Europe

Pssst, Mister! Wanna See Pictures of Iceland, Paris, and Prague?

I have — with commendable efficiency, if I do say so myself — gotten my act together and culled and edited the complete set of photos and videos from our recent sojourn. So if you’re interested in a multimedia summary of the trip, here you go:

Click here for all 244 Iceland photos. 

Click here for 44 Paris photos.

Click here for 101 Prague photos. 

If it’s any consolation, I actually took about 2000 shots, so these three albums are the “best of”.

Among the many pleasures of this trip were the several opportunities in Iceland to get some aerial videos with my drone. (Drone flying is a no-no in Paris and Prague.) There were several popular tourist sites (e.g., Gullfoss and Dettifoss waterfalls) where drones were prohibited, and there were plenty of other places where they were allowed by the authorities but not by the weather; Iceland is notoriously windy. (Fun fact: your rental car insurance agreement in Iceland explicitly excludes coverage if the wind blows your car doors off. Yes, really.) So here is a little six-minute compendium of the flights that I was able to make, complete with Icelandic background folk music:

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Categories: Czech, Europe, France, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Déšť, Déšť, Go Away

That would be “rain”, which is what is falling from the sky in Prague today. It didn’t really slow us down because in the wake of yesterday’s ambitious touring, we decided to take it easy today. Our first stop was the National Museum of Decorative Arts for the purpose of seeing the photography exhibition of Josef Koudelka, an outstanding and near-legendary Czech photographer whose name you may never have heard but whose work you have seen. He’s the guy who took all those famous street photos of the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968.

It was an enormous exhibit displaying hundreds of works — all in black and white — from over Koudelka’s 60+ year career. He’s currently 80 and still working… and collecting awards by the bushel.

 

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(I don’t know who the visitor is in this picture; Alice was in another room at the moment.) If you have any interest in photography at all you owe it to yourself to learn more about Koudelka and look up his work. He’s amazing.

Our second and final stop was a return to the Franz Kafka Head, which frustrated us a couple of days ago by stubbornly sitting there inert instead of doing its metamorphic act. But today we got lucky, and I filmed this:

Alice correctly observed that it was a lot cooler in motion than standing still.

And that’s about it for today, which was our last full day here. We return for a stopover overnight in Reykjavik late tomorrow evening, then return home Tuesday afternoon. For our penultimate dinner in Prague tonight, we went to…. a Thai restaurant. Czech food is fine but is heavy on things like lamb and venison and wild boar and such, accompanied by five different kinds of bread and potato dishes. We were getting a little dumpling’ed out so went to a Mexican restaurant last night, one run by actual Mexicans, which was excellent. If you’re wondering how and why Mexicans came to Prague to open a restaurant as opposed to, say, San Diego or Omaha, the answer is complicated. Some of the owners and staff came as students and stayed; others skipped over the US (I can’t imagine why) and emigrated to Canada, then came to Prague from there. Restaurant prices, by the way, are about 20% cheaper here than they are at home in the DC area. So Prague generally seems like a bargain.

Some final random notes about the city that I was too tired to include in yesterday’s entry:

  • St. Vitus Chapel at Prague Castle contains the sepulchers of both Saint/Sorta King Wenceslas and Saint John of Nepomuk. You’ve never heard of Nepomuk but he’s got a good story: in the late 14th century he was said to be the confessor for the queen of Bohemia. (This is unlikely to be true for reasons that I will not bore you with.) The king was the jealous sort and demanded that John reveal the queen’s secrets. But unlike Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen, John of Nepomuk refused to dish to the authorities. So the king had him drowned. Three centuries later, his body was exhumed and his apparently intact tongue — the one that he held, so to speak — was found in his skull. Wow! Miracle! Canonize this guy right now! So they did. Three centuries after that, the Catholic Church — who should have known better — allowed a forensic analysis of the tissue and it was discovered not to be a tongue at all, but rather a mummified glob of brain tissue. But hey, once you’re a saint, you’re a saint. No take-backs.
  • Speaking of Catholics, there aren’t enough of them here to fill the churches. Nearly 80% of the Czech population either identifies as “no religion” or refuses to answer the official survey questions about it. 30% declare themselves full-on atheists. The Catholic population, nearly 40% of the population as recently as 25 years ago, is now down to 10%. So this translates into a lot of empty churches: one that we visited had been donated by the local diocese to their Greek Orthodox counterparts, who were apparently able to make better use of it.
  • I mentioned earlier that Prague is a popular movie filming location: Amadeus, a couple of  Mission Impossibles, Yentl, The Bourne Identity, the Vin Diesel action movie “xXx”, and a number of others. Our wanderings happened to bring us to a number of the sites, including the courtyard of Prague Castle, which played the role of the Kremlin courtyard in Mission Impossible IV. Or III. Or some other number. Here’s a street corner that shows up in Amadeus:

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  • Prague loves to claim Mozart as a sort of adopted favorite son, even though he never really lived here. He did visit several times for extended stays of a month or two. But interestingly, Prague contains one of the very few harpsichords that is known for certain to have been played by Mozart. It’s a “George Washington Slept Here” sort of thing.

Weather permitting, probably the last thing we will do tomorrow is visit the highest point in Prague: the Petřín Tower. At 63.5 meters (208 ft) tall this would not seem to be a strong candidate for the designation, but the trick is that it sits on top of a 318 meter (1043 ft) hill overlooking the city, so its observation deck is actually 382 meters (1252 ft) above the river. That’s taller than the Eiffel Tower… which is not a coincidence, because the Petřín Tower is a nearly exact model of the uppermost 64 meters of the Eiffel Tower! This bit of architectural weirdness gives the Czechs an opportunity to thumb their collective nose at the French.

Since we are flying out tomorrow evening, I expect that this will be my last blog post from this trip, which began nearly three weeks ago. It’s been another great trip. Next up is a visit to our friends in Arizona in about 6 weeks, followed by our return to Hawaii in February. Life is good!

 

 

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Prague Slog

We walked around the city for 8 1/2 hours today, courtesy of our knowledgeable and unstoppable guide Martin, who showed us far more than I can possibly remember. So partly out of exhaustion and a desire to get to bed at a reasonable hour, I’ll let the photos do the talking today with less narrative than usual. Probably.

But first, the required dose of surrealism. You probably think this happy couple on the Charles Bridge has just been married:

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But you’d be wrong. Or more charitably, you’d be about 3/4 right. This couple is participating in a hot new trend in mainland China, in which (1) you and your spouse-to-be travel to a foreign destination with a photographer; (2) rent wedding outfits and have all your romantic wedding photos taken; (3) return to China and make a photo album to show to the family; and then, finally (4) get married in China. It’s kind of a destination pre-wedding without the guests. Or the wedding.  When China takes over the world there are a lot of things that are going to take some getting used to.

In case you’re wondering how I know all this, Martin has on occasion been hired as a photographer or a factotum to help rent the wedding outfits.

Weddings make me think of religion, so now it’s time for a good old fashioned dose of Central European antisemitism, in the form of this delightful statue, also on the Charles Bridge:

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Yes, that’s Hebrew encircling Big JC, and not just any Hebrew: it is the Kaddish, one of Judaism’s most important prayers. How did this come about? Well, the cross — minus the Hebrew — was installed on the bridge in 1659. In 1696, a local wealthy Jewish merchant, one Elias Backoffen, was convicted of dissing Christianity by having been witnessed sporting a blasphemous facial expression. (Yes, really. It was pretty hard for Jews to avoid breaking the law.) He was fined a bunch of money and the local authorities decided to put the money towards humiliating all the Jews in the vicinity — always a popular move — by decorating the crucifix with their most sacred invocation. Classy.

It took a little over 300 years of enlightenment for the city fathers to figure out that in the 21st century the current population of Jews might find this just a wee bit offensive. But by virtue of having been there all this time, the statue had acquired some perceived historical significance, and so in the year 2000 a solution, such as it was, was put in place, in the form of a plaque at the base of the statue that basically says, “Yeah, we know this is offensive, but here’s the background….”

OK, on to the pictures so I can get to bed. First, a monument to Jan Palach, a student who immolated himself in protest of the Soviet repression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

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Next, a baroque garden — complete with white peacock — adjacent to the palace where the Czech Senate meets.

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The garden also includes this weird black melty stuff, which is an art installation called the “Dripwall”.  It is actually a sculpture designed to look like a cave, that has assorted whimsical faces hidden in it.

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Now we move up the hillside in “Castle Town” on the east side of the river, working our way towards the Prague Castle. Our first stop is the Furstenburg Gardens and its sundial, on the hillside just below the Castle.

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And now Prague Castle itself, a looming Gothic melange of architecture from about a half dozen different eras starting in the 10th century, whose centerpiece is St. Vitus Cathedral (makes you wanna dance!). First the enormous, terrifying outside:

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And now the interior of the cathedral. A lot of the stained glass is contemporary, designed in the 20th century:

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The locale affords us a view back towards the town to the east of us.

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Our last stop of the day was the highlight: the Strahov Monastery. It has a truly glorious library that includes a wonderful collection of terrestrial and celestial globes, and the whole place belongs in a Harry Potter movie. We were extremely lucky to be with Martin, who is able to get authorization to go into the library itself, as opposed to viewing it from the doorway. We had to put on soft slippers to avoid damaging the floor, but we had the place to ourselves for about 45 minutes. Here is what we saw!

Isaacman Strahovsky Library pano 1

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Prague 2018-297There’s even a hidden staircase behind a fake bookshelf, so you can sneak around and kill people. Or steal books. Or something.

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The library was the highlight of the day, and it was a very fine day. We’re exhausted. Tomorrow it is supposed to rain, so we will probably visit the National Gallery, which has a big photography exhibit going on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Agog in Prague

Prague is a strikingly beautiful city, albeit a little heavy on the whole Medieval Catholicism thing. It has park areas like this:

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…as well as densely packed looming Gothic edifices like this.

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The bridge in that night photo is the Charles Bridge, the main pedestrian thoroughfare between the Old and New Town areas on the east side of the river, and the more modern areas to the west. It is lined with ominous saintly statues and throngs of tourists.

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But it is not the only bridge into the old city, and by crossing a little further to the south you get a great panoramic view of the river and the Charles Bridge connecting the two halves of the city.

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The river is dotted with pedal boats, as you can see; the unseasonably warm sunny weather brings them out in droves, a celebration of the most inefficient form of transportation known to man.

Our first destination of the day, about a 20 minute walk from our flat across the Charles Bridge, was the Jewish Quarter. Tiny — perhaps 700 meters on a side (less than half a mile) — it houses five synagogues and an ancient Jewish cemetery. The usual starting point when touring the Jewish Quarter is the Maisel Synagogue, because the tickets are sold there and because it houses a display of artifacts and an historical narrative of the history of the Jews in Bohemia. Short summary: restrictive laws and humiliation, occasional easing, relocation, re-imposition of restrictive laws and humiliation, enlightenment and false hope, expulsion, return, pogroms, re-relocation, re-enlightenment, World War II. Today there are somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, about half of them in Prague.

The most venerable of the synagogues is the Old New Synagogue, so named because it was the New Synagogue in 1270, later superseded by a newer New Synagogue a mere three hundred years later. So it became known as the Old New Synagogue, primarily due to a failure of imagination. It is tiny, with thick stone walls, and it is still in use.

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Our next stop was the Pinkas Synagogue, known for its Holocaust memorial, which, in the philosophy of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, is little more than a compelling list of names on the walls: 78,000 of them, sorted by the neighborhood from which the Jews were taken, then alphabetically within the neighborhood, then by dates of birth and death. In most cases the date of death is unknown, and so the date is the last day on which the victim was seen alive. 78,000 names on a wall is a lot, and the emotional impact grows as you move from one room into the next, only to be confronted with more names, row after row after row of them.

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Adjacent to the Pinkas Synagogue, appropriately enough, is an old Jewish cemetery, densely packed with headstones pointing at random angles. (In the 2 x 2 grid of photos below the color one, you can click on the thumbnails to see larger images.)

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And now to answer the question that you, if you are a nerd like me, have been wondering about for 40 years, namely: did Mr. Spock’s “live long and prosper” Vulcan salute really come from a Jewish priestly blessing? Answer: yes, and here is your proof (beside the fact that actor Leonard Nimoy actually said that this was the case):

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Alice, being generally estranged from popular culture, pointed this and a couple of similar headstones out to me and asked, “What’s the weird hand gesture?” I informed her that it was the Vulcan salute, which she did not feel fully answered the question, and which required additional explanation.

We left the Jewish quarter and walked the short distance to Old Town Square, dominated by the much photographed city hall and overseen by the statue of Bohemia’s favorite saintly regent, Good King Wenceslas. The Christmas carol notwithstanding, Wenceslas was actually a 10th century duke. His 17-year reign was marked by the usual political intrigue and minor military skirmishes, and he was considered neither particularly saintly nor un-saintly at the time. However, in the year 935 he was murdered by his brother, Boleslav the Cruel, whose name is so cool that I am thinking of changing mine.

Nobody liked Boleslav — he might have considered a different nickname — and so a retroactive cult grew up around Wenceslas, and he was deemed a martyr. The Holy Roman Emperor Otto I posthumously conferred the title “king” upon him, somebody wrote that Christmas song a couple of centuries later, and bingo, the guy is a pop culture icon.  In my opinion there are better ways to achieve popularity than being run through by a lance at age 35. In any case, here is the square and the town hall. I have no idea why Superman is in the foreground, a little left of center; Alice speculates that someone lost a bet.

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Part of the reason that we went to the main square, besides finding an ice cream vendor, of which there are fortunately many, was that it is just around the corner from Prague’s famed 600 year old, 2 1/2 story tall Astronomical Clock, which I mentioned yesterday.

And now a brief diversion. If you have been following this blog for a while, then you may recall that if there is one single word that can be applied to Alice’s and my travels to the great cities of the world, then that word is…. scaffolding. Yes. As soon as we book a trip, some mysterious omniscient organization — possibly Interpol, or the Illuminati — notifies the authorities at our destination so that scaffolding can be erected before our arrival. I suspect that they take it down as soon as we leave. You name it — the Parthenon, the Via Veneto, Big Ben, Notre Dame — we have seen them all, covered in scaffolding. (The Eiffel Tower is a freebie because it sort of is scaffolding.) I am quite convinced that if someone had somehow figured out how to put scaffolding around blue-footed boobies and Darwin’s finches then our trip to the Galapagos might have been a very different experience. So with that background information, here is Prague’s famous Astronomical Clock as we beheld it this afternoon:

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Sigh. It is of course supposed to be back in place some time next month.

Well, the only way to sublimate our disappointment at this turn of events was to go the Sex Machine Museum, right down the block from the afflicted clock.

What? You mean you’ve never heard of Prague’s Sex Machine Museum? Housing some 200, um, devices spread out (so to speak) over three floors, the museum’s reviews range from “must see” to “tourist trap”, but for ten bucks we thought it was a hoot. If you can get through this place without laughing out loud at least once, there is something seriously wrong with you.

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This being a mostly family blog, and me not wanting to be banned by WordPress.com, I can’t show photos of most of the exhibits; X-rated barely describes some of them. But I will make one or two observations. First, it is clear that late 19th and early 20th century sex devices had a distinctly…. how shall I put this…. “industrial” aspect to them. Yes, “industrial” is definitely the word.

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There was one mid-19th century item, which I couldn’t get a good picture of, and which I probably wouldn’t show anyway, that — I am not making this up — was steam-powered, using a coal-fired boiler. No kidding, this thing belonged on a narrow-gauge railroad track, and definitely not anywhere near anyone’s genitals.

But my absolute favorite — and possibly the best best museum exhibit in the history of time — was this remote-control Ukrainian sex toy from the 1960’s:

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Seriously, this is an erotic device. It positively screams, “Defend the Motherland!” Or more likely, moans.

At this point, the astute reader may have noticed that in the space of a few hours we visited a Holocaust memorial, followed by a visit to a sex machine museum. I know what you’re thinking, and you are probably right: we are going to burn in Hell. But we will deal with that later, because we wanted to finish our afternoon by visiting Franz Kafka instead. More accurately, we went to visit Franz Kafka’s head. Or still more accurately, an 11 meter tall steel statue of his head.

As you can see the head comprises a number of horizontal slabs — 42 of them, to be exact — which rotate to cause the head to metamorphose into random shapes. Or rather, they are supposed to. No one seemed to know when this action would take place; there was no information to be found about it online — randomly? On the hour? Or what? — and the speculation arose among those of us waiting patiently for something to happen that the thing was no longer functional.  There is some circumstantial evidence for this because if you look carefully you will see that the slab corresponding to the middle of Franz’s nose is out of position. All I can tell you for certain is that we waited for 45 minutes for something to happen, and nothing ever did. The experience was…… Kafkaesque. Hmmm.

Giving up, we made our way back to the our flat, rested up for a couple of hours, and had an elegant dinner at a nearby restaurant, supposedly one of the best in Prague, that specializes in duck, plus the kind of meals where the animal’s head is hanging on the wall. It was excellent. (We both had the duck.) Tomorrow is our full day guided tour, so I’ll report back.

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Czeching In

Sorry, no photos in this entry… we arrived in Prague late yesterday afternoon, met with our tour guide, and had dinner. We haven’t had the chance to do any real tourism — with accompanying photos of course — so that will happen today.

We have a full-day city tour booked for tomorrow with a private guide, a genial former organic chemist named Martin, whom we met through a friend of a friend. Turns out he’s a pretty well known guide and is mentioned in travel guru Rick Steves’ best-selling guide to Prague. (And needless to say, Martin’s been flooded with bookings since being cited in Steves’ book, so we’re lucky to get him.) We met him for drinks yesterday evening to plan out tomorrow’s tour and also to give us some ideas for today’s walking around so we don’t duplicate the sights on two consecutive days.

Immediately following drinks with Martin we promptly went out and got scammed in order to have a complete travel experience. We have experienced three scam attempts on this trip, and saw through the first two of them. They were in Paris and easy to spot. On our first day, some young guys with fake laminated IDs tried to “help” us buy tickets in the Metro. Alice almost got taken in but I saw through it and shooed them away. Three days later a guy on the Quai d’Orsay (the tree-lined sidewalk that follows the left bank of the Seine) “found” a massive fake gold wedding band on the path, declared that it didn’t fit him, and tried to sell it to us.

But last night was the perfect storm, when we were tired from a day of traveling (that included some glitches) and unfamiliar with the local currency. The Czech Republic, though a member of the EU, still uses its own currency, the koruna, at about 21 to the dollar (25 to the euro). We only had euros on us so I withdrew a few hundred dollars worth of koruna from an ATM on a busy street. A few seconds later, a guy offered to break a bill for me, since the ATM only dispensed large notes. He offered four 500 Kč bills (worth a little under  US $25 each) for my 2000 Kč note, and in my fatigue I did not ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want a larger bill for smaller ones? You almost always want to go the other way around. So I went for it, and — as I learned about an hour later when I tried to spend one — the 500’s were fake. I’m out a little under $100 but at least got a story to tell out of it. The irony is that the fakes do not even resemble actual 500 Kč  notes. (Though of course at the time I did not know what actual ones looked like.) Not-particularly-close inspection reveals that the writing on them is Cyrillic (instead of Czech) and declares them to be 500 Russian rubles. But they’re not that either. They’re basically realistic props, complete with embedded strip and watermark. Oh well. At least it was a more interesting scam than the attempts in Paris, and I have four fake banknotes to show for it.

So welcome to Prague. We are staying in a large, utterly beautiful apartment a very short walk over the Vltava River, the body of water where vowels go to drown. The apartment is at least 1000 square feet (93 sq meters) with high arched ceilings and thick painted stone walls; it is a renovated very old building. The flat is owned by an artist — a photographer as it happens — and so is beautifully decorated as well.

Prague itself is a very compact, walkable city whose architecture has preserved a lot of its 18th century character. Because of this, it is a popular movie filming location. It stood in for Vienna in the movie Amadeus — the actual Vienna being too modernized and too expensive to film in — and is the go-to Generic Eastern European City in any number of spy movies, e.g. The Bourne Identity.  It’s got a population of 1.3 million — and had 6.6 million foreign visitors in 2017. That’s not quite as lopsided as Iceland, but it’s close. There are a lot of tourists here, Germans being by far the largest group, with the US and UK in second and third place.

The city is loosely divided into four districts, being the “Old Town” and the “New Town” on the east side of the river and the “Little Quarter” and “Castle Town” on the west. We’re staying in the Little Quarter, a few minute walk over the Charles Bridge from Old Town. Our apartment living room faces north towards Castle Town: from our window we can see the imposing Prague Castle, a gloomily imposing 9th century edifice that houses the president of the country and was the former seat of power of the Holy Roman Empire. (Fun historical fact: the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor much of an empire. But it shows the importance of branding.) The castle also has the distinction of being the largest castle in the world, sprawling over 17 acres (7 hectares) not counting the exterior grounds. God knows what the heating bills are like.

Our plans today are relatively modest. We’re going to walk into the Old Town and visit the tiny Jewish Quarter, which has five synagogues including the most famous one: the “Old New Synagogue” (it’s a long story), which is the oldest in Europe that is still in use. And, being an astronomer, I feel compelled to make a pilgrimage to Prague’s famed Astronomical Clock, which is over 600 years old. It shows the Moon, the Sun, assorted astronomical information, and the appearance of a proper 500 koruna banknote.

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Last Day in Paris

This will be a brief post since it is late and we still have to pack for our departure to Prague tomorrow.

One of our favorite venues in Paris is Sainte-Chappele, a spectacular Gothic chapel literally around the corner from Notre Dame. A lot of visitors overlook it on their first visit to Paris, which is a mistake, since its stained glass alone is practically worth the trip to France. The lower chapel is modest enough, dominated by a small gift shop and some statuary like this one.

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But upstairs is the main event, 750 square meters (8000 square feet) of stained glass in exquisite detail. This panorama along one wall does not come close to doing it justice (in part because of the terrible fish-eye distortion…trust me, the walls do not bulge). The real thing is eye-popping because the windows are 50 feet (15 m) high (!) and cover all four walls of the room.

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The chapel was completed in 1248 and 700 years later amazingly survived World War II without a scratch. But three quarters of a millennium takes its toll even on workmanship like this, and so in 2008 an enormous restoration effort got underway, costing some US $12M and lasting seven years. Every single segment of glass was removed, cleaned, given a protective glass veneer (with an air gap), reassembled if cracked, re-leaded around its perimeter, and reinserted. The results are spectacular, and when you make it to Paris you should not fail to visit.

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By the way — you’ll thank me for this if you come — you should buy tickets for Sainte-Chapelle online. They do not cost any extra than “real time” walk-up tickets and though they commit you to a particular day, they do not tie you to a particular time of day. But the important thing is that they give you priority admission, i.e. they allow you to skip the (sometimes very long) line. It’s an absolute no-brainer. (The same paradigm applies to the Picasso Museum and the Musée d’Orsay as well. Buy online and save yourself a lot of line-waiting at a cost of zero dollars. You’re welcome.)

Speaking of Musée d’Orsay, that was our next stop. Originally built as a Beaux-Arts-style railway station between 1898 and 1900, it fell into disuse after three or four decades, and after yet a few more decades of everyone wondering what to do with it, was finally re-purposed as an art museum. It opened in 1986 and now houses the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist masterpieces in the world (even greater than the Louvre) and includes collections of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Van Gogh. In other words, the A-Team.

Alice is a lot more into Impressionism than I am (though I love Van Gogh), but even aside from the art we both love the space itself, whose central atrium still has the look of a modernized version of its Beaux-Arts railway origin.

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And here was an unexpected display: a very detailed and seriously cool cross-sectional model of L’Opera, which of course we had just visited yesterday! (They really ought to hide a little model Phantom in there somewhere.)

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We spent an hour or two in the museum, then had lunch at a nearby brasserie and walked a mile and a half along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. Distressingly, the security paranoia of the past several years has taken hold; unlike all of our other visits here, it is now no longer possible to stroll among the tower’s four gigantic pylons and look straight up at it from underneath. The area is now cordoned off with a security fence, and only ticket holders for the elevator are allowed through.

But the surrounding grounds are unchanged, and it is still a genial place to lie in the shade and gaze up at the tower, watching the elevators glide up and down its spidery height. We lazed for a while, then headed home to have dinner and pack and talk about when our next visit should be.

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Lon Chaney, Call Your Office

So it appears that in France they believe that “The Phantom of the Opera” was a documentary. And, weirdly, that may not be altogether off the mark. The famed book, about a half dozen movie versions, and the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical all take place at L’Opera de Paris, also known as the Palais Garnier for the young architect who designed it in the 1870’s. Interestingly, the following things actually did happen in real life:

  • Some flooding occurred during construction, necessitating the inclusion of a retaining wall that created a small sub-basement pool that still exists and became the “Fantasy Lake” of the story.
  • One of the construction workers had a terrible facial deformity that he kept hidden. He loved the building and pretty much hung around there in secret all the time.
  • A counterweight from the chandelier in the main auditorium broke loose and fell in 1896, killing a spectator.

Who knew? In any case, the building is a spectacular one, built in an ornate neoclassical style, all marble and curlicues and domes and staircases. We took the tour. Here is the main lobby. It made me feel like I should have arrived in a horse-drawn carriage.

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Here’s the domed main auditorium. It seats nearly 2,000.

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And here is the dome itself with the infamous chandelier. You may note that the painting style does not exactly say “1875”. That is because it was repainted in a more current motif in 1968 at the behest of the then Minister of Culture, author Andre Malraux. The style may look familiar to you, since the artist is… Marc Chagall!

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And finally, here is the austere, understated Great Hall, in case the palace of Versailles isn’t garish enough for your tastes.

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Now here’s the weird part: the blockbuster Broadway musical “Phantom of the Opera” has never been shown in France. Apparently it was finally scheduled to run in Paris two years ago in October 2016, but a fire in the theater a few days before opening destroyed everything. So… no “Phantom” for Parisians, L’Opera notwithstanding.

Our next stop was a pilgrimage of sort, although I am not sure if it counts as a pilgrimage when you’re making the trip for somebody else. My former Evil Assistant and longtime BFF Angie is a devotee of insanely expensive designer purses (or, as she describes them, “receptacles for my soul”) and so we spent a few minutes wandering through the Insanely Expensive Purse And Other Retail Store district, just off the Champs Elysée. Our specific goal at Angie’s request was the Hermes flagship store (it’s pronounced er-MEZZ, you Philistine, not HER-meez), which we photographed but did not enter because we were not worthy. Angie was outraged that we did not take the opportunity to stop in and pick her up something called a “Birkin 35 Vermillion Togo”, which a moment of Googling revealed to be a $10,000 purse. I told her that we had decided to wait till it went on sale.

Designer-purseless, we moved on to one of our favorite museums in Paris, the Picasso Museum.

Paris 2018-096-Edit

The Picasso Museum is four stories tall, and by the time we got to the top I must confess that even we, big fans that we are, were utterly Picasso’ed out.

We had dinner at an excellent nearby Greek restaurant, three doors down from one of the sleazy sex shops on our street. Our dirty little secret (unrelated to the sex shops) is that neither Alice nor I are big fans of French haute cuisine. We love French “street food”: baguettes, crepes, that sort of thing. But I am not especially fond of creamy sauces, and Alice, being lactose intolerant, can’t handle the French fondness for butter and cream in everything. So when in Paris we go ethnic, much as we do at home. As you might expect Paris has very cosmopolitan restaurant offerings; so far our diners have been Italian, Vietnamese, and Greek. Tonight we’re doing Japanese.

It was dark after dinner, and so we made our way to the Seine for our nighttime boat ride. The Bateaux Mouches (literally “fly boats”, as in the insect, named for the Mouche region of Lyon where they were first built) are one of Paris’s delightful institutions They’re huge barge-like tourist boats, perhaps 200′ (60 m) long that hold hundreds of passengers, and they’ve been plying the Seine since 1867. Americans and Japanese seemed to be the predominant groups last night. The best time to go is at night when the monuments are lit up, so here are some shots from our trip. (The first, showing the beacon, is from shore, but all the others from on board. The second one shows Notre Dame over the rooftops.)

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-006

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-022

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-026

Paris Bateaux Mouches 2018-058

Eifel Tower Moon crop (5 of 1)

Note the sequence of low bridges in the middle photo. The boats have unusual design to accommodate them: the ship’s bridge (where the captain steers) is on a hydraulic cantilevered arm and can raise and lower by several feet as needed.

We returned home about 11 PM, navigating the gauntlet of prostitutes working the street near our flat. One surprisingly pretty streetwalker, all hot pants and fishnets, greeted me with that most venerable come-on: “Hi! Do you speak English?” I said, “Yep,” and continued to walk, but before I could take another step, Alice charged up from a few feet behind me, grabbed my arm, and forcefully declared, “HE’S MINE!” It was such an absurd, retro bit of rom-com that all three of us — including the hooker — burst out laughing. Which, I suppose, was as surreal a way as any to end the evening.

We had another “museum day” today — St Chappelle cathedral, with its spectacular stained glass, and the Musée d’Orsay. I may write about them later if time and energy permit. This was our last day in Paris: we head to Prague tomorrow morning. We loved our time here; for us, Paris is the most enjoyable city in the world to simply be in, regardless of whether one runs around checking off all the traditional sights.

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Digital Klimt in Paris

Want to know how to vacation cheaply in Paris? It’s easy! Just spend ten days in Iceland first! Iceland is outrageously expensive: we estimated that everything there cost twice as much as it does in the Washington DC area, with the exception of gas, which costs three times as much. (These are actual, non-exaggerated numbers, in case you’re wondering.) So Paris looks like a bargain by comparison; prices are maybe 20% higher than at home.

We arrived in Paris yesterday (Sunday) afternoon and were temporarily stymied in getting to our AirBnb apartment, because central Paris is closed to automobile traffic on Sunday afternoons. This was a major headache for our taxi driver, who had to drive a badly clogged and circuitous route to get us here. I gave him a big tip.

We are in a tiny but well-equipped third floor walk-up in the Montregueil district, a lively area full of clothing stores, restaurants, and sleazy sex shops and peep shows. The sex shops and peep shows are all a block or two away from the Rue Montregueil itself, happily, which is mostly closed off to auto traffic. Here’s a view down our street from last night.

Paris 2018-007-Edit

So it’s a fun place to be. It also holds some happy memories for us, since it was 20 years ago that we rented an apartment here for a delightful week with our then-teenage sons. They enthusiastically discovered crepes and escargot at the time, and have become experienced world travelers in the two decades since. The neighborhood has not changed much.

Our first destination this morning was a bakery a few doors down from our flat, where we had some breakfast consisting mostly of some to-die-for chocolate croissants that cost about two bucks each. This is how we knew that we were back in Paris. Then we headed off by Metro to our first “sight” of the day, the Atelier des Lumières (“Studio of Lights”), also known as the Digital Art Museum. You have in all likelihood not heard of it, and indeed we had not either until our friend Elaine posted a link about it on Facebook. So, thanks Elaine! It was amazing!

The Atelier des Lumières is a former foundry that has been converted to a digital art space, in which spectacular animated digital “collages” are projected onto the warehouse-like walls and floor. Each display lasts from about 5 to 20 minutes and has a theme, and the two centerpieces of today’s displays were the Viennese artists Friedensreich Hundertwasser (whom I confess we had never heard of) and Gustav Klimt (whom of course we had). Here are a couple of still of the display, taken from a mezzanine above.

Paris 2018-017

Paris 2018-016

..and here is one taken at floor level, featuring Alice and her cell phone.

Paris 2018-013

The display is dynamic and very immersive, accompanied by music that ranges from Philip Glass to Puccini. No still photo does it justice, so here’s a 3-minute video clip that I made from the mezzanine to give you an idea. Watch it with your sound on.

We left the Atelier and headed to one of our favorite spots in Paris, Sacre Coeur Cathedral and the Montmartre. I  have come to believe that it is not possible to take an original photo of Sacre Coeur, so I took the standard postcard shot.

Paris 2018-026

As you can see, it was a clear, sunny day. What you cannot see is that it was hot: about 82F / 27C. So the area was thronged with tourists enjoying the unseasonable summer weather. Of course, it is pretty much always thronged with tourists. Making a living off them are of course block after block of restaurants, cheesy souvenir stores, and street denizens. The most common species of the latter these days seem to be shell-game players, rapidly moving the ball around among three overturned cups. They were everywhere: on one short street there were two that were literally within about an arm’s length of each other.

Incredibly, there is still an adequate supply of tourists naive enough to play the game. Alice asked me what fraction of the players I thought won, and I unhesitatingly replied, “Zero.” They don’t call it the old shell game for nothing. But on further reflection, I realized that this cannot be true; you need to have an occasional — and highly visible — winner in order to keep the crowds coming. And indeed, we saw some wins…. immediately followed by a double-or-nothing offer. Guess what happens then.

We ate lunch in Montmartre and wandered the area; the main square is a core of restaurants surrounded by a ring of artists, a few of whom are not at all bad. (Alice bought a piece here about ten years ago; the same artists is still there.) Here is the scene, with Alice in the midst of things:

Paris 2018-032-Edit

One entire side of the square is occupied by portrait artists and caricaturists. Tons of them also wander the street, sketch pad in hand, inveigling tourists into some real-time portraiture. But here’s one of the sit-down portraitists at work.

Paris 2018-041

Our final stop was the Dali Museum, which is always high on both our lists. We both enjoy his work tremendously, but it resonates especially strongly with Alice because Dali’s muse was his wife Gala, who Alice pointedly observes was ten years older than him. (Alice is seven years older than me. I do not dare hypothesize aloud the implication that she is only 70% as inspirational, since that is clearly untrue. At least, if I know what is good for me.)

As we walked back to the Metro after leaving the Dali Museum we encountered in an abandoned lot yet another example that everything in Paris is a work of art.

Paris 2018-043

The phrase in the middle — “Regarder C’est Inventer” — means “observing is inventing”. It was one of Dali’s mottos. You generally do not see quotes from surrealist artists spray painted on abandoned buildings in the US.

I think that tonight we will ride the famous bateaux mouches, the Seine tour boats, to see the lights of the city at night. It’s one of those touristy things that you have to do no matter how often you visit Paris. And so we will.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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They Don’t Call It Iceland For Nothing

We’ve been variously too busy or to exhausted for the last couple of nights to keep up with daily blog posts, and as of about 6 hours ago as I type this, we are in Paris. So this is going to be a quick “catch up” post, heavy on the photos, to wrap up our stay in Iceland.

I’ll go through our last two Icelandic days (Sept 14 and 15) in more or less chronological order, with one big exception, which was our excitement on the night of Friday the 14th. At about 8 PM we were almost home from a day of legendary photographic luck — which is to say, clear sunny skies and mild temperatures — when Janet suddenly screamed, “The aurora!” This seemed improbable since the aurora prediction gave it a very low probability for that night, and we had barely seen it a few nights earlier when the prediction called for high activity. Which only goes to show that aurora forecasts can be as wildly off base as weather forecasts, for there was indeed a greenish glow in the sky that an hour or so later looked like this (admittedly with a 5 second time exposure):

To which I can only say, “Ta-da!” It shimmered, it moved, it waxed and waned, it was cooler than all get-out. This was only the second time in my life that I had seen it, and the (very excited) first for Alice, Janet, and Tim. It was Iceland coming through for us, bigly.

The day began promisingly enough, as we walked out of our farm bungalows to a beautiful day. Here is our cabin, complete with waterfall on the cliffside behind us. (You can just see it to the left of the of the peak of the rooftop.)

We had a couple of major ice-related destinations that day, all of them various aspects of the Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón glaciers. (You may have figured out by now that “jökul”, pronounced “yerkle”, means “glacier”. At the end of a word it has two L’s and is for some reason pronounced “yerktle”, with a T-sound stuck in there to keep you of balance.)

Anyway, these two masses of ice are pretty close to each other, which created a large number of opportunities for Janet and me to shout “Stop the car!” so that we could get out and photograph one or another random roadside vista like this one.

I mean, seriously, this location wasn’t even flagged as a scenic viewpoint or anything. It was just there, reflecting in a big puddle.

Our first “official” stop was the so-called “Diamond Beach” at the foot of Jökulsárlón. Why do they call it the “Diamond Beach”? Oh, I dunno. Probably because of all the little glacier bits flowing around in the surf, like this:

You will note that the sand is black, which heightens the effect of a landscape of 50,000-carat diamonds displayed on a field of black velvet. Adding to the surrealism is the speedy current exiting the lake from which the bergs originate, castoffs from Jökulsárlón. There is a narrow throat where the lake empties into the sea, and so the ice chunks bob and swirl around, bumping into each other and eddying in the surf.

That lake, just a few hundred meters upstream from the Diamond Beach, is itself quite the sight, since it is basically the collection point for all the icebergs that calve off of Jökulsárlón at this location.

The lake is otherwise very still, and you can rent kayaks or a buy a ride in a Zodiac boat to weave in and out of the bergs. The lake was also full of seals: we counted at least a dozen, barking and sounding and clapping their flippers against the water.

Just a few miles down the road was another location where we could get up close and personal with Jökulsárlón. There, the tongue of the glacier extruded into a smaller lake, virtually tiled with small bergs and floes that made it seem as though, if you were sufficiently careful and balanced, you could gingerly walk or hop from one to the next and so approach the face of the glacier itself. And by “sufficiently careful”, I mean, “You would without any doubt whatsoever fall in and drown whilst freezing to death.” Here’s the scene from the top of the access path:

…and from lake level:

And here is Alice doing her best Ice Queen:

Her cheery photogenic smile completely masks her bitter complaints about getting a cold wet butt just so I could get a “We were There” photo.

We headed back to the farm in Vik (population 300, not counting us), then, realizing that this might be the last clear skies we’d have, turned around and headed back into town to visit Reynisfjara, the best-known black sand beach in the area. Iceland is littered with such beaches, but Reynisfjara is famous for its offshore basaltic rock formations. In the northwestern US they’d be called “hoodoos”, but here they are called Reynisdrangar because, well, it’s Iceland. And they aren’t basaltic columns, they’re frozen trolls. Story goes that they originated when two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to land (I don’t remember why). They worked through the night — trolls can’t stand sunlight –but didn’t make it before dawn broke, and they froze into rock columns. It’s a Lot’s wife/vampire sort of thing. Anyway, here they are at sunset.

A little further down the beach is a larger, flat-topped formation that at sunset reminded me of Stonehenge. See if you agree:

As you can tell, it was a hell of a day, photographically, and it was on the way back from the frozen trolls that Janet spotted the aurora, which was the capstone of the day’s travels.

Our last day on the island, Sunday the 15th, dawned chilly, heavily overcast, and rainy, and pretty much stayed that way. In other words, it was the perfect day for an indoor activity, like strapping on crampons and mining helmets to explore frigid, drippy ice caves. So we did that.

We put on every article of clothing we had, including waterproof slickers and rain pants, and drove to the rendezvous point in Vik to board the world’s most masculine tourism vehicle, a massive 4×4 with tires the size of large toroidal children. Our guide was the equally outsized and suitably Nordic David, who took off across the black sand desert, speeding up the sides of ebon dunes and doing donuts at the top as AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blared on the sound system. It was that kind of experience. But it brought us to here:

This is where, if you go trick-or-treating, Sauron answers the door wearing a Darth Vader costume. The greenish stuff in the foreground and distant hills is moss, the only kind of ground cover that can grow here. The ominous structure in the center is our destination, part of Myrdalsjökull glacier. The reason it is black is that it is covered in volcanic grit, as were we and everything we owned after tramping around there for a while.

Myrdalsjökull actually sits above Katla volcano, essentially capping it. Except that it is really hard to cap a volcano: when it blows, along with the lava, ash, and pyroclastic flows, you get bonus flooding and chunks of glacier. This has happened in the past.

Like everything else in Iceland, Katla has a legend associated with it. Katla was a witch who owned a pair of magic pants. Someone stole the pants, and it only gets more complicated from there. Suffice it to say that like all Icelandic legends we have heard to date, it involves someone getting thrown off a cliff and someone else getting eaten, and makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds like it was written by the same guy who gave us the little girl and the gold ring and the giant magical slug living at the bottom of the lake. You’d think that with the Brothers Grimm living just across the sea in Denmark, the Icelanders could have made up more comprehensible legends.

Anyway, the point is that there are caves in the glacier face, so we set off, Hobbit-like, with our crampons and mining helmets to explore them. Look at the photo below and mentally insert “Lord of the Rings” music.

I’m sure that that photo is your image of an ideal vacation. (And for the record, I did no alteration to the colors in that photo. Everything except us really was black and white. David carried an ice axe, because he sure as hell wasn’t going to trust it to one of us, and rightly so. The ice was white or clear, and the coarse volcanic sand was black and ubiquitous, including in our clothing afterwards. So here is a view looking out from within the cave.

..and here are Janet and Tim thwarting our fiendish attempt to entomb them in ice forever so we can steal the snacks that brought along for the trip.

The inside of the caves — being ice — was wet, cold, slippery, gritty, and very dark, with claustrophobically low ceilings. The walls were sculpted into smooth pained-looking curves, like the sky and face in the famous Munch painting, “The Scream.” There were rivulets of glacial runoff running across the crude path, spanned by short, narrow planks that we had to negotiate while crouching. Our mining helmets were a strict necessity both for the light and the overhead protection. It is not for nothing that movies like “Aliens” get filmed here and elsewhere in the area; the whole place just seems not of this Earth.

It’s kind of ironic that the last outing we had in Iceland was all in shades of black and white, since the previous day had given us such colorful skies, culminating in the aurora. But it’s that kind of place, all extremes. It was a great ten days and we felt like we had really seen much of the country. As I type this Janet and Tim are en route home to Ohio while we are in Paris. So with luck I’ll get up the gumption to report on our stay here. (Don’t expect much; this is about our sixth time here so we don’t do a huge amount of the “standard” Paris tourism.)

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Waterfalls, Glaciers, and Life in a Shipping Container

Before I begin my report of today’s travels, I would like to backtrack by a day to point out an important fact that I left out when reporting on yesterday’s buffet breakfast, the one overlooking the cows being milked. Tim has reminded me of an important buffet offering that I forgot to tell you about, namely that among the delectable offerings that included smoked Arctic char, lamb, geyser bread, and local cheeses, there was also….cod liver oil. Yes, the legendarily foul tasting dietary supplement and laxative was proudly offered alongside a row of gaily decorated shot glasses. This raises the possibility of playing the worst drinking game in history.  And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

We arrived close to dark last night at our destination, the oddly steampunk town of Seydisfjordur, population 700. It is accessible — when accessible at all, which in the winter months it is not — via a truly harrowing drive over the mountain separating it from the larger town of Egilsstadir (population 2200). The drive is a 15 km collection of steep hairpin turns and switchbacks with no guardrails, through utterly impenetrable fog. At night. Kudos to Tim for getting us there safely while poor Janet alternated between fearing for her life and fending off carsickness. (In her defense, it probably didn’t help that after each curve I remarked, “Wow, we could’ve died on that one!”)

I’ll tell you about Seydisfjordur in a moment but feel obliged to first expand upon Egilsstadir, or more accurately its location. That is to say, that it sits on the shore of the Lagarfljót fjord, home of the “Lagarfljót Worm”, Iceland’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. The story goes that a little girl had a gold ring that she wanted to make much bigger, thus having more gold. By same arcane logic known only to Icelanders, she attempted to do this by putting the ring in a box with a slug (the snail kind, not the fake coin kind), and throwing it into the lake. Yeah, I know. Stupid. But this is how the story goes. Anyway, instead of the slug making the gold ring bigger, the gold ring made the slug bigger. Lots bigger. So now there is a magical slug the size of Godzilla lurking at the bottom of Lagarfljót fjord. Consider yourself duly warned.

Back to Seydisfjordur. It has three important properties: (1) it is the departure port for the three-day (!) ferry ride to Norway. (2) It is the home of a well-known art school, whose steampunk-ish post-industrial sensibilities pervade the “rust chic” aesthetic of the town. And (3) after repeated failed attempts, Janet discovered that she can pronounce “Seydisfjordur” only when affecting an atrocious and culturally inappropriate fake Swedish accent, like the Swedish Chef Muppet character.

Seydisfjordur nestles at the base of the inlet from which the ferry departs, as you can see in these aerial photos.

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-008-Edit

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-013-Edit

In the lower photo, our lodging is the cluster of buildings right of center with the gymnasium-looking building. It’s a good example of the “rust chic” that I mentioned earlier. Basically, every single structure in town looks like it was constructed out of discarded ship parts, shipping containers, or industrial detritus. Here’s a closer view of our apartment complex:

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-016

We were in the upper floor of the building on the left, which, though nicely appointed with hardwood floors and the like on the inside, looks from the outside suspiciously like it had been constructed out of shipping containers. And a little right of center in the photo you can see a structure with an orange roof. That is the rusty, discarded ship’s bridge from a long-demolished tugboat or fishing vessel.

Iceland Seydisfjordur 2018-005

Iceland Seydisfjordur 2018-013

All peeling paint and flaking rust, its interior has most incongruously been furnished as a child’s playhouse, complete with board games and brightly colored tables and chairs.

This is the playhouse where Stephen King’s grandchildren probably hang out. If you were to construct such a thing for children in the US, you would need to have an EMT and a lawyer stationed there at all times.

We left Seydisfjordur at about 11 AM after a leisurely morning photographing the Playhouse From Hell and flying the drone to get the aerial shots above. We spent the rest of the day making the drive to the southern part of the island, past stunning volcanic vistas — craggy mountains lining the fjords, pendulous gray clouds above — and more roadside waterfalls than we could count. Here are some samples of the terrain.

Iceland Terrain 2018-048-Edit

Iceland Terrain 2018-052

The weather was raw with an occasional drizzle, but when conditions permitted I flew the drone to get some aerial videos of the waterfalls. I’ll post these in a few weeks after we’re home and I have had the chance to edit them.

Our destination was an isolated guesthouse in the southeast corner of the island, at the edge of the enormous Vatnajökull glacier. And I do mean enormous: it is the size of Delaware and occupies 11% of the land area of Iceland. You can see it from many places in this part of the island because it has numerous “tongues” that protrude like amoebic pseudopods out from the main body of the glacier down towards the coast. Seeing such a tongue from the road at a distance of several kilometers, it looks like this.

Iceland Terrain 2018-063

Such a scene pretty much begs for an aerial view. After a few more minutes of driving brought us to within about 5 km of the face, we could get a good view with the drone, which I sent about 3/4 of the way to the face at an altitude of about 300 m (1000′) to get this photo:

Iceland Vatanjokull Glacier Drone 2018-01

The threatening clouds that you see here have been pretty typical for this trip, aside from the few sunny days we have had. But mostly the rain has held off when we needed it to, so that I could capture pictures like these.

Tomorrow we head to the town of Vik, about 200 km to our west and thus on the southern side of the island. We’ll be visiting a glacial lagoon and doing other volcanic stuff, so stay tuned.

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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