Last week, I made plans to travel to the nearby town of Ladenburg with my friend Jay Wang, who I met on last week’s trip to Rothenburg and Dinkelsbühl. A mutual friend of ours had told us a little about the town, and suggested it for an easy day-trip. Neither of us had heard of the place (shameful for me as a Geography major), but decided to check it out nonetheless. We decided that we would meet one another in Ladenburg on Saturday morning, as the weather was supposed to clear up nicely, and then make the trip back together. I did some research on the town, finding some very interesting information: Mainly, that its history dates back to Celtic and Roman ages, and its old center dates back to the Late Middle Ages. In the year 40 (yes, you read that correctly) the Romans populated the town as a farmer and military outpost, keeping its original Celtic name: Lopodunum (sea tower). Much more recently, the town was entirely unharmed in the Allied campaign into Germany during the Second World War, so it maintained much of it’s original architectural beauty (similar to Rothenburg and Dinkelsbühl).
Ladenburg is a small town located in between Heidelberg and Mannheim, a larger city which serves as a regional travel hub for northern Baden-Wurtemmburg. On Saturday morning, I left my flat and headed across the Neckar river to the Hauptbahnhof (Central Railway Station). This was the first time that I would use the Deutsche Bahn, and I was excited to experience this new form of transportation. I’ve always loved trains, having used the Amtrak between Portland and the Tri-Cities on several occasions, as well as Portland’s MAX system on a daily basis for four years. On a separate note, the similarities between Portland’s public transit system and Germany’s are actually quite remarkable. The morning walk across the river to the train station has become something of a morning ritual for me, and I enjoy watching the city wake up around me.
I made it to the train station and entered on the north side by a sea of bikes which had been locked up while their owners went separate ways via rail. I walked by a few food stands where the smells of coffee and pastries filled my nostrils (definitely some of the better smells in the Hauptbahnhof). I purchased a ticket at one of the several automated kiosks, continuing onto the main platform where I would find my train. In typical McCade fashion, I had left myself less than two minutes to find and board the train, and was thus in a state of [moderate] panic. Jogging now, I came to platform 5, leapt down the staircase, and found that were two trains waiting to depart (one on either side). Neither had any clear markings as to their destinations. Wanting to avoid boarding the wrong train and ending up in Freiburg, I quickly studied a transit board which had information on train departure times and platforms.
This is where a hero arrived: A slender-built guy around age 30 with a large beard came up behind me and rattled off a question in German. I replied with: “Entschuldigung, ich spreche nur ein bisschen deutsch,” and he immediately switched to perfect English. He asked which train was heading to Ladenburg, and I had to laugh at the fact that we were in the exact same situation. We boarded the one to our left, and a local could immediately tell that we were confused, so she asked where we were headed. This was in fact the correct train! The two of us found a place to sit down on the upper level just as the train began to slide west out of the station. We talked through the entire [15 minute] ride as the lush green German countryside whizzed by outside the window. He was a British student who lived and studied in Freiburg, working on his Master’s Thesis in biomedicine. He told me that it would be a funny prank if I would take his backpack, throw it on the ground in the lower passenger deck, and yell something along the lines of “BOMB!!!” I told him that it sounded more like a good way to end up in a German prison, and the two of us laughed as the train arrived in Ladenburg.
After going separate ways with my newfound momentary friend (I don’t remember his name, sadly), I made my way east into the old town where stone walls and towers loomed over me. We had chosen a perfect day for the outing, as the weather was in fact gorgeous, and the people of Ladenburg were outside taking full advantage. My friend Jay texted me, saying that he wouldn’t be there for about half an hour, so I took that time to do some personal exploration and photography. When we did meet up, we shopped for fresh food at the local market, had a delicious lunch in the central Marktplatz, and explored the Lobdengau Museum. It was a beautiful day-trip, one which I would do again in a heartbeat and recommend to anyone in the Heidelberg area.
This guy had a rather serious look on his face.
This weekend was extended due to International Workers’ Day (otherwise known as Labor Day), which allowed me to get out of Heidelberg for a little while and travel into Bayern (Bavaria). Having grown up traveling through Europe with my parents and high school students, certain Bavarian cities became favorites over the years, perhaps none more so than the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The walled city is widely known for its well-preserved medieval old town, which has become something of a tourist destination from visitors around the world. Rothenburg is part of the Romantische Straße (Romantic Road), a so-called “theme route” which was thought of and created by travel agents beginning in the early 1950s. At approximately 350 kilometers (220 mi), the road consists of lengthy highway between Würzburg in the north and Füssen in the south. Specifically, the route traverses a majority of land in Bayern and Baden-Württemberg, linking a several picturesque towns, villages, and castles.
I started my Saturday quite early, waking up at 6:00 am to give myself plenty of time. I had signed up for a group excursion which departed at 7:30 am, from a bus station quite some distance from my dorm. I gave myself enough time to have some breakfast and enjoy a brisk walk to the station, which would take some 30 minutes. It was a beautiful morning, and not many people were out as it was the weekend and their time to sleep in. I discovered a side of Heidelberg which I had previously not encountered, as the streets were empty and quiet, save for the occasional morning runner or tram which passed by me. I crossed the narrow bridge from Neuenheimer Feld into the Weststadt, and continued east to where my group was meeting. Universität Heidelberg offers student excursions for very reasonable prices, and I immediately solidified a position on this trip for only 15 euros when I read that the feature of the trip would be Rothenburg ob der Tauber. This small town had captured my imagination as a child, and I had nothing but fond memories of the city walls, medieval architecture, and delicious schneeballen (I’ll come back to that later).
After meeting up with my group, the bus promptly pulled into the parking lot and opened its doors for us. Climbing on board, I found an open seat near the back and began to settle in for the two hour first leg of the trip. I did not know anyone on the bus, but that would quickly change, as I befriended Jay, a neuroscience student from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and Sofia, a German-born student who had grown up in the U.S. and returned to Heidelberg to study the German language at the University. Jay introduced me to two of his friends, Ben and Erica from New Jersey, and before I knew it, I had a new group of friends with which I could share the experience. We stopped at an Esso gas station near the town of Waldenburg where we had a half hour break, so Jay and I bought some drinks in the store and found a place to sit outside and discuss photography. We swapped camera lenses, practiced German with one another, and shared photos from our journeys so far. I let him know about my travel blog and senior capstone project, and he demanded a link be sent to him. I could already tell that this would be the beginning of a great friendship.
Reminded me of the anime series Attack on Titan.
The Little Square reminded me of a movie set, with the odd angles and off-kilter leaning houses.
There was a car show going on in the Marktplatz, and two of these M3’s were brought in on towing trailers. I couldn’t stop imagining myself driving one on the Autobahn… A man can dream!
I purchased several of these delicious treats to take home with me. They are made with the extra pie crusts from bakeries, which would otherwise be thrown away at the end of the day. The people of Rothenburg were the first to roll the crusts into a ball, coat them with delicious toppings (z.B. cinnamon/sugar, vanilla, chocolate, peanuts, powdered sugar, etc.), and sell them as new pastries. It certainly payed off, as the delicious treat is now a staple of the city and can be found in nearly every shop.
When we arrived in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, I was struck with the feeling of nostalgia. I vividly remembered climbing the stairs to the city wall as a child, pretending to be a knight of medieval times. I used to jump off the battlements, pretend to shoot arrows through peepholes in the wall, and beg my parents to buy me the ‘cool’ swords and armor on display in the shops. Now, at age 22, the city was thrilling in a different sense. I took my time exploring the city and its maze-like layout, occasionally stumbling upon an area which I had a near photographic memory of. One such place was the Medieval Torture Museum, which is just as grim as it sounds. Inside, archaic devices of pain and suffering cover the walls and display cases. Upon further research, I found that Rothenburg held a special significance for Nazi ideologists during the second World War. For them, it was the perfect example of the German ‘Home Town’, representing all that was quintessentially German. This much is certainly true, as you can tell from the photos. It is perhaps one of the most ‘German’ cities I have had the pleasure of visiting. Throughout the 1930s, the Nazi organization KDF (Kraft durch Freude) [Strength through Joy] organized day trips to Rothenburg ob der Tauber from all across the reich. The more I learn about German culture during WWII, the more fascinated I become with the subject. Rothenburg was one of the only medieval era cities to be nearly entirely unscathed by Allied bombing during its campaign on the European continent. It is therefore one of the most well preserved walled cities in the country.
Part of me wanted to climb the crane for a spectacular view and photo opportunity. A larger part of me did not want to be arrested by the Polizei and/or fall to my death.
I had never been to Dinkelsbühl beforehand, and had only done some light reading on the town, but was absolutely blown away by its beauty. Located around 50 kilometers south of Rothenburg, the two cities share much in common. It is part of the Romantic Road mentioned earlier, and largely consists of similar medieval architecture and walls. Similarly to Rothenburg, Dinkelsbühl remained remarkably unscathed during the Allied campaign in WWII. The only recorded exception was a broken window in Münster Sankt Georg, which is nothing short of a miracle in the eyes of the city. The town was a lot of fun to explore, and going in without any preconceptions was somewhat freeing. I was able to break off with my small group and discover wholly new squares, buildings, towers, and walls. The Wörnitz Fluß, which runs along the exterior of the city walls, forms a beautiful and natural barrier between the Altstadt and the newer ‘suburbs.’ I found a wonderful café to sit and enjoy a hot cup of kaffee (the number 1 drink in all of Deutschland) as the river flowed on and the city busted quietly around me. Before long, it was time to regroup and start the trip back to Heidelberg. I thoroughly enjoyed exploring two cities which were so different in pace and size than Heidelberg, as it lent me a fresh perspective on the German country. Traveling throughout Europe has always been one of my favorite activities, and I will continue to take advantage of my proximity to such wonderful cities throughout the remainder of my stay.
Heidelberg is a unique city in nearly every facet of its being. From the sleek, modernized highrises of west Neuhenheim, to the jagged cobblestone network which forms a maze in the Altstadt (Old Town), each district offers its personal take on Germanic architecture. Hidden gems lie scattered, tucked away amongst it all, and discovering these has been the most exciting moments of my time here. The people who inhabit this city are friendly and stern, as the culture dictates. Grocery store clerks fling your items in an almost comical rush to get each person through the line, and small talk is not really their forte in most establishments. It took me some time to understand and settle in to the somewhat abrasive nature of relationship-building here in Germany, but I have since come to appreciate it for what it is: brash utilitarianism.
While I am beginning to settle with and even flourish in this new pace, enough cannot be said for the rare encounter with a friendly American face. At first I avoided speaking with others from the United States in an effort to fully immerse myself within the language. When I quickly realized that I didn’t have nearly as strong a grasp on the language as I thought, I began opening up with more random English speaking individuals who I came across while exploring. After a little less than a month of living here, I found that I can single out those who carry themselves with what I refer to as an ‘American Vibe’ quite easily (especially if they are in a tour group). Encountering these people often yields an exchange of stories which I would otherwise never have, and these rare conversations become more welcoming with the passing time.
I find that understanding the city through a historical and geographical standpoint allows for a more clear image of its personality to shine through. The fifth-largest city in the state of Baden-Württemberg, Heidelberg is part of the densely populated Rhein-Neckar Metro Region, and is largely a University town (roughly 25% of the population are students). The University here, Universität Heidelberg, was founded in 1386, and is the oldest in the country. It is widely known as one of the most reputable universities in the EU, and consistently placed among the top rated International Universities. Being such an old school, the architecture on campus is nothing short of awe-inspiring, and is something which I have become hyperaware of with each walk in to or out of Universitätsplatz.
Geographically speaking, Heidelberg is in the Rhine Rift Valley, on the banks of the lower Neckar River. The city is engulfed by and nuzzled in a steep valley in the Odenwald Hills, meaning that there are mountains on nearly all sides of the city (less so the further west you travel). I’ve always found the physical and geographical layout of the city to be among its most charming and desirable traits, and living here has brought this notion to the forefront of my mind. The beauty of the town in quite inescapable, as picturesque vistas, alleyways, squares, marketplaces, wide walkways, and buildings culminate in an experience which cannot be found in even the oldest of U.S. cities. As you venture eastward, deeper into the true heart of the city, modernized streets and tall, glass buildings make way for the old world. The Altstadt is the beating heart of the city, lined by Hauptstraße which acts as a primary vein, pumping life blood in and out of the city. Countless alleys branch off the main streets, creating a labyrinth in which I thoroughly enjoy allowing myself to get lost in.
During the period leading up to the second World War, and during the War itself (1934–1945), the city of Heidelberg was a stronghold of the NSDAP, (the National Socialist German Workers’ Party). This adds depth to the layers of history which I had previously understood about the town. I found it extremely fascinating during my research on the Univeristy itself that Non-Aryan University staff were discriminated against in this time period. By 1939, some 33% of the University’s teaching staff had been forced out for racial and/or political reasons. Additionally, I found it tragic that in March of 1945, German soldiers left the city after destroying three arches of the Alte Brücke, a treasured local attraction, in addition to the more modern bridge downstream. I had never considered the implications of this time period on the school and city, which now seems rather silly, as Universities are known for the gathering of intellectuals from all different walks of life. Learning this taught me that even the most beautiful places are scarred by history, and I am able to appreciate the seemingly infinite amount of tiny details, hidden and tucked away within the labyrinth that is Heidelberg.
I left Reykjavik by bus to Keflavik International Airport in the disturbingly early hours of April 3rd. My father and I had thoroughly enjoyed our time in Iceland, but unfortunately, all good things must come to and end. Drowsy and hungry, I made my way through check-in and on to security. It was here, while I waited in line, that something terrifying happened:
I heard a voice over the loudspeaker say that the flight to Frankfurt had arrived early and that the gate would be closing in 15 minutes. This woke me up very quickly. A young German couple in front of me were experiencing the same panic, which I found somewhat comforting. I wouldn’t be the only one to miss this flight! I made it through security, rushed to put my shoes, belt, and jacket on while stuffing my laptop into my backpack and securing my wallet, passport and boarding pass. All the while, I was attempting to run towards the gate, which must’ve made me look like some sort of hobbling monster as I grunted and groaned in anguish.
I ran faster and further than anyone with two hours of sleep and no coffee should ever have to run, but I’m sure at least the Iceland Air employees got a kick out of the scene. I followed the German couple in front of me, who were in a similar state of disarray, although they hid it better. After crushing Usain Bolt’s 100 meter sprint time, I arrived at the gate and showed the agent my boarding pass as the couple in front of me walked down the jet bridge toward the plane. I stood there, sweating like Niagara Falls and attempting to catch my breath/ buckle my belt correctly when the agent informed me that this was a different airline, and that my flight didn’t leave for another two hours. I walked away with a bizarre mix of embarrassment and relief, and decided to find an area where I could relax and wait for my actual flight.
Eventually, I made it to Frankfurt, where I Googled the best form of transportation between the airport and Heidelberg while claiming my bag. It was strange being in the airport alone, knowing that this country would be my home for the next four months. It was so different than Iceland, to which I had just became acclimated. I made my way toward the exit, stopping at an information desk to find where I could purchase a Flixbus ticket. This system is amazing. The Flixbus is essentially a Greyhound, with many different courses running between major European cities every day. I caught one which was en route to Zurich, Switzerland, but made stops in Heidelberg, Mannheim, and other cities along the way. The bus offers complimentary onboard wifi (a near staple of Europe at this point), and a little over an hour later, I was standing at the Heidelberg Hauptbanhof.
From the central train station, I took a taxi (this was a mistake, as I now know I could’ve taken the 32 Bus line for a fraction of the price), which dropped me off at Universitätsplatz in the heart of the University. Here, I was greeted by the brilliant Silvia Kunze-Ritter, my link to Portland State University here. She was the perfect first person to meet when arriving in a new city. She greeted me with a tight hug and a loud “Wilkommen!” She then proceeded to show me around the central Mensa (cafeteria/ hangout area) and helped me fill out the paperwork to receive my dorm room keys. After a few more minutes of paperwork, we left the Mensa and hopped on the 32 Bus heading to Im Neuenheimer Feld, my new home. Silvia had a train to catch, and she left me with another hug at the Hauptbanhof, and then I was alone.
This is where the reality of my situation caught up with me. I sat on the bus as it carved its way through the narrow streets of Heidelberg, wondering if and how I would survive here. My mind began to wander and I became worried, but I managed to remain calm and reel in my emotions. I metaphorically slapped myself across the face and took control of the situation. This was amazing! I was in Germany with perhaps the most independence I would ever have, able to explore this beautiful city at my own pace. This would be a great experience.
The bus crossed a bridge over the meandering Neckar river, and I stepped out into the area which would become my new home. Im Neuenheimer Feld is an interesting district within the city. There is part of the Universität Campus here, as well as countless clinics and medical facilities. To name just a few around me, there is the Kopfklinik, Chirurgische Klinik, and Kinder Klinik, each within a five minute walk from my place. It took me quite some time to locate my room, as I was not used to the numbering system in German buildings. My room number is 1.3.2, which I took to mean the first (ground) floor. In Germany, however, the 1st floor is what we would consider the 2nd in the United States. The ground floor here is 0, not 1, which makes sense in a very German way.
Eventually, I found my room and moved in, rearranging the desk, dresser, and bed to my liking. The room itself is quite small, which I thought would bother me at the time, but is actually more space than I need. There are four rooms like mine in each cluster of the building. Each cluster shares two bathrooms, one shower, and a kitchen area. I introduced myself to my roommates over the next couple days, and found that we all come from different walks of life and different parts of the globe.
Arman is from Kazakhstan and lives adjacent to my room. He is studying engineering (brutal), and is an excellent cook. Within my first few days here, he prepared an amazing vegetable soup from back home, and it hit the spot. He is pretty quiet most of the time and mostly keeps to himself.
Anika is a Chinese exchange student studying Medicine in hopes of becoming a doctor. She is extremely friendly, listens to a lot of classical music, and sings pretty darn well. She told me upon our first meeting that all American men remind her of Justin Bieber. I wasn’t quite sure how to take that.
Elly is an English student from Argentina. She is extremely self-conscious of her ability and accent when speaking English, even though she sounds like a native speaker to me.
And then there’s me. The loud American guy who has been trying to break as many stereotypes as possible during my stay.
Several of us were experiencing major internet connectivity problems for the first week and half, leaving me without access to the world wide web. Although this is a seeming death sentence for someone my age, I took full advantage of it and went out nearly all day, every day. I explored the narrow labyrinth of streets in the Altstadt, shopping here and there for necessities such as bed sheets, groceries, etc. I discovered areas of the city which I had no clue about, and found restaurants where I could sit and stuff my face with delicious foods.
I’ve been living here for exactly two weeks now, and feel more and more at home with each passing day. My roommate Anika purchased a wifi modem and shared the password with me, for which I am eternally grateful. I absolutely love the city of Heidelberg. Its culture, its history, its layout, people, food… everything. It is truly a dream come true to spend more than a night or two within the city, and I am starting to feel like a local already.
On Thursday, March 28th, my father and I flew out of Pasco, Washington, through Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and on to Reykjavik, Iceland. We had been to the island nation once before, two years prior, and fell in love with the city after a few hours of wandering through its narrow streets. Unfortunately, we were only in the city for two days, which was just enough to get a taste of the area, but ultimately left us wanting more. This time around, we came prepared for a longer stay, with plans of exploration and travel.
Side note: Iceland Air is a fantastic way to get to Europe from the United States. Splitting what would normally be a 13+ hour flight into more manageable seven and three hour chunks helps those of us who get restless after sitting still for great lengths of time. Additionally, the Icelandic government is always trying [and succeeding] to grow their tourism industry by offering travelers a free stay in Reykjavik if they so choose.
The next day, we landed at Keflavik International Airport at 6:30 am Icelandic Time. Making our way through customs, we boarded the Flybus, which took us east to the BSI Bus Terminal in Reykjavik. The 45-50 minute ride along the southern peninsula is an interesting experience, and serves as a sampler of the differing types of terrain on offer in Iceland. All of the buses in the country are equipped with free high speed wireless internet, but I was too excited by what lay in wait for us outside the windows of the bus.
From the BSI Terminal in Reykjavik, we transferred to a taxi which brought us directly to the office of CampEasy. This is where we would rent the van which would become our mobile hotel for the next four days and five nights. With only a list of attractions and essentially the bare necessities, we hit the road, ready to stray away from the beaten path and explore all the beautiful wonders that Iceland had to offer.
First, we drove into the city center for a few minutes of reminiscing and urban sight-seeing. Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, and more than half the population of the country lives in the city. We stumbled upon some familiar sights from our last visit, and allowed ourselves to get a little lost while attempting to navigate the narrow streets. We eventually drove to a large Icelandic grocery store chain known as Kronan to stock up on foods for the journey, taking our time to find deals and argue about what we might need. After that, we hit the open road, opting to take Þjóðvegur 1 [Route 1] (known locally as the ‘Ring Road’) north towards Glymur Falls. Nestled between the Capital and Western Regions, the falls are among the most famous and prominent in the country.
A few hours later we found ourselves at the trailhead to Glymur Falls, and we prepared for the cold hike in. This region was stunningly beautiful and had a lot in common with eastern Washington State geologically. Streams meandered downhill, emptying into Hvalfjörður (a large fjord) to the west.
Hiking through a network of massive caves revealed a powerful, icy river which carried runoff from the falls downhill.
Having wholeheartedly embraced the idea of staying dry and somewhat warm, we hiked out of the area, got back to our bright red van, and started back west down the fjord and toward the ocean. Traveling along the north side of Hvalfjörður, we passed the campsite which we would eventually return to later that night, and continued around the coastline until we came to the quaint town of Borgarnes. Having not eaten in quite some time, we decided to stop and have our first true Icelandic meal of the trip. We found a quiet place to sit at the Restaurant Landnámssetur Íslands, and we ordered Seafood and Lamb soup. Needless to say, this meal hit the spot.
After the meal, our bellies were full and we were ready for another leg of the journey. We climbed back in our van and took off traveling northeast, heading inland toward the very small town of Reykholt. This small community was home of famous Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), who we had heard a lot about in the city of Borgarnes, where a museum stands partially in his honor.
We left the small town of Reykholt after an hour or so of taking in the sights. This was truly a beautiful place, as is almost every city, town, and vista in the country of Iceland. Each and every moment spent here was a treat, and climbing back in our van felt more and more rewarding the further that we traveled. After leaving the town, we followed Route 50 southwest and back in the general direction of Glymur falls. We were separated from the Glymur valley by a large mountain which we had gone around previously to get to Borgarnes, but now decided to cut through. There was a road on the map, the continuation of Route 50, which passed over the mountain and back onto the other side, letting out near a campsite (the one we had passed earlier).
We drove over the mountain pass which turned into a largely gravel road, save for a few kilometers nearing the other side. The landscape here was intense and rugged, the first time that we had been fully engulfed in snow. The only color other than white was the stark black road which stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. The pass was rather flat, with a frozen lake to the east where we stopped to take some photos. Coming down the road further lead to a steady decline past several larger lakes, unfrozen and glistening in the evening sun. It was getting late now, and we had been up for quite some time, so we were ready to find a place to rest. Luckily, Route 50 did let out near the camp of Bjarteyjarsandur, a lovely place with friendly staff, lovable dogs, scenic views, and wonderful bathroom facilities! An all around win!
We woke up fairly early the next morning, given that we had gone to bed rather early as well. We made a breakfast of boiled eggs, oatmeal, and coffee, which hit the spot and quenched my morning-after-travel starvation. We ate up, showered, got changed, and hit the road with a full day of travel planned ahead of us. Leaving Bjarteyjarsandur, we backtracked south a ways, heading around the Hvalfjörður fjord, but then cut south again, over and through a mountain which separated us from the hills northeast of Reykjavik. Shortly thereafter, we came into a large plain with a massive lake called Þingvallavatn. On the far end of the plain, we came to Þingvellir National Park, a rugged volcanic area characterized by the large fault which sits atop the Mid Altantic Ridge.
After spending quite some time at Þingvellir, we hit the road again, heading east toward our last few inland destinations. First, we came to the world-famous Geysir, a large geothermal geyser which erupts, causing water to fly far into the air every five minutes or so. The whole area surrounding Geysir is scabbed and alien, with bubbling cauldrons in the wet, clay-like surface of the ground. There is a large hotel and restaurant next to the geyser, both of which are still being expanded upon. After leaving Geysir, we continued east until coming to the absolutely stunning Gulfoss Falls. These massive waterfalls are some 32 meters high and are among the largest in the country volumetrically. The landscape in this region which contains both Geysir and Gulfoss is fairly far inland and covered in windswept rock and moss. It is truly beautiful and unlike anywhere else on the planet.
I managed to capture a slow motion video of Geysir erupting. You can view it here.
Leaving Gulfoss, we headed back southwest, toward the Atlantic Ocean off the south of the island. Some time later, after traversing the rural inland region of southwestern Iceland, we came to the Ring Road at the semi-large town of Selfoss. Here, we stopped at another Kronan and gathered some extra foods for our last few days. Then, we turned off to the east, following signs for Vik, but would have to stop and make camp before making it that far. We stayed on Route 1 though the small town of Hella, continuing on to Hvolsvöllur where we stopped to refuel at an N1 petrol station and turned off the main highway. Following a more rural road which stretched into the countryside as the sun went down behind the mountains in the west, we hoped that we had read the directions to the next campsite well enough. As it turned out, we had, and we arrived at the site known as the Hellisholar Cottages just as darkness had set in entirely. Later that night after having been asleep for some time in the back of the van, my father woke me up to come outside. The Aurora Borealis was visible, but only faintly. He had seen it with more clarity than I, but nonetheless the experience was a great one to share. We took advantage of the hot tubs available in this campsite, jumping in for a respite from the cold night air.
The next morning, we made ourselves a similar breakfast as the day before, relying on oatmeal to do the heavy lifting. The coffee on these brisk Icelandic mornings will be forever solidified into my memory, as they smelled and tasted so wonderful alongside our simple breakfasts in the van. We cleaned up in the shower facilities, and left before the day carried on too long. We made our way back along the country road toward the nearby town of Hvolsvöllur, where we turned back onto the Ring Road and continued our journey east. We passed many gorgeous sights on Route 1 on the south coast of Iceland, stopping to explore and photograph some: Vestmannaeyjar (western islands), Seljalandsfoss waterfall, the mirror-like Holtsós inlet, the mighty Skógafoss waterfall, and more, until the road finally turned north and entered a rainy, fog-filled valley. This valley twisted and turned and lead around a large ridge which forms a natural barrier to the west of Vik, the southernmost town in the country.
While in the lovely town of Vik, I shot a lot of footage with my camera. Usually, I tend to stick to still photographs, but something about this place geographically intrigued me. I think it was the stillness and tranquility of the black volcanic sand on the beach, and the wet, foggy, moss-covered mountains looming to the west. The valley of twisted rock leading away from the ocean (the one which we approached from using Route 1) formed a ridge in the opposite direction which reaches into the North Atlantic Ocean, trying to be the furthest southerly land in the whole country. However, just beyond the reach of the ridge are several sharp rocks which protrude from the ocean like spires. This image captivated me in a way which I had rarely been captivated before, and I felt obligated to capture the image in video format.
You can view that video here.
After coming back from the beach, my father and I had lunch at the Strondin Bistro and Bar, an oceanfront restaurant which served us some excellent burgers and fries for a reasonable price. We left the place, mounting back up in the van and decided to turn back west. We had made enough easterly progress, and were ready to turn back for the time being. Shortly thereafter, I found online that another 20 minutes beyond Vik to the east was the filming location for the opening scene of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Being the nerd that I am, as well as genuinely interested in the geography of the area and its black sand beach, I convinced my father that we should turn around and head back to explore the area. Eventually, we made it to the place, a massive volcanic windswept inlet formed by a nearby glacier (Mýrdalsjökull). The black sand beach which stands there now is called Myrdalssandur. I geared up and hiked out into the vast black plain, and found this to be one of the most wonderful moments of my entire life. I was alone (my father opted to wait in the van), and free to explore this seemingly endless expanse of black and gray rock. I stood at the foot of massive grass/moss-covered mountains which hugged the perimeter of Myrdalssandur, giving the place a sense of boundary to the west. This was not true in the east however, where there was seemingly no limit to the beach on the horizon. It was cold and alternating between rain and mist, and I couldn’t have loved it more.
On my walk back to the van, I lost my favorite hat. This hat was very special to me, not only my favorite, but having been through many great memories in Portland with me. I was really upset by the loss, as the hat had fallen out of my rain jacket’s pocket, and there was no chance of finding a gray hat in the endless expanse of black and gray. Nonetheless, I moved past the loss of that beautiful Filson hat and focused on how wonderful it had felt to explore the beach, making myself feel much better. My father left me with a ironic comedic stabbing of sorts by saying: “I told you we shouldn’t have turned around.” I have to give it to my father to always know how to lighten the mood.We hopped back onto Route 1 and began backtracking along the same path which we had traveled earlier. We passed Skógafoss, the Holtsós inlet, Seljalandsfoss, and the islands of Vestmannaeyjar off to the south. We came to the town of Hvolsvöllur once again, and turned off the highway, cutting back to Hellisholar to stay the night.
That next morning, we woke up and went through our daily routine of eating breakfast and cleaning up for the day before saying our goodbyes to this wonderful campsite and hitting the road. We backtracked yet again to the junction town of Hvolsvöllur, and this time turned west, heading back toward Reykjavik for only the second time since leaving. We came back into Selfoss and turned off to the south toward the ocean. I wanted to break off the Ring Road in order to see the sea one last time before going back to the city. We drove down into the very small coastal town of Eyrarbakki, which turned out to be home to the largest prison in Iceland (yes, it’s tiny by American standards). Continuing west, we came to the fishing village of Þorlákshöfn, where we stopped to take some pictures before heading back up north to reconnect with Route 1.
We made it back to the Ring Road at the city of Hveragerði, which we hadn’t passed through or seen before this point. It was small, but beautiful, sitting near the foot of a large, southern mountain range. We turned off here without seeing the town, and made our way west over a highland pass. It was quite snowy here, and there were geothermal outputs and factories dotting the countryside. Steam drifted into the air like clean smoke from a smokestack, and such was the case for the remainder of the ride into Reykjavik. At a point, the city was clearly visible in the distance, nestled into its corner of the bay. It was odd to see such immense civilization in the same country that had immersed me in its wilderness for the past days, but the city was also a welcome sight. I truly love the city of Reykjavik, and find it to contain some of the most wonderful architecture, foods, and experiences.
Coming into the city, we felt a sense of tension, as other motorists and pedestrians were everywhere to be found. We had to stop at traffic lights constantly, killing our pacing and reminding us with a snap that we were back with the general population. It was an interesting feeling to say the least. We made our way to our urban campsite (called Reykjavik Campsite for ease) in the city which allowed for vans and campers to stay, in addition to providing a youth hostel and spaces for tent campers in the summer. It is in the shadow of the Laugardalsvöllur stadium, and offers quality amenities for all guests. We found a nice spot for our van along a row of trees, and made camp for the night, despite having several hours to spare. We decided to travel into the heart of the city for some dinner and a couple beers, so we headed out with empty stomachs. We hiked up the hill of streets to Hallgrimskirkja in the center of town, and from there, found a lovely and popular restaurant called Café Loki. We were seated upstairs with a gorgeous view of the church, and ordered a delicious meal of lamb stew and several Einstök dark ales. We enjoyed our food, had a conversation with a traveling British couple, and went on our way.
Heading back for the van, we passed a lively bar and I talked my father into a few more minutes of drinking to celebrate the closing of our trip. The place was called Bar Ananas, and we went inside for a couple of lagers. While sitting inside, I began discussing the philosophy of Slovenian Psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek with my dad, attempting to explain a course which I had just taken at Portland State. Much to my surprise, a young Icelandic man of about my age approached us and asked something along the lines of: “I’m sorry to interrupt, but are you two talking about Slavoj Žižek?” Long story short, this guy and I were able to connect and discuss a philosopher who I had just studied and was convinced nobody else knew about. It was an excellent time, and I was able to make my first new friend of the trip. My father and I eventually left Bar Ananas and headed back to the campsite. There, we were able to catch some shut-eye and prepare for our last full day in Iceland in the morning.
We woke up early again, although relatively late by our standards, and proceeded to take this last day slowly. We returned our lovely, trustworthy van to the amazing people at CampEasy. They were able to make the process of return very simple and offered us more free coffee, which never hurts. Afterwards, we took a complimentary taxi to our hotel on the Reykjavik waterfront, the Centerhotel Arnarhvoll. We went to the top floor in order to catch happy hour, and enjoyed a wonderful meal and Icelandic lager with excellent views to boot. The famous Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre was directly across the street, and the restaurant provided a wonderful view of the grounds with the sea in the background. We explored some of the waterfront, taking photos of the monuments and making our way through trinket shops before heading out for dinner that night. Stopping at a small pub located beneath Bar Ananas, we ordered two drinks of traditional Icelandic Brennivín to put a metaphorical cap on our journey through Iceland, and then went back to the hotel for some sleep. I had already packed, and had to wake up very early in the morning to catch my flight from Keflavik to Frankfurt.
Iceland had been an absolutely amazing prologue to my larger travels in Germany and beyond. I couldn’t imagine going abroad without such a wonderful beginning to the journey. I am thankful for my father, with whom I was able to spend a lot of meaningful time during our days driving and hiking around. I am thankful that he was able to make the trip with me, adding on to the confidence which he and my mother had instilled in me to live abroad independently. It was a once-in-a-lifetime father/son trip that I will never forget as long as I live.