Friday, June 3, 2016

Thingvellir National Park - Iceland

This year we (once again) explored the surreal landscapes of Iceland. On a drizzly, foggy day we ventured into the wilds of Thingviller National Park. As the name suggests, it was the site of the historic meetings, but it is also a spot well renowned for it's natural beauty.

Through the middle of the park, and running into the bottom of the large lake, is the seam between the North American and Eurasian crustal plates. The chasm plummets underwater more than 50m, and with a good wetsuit it is possible to swim between two continents.

Even in the fog we went looking for new vantage points, and climbed an extremely steep ( I live in the Rocky Mountains, this road was the steepest I've ever seen!) road up and over a volcanic range. The tops of the mountains were an alien landscape, the road dipped and turned sharply to move between the lava crags. A carpet of tundra grasses and moss clung to the black and red stone.

Hiking trails snaked along the peaks, with lots of snow lingering. We could see that people take skis here in the winter, as well as some kind of tracked vehicles. The snow banks kept us from going too far into the wilds.

Descending into the valley again, we saw huge plumes of steam rising into the clouds. We had followed, up and down this mad road, a large grey pipe that snaked and turned over the stones, occasionally dipping underground. We discovered the source - A massive hot springs that supplies all of the hot water for the city of Reykjavik. All the showers, dishwashing, even radiator heating in the city is supplied by this pipe!

Also, we stopped and had a bite and some beers at Ion Hotel. The food was great and the view was amazing from their lounge! Staying there might be a bit rich for many folks, but it's worthwhile to enjoy a cocktail!

We continued around the lake, the clouds rising and falling. The landscape is rolling fields of lava rock, and small pastures and fields, punctuated by steep sloped berms of old flows eroding. This early in the spring it's covered in the otherworldly green moss, and the tough grasses and willows in pale yellow and rust red.

We then came to the space between worlds - Thingviller itself! A river meanders across the broad rift valley and heads for the old church, and the lake beyond. Within an impressive canyon, created by the splitting of the rock instead of the passage of water, a creek flows and then falls to the valley floor. This place was historically the site of the Althing, or great meeting.

The icelanders began meeting in this area in 930 and it grew to be a very important spot. There was adequate water and forage in the area for the horses of all the visitors, and space for tents as well. It was somewhat central to the most settled parts of the island as well. But the most important, and impressive feature is the natural amphitheater that allows one to speak to a large crowd without amplification.

From August 2012, notice how much greener it was!

The purpose of an this Althing, was to elect a lawspeaker. That lawspeaker would be someone respected in the community and trusted by the folks there. They would then recite the laws that everyone was to follow for the following year. Thus, if a change was needed in this law code it would be made.

So this, the oldest parliament in the world, was the site of the only peaceable conversion of a nation in Europe.  In 1000 , after much stirring up and agitation by Norwegian representatives, it was decided that the nation would all convert to Christianity. The reasoning was that it was impractical and unfair to have two sets of laws governing those of different religions. However, many old practices that were taboo to Christians were allowed to continue in order to ease the transition. This allowed for considerable tradition and folklore to survive long enough to be recorded. And, of course, there were some holdouts who resisted the change, moved to the Westfjords, and continued to practice the old ways...

From August 2012, notice how much greener it was!

Gotland's Limestone Beaches

 On one of our first evenings in Gotland we went to a beach. Really, since it's an island, most of it is coast line. But, we're staying near the center of the island, so we had to make the arduous drive of 10-15 minutes...

The Baltic is supposedly a small, calm sea. But for a landlubber like myself the endless expanse to the horizon is impressive, and the small waves breaking are enough to make me wary of wandering out too far!

Also, that water? Fucking cold. Not like, nice on a hot day cool, simply freakin' cold.

But those waves, even if they aren't a pounding Pacific surf, have carved the cliffs and sea stacks around the island. Millenniums of ocean breezes and tides have shaped impressive drops and limestone pillars.
Further inland the old sea stacks are covered by moss and vines, and at a glance they might trick you into thinking that they are man made ruins.
Millions of years ago the stones of these cliffs were lain down in a shallow sea, layers of coral reef limestone and shale. As the sea slowly reclaims them she pulls out bit and pieces of old life - fossils. All over the beach were a mix of stones, the pale grey and white of limestone and fossils, dark stones from bands of contrasting stone, red granite bits dragged by glaciers from the far north and dropped on top of the island.
 More posts about our lovely trip here on Gotland are coming! (And no, I didn't forget about Iceland, that posts is just shaping up to be a little longer...)

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Salpa Line Open Air Museum

This is the last of my posts (maybe) about our 2015 trip to Finland, read more here.
 Our last big stop in Finland was the Salpa Line Museum. A portion of a very long string of fortifications intended as a defense against possible Soviet incursions. The swampy lake filled north of Finland offered sufficient natural obstacles, but a very long line of trenches and tank traps were built in the southern part of the border.

Most of the line was left to return to nature, and a hiking trail follows its length. In this spot, however, a few large fortifications remain, and the trenches were shored up. The museum has had to rebuild the wooden retaining walls more than once, a testament to the wet climate.

 There were several underground cement bunkers, some were spotting and gunner posts, one was equipped with a major anti-tank weapon.

All were cunningly hidden in the landscape, and of course 70 years of moss and lichen would obscure them completely without caretakers.

One was a living quarter, with small bunks, a stove, and privy. It even had blast doors to seal one's self in, and grenade tubes for tossing out into enemy-filled hallways.

 Down a steep and slippery staircase was an almost working gun (presumably firing pins and such were removed). It had an impressive sighting mechanism, cranks to move it up and down or side to side, and a simple compass drawn on the hood in order to communicate to other positions.

 Mr. Crafty and I played with it for rather a long time...

In addition to these larger permanent bunkers there were the remains of several small gunner positions. These would be buried, of course.

The actual tank fortifications were these teeth like rows of large stones. They were quarried nearby and made into long rows to funnel tanks into bottlenecks at the roads. There were also ditches dug, with a sloping side and a drop off, to flip over tanks that tried to cross them. 

 The tank in question, a common Soviet model. Nicely placed so all the gun stations could practice pointing at it!

 A slightly camouflaged gun, further up the road. presumably useful if the first lines of defense did not stop the advance.
 And the big gun! You can see, in this photo, the on-and-off rain we enjoyed all day while walking around. We got slightly soggy, but still had a wonderful time. Even those less interested in the militaria (me!) could enjoy the lovely forest, and walk along the trench lines eating blueberries.
Alright, I think I'm mostly caught up on the last trip *phew* Now, let's get back to this year's adventure!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Reykjavik Street Art

 All throughout Reykjavik are buildings, walls, fences, and electrical boxes adorned with all manner of artistic expression.
 From the hastily scrawled "tag", to the homeowner's DIY design, to the fine artists' fantastical expressions.
 Some are deeply thought and finely designed, others are simple and fun. Some may be social or political commentary.
 But the bright colors and bold designs give the already colorful city an exciting aura, and walking the city center has an air of discovery. Each building can host a hidden image, each garden has decorative pieces, even the sidewalks in some places are adorned.

 Travel blogs have begun! Look for more posts from Iceland and Sweden in the coming weeks!