Category: Europe

Kiev on Independence day.

building

Mike and I had decided to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat.

The nearest City is Kiev, and since the place itself looked interesting we had an afternoon and an entire day exploring.

Above you can see some of the daunting old buildings in the area.

bunker

The place has a real glamour feel to it, with attractive girls everywhere and lots of sports cars sand jewellery.

We went into what we thought was a quiet bar, while we planned our exploration, when I went to visit the bathroom, it turned out, downstairs was a nightclub, modelled on a military bunker !.

main_street

The beating heart of the city is Khreshchatyk street. 1.2 kilometres long, practically everything happens on this street.

golden_gate1

Our first “must see” site in the city.

The Golden Gate.

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Originaly built in the 1100’s, its been “modernised” quite a lot since then.

st_micheals

The Golden dome of St Michael’s monastery.

st_sophias

St Sophia’s cathedral.

idip_march1

Not planned at all, we realised we’d be visiting during Independence day.

As we wandered around, lots of people had donned their uniforms and medals and were marching proudly through the streets.

Ukraine declared independence on the 24th August, 1991.

Mykhailo_Hrushevsky

A statue to Mykhailo Hrushevsky, a famous academic, politician and historian.

opera_house

National opera house of Ukraine built in 1867.

underground

I normally explore new places on foot, at ground level, but time was pressing so we took the underground (I couldn’t believe just how far underground this went).

pechersk_lavra

But we emerge back into the sunshine and see the Pechersk Lavra with its series of cave monastery’s underneath.

landscape

The National Military History Museum.

The whole area is landscaped with spectacular hillside views.

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Statue’s commemorating the fallen, and an eternal flame.

stalin_organ

I grew up during the cold war, I read a lot of military stuff at the time.

One other thing, was playing a computer game at the time called Gunship. You “flew” an AH64 Apache gunship in various scenarios on the Commodore 64.

Best part was when it detected an enemy vehicle it would flash up its name.

For this reason, I instantly recognised many of the vehicles in the museum. This one, nicknamed the Stalin Organ is a multi rocket launcher (the rocket tubes being similar to the pipes in a church organ).

 

bmp

Several BTR and BMP vehicles that I recognised, some tracked, some with wheels.

I even remember the vulnerability of the BMP found by the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. If you shoot through the back wheel tire, there is little armour and the petrol tank will catch fire.

I kept wandering around looking for a T72 tank. I kept seeing what I thought were T72’s, but always seemed to get it wrong, and Mike became increasingly impatient.

t72

Interestingly, I’ve since read there is only one T72 in the whole museum. That is a type 3, which they captured and have put on display to prove that Russia is backing Ukrainian separatist (those types of tanks were never issue outside Russia).

eternal_flame

Enough about tanks. I quiet, reflective moment when I stop and think how many people have died for simple freedoms like the ability to travel to another country and meet new people.

launcher

The horrifying scene of a PSD 10 Intercontinental ballistic missile launcher.

mi24

Finally, the thing I really wanted to see.

An MI 24 Hind helicopter in the E variant. Incredible to see a real one after all these years.

But slightly bitter sweet. With children queuing to sit inside it, it took something away from the awesome helicopter I’d expected to see.

bankside

We wandered back down the hill and to the bank of the Dnieper river.

There were some amateur film makers in questionable attire, but we just gave them a wide birth.

A pontoon next to a river boat provided us with a few beers then we continued on our way.

resort

If I’d had more time I’d have like to visit the beach across the water.

This isn’t just a bit of sand next to a river, its a full beach environment with sunbathers, swimmers, the whole lot.

Hard to imagine that happening on the Manchester ship canal.

bridge

A slightly more modern bridge to the other side, shows just how wide this river is.

bungie

As we got into town, we passed under this bridge, and you could see some enterprising individual have set up a bungee swing under the bridge.

rooftop

With a long day coming to a close, we find a restaurant with views over the river bank (it was a national holiday after all, so loads of people were in a party mood).

chicken_kiev

I’m hungry now, but what should I eat ?

Since were in Kiev, Chicken Kiev seems to be the thing to do.

Tasted superb, I really enjoyed it.

indip_square

Wandering back into town to Independence square.

Thousands of people out celebrating.

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The march comes to a close at Independence square and at the end several people embrace.

indip_celeb

But the fun’s not over, and the party goes on into the night.

Chernobyl and the ghost city of Pripyat 1.

Intro

I remember reading in a self help book, out of the blue, that superglue was specifically invented for emergency first aid during the Vietnam war.

Within 7 days, I’d seen reference to it in the film Dog Soldiers and the same information at the War Museum of the North in Manchester. Something similar happened on my road to Chernobyl.

In 1986 when I was young and the world seemed too complicated, I remember seeing a reactor explosion had happened in “Russia” and a few months later, sheep in Wales and the Lake district were getting disturbing readings from the Geiger counter.

In 2013 I was playing Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and found myself wandering around “Chernobyl” (actually Pripyat) in a Ghillie suit with a sniper rifle.

Realising Game of Thrones was coming to an end and the monthly yacht payments might be in jeopardy, the people at HBO/Sky decided to make a series about the incident (which not suprisingly was called Chernobyl).

md

I realised:

A, it was time to finally visit this place…

B, with the TV series being so popular, loads of other people would want to visit it and that would drive the price up. The time to go was now!

I got in touch with Mike Delafield (I was going to go with Nikki, but the words “It isn’t safe” kind of wrapped that up).

bus

We arrived in Kiev and spent the day exploring.

The following day, we joined Gamma tours, piled into the minibus and headed for Chernobyl and Pripyat.

It takes 2 hours to drive there, so our first stop was at a garage to get some coffee.

To break up the journey, they showed a documentary about the massive clean up operation of the area.

stalin

Our first stop, is to see this Statue of Lenin, one of the few remaining in Ukraine.

Since declaring independence, most of these statues have been removed, yet this one remains (due to its location no doubt).

There are checkpoints at the 30 km and 10 km radius.

entrance_sign

Me standing next to the Chernobyl town sign.

angel

The monument to the 3rd Angel – The Wormwood star, created by Anatoly Haidamaka to commemorate all who died as a result of the Chernobyl catastrophe.

The reference is from the New Testament, Revelation 8:10-11:

“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from Heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”

One conspiracy theory, is reference to Wormwood in the passage. It’s been stated that Chernobyl is the Ukrainian word for Wormwood and all of this was preordained. In actual fact, Chernobyl is the word for Mugwart, which is similar but not the same as Wormwood.

vilages

When people talk about Chernobyl, they usually mean Pripyat. To explain, Chernobyl was where the nuclear reactors were located and Pripyat was a custom built town to house and entertain the workers there.

There were also a large number of villages within the 30k zone, which were dismantled and buried.

This garden has a sign for each village that no longer exists.

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Memorial to “Those who saved the world”

A strange sort of thing, but it’s dedicated to the firemen and other workers who put out the fire and decontaminated the area at immense personal cost.

mach

Another slightly odd exhibit.

Various remotely controlled robotic machines, used during cleanup

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As we drive down the main road, we come a small bus stop, and a single road leading into the forest with no signs around.

We drive down several miles and then come to this. The top secret Duga radar station.

The scale of this thing, as you walk around it, is incredible. It must have taken thousands of men months to construct it.

rad1

It was reactor number 4 which exploded, but reactor 5 was half finished, with plans for a total of 8 reactors. They would provide most of the power for the Soviet Union.

The Giant radar array “DUGA-1” was an attempt at an early warning station. It never worked properly but since it required so much power, it was located near Chernobyl.

sarc1

We drive towards the Industrial site of the ChNPP.

The silver dome you can see in the background, is the reactor shelter structure.

It was only when this was fully completed that modern tours as we see them today were allowed.

The whole thing was built from steel and concrete, and manoeuvred into position on specially built railway lines.

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From a distance of 250m.

No pictures are allowed to be taken of the reactor, but ridiculously, you can take a picture of this monument, which originaly stood in Prypyat.

It didn’t take much creativity to get the Arch into the picture.

canteen

It’s time for lunch (which was included in the price).

It had a sort of factory canteen feel you’d expect.

food

Not restaurant food, but filling and I ate most of mine.

I was quite thirsty and would have loved a can of coke or something. Instead, they just had this sort of juice thing.

rooftop

We arrive in Pripyat for our walking tour (what would be the highlight of the trip for me.

We weren’t allowed to enter any buildings for safety reasons. I found this picture on the internet which shows the town from up high and gives  you an idea of the size of it (43,000 residents lived here).

route

The custom-built city of Pripyat was constructed in 1970 for the sole purpose of housing the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant workers and their families. For 16 years, from 1970 to 1986, it was the most expensive city in the entire Soviet Union, indicating the importance of the newly constructed nuclear power plant.

Mike worked out roughly the route we took.

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Prypiat ferry terminal and the riverside café

The town is named after the river its next too.

This cafe had amazing stained glass windows and you could get coffee and drinks while you waited for the ferry.

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You can see the stain glass better from inside.

You can see the place is very rundown.

vend

Next to the building, one of the first vending machines in the soviet union.

You had to bring your own glass.

river

The ferry terminal located behind the cafe.

It was possible to get a ferry from here to Kiev to visit family or for a day out.

Overall, nothing like how I imagined life would be in the Soviet Union in 1986 !.

I’d read about dilapidated boats on the Pripyat river, but these had all gone when I was there.

There was also talk about mutated fish. I didn’t see any sign of mutation, but there were lots of fish swimming around.

Chernobyl and the ghost city of Pripyat 2.

appart1

Finally wandering around Pripyat.

What a beautiful town. Considering it was the communist soviet union, it was like some sort of American idyllic town (no doubt what it was modeled on).

The Whitehouse, one of the elite buildings with extra luxury’s for party members and other senior members of staff.

appart2

More conventional living quarters. But each one had its own kitchen and bathroom (when I’d previously visited St Petersburg, many of the Government flats involved you living with your whole family in 1 room and a kitchen and bathroom shared between 4 (although admittedly, it was rent free !)).

A common feature was a 2nd bedroom so family members could visit for the weekend. This must have felt like Utopia.

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A major selling point of the town to new “recruits”  was education (the target residents were people with young families).

We wander into the school complex.

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Dilapidated school rooms.

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From outside the school, you can see why people weren’t allowed into buildings.

In this case, one side of the building had literally fallen down.

pool

Inside, the famous swimming pool from Call of duty.

gym

Further along, the Gym, with the wall mounted wooden training racks, that I remember from my own school days.

chair

While walking around, we came across this chair, standing in the middle of the street.

The day lasted quite long, and the weather superb, which meant I was quite exhausted at time and wanted to sit down.

But then I was reminded of a comment by our guide on the way to the area. She said, DO NOT SIT DOWN in any area. Previously a girl had done this very thing, her jeans were tested and she ended up travelling home without them !.

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Pripyat hospital. The uniforms of the firemen are still in the basement and highly radioactive.

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Entrance to the Music hall.

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Lenin Square, the main square in the centre town.

hotel

Hotel Polissia its from here that you are sniping in Call of duty.

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Another view of Lenin square.

hq

Prypiat Town Hall –after 1986 – main headquarters for military and liquidators.

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Palace of culture “Energetic”, the biggest entertainment center in Pripyat

track

As we wander through the trees and undergrowth that have taken over the town, we come to this concrete area and our guide asks us what we think it is.

After a little while, it’s clear that we have no idea. In reality, we are standing on a running track.

The track runs around a football pitch.

stadium

We’re standing in Avangard stadium. Fitness and activity were encouraged and FC Stroitel were the local side who played here.

dodge

With our tour coming to a close, we see the bumper cars in the amusement park which never opened.

wheel

The Iconic ferris wheel, the most famous spot in the entire area.

nursery

As we head home, we visit the remains of the village of Kopachi and see inside the nursery school.

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We’re told to walk very specifically on the path, this is the most radioactive area that we’ll visit.

So we test it. It’s a scary number !. One of the saddest parts of the day, is the journey home.

We see video footage of pageants, sporting tournaments and Christmas celebrations from a time when Chernobyl and Pripyat were full of life and happiness.

An absolutely amazing trip. Highly recommended.

Northern Ireland 1 – Troubles, Game of Thrones & Ulster fry.

me_belfast

Although its nearby, I’d never been to Northern Ireland.

This is a picture of me in front of the Salmon of knowledge.

It is made up of pictures and symbols from Northern Ireland, contains a time capsule, and symbolises the cleaning of the river Lagan.

troubles

Although Northern Ireland is transformed from the days before the Good Friday agreement, I couldn’t help being nervous.

After all, my youth was filled with TV images of the troubles.

If you only did things that made you feel comfortable, you’d never do anything.

fer

We’d decided to travel by ferry, and the best part, the port it leaves from is near the Liver Building where I work.

So, I finished work on Friday evening, picked up my bag and set off.

fer_bar

I wasn’t sure what to expect on the ferry. Was it going to be filled with stag do’s and the like.

Nothing of the sort, they had a really nice bar/cafeteria, Wi-Fi throughout and a small cinema for Children.

The surprise was when it was time for bed. We headed for our bedroom, but lots of people produced sleeping bags and proceeded to “bed down” on the lounge floor.

fer_bunk

Out on-suit room was very comfortable. It was actually a 4 birth, but we pushed the 2 additional beds up.

The shower was piping hot, loads of room for our bags and lots of charging ports for our phones and tablets.

Now the bad news, it docks in Belfast at 6am, so no lie in bed.

city_hall

I had researched things, but for some reason I thought we’d arrive in the city centre. Not so, it took 90 minutes to walk into town, but the walk helped us to wake up.

We wander around the town, which was pretty quet at that time of the morning. This is City Hall, a very famous building in Belfast.

Straight away, I start hearing people speaking Ulster/Scotts, the local dialect.

ulster_fry

Speaking of Ulster, I was really hungry.

My guidebook said you musnt leave Belfast without trying an Ulster Fry.

It was quite delicious. One thing I notice when I travel is how people react to tipping. We put £2 into the tips jar in the cafe we visited and they looked delighted.

croad

Our first activity is a visit to Crumlin road Gaol.

The trip involves a tour of the prison, some lunch and a tour around the peace wall, one half given by a loyalist former prisoner and the 2nd half given by a republican former prisoner.

But first, were shown a short documentary outlining the history of Ireland, the troubles , the Good Friday agreement and the constitution.

tt_shank

We were told we could take as many pictures as we wanted but no video and no voice recording.

We were introduced to our first tour guide. Asked if he had been a UVA supported, he explained that he had actually been a combatant and regularly went out in the evining armed, usualy to provide security.

He said that we should ask him any question, he was keen to tell the story. I found him very open minded and well educated.

mur

She showed us the upper and lower Shankhill road where the UVA, the UVF and the Red Hand Commando were roughly based.

There were Murals everywhere and lots of tours run by Black Taxi.

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One surprisingly ironic moment was while waking near the peace all, he told us to slow down, because it was “dangerous”.

It actually turned out the road had a blind bend and he was concerned about road accidents.

tt_wall

The peacewall, is there to protect the comunities (so in reality its not really about peace) we’d been given pens to write message on the wall.

I was amazed to see how close the houses were to each other. Our guide explained that in his youth, some older family members had convinced him to join the UVA. At that age he said, many young men are more easily influenced. I thought of my own youth and I had to agree.

tt_door

There is a door in the wall we visited. He said the last person to walk through this door was the Dalhi Lama (he wont be doing it again soon, on close inspection, its now welded shut).

tt_gates

The Gates are closed remotely every night just before dark.

I asked him what would it have been like if he’d been on the “wrong” side of the wall after dark. He said simply, that never would have happened.

They would have recognised me simply because they didnt recognise me and then bad things would have happened…

We were introduced to our republican guide. I was surprised when both guides shook hands.

When I asked, the UVA chap said: We are both former combatants, we’ve been shot at and injured. We’ve both lost family, so we know what’s at stake!.

tt_bsands

He wasn’t a catholic and had been out on a peaceful human rights march when the “army” had broken his jaw with a rifle. “Thats when I joined the IRA” he said.

It has to be said that the 2nd guide, was not as open minded but he did tell his story eloquently.

He explained that Catholics had been persecuted by the police and the army, and struggled to find work and propper housing due to prejudice.

He said he felt that many of the problems had been resolved, but that the IRA had disarmed and disbanded yet the Red Hand Commando were still active.

We saw this Mural to Bobby Sands who we’d hear more about later in the Crumlin Prison tour.

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Interesting sticker.

There are still strong feeling about the local people and the police.

tt_church

We walk pass the Clonard Monastry where the peace talks were held.

tt_fallsroad

I’ve stood on the Great Wall of China, and I’ve watched the sun set over the Pyramids at Giza, but I honestly never thought I would stand on the Falls road.

I had read of so many terrible things happening on the Falls road. Over 3600 people died in the troubles, a quarter of them in a small area around where I’m standing.

Yet, it was like any other street, people were walking to the pub and carrying shopping home.

cuffs_lunch

With the outdoor part of the tour complete, we head back to Crumlin road gaol and the Cuffs restaurant there.

Lunch was no suprise. Irish stew, and actualy reallygood. We got a free drink, but I declined Guiness and instead had lager.

tt_cr_stairs

We might our tour guide, a charming lady who walked us all around the prison and exercise yard telling us stories of things that had happened.

We even got to see the governers office. She said that Bobby Sands was married there, with only a few sandwiches and a prison guards for witnesses.

tt_cr_tunnel

Across the road, rather run down, was the courthouse. So many people were arrested at the time, that an underground tunnel underneath the road, connected the 2 buildings.

Our tour finishes and our guide asks if we’d like to sign the visitors book. She had been slightly nervous throughout, and it was only then hat we found out. For 14 years she’d been one of a handfull female prion guards who had worked at the Prison. She had retired and a few years later (a week earlier) had taken a job as a tour guide.

Perhaps some skills are transferable.

Northern Ireland 2 – Troubles, Game of Thrones & Ulster fry.

europa

The next day, our trip moves onto a completely different track.

Game of Thrones (one of my favourite TV programes) is produced mostly in Northern Ireland and there’s a chance to see some of the significant places from the series.

It would also enable us to see the Antrim coast and some of the amazing countryside there.

On our way to the starting point, we pass the Europa hotel. At one time, the most bombed hotel in Europe.

got_mel

We board the coach, and head off.

Our first stop, is the cave where Melisandre gives birth to the Shadow assassin.

antrim_coast

The tour continues and we see the beautiful scenery of the Antrim coast.

castle

Dunluce Castle, 17th century ruins used as the exterior of the House of Greyjoy.

scotland

Mull of Kintyre, only 12 miles away.

g_causeway

Although its not featured in Game of Thrones, the The Giants Causeway is a must see sight and we spent almost 2 hours here.

car_bridge

Further along, the Carrick-a- rede ropebridge and a chance to stretch out legs.

got_kingsroad

Dark Hedge, know to every fan of GOT as the The Kings Road.

Not as romantic as it seems in the series, hundreds of people there, so many that they won’t allow you to drive down it now.

henry_cooke

Back to Belfast and a quick wander around the city before dinner.

The Green/Black statue of Dr Henry Cook.

Described as an “Anti libertarian” (I don’t know what that means) is featured in front of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution.

titanic_quarter

With a whole day left, we wander over to the docks and the Titanic quarter.

hw

One of the 2 large cranes (named Samson and Goliath) at one time, the largest cranes in the world.

H & W stands for Harland and Wolf, but the folk of Belfast say it means hello & welcome.

The dry dock they stand next to, is the largest in the world.

titanic_studios

Titanic studios.

Located in a building which was the original paint shed, where the Titanic was painted.

This is where all the indoor scenes from game of thrones are shot.

If you enjoyed a scene in a cave or a palace, they were probably in here.

The back lot outside had an entire Wildling village.

hor_boat

The ugliest boat in the world

titanic

Titanic museum.

We had wanted to go and see it, but it was 20 quid.

Nikki had seen a museum of Naval ships and I had seen a Game of Thrones exhibition, so we took leave of each other and went to these instead.

got_tour

The Game of Thrones touring exhibition is set to show around the world.

Since most of the items come straight from the Belfast studio, it made sense that the TEC exhibition hall in the Titanic quarter would be its first stop.

Luckily I’m there at just the right time.

jl_cost

Jamie Lanister’s costume.

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A re-creation of the crypt at Winterfell.

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The original Hall of Faces.

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A modern visual representation of the many faced god.

Recognise the guy on the top row, 2nd from the right.

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The leader of the the white walkers.

needle

On the right Arya Stark’s sword, Needle.

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After such an amazing trip, we head for some food and another really friendly bar.

Some more excellent food, then back to the port, to get our overnight ferry back to Liverpool and straight into work for 7:30am

I can talk about what’s gone in Northern Ireland before, as I just don’t know enough about it.

But as a travel destination today, its one of the friendliest, most interesting and easily accessed destinations I can think off.

Meteora Greece, monoliths and James Bond

intro

I’d wanted to visit Meteora, but could never justify an entire trip, just to see it.

Since I was spending Christmas in Athens and it was a short train journey from there, the Meteora starting pistol was fired.

arrival

Meteora is unique, as it has large round rock monoliths located right next to the village.

So close that you can literally walk out of your hotel and your at the foot of one.

A world heritage site, they contain a number of monastery’s on top.

jb2

My main interest came when I watched a James Bond film – For your eyes only (if your my sort of age, you may remember the theme song, by Shena Easton).

A significant part of the plot and ending are featured in Metora.

station

But first, we’ve got to get there.

We leave our hotel, and as we walked towards Athens railway station, it looked derelict and I wondered if it had closed down.

I remember reading on BBC News in 2008 that Greece was in such financial difficulty that it would be cheaper to close down the train network and transport all the passengers by Taxi.

platform

Luckily, that hadn’t happened, and we arrived to find hundreds of people with the same idea as us, to visit Meteora for Christmas.

train

It looked like chaos from the platform, but once the doors opened we found our seats.

Extremely comfortable, large windows to enjoy the the view and plenty of space to store our bags.

After a relaxing 5 hours we arrive Meteora.

met

Kalamata Railway station in Kalampaka.

We take a moment to orientate ourselves, then walk to hotel Galaxy.

galaxy

The receptionist is very helpful and the hotel clean and bright (a lot better than I’d expected for the money we’d paid).

In reception, they have a bus timetable and I was surprised they had so many regular services, considering it was Christmas & New Year.

But were here in search of adventure. We dump our bags and head out.

square

We wander around the town looking for some lunch (I had burger and chips, I was on holiday after all).

There were views like this one right from the centre of town. It wasn’t very warm, but the sky was completely clear.

Meteora-map

As we relax, we review a map of the area. Not exactly to UK OS map standard, but gives us a rough idea of how to see the things we want the following day.

xmas

Back into the centre of town for an evening of nice wine and delicious Greek food.

They had a nativity thing set up in the main square.

night

Our evening over, we walk back to our hotel.

I was delighted to see that they light up the monoliths at night in this spectacular fashion.

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In the morning, we head out early towards the village of Kastraki

frozen_sign

It’s so cold, that this map, is frozen, and I have to use a tesco clubcard to clear away the section we want to visit.

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We continue up a path from the village.

The are is clear and fresh and there are tree’s on each side of the road.

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We leave the road, had into the foothills, along a path.

The sun is up now and the views spectacular.

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We find an old military vehicle is abandoned next to a vineyard.

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Branching off, we follow a path between Great Meteoron and Varlam.

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The views on either side are spectacular.

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Some parts of the path need some tlc, this bench on the trail certainly wasn’t in a state to be sat on.

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As we arrive at the monastery of Great Meteoron (the view is looking back to the monastery of Varlam) we find loads of tourists who’ve travelled up by bus).

The ask us how we’ve got there. We point back down the trail and tell them where it comes out on the road. We have 2 maps, so we give one to a friendly couple who are wearing Dr Martens.

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Inside the monastery (its a few Euros to look around), the paintings are superb. After a short while, we walk to the monastery of Varlam, and the views all around are incredible.

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But instead of going back, we head deeper into the mountains. Our intention is to loop back around Doupiani and take a circular route back to Kastraki and onto Kalampaka.

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On the way, we see a statue and flag to Papathymios Vlachava who famously led the fight agains Ali Pashi of the Ottoman empire.

It was strange really, as it was literally in the middle of nowhere.

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We pass another monastery. This time, its not actually on top of the monolith, but carved into the side.

Well off the beaten track, it was unfortunately closed.

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Back down through the mountains and forests, looking back up the trail.

d1_end

Back down through Kastraki, its just turning 6pm.

We stop on the way home at a family run restaurant – chips and red wine.

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The next morning, we choose a different route entirely.

Leading straight from Kalampaka, the paths are much better maintained.

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Were heading for the monastery of the Holly Trinity.

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Which in the James Bond film, looks like this, and is called St Cyrils.

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A spectacular scene in the film involved Bond climbing up a shear face of the monolith.

We’ve no such ambitions, and use the normal path up through the rocks.

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Inside St Stephens monastery, an enormous series of buildings.

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The are outside St Stephens has amazingly clear air, spectacular views of Kalampaka and Kastraki, and a superb spot to relax (and the place where the ATAC system was destroyed at the end of For your eyes only.

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Our adventure ends a bit more serenely.

With 2 hours before our train home, we relax with some snacks, and a cold beer, back in Kalamapaka.

Return to Athens

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I originally visited Athens in 2005 (you can read about it here and here)

I like to go away for Christmas. We visited 2 destinations in Greece, and it gave me a chance to go back to Athens.

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Straight out of the airport, we buy a metro tickets and head for the centre of Athens.

It wasn’t particularly warm, but we had a fab time.

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We arrive at Kubik Athens Smart Hotel. It was a budget affair, and I wasn’t sure what it would be like.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. It had a friendly bar, exemplary customer service and a hotel room out of tomorrows world.

It was so modern in fact, that the curtains, lights, tv and everything were controlled from a tablet.

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But were no Rock Stars and we don’t travel to hang out in hotels.

Out exploring. Its a few years since I was in Athens (the recession happened in between times). The people were still very friendly but some of the streets were really dirty.

We start off  by wandering around the Monastiraki flee market.

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The Agora museum entrance is super for taking pictures as it really leads the eye.

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On my first visit to the Agora museum, I completely missed this fascinating Spartan shield.

From the battle of Sphacteria in 425 BC. A priceless artefact, it’s the only one of its kind in the world.

In practical terms, its hard to imagine someone running around the battle field with this heavy thing, but its said that the Spartans were “a special kind” of men.

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I decided to pick out a few places I didn’t visit last time – Hadrian’s Arch.

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The stunning Panatheniac stadium.

Finishing point for the modern Athens marathon, the site has been used countless times for sporting events and the first Olympic games were held here.

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Presidential palace.

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The guard on the front gate is a member of an elite group of commando’s, but unfortunately has to wear ridiculous clothes out of tradition.

Back to our hotel, quick clean up then drinks in the hotel bar.

Some idiot Japanese students order take out Pizza’s and stank the place out. Shame, were were enjoying ourselves.

Never mind, we decided to head out for the evening.

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 An enchanting restaurant, done out like a general store with cans and supplies everywhere.

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Next morning and we head for the Acropolis to see the Parthenon.

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Last time I was here, the Parthenon marbles were stored in this small building.

The Greeks have always argued for the return of the other half of the marbles, (referred to in Britain, as the Elgin marbles), presently housed in the British Museum.

The British museum had argued that the Athenian museum was not appropriate for such significant artefacts and that was their bases for keeping hold of them.

The Greek government had countered, by constructing an incredible new museum to host the collection. So, this building was now empty (it would have made a superb cafe, and there didn’t seem to be anywhere else to get coffee !).

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A view from the Acropolis, showing the new Acropolis museum bellow.

It was only half built, the last time I was here, and I was disappointed not to be able to see it.

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The museum is literally built on top of an archaeological site, which we see as we walk towards the entrance.

Excavation of the site bellow the museum continues.

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Opened in 2009, I wandered around, and I really was impressed with its informative displays, overall quality of the building and the professionalism of the staff.

Lunch in the cafe delicious and the service superb.

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A re-creation of the Parthenon, with the marbles displayed in relative position. The ones that are missing have an ostentatious sign that says AWAITING RETURN FROM THE BRITISH MUSEUM.

the walls around the museum are glass so the marbles can be viewed in daylight, as they would be if you were wandering around the outside of the Parthenon.

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A design feature of the museum is this viewing gallery, which allows the Parthenon view to interact with the viewing of the marbles.

We head back to our hotel in a reflective mood. A few drinks and dinner near out hotel, then off to bed to prepare for our trip to Meteora.

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Arriving back in the evening, its dark and some of the streets we walk down aren’t particularly inviting

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No matter, we get to our hotel without problems and go out for dinner (its New Years Eve and my thoughts are off the amazing possibilities of the coming year).

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Back at our hotel (360 degree pop art hotel if your ever near there).

A drink on the rooftop terrace has views of the acropolis.

As its New Year, they have a fireworks display.

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In the morning, standing in the same spot.

We had breakfast, but decided to eat indoors as the weather wasn’t very nice.

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Our first top on New Years day, is the National Archaeological museum.

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The place was massive and it took me 2 hours to see all of it.

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But were on holiday, so after lots of exploring, they have a nice garden in the middle,  so we stop to relax in the cafe.

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A pigeon had somehow got inside the cafe.

Nobody seemed to mind, and the pigeon just seemed to wander around (and why not, he wasn’t doing any harm).

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We continue on our way and decide to visit another place I missed last time – Lycabettus hill.

I wanted to take the cable car, but Nikki insisted we walk.

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Has spectacular views of the city, and there were hundreds of people at the top.

The 360 degree views of Athens were incredible.

Strangely, there didn’t appear to be many skyscrapers, which for an international capital, was a surprise.

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Back into town, the Metropolitan cathedral, a modern building that contrasts with all the ancient stuff I’ve been seeing over the past few days.

A few drinks, then back on the metro to the airport.

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At the Airport, about to go home.

A machine allows me to vote: Should the Elgin Marbles be returned to Athens ?

I visit the British Museum frequently. They’ve got enough artefacts to spare.

Vilnius – across the old Iron curtain 1

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I grew up during the cold war. when I was 15 “those people” on the other side of the wall would murder us in our beds if they got the chance…

Whatever, but perhaps why I find Eastern European and former Soviet union country’s so interesting.

I’d had a fab time in Tallinn in Estonia, so Vilnius in Lithuania seemed a like next venture.

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I always travel in style.

As we arrived to board our Ryanair plane, I noticed some “revellers” had been forced to make a quick exit and left their drinks behind.

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We arrived in Vilnius, and got a cab to our accommodation.

Interestingly, it was in a forecourt, with a central door.

The accommodation was superb, but we never got to meet the owner, he just sent us these instructions by text.

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We had en-suit as expected, but also a kitchen and a washing machine (latter 2 were not needed, but nice to have).

Our room was spacious, but for good measure featured this cupboard, brilliantly designed so all our gear could be unpacked and stored and didn’t clutter up the room.

I’m thinking seriously about construction one for my spare room.

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We have a wander around, and some of the places look a bit boring and dull.

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Further along there was this interesting street with Cafe’s and bars.

We found out afterwards that (quite literally) all the businesses on the right hand side thrive and all the ones on the left, struggle and close.

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We’d read about a free tour each day, run in different languages.

It’s a bit daft really (the premise, not the tour). It isn’t actually free, at the end you are asked to make a donation.

Some people gave Raminita (who was knowledgable, charismatic and spoke perfect English) half a Euro !.

We gave her 15 between us. There were a lot of Americans on our tour, and as it was a week before the Royal wedding, the girl in the middle was sporting a “Megan Markle” look.

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The George Bush plaque at city hall.

It was here, that he famously said, anyone who makes an enemy of Lithuania makes an enemy of the United States.

Everyone was really proud, until they found out he visited 3 other countries and said exactly the same thing 🙂

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We got to visit the famous republic of Uzupis.

The main entrance is this small bridge crossing the Vilnia river.

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In reality, Uzupis is a small bohemian neighbourhood.

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Although its not recognised by any country or the UN, it has its own constituation, printed in many languages.

It also has an army of 11 men and you can get your passport stamped there.

Overall, I really like it there. The way the people of the area and come together and really formed a community.

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Before we left Uzupis, I saw this mural.

I don’t completely agree with everything it says about Cannabis, but its certainly food for thought.

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We visit the writers wall, featuring plaques for famous Lithuanian writers.

One in particular is Antanas Skema. He wrote The White Shroud, banned during soviet times, it’s considered Lithuania’s first contemporary novel.

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We arrive at Cathedral square.

Statue of Grand Duke Gediminas.

Born in 1275 he was responsible for the creation of Vilnius as the capital of Lithuania.

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In the background, cathedral tower.

In the middle of the picture, one of the massive rocks, used to block roads so tanks couldn’t pass during the fight for independence.

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The actual cathedral itself is pretty spectacular.

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I decided to wander around inside.

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It’s been rebuilt and extended several times.

So this alcove for example is much older than the main hall.

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But we’ve wandered around now for hours and are in need of some refreshments.

We find this “authentic” place, where all the staff wore medieval costumes and there was a video showing a Knights pageant.

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Of the 2 traditional meals I wanted to try, soup served in a bowl made of bread.

The further into the soup you went, the more bread became available.

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We wandered along the Gedimino high street.

There was a festival to celebrate the anniversary of Lithuania joining the European Union.

Just as my countrymen are marching towards Brexit, the daftest thing I think the UK’s ever done.

Interesting to see the contrast.

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On the stage some children were singing. Time to keep walking.

Vilnius – across the old Iron curtain 2

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We chose entertainment of a different kind.

The Tesla Pub, celebrates the life and work of Nikola Tesla, inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist and futurist he invented alternating current.

It had a really cool steam punk theme, some really good beer and an extensive wine selection.

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A more serious cultural site, the Museum of occupation.

Like many other countries, Lithuania was occupied by the Nazi’s, then “liberated” by the Soviets, who decided to stay.

The result, decades of misery for the people who lived there.

This corridor shows rooms where people were imprisoned for political “crimes” like writing poetry.

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This room with a raised glass floor, was the execution room.

Outside, the names of all the people who died there are inscribed on the wall.

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A running video showing Nazi’s at an event in black and white had some interesting background sound.

Then I realised. It was the Darth Vader music from star wars !.

Further along, this exhibit shows the classic weapon of the freedom fighter, the Molotov cocktail.

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A section of the original Wall of Vilnius, built in 1522.

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And a slightly more modern “tidy” version of the wall.

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Early evening and we wander around Kalnai park (an amazing park with miles of hills and forests to explore).

At the top, is the hill of 3 crosses.

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The hill was famous for 7 friars being beheaded there.

The view across Vilnius was pretty spectacular, although this photo (taken badly) doesn’t reflect that.

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Gediminis tower.

The first castle built overlooking the city, and an internation symbol of Lithuania.

Unfortunately, it was closed for repairs, so we had to take this picture from Cathedral square.

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The following day, we decide to head out of town.

Passing through the Gate of dawn, we head for the bus/coach station.

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The bus was cheap and pretty comfortable, to take us to…

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Trakai.

A nice place with lots of countryside and a castle to explore.

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There were loads of places to eat and drink, the place is massively popular with local people from Vilnius.

We decide to have a drink and something to eat. Kibinai is a sort of Lithuanian Cornish pasty.

I’d read about them while researching the trip and it was just as nice as I’d expected.

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We wander around the lake. The weather was fantastic throughout the trip.

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There was a half marathon being run and at one point we found ourselves in the middle of this bridge (which connects a number of Island on the lake) with about 100 people running towards us.

We resisted the urge to jump in the water.

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Trakai Island castle.

It’s been built and rebuilt and then modernised.

You can tell by the different ages of the bricks in this picture.

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You have to pay to get in, but its only a few Euros.

Inside this sort of market square, children were being shown how to fight with plastic swords and fire toy bows and arrows.

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Inside, it the typical stately home thing with tables and plates and expensive chairs.

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There are maps and books, many dating back hundreds of years, but some created during soviet times.

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We wander around the moat.

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Exploring inside the old castle, with its spiral staircase.

I even found out that the staircases were designed to run clockwise-downwards.

The reason ?

The average knight is right handed.

The defending knight will be coming down the stairs so his sword will be in the optimum place.

The attacking knight will be travelling up the stairs, his sword will be flush to the wall, making attacks much more difficult.

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Some of the bricks used to build and repair the castle.

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Inside the castle, this spectacular 3 story arrangement with balcony’s and battlements.

With our castle adventure complete, its time to head home.

So Vilnius isn’t really a “see the Eiffel tower” sort of place, it was more about soaking up the atmosphere.

Once again, thanks for reading.

The search for adventure continues.

Iceland – the land of Ice and Fire 1

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Iceland is a country I’d wanted to visit for years.

The main problems I faced were

A, all the people I’d considered going with had already been.

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B, It’s staggeringly expensive.

I saved up, and Nikki agreed to come along with me, as long as we did a different itinerary to the one she’d done previously.

So off we go.

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We flew with Easyjet and I got a chance to update my mind map for the year, and catch up with some Madam Secretary.

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Iceland is the size of the US State of Kentucky. With a population of only 300,000 there are vast areas where nobody lives.

As we get the coach from the airport I can see that there are some houses who’s nearest neighbour is a mile away.

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We arrived at the City Centre Hotel (an original name if ever I’ve heard one).

The Reykjavik locals were very helpful, but finding it wasn’t helped by there being 3 other hotels with similar names.

When I walked into the lobby I thought we’d made a terrible mistake. Despite it being above 8.5 on booking.com, the placed smelled awful…

Basically, all the hot water on the Island, is provided by hot springs. And they smell of sulphur. The hotel itself, was actually spotless, and I needn’t have worried.

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In the morning, we headed towards the harbour.

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Iceland has not had a standing Army since 1869 however, it was an early member of Nato.

Despite not having a Navy, its Coastguard service is heavily militarised as you can see from the ship above.

Walking further around the harbour, there were dozens of boats taking people out to see whales and dolphins.

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Lake Tjornin (which means pond).

In the background if Frikirkjan church and one of many modern (or strange, depending on your point of view) sculptures around the lake.

This one is called “Monument to the unknown bureaucrat”.

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We wander into the tourist information inside at the back of the picture, is this amazing table top map of the entire Island.

While here, we pick up a Reykjavik city card. It’s the cheapest way to see most of the attractions, museums and even an Island (more about that later).

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There are lots of really good walking opportunities in Iceland, but its so spread out and desolate in places that the tourist information can rent you an emergency beacon.

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But after only an hour, its time for coffee again.

A place called Idno, was right out of Agatha Christy.

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The Icelandic punk museum, ironically set up in a disused toilet.

It was originally opened by Jonny Rotten.

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Arnaholl park.

The statue is of Ingolfr Arnarson, considered to be Iceland’s first permanent settler.

The story goes that he threw his 2 high seat wooden pillars into the water and said wherever the pillars wash up, I’ll make my camp.

Two of his slaves spent 3 years looking for them. This lead to the foundation of Reykjavik in 874.

Either that, or the slaves got board and with time on their hands, made 2 pillars 🙂

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Inside the settlement exhibition.

It tells the story of the early settlers and how they lived.

The 10th century hall was excavated in 2001. Its 20m long and 8 metres wide with a 4 meter long fire hearth in the centre.

But its not just the foundations of a thousand year old house.

There are loads of interesting exhibits. In one of them, you could slide a time line and it would show you the various stages of construction.

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I stop in the cafe to plan out the rest of my day.

Its at this moment, that you get a taste of how expensive Iceland is.

Since very little is made or produced in Iceland, everything else has to be flown in.

In this case a cheese and ham Panini costs £12 !.

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From here, we visit the National Museum of Iceland.

There was lots of stuff about how they came under the rule of the Danish, and the dark times when the Lutheran church (which everyone was made to join) prevailed.

It said simply, it was easy to see if something was banned by the Lutheran church. If it was fun or pleasant, it was almost certainly not allowed and punishable by drowning or hanging.

I saw this very impressive loom which I decided to photograph.

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Iceland depends heavily on its fishing industry.

I could only imagine what they were trying to catch with fish hooks this big.

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I hadn’t realised, that Britain had actually invaded Iceland during the 2nd world war.

It turned out, that the Icelanders were not allies of the Nazi’s, but it was felt best to “protect” the Island.

Various hospital and runways were built and at the end of the war, they were handed over to the Icelandic government.

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Iceland cut all ties with Denmark in 1944.

In 1950 – 1975 they extended their fishing territory by 200 miles.

The “British” would fish in these waters under the protection of gunboats.

The trawl wire cutter featured above, is said to be the only weapon ever invented by Icelanders (it was used to cut the fishing nets of foreign fishing boats).

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We’ve spent enough time indoors, so it’s time to get out and see the place.

It was cold, but nothing like freezing. We headed out along a coast path from Reykjavik.

You can see from the view why the country is so popular with walkers.

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As we wander along, I get the opportunity to visit Hofdi house.

Whenever I’ve thought of Iceland (and Reykjavik) I’ve always thought of the scene of Regan and Gorbachev standing outside it, before they conducted peace talks in 1986.

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With the town far behind us, we get to wander around the beach.

This isn’t Ibiza, but it was very quiet and peaceful and some of the rock formations were really impressive.

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The Sun voyager sculptor, constructed of stainless steel in 1990.

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We reach our destination, Kollafjourar bay where we’ll get a boat to Vioey Island.

You can see another coastguard boat in the background.

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A lovely trip across the water, was ruined by some loud American girls.

They had come to Iceland for a trip to celebrate passing their exams.

One of them had come back to the accommodation late and been sick on the possessions belonging to another. This had split the party into 2 factions and they spent the entire trip criticising the other group.

But I’m British and sat their politely even thought I desperately wanted to tell them to shut up.

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So, I’ distracted myself by reading the instructions for the life raft.

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The Island was even more desolate than the mainland.

We did find a cafe, and the hot chocolate there, was the nicest I’d ever tasted.

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The wind was howling, it was freezing cold and I was glad I had outdoor clothing.

We stop at this Lennon peace monument, built by Yoko Ono.

I’m not a cynic, but I’ve seen all of this sort of stuff, all over the world and its never really worked for me.

In this case, its round, shines a light in the sky and has the word peace, written in 24 languages on it.

Another hour in the freezing cold, and we head back. The annoying girls arrive late and the captain waits for them (even though they knew well when it was leaving).

There had been some “developments”. Texts had been exchanged and “that bitch” needed to apologise properly and pay for the clean up of “my shit” (there were young children on the boat).

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But enough Coronation Street – American style, we head back to the hotel to get cleaned up as were going out for the evening.

We have dinner at an amazing place called Hofnin.

Afterwards, a few drinks in a local bar and then were off to bad. Lots to do, the next day.

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Were picked up by our coach and head out on our tour.

The thing is, if you talk to most people, the 2 main things they talk about on a trip to Iceland are the Northern lights and the Blue Lagoon.

Interestingly, neither were of any interest to me.

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I’d signed up for the Golden circle tour.

You can see from above, its more diamond than circle, but in just 1 day, you can see some of the most amazing sights of Iceland.

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We stop to get supplies (drinks) at the Hverageroi shopping centre.

In the car park, big vehicles like this are common and we even saw coaches fitted out this way.

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Hverageroi was hit by an earthquake in 2008.

They have a small exhibition there, including an earthquake simulator which we didn’t have time to experience.

Instead, I took a picture of this kitchen. It was made up to look like a kitchen after an earthquake.

Looked like my kitchen after a Christmas party…

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Our next stop, a small but simple waterfall – Faxi.

A chance to stretch our legs, apparently the area is awash with Salmon.