Saturday, October 06, 2018

Vienna, Austria

Monday, 10 Sep 2018

It was a long public holiday, so we took the opportunity for a 11D10N getaway covering 5 countries, starting from Vienna, Austria and ending in Budapest, Hungary via public transportation. We took Qatar airways multicity (KUL to Vienna, Budapest to KUL) which cost RM2832 which we bought only about a month before the trip. I was undecided on the destination of the September trip, among other options, I was looking into Switzerland and Finland as well. But in the end, it was Austria which I chose, for the alpine mountain and lake views.

Our morning flight from KUL was slightly delayed from the 9.40am departure. The first sector of the flight from KUL to Doha was full. The in flight entertainment and meals of Qatar Airways did not disappoint, as usual. We transited at Doha for about 3h40m before continuing our journey to Vienna. Our next leg of the flight was shorter with a smaller craft, 3 seats on each side, with barely a few passengers - less than 20 I think. What more befitting to while away the time by watching The Sound of Music to get a glimpse of Salzburg (which we will be visiting ) and Austria before our arrival.


We arrived Vienna at 9pm, then printed out our pre-booked train ticket to Schladming for the next day at an OBB (Austria's Federal Railway company) ticket vending machine at the airport. We then bought our train ticket to Vienna Hauptbahnhof (Vienna Central Station) for EUR4.20 per person. The short train ride to the capital city of Austria only took us 15 mins.

train from Vienna airport to the city


From Vienna Central Station, our Motel One Hauptbahnhof was just a 5 minute walk away. We smoothly checked in our room (EUR 86 or RM411 per night, booked via Booking.com), showered and rested for the night after a full day of flying. We already had our dinner on board our flight (meals included in flight ticket).

Motel One Hauptbahnhof room

Vienna Central Station view from our room

Tuesday, 11 Sep 2018

The next morning we woke up early as our body clock was still not adjusted to the foreign land we were in now. So we walked to the nearby Interspar supermarket which was already opened at 6am to buy some bread, water and fruits to sustain us on our 4 hour 40min train ride to Schladming later today.

Since it was still early before our departure time at 8.58am, we decided to go to the nearby Belvedere Palace for some picture taking, which was only about 10 mins walking from our hotel. Belvedere Palace was built in the early 18th century by  Baroque architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt  as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736). Source here



Belvedere Palace
Belvedere Palace garden


We then checked out from our hotel at 8.15am and walked to the train station next door for our next leg of our journey to the charming town of Schladming, about 300 km way.

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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Golden Circle, Iceland

Fri 16 Feb 2018

Golden Circle, Iceland

Gulfoss - Geysir / Strokkur - Thingvellir

We continued onwards to cover the Golden Circle route after spending time at Solheimajokull glacier with Gulfoss waterfall as the first stop, about 2 hours away. Gulfoss is a waterfall of the Hvita river, that plunges into a deep canyon of 32m depth. It creates a powerful gush of water where several attempts to generate electricity were made but were unsuccessful. An aerial view of the Gulfoss waterfall would be marvellous. Not sure if drones are permitted here for aerial photography, as it is not permitted at the second stop - Geysir.




Gulfoss waterfall




Geyser got its name from the Geysir in Iceland. Geysir is located at a high temperature geothermal area with a base temperature of 250C. So Be careful not to touch the steam at it reach boiling temperatures! The signboard says that the nearest hospital is 62km away. Geysir erupted after earthquake activity, the last one occurred in 2000. At its peak, it erupted up to 70-80 m high. Earthquakes also created several new hot springs in the area, including another smaller but active geyser - Strokkur, erupting every few minutes. Strokkur erupts up to 25-35m high.

Geysir geothermal area

Geysir geothermal area


Strokkur erupting



Our last destination today - Thingvellir National Park is a Unesco World Heritage site. It is located on the boundary of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It is also historically important as it is Iceland's ancient legal and judicial assembly site. There are numerous hiking trails at the park, which we would have trekked if we had time. We only went to the main viewpoint near Hakid which is also where the visitor centre is. The fissure between the tectonic plates is a walking distance from this viewpoint. Parking fee is 500 ISK per day, which acts also as a daypass, and you can park at any of the parking sites P1 to P5 and put the ticket on display at your dashboard.


pay the parking on the spot with your credit card


Thingvellir National Park from view point

walk between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate

Later that night, we booked for a Northern Lights tour with Trips Iceland. It wasn't our luck again tonight, as there was no aurora borealis seen, perhaps a faint light, according to the tour guide, but we couldn't be sure as the place was not totally dark, there were street lights around. We were brought around 3 places within the vicinity of Reykjavik, on of them was Strandarkirkja church originally built sometime in the 12th century. We were disappointed with the tour company as they left us behind! We waited at our apartment Downtown Reyjavik since 8.30 pm until 9.30pm (the bus was scheduled to arrive between 8.30 - 9pm). We had to call the company twice before finally a taxi arrived and rushed us over to where the tour bus were already on the way to the Northern Lights viewing spot! And the company did not offer another viewing as they considered our hunt tonight as 'succesful'. We don't recommend this company Trips Iceland with their Gorgeous Northern Lights tour.

Strandarkirkja church


The next day was already time to return to London via British Airways, and later that night was our connecting flight back to Kuala Lumpur via Malaysia Airlines. It was indeed too short to cover Iceland, with not a contingency plan for unexpected weather conditions. Hopefully we will get a chance to visit Iceland again - and we would be aiming for September at the start of the aurora season. Thank you Iceland for the wonderful memories!

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Southern Iceland Part 2

Fri 16 Feb 2018

Reynisfjara and Solheimajokull glacier

Our adventures continued today to Reynisfjara black sand beach from Hella, then turning back to Solheimajokull, before covering the Golden Triangle, then back to Reykjavik. But not before stopping by to take pictures of and with the smallish, cute and bushy haired Icelandic horses. There are many many horse farms around Iceland, we stopped at the one near Eyjafjallajokull. The horses are friendly, hoping for us to feed them something.

river near Hotel Hella




Talking to the Icelandic horses

After frolicking with horses, we made our way to Reynisfjara, about 1 hour from Hella via Route 1. The nearest town is Vik, which would have made a good mid rest point between Reykjavik and Jokulsarlon, if you are planning to cover this route. For geology enthusiasts, Reynisfjara beach is a must as you can see the basalt column cascading clearly here and black sand beach, a product of cooled lava over time. The 'sand' is made up of lava flowing into the ocean which has cooled and subjected to the strong ocean waves to now become tiny black pebbles. Do be careful to stay about 20-30 meters away from the waves as it could unexpectedly pull you into the ocean if you stand too near. There was a fatality reported in 2017 here.

Reynisfjara black sand beach covered by ice
Reynisfjara black sand beach
 
Basalt column by the Reynisfjara beach

roaring waves by the Reynisfjara beach


Our next stop was Solheimajokull glacier which is part of the Katla Geopark, about 30 mins away from Reynisfjara.  Originally, we booked for our glacier hike at Skaftafell the previous day but had to cancel it as the roads were closed due to strong winds and heavy snow and hence couldn't make it there. We were given the option to re-schedule, but since we were pressed for time, we had to forego it. It would definitely be high on our list if we had another opportunity to visit Iceland again. We were promptly fully refunded for our cancellation.

Solheimajokull did not disappoint, in fact it was majestic! We were surrounded by pristine white ice all over us, it was so serene that I would have stayed longer, if not for our tight schedule! Solheimajokull is a glacier tongue of Myrdalsjokull glacier. An ice tongue is a long and narrow sheet of ice projecting out from the coastline. An ice tongue forms when a valley glacier moves very rapidly out into the ocean or a lake. Info from here. It is advisable to do a glacier hike with a professional guide as you may be exposed to hazards as the land is rapidly changing. Stones fall, ice bridges and ice caves collapse and quicksand is common near the glacier.

Welcome to Solheimajokull





Solheimajokull glacier

a group coming back from their hike

We then continued on our journey to cover the Golden Circle, which will be updated in the next post. Stay tuned!

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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Southern Iceland Part 1

Thurs, 15 Feb 2018

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon and Diamond beach

Today's gruelling journey covered a total of 660 km distance and 8 hours in duration from Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, then back to Hella; to make up for lost time yesterday due to heavy snow and strong winds. That's the unpredictability of Iceland's weather, especially in winter. We even had to forego our glacier hike at Skaftafell, otherwise we would have to skip Jokulsarlon.

After a late night out yesterday, searching for the northern lights but to no avail, we got up a bit late, had breakfast and only set out to drive at 9.30am with the first glimmer of sun on the horizon. On hindsight, we should have started the drive earlier, as we ended up reaching Hella in the dark at 8.30pm. It is not advisable to drive at night in Iceland in winter especially, as there is no road lights.

We planned for a straight drive to Jokulsarlon, only stopping at Vik to re-fuel. But it was impossible to do so when the landscape around you are so majestic and out of this world, it seemed like we were in a different planet! Like Dr Mann's ice planet in the movie Interstellar. (The part was shot in Iceland, after all).


Ice planet

one of many cliffs along the journey


Our first unplanned stop was Skogafoss waterfall, not far from Hella. The water falls from a cliff with a 60m drop. Interestingly, the cliff used to be located by the sea, but it has now receded to 5km away. Fact taken from here. Comparing pictures of Skogafoss in winter and summer, I think it looks more majestic in winter! And I'm sure, our geologist friends would have a field day at this place, geo- imagining!

Skogafoss waterfall

Skoga river

We drove a further 30km before reaching the next town - Vik to fill up the tank. Petrol price is really expensive here at about RM8.3/litre, 4 times more than back home! There is no problem to make payment, as credit cards are accepted.


We didn't stop anymore after this, as we were behind schedule to reach Jokulsarlon which was still some 200km away. On a highway in summer conditions, a 200km distance could be reached in just about 2 hours. But not in Iceland. The speed limit is only 90km/hr here, plus the road is icy and slippery, you do not want to drive too fast, and if you are caught speeding, the fine is hefty! We also had to slow down when reaching a bridge, as only one vehicle can pass through at a time. We passed by Solheimajokull glacier, Reynisfjara black beach and Skaftafell glacier on the way, hopeful to stop by on the way back instead.


We finally reached Jokulsarlon at around 3pm. We took pictures at Diamond beach first, where pieces of broken iceberg from the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon next door flows to the Atlantic ocean. The pieces of iceberg looked like diamonds, hence the name. Some of the iceberg looked blue, the colour depends on the amount of air trapped in the ice.

blue iceberg


diamond iceberg on black sand beach


A few meters away from the diamond beach is the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. The Breiðamerkurjökull glacier began to retreat in the 1920s, and developed into a lake, with icebergs melting and drifting into the Atlantic ocean. The size of the lake is currently about 18km2 with a depth of 248m. Seals ply the lake for food, but we saw only a lone seal. And it disappeared into the lake before we could snap a picture. Facts excerpted from here.


Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon


vast area of Jokulsarlon
 
It was then time to turn back as we didn't want to be on the road in the dark. We had to skip Skaftafell glacier, which was very unfortunate.  We were supposed to hike here also earlier in the morning today, but it was not meant to be. We hope we could come back and do the hike.


On the way back, we did stop by the road for a viewpoint of  Hvannadalshnjúkur, a peak of the Öræfajökull volcano which is also the highest peak in Iceland, and the Virkisjokull and Falljokull glacier, which are all part of the vast Vatnajokull National Park.

Virkisjokull glacier in the distance

sunset

We then drove back straight to our hotel in Hella, aptly named Hotel Hella, another 230km away, and reached there a bit past darkness hour at 8.30pm. Sunset was at 6pm, and there was still some light for about an hour until it become totally dark at 7pm. So we drove for about 1.5 hours in the dark. Luckily there were always other vehicles in front or trailing behind us. It did snow while we were driving in the dark, but the road was still passable until we reached our hotel. Hotel Hella is slightly cheaper than in Reykjavik, costing EUR 60 per night, with breakfast.

Hotel Hella
simple room at Hella

What a long journey today. Originally, we were supposed to drive from Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon, then stay the night at the nearby Skalafell guest house. But due to the bad weather and impassable road, we were one day late, and have already booked at Hotel Hella for today. Tomorrow we plan to turn back to Reynisfjara and Solheimajokull glacier, then cover the Golden Circle before going back to Reykjavik. Another tightly packed itinerary for tomorrow.

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Sunday, March 04, 2018

Stranded in Reykjavik

Tue, 13 Feb - Wed 14 Feb, 2018
Reykjavik, Iceland

We planned for a short trip to Iceland for 4 nights to cover Southern Iceland ,the Golden Triangle and catching the ever elusive Aurora Borealis. We took a flight from London Heathrow via British Airways to Rekjavik's Keflavik International airport. The return BA flight costs GBP 315 per person (RM 1715). It was a morning flight from Heathrow at 9.30am and we arrived at around 1pm after the second attempt at landing. That was the first indication of how unpredictable and changing the weather at Iceland is. We could see it was all white down below from our flight. The runway had just been cleared of snow as it had just snowed heavily that morning.

BA LHR-KEF. No IFE, no food (need to purchase), additional payment for check in luggage

all ice down there. It is ICEland after all



For our tour of Iceland, we would be driving. We booked our rental car online via Skyscanner and was booked to Green Motion. They offered a meet and greet service at the airport and free transfer to pick up the car which is located about 4km from the airport. It cost us EUR 92 (RM 445) for the car rental for 4 days. We received a Ford Fiesta automatic transmission, with snow tyres, unlimited mileage and breakdown assistance included.

our Ford Fiesta

After clearing immigration and picking up our backpacks, we proceeded to buy the local SIM card at a convenience store in the airport for ISK 2900 for 10GB data by SIMIN (the other option was 5GB data with calls for the same price). It was then already past our designated pick up time at 2pm, it got me a bit nervous at first as the company has already charged us and I was afraid they might not show up. So I gave them a call, and they arrived a few minutes after that, phew. It was our first time renting a car and driving overseas, in winter conditions and driving on the right side of the road! (We are from Malaysia, driving on the left side of the road with no winter!) The weather was sunny this afternoon, so it was a smooth drive from our car pick up location to our apartment in Rekjavik, a 40 minute journey.

it was sunny on our arrival day
 
ice along the way

driving in Iceland


However, at the car rental company, we were warned that the weather the next day would be rough, with strong winds and heavy snow which would be hazardous to drive in. We were told to check the Iceland road conditions and weather  (click the link) from time to time. They are updated hourly. We can only drive if the wind is in green colour, and the roads are not in red colour, to put it simply.


image from road.is


image from vedur.is




At Reykjavik, we stayed at Downtown Reykjavik apartment which has an attached bathroom and kitchen (we brought food supply from our homeland as we were not planning to dine out in Iceland). For a one night stay, it cost us EUR 121 (about RM 600). It also has a shared washing machine and dryer facilities at the basement.  The apartment location is excellent as it is a walking distance to the points of interest in Reykjavik - the Sun Voyager, Hallgrimskirkja church, Harpa concert hall and the City Hall lake. The houses around our apartment are also neat and cute.

Downtown Reykjavik apartments
our room at Downtown Reykjavik apartments


kitchen in our apartment

one of the houses in Reykjavik


shops at Reykjavik

As forecasted, the next day, Wed 14 Feb 2018 was rough. Strong winds up to 20 m/s (or 72 km/h) were blowing all throughout southern Iceland, our destination for today. It was all purple in the vedur website. The roads were inaccessible mostly throughout the day, indicated in red in the road.is website. We were supposed to drive up to Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon today (almost 5 hour journey from Reykjavik). However due to strong winds and inaccessible roads, it was not to be. We were stranded in Reykjavik, all the roads going out were closed. We had to call the guesthouse that we had booked in Skalafell and cancel it as there was no way we could drive there. Luckily, the guesthouse accepted our cancellation with no costs. Next, we emailed the company that we had booked for our glacier hike at Skaftafell the next morning at 10am that we couldn't make it in time as we were still stuck in Reykjavik, and if the weather improved the next day, we had to start driving at 5am, which was not advisable to drive in the dark as there is no road lamps. It was winter, so dawn is only at 9am. The glacier company offered to re-schedule us, but we chose to forego this as we planned to cover Jokulsarlon tomorrow instead, then drive back to Hella. We were refunded promptly for this cancellation.

So we spent the day walking around Reykjavik, in the heavy snow and strong winds, quickly taking pictures at the Sun Voyager sculpture, the concert hall Harpa and the church Hallgrimskirja which has a very unique design, nothing like any other churches we've seen. We did enjoy ourselves at the lake near the City Hall which was almost frozen except for a little patch where the ducks and swan could still swim. We did dine out today, as we had already checked out from our apartment and had yet to book a place to stay for tonight. We had mandi lamb rice at a halal cafe, Mandi, a walking distance from Harpa.

Sun Voyager at 7.30am

Sun Voyager at daylight

view across the sea from Sun Voyager

Hallgrimskirja church

Harpa concert hall - it looks more stunning with the colourful lights

our lunch of Mandi rice with lamb

halal cafe Mandi
the little unfrozen patch of the lake near City Hall


ducks and swan swimming

frozen lake


Later, we booked last minute for a place to stay, settling in at City HI Hostel, a simple bunk bed accommodation with attached bathroom and shared kitchen for EUR 79 (about RM400).


City HI hostel - there is also a campsite next to it

simple bunk bed at City HI hostel

Tonight we attempted to catch the Northern lights. Armed with the Aurora forecast app and Vedur.is aurora forecast, we were directed to Hafnafjordur, about a 20 min drive from Rekjavik. It was pitch black alright at the location, sky was quite clear that night. When we arrived there, there was another car waiting. The guy told us he saw a faint light, then the car moved to another location. We waited a bit more, it was already 11pm and freezing cold. Seeing nothing, we decided to move to the next location - Grotta island lighthouse back in Reykjavik. There were more people waiting there. There were people walking there too, in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures!


Grotta lighthouse location


Vedur forecasted the sky to be clear of clouds around 1am, so we waited there, in the car. We waited until the sky was clear, but still there were no lights. So we decided to retire and get ready for our long journey in the morning. It was expected to be clear the next day.

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