Turkey, (re-re-re-)re-visited: Urban bustle and stone magic.

This entry comes at the end of a larger story, the middle bits of which I’m still not entirely sure how to convey. I’ve just finished a long stretch in Europe, totalling roughly 3 months away from home which was both an experiment in working remotely and an escape from home to learn more about the meaning of the concept of “home”. The working part was bookended by holiday weeks (for which I am very grateful); the days off helped me explore, recharge, reconnect (with humans), disconnect (from the blaring news cycles), re-evaluate (humans and news and all manner of things), and mostly begin to contemplate what comes next (the answer to which is still a mystery).

But I digress. That is a much bigger nut to crack and, consequently, summarily summarise.

I wanted to end my days in Europe on a sunny note, with toes in warm Mediterranean sand, appendages dangling in bright blue water. Due to circumstances beyond my control, plans for a Mediterranean escape didn’t unfold the way I had anticipated, so I aimed for a semi-familiar place with new and unexplored adventures to be had…


Istanbul.

This trip kicked off much the same as my other trips to Istanbul: a ride from the airport, a crowded highway, a wending through shop-choked streets, and a first glimpse of the Galata Tower, the iconic sight that brings me back, as I cross a modern bridge over the Golden Horn, to one of my favourite views in this old-meets-new city. I’ll sit and watch this old landmark in the days to come, listening to the ferry horns and the corn- and mackerel- and mussel-hawkers at the waterfront that make up the soundtrack to this bustling section of Istanbul.

I’m here this time for a significant amount of time: I have 10 days to more calmly explore Istanbul’s nooks and crannies, and I’ve booked a room in a cave house in Cappadocia, that rocky, other-worldly place I’ve long longed to explore.

The Adhan, the call to prayer, sounds just before dawn and at 4 other times during the day, adding a musical backdrop that is at times soothing or jarring, depending on one’s proximity to a mosque; the Imam’s voice projects across the bustling cobbled streets and resounds in the alleyways, bumping into the other nearby calls. The chant is my wake-up call, as this soundscape adds to the ways the city mesmerises me every time I’m here: it is a mystical mélange of old and new, of East and West, of saffron and silk, of wood (and tobacco) smoke, magic lamps and flying carpets…

I spend a couple of days in the city, exploring old haunts: the Mısır Çarşısı, the Eminönü neighbourhood, the cobbled, graffiti-flecked, narrow streets around the Galata tower, and of course the bustle around the waterfront. I also have time to wander into and around things I’ve missed the other times I’ve been here: an evocative staircase built in the mid 1800s called the Camondo Stairs; the Süleymaniye Mosque, perched atop one of the seven hills of Istanbul, its minarets overlooking the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, facing South-ish towards the Asia Minor portion of Turkey (and, farther-flung, Mecca), street food! Lunch one day was a balik ekmek from the food vendors on the waterfront (and a side of pickled cabbage and pickles, swimming in a beet-y pickle juice that is meant as a drink), and I managed to survive the gauntlet of the spice market without buying all of it.

As if my castle fetish wasn’t entirely satisfied in Germany, I set out on my second day to visit the Yedikule Castle and its seven dungeons. It turns out, however, that the government’s efforts to paint a pretty face on a country that is facing some dark socio-economic times have launched so many restoration projects that nearly every city wall and ancient mosque and historical building is surrounded by scaffolding and/or is closed to visitors due to renovations. I’ll reserve my political tirades for dinner over raki and just say that my exploration of old stone walls, turrets and dungeons will need to wait for another day.

The saving grace of the afternoon was a wander around the outskirts of the castle into a (very small) town square, where the local fruit seller invited me into his garden that abutted the old castle wall. Here, I was able to see some of the old stonework up close, and from him bought some of the most delectable fresh figs I’ve ever had. I ended up sharing part of my taxi ride back to the hotel with a young local Architect woman who offered to show me some of the city when I returned to Istanbul. I love seeing places through the eyes of locals, and I was excited to get her perspective on not only the city’s buildings but the political situation from someone of her generation. Google Translate for the win!

After a lovely Turkish breakfast, I embarked on the next phase of the adventure: the moon. Or something…


Cappadocia.

If Dr. Seuss hooked up with Dr. Ruth and Rumi and Akbar the Great, and they were asked to design something to rival Bryce Canyon or the Grand Canyon (but make it pigeon-friendly and not worry so much about how weird it gets), we’d end up with something akin to the rock formations in the Cappadocia region.

From the 6th Century BC, people populated the region encompassing what is now Göerme, Çavuşin, Ügrüp, Üchisar, Üzengi, Gomeda, and their surrounds. They built cave homes and underground cities and pigeon houses and churches and monasteries in the fairy chimneys and limestone formations created by the volcanoes and wind and water that sculpted the landscape here millions of years ago. I can’t do justice to a retelling of the long history, but this is a semi-concise recap of the main events, from ancient Hittites to Persian satraps and Zoroastrian cults to ancient Christians and Byzantines and, later, Turkish clans. The area is as rich in history as it is in natural wonder!

I did the requisite balloon ride over the fairy chimneys, as one does here. And as I tried not to be sucked in by the Insta-Selfieism of it all, I watched the sun rise over Love Valley and was dumbstruck by the colours and the clear air and most of all the topography, which may be, quite literally, a geologist’s wet dream.

Land of the giant penis rocks

After the balloon ride, I wanted to see Love Valley from the valley floor. From above it was spectacular, but I wanted to feel the scale of the place. If I tried to explain the rock formations, I’d say it’s like Stonehenge or Easter Island, but instead of manmade stone carvings, the result of the lava and erosion and water somehow resulted in 50-metre-tall penises, lined up in a row, dotted throughout a carved-out limestone valley. Even I would think I was making it up if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. It really looks surreal. So I hiked around the rim, cheered on some of the racers in the Salomon Ultra Trail Race that was taking place that day, and dropped into the valley to gawk as I walked through this other-planetary place.

Facing one’s fears in Rose Valley

Someone decided fifteen hundred years ago that they would build a church in a giant rock, in the middle of a lot of other giant rocks, in the middle of nowhere! I had hiked from somewhere at the edge of Sword Valley into Red Valley and then Rose Valley, looking for this church carved into a fairy chimney amongst thousands of other fairy chimneys and found, after a meandering semi-trek, the Ayvali Kilise.

Here, the hike took a turn…

The trails were vaguely marked but fairly obvious. And I had a map and knew the general direction towards which I needed to head. Feeling semi-confident, I followed the trail and the map and the GPS arrow. Then, the problem: although the map’s dotted line pointed me along a trail in the correct direction, what the dotted line did not do, was stop when it was time. But the trail did, and quite abruptly at that. At a cliff (with a gorgeous view, but that didn’t help much when I realised I needed to go down the same way I had gone up…)

So in an attempt to double-back and get back to the main trail, I encountered the most frightening 2 metres I’ve ever hiked: a narrow, eroded limestone arch bridge I needed to cross in order to make it out of there. It had a 10-metre drop on one side and a limestone cliff on the other, so my margin of error was approximately 30cm (or one foot, literally). I held my breath (also quite literally), stepped gingerly, and did not look anywhere but where I needed to go in order to live. As my foot cleared the last of the harrowing sandy and loose stone, I breathed, walked two steps, and saw the sign with the ⚠ and some equally nebulous arrows.

Because Turkey: a toothless farmer appeared moments later, proffered lunch (I graciously declined), tea (ditto), and directions (accepted, gladly). In hindsight, lunch and tea in his tractor cart might have made for an interesting twist to the story.

The rest of the hike from Rose Valley to Çavuşin was wonderfully uneventful, if you don’t count the vistas and the kind locals offering grapes from the vine and the street pups and the looming stone castle that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere in the middle of a small, dusty bazaar (and bizarre) street… I slept well that night in my cave room.

Step away from the tour bus

On offer here are tours: Red, Blue, Silver, Green, Gold… each offering a glimpse of the sights, and an Exit Through the Gift Shop approach to seeing a place. Since I had the luxury of several days in Cappadocia and I generally try to avoid crowds and tourist traps, I declined the canned tours and worked out a series of hikes and an itinerary of “must-see” places with the gracious and story-full owner of the cave hotel where I was staying. He grew up here, so was thrilled to craft a list of places for me to see. The first day, we headed out after breakfast and took a cursory look out over Pigeon Valley, where he gave me the scoop on the pigeon houses that dot the fairy chimneys throughout Cappadocia. Pigeons are held in high regard in Turkey, and throughout history have been used here as a means of communication (carrier pigeons) and as a source of fertilizer (poop). I’d also suspect, as today, there was a status element to one’s pigeon collection. To think that these pigeon coops were carved so skillfully into the rock centuries ago only adds wonder to the scene.

From Pigeon Valley we drove to the underground city of Kaymakli, inhabited in the 6th century (and beyond) to protect the villagers from invaders. Afterwards, we grabbed lunch at a local street market and picnicked by the side of the road, just next to centuries-old stone carvings. The warmth of the Turkish spirit really shined as bright as the brilliant day: my host and his stories of the area, and a neighbour to the place we were lunching who invited us into his home, gave us apples and quince from his trees, and offered tea. It was a recurring theme: chestnuts or walnuts or apples or tea or grapes, offered by complete strangers in warm greeting, looking for nothing but a smile in return. In retrospect, I realise that the people who wanted to sell me something offered much less of this gracious hospitality.

The highlight of the outing came late in the day… we ventured on to Soğanlı, another magical village with cave houses, a 6th century church, and a sort-of ghost town: the rock houses are now all abandoned because the government moved the residents to alternate housing (almost ironically) due to rockslides.

Between the apple tea and the warmth of the day (the sunshine and the big hearts I encountered), I left with the feeling I need to come back here to explore the secrets this place holds.

Wrapping up the trip with some raki.

I’ve mixed up my itinerary in this retelling, but suffice to say it was a fairy chimney-full adventure, making me again grateful for the opportunity to experience such a remote-feeling but altogether available spot, replete with history and fresh air and warm smiles and gracious hearts.

I extended my stay in Cappadocia for 2 days because I felt I couldn’t leave quite yet, but still managed to reconnect with the new Architect friend for a walk around the Fener neighbourhood and a dinner which included probably too much raki in relation to the hour of my trip to the airport the next morning.

The time flew, and I left Turkey feeling lighter but also like I’ve got unfinished business in the heart of the country…like I have more adventuring to do and so much more to learn about a place so steeped, like its tea, in history and culture.

Once again, I’m leaving a place feeling as though I’m leaving a part of me there and bringing a part of there back to be with me while I’m gone…


“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colours. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”

Terry Pratchett

Birb-spotting: adventures in Covidville.

Not all my adventures in Covidville have revolved around cultivating sourdough starter or rehabilitating broken body parts. Last summer, shortly before I broke said body part, I bought a new camera and a ridiculously big lens. I figured that since all travel was on hold for the foreseeable future (I had no idea how long the foreseeable future really was…), I’d invest in something to help me see the local landscape and its natural wonders a little more clearly.

But, the lens was backordered. And it arrived about a week after I was released from the confinements of my sling. And, at the time, I could barely lift it with my left arm. I nearly cancelled the order a couple of times in my exasperation. But something told me to stay.

The waiting is the hardest part.


So it turned out that birdspotting became a part of my physical, if not psychological, therapy during these disheartening and altogether gloomy months. The fact that you actually need to leave the house (sorry, sourdough starter) and situate oneself in a place where there is a plethora of nature, and an anti-plethora of people, meant that I would need to spend quite a lot of time outdoors (good), in open, quiet spaces (better), where there were few people (best; on a lot of levels).

So while I know a bit about some birds, it was a new learning experience to be able to literally zoom in and see them more clearly. And so, over these past 9 months or so I’ve really birthed a new passion, or at least a new pandemic obsession.

Once again, Nature as antidote.

In the late summer and into the fall, I began getting used to the lens. It’s big and heavy, and my shoulder was healing and I sometimes didn’t know if it was helping or hurting to be hauling this thing around all the time, as I wasn’t really supposed to be lifting any weights until at least the 3 month mark. And I don’t like using a tripod (there, I said it!). And I’m really trying to shoot mostly manual these days. So a lot of the early photos were crap. And I almost just gave up on a few occasions.

Osprey in predator mode © Lesli Woodruff 2020

Then I went back and visited an osprey nest I know. Getting that much closer to these majestic beings made me better understand why, for me, photography is like meditation. I hold my breath when I shoot, focused for those microseconds on the only thing that exists in that moment: whatever it is in the viewfinder. Ospreys are keen hunters, powerful rockets when honing in on their prey, yet graceful in their strength. I’m in that moment with them, focusing on the target, learning from them their patience and perception and precision and tenacity.

The photos that came from that outing lifted my mood and made me want to get better. Physically. Mentally. Photographically.

Hummingbird © Lesli Woodruff 2020
Hummingbird

Throughout the fall, there were more ospreys and the autumnal waterbirds… and then, week by week, they began to fly south to winter. Which, of course, I wanted to do as well: fly somewhere as the days grew shorter and the Covidness became darker and seemingly unending, unyielding, unrelenting, un…….

With winter on the fringes, ospreys and egrets are replaced with a parade of literal snow birds arriving on the scene. We get snow geese and snowy owls and snow buntings, plus the wintering birds of prey like bald eagles and short-eared owls and hawks of all sorts. All of which were a thrill to see, and maybe a bit of an obsession in trying to find. And a good way to wile away the cold and dark days.

And as seasons go, so do the migration patterns. With the thawing rivers and marshes, the wintering birds fly elsewhere, and longer days bring with them the sights and sounds of spring: early April the ospreys begin arriving again. Then the reeds are alive with the sounds of warblers. Then the vibrant bluebirds give way to orioles and thrushes and kestrels and waxwings and tanagers. Spring indeed is a cacophony of birdsong, plumage and mating dances.

One of the joys of living near the shore is the return of the shorebirds. I’m seeing an influx of the ducks and egrets and sandpipers that can only mean that brighter, warmer, longer days are upon us.

Which brings me to this week. Although the piping plovers return at the beginning of April, they don’t get to nesting in earnest until sometime in May. There are only roughly 7500 piping plovers in existence, about half on the East Coast of the US. Every chick is sacred, as they say. I’m very respectful of distance and restricted beaches (most of their nesting area is roped off or beaches completely closed to help protect the species), so the long lens helps a great deal!

My pandemic patience and persistence practice, as well as my affinity to avoid crowds have paid off: I’ve found some baby plovers and their relatives.

Piping plover hatchlings can eat on their own on the very first day but won’t fly for about a month. In the process, they peep and skitter across the sand like little worm-eating machines, learning about life in the big bright world as they go. And, boy are they cute!

And there are the killdeer: I’ve created something of a narrative around these birds even though they are slightly less adorable. I’ve been looking for killdeer chicks the past couple of weeks in a place I know there’s a nesting pair. A few days ago one of them was acting really strange so I had an idea there may be chicks around. I went back just before dusk on Friday and finally found them… It was like a small avian circus really. Killdeer are cousins of the plovers and so their chicks are also precocious – the technical term is precocial, meaning they can feed themselves and move around right after hatching, but precocious is more like it. Cheeky, even.

I digress.

Killdeer #1 was tending the flock (4 or 5 that I could see), and as the sun got lower s/he started to gather them underneath her to settle in. But as soon as they all seemed to tuck in, one would pop out and start exploring again…then another…and another. And then s/he had to go herding. At one point, s/he got so exasperated that s/he called her mate to take over. S/he flew off and complained to the willet sitting on a dirt mound nearby while the mate took over fledgling-wrangling duties.

The look on the poor birb’s face was something like a bedraggled mother trying to wrangle scurrying toddlers: “ffs, if you don’t get in here right now Wally, that giant pterodactyl is going to come down and grab you and you’ll never eat any of those yummy marsh grubs again!


It’s been a rocky time in Covidland. I’m grateful daily for relative health and a job I love and and a modicum of sanity and the luxury of being fully-vaccinated…but I’m not taking any of it for granted because it all still feels a little precarious right now.

So my bird tales end here for the day, but the lessons I’ve learnt from birdstalking with a larger lens are clear:

  • Do the thing if you can, especially if you get to learn something new in the process
  • Find nature, experience open spaces, smell the leaves, listen to the birdsong
  • Stay focused on what’s in front of you; there’s a lot of swirling chaos out there that will exist whether or not you pay attention
  • After you’ve gone through a bad day (or a string of them), congratulate yourself for the accomplishment…nobody else may have even noticed, as their days may be equally as trying as yours
  • Bring snacks. It’s easier to stay a little longer doing a thing you didn’t know you’d enjoy if you’re not starving!

Here’s to brighter skies, warmer days and a return to adventuring in earnest.

Balkan Doživljaj, final chapter: All roads lead to…Istanbul?

I’ve just spent 2-1/2 weeks travelling, bouncing between historic stone towns wrapped in ancient fortresses and a mesmerising display of what happens when nature gets to push its boundaries. I spent time in Croatia and Montenegro, and then a couple of drive-throughs of the Bosnia end of Bosnia and Herzegovina (passport stamped 2x, but it feels a little like cheating to “count” a country without really seeing it). Croatia, and to some extent Montenegro, draws cruise ships to its ports, but thankfully many of the wonders of both are too far inland or too small to be considered “worthwhile” destinations.

Worthwhile is in the eye of the beholder: I’ll always gravitate towards that which is lesser-known, farther-flung, not-as-trodden, ditto obscure; grateful for the opportunities that health and employment and relative freedom afford.


Before going home, I further bounced to a stopover in one of my favourite cities, Istanbul, where I set my sights on seeing things I hadn’t in my previous visits here. In all its own ways, this city mesmerises. On so many levels, it’s where East meets West and where secular meets orthodox. The Adhan, call to prayer, echoes in the streets at its regular cadence, the chants melding with the city’s din. In the market crowds, suited or Levi’s- and T-shirt-garbed urbanites jumble with burqa and niqab and headscarf-clad women to create a kaleidoscopic patchwork of cotton and silk and wool and skin.

It is an architecturally fabulous city, elaborate and historic mosques and the 5th-century Walls of Constantinople that surround the oldest parts of the city, juxtaposed against the gleaming downtown bridges and myriad shops…there’s a sweet shop on nearly every corner selling a regional favourite – Turkish Delight.

I spend my first afternoon reacquainting myself to this old town neighbourhood – Sultanahmet – known primarily for the Blue Mosque and its neighbour, the Ayasofya (or Hagia Sofia), an Orthodox cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-cultural museum. It’s the latter I’m intent on seeing this day. The mid-day tourist crush has diminished and I breeze in without much wait. It is immense, and an engineering wonder on its own…(the interior height of the dome is an astounding 55.6 metres high). (Re-)built as a cathedral in 537AD, it was considered a pinnacle in Byzantine architecture. Once the Ottoman Empire did its thing in the 1400’s, Ayasofya was converted into a mosque (in the process, the spectacular mosaics were plastered over). Today, the structure serves as a museum, and as such, we see a restoration of the old Orthodox tilework with Christian works contrasted against the elaborate mosque décor, including 8 massive calligraphic discs depicting the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, and other related messengers and bigwigs (thus concludes my knowledge of the Islamic hierarchy). At present, the Turkish government is arming for a fight with the UNESCO folks, as Erdoğan is angling to turn the museum back into an active mosque.

Next morning, I hop a bus to get on a boat that takes me on a water tour from the Golden Horn (Istanbul’s old trading port and current and bustling waterfront) and into the Bosporus Strait, the waterway that serves to connect the Black Sea with the Aegean, and one of primary reasons Constantinople was a key trading post along the Silk Road. There are reminders of Istanbul’s place in history scattered throughout the city, like the Obelisk of Theodosius or a little stela, almost hidden between a tram stop and the crowded entrance to the Basilica Cistern, called the Milion Stone, marking the “zero point” to everywhere else that was important in the Byzantine era, with distances. Constantinople was the center of the modern world and this stone told you how far away the place you wanted to go was from the only place that mattered. It’s these little wonders that just add to the magic of this city.

Istanbul is the largest city that sits on the cusp of two continents, the Bosporus separating the European from the Asian side of the country. And from the water you can definitely see many of the historical influences in the variety of architectural styles. Grand mosques, old and new; modern industrial eyesores, marble palaces, red roofed stone houses built into the hillsides, pretty painted neighbourhoods that look like something from a travel magazine… And, to my delight, a castle! As we make our way down the Bosporus towards a stop on the Asian side, I see a massive fortress on the European side. The Rumeli Fortress, I learn, is one of several fortresses here. It’s not really surprising, knowing something of the history of the region, and these are now (all!) at the top on my list of what to see next time I return.

The Golden Horn is a natural harbour, and as we come into port, it warms my heart to see some of its resident dolphin population. This harbour was once bubbling with fish and these dolphins’ ancestors, but here, too, they’re sadly feeling the impact of overfishing and pollution.

We’re at port and I bid farewell to the hungover Finns I met onboard. My next stop is what’s becoming an annual pilgrimage to the Mısır Çarşısı, the old spice market, where I acquire enough Turkish Delight, cheese, olives and biber salçasi (a thick red pepper paste) to eat like a Turk for a while back home!

My remaining hours here fly by – I walk back towards my hotel along the water, watching the fishermen cast their lines in the channel where the Golden Horn meets the Bosporus. On the way, I wander through the lovely Gülhane Parkı and make it back to my neighbourhood. It’s all becoming more familiar to me; even the human traffic jam I encountered at the spice market seemed amusing, and I had a laugh at the situation with strangers in the crowd.

Dinner is at a cosy little place lit by hundreds of Turkish mosaic lamps, then I meander back to my B&B a bit slower than necessary. Early the next morning, I do a last wander around Sultanahmet before the crowds arrive. I patted some stray dogs, got adopted by a cat, had a fresh-pressed pomegranate juice and then brekkie in the lovely B&B courtyard before starting the journey back to the real world.

In a blink of an eye, I’m on a bus, reflecting on the string of encounters I’ve had in this strangely enchanting city. The bus is taking me back to the airport, and to the air ferry that will magic me over the continent of Europe and then over the sea that separates this continent from mine. Sitting next to me is a smiling woman from Kabul, here in Istanbul for a few days of shopping. Back home, she teaches Arabic. In broken English, hand gestures and Google translate, we shared a little bit about ourselves. Then she WhatsApp calls her teenage son in Kabul so he could meet me. The world is so much smaller than we are led to believe (and parents around the world will forever be embarrassing their teenagers, I think). People are people, regardless of their wrapping.


When I travel, I try to come home knowing more than I did and seeing something new or from a different perspective. Sometimes it makes me question the rat race, makes me more worried about the rabid consumerism that spreads like a virus, makes me want to work harder to find that balance between work and play, where play should win out but doesn’t always…

Until next time, Istanbul. I’m readying for the next adventure…


Read the whole Balkan Doživljaj story here: Part I: Arrival | Part II: Into the Mountains of Montenegro | Part III: Fleeing the Russians for the Countryside | Part IV: Nature, Fog, and Maybe Going to Hell | Part V: In Which I Split

On whales, sunsets, out-of-town visitors and other random dribbles…

I’m in something of a travel drought: work has been madness and springtime plans got thwarted by a combination of bad timing and worse inertia. So it’s been a summer of routine routines to discharge the static in the overloaded head.

Enter: sunsets. I bought a fancy new lens a few months back, and took a personal oath to get better at low-light photography. I still should take a class or find a mentor or something. In the meantime, I’m dabbling…

Wearing a camera: I read somewhere a while back that to improve one’s photography, you should put your camera on each day, wear it so it becomes like an article of clothing. So I’m probably that freak marching around town with dog leash in one hand and a camera slung across my body, stalking sunrises, ocean fog, evening light and the egrets that hang around the docks. Some of my recent favourites, in no particular order:

Whirlwind guests: And my first visitors of the summer came a week or so ago, my co-adventuring Calvin brought his adventurers-in-training to my part of the world at the start of their whirlwind tour of the Northeast. We made the most of a brilliant summer weekend: Salem Willows arcade, an authentic New England clam shack experience at Woodman’s, swimming and SUP-ing right here in Bev, and topped it off with a diner brekkie at Cape Ann’s best-kept secret and a whale watch out of Gloucester!

We had the luck of watching local humpback, Dross, lunge feeding for the better part of an hour. In some of these frames, you can see the sardines escaping from her massive mouth, the gulls at the ready for any fish she’s missed. Also seen this day: a few minke whales and an elusive ocean sunfish (on my hit list for diving, but never expected to see one in the North Atlantic)!

My next summer visitor comes in a week or so, and I wonder if it’s cheating to repeat the same classic New England summer rituals? I take for granted that these things are in my backyard, never going on these excursions except when visitors are here, but feel grateful every day to live in a place that people from out of town come for holiday.

I’m writing this not-really-a-travel-post post, in part, to appease that feeling of restlessness crawling in my bones, as the sparks of the next grand adventure take form. I’m writing to practice the artform because I’m feeling rusty. I’m writing because I still wonder quite often if I’m meant to stay in one place, and whether some inner Gypsy isn’t being squelched by this traditional concept of home; whether home is a feeling or if it’s a social construct, fabricated to display tangible wealth. And of course it is both, since the universe as it meets the human condition is this deeply-layered paradox.

So, stay tuned to this space. Even I don’t know for sure what will appear next… but there’s a nagging urge to swim with big animals, and see island-nations that have their own ecosystems, and see rock formations where, for thousands of years, people have built villages into the stone, and animals whose ancestors once existed on this continent, and structures far older than this country’s years.

Iceland: Land of fire and ice (And trolls. And probably unicorns)…

[Sverige: Del ett | Stockholm, Day 1]         [Sverige: Del två | Bergslagsleden]          [Sverige: Del tre | Birthday in Stockholm]

Iceland is like Sweden’s weird cousin that shows up at all the big holidays. It looks more like the moon or a newly-discovered boiling planet than the other Nordic countries, yet it shares the same ancient gods and speaks some variant of an old mother tongue. It’s intriguing, mysterious, remote, cold and hot (simultaneously)… It’s the one who tells all the cool stories at family gatherings, tales so far-fetched that we’re not sure whether they’re real or not.

It’s roughly the size of Kentucky (or, the size of Ireland and Belgium combined), but with a population smaller than the city of Nice; so once you leave Reykjavik virtually everywhere feels like you’re in the middle of Nowhere. It’s almost like a theme park, divided into regions where the farther from the airport you stray, the more A-tickets you’ll need (Adventure tickets, that is…).

One corner looks like a troll nursery, while another, a boiling cauldron ready to burst its seams and spew scalding water or lava or unicorn entrails… one never knows.

I’ve been curious about this strange place, and I’m known to take a photograph or two (or 642) when I travel, so I made plans for a 3-day stopover here on my way back from Sweden, taking advantage of Icelandair’s #MyStopover promotion, where they don’t charge you extra to add days to your ticket when you fly through Reykjavik. You do, however, get to pay for your hotel, rental car and anything you do or eat while you’re here. One thing to note: Iceland is not cheap. On the plus-side, most of the things to do are outdoors, and for the most part, free (unless you do a tour).

So I land in the land of fire and ice, acquire my rental car (another note: you need 11 different types of insurance to cover the land/air/sea hazards that may or may not occur while driving in this place), and I’m off: first stop the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which I’ve nicknamed Snuffleupagus because it’s only just moderately easier to pronounce, to see mountains and waterfalls and old churches and fantastic coastlines.

My first observation: there are no trees here. But: black mountains and weird green rolling hills pop up from flat expanses, appearing out of the fog like they’ve just sprung from the depths of some grim faery tale. It’s like Kansas meets Mars or the Moon, in black (and green) and gray, but there are still literally no trees, just a smattering of what looks like wheatgrass and moss-covered boulder fields. And rainbows appear on a moment’s notice, since it’s drizzling then sunny…not terribly unlike New England weather. But with ink-black earth. And volcanoes. And maybe trolls.

About an hour outside of Reykjavik, wending my way north and west, I encounter a tunnel*. Only later do I find out that it is called the Hvalfjarðargöng, and only when I’m 1 or 2km in, do I realise it’s the longest tunnel I’ve ever driven (nearly 6km long and 165 metres deep), rock-lined and sloping steeply (8%!) to enable travel beneath the Hvalfjarður fjord. It’s as I resurface here that I behold the first of many Icelandic rainbows I’ll see in the following days.

The hotel is the only thing lit in the little town of Hellnar when I arrive. And by little, I mean there seems only to be the one hotel, a cluster of about 15 clean-cut, brown houses, an old church, a couple of other buildings, maybe another restaurant, and an expanse of coastline. The staff, friendly; the tea, hot; the bed, cosy. I’ve spanned 2500km in a plane and another 230+ kms driving up here in the wild and woolly weather. This flicka is ready for sängen.

I shot on the order of 600 photos in 3 days, beginning that Monday morn. How? When the landscape and the light are otherworldly, and the sky shows a different side every 8 minutes, even a simple snapshot out the window of a hotel room has a mood and a texture like a painting.

So on this new day, when the dreariness looked like it wanted to thwart an entire stopover, I woke up and steeled myself for the worst of elements. At brekkie, though, the clouds broke. For a precious few moments the sun appeared as if it would stay the day… alas, by the time I was ready to embark (a mere 20 minutes later), the skies darkened and Thor reigned (and rained and rained). Undaunted, I set out (rather, there is quite literally NOTHING to do here except look at nature, so I went anyway). First stop: Kirkjufellsfoss.

The road from Hellnar to Kirkjufellsfoss is across the Snæfellsnes peninsula: follow the main road, make a left at the black church “on the corner” and make a right when you see water again. There are few roads here and, it must be stated, they are in very good condition – Iceland even has a website dedicated to road status…the weather here is so changeable that many roads close due to water, mud, snow, ice, etc. at the drop of a hat.

The Kirkjufellsfoss is one of the most-photographed landmarks in Iceland, and my ultimate dream was to capture the Northern Lights here, though I’m doubtful the weather will permit it. I arrive, driving through the small mountains, then along the coast, a drive lined with moss-covered lava fields, dramatic green hills, glacial peaks and an otherwise other-worldly landscape.

The tour bus and teeming tourists turn me off at first (as do the rain and wind). But the clouds momentarily break, the bus leaves, and I am left with a living photograph before me… The shot, worth it. Then the skies then darken and it begins to hail.

Hailstorm, brief, I set off again, towards the seaside town of Stykkishólmur, situated on the northern side of the Snuffleupagus peninsula. It is quaint, and I climb up to the lighthouse during a break in the showers, rewarded with a view of the bay, rainbow touching down on one of the surrounding islands.

My Snæfellsnes loop continued with a stop at the renowned Búðakirkja, a dark-brown church built in the early 1700’s by a Swedish merchant, torn down and rebuilt (twice!) before the mid-1800’s. It is only made more stunning by its site (mountains on one side, the wild North Atlantic on the other) and the magic Icelandic skies. I continue along that coast, stopping multiple times, gape-mouthed, to photograph the landscape. I vow to put that Nikon 14-24 f2.8 lens on my wishlist.

By midafternoon on that first day, cold and wet were factors by which I had stopped measuring my well-being. The weather began as gray, moved to alternately downpouring and sunny, shifted to gale-force winds (in which, at one point, I had to hold onto my rental car to avoid getting flung off a cliff), hail, more rain, then brooding fog. More sacrifices to the gods of Gore-Tex. The winds, unrelenting! Njörðr (Njord), Norse god of sea and wind, is ever-present. One wonders why this strange place wasn’t called Norway instead.

On Tuesday, I’m slated to stay in the South Coast town of Vik. My plan is to head that way in the morning, stopping along the way when I see things that pique my interest. From Hellnar to Vik is about 360km, the weather only marginally better than the day before.

I stopped to get gas in a small town called Hveragerði, somewhere between Reykjavik and Hell(a)… Turns out it’s a geothermal hotbed here, the hillsides boiling just below the surface, and the continental plates threatening to move farther apart at any moment.

I took a small hike in the town’s geothermal park, met a lovely local woman named Jenny (pronounced “Yenny”) and her dog, and visited their quirky earthquake museum, where I stood in the void between the Eurasian and North American plates.

The earth here, mineral-rich and vibrant in the pre-downpour sunshine, seemed to speak…creaking and bubbling as it sent up its wafts of steam from underground cauldrons. The air, its texture, like silk: smooth and thin and soft. Jenny told me she moved here because the energy was different; that the place somehow called her to stay.

As the sun was getting lower in the sky, I stopped to explore Seljalandsfoss, tourist magnet that it is – it’s one of the waterfall wonders here, and because of the stone’s configuration, you can walk behind it (if you don’t mind getting a tad wet!).

And again the landscape changes on this part of the island, on one side of the roadway, there’s glacial peaks bounded by dormant volcanoes, on the other there’s flat, black expanses dotted with what looks like meteorites. It’s remnants from the volcano that erupted here in 2010. Nobody can pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, so they just call it “the volcano that mucked up all the flights.” All this lava yields to fertile fields and farms promising horse riding on the celebrated Icelandic ponies. It changes again as the road wends back towards the coastline, with its basalt cliffs and black beaches. And I arrive at a little guest house in Vik for my final night.

My last morning, I spend an hour or two wandering the hills above the town, then out the jetty to view the Reynisdrangar rocks from my perch some 300 metres into the sea. Legend states that the rocks are mischievous trolls, caught in the sunlight and frozen as pillars of jagged rock, after a night of dragging ships to shore.**

I drive the way I came, stopping along the route to see what I can in the little time left. As I leave, I reflect that what I’ll remember more than the famous waterfalls, the oft-photographed landmarks, and the tourist-filled hotspots, is the landscape leading to-and-from the wonders.

This is how I spent most of my time outdoors in Iceland…this, and holding onto heavy things to avoid getting flung over cliffs.

NB: I’ve found that the coolest, most amazing experiences I’ve had travelling are the ones not in a guide book, but rather what arises (and surprises) when you least expect it: A trail lined with wild blueberries; cartoon mushrooms popping up from the mossy forest floor; fresh kanelbulle from a local baker; a stranger coming to your aid when you are out of options; a kind local guiding you to the best view in a town you can’t pronounce; deep sleep in an old dirt-floored cabin beside a stream; a paddle down a canal beside an urban island once used as the Royal hunting grounds; a hike through rainbow-coloured steaming earth; a hail storm then a magnificent rainbow on a volcanic coastline in a village with 12 houses…

And so, with a last-minute road closure that diverts traffic over a small mountain on a semi-paved road and gets me to the airport almost an hour later than necessary, I leave these Nordic lands behind, hoping to return again as soon as my interpreter will have me.

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A view from our misty, mossy camp along the Berslagsleden…

[Sverige: Del ett | Stockholm, Day 1]         [Sverige: Del två | Bergslagsleden]          [Sverige: Del tre | Birthday in Stockholm]


*Side note: tired from travel and gobsmacked by the scenery, I accidentally got stuck in the EZPass lane (perhaps ËZPæðþ here?), so time will tell what my penalty is in retrospect.

**According to Norse Mythology, Trolls are said to turn to stone upon contact with sunlight.