Golden Circle in Iceland, pt. 1: Þingvellir, Kerið & Icelandic Horse Buddies

So, I turned thirty in February. THIRTY years on this planet. My budding age crisis was, however, swiftly banished when my mother decided to gift me with a free trip to Iceland! There were only two conditions: 1) I would handle all travel arrangements based on a specific budget and 2) Mum would get to join me on the trip. Clearly an offer I couldn’t refuse.

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On board Icelandair we saw the (unfortunately) only “northern lights” of the trip projected on the ceiling of the cabin. Such an amazing idea for the branding of the plane! Somebody please give this designer a biscuit or two. :)

On the first night we didn’t have much time for anything other than getting settled at our guesthouse (Sunna Guesthouse) and gawking at the exorbitant prices at the shops. Of course almost every article ever written on Iceland warns tourists of the high costs, but it is hard to fully appreciate just how high those prices can be until you’re already there, desperately clutching at your poor wallet. Even though this time I didn’t have to dip into my own pockets, I could still feel cold sweat running down my spine whenever I caught a glimpse of the price tags of our snacks. It might be a good idea for every Iceland traveller to bring their own paper bag in which to breathe, for all those times when panic sets in at the cash register.

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Route

The next morning we grabbed an excellent rental car from Thrifty and finally got to the point: there is a good reason why the Golden Circle is on nearly every tourist’s bucket list when they first visit Iceland. There are so many natural wonders and other sights by the ring road that it is virtually impossible to see them all in one day, so you have to pick and choose. Usually the route is driven clockwise as a full circle, but our itinerary looked more like a lasso on the map. We wanted to end the day with a soak at the Laugarvatn Fontana Spa, so it took some extra work to figure out the logistics. Special thanks to Google: couldn’t have done it without the offline maps!

1. Þingvellir National Park

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Þingvellir was once the centre of Iceland, and it is also where the country was declared independent in 1944. The national park is located where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, and the bravest visitors are offered a chance to dive in the Silfra fissure between the plates. We were content with a leisurely walk on dry land – it was already challenging enough to avoid bumping into busloads of other tourists, even though our visit was still well outside high season. Entrance to the park is free, but parking next to the Tourist Info costs 500 ISK – free parking seemed to be possible a bit further away.

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2. The Crater Lake Kerið

IMG_2510For scale: spot a bus and a group of people in the upper left corner of the photo

The most basic Golden Circle itinerary only contains the three giants: Þingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss. But Kerið is not to be missed! For 450 ISK, you get to step right to the edge of the crater. Our first view of the lake was slightly disappointing: it looked like a sad, brown puddle from the viewpoint right next to the parking lot. Fortunately we had the good sense to walk around the whole crater: the lake changes colour based on weather and light conditions! The walk only took us a maximum of fifteen minutes, during which we got to experience dry weather, rain, a hail shower and sunshine. As Icelanders like to say: if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes. Extremely accurate.

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3. The Gentle Beasts

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My whole adult life I’ve thought of horses as murderous beasts just waiting for a chance to strike me. Then I met these two sympathetic fellows who turned my world upside down. While driving the Golden Circle, you can see horses everywhere. I was only planning to snap a nice photo of them from a safe distance and quickly return to the car, but as soon as the horses saw me swinging my camera around, they came over to the fence to make a new friend. I plucked up all my courage and pet them on the nose, half expecting them to bite off my arm and neigh maliciously afterwards. I managed to avoid such horror scenarios and also rid myself of one phobia, at least momentarily.

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IMG_2548Wait… So you didn’t bring us any snacks?

More on Iceland:

Golden Circle in Iceland, pt. 2

Long Weekend in Prague, Day 3: Old Town Square & John Lennon Wall

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On Monday, we had already started to run out of steam a little, but fortunately many of the “must-sees” had already been ticked off the list. We kicked off the day by saying hello to the adorable baby hippo napping in the photo above, but the rest of the zoo visit was kept short. Once again, we ended up wandering around the city before our return flight in the evening.

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Travelling with Redds has always been smooth. However, when we were trying to get to the Old Town Square, feeling hot and hungry, “guided” by a deplorable map full of ads, we both came extremely close to losing our temper. There’s always a first, I suppose! These photos don’t do any justice to the stunning buildings around the square at all. In the end, we both agreed that the impressive sights were completely worth the brief stint of frustration.

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The previous night, we had already caught a glimpse of the John Lennon wall by the Charles Bridge. On Monday, we wanted to see the wall better in daylight. Lennon-related texts and images first started to appear on the wall in the 80s, right after he was murdered. At first, the local authorities tried to keep the wall clear of graffiti, but eventually they gave up and graffiti took over. Over the years, the messages have evolved to encompass a more general philosophy of love and peace. The wall keeps on transforming, as new art slowly covers the old.

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What better way to end a trip than heeding advice from an organic collection of wisdom and inspiration. As a cherry on top, I also got to squeeze the adorable Mole back at the airport. Try to guess which one of the dozens of drool stains is mine!

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(Trick question: all of them!)

Long Weekend in Prague, Day 2: Crowds, Treats & Jazz

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Our second day began in a very touristy manner as we followed the crowds to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. Long before the giant Gothic cathedral opened its doors, queues had started to form around the building. While some might find joint sweating a delightful group activity, Redds and I are no such people. We didn’t even try to catch a glimpse of the interiors, but instead settled for a stroll around the outdoor spaces.

IMG_2049Illuminati strikes again! Can you spot the Pokéball pattern on the windows?

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I almost felt sorry for these newlyweds who were trying to finish their photoshoot in front of the cathedral. In the crowds, it was nearly impossible to take a photo without accidentally (or purposefully) getting photobombed by a sunburnt tourist. This paparazzi photo of mine also had to be heavily cropped to exclude random onlookers.

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IMG_0176Hello MTV, welcome to my crib!

Outside the castle, I found a pretty decent Sloth Palace. The compact, down-to-earth habitat with its serious hipster vibes found its way to my heart. The pompous S-Manor in the first picture? I’ll keep that in mind as a backup plan.

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Pushing through crowds gets tiresome, and there is nothing worse than a hangry sloth. For lunch, I tried the goulash served in bread, which was delicious. As an added bonus, a wild Hare Krishna group appeared out of nowhere, drumming and dancing, and provided us with entertainment as they passed us by several times.

For dessert, we sampled the local specialty, trdelník pastry, which is made by wrapping dough around a stick to bake it, and covering it with some kind of a sugar mix as a final touch. Redds had hers with ice-cream filling, while mine was served with a generous coating of Nutella. Delicious, once again!

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The rest of the evening was dedicated to a dinner cruise on river Vltava. We snagged a table on the upper deck of the Jazz Boat (reservation in advance recommended). An amazing live band played jazz in the closed space downstairs. We got the best of both worlds: we could hear the music well from the speakers placed on the deck, and we also had unobstructed views over the water and the city. A three-course dinner with wine and snacks completed the experience. I would be quite okay with this kind of life on a more permanent basis.

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The beautiful city lights guided our way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way that leaning on the decorative fences around the river probably isn’t the greatest idea: giant spiders are forever waiting by their intricate webs, ready to strike en masse from the shadows. Ooooofff!

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Long Weekend in Prague, Day 1: Petřín Hill & City Tour

Despite the fact I had barely even managed to recover from the coupon trip, in early August it was already time for another mini-getaway. Since most of my nearest and dearest are scattered around Finland and the rest of the world, it usually takes some extra time and effort to arrange a rendezvous. (Poor souls still fail to realize the true potential of Turku as a place of residence.) This time, my friend Redds and I had two options: a camping trip to Nuuksio National Park or a weekend in a random European city. We chose the latter, no contest, and ended up in Prague.

Neither one of us tired slaves to the wage had bothered to make any plans for our three-day trip, but at least we had managed to book a hotel room in advance. We arrived at the Prague airport late Friday evening and immediately marched up to an ATM to get some cash to last us the whole weekend. While fumbling around with the machine, it quickly dawned on us that we had no clue of the exchange rates. The ATM, apparently geared towards the wealthier folk, gave us a handy list of round withdrawal sums to choose from. From those, Redds gravitated towards 40,000 CZK which she was almost quite absolutely positive corresponded to ~160 EUR. Beep, beep, boop! As the old saying goes, never trust a friend with your decimals. The machine announced it was about to annihilate my account and spit out 1600 euros worth of shiny Czech money. Fortunately, it was still possible to cancel the transaction, since I ended up having real trouble with spending over a hundred euro on anything.

Although my unwavering trust in Redds’s expertise had already begun to waver just a tiny little bit, I still let her lead us to our hotel, which to her credit she did splendidly. Anyone familiar with my magnificent sense of direction (or lack thereof) knows it’s best if I just follow quietly. The bus connections from the airport to various parts of the city are pretty good. However, the queue to the only ticket machine accepting chip cards was frustratingly long, since each tourist took their sweet time gawking at all the different options. Protip: Take an NFC card with you and you’ll be able to use the other two ticket machines with nonexistent queues.

IMG_2075Akcent Hotel: Spacious room with nice decor and giant balcony overlooking the city. We approve!

A night well slept and a breakfast buffet thoroughly devoured helped us power through the first actual day of our holiday. The three things I noticed immediately while wandering around the city were:

  1. Architecture. I could admire the ornate buildings forever.
  2. The heat! My face already began to melt after a few hours outdoors.
  3. Tourists everywhere. And I do mean everywhere.

As my Absolute Best Friend* Andrew so eloquently put: “Prague is not just tourist central, it’s tourist parade, tourist galore, tourist bosom, the bullseye of tourists.” I have been to some other big European cities before, but nowhere else has it ever been nearly as crowded as it was in Prague. It was impossible to fight the masses, so we had to join them.

*Happy now?

IMG_1912Endless queue to the Petřín funicular…

IMG_1913…or maximum glute workout on the stairs?

Our first destination was Petřín Hill, the bullseye of parks. The three-day public transportation tickets we had bought at the airport would have allowed us to take the funicular to the top of the hill. However, a mere glance at the queue leading to the funicular suddenly made the stairs look irresistible. It only took us about 20 minutes to sweat up the hill, whereas queueing probably would have taken at least twice as long. Mad props to the genius who had thought to sell ice-cream next to the queue!

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On top of the hill we figured out where all the waves of tourists were heading. We joined them and climbed all 299 stairs to the top of the Petřín Tower, aka the Eiffel of Prague. The views over the city were pretty decent from up there.

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IMG_1925 IMG_1932Wouldn’t have been my first idea

Back down on solid ground, we took a little fries & cider themed break in a most idyllic environment: right next to a row of portable toilets. All the other benches were obviously taken. Our daily queueing quota had already been exceeded on the way up to the tower, so we skipped the rest of the main attractions, mirror labyrinth and whatnot, but stayed a while longer to wander around the parks and rose gardens.

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The simple joy of chasing down giant bubbles is always the same, no matter where you go. Our best find, though, were the bountiful fruit trees with tons of free snacks up for grabs. We also came across the worst kind of tourism ever: groups of dumb-dumbs on Segways. Those two-wheeled devils kept trying to run us over at every chance. People evolved to have legs for a reason, so use them, damn it!

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After a successful escape from the most hazardous Segway zones, we allowed ourselves a brief moment of comatose on the tram. Then it was high time to brave the crowds in search for food. I wish I could say the crowds disappeared towards the end of the day, but it didn’t happen until very late at night. However, with our bellies full of food we kept on pushing on, wandering by the river, around the city centre and the old town.

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The more you see of Prague the easier it gets to understand why approximately every tourist on this fine Earth wants to be there for the same summer weekend. The city is absolutely packed with sights. Personally, I like the way old and new architecture is merged there. It is impossible to avoid a healthy dose of art, and anywhere you look, you’re bound to spot an interesting statue or two. The actual city centre is still relatively compact in size and easy to navigate. Public transport works like a charm, food and drink are plentiful and cheap, and the weather warms the body and soul of even the weariest of Northeners. As a bonus, all the most important sights and buildings are beautifully lit at night. How could you not enjoy all that?

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Salzburg City Tour

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I spent the last day of my holiday wandering aimlessly around Salzburg. The hundreds of statues, fountains and tons of flowers in every park made a lasting impression on me. It would be impossible to escape Mozart’s influence there (though why would you want to): you could visit his old home, eat the chocolatey Mozartkügeln, and listen to his tunes played by the Glockenspiel bell tower at certain hours.

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To me, Salzburg is a city of contrasts. The city centre is all about rich culture and fancy architecture, but you only need to walk a couple kilometres for some real countryside vibes. The suburbs are filled with traditional Alp style houses with carved shutters on their windows, but in between you can also find futuristic homes in creative shapes. It is even possible to spot a shiny city car and a muddy tractor in perfect harmony on the same street.

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Before catching my flight back home, I took a quick detour to a museum of modern art where I stopped by a dia projector. The slideshow consisted of 20+ sentences, all containing the pronoun “it”. Some of it is strange. Some of it is familiar. Its origin is indeterminate. It can cease to exist at any time. A British lady appeared next to me. Looking puzzled, she wondered aloud: “What is ‘it’?” Ain’t that the question. :D

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I realllllly wouldn’t have wanted to give up all the beautiful parks and mountain views, but my flight and work schedules had no mercy on me. Full points to Austria, hopefully we’ll meet again soon!

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Salzburg City Break: Hellbrunn Palace & Trick Fountains

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My favourite tourist destination in Salzburg is definitely the Hellbrunn palace with its famous trick fountains. The palace was built in the 17th century by Prince-Archbishop Markus Sittikus, who seems to have been quite the prankster in his day. Behind the palace, there are dozens of traditional and a little less traditional fountains ready to surprise any unsuspecting visitors: you never know from which direction you’ll get sprayed next. In addition, you can also find other curiousities such as dragons, unicorns, statues sticking out their tongue, and even a water-operated music-playing theatre.

In order not to spoil the fun for anyone planning a visit, I will only post a couple photos of the fountains. This place is an absolute must-see for any individuals with a mischievous sense of humour!

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There is an admission fee to the trick fountain tour, but the park outside the palace has free entry. It appeared to be especially popular among joggers, and it isn’t hard to see why: the paths zig-zag between large grass areas, masses of beautiful flowers and tiny ponds where fat fish swim round and round. A keen eye may also spot the tiny pavilion that appeared in the Sound of Music. Armed with an adequate selection of snacks, it would be easy to spend an entire day just faffing about in the park.

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The picture above hopefully brings some perspective on how huge the outside area is. Below I’ve added a couple bonus snapshots of fancy ceilings around the palace. I used to be very much into photographing ornate front doors, but it appears that during this trip I’ve subconsciously moved on to producing ceiling porn. Enjoy!

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