks healthy and enticing.

Looking for a lunchtime restaurant

I can finally shed my raincoat inside the warm and cozy Hachapuri.

Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant

I order Hikali, a set of four dumplings with four different fillings: mushroom, cheese, spinach and potato. Drawings on the menu demonstrate that one should hold the dumpling pouches by the gathered opening, and then bite into them, but I find them too hot and simply cut them up.  They’re delicious.

Hikali – dumplings at Hachapuri

As we will do many times during our trip, we forget to take a picture of Mike’s colorful Vegi Gobi before digging in, so I take a picture of the menu.  The Georgian platter has tomato-cucumber and parsley salads, hummus, cheese with mint, and various flavors of walnut balls served with a light yogurt sauce.  Meant to be shared between family and friends, Mike kindly shares some with me, although I’m too stuffed from my dumplings to partake much in his meal.

Vegi Gobi
Me at Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant in Budapest

Lunch takes longer than we intended and by the time we finish, we realize we will miss the final daily 3:00 English tour of the Hungarian State Opera House.  Instead, we decide to follow the Budapest Walking Tour in Lonely Planet Hungary, walking down Andrássy út, an avenue dating back to 1872 and recognized as a World Heritage Site since 2002. The avenue is lined with Neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses and is one of Budapest’s main shopping streets. The walk ends at Heroes’ Square, near the largest medicinal baths in Europe, Széchenyi Baths.  We have our bathing suits and flip-flops in our backpacks, intending to check it out!

 

coming full circle: return to reykjavik

Wednesday, August 24:  We arrive back in Reykjavik at 3:00.  After our amazing circular 11-day trip around Iceland, we’re back to the beginning.  When we first arrived, we had gray and dreary weather; today we’re blessed with impossibly blue skies and crisp but comfortable weather.  What a perfect way to end our trip.

We missed Jón Gunnar Árnason’s The Sun Voyager when we were here before, so this is our first stop.  The work is constructed of quality stainless steel and stands on a circle of granite slabs surrounded by so-called “town-hall concrete.”  It sits along Sæbraut Road, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean.

Sun-Craft
Sun Voyager

It is commonly thought that The Sun Voyager represents a Viking ship, sitting ashore as it does in the land of the sagas, but this was not the artist’s original intention.  It was essentially seen as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light, hope, progress and freedom (Wikipedia: The Sun Voyager).

Jón Gunnar Árnason was ill with leukemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location.

We do enjoy the sculpture, but there are so many tourists posing in every manner possible – climbing on the sculpture, hanging up side down on it – that I can’t get one decent photo without people.

Sun-Craft
Sun-Craft

We then drive directly to the OK Hotel/K Bar to check in to our apartment.  It’s right in the center of busy Reykjavik along Laugarvegur, and, oddly, has an automated check-in system.  A doorphone to the left of the front door is connected to a remote reception.  They buzz me in through the K-Bar restaurant, closed and undergoing renovation (without a person in sight), and then check me in from a phone in the lobby.

Our room is fancifully decorated in what looks like old American encyclopedia pages.  An angel is drawn overlooking the beds with the words: “Does an angel contemplate my faith?” written among the folds of her robes.

our quirky room at OK Hotel
our quirky room at OK Hotel

You can see some close-ups of the encyclopedia pages by clicking on any of the images below.

Mike finds a parking spot, surprisingly, right outside the door of K-Bar.  We have to pay for parking until 6:00 and it’s free after that.  It seems too good to be true. Because of this unlikely good luck, I worry all night that we’ll wake in the morning to find our car towed.  Of course, all my worries are for nothing.

After dropping our stuff in our apartment, we go out for a walk.  Immediately we come across a Bonus market, where we buy some breakfast food and some snacks for our flight home tomorrow morning. After returning to our room and depositing our food in the refrigerator, we sit on our balcony and enjoy the rooftop views and a glass of wine.

view from the balcony at the OK Hotel
view from the balcony at the OK Hotel

After our wine, we head out again for a walk.  I’m excited to find a shop full of puffins.  This is my one and only close-up view of puffins in Iceland!

puffins in a Reykjavik shop
puffins in a Reykjavik shop

We’ve already seen many of the sights in Reykjavik, and as it’s late in the day anyway, we simply enjoy walking up and down the shopping street, Laugarvegur.

streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
Rekjavik street art
Reykjavik street art
artsy building in the city
artsy building in the city
quirky Reykjavik
quirky Reykjavik

I’m so excited to get some beautiful views of Hallgrímskirkja with a blue-sky backdrop.  We saw this amazing church on our second day here (exploring reykjavík: hallgrímskirkja & old reykjavík), but it was gray and spitting rain on that day.

view up the street to Hallgrímskirkja
view up the street to Hallgrímskirkja
approaching Hallgrímskirkja
approaching Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja
statue of Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
statue of Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
Hallgrímskirkja & Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
Hallgrímskirkja & Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
Hallgrímskirkja & Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson
Hallgrímskirkja & Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson

We want to take home some Icelandic music, and luckily we happen upon the perfect music store, where we can sit in comfortable chairs and listen to various CDs.  The owner recommends a couple of CDs, which we buy to take home.

a stop in a music store
a stop in a music store

Reykjavik is such a quirky town with great street art, decorative and artsy shops, and cute houses.  I’m charmed by all of it.

streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
if you're not SHAKING you need another cup of COFFEE
if you’re not SHAKING you need another cup of COFFEE
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik

I love this admonishment to forget the Wi-fi and to actually “Talk to each other and get drunk!”

SORRY NO WIFI - TALK TO EACH OTHER & GET DRUNK!
SORRY NO WiFi – TALK TO EACH OTHER & GET DRUNK!
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik
bicycle in Reykjavik
bicycle in Reykjavik
tying a necktie
tying a necktie
streets of Reykjavik
streets of Reykjavik

After our walk, we stop at Salka Valka fish & more, where we enjoy a great yet simple meal accompanied by beer. We have a long chat with four young Scandinavian ladies, who have done some major treks, glacier hikes and camping.  They are treating themselves to a restaurant meal tonight.

me having a beer
me having a beer

I have really loved our Icelandic fish dishes on this trip.  This one is Traditional Plokkfiskur: “Our signature dish, oven-baked plokkfiskur (haddock and cod mixed with potatoes, onions, spices and herbs in a casserole like fashion) topped with béarnaise sauce and served with root vegetables, Icelandic sweet bread, butter, Basmati rice and our in-house red sauce.”

fish + more
fish + more

After dinner and drinking a beer, we go out to walk some more, but of course, after a beer, I shortly need to find a bathroom.  As finding a bathroom anywhere in Iceland is like finding Waldo, we walk around in vain with the situation getting increasingly desperate.  Finally, we find a pub where the only available restroom is a men’s room.  Mike checks it out to make sure it’s empty and then guards the door while I find some relief!

Back at our hotel, we enjoy another glass of wine on our balcony and then pack up all our stuff.  We have an 10:30 a.m. flight tomorrow.

Total steps today: 15,986, or 6.77 miles.

Thursday, August 25:  We get up at 6:15, eat breakfast, shower and drive our rental car back to Budget at the airport. Luckily, there are no extra charges on our rental car.  We’re relieved as we were never clear as to whether our rental included insurance!  Our flight back is uneventful, with less turbulence that we’ve encountered on many flights, arriving back in Washington at 12:30 p.m.

All told, we drove 2,700km around Iceland’s Ring Road, with many detours along the way. 🙂

I loved Iceland!  I would love to go back again on the Icelandair Stopover because there was still so much we missed that I’d love to see!

 

southwest Iceland: icelandic horses & keldur

Wednesday, August 24:  After leaving Seljalandsfoss, we continue west on the Ring Road until we reach the unsurfaced Rt. 264, which we take north through the Rangarvellir valley.  Our destination is the medieval turf-roofed farm at Keldur.  On the way, we see a sign for horseback riding and follow the directions down a long private dirt track through fenced pastures.  At the end we find a strange farmhouse that seems to have no entryway, and though we look around for humans, we don’t find a soul.  Feeling defeated in our attempts to ride the Icelandic horses, we at least stop to visit with them and take some photos.

Icelandic horse
Icelandic horse
Icelandic horse
Icelandic horse
Icelandic horse
Icelandic horse
Icelandic horse
Icelandic horse

We continue bouncing down this dirt road, seeing Iceland’s usual grand views spread out before us.

scenery along the route to Keldur
scenery along the route to Keldur
Icelandic views
Icelandic views

We arrive at Keldur and park our car, walking past a picturesque stream and what looks like an ice house.

at the entrance to Keldur
at the entrance to Keldur
farm at Keldur
farm at Keldur
icehouse at Keldur
icehouse at Keldur

Keldur is the site of a unique cluster of turf farm buildings from bygone centuries.  Most of the buildings date from the 19th century, although they include timber from older structures, some with decorative moldings. A sill in the hall, for instance, is carved with the date 1641.  A tunnel which leads from the hall down to the brook has been excavated; it was probably built for defensive purposes in the 11th-13th century, a period of conflict and unrest in Iceland.

Keldur
Keldur

Keldur and its inhabitants make appearances in various Old Icelandic sagas, such as Njáls saga, Sturfunga Saga and the Saga of St Þorlákr. The farmhouse was inhabited until 1946, since when it has been part of the National Museum Historic Buildings Collection.  The farmhouse contains domestic articles from the Keldur family.

Church at Keldur
Church at Keldur
turf houses at Keldur
turf houses at Keldur
church at Keldur
church at Keldur
cemetery at Keldur
cemetery at Keldur
turf houses
turf houses
turf house at Keldur
turf house at Keldur
Mike at the Keldur church
Mike at the Keldur church

After completing the loop that brings us back to the Ring Road, we stop to enjoy our last Icelandic gas station hot dogs.

me eating a hot dog at a gas station along the Ring Road
me eating a hot dog at a gas station along the Ring Road

The rest of our drive back to Reykjavik is uneventful except for one stop to wash off all the gravel and volcanic ash that coats the underbelly and wheels of our little red VW Polo rental car.

southwest iceland: drangshlíð, eyjafjallajökull & seljalandfoss

Wednesday, August 24:  At the Hotel Vik, our room with its volcano pebble floor has a small terrace that we can see out the window.  That terrace came at an additional cost, but we had no choice; it was the only room available in Vik when we booked our holiday. In an attempt to go out to this terrace, we have taken turns wrestling with the key in the lock to no avail; the door has been almost perpetually stuck.  Mike did manage to get out there one or two times, mainly to put our beers outside to chill, and to retrieve them, but other times, we’ve been frustrated by that doggone lock.  I suppose it doesn’t matter: the inaccessible terrace offers a questionable view of the back of a neighboring building and a sloping hill piled with a jumble of junk.  It’s also been too cold and windy to sit out there.

This morning, as we prepare to check out of the hotel, we are finally able to unlock it and walk out for a moment. I wonder if all that struggle was worth it.

the balcony at the Puffin Hotel
the balcony at the Puffin Hotel

We take off for our final day in Iceland and our last leg of the Ring Road.  We’re heading back to Reykjavik, but we plan to see several places along the way.  We fly out early tomorrow morning, our too-short trip coming to an end.  Below are some of the views as we leave Vik.

view along the Ring Road
view along the Ring Road
Ring Road views
Ring Road views

We happen upon the sight of a few turf-roofed buildings tucked up into a tuff rock formation, Drangurinn, and we quickly pull off to explore. According to a sign on the property, these are the old houses of Drangshlíð 2.

Drangurinn in Drangshlíð
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð

Drangurinn stands alone underneath Drangshlíð farm in the foothills of Eyjafjöll.  A folktale tells of a strongman named Grettir Ásmundsson who was showing off and ripped the giant boulder right out of Hrútafell cliff, leaving a chasm which is now above Skarðshlíð. Under these rocks are caves and passages to which additional buildings have been added throughout the centuries. Most of them are still standing. These buildings are a good example of what is called ‘fornmannahús’ or ancient habitations, according to Katla Geopark: Drangurinn í Drangshlíð.

Drangshlíð
Drangshlíð
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð

If you’d like to know more about the folklore surrounding these cow sheds and turf buildings, you can check out this post:  Guide to Iceland: Drangshlíð Rock and the Elves in South-Iceland, by an Icelandic native.

Drangurinn in Drangshlíð
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð

We are delighted to have stumbled across these old abodes.

Drangurinn in Drangshlíð
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð
Drangurinn
Drangurinn
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð
Drangurinn in Drangshlíð

As we continue our drive, we come to a pull-off where people are looking toward a glacier and a farm.  We find from a sign at the parking lot that this is Þorvaldseyri, a farm that sits at the foot of the glacier-topped volcano Eyjafjallajökull; it was impacted by the volcano’s explosion in April 2010.  The farm has been in the same family since 1906. Though mainly a milk and cattle farm, since 1960, it has become noted for grain crops, not usually found in the sub-Arctic.  They also produce canola oil and electricity for the farm, which comes from its own hydro-generator and hot water at 66°C.

Þorvaldseyri with Eyjafjallajökull behind
Þorvaldseyri with Eyjafjallajökull behind

Following several small eruptions in March 2010 and after a brief pause, Eyjafjallajökull resumed erupting on 14 April 2010, this time from the top crater in the center of the glacier, causing jökulhlaup, or glacial outburst floods, to rush down the nearby rivers. Over 800 people had to be evacuated.  This eruption was explosive, due to meltwater getting into the volcanic vent. This second eruption threw volcanic ash several kilometers up in the atmosphere, which led to air travel disruption in northwest Europe for six days from 15 April to 21 April 2010 and again, in May 2010.  By August 2010, the volcano was considered dormant (Wikipedia: Eyjafjallajökull).

Þorvaldseyri
Þorvaldseyri

On April 14, 2011, the Þorvaldseyri Visitor Centre was opened near here, one year after the start of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption.  The dramatic 20-minute film is fabulous; it shows the spectacular eruption and the hectic times and incredible challenges met by the family at Þorvaldseyri, as they struggled to save their farm during the six-week-long eruption; it also shows what life is like living at the foot of an active volcano.

Þorvaldseyri
Þorvaldseyri
The Eyjafjallajökull eruption
The Eyjafjallajökull eruption

Driving further west along the Ring Road, we come to Seljalandsfoss, known for its slippery path that runs around the back of the waterfall.  As this waterfall is near Reykjavik, it is quite crowded.

crowds at Seljalandsfoss
crowds at Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
behind Seljalandsfoss
behind Seljalandsfoss
behind Seljalandsfoss
behind Seljalandsfoss
behind Seljalandsfoss
behind Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss

It’s hard to stay dry on this path behind the waterfall.

the pathway behind the waterfall
the pathway behind the waterfall
the pathway behind the waterfall
the pathway behind the waterfall
Mike at Seljalandsfoss
Mike at Seljalandsfoss

Not very surefooted, I’m wary of these rocky and very slippery walkways.  I don’t take lightly the little sign showing a person falling, and when Mike wants me to pose in front of the waterfall, I opt to stand far from the edge.

me at Seljalandsfoss
me at Seljalandsfoss

After visiting the waterfall, we take a short drive down the dirt road to look for a place to use the natural facilities, as the porta-potties at Seljalandsfoss now have a huge line.

view near Seljalandsfoss
view near Seljalandsfoss
southwest Iceland
southwest Iceland

Back in the car again, we are heading to another medieval turf-roofed farm at Keldur.  We’re also hoping to find a place where we can go horseback riding. I have wanted to do this our whole time in Iceland.  This is our last day, so if we don’t do it this trip, we’ll simply have to come back!

 

southwest iceland: skógafoss to dyrhólaey, and back to vik

Tuesday, August 23:  At the western edge of Skógar, the beautiful 62m-high waterfall Skógafoss tumbles over moss-engulfed cliffs in a striking display.   Because of the mist from the waterfall, on sunny days there is often a double or single rainbow.  Today, we find a beautiful single rainbow at the waterfall’s base.

Skógafoss with rainbow
Skógafoss with rainbow
Mike at Skógafoss
Mike at Skógafoss

According to legend, the first Viking settler in the area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a chest of gold in a cave behind the waterfall, where it would be hard to reach. When three local men attempted to retrieve the chest years later, they placed a hook in an iron ring on the side of the chest.  They pulled hard, but the chest was so heavy the iron ring came loose and the mission was aborted. The ring was placed on the door of the church in Skógar and can now be found in the Skógar Folk Museum (from a placard at the waterfall).

Skógafoss
Skógafoss
Skógafoss
Skógafoss
Skógafoss
Skógafoss

We can’t resist climbing up the trekking trail on the eastern side of the waterfall.  It’s a steep climb, but as we rise above the plain, we have some fabulous views to the south and southeast.

view from the path up to Skógafoss
view from the path up to Skógafoss

As we reach the crest of the cliffs, we find the Skógá River rushing over the sharp rocky edge.

Skógafoss
Skógafoss

From the top, we can see the Skógá River as it makes its way to the North Atlantic Ocean.

the view from Skógafoss
the view from Skógafoss

At the top, there is a line of people gingerly crossing over a steep stile.  We’re at such a dizzying height here, that we have to hold tightly to keep from blowing away and toppling down the cliff.

above Skógafoss
above Skógafoss

We see from the top that the trail continues indefinitely, up and over increasingly higher mountains.  Apparently the Skógar cliffs create a clear border between the coastal lowlands and the Highlands of Iceland.  There are quite a few trekkers up here, hardy souls with camping gear on their backs.

the Skógá River
the Skógá River

This is one of the treks I would love to do someday.  The route between Skógar and Þórsmörk goes through the pass Fimmvörðuháls, which winds between the glaciers Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.  This is one of the most popular walking routes in Iceland, despite being 22km (14 mi) long and involving 1,000m (3,300 ft) of climbing. The route from Skógar is particularly beautiful, as numerous waterfalls are passed along the way. The route is only accessible between mid-June and late-August. On the night of 16 May 1970, three travelers died in the mountain pass in a snowstorm (Wikipedia: Fimmvörðuháls).

I’ve seen photos of this hike and it looks absolutely magnificent!  It’s on my bucket list for a return trip, but we’ll have to be suitably geared up to camp and carry our belongings on our back.

This famous route continues as the famous Laugavegur trekking route to the hot springs of Landmannalaugar. It is noted for the wide variety of landscapes on its 55 km (34 mi) path. The route is typically completed over 2–4 days with potential stops at various mountain huts (Wikipedia: Laugavegur).

Skógá River
Skógá River

At this waterfall above Skógafoss, numerous photographers are scrambling down the rocks with tripods in hand.  It looks like a risky undertaking to climb down these precipitous banks!  But they seem determined to get those photos at all costs.

Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River
Mike at the Skógá River
Mike at the Skógá River
me at the Skógá River
me at the Skógá River
Skógá River
Skógá River

As we walk back to the cliff edge, we stand in a long line again to climb over the steep and rickety stile. It was difficult enough to get over it as we climbed uphill, but it’s looking even more scary going downhill.  This one narrow stile must be shared by uphill and downhill hikers, and it’s slow going.  People seem a little apprehensive going over it. Admittedly, I’m a little nervous about it myself!  While in line, we meet two young ladies who look exhausted.  They say they’ve hiked 25km since 7 a.m. They are looking forward to setting up their tents in the campground at the base of Skógafoss.

On our way back to Vik, we decide to stop once again at Dyrhólaey, since we didn’t get a proper view of it this morning.  By this time it’s 5:00 pm, and the wind has whipped up to a ferocious frenzy.  I push the car door open against the tempest and stumble down a couple of paths to take pictures, while Mike stays in the car with the heater on.  I have never felt such a strong wind!  It goes through my jacket, the layers underneath, my skin and even my bones!  I fear it will lift me and carry me away over the black sand beach all the way to Reynisfjara, which I can see in the distance.

Dyrhólaey
Dyrhólaey
atop Dyrhólaey
atop Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
windswept views
windswept views
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
view from Dyrhólaey
looking west from Dyrhólaey
looking west from Dyrhólaey

After getting my fill of views and sea squalls, I hop back in the car, which luckily Mike has kept cozily warm.  Though we have both become sick during this trip, Mike is taking care of himself, while I continue to push myself, despite a bad cough and cold. Little do I know how much I’ll regret this later.

We return to Vik and the Hotel Puffin, where we have slightly cooled beers in our room.  Mike had put them out on our “balcony” earlier, hoping that the cold winds would keep them chilled, but I guess the wind didn’t get to them.  Then we go to dinner at Suður-Vík, a restaurant with wood floors and a friendly ambiance.

me at Suður-Vík
me at Suður-Vík

We share a salad with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta cheese and a delicious asparagus soup, although the soups don’t ever seem to be hot here.

salad with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta cheese
salad with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and feta cheese
asparagus soup
asparagus soup

Then we share a pizza with mushroom, paprika, olives, onion and sun-dried tomato.  For dessert, we have a warm apple pie with Fossis ice cream.  It’s all delicious.

pizza with mushroom, paprika, olives, onion and sun-dried tomato
pizza with mushroom, paprika, olives, onion and sun-dried tomato

Tomorrow, we will head back to Reykjavik.  It will be our last full day in Iceland.  Though we’re both miserably sick, I’m still not ready to go home!

Today: 16,109 steps, or 6.83 miles.

southwest iceland: skógar folk museum

Tuesday, August 23:  By the time we leave the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue, it’s close to 2:00.  There is still so much to see, and daylight hours are running out!   We head west on the Ring Road until we come to the Skógar Folk Museum.  The museum preserves the cultural heritage of the Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla region in the form of  old buildings, tools and equipment used at land and sea, crafts, books, manuscripts and documents.

We stop in briefly at the Museum of Transport to get a map, and then we head out onto the grounds, where we find the Skógar Church & the Skal Farm.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Skógar Church & Skal Farm

On our way, we see the landscape of Skógar with the Turf Farm in the foreground.

the back of the Turf Farm
the back of the Turf Farm

Consecrated in 1998, the Skógar Church at the Folk Museum boasts a new exterior, but inside it uses remnants of older churches, in the style that predominated Iceland from the Middle Ages to the 19th century.  The windows are from the Church of Gröf, 1898. Bells date from 1600 and 1742.

Skógar Church
Skógar Church

All church furnishings date from the 17th and 18th centuries.  It preserves the original interior of the church of Kálholt, built in 1879. The altarpiece is from Ásólfsskáli Church (1768) and chandeliers from Steinar Church and Skógar Church (16th century). (Pamphlet – Skógar Folk Museum).

Inside Skógar Church
Inside Skógar Church

The Farmhouse from Skál, Síða, was built in 1919-20; it was reconstructed at Skógar Museum in 1989. The house was lived in until 1970.

Skal Farm
Skal Farm

Baðstofa, the communal room where the household slept, ate and worked, was built over the cattle shed to benefit from the warmth of the animals.  The kitchen and parlor are in the front section of the house. The storehouse, from Gröf, Skaftártunga, dates from about 1870 (Pamphlet – Skógar Folk Museum).

I love how the house takes up so little space yet offers community and warmth in this cold climate.

The House of Holt was built entirely of driftwood in 1878 by the Regional Commissioner. It was the first timber house in Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla. The wall panels in the west room are from the wreck of the hospital ship St. Paul, from 1899.  The house was lived in until 1974 and rebuilt at Skógar in 1980 (Pamphlet – Skógar Folk Museum).

House of Holt
House of Holt
The grounds of the folk museum
The grounds of the folk museum

The Schoolhouse is from Litli-Hvammur, Mýrdalur, built in 1901.  It was reconstructed at Skógar in 1999-2000.

The Old Schoolhouse
The Old Schoolhouse

In the Turf Farmhouse, the parlor dates from 1896, bedroom from 1838, pantry from about 1850, kitchen from about 1880, baðstofa (communal room where the household slept, ate and worked) from 1895, storehouse from 1830, cattle shed from about 1880, smithy from about 1950 (Pamphlet – Skógar Folk Museum).

The Turf Farm
The Turf Farm

In these buildings, we can see how the people of Iceland lived in past times.

The Turf Farm
The Turf Farm
The Turf Farm
The Turf Farm
bedroom inside the Turf Farm
bedroom inside the Turf Farm

After the Turf Farm, we go into the Museum Building, opened in 1949.  Its first permanent building was built in 1954-1955 and enlarged in 1989-1994.  One man, Þórður Tómasson, collected the artifacts and the houses of the open-air museum over 75 years.  Today, the museum has 15,000 regional folk craft artifacts exhibited in three museums and six historical buildings.

Bed-boards were first used in the 17th century.  The board was placed at the side of the bed during the night.  As beds were usually shared by more than one person, they were crowded, and the bed-board ensured that no one fell out of bed.  In the communal living, sleeping and working room, there was no heating but body heat.  During the day, the bed-board was removed and the bed was used as seating.  Bed-boards were often carved with the owner’s initials, a date or a prayer, in ornamental “head lettering.”

bed-boards
bed-boards

In the museum’s Maritime Hall is the fishing boat Pétursey, built in 1855 and in use until 1946.  The hull’s design conformed with conditions on the south coast: with no harbors or moorages, boats had to be launched straight out into the open waves of the ocean, beached on return.

The fishing-boat Pétursey in the Maritime Hall
The fishing-boat Pétursey in the Maritime Hall
The fishing-boat Pétursey
The fishing-boat Pétursey

On the north wall are various kinds of fishing gear, examples of how whalebone was used, and equipment for transporting the fish catch home from the shore.

The Maritime Hall
The Maritime Hall
saddles
saddles
Icelandic dresses
Icelandic dresses
tapestry
tapestry

In the south loft are large chests carved by renowned craftsman Ólafur Þórarinsson (1768-1840).

display in the Folk Museum
display in the Folk Museum

There are many displays of saddles, metalwork in brass and copper from riding gear.

saddle display
saddle display
painting and creatures
painting and creatures

The Natural History collection was donated by a private collector in Reykjavik and includes birds, eggs, insects, plants and rocks.

Eggs
Eggs
Arctic Fox
Arctic Fox

Since I was unable to get up close and personal to a puffin at Reynisfjara, I’m excited to find one here in the museum.

Puffin
Puffin
Oystercatcher
Oystercatcher

After our walk around this fantastic museum, we head to the waterfall Skógafoss, where we’ll find gold at the end of a rainbow. 🙂

southwest iceland: dyrhólaey to the sólheimajökull glacier tongue

Tuesday, August 23:  After leaving the black sand beach and the puffin colony at Reynisfjara, and after stopping back in Vik so Mike can change his wet shoes, socks and jeans, we drive down Route 218 to visit Dyrhólaey, a rocky plateau with a huge stone sea arch.

A frigid and tempestuous wind nearly picks us up and carries us away when we get out of the car here.  It’s not an atmosphere conducive to lingering.

Dyrhólaey
Dyrhólaey

We can’t stay long here anyway because I suddenly have the urge to pee and there isn’t a restroom to be found anywhere!  It’s rather an emergency and I ask Mike to find me a hidden area where I can stop, but no place is hidden. Every possible stop is out in plain view.  I tell him we’re going to have to go back up the road to look for a spot.  It seems we are looking forever.

Dyrhólaey
Dyrhólaey

Finally, we find a dirt road and head down it.  I can at least find a hiding place behind the big rock jutting up from the plain.

This is one of the big problems one encounters traveling in Iceland.  Facilities are sparse.  Though a gorgeous place to visit on holiday, the country is simply not equipped to handle the large numbers of tourists comfortably.

scene along Rt. 218
scene along Rt. 218

On this dirt road, we happen upon the cave Loftsalahellir, used for council meetings in saga times.  However, we don’t climb up to it as we have a lot of other places we want to see today.

Loftsalahellir Cave
Loftsalahellir Cave

Some cows rumble by, mooing and heaving, as we make our way back to the Ring Road.

strolling cows
strolling cows
on a mission
on a mission
bursting at the seams
bursting at the seams

Back on the Ring Road, we continue west and pull off the main road to follow a 4.2km rutted dirt track (Route 221) to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue.  On the way, we spot a pretty rainbow over the desolate landscape.

a rainbow on the drive to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
a rainbow on the drive to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

We park in the crowded car park and begin our hike to the glacier tongue.  We first wander through a mossy landscape and then pass groups of people gearing up to hike atop the glacier.

hike to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
hike to the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

As we hike to the glacier, the fickle sky spits rain and then clears intermittently, offering a few rays of sunshine.

mossy environs
mossy environs
hike to the glacier
hike to the glacier

We see the glacier tongue ahead and though there are signs warning us not to go too close, we figure we’ll go as far as other people are going.  Of course we won’t climb on the glacier itself because we haven’t signed up for a guided tour.  I can’t help but wonder how the guides know with certainty about the safety of the glacier.  It seems that the glaciers are alive, shifting and heaving, melting and changing.  How can anyone know what is safe and what isn’t?

Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

A beautiful canyon on the other side of the lagoon entices us, but there is no way to get to it.  Sunlight paints the mossy mountainsides in glowing chartreuse.

Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

We pass a guide instructing a group about safety measures as they gear up with helmets and other equipment.

Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

If you look closely at the glacier in the photo below, you can see a couple groups of glacier walkers climbing the face.

Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
backlit glacier
backlit glacier
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue
Sólheimajökull glacier tongue

I am always pretty cautious in places that having warning signs.  The sign here reads: Warning: The glacier can be dangerous.  Please do not go out onto the glacier without proper equipment and knowledge, preferably accompanied by a glacier guide.

I’m ready to stop right here, but we see other people going up to the glacier’s face and Mike wants to continue on.  I follow hesitantly.

Warning sign
Warning sign
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull

We get as close as we can to the glacier without going on it.  We can see various groups of people climbing the glacier and on top of the glacier.  Obviously, we could have signed up for a glacier walk, but we didn’t.  Now, seeing hikers atop this towering glacier, I feel relieved we didn’t try to do this.

Sólheimajökull melts into a lagoon bounded by piles of rocks and black sand. We wander around, enjoying solid ground underfoot.  I’m happy enough to stay earthbound.

Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
me at Sólheimajökull
me at Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull

As the sun comes out and the skies turn blue with smatterings of clouds, we make our way back to the car park.

Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull
Sólheimajökull

In the car park, we eat a cheese and turkey sandwich for our lunch, and then we continue west on the Ring Road.  Our next stop will be the Skógar Folk Museum.

south iceland: exploring around vik

Tuesday, August 23:  We have an expansive breakfast at the Puffin Hotel and then take a walk down to the black sand beach, where we can see Vik’s iconic cluster of basalt sea stacks, Reynisdrangur.

Monument in Vik
Monument in Vik

Legend says that the stacks originated when two trolls dragged a three-masted ship to land unsuccessfully and when daylight broke they became needles of rock (Wikipedia: Reynisdrangar).  Other legends say they’re trolls that got caught out in the sun (Lonely Planet Iceland).

The large ridge at the western end of the beach is Reynisfjall ridge, and though it’s possible to climb up to the top, we don’t do it, as we have a lot to squeeze in today.

Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
cairns
cairns
the beach at Vik
the beach at Vik
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Vik
Vik

We drive up to a hill overlooking the town, where we find Vik’s 1930s church, Vikurkirkja, and wonderful views of the town and Reynisfjall.

Vikurkirkja
Vikurkirkja
Vikurkirkja
Vikurkirkja

A fishing company started operations here in 1876, despite the difficulty in docking a boat since Vik has no harbor.  The fishing operations died out mostly with the originators, but people did sail from Vik intermittently, well into the 20th century.  In 1884 the first goods were shipped to the beach at Vik, marking the start of commerce. It became a certified market town in 1887. Eventually the town became the main point of commerce for Vestur-Skaftafellssýsla County.

view from Vikurkirkja
view from Vikurkirkja

In 1905, the town had 80 residents and new jobs were created.  For the first time, the town had registered residents that included a teacher, organist, photographer, three cobblers, doctor, priest, magistrate, foreman, goldsmith, saddler and postman. Clearly the first two decades of the 20th century were a period of great improvement for the county.  The Surgeon General of Iceland said that progress was “tearing everything apart at the seams” in the county.  The slaughter of sheep started in Vik, the first two electric generators were built in the county and a phone was installed in the town.

view of Vik from Vikurkirkja
view of Vik from Vikurkirkja

During the 1920s, the town seemed to be filling with people and there were 317 residents by 1925.  Residents then started to decline and the town started to make its name in Icelandic society as a sparse village whose population did not increase in proportion with national increases.  Autos became more popular and by 1930, there were about 15-16 cars in the county, creating jobs in transporting people and fixing automobiles.  The depression brought unemployment and lean times, although the tide turned by 1941. In 1941, the one shipping vessel was replaced with automobiles, as most of the largest waterways had been bridged.

Vik from Vikurkirkja
Vik from Vikurkirkja

Vik’s population reached its maximum in 1974 with 384 residents.  In recent years, the population has been just under 300 people who work in a variety of jobs in industry, agriculture, health care, tourism and more.

view of Reynisfjall ridge from Vikurkirkja
view of Reynisfjall ridge from Vikurkirkja
view of Reynisfjall ridge from Vikurkirkja
view of Reynisfjall ridge from Vikurkirkja

After leaving Vikurkirkja, we drive along the west side of Reynisfjall ridge, where we see sheep dotting the hillsides.

sheep on Reynisfjall ridge
sheep on Reynisfjall ridge
sheep dotting the slopes
sheep dotting the slopes

We park at the black sand beach at Reynisfjara, where we can see in the distance one of the south coast’s most recognizable natural formations, the rocky plateau and stone sea arch at Dyrhólaey.

black sand beach at Reynisfjara
black sand beach at Reynisfjara

We walk in the direction of the sea stacks, where people are wandering about in droves near the stack of basalt columns that look like a church organ.

Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara

In the grassy areas above the sea columns and around the caves carved out of the cliffs, we can see the puffin colonies for which Vik is famous.  In the following pictures, you can barely make out the white puffin dots in the green moss.

puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara

We love watching the puffins with their bright orange feet and their wings flapping like the first flights of the Wright brothers. I adore the puffins!

puffins at Reynisfjara
puffins at Reynisfjara
puffin colony at Reynisfjara
puffin colony at Reynisfjara

Some parts of the beach are black sand, while other parts are volcanic rock or pebbles.

black pebble beach of Reynisfjara
black pebble beach of Reynisfjara

We get another view of the iconic sea stacks Reynisdrangur from the west side.

Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur
the North Atlantic Ocean
the North Atlantic Ocean

The waves are inconsistent, some of them bursting surprisingly high on the shore.  Mike warns a woman to move before she gets her feet soaked by a rogue wave.  Then, while he’s focusing on taking a picture, a sprightly wave sweeps over his feet, soaking his shoes and the bottoms of his jeans.

Reynisdrangur
Reynisdrangur

We make our way back to the parking lot; Mike is now annoyed that he’s gotten his feet wet at the beginning of our day.  We’re luckily not far from Vik, so we’ll have to head back to our hotel for him to change his socks, shoes and pants.

Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara
Reynisfjara

We walk a little to the west on the beach to get a view of Dyrhólaey.

view of Dyrhólaey from Reynisfjara
view of Dyrhólaey from Reynisfjara
view of Dyrhólaey from Reynisfjara
view of Dyrhólaey from Reynisfjara

As we’re driving north on Route 215, we make a quick stop at the little church of Reyniskirkja.

Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja
Reyniskirkja

It doesn’t take long to get back to Vik, where we go into the hotel for Mike to change.

Puffin Hotel in Vik
Puffin Hotel in Vik
Puffin Hotel
Puffin Hotel

Then, we’re on our way to Dyrhólaey.