Tag Archives: City

Day 14 – We stood the time of test

Monday 12th July 2021. When we originally made the holiday arrangements with Dagur, we added an extra day into the schedule so that we could potter around Reykjavik. I’m immensely glad we did, in the light of the hoops one has to jump through in order to travel internationally in these pandemic times. UK requirements were that we had to be able to show a negative Covid test taken no more than 72 hours before departure, and the exceedingly well-organised Iceland authorities made this a very straightforward process – we booked the test online for the morning of our free day, and the leisurely 24 hours we’d added into the schedule on spec would give us a cushion in case the tests took the full 24 hours to come through. All in all, another example of the remarkable good fortune we’d experienced on this holiday.

That good fortune didn’t entirely hold. We had to get to a testing centre which was a couple of miles from our hotel and we decided to walk it. In the event, the walk there was into the teeth of the driving drizzle that, as I’ve said before, there is probably a special Icelandic word for, almost certainly containing some strange vowels and consonants. Also, my fond belief that we would turn up to a largely deserted testing centre and sweep effortlessly through looked a little optimistic when we saw the queue.

In fact, the queue moved swiftly and the process inside the building ran with an efficiency that could have been described as ruthless were it not discharged so courteously. The chap who thrust a cotton bud so far up my nasal passage that I feared it would come out of the top of my head was very polite and helpful whilst going about his business; it took seconds and there was a steady flow of people, which made me wonder how much he is enjoying his days at the moment.

The walk back to the hotel was much more pleasant, with the wind behind us; and having got back to the hotel to change into Being A Tourist clothes, we went out to look around Reykjavik in a little more detail than we had on our arrival day.

The first thing we did was go up to that “Space Shuttle” church (you remember – this one)

and took a look inside. It’s a Lutheran church, so the sort of ritzy decoration that typically adorns Catholic churches (often at the expense of the peons they purport to serve) is absent, leaving a clean, calm environment – somewhat reminiscent of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

The church features a very impressive organ. Stop sniggering at the back.

One can go up the tower, at a cost, but we decided not to, instead opting to follow a suggestion from Dagur to cross the road and look into the sculpture garden of the Einar Jonsson museum opposite the church.

He lived from 1874 to 1954, and the sculpture garden has some lovely examples of his work.

(Obvs I have many more photos, but I wouldn’t want to bore you, not really.)

We went back to our hotel and about 5 hours after we had undergone the test, again with no fanfare or choir of angels but rather via a text, I received the following:

“Sóttvarnalæknir og Almannavarnir: Stephen. Skimun sýnir að þú ert ekki með COVID-19 sjúkdóminn.”

Thank goodness for Google Translate, I say; this helped me establish that it was a negative result. To be fair to the authorities, they also e-mailed certificates to us. In English.

After that we wandered round the area close to our hotel, marvelling at the time and trouble taken to make the buildings interesting.

There are many more interesting and quirky architectural sights that we saw, but, again, there’s a limit to your patience with my photos, so I’ll spare you for now. If you come back tomorrow, you’ll see some more, I can promise you that.

We had made an arrangement to meet Chris Foster, you remember – the folk singer and artist contact from Jane’s dim and distant [slap! ouch!] for drinks in the evening. We thought that it would be a good idea to have a bite to eat beforehand as ballast, but equally thought it would be nice to get away from the arctic char/lamb/beef options that so often figured in our diet over the last fortnight. So we went for a Thai meal and I can now vouch that the beef salad in Krua Thai in Reykjavik is a belter.

After that, we met Chris and his wife, Bára Grímsdóttir, who is a legendary force in Icelandic folk music and song, for “a couple of drinks”, which actually resulted in us getting chucked out of one bar as it closed and then still knocking further drinks back as the hotel bar closed; it was a good evening meeting a couple of really interesting people, in my case for the first time.

And so, rather blearily, to bed. We still have a morning in Reykjavik before we have to go to the airport and bid farewell to this remarkable country, and so we might well go out and see a few more of the sights. Come back and find out if this was the case, why don’t you?

Day 5 (I) – Split….

19th September. Now that I am a gentleman of leisure, one of the annoying aspects of being on holiday is having to get up early. An alarm set for 0630 seems to be par for the course for this holiday, bringing back dark memories of life as an employee, whereas having to set an alarm at all in normal life is a bit of a bore and if one has to do it, it should be no earlier than 0730. So the news from Željko that we would have to depart our hotel at 0600 in order to be on an 0630 catamarn bound for the town of Split was met with something of a groan. It turned out, as did so many of his plans, to be a good idea, but coherent thought, smooth co-ordination and swift action at 0500 are not my forte.

Anyhoo…at 0600 we bundled our cases onto a bus and stumbled down to the harbour in Bol, just as the sun was going about his (or her) business for the day.

and the catamaran duly arrived

to take us to Split, a journey of just over an hour to a very handsome town. At one stage, it used to be just this place on the Dalmatian coast, until this Roman chap, Diocles, came along, liked the weather and the local availability of fine (Brač) stone, and decided it would be just the spot to retire to once he stopped bothering about being Emperor, so he had a big Palace built there, which now forms about half of the old town of Split.

Željko had arranged for us to have a guided tour, and we met Malenka, who took us round the main sights of the Palace. As we went round, the reason for our very early departure became clear – the Palace fills with tourists very quickly, and by getting there promptly we were actually able to see it when it wasn’t mobbed. It’s an impressive site, with some of the original construction supplemented by modern reconstruction.

Some of the locals actually live within the confines of the palace; people had set up house there before its historical (and touristic) value was truly recognised, and so there are homes and apartments dotted around the site. It’s now a UNESCO world heritage site, which is in part funding the reconstruction, and Malenka explained that UNESCO rules were that any reconstruction work had to be clearly recognisable as such. So, in the photo below, it is quite clear to see which is original tilework and which is modern

as it is with this mosaic.

I shan’t bore you with too many photos of the Palace – go and see it for yourself, and get a guided tour to give you some extra insight as you go round, is my recommendation. But there are some nice courtyards off the main streets

as a stark contrast to the crowded Hell that is “souvenir alley”, the corridor leading from the South Gate.

The sheer number of tourists has (unsurprisingly) had its impact. For example, there’s one square which used to have tables and chairs set out outside a restaurant, but now they are limited to setting up places on the steps.

Outside the confines of the Palace proper, there are some scenic corners

and you can see where building started by leaning extra houses against the Palace walls.

There is a large, sprawling and busy market with many opportunities to buy local produce (Jane bought some of the local tangerines which were, indeed, very tangy)

and the area around the Palace is, generally, very crowded.

That being the case, we decided to take up on a suggestion from Malenka and head over to a quieter aera of Split, towards the Marjan Forest Park (Šuma Marjan), which is on a hill to the north-east of the harbour.

(in the middle of the hill in the photo above, you can see the terrace of the bar ViDiLiCi where we stopped for a coffee and a beer). It’s a pleasant walk up a stepped road

and the terrace I mention above has a good view over the town

as has the walk back down towards the town.

All too soon we had to reconvene to catch the (somewhat knee-crunchingly cramped) tour bus to take us to the next stage of the day, in the Krka National Park, which held the promise of some spectacular scenery. So, to see this, read on, dear reader, read on….

The Machu Picture Trail

14th April 2018

[Extra-long read alert]

As I’ve mentioned before, we were staying in Urubamba, at the very lovely Inkaterra Hacienda. In order to tick the next box, sorry, experience the next wonder on our journey, we had to get somewhere near Machu Picchu so that we could hike up to see one of the wonders of the tourist world, the sight of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. The accepted way to do this is by PeruRail train from Ollantaytambo. The downside of this way is the logistics, which involved getting up at 4.30am to be taken by taxi at 5.30am once again up that bloody bumpy road into Ollantaytambo. However, our guide for the trek, Alex, had done a good job of making sure that things worked smoothly. We arrived in good time for our train, which was due to leave at 0710, with tickets and passports in hand, both of which are necessary for the journey.

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The train is described as a Vistadome train, which means it has large windows, and also some windows in the ceilings of each compartment to give the passengers the maximum chance of catching the scenery. It’s pretty good scenery, it has to be said.

Urubamba River scene

During the journey, snacks and drinks are served, and we had a chance to chat to the Australian couple who had seats opposite ours. We spent much more of the journey listening to the husband rather than having a conversation, but they were clearly good-hearted people and they’d travelled extensively so had some interesting stories to tell.

The train stopped at the border of the Machu Picchu national park for the madmen, sorry, keen beans who were doing the 4-day hike to get off and start punishing themselves. It then stopped some distance further on, at a point formally called “Kilometre 104”, which was our cue to get off and start our 1-day hike. Again, we had to provide our passports before being allowed to proceed (no-one is allowed on the trails without (a) booking the date and (b) a guide – this enables the authorities to control the numbers on the trails).

And so we were off. The trail we were doing consists of a long, consistently uphill section starting at about 2,100 metres altitude and toiling up to a place called Wiñay Wayna at 2,560m, followed by an “Inca flat”, i.e. not particularly steep up or down, section leading to the final pull up to the Sun Gate. It was spitting with rain for much of the first section, but not so much that it spoiled anything, and we got some great views as we went up. This, for example, is just down the track from where we got off, showing a passing place for trains near a hydro-electric station (now disused after being wiped out by flooding and replaced by another, bigger one elsewhere).

PeruRail Trains Crossing

and you can just see the green roof of our starting point at the foot of this photo.

View along the Urubamba River

This is the sort of trail we were hiking

and it moves relentlessly upwards.

Alex and Jane share an interest in flowers, particuarly orchids, and I have to say I was grateful to Jane for engaging Alex in conversation about the various species to be found, as this gave me a chance for a breather whilst they chatted and I took photos of various orchids along the way (we found 12 different species in all, a record for Alex); here are a couple:

An orchid on the trek

There were also wild lupins growing along the route.

Every so often, we had to stand aside as porters (supporting the multi-day hikes) came down the mountain – carrying camping equipment and at a run, for God’s sake!

Porters running down the hill

Eventually, the relentless uphill stopped and we had arrived at Wiñay Wayna (which is also the final camping spot for those on the 4-day hike). Alex had mentioned that there was an Inca site there, but I had never heard the name before, and so hadn’t thought it would be of any great pith or moment. How wrong I was!

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This site has been described as a mini Machu Picchu, and one can see why. Its name means “Forever Young” in Quecha, which is a reference to the perpetual greenness of the grass on the terraces, kept irrigated by clever Inca design and building. It displays many of the Inca skills with stoneworking and offers some stunning views.

Wiñay Wayna

We stopped at the camping spot for some lunch and then moved on towards our final destination. On the way, we had a fine view of the first section of our hike.

The zig-zag trail you can see on the right-hand slope is what we walked up to get to Wiñay Wayna.

About 90 minutes after leaving Wiñay Wayna, we were getting very near to the Sun Gate, whence you get the Famous View. But there are a couple of obstacles you have to overcome beforehand. First is a 53-step, very steep, section of the trail. Alex used this as an opportunity to show off

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doing it in 13 seconds (his record is 12 seconds, but he’s a young thing and likes mountaineering and stuff like that). And then, almost immediately, there’s the final pull up to the Sun Gate.

The final steps up to the Sun Gate

And then……there you are. The View.

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Is it me, or is this a bit of an anti-climax? Seeing this, I felt the same way as I had on first seeing Stonehenge, which I had expected to be a massive, towering edifice, but which turned out to be, well, just a group of stones in the middle of a large open space. Perhaps my vision isn’t good enough to pick out the detail, but I found that as we got closer there were many more rewarding views of the site, where you could actually begin to understand the phenomenal complexity of what had been achieved by the Incas.

Machu Picchu - scale and complexity

We carried on to the site,

and its true breath-taking nature became ever clearer as we got nearer.

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And getting on to the site itself gives some awe-inspiring views

Machu Picchu - my favourite photo

as well as some less awe-inspiring, but quite charming, as there are llamas on the site.

Llama at Machu Picchu

Alex is as knowledgeable about Machu Picchu as only someone with a passion for a topic can be, and he had all sorts of fascinating insights into the history and culture of the place as well as its astonishing architecture.

We took a bit of a break at this point, as it was late on in the afternoon (which was good, as it meant the site was not crowded), so we took the (very bumpy, bouncy, twisty, turny, 10km) bus ride down to Machu Picchu village (also called Aguas Calientes) for the evening. Jane and I stayed at another splendid Inkaterra hotel, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo. This is a resort-style hotel at the eastern end of the village and it shares the same high-quality brand values as its sister location in Urubamba, except the Pisco Sours are even better.

The next day, the site was much more crowded (this platform was empty when we were there the day before)

Crowds taking THE postcard photo

but it wasn’t too intolerable. The second day’s visit provided some more insights into the details (as well as some more great views)

A lot of work goes into maintining the site, with workmen removing vegetation from the stonework

and even abseiling down the walls to keep them in good shape.

The vast scope of the terracing becomes clear as you walk around

and the trademark Inca Trapezoid shape can be seen everywhere.

Inca archway at Machu Picchu

The temple part of the site has a formal entrance gate

alongside which can be seen the demarcation line between the religious part and the farming part of the site.

There are ceremonial chambers with specially shaped stones for sacrifical purposes (llamas got a raw deal, particuarly black ones, which were regarded as being extra lucky in sacrifice). this is the Temple of the Sun

Temple enclouse and ceremonial stone

and this is the Temple of the Condor.

note the special runnels in the sacrifical stone for the blood to run off in a controlled way.

The site has extensive living quarters, some for farmers, some for noble and religious leaders,

and some roofing has been reconstructed, albeit using eucalyptus wood instead of bamboo to support the thatching.

House with reconstructed roof at Machu Picchu

Note the rope ties and pegs used to hold things in place.

And, all over the site, there is evidence of the astonishing stoneworking abilities of the Incas, with intricate interlocking patterns, and even rounding in the corners.

Detailed Inca stonework in Machu Picchu

The quality and robustness of the Inca stonework is shown in its resistance to earthquake damage. This is not universal, though.

This is a temple chamber (you can tell by the niches, which were used to contain idols) that one might think had suffered earthquake damage. However, there’s a photo from 1911 – well before recent and serious earthquakes – which shows this damage, and it’s now widely accepted that it was caused by dynamiting in creation of the local railway. This is, of course, a shame, and it’s good to see that the authorities are taking some steps to control access and to maintain the site. However, one gets the sad impression from talking to guides and others that there are urgent investments needed which are unlikely to be made. One can only hope that common sense reigns so that the wonders of Machu Picchu are preserved for future generations to marvel at.