Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Geological Marvel: Iceland, Part I

Leaving Paris was hard, harder than I thought it was going to be. But more on that later. For now, let's talk Iceland!

I arrived mid-afternoon yesterday (Saturday), and by the time I reached my hotel I already had two new travel buddies- Helen and Melonie. Helen is Canadian, and I met her at Charles de Gaulle, where we discovered that we had the exact same itinerary. Exact. As in, flying both in and out of Iceland on the same flights. Helen then met Melonie on the bus from the airport into Reykjavik. Melonie is a med student in Munich, here on holiday.

The craziness that I lugged all around Paris and Reykjavic. Heavy and awkward, but impressively small, considering that I lived out of the contents for 5 months.

First things first, we met up for dinner at a famous Hamburger Factory. This is where Gorbachev and Reagan ate after negotiating the end of the Cold War, apparently:

The hamburger place keeps a running tally of how many Icelanders there are. It was only 319,321 when we got there. How exciting! Though it does raise the awkward question of what they do when an Icelander dies....

You can see the picture of Reagan and co.

I tried a cheesecake made out of an Icelandic specialty, skyr, a sort of yogurt-cheese thing. It was actually quite good! While at dinner, we made plans to take a Golden Circle tour the next day (today). It would take us around to geysers and various other geothermal and geological treats.

It required getting up far too early this morning (compounded by the fact that I forgot to adjust my alarm to the new time zone, so it went off at 5:30 Islandic time instead of 7:30), but we were off!

Geothermal electricity generators, capturing the steam that rises from under the surface

Lava field! Now covered in some sort of moss/peat/lichen type vegetation.

Our first stop was in a little town famed for its greenhouses about 30 minutes out of Reykjavik. It's over an area with a particularly significant amount of underground heating, I gather, and so residents started to put up greenhouses to see what they could grow, and it just sort of expanded and now the University of Horticulture is there, and it's a whole big thing. 

Large puffin in the tourist greenhouse 

The next major stop was the Gullfoss Waterfall. Gorgeous....

We then made our way over to the Geyser area. As it turns out, "geysir" is actually the Icelandic name for one particular steaming/erupting hot spring, which became so popular and well known that now almost every single other language uses the name to describe the phenomenon. Geyser no longer erupts without urging (apparently you can coax an eruption from a geyser by pouring soap in it. Not recommended for home experimentation!) unless an earthquake has happened quite recently, but it's neighbor Strokkur goes off every 6-8 minutes, with a really intriguing sort of dome thing in the first few seconds. 

Continuing on our way...

Completely random statue at the Geyser place

It had to be done

I didn't quite get the dome in a picture, but here is Strokkur starting...

...going for it...

....drifting away in a cloud of steam....

...and water rushing back in to fill the crater.
 The final stop of the day was a two-for-one: the original meeting place of the Icelandic parliament (the longest-running parliament in the world, it was started as a general meeting of all Icelanders once a year in the 900s, and was held outdoors, in this spot, until the 1700s, when it was moved to Reykjavik), and the best place to see the effects of the Mid-Atlantic Rift.

Fissure that is part of the Mid-Atlantic Rift and the drifting apart of the tectonic plates. 

Lake that is in large part a result of the sinking of the land over the Mid-Atlantic Rift

 If you accept the extremely simplified version of the geology, I am standing in the Mid-Atlantic Rift here, between the Eurasian and American plates. 

Sadly, Melonie is leaving in the morning, but Helen and I booked our tickets for the famous Blue Lagoon for tomorrow afternoon, and will spend the rest of the day journeying about Reykjavik. I've heard great things about both!

Talk to you soon!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Little Moments: Minuit a Paris

I just walked in my room from seeing Minuit a Paris. I guess it must actually be called "Midnight in Paris," because all of my French professors keep referring to it in English, but the only promotions I have ever seen for it are Parisian.

I'm not actually very versed in my Woody Allen, so I wasn't really going to bother seeing it, but everyone insisted to me that seeing it in Paris is a must-have experience before I leave. I am SO glad I listened. First of all, you should see it regardless of the city you are in. It's a wonderful, sweet, adorable movie with a lot of intelligence and heart. Someone described it as Woody Allen's love letter to Paris, and I think that is apt. But having lived here for the past 5 months, it was extra special, I think. During the opening montage, I kept checking off whether I knew exactly where each snippet was. I knew a lot. Not all, certainly. There are many areas I haven't spent much time in. But give me another stay here, maybe living in a different arrondissement. I'll get it down.

Part of me wishes that this had come about about three months ago, when I was feeling annoyed by pretty much everything in Paris (that feeling is long gone, trust me). But there is also a certain melancholy to the film that fits nicely with my last week. It's evening now, so I will be erasing today on my wall- 5. Four more days. Wow.

Paris, it's been a life changer. Je te remercie.

Grecian Islands: Santorini, Part II

We now reach Friday of my week in Greece. I arrived in the country late Sunday, in Santorini early Monday afternoon, left the island mid-Saturday, and left Greece for Paris early the next morning. So we're really getting down to the wire here! But I made it count, I think =)

First up: volcanos.

More specifically, one, long-dormant volcano a 30-minute ferry ride from Santorini's main city Fira. We found a service that would take us into Fira, take us to the volcano, and to some hot springs, all for 16 euro. Not too shabby! Of course, they then proceeded to trick us into spending 4 euro for this cable car down the cliff face, and there was another required payment of 2 euro to get onto the volcano. Um, what?? We grumblingly shelled out, those of us who had randomly thought to bring more than a bathing suit and the 16 euros covering those who hadn't.

The volcano was pretty fun. Everything was red (from all of the sulfur, if I'm getting this right), and the landscape and views from the top were stunning. It was a pretty steep climb, but that's just sorta what my spring break was all about! 

You can see the main port and ferry terminal (where we sailed into on Monday, not our port of call for the volcano trip)

I think this green color is the sulfur of the volcano mixed with whatever iron or calcium or whatever mineral causes the water to be such a strong shade of blue

The ladies
From the volcano, the boat continued over to the hot springs. Part way through the trip, an announcement comes over the speakers:

"We're about twenty minutes away from the hot springs. Now, there is no place on the island for the boat to dock- no boat can dock there. So, if you want to get to the hot spring, you are going to have to jump off the boat and swim to it."

We wait for the part where they say they are joking. Doesn't happen. It just starts repeating the message in other languages.

Um, what??? Everyone exchanges glances, and people slowly start to strip down to their bathing suits. Pretty soon, we are all huddled awkwardly on the deck in our bikinis, amidst the majority of the passengers who are opting to stay clothed and on the boat. We pull up about 20 meters away from the hotsprings, and the boat stops. Someone opens up part of the deck, but no one tells us what to do. More awkward huddling. Finally, one guy just dives in without waiting for further instructions. Our American instincts kick in- we loudly whoop and applaud him and immediately follow suit! It was like lemmings, just a steady stream of girls (and later, many other boat passengers) flinging themselves into the sea. Eventually someone from the boat showed up with a ladder, but I'm not sure at what point, because I was busy swimming to the hot spring.

The hot spring itself wasn't that much to talk about- mainly pockets of warm water, and you had to keep swimming, because the bottom was this really gross sulfur mud stuff that would swim up and attack your hair if you stepped on it. But still, we hung out in it for a bit and were proud of ourselves.

Swimming back to the boat

Hanging out afterwards on the deck, victorious

Two intrepid adventurers, and two who opted to stay high and dry
Once everyone was safely back on board, we went back to port.

The girls all decided that they were through with the unexpected expenses, and that they would just walk up the stairs. I was a little more inclined to just pay the 4 euro for the cable car again, but I have a big hike coming up in August, so I figured, why not? Everyone's going for it, and it's good training. Well, it was indeed quite the training session. Check out the staircase:

It continues below the picture!!
One girl is a ninja-mountain goat mutant hybrid and ran up in about five minutes. For the rest of us it took 15-30 minutes, side-stepping donkey detritus all the way. But the views were lovely.


We went home and went dancing again for our last night.

The final morning, I finally checked off a major life goal. I went scuba diving! In the Mediterranean!!

The very first day I arrived on Santorini, I discovered a dive center right next to our hotel. It offered dives for certified divers, certification courses, snorkeling trips, and, *insert triumphant trumpeting here*, introductory dive classes! I knew immediately that I had to do it, even if the cost would prevent me from eating for the rest of the week. Fortunately, it was perfectly reasonable, so I was able to continue to indulge my newfound spanakopita obsession. 

I originally had a whole group of girls psyched to go, but by the end of the week, they were all too tuckered out from partying hard each night at the fabulous little beach bar/club right next to our hotel (I went each night as well, but was far more functional the next mornings due to my extreme distaste for all things alcoholic). So I went solo.

We were underwater for almost an hour, and it was amazing!! I was struck by how similar it looked to being above ground- the seaweed seemed like grass blowing in the breeze. I have absolutely no natural aptitude for scuba diving, much like surfing- but it is just too much fun, so I see it being a lifelong activity of mine. The instructor literally was holding my hand most of the time, to keep me from floating about too much, or tipping over (the equipment is very heavy). But they took us to a little coral reef, and school upon school of brightly colored fish were swirling around us. I had a staring contest for almost a minute with a little rainbow-colored one. 

Once I was out of the water, I had to rush to peel off my wetsuit (I think it took me less than 3 minutes, a major success) and get changed so I could get back to Stelio's Place in time for him to drive us all to the ferry back to Athens. No time for a shower- I was back in Paris before I could take a shower to get out all of the sand and small pebbles (no joke) in my hair. 

It was nice to be awake for the ferry ride this time, so I could actually see things. I was on the deck for the first 3-4 hours, and then I went in and paid for a window seat just in time for sunset!

A quick overnight stay in Athens (we didn't even get in until almost 1a), then up bright and early to walk to the airport bus shuttle- because there was a strike and the Metro was closed- for our 9a flight! It went fast, and we flew over Venice, which was exciting. I had no idea that it was all isolated like that! Makes total sense, but there you go.

Venice, I do believe

Friday, May 20, 2011

Grecian Islands: Santorini, Part I

First, let us start with how I got to Greece. I woke up veeery early in the morning (we are talking shortly after 3am), to catch the shuttle bus to the Edinburgh airport. It's a pretty cool deal- leaves at all hours, costs 3.5 quid, has free wifi, a camera on the luggage storage area that broadcasts to the upper deck so you can feel safe leaving your luggage, outlets, tables, the whole shebang. It was actually a little disappointing that the ride was only 30 minutes! After all of the epic bus journeying I did that week, 30 minutes positively flew by. My concept of time's passage has really altered in these last few months, I think. I'm used to spending three hours in class, riding on buses for hours on end, etc. etc. It's going to be absolutely bizarre to have 50 minute classes at Trinity this fall!

The flight from Edinburgh to London was quick and easy. It's when I got to London that things got a little hairy. EasyJet flies into London Gatwick airport, which has two terminals- North and South. Unlike SeaTac, where once you are through security you can get to any gate, Gatwick is one of those annoying ones where you have to reprocess through security between terminals. I flew into the North Terminal, but left on the South Terminal. I had checked my bag in Edinburgh, and assumed that I would just find it waiting for me in Athens. You know, like with most airlines.

Hah, no.

Turns out EasyJet isn't a "transfer airline," which means that you need to pick up and recheck your luggage at each stop along the way. It would have been fantastic to have been told this online when I arranged to check my bag, or in person when I actually checked it. Nada. By some amazing chance, I happened to ask an EasyJet staff member about this- once I was out of the North Terminal and through security in the South Terminal. The staff member sent me to the information desk, where I waited around for 20 minutes for an escort back out through security. Turns out that once you are through security, the only way you are supposed to leave is via an airplane? Not really sure how that works, but at least I vaguely feel that there is a reasonable security-related reason why. Anywhoo, some poor guy had to walk me out of security and then another guy had to pick me up and walk me through the special staff security at the North Terminal, and take me around to find my bag. Which wasn't where they said it would be. So I was escorted through more security. But we found in eventually, and I was re-escorted back around. All in all, I went through security four times in less than an hour. I finally get back to where I check my bag for the South Terminal. They need to reprint my boarding pass, obviously, since I already used it once to get in.

"I'm sorry, I can't do that until two hours before your flight."

Did I mention that my lay-over was 8 hours?

Eventually, I just gave into the inevitable and found a spot on the floor for a few hours, and paid through the nose for a Boingo WiFi hotspot thing. My bag eventually got checked, I went through security again,  and got on my flight to Greece. It went quite fast (see previous mention of new concept of time), and suddenly, I was in Athens!!

At which point I realized that I didn't actually know where the hostel that I was meeting everyone at was, or even what it was. Clever planning on my part.

Fortunately, my computer had about 20 minutes of battery left and the Athens International Airport sweetly offers 60 minutes of free wifi, so I was able to find the information on our Facebook thread, look up the hostel online, and get the metro directions.

Sadly, the view from the bus shuttle (a nighttime view) was about as much as I was going to see of Athens, save the areas directly around the hostel and the ferry terminal. I got in at almost midnight, left on a 7am ferry, got back in a week later at 1am, and left on an 8am flight. Athens and I, like ships passing in the night. Almost literally.

 On our way to the ferry, I got the first of what would be many "cheese pies." Sometimes these were spanakopita, sometimes just cheese. Spanakopita (if I am spelling that at all correctly) consists of that really flaky phyllo pastry around feta and spinach. This particular one was just feta. It was amaaazing. I am hooked. I only have this one picture for you from the ferry ride to Santorini, because my camera ran out of battery- and because I bought a seat inside after freezing on the deck for about an hour, and slept for the remaining seven. Yes, the ferry ride was 8 hours long. I have a vague memory of actually posting to this blog while on board- a post that I had written prior, during my time on the floor at Gatwick.

View from the back of the ferry as we left Athens

Eight hours later, we pulled into the ferry terminal on the island of Santorini. The water was ridiculously blue, the sun was warm- just lovely.

Now, there's this weird little thing I do sometimes, something I've been doing pretty much at every stop along my journeys here in Europe. Whenever I get off some major mode of transportation, and get through the exit, there are always the people waiting with the signs. You know, the chauffeurs and tour guides and what have you with their little papers that say "Mr. Davenport" and the like. Even though I'm traveling alone, I always check. Not because I actually think I'll see my name there. But I always check. Just in case? 

And this time, I had a sign. It wasn't my name, it was the name of my hotel, but still! There was a huge queue of people with the various signs, and our hotel owner had come down with his van to pick us up. So we got to look for the "Stelio's Place" sign. It was terribly exciting. 

Stelio's Place. It's actually a hotel, unlike all of the hostels I have been staying at, and it's right next to the beach. Perissa Beach, apparently, which is what the little town was called. The other main cities are the adorable ones that are perched on hillsides, but they are a) more expensive and b) less beach-accessible. 

Obviously, hitting the beach was one of our first priorities. 

Once I walk out of the driveway from our hotel and turn left... Mediterranean! 

We made some new friends

Hanging out at the pool at Stelio's

Heading out on a different excursion
The first two days were pretty lazy- a nice break after my whirlwind time in Scotland and then the hectic travel day. But on the third day (I count the ferry day as Day 1, since we were at our hotel by 3), we went crazy. We went ATVing!

ATV- All Terrain Vehicle, also sometimes referred to as Four-Wheelers. All 11 of us got them, two to an ATV, and we zipped (or rather, loudly trundled) all around the island for the entire day.

My intrepid driver, Emily. I don't drive, and she loves to, so we were a perfect match.

Some of the ladies on their own ATV

If you look carefully, there are several donkeys/mules/horses in the background. I suspect mules.

Rocking the Helmet Chic.
Our first stop was to the famous Red Beach. Perissa Beach is supposedly a black sand beach, but it seemed rather similar in color to the sort of dark slate that you find on many Seattle beaches. But I suppose to those used to golden sand, it would seem black. The Red Beach was pretty red, though. Absolutely gorgeous, and my toe shoes got another workout.

Some of the ladies and myself

Crashing waves!
Up next: the lighthouse.

Peeling out 

Hiking out to the lighthouse

Yeah, it wasn't much to see

But it was situated on an absolutely wonderful cliff!

Doesn't even begin to capture the color of the water
After the lighthouse venturing, we spend a few hours in the main city of Fira, mainly window-shopping (and yes, a little actual shopping as well), and then continued on to Oja, home of the world-famous sunset.

Rocking the super-chic ATV windbreakers 

Oja! SO CUTE and exactly what one expects from a Grecian village

I like to pretend that these are olive branches, thus making this the perfect shot of Greece

Just one little problem with our world famous sunset... it was kind of a dud that night. Sunsets are such a hit-and-miss science. Observe the following two photos:

Sun is still partially there.

Sun is no longer there.
That was pretty much the extent of our sunset. We hung around until it was pretty dark, and no pretty colors ever emerged. But it was still an absolutely lovely way to spend an evening.

We almost picked up a new family pet on the way home. An adorable little dog absolutely attached herself to me, and I reeeeeally wanted to take her with me, but a) she had a collar (though it was pretty worn, and she had no tags), and b) I couldn't figure out where to stash her for my remaining time in France. It was beyond heart-breaking to drive off an leave her- she actually followed our ATV for a time. If it was a movie, some tear-jerker song from the 80s would have been playing, and everything would have been in slow-motion.

There's my girl

We wound our way back to Perissa Beach, and zonked for the night. Original plans were to go to a karaoke bar, but suddenly we were on our beds and it was the next morning....