Just a few miles further down the highway, after crossing a one-lane bridge, our bus turned off onto a side road that wound its way to the parking area for Sólheimajökull. Thirty years ago, this parking area was right at the face of the glacier, and no further effort was required to view the glacier. However, the glacier has since retreated up the valley and now it requires a fifteen minute walk over some slightly challenging terrain to get a glimpse of the base of the glacier. There is also a lake in front of the glacier that wasn't there just seven years ago. Sólheimajökull is an outlet glacier for the much larger Mýrdalsjökull ice cap, which covers an active volcano. A major eruption here would create significant flooding for this section of the southern coast, and the town of Vìk maintains and active evacuation plan against this eventuality.
After stopping for lunch in Vìk, our bus turned around to begin our return journey. The first stop after lunch was a visit to the black sand beach at Reynisfjara. Here the coastal erosion of the volcanic rocks had carved shallow caves and arches in the cliffs, leaving a wide expanse of black sand beach. However, the same forces that created this spectacular vista sometimes makes this a dangerous place to visit. While the surf was light while we were here, we were repeatedly reminded not to turn our backs to the water, as big waves can crash onto the beach with very little warning. Apparently two tourists have died here in the last seven months because they did not heed these warnings.
The final stop on our tour was just a few miles from our first. Seljalandsfoss is also visible from the highway, falling from the same coastal cliff as Skógafoss. However, this waterfall looks very different, with its narrower stream. Seljalandsfoss also has carved a small cave behind it, so that we could walk all the way around behind it. This time, in spite of the cool temperatures, we risked getting a bit damp so that we could enjoy the views from behind the waterfall.
From here it was back to the city and our hotel. Iceland had treated us to some spectacular scenery, but we know that we've barely scratched the surface here. We may just have to return to see more.
When we arrived in Iceland, we quickly collected our bags and found the shuttle we'd booked for the ride to our hotel. The international airport in Iceland is in Keflavík, about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavík, but our hotel was the shuttle's first stop when we reached the city, which was convenient. Hotels in Iceland are expensive, and we had chosen ours because it had a relatively low price with decent reviews. It turned out to be a really great location, sitting just across the street from the iconic Hallgrimskirkja, often referred to by the locals as the "big church". This landmark made it impossible for us to remain lost in the city for very long.
As we settled into our room, we contacted our tour guide from Copenhagen, who was now visiting her mother here in Iceland. She sent us some restaurant recommendations and we headed out to explore and get some dinner. We quickly discovered that restaurants in Iceland are very expensive. Appetizers are generally about US$15-20 and main courses generally will cost at least US$35. Since it was Saturday night, many places were full, and we weren't really in the mood to wait for a table, so when one of the places Inga Maria recommended had open tables, we didn't think twice. The food may have been expensive, but it was delicious and filling.
When we returned from our tour the next day, we again contacted Inga Maria, who met us at the hotel and we all went to dinner together. It was great to see her again, this time in her native country, and we had a fun evening out, with more great food and wonderful conversation. Our final evening was given over to more sightseeing in the city after we returned from the tour we had booked for the day. We wandered further into the city, window shopping and generally enjoying the sights. The next morning, our shuttle picked us up right on time and took us back to the airport for our flight back home.
Our first destination was the Þingvellir National Park (the "Þ" seems to be equivalent to "th"). This location is significant for a couple of reasons. Historically, this is the location where the island's original parliament met, when the tribal chieftains gathered here annually in the tenth century to discuss the law and resolve conflicts. This is also a site of significant geological interest, as it is a rift valley, formed by the movement of the North American tectonic plate away from the Eurasian tectonic plate. The opposite sides of this valley are moving away from each other at a rate of about an inch (2.5 cm) per year. This is a starkly visible reminder of the powerful forces that are at work inside the Earth.
From here, we continued to visit one of the most impressive waterfalls I've ever seen. Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) is a two tiered waterfall that drops into a narrow canyon with steep sides. From the publicly accessible platforms, it is difficult to see the bottom of the waterfall, but it is dramatic and beautiful, set in the stark, empty Icelandic countryside. After gawking at the waterfall for a bit, and taking plenty of photos, we headed into the visitor's center for a quick lunch of traditional Icelandic lamb soup. Yum!
On our way to our final scheduled stop of the tour we made a brief, unscheduled stop to visit with a small paddock of Icelandic horses near the road. We grabbed handfuls of grass from the edge of the parking area, and when the horses saw that we had food to offer, they eagerly came over to visit with us. Icelandic horses are a small breed, with wild manes and spirited dispositions. They are beautiful to watch, and it was only with reluctance that we said farewell and reboarded our bus.
Our final official stop of the tour was at Geysir, an area of geothermal hot springs. The star attraction here is the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every 5-6 minutes, with varying magnitude. We lingered long enough to witness a couple of truly impressive eruptions. The walkways got surprisingly close to the geyser, so we got a really good look at the surface of the water as it prepared to erupt. It is hard to describe the way the water moves in advance of the eruption, but it was clear that significant amounts of energy were at work.
When we reboarded our bus for our return trip to Reykjavík, our tour guide applauded our promptness at all of our stops so far and indicated that we had time for one more "surprise" stop. This turned out to be one final waterfall, at Faxi. While not as tall or as powerful as Gullfoss, it was quite pretty, set all by itself in the middle of the empty countryside. After we took some pictures, we boarded the bus one final time. Our tour guide continued his narration as we returned to the city. Along the way, we took detours through the village of Hveragerði, which has dozens of hot springs scattered throughout the town, and past one of the newest geothermal power plants in the country (90% of the electricity here is generated geothermally, the rest comes from hydroelectric plants).
Along the tour, our guide noted that Iceland has a significant earthquake every 8 years or so and that one of the significant volcanoes erupts every 70-80 years. Both are now due or overdue. My wife looked at me, clearly thinking about all the emergency response we'd already witnessed on this trip, and started to say "Wouldn't it be funny if..." I quickly interrupted her with a definitive "NO". It's one thing to see the relatively small responses we'd already seen, but a major event in Iceland would have been something else altogether.
Our drive to Berlin was all on the autobahn through farmland. We did see villages out away from the highway, and the landscape was dotted with dozens of wind turbines for most of the trip. This tour focused on the history of Germany since the Second World War, and our tour guide pointed out how we were driving through what had been East Germany for forty years, the Soviet sector of occupied Germany, and noted that during the Cold War, it would have been difficult for us to have visited this part of Germany.
When we reached Berlin, we stopped briefly at Alexanderplatz to pick up another guide who would show us around the city. Our tour began on the bus, as we drove through the historic city center, down the Unter den Linden past the Cathedral and the Humbolt University and on to the government center with the Reichstag and Chancellery, before we headed into the Tiergarten. Finally, we stopped at the Brandenburg Gate and got off the bus to see more of the city on foot. From the Brandenburg Gate, we walked through the Berlin Holocaust Memorial and stopped briefly at the site of Hitler's bunker, before visiting a remnant of the Berlin Wall. We made a stop at Checkpoint Charlie, which is a reproduction of the original US Army checkpoint at this location, created to satisfy the tourists, which means it is exactly as tacky as you would expect.
We finally made our way to the Berlin Concert House, where we reboarded our bus for the long drive back to Warnemünde and the ship. As we had expected, this was the merest appetizer of a taste of Berlin, leaving us hungry for more. Berlin struck us as a vibrant city, busily rebuilding itself. They are recreating many of the historic buildings that didn't survive World War II, and while only traces of the Berlin Wall itself remain, the winding path of the wall through the city is clearly marked with a double row of bricks laid into the pavement and sidewalks. We saw an incredible number of museums and performing arts venues, none of which we had time to visit. Berlin is definitely a place that we will need to visit again.
The hop-on-hop-off loop took about 55 minutes and had nine stops. We rode the bus around to the eighth stop, listening to the audio descriptions of the city, but when we got to the eighth stop, for the Aarhus Cathedral, we got off the bus to go inside the church. The church was originally built by the Roman Catholic Church and was dedicated to St. Clement. The church has undergone many changes, but the original altarpiece with its tryptic is still in place.
From the cathedral, we decided to walk back across the center of the city to Den Gamle By, an open air museum of historic buildings collected from around Denmark. Along the way, we walked along Møllestien, a street of colorful homes, many with spectacular rose buses. I had seen photos of this street and was looking forward to seeing it in person. I was not disappointed.
We spent several hours exploring Den Gamle By. The oldest buildings date to the 17th and 18th centuries, and restored to that period, with businesses and craftsmen's shops, as well as residences. These buildings show what life was like in Denmark three and four centuries ago. This section of the Den Gamle By is the largest, and we spent most of our time here. The next section is made up of buildings from the early 20th century and show Danish life in the 1920s. Finally, we explored a series of apartments that show how people of different circumstances lived in Denmark in the 1970s.
After finishing our visit at Den Gamle By, we re-boarded the hop-on-hop-off bus to finish our circuit of the city. We stayed on the bus as it started its next loop, getting off at the stop for Marselisborg Palace, the summer and Christmas home of the Danish royal family. When they are not in residence here, the grounds are open to the public, and we wanted to explore the gardens for a bit before we had to return to the ship. Again, we were struck by the lack of physical barriers or visible security. For all appearances, we could have walked right up to the front door and knocked (not that we tried...I'm pretty sure that would have revealed just how good the security really was).
After satisfying our curiosity at the palace, we made our way back to the bus stop and caught the bus back to the city center. We got off the bus by the City Hall and walked back to the pier, soaking in the ambience of the city as we went. All too soon we were back aboard the ship and sailing off to our final port.
Our bus took us north of the city to one end of the 6km stretch of track used by this historic railway, where we had about a 15 minute wait before our train arrived. When the train finally arrived, it was full of passengers from our ship who apparently had caught it from the other end. While those passengers got off the train and we got ourselves settled, the steam locomotive was moved to the other end of the train for the return trip.
Once the locomotive was repositioned, we pulled away from the station, back the way the train had come from. It continued to rain, but we had several of the windows opened so we could have a better view of the countryside. The tracks hugged the side of the valley, with rocks just feet away on one side, and a small river running beside us on the other.
When we reached the station at the other end of the tracks, we reboarded our bus for our return to the ship. Once we reached the pier, we had about an hour before we were scheduled to depart, so my wife and I went for a short walk to see some of the city. Because of the continuing rain and the short amount of time, we really didn't get to see much, but it was nice to stretch our legs a little before going back aboard the ship for the night.
A bit further along, our driver pulled off the highway onto a secondary road that climbed up the mountainside. After a short climb, he made a turn onto a narrow switchback that descended back to the valley floor. This switchback had a 19% grade (!!!) and made its descent between two tall waterfalls. It was hard to know where to look, with awesome waterfalls on either side and an incredible view of the valley below us.
After stopping for lunch in Gudvangen, we finished our ride to Flåm, where our train was waiting for us. We found the car reserved for us, and soon the train pulled out for the incredibly scenic ride up the valley to Myrdal. Along the way, we were treated to gorgeous views of the valley, with its farms and numerous waterfalls. We made brief stops at several stations along the way, as this train is a key form of transport for the residence of this valley. Near the end of our ride, the train made a five minute stop at a special viewing platform for the Kjosfossen, a powerful waterfall that drops down under the tracks.
At Myrdal, we changed trains for a ride down another valley to Vossevangen, where our bus was waiting to take us back to our ship. As we reached Bergen, we took a short drive through the historic center of the city. But when we got to the pier, we were one of the last buses to return, and the ship's crew was waiting for us, so there was no time to explore.
The views on this excursion were incredible, but it was a long day, and we were disappointed that we didn't get to see much of Bergen itself. Because our original excursion for the next day was canceled, we were looking at two consecutive days of train rides. In hindsight, we find ourselves wondering if we should have considered a tour of the city itself, especially because of the change of plans for the next day. I guess we'll just have to come back someday and spend some time exploring the city.
After a short stop to take photos from the bridge in front of the waterfall, our bus started up into the mountains on a one lane road, passing farms on both sides as the mountains loomed above us. Tiny streams of water fell from the mountaintops all along the way, and everything was lushly green. When the pavement ended, our bus stopped and we continued on foot, beginning a 10km (6 mile) hike over the mountain pass to the village of Flo, on the shores of the glacial lake Oppstrynsvatnet. The climb up to the pass was gradual and did not require any strenuous effort, so we would enjoy to gorgeous scenery around us. We followed the shores of three smaller lakes and the streams that connected them, gawking at all of the waterfalls, both small and large, that dropped from the mountain peaks around us. The air was crisp and clean, and the sun even came out for portions of the walk, warming us as we made our way. Eventually, on the shores of the third lake, we came to a collection of summer homes, accessible from the valley below by a steep gravel track that certainly required four wheel drive to ascend. The descent down this track was probably the hardest part of our hike, as it was much steeper than our climb, and the loose gravel kept slipping beneath our feet.
When we reached Flo, our bus was waiting for us, having driven back to Hellesylt and taken a longer route around the mountains to get there. After boarding the bus, we drove around the end of Oppstrynsvatnet to the opposite shore, where we were scheduled to stop for lunch at the Heille Hotel. The dining room had a lovely view of the lake for us to enjoy while we ate a lunch of homemade mushroom soup, fresh salmon with potatoes and vegetables, and a dessert of ice cream and berries, all washed down with a non-alcoholic Norwegian beer. After lunch, we had just a few minutes to get some photos of the lake and mountains before continuing our journey.
We quickly left the valley behind, climbing high into the mountains, passing through two long tunnels. As we exited the second tunnel, it was like we had driven back into winter. The mountains were entirely snow covered, and the lakes we drove alongside were still frozen over. There was one tall, wide slope with ski tracks on it, even though there was no lift or formal ski area. Looking closely, we could just make out half a dozen skiers working their way down the slope after having climbed up earlier in the morning.
Our final stop before arriving in Geiranger was the scenic viewpoint at the top of Dalsnibba, the tall mountain peak at the end of the valley that holds the Geiranger fjord. Access to this mountain top is via a private toll road built and maintained by the residents of Geiranger. This steep switchback road was lined with tall snowbanks, often taller than our bus. From the top of the mountain, we were treated to panoramic vistas of the surrounding mountains and the fjord, far below, with our ship (and others) anchored, waiting for our return.
From here, we began our descent, squeezing our way past the ascending traffic on the narrow road. Eventually we arrived in Geiranger, where we browsed the gift shops briefly before catching the tender boat back to our ship, arriving back aboard shortly before our scheduled dinner time. As we ate dinner, we watched the mountains slide past on either side of the ship as we sailed back down the fjord towards the Norwegian Sea. After dinner, we spent a little time out on deck, enjoying the scenery, at least until it got too chilly. Eventually, we went back inside to enjoy the evening's show, and as we prepared for bed that night, we got to watch as we exited the fjord and turned south for Bergen, our destination for the next day.
Our biggest disappointment was with the food. We ate dinner in our main dining room each night, with wonderful tablemates. While the food was okay, that's really all it was. I don't expect great food on the buffet, but I have come to expect that the dinner offerings in the sit down restaurants to be somewhat more memorable. That really wasn't the case here. Not that it was bad, but it seemed entirely pedestrian. In addition, the breakfast service in the restaurant really wasn't significantly better than the buffet, and we heard that the lunch service left much to be desired as well (we never ate lunch in the restaurant).
Beyond the underwhelming quality of the food, we found the availability of food to be lacking as well. To the best of my recollection, every other ship I've been on has had some form of food available pretty much all day, at least until midnight. That wasn't really the case on the Favalosa, where the the buffet closed at 9:00 pm. Our dinner was during the early seating (which was fine, since we normally eat early), but after the evening show the first night, I was in the mood for a light snack before bedtime, and wa disappointed to find the buffet already closed. There were places on the ship where food was available later than 9:00 pm, but they all required payment of additional fees.
They also didn't have many options beside the buffet. Most of the other ships I've been on have a deli/sandwich station and a pizza station where you can get made to order sandwiches or fresh pizza. The Favolosa had these as well, but they were charging an extra fee. I still can't really wrap my mind around having to pay extra for pizza on an Italian owned ship!
We weren't alone in feeling that the food quality and availability was lacking. Our tablemates at dinner also expressed similar sentiments, as did a few others we met on the cruise. Admittedly, our sample size is small and biased towards English speakers, but it reassures me that we weren't the only ones to note these issues.
Finally, we found that language was a little bit of an issue for us. We knew that this was an Italian ship, and that we, as Americans, were likely to be a minority on the ship. That really didn't bother us. It was actually kind of fun to listen to all the languages around us, and to watch the ships staff interact in multiple languages. However, it was disappointing to have two of our shore excursions cancelled because not enough people signed up for them in English. Since most of our other tours were bilingual, we assume that this meant that the tour didn't have enough English requests for an English only tour, and that there wasn't a bilingual guide available for that particular itinerary. We did book a different tour for Kristiansand, but our choice was extremely limited, so when our tour for Aarhus was canceled and there was only one other choice available, we decided just to explore the city on our own. That worked out fine, but still, it was disappointing to spend the time researching and booking excursions only to have them cancelled once we were aboard the ship.
Based on this experience, I think we will be reluctant to book a Costa cruise again, unless the itinerary is one we really want to do and it isn't available from another company. I don't regret this cruise, since it took us to some spectacular places and we saw amazing things, but the ship itself left us feeling a bit disappointed, and we'll be looking for a better overall experience on our next cruise.
I quickly grabbed my camera, and began to take photos as we watched a member of the helicopter crew prepare to repel down to the ship. Once he was on deck, they lowered a basket down, and the helicopter moved out next the ship while they prepared the patient for the transfer. Over the next 15-20 minutes the helicopter appeared to remain perfectly stationary relative to the ship. But since the ship was still moving, this meant that the helicopter was actually station-keeping, moving at exactly the same speed as the ship. That pilot did a truly impressive job of flying the helicopter.
Eventually, the helicopter moved back over the ship and the patient and crew member were hoisted aboard. When the aircraft moved alongside again, the crew was sliding the side door closed and the helicopter accelerated ahead of the ship before crossing in front of us towards the Norwegian shore. It was a very professional and skilled operation. I have no idea what the condition of the patient might have been, but we weren't scheduled to arrive at a port with a hospital until the third day of the cruise, so I can imagine a number of situations that might have been beyond the ability of the ship's hospital to manage until then.
Afterwards, we talked to others on the ship and discovered that all the outdoor decks of the ship had been closed during the operation, to prevent people from being blown overboard by the rotor wash. That meant that only those with balconies on our side of the ship had a decent chance of witnessing the operation, although everyone on the ship knew it was happening. It was the first time I've been on a cruise when someone needed to be evacuated, and I found the operation fascinating to watch. However, I feel bad for the person whose vacation was so dramatically interrupted, and I hope that they are recovering well.
As I was writing my initial entry about our arrival in Copenhagen, my wife was taking a nap. Shortly after I posted that entry, she woke up and we ventured back out into the city for a couple more hours. We walked along the water towards the old fort at the north end of the old part of the city. We weren't really looking for any specific landmarks, but simply enjoying the evening in a new city. Eventually, we discovered the Little Mermaid statue, one of the iconic tourist spots in this hometown of Hans Christian Anderson. Because it was late evening on a weekday, and because there was a concert elsewhere in the city as part of an ongoing music festival, the normal crowds that make this a difficult spot to visit were not in evidence, and we could linger to get photos from different angles, and appreciate the setting, on the edge of the harbor.
We then began our walk back towards our hotel, exiting the castle area through the Churchillparken. We admired the handsome St. Alban's Anglican church here, and found a bust of Winston Churchill. This is also the future site of a museum dedicated to the Danish resistance during WWII. This museum is being built underground (fittingly), and, from the descriptions on the signs we saw, sounds like something I will want to return someday to visit.
During our all day tour of the city on our second day here, we got a terrific overview of the city, as well as an introduction to the history. We visited the Christianborg Palace, once home to the royal family but now serving to house Parliament, as well as Amalienborg Palace, the current home of the Danish Queen, as well as the Crown Prince and Princess. At each of these locations, I was struck by the lack of a security perimeter...In each case, the streets were open to the public right up to the buildings, and there was very little visible security presence. Granted, the ceremonial guards at Amalienborg were carrying very modern and functional rifles, and I have no doubt that each location is thoroughly covered by video surveillance, but the contrast to the bunker-style security we have put into place in Washington, DC, was stark.
Over our two days here, we saw a great deal, walking miles through the maze of streets that make up the old part of the city. Clearly, we didn't see everything that there was to see, but it was a satisfying visit, leaving me very impressed with the city and its people. I certainly hope that I'll be able to return someday so that I can spend some time exploring the many museums that fill the city.