Three of Iceland’s ‘must-see’ attractions are Gullfoss (waterfall), Geysir (the geyser which gives geysers worldwide their name) and Thingvellir (home of the world’s first parliament). Together they make up the ‘Golden Circle’, and it seems like anyone with a minibus in Reykjavik will offer you a tour. We very nearly signed up for one, until we realised that 3 days car hire would cost about £10 less than 2 tickets for a day trip. So we went independently, and think it was the right way for us to do it.
Although the whole park at water spouts worldwide are named after Geysir, it’s Strokkur that’s the star of the show. It shoots tons of steaming water into the air every 5-15 minutes, making it a real pleasure to watch. We saw it errupt about 5 times while we were there, including one triple eruption.
There isn’t much wildlife visible in Iceland, and the birds generally fly away as soon as I get my camera out. But this one stayed put, browsing around the geysers and between the steaming thermal streams.
‘Better than Niagra’ is how Gullfoss waterfall advertises itself. I haven’t seen Niagra, but Gullfoss is spectacular. You can hear the roar and feel the spray from the car park. It’s not an experience that’s easy to describe, and again there is quite a bit of walking involved, including about 13 flights of stairs. The site is partly wheelchair accessible though, and two of the viewing platforms can be reached from a level walk from a car park (long views only though).
The hardest to describe. Thingvellir is the rift valley between the Atlantic and European continental plates. It’s home to Iceland’s largest lake, and was the site of the original Thing (parliament or law court) during Iceland’s early history. It’s a place of enormous significance to Icelandic people, and is still the heart of major events. Independence was declared here in 1944.
As a visitor, it’s a funny mix, and you really need to be ready to walk to get the most out of it. With so much history behind it, I expected more buildings and maybe a diorama or two. As it is, there are a few scattered placards telling you historical stories, which are pretty interesting. A church and about 4 houses are the only buildings apart from the visitor centre a couple of miles away.
There’s nothing really to eat or drink here. Oh, and the toilets cost 200ISK per person. But it’s OK – if you’re caught short you can pay by credit card.
Car hire in Iceland
We’ve driven all round Europe, so I didn’t really expect there to be anything noteworthy about driving in Iceland. I was wrong. Luckily, it’s May, and it was 12C yesterday. If it had been any earlier in the year, I would have thought twice about driving ourselves about.
Iceland is more than twice the size of Switzerland, with a total population equivalent to the Lausanne area. Depending on who you ask, 60-80% of the population live in Reykjavik, making the rest of the country even more sparsely populated. There are no motorways. The main roads, outside the capital, are typically one-lane-each-way, often with single lane bridges, and sometimes without road markings. There are many roads that are only for Jeep type cars, with unbridged rivers. Even on the main road, it would be really hard to see the edge of the road in a snow storm, and we were warned that icy roads can happen any time of year.
There’s a lot of gravel and/or left over grit from the winter, plus random cattle grids, both of which make the road more slippery. Plus, the weather can change in minutes, and high winds are really high. If you’re used to driving in Switzerland, or the Scottish highlands, you’ll be OK, but if you only drive in British cities, it might not be so fun!
A lot of people imagine that Switzerland is completely covered in snow all winter. It really isn’t. At least, it isn’t completely covered. Here (and I’m back in Switzerland for a few weeks, woo!) altitude matters in a way that it doesn’t in the UK, or most areas. As an example, here’s what it’s like at 400m above sea level, around where I grew up:
No snow. Not a speck. This next photo was taken a 20-minute drive away, at 1200m.
Now that’s Switzerland in winter, right?
You can see more photos from La Givrine in my post from last year.
By any marker, it’s spring in Switzerland but what that’s like varies widely depending on the altitude. One of the things I found odd about living in the UK was that you were stuck with one season, one climate, one weather all the time. Whatever happened… just happened. In Switzerland, it’s easier to change things: you just go up or down and the season changes with the altitude.
Saturday, we went up to Verbier for the last ski day of the season (for us, anyway – others will ski on). At 2300m above sea level it was like this:
That’s a small house, if you can’t tell what the snow drift covers. It’s still spring though – the sun was out, the snow was melting in streams and the ski slopes changed from ice to slush as the sun warmed them up.
Today, at 300m above sea level, the garden looks like this:
It’s warm enough to sit outside in the sunshine at both altitudes (bit chilly in the shade) but the difference in the look and plant growth is amazing. The snow line is a really important marker here, and this year it’s low (in meters above sea level) for this time of year – there’s more snow than normal.
This shot is taken at one of my favourite beautiful places. Here, I’m standing at the top of one of the lifts in Villars, a ski resort I’ve been going to since I was tiny, looking out at Leysin, another resort I’ve been skiing at forever.
The two peaks so close together make Leysin easy to spot from much further away. They are the Tour d’Ai (2295m) on the left and the Tour de Mayen (2331m) on the right. You can see the village (1350m) spread out on the left – it’s been a tourist destination for over 100 years.
2012 has been a rough year and although I put it behind me with mixed feelings, I’m happy to welcome 2013.
It’s a good time to start a new project: A Picture and a Hundred Words is a way to show you more photos. I tend to only blog pictures I’ve just taken, so if I’m busy (e.g. travelling) I don’t share all the photos I’d like to.
This shot of the sun rising over the Alps and Lake Geneva, taken a couple days ago, doesn’t do the scene justice, but was nonetheless well worth getting up for.
The third book I’ve read off the list is #189. Heidi is available to download for free through Project Gutenberg.
I’ve got mixed views of this book, because Heidi and I have a long history. I’m Swiss – I have dual nationality, so I’m British too – which affects both how I read Heidi (in English, not German for a start) and how other people read me. The most popular icon of Swiss femininity is (as far as the British public is concerned) a rosy-cheeked cherub with a fondness for goats. Martina Hingis is definitely in second place.
Heidi Goes to University
I’m not surprised that the novel made it into the top 200. I started university around the time the list came out, and it seemed that most of my fellow students had learned about Swiss culture and geography from Heidi. (They’d learned French from Moulin Rouge, which also made things interesting…) Just to clarify – in case anyone was left in doubt – my family didn’t have any goats, we didn’t live on an alp and in this sense, that’s not just up a mountain but in a high pasture. We didn’t live up a mountain. And I don’t speak Swiss (there’s no such thing). Or Swedish.
Memories of a Swiss childhood
I think I read Heidi for the first time in Torquay – that’s Devon, not some curious coincidence – and my memories of the book from childhood are entwined with my English family. I remember reading the book with my mum and I don’t remember ever thinking that Heidi was like me at all. Her life (sorry to disappoint) was nothing like mine – and I didn’t think I’d like hers much. For one thing, it’s easy enough to whisk up and down a mountain on paper – or on a ski lift – but actually walking up is several hours of increasingly dull and painful work. And Heidi’s goats never headbutted her in the stomach so she fell over, or ate her coat.
The book itself
Joanna Spyri has written a charming ode to the beauties of the mountains and the simple life. It’s a lovely daydream and pleasant to read. If anything, it’s over-sweet as the pure mountain air and goats milk perform enough miracles to qualify them for sainthood – although they do stop short of making the blind see.
The novel is definitely a product of its time, and it seems somewhat unfair to criticize a book written to please children in 1880 for being so wildly successful that, almost 150 years later, it’s how people imagine life in Swiss farming communities was like. It wasn’t. Switzerland is beautiful and picturesque and – to all but a very few of the 7 billion people on the planet – foreign so people assume that the landscape is as kind as it is fair. It isn’t. And although the sunsets are brilliant enough to make artists faint, they don’t have any particular effect on the goatherds – or the goats. Agricultural life was – and is – hard up in the high places. The ski season lasts from December to April because there’s usually at least a metre of snow on the ground that whole time. Spyri glosses over this – no one grows anything in the books, and the winters pass quickly and easily. Heidi’s grandfather always has enough money, and the fact that Peter and his family are slowly starving isn’t commented on. There are other dark secrets in Swiss history and many children sent to the alps weren’t as happy as Heidi.
All this makes it hard for me to whole-heartedly recommend the book. The novel itself is typical of the period with a clear moral message for the children it was intended for. Heidi learns about Christianity part way through, and the message gets even more heavy handed after that. It endorses several ideas I can’t support as well – like the idea you can’t be happy until you’re healthy or that goats’ milk is better than medicine.
That said, I did enjoy the book while I was reading it – it’s so happy and light that it’s hard not to. Just don’t expect to enjoy thinking about it much afterwards…
A small city with a population of just over 115,000, Innsbruck is nestled in the Alps, tucked in a valley with impressive mountain faces on all sides, and I say this as someone who grew up with a view of Mont Blanc. It’s charming and easy to walk around – and full of yarn.
Tiroler Volkskunst Museum
History piles up before you even push open the door: the folk art museum is in the old town, near the Dom St Jakob, housed in a former monestery, attached to the Hofkirche. Inside is a large collection of everyday and festive objects used and created by local people over the last centuries. It’s a brilliant place to visit as a knitter – even though there’s very little knitwear on show.
Hand-made fabrics and crafters’ tools from the last three- or four-hundred years abound and cover the whole process from sheep to shoulders.The collection’s scope is impressive – there are spinning wheels, both mundane and beautifully carved, hand combs with elaborately painted backs, flax combs and at least three different kinds of distaff. There is also a great big mechanical carder, a particularly vicious looking contraption with its spiked wheels.
Each exhibit is tagged with one or more barcodes, and each visitor is given a scanner which calls up the relevant information in their chosen language. It’s a simple but brilliant idea as you can explore the exhibits at your own pace, and find out plenty of detail about displays which excite you.
One of the most interesting displays was a set of local costumes. Some time in the early 20th century, a local sculptor made life-size models of couples from different areas, and dressed the models in their Sunday best. The variations in detail between the different costumes are fascinating and provide an excellent reminder that ‘traditional’ costumes were actually fashionable at one time.
I found 3 yarn shops in Innsbruck, all within about 500m of each other and near the city centre – between the river and the train station.
The easiest to find is probably Kapferer Textil at Herzog-Friedrichstrasse 27 as it’s in the cobbled square which is home to the Golden Roof, one of Innsbruck’s premier attracions. The shop carries fabric and stitching supplies as well as yarn so it’s a great stop for a polycrafter.
There are 2 shops on Museumstrasse, about 200m from the main train station. They’re both intriguing. At number 6 there’s Anton Kogler, a lovely, old-fashioned yarn shop – the kind where sock yarn is held behind the counter and they expect you to know what you want. Bring your phrase book and wade in – it’s stuffed with European yarns. When I visited, the top shelves were full of hand-knit hats making it easy to see how yarns knit up.
On the opposite side of the street, at number 19, is a fancy dress shop cum haberdashery which is probably called Leimgruber. Stock is limited, but prices were good when I went and it’s worth a look for the yarn and cross-stitch mixed in with toy stethoscopes and fake blood.
All three shops had friendly, helpful staff and a cross-stitch, tapestry or embroidery materials as well as yarn. Although there was some cross over, most of the yarns weren’t the usual ones seen in the UK (Rowan, Regia, Rico…) which was a pleasant change. There was a small amount of local wool in the third shop, but most yarns were commercially spun and dyed.
Innsbruck is an area where hats, gloves and scarves are strictly necessary, so there’s plenty of knitwear to watch go by. Most hats and jumpers are store bought, but the variety is inspiring.
Austria is world-reknown for their pastries – in France, many pastries are still called ‘Viennoiseries’ – and there are plenty of cafes and bakeries in the old town, so curl up with a cuppa and watch the knitwear go by!
Things you might want to know
I’m not a local – I’ve visited Innsbruck exactly once – but I did visit all these places and in one day. The city is flat (no hills) and all the places mentioned are within about 500m of each other and in the city centre so it’s an easy tour to walk.
Entry to the museum was €10 for an adult at time of writing. This also gave access to the adjoining Hofkirche and possibly another museum – time and language skills were both limited on my part, unfortunately, so I didn’t explore this option.
Snow is pretty, but it’s also awfully heavy. It’s hard work shifting it, it’s hard work walking through it, it’s hard work living in it. Luckily the Tirol is well used to snow so, unlike in England, the country doesn’t grind to a hault when a few flakes fall. On Saturday, Innsbruck airport was closed due to heavy snowfall. A couple days later and a thousand meters above sea-level, the roads were clear and the sky was blue.