Articles tagged with "europe"
I had 12 hours between flights in the Netherlands. It was still dark when we landed at Schiphol at 7am, so I hung around in the airport until it was daylight and then got a train into Amsterdam.
I like getting out into a city for a few hours between flights. It feels a bit risky, leaving your bags behind somewhere in the bowels of the airport, and trusting that you can get back in time for the next flight. And I always have the temptation of leaving everything behind anyway, ditching my luggage and my plans and starting a new life as a permanent traveller.
But I just went to Amsterdam. It was a cold grey December Sunday and everything was quiet at first, but later on the town centre filled up with Christmas shoppers. I wandered randomly, stopping for lots of coffees. At some point I passed a monument to the murdered Jews of the city. I thought back to the fake guns of Wai’an, 6,000 miles away, and thought about the unbelievably horrific scale of the second world war.
After a long wander through the grey streets, I headed back to the airport and flew to Paris. There I had a few more hours to kill but I’ve seen Paris enough times not to need to go there for a couple of hours on a dark winter’s evening, so I just waited for my Chile flight. 48 hours after I’d left Taipei, I was crossing the Andes and descending into Santiago.
We went to Bellinzona for an afternoon. We went to one of the castles; Bellinzona has lots of them. This one offered a tour which started with some kind of video about the history of the place. Probably it was very informative but I wasn’t in the mood at all after a late night the previous night, so I sneaked out and left all my fellow astronomers in there to listen to it for me. A couple of them followed me out after a few minutes, and we went up onto the castle ramparts to check out the views over the valley and some of Bellinzona’s other castles.
ESO’s last minute flight booking antics meant that instead of a nice easy direct flight from London to Zurich, I had a horrific 6.40am flight connecting in Paris. After a last night out in London I got to a cheap hotel near Heathrow at 2am, then had to get up at 4.30am to get a bus to the airport. So I was not feeling too fantastic when I arrived in Switzerland at 11am.
Switzerland has many awesome travel memories for me. It was the destination for my first ever overseas holiday at the age of 6; I stopped in Zurich on my way to China when I travelled from Beijing to London by train; and I’d crossed the country on my way from Liechtenstein to Monaco a couple of years ago. I crossed it again today, this time from north to south. In grey skies and drizzle I arrived in Locarno, and headed to the conference venue.
When I moved to Chile, I didn’t know when I would be back in London, but I didn’t expect to be away for a whole year. For most of the year, though, one of my spinal discs was slowly giving way, and I spent months in excruciating pain. Travelling home was a distant dream. Then came successful surgery to remove the disc, followed by physiotherapy and rehabilitation. And finally by September I was capable of crossing continents and returning to my homeland.
And so I found myself landing at Heathrow on a dark autumn evening. The strangeness of the familiarity was hard to grasp as I got on the underground and headed into my city. I’ve never seen London quite like I saw it that night, as I rumbled down the piccadilly line, disorientated, tired and happy to be back. I checked into a hostel, because I’d always wanted to see London as a tourist, called some dearly missed friends, went to a pub, and got back to the hostel at midday the next day. It was an epic return home.
Picturesque as it was, Luxembourg was not a great place for a solo traveller. The demographic here was pretty different to the one I inhabit, and I wandered the streets for a while seeing few signs of fun nightlife but plenty of expensive restaurants. Not wanting to spend large quantities of Euros on my evening meal, I ended up getting a crêpe from a cafe, and then spending the evening walking around the high parts of town and watching night fall.
I’d kind of been to Luxembourg before, passing through at the age of six on the way from the UK to Switzerland on my first ever trip outside the UK. But it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what the place was like, would not recognise a picture of the place if I saw one, and yet it was only 300 miles away and very easy to get to.
So I bought some Eurostar tickets and went there. A high speed journey took me to grey rainy Brussels in less than two hours. I got a coffee and pastry for breakfast in Midi station, then got on the much slower train to Luxembourg. The clouds cleared and the sun was shining as we passed through the snowy forests of the Ardennes.
I can’t imagine ever getting bored of arriving in a place I’ve never been to before, especially one so close to home but so completely obscure to me. I was in a good mood as I walked out of the station and into the city. I walked randomly towards the centre, crossed a soaring bridge over the Pétrusse valley, and then found myself on the Corniche, a narrow road along a cliff edge over the Alzette valley. I was wondering why I’d never, to the best of my recollection, seen even a single photo of this town. Later, as the sun was setting, I went to the ruined fortifications of the city and headed up to some viewpoints as the lights were coming on.
After the meeting, the IAC had organised a trip to the Observatorio del Teide. We headed up there in a little minibus and it was a lot like the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma in that the driver drove too fast on the winding road and I got to the top feeling like I was going to die of carsickness.
It was a calm and warm day. One of the observatory technicians was looking at the Sun through one of the telescopes so we had a look too, and saw a group of sunspots. The sun had been unusually inactive for quite a while so we were quite lucky not to see just a blank surface.
Looking around I could see a couple of other islands across the sea in the hazy distance. Apparently, ancient island legends tell of a mysterious eighth island which can sometimes be seen across the waters but never reached. I could only see real islands today.
Back in La Laguna I thought I had an easy and relaxing journey home. But an hour and a half before my flight, I realised it was going not from nearby Tenerife North airport, but Tenerife South, 50 miles away at the other end of the island. I leapt into a taxi and sped off. I picked a good driver, we made excellent time and in the end I easily made the flight. Next time I’m here, though, I’ll check my bookings a bit more carefully.
I spent a few days in La Laguna. Last time I’d been here it had been cold, wet and misty, but this time it was sunny and quite warm. I stayed in the centre of town and walked each day down to the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, where the meeting was being held. I liked the town and thought I’d probably quite like to live here one day.
I saw a sign one morning advertising a demonstration for independence for the Canary Islands. I was disappointed to find I’d missed it by a few days – I’d have loved to see what the independence movement was like. If they ever do secede from Spain it will be nice to have a new country to visit.
I went to the Canary Islands for a meeting. I keep on trying to go there by boat seeing as every airline I fly with there seems to be in some way appalling or incompetent. But I had no time and I was flying again.
My flight was very early. Somehow it often seems to me that it’s a better idea to stay up all night than to get just a few hours of sleep, so I went out, got back late, packed up and then headed for Heathrow. It seemed like a good idea at the time but I was unbelievably tired by the time I got to the airport not long before sunrise.
Everyone except me was flying back home from Santiago’s airport. I am prepared to go to great lengths to avoid flying with Ryanair, and so I’d booked a slightly more expensive flight from A Coruña. It at least gave me a chance to see another place, so I headed out after I’d said goodbye to everyone.
A Coruña is much bigger than Santiago, and seemed much less touristy. One very cool thing about it is that it’s surrounded by the sea and has beaches right in the city centre. I went and sat one one for a while.
I walked on to the main square, but I’d spent too long on the beach and I didn’t have time to make use of the cafes here. I got the bus to the airport, and even though my flight was then delayed by several hours, I did not regret continuing my Ryanair boycott.
We went white-water rafting while we were in Galicia. I’d never done it before so I was really looking forward to it. We got a train to Padrón, from where trips down the Río Ulla start.
The seven of us took a boat and a guide, and headed downstream. Four other boats were on the river, and pretty much the first thing all the guides did was to try and get us to fall out. I was very reluctant, but I guess it’s better to fall out first in the calm water before the inevitable spills in the rapids. So we all got soaking wet in the chilly waters, and then went paddling downstream for some rapid action.
The Ulla is not such a wild river, but the scenery was awesome and we had great fun. After the first couple of rapids, our guide got us to try them out with variations like going backwards, standing up, trying to paddle up one we’d just come down, and things like that. At the final rapids, he said “You don’t really need the boat for this one. Just jump out and swim.” I thought he was joking but he really meant it, so we all jumped out and swam over the rapids. Then we swam downstream all the way to the pick-up point. I’d never swum down a river before and I thought it was awesome.
We all agreed that the Ulla had been a little bit tame and it would be nice to try something a bit wilder. But none the less, we were all shattered, and our plans for a big night out clubbing fell flat as we were all too destroyed to stay out beyond 2am.
I have had many good times in Santiago de Compostela. This time I was going with a group of friends to celebrate an imminent wedding. We spent three days there, making good use of all the tiny bars in the historic city centre in the nights, and the cafes in the Praza da Quintana in the following mornings.
We drove from Durban-Corbières back to the UK, stopping off in Orléans on the way. I was happy that our route would take us over the Millau viaduct. I’d seen plenty of pictures of the bridge but it was still incredible to cross it. When we saw the tops of the pylons poking above the horizon from some distance away we could really appreciate how huge it is. We soared over the Tarn valley, and then stopped on the other side to have a look. We were there at the wrong time of day for good photographs, though, with the sun shining more or less directly at us from over the bridge.
I got a train to Narbonne, and then headed to Durban-Corbières, a tiny town in Languedoc-Rousillon. I spent a fantastic fortnight there with my family, relaxing in the hot sun, swimming in the pool, eating good food and enjoying a good life. I went for one moderately long cycle around the hills but otherwise did more or less nothing. My travel style is not normally like that; a holiday without uncertainty, hardship and fear is not really a holiday by my reckoning. But just every now and again it’s nice to actually relax. The view from our villa to the crumbling castle was more or less my only view of the outside world for two weeks.
Two weeks of slothful living passed very quickly, and all too soon it was time to pack up and go.
I finished my lap and went to the harbour for a while. There were lots of cafes near the water’s edge, overlooking all the decadent playboy’s yachts. I picked one and sat down. There was no menu and no prices, but I decided I was going to have a coffee by the harbour in Monaco regardless of expense. I was actually quite disappointed when it was only €1.70.
I bought some lunch and sat by the sea eating it. Monaco was all action, with traffic pounding around the narrow streets. I went into a Casino supermarket and bought some Monegasque chocolate and wine, and then headed back to Nice to catch the train to Narbonne. My microstates tour was over, and now the only countries in Europe that I still needed to visit were Andorra and San Marino.
Crossing Switzerland by train in a day was easy. My journey to Geneva required me to change at Buchs, Sargans and Zürich. At each stop, the gap between the trains was exactly enough for me to find the platform and go to it – neither more nor less. I watched the beautiful countryside sweeping past from the comfort of air-conditioned trains.
From Geneva I caught a TGV to Nice, and spent a night there, in a hot airless hostel. I walked down to the beach in the humid night and sat on the shores of the Mediterranean. I’d already come a long way from Vienna, and I was only half way to my destination.
In the morning, I got a train along the coast to Monaco. I didn’t really have any plans at all to fill the few hours I had before I needed to catch a train to Narbonne. I emerged from the cavernous station to find myself in the extraordinarily familiar surroundings of Saint-Devote, the first corner of the grand prix circuit. It was really strange to be somewhere where I recognised everything, and had seen everything from many different angles, many times over the years, without ever having been there. There was only one thing for a grand prix fan to do at this point. I headed out for a lap.
The more I walked, the more I decided I really, really wanted to see a grand prix live here. The narrowness of the streets, and the steepness of the climbs and descents, was so much more dramatic in the flesh than it ever looked on television. Cars were having trouble overtaking buses, so how Formula One cars could ever do any overtaking was beyond me. I walked up the hill to the Casino, down through the Mirabeau and round the fantastic Loewes Hairpin. I thought of all the awesome races that had passed here, and looked at the marks they’d left on the kerbs.
I carried on, under the tunnel, and up towards the left-hander at Tabac. There is a chicane here called the Swimming Pool, so I’m not sure why I was actually surprised to see a swimming pool. I think they cover it over during the GP weekend so I’d always imagined it was some former landmark. But now I passed by it, nearing the end of my lap. I rounded the Rascasse and then headed into the final straight. I would definitely have to come back here to watch a grand prix.
I wanted to have a bit of a lie down before exploring the country, but the hostel wouldn’t let me check in until 2pm. It was 7.30am and the sun was shining, so I decided to head out. I walked down the road from Schaan to Vaduz, sat down on a bench in the empty town, and fell asleep. I woke myself up by snoring, embarrassed then to find that the streets were now quite busy. Feeling the disapproval of the passers by, I got up and staggered through the town. I found a small park full of trees, and fell asleep again in the cool shade. I slept for a long time, occasionally wondering if I might get arrested for vagrancy, but enjoying my doze far too much to worry about it.
Eventually I woke up and decided it was time to actually look around instead of just sleeping rough in various parts of town. It was a hot, hot, sunny day, and the little town was pretty much exactly as I’d imagined it, a street lined with expensive cafes, with a castle on the hills overlooking the town, and jagged mountains all around. I stopped in one of the cafes and had an expensive lunch.
I wandered up the hill towards the castle. Wealthy suburbs full of large, comfortable-looking houses spread out across the lush green fields. Not far away was the Rhein, and on the other side of that was Switzerland. Austria was behind me, over the mountains. Behind the castle, a forest stretched away. I relaxed in the cool shade for a while, before heading back towards Schaan.
The heat of the day was impressive, and the cool of evening was welcome. I went to bed early and slept deeply. Early the next morning I walked out of Liechtenstein and into Switzerland, to catch a train from Buchs. My next destination was Nice.
After the conference in Vienna, I was heading to the south of France to meet my family for a relaxing holiday in a villa. I could have flown, but I decided to travel at ground level and stop off in some countries more or less en route that I hadn’t been to. So I headed to Wien Westbahnhof, found the night train for Feldkirch and got on board. At first I had a compartment all to myself, and thought I might have a nice ride, but in the minutes before departure it filled to capacity. It would be an uncomfortable night.
We crossed Austria. I woke up in Salzburg and Innsbruck, and then at Bludenz, where the sky was beginning to brighten and we were not far from our final destination. By now there was only one person left in the compartment, and he also woke. He rubbed his eyes, looked around blearily, and slowly focussed on the station sign. In an instant he was thrown into a panic, leaping from his seat, grabbing his things and bolting. I saw him leap from the carriage moments before we started pulling out. I wondered just how long ago he’d meant to get off.
Not long afterwards, we arrived at Feldkirch, right on the edge of Austria. After a chilly half hour wait in the fresh morning air, the train to Buchs arrived, and I got on. It was going to be a beautiful day, and as we crossed into Liechtenstein, mist drifted over the fields and the hills. A few minutes later I got off the train at Schaan, excited to be in a tiny country about which I knew almost nothing. Tired and grubby from the night train, I walked out into the deserted town. I found an early morning bakery, bought an excellent coffee and a few pastries, and sat in the sunshine looking around at the country.
I didn’t have much time to spare in Vienna. I was giving the penultimate talk of the conference, so I spent the whole week preparing it and stressing about it. I went for a walk one afternoon when there were no conference sessions and wandered randomly around Vienna.
I went to Vienna for a conference. After an early flight and almost no sleep, I was exhausted when I got there, and I headed for a hostel and slept for a while. In the evening I got up and explored the city, randomly wandering the streets. It was hot and humid, and I stopped often for drinks and snacks.
In the evening, as I walked back to the hostel, I felt a sudden thud on my shoulder. I looked around, and found myself face to face with a grasshopper of terrifying size. Where he had come from, I don’t know, but I recoiled in horror, the confusion of the situation only getting worse as I realised you can’t recoil very far from your own shoulder. I slapped frantically and twitched across the pavement, getting rid of the beast but attracting confused looks from a passer-by.
Hiking trails led away from the cable car station up into the hills, so I decided to walk for a while. Quickly I was away in the quiet mountains. I headed up a steep path to a ridge, which looked like the highest point around, but once I got there I could see there was another higher peak further on. The path flattened and dropped, and then rose up to Mount Fløya, 671m above sea level.
The day had started out overcast but some sun had broken through the clouds. I was alone on top of the mountain, and I sat for a while, taking in the views over the wild countryside.
The only reason to come down was that I had to find my way to the airport for a flight back to Oslo. This was a very annoying business, first of all because I was extremely content up there and didn’t feel like starting my journey back to London, and secondly because it was the World Cup final, and in a moment of appalling planning, I’d booked a flight that took off at the precise moment the game started, and would last for pretty much the exact time football games last for. I could only hope it would go to extra time.
We landed, and I got a train back to Oslo. As I walked through the station, I heard a sudden roar, and found a pub where the game was on. It had gone to extra time, and Spain had just almost scored. The Norwegian crowd was definitely backing Spain, and when they scored with just a few minutes to go the pub went wild. Out in the streets of Oslo, a car full of Spanish people drove around the block a few times, hooting its horn. If there were any Dutch around, they were keeping it quiet.
I walked back to the hostel in the midnight daylight. The next day, it rained heavily all day, and I sat in a cafe watching the rain batter on the window and drinking coffee until I got tunnel vision.
The next day it was nicer. I walked across the bridge from Tromsøya to the mainland, and got the cable car up the hill to Storsteinen. It was a short ride up, and it wasn’t cheap. Nothing is in Norway. But it was worth it. There weren’t too many people around, and the views over the city and the mountains were pretty incredible.
Every day of the year, eleven boats are somewhere out at sea along the coast of Norway, on an epic voyage from Bergen to Kirkenes and back. For a long time I’d thought I would like to make a journey along the coast of Norway, and today I could sample a small part of the route.
The boat that pulled into Skjervøy’s small harbour was the MS Nordstjernen, the oldest ship in the Hurtigruten fleet. I was lucky to have a trip on a boat like this. I’d seen massive and new Hurtigruten ships in Tromsø harbour, but the Nordstjernen was small, old and weatherbeaten. We chugged out of Skjervøy into a heavenly summer evening.
The deck was full of people enjoying the warm sun. I watched the coast slip by slowly. Gradually it started to cloud over, and as it cooled, the deck emptied. It was just a four hour run back to Tromsø and some of the people on board were no doubt in for a much longer haul than I was. I stayed out, listening to music and enjoying the ride.
After a couple of hours, another boat appeared on the horizon and closed rapidly. An announcement over the tannoy said that this was the MS Lofoten, another member of the Hurtigruten fleet. The crew of both boats appeared on deck, waving flags and cheering, and both boats sprayed fountains of water as they passed.
We carried on down the coast. Here and there, tiny villages dotted the shore. As we slowly approached Tromsø the signs of human habitation got more frequent, and eventually I saw the distant buildings of the city. We pulled into the harbour just before midnight.
After Olderdalen the bus continued to Skjervøy. Somewhere along the way, it crossed the 70th line of latitude, an arbitrary, meaningless, imaginary line on the Earth’s surface, but one I still thought it was awesome to be north of.
All was quiet in Skjervøy. The skies were blue and the sun shone. I wandered through the empty streets for a bit, stopped in a Narvesen and bought a coffee and an ice cream, and then sat outside in the sun, enjoying being way up here, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
The peace was disrupted only when the Hurtigruten appeared. With a blast of its horn, it alerted the town that now was the time to head for the harbour if anyone wanted to catch it. I headed down and boarded.
My day in Tromsø started badly. Somehow I’d imagined there would be breakfast at the hostel, and with breakfast one normally gets coffee. But there wasn’t, and I had no supplies. I was a long way from town, and for a moment the day looked bleak. But then I found out that they sold bad coffee in the reception, at outrageous prices. I happily handed over a wodge of kroner, drank the mediocre brew, and then headed out into a bright warm day.
I had no plans, except a vague thought that I’d like to get a boat somewhere. I walked into the city, and down to the quay, but I couldn’t find any useful-looking information about what was going where. Then by chance I wandered into the tourist information office, and by chance I picked up a leaflet about Skjervøy, a village to the north of Tromsø. It turned out I could travel there by bus, and then catch the Hurtigruten back down the coast. The bus was leaving in half an hour; I bought a ticket and headed north.
The best plans are those that are never made. Nothing is better than the spontaneous, and I knew straight away this was going to be an awesome journey. The bus left Tromsø and headed inland, first of all stopping at Breivikeidet where a ferry ran across the narrow fjord to Svensby under an incongruously hot Arctic sun.
Then from Svensby the bus carried on to Lyngseidet, rounding the fearsome looking Lyngen alps, snow covered and jagged. At Lyngseidet we boarded another ferry to Olderdalen. The first ferry had been cool; this one was awesome. Crossing a deep blue fjord surrounded by towering snowy mountains on a hot day in the Arctic Circle could not be anything else.
I got to Tromsø at 10pm. It was raining heavily and yet daylight. I got a bus into the city, and I wasn’t quite sure when we’d arrived in the centre. The driver said to me “This is it, you’re here – you’re in the middle of nowhere!”. Fantastic, I said, that’s exactly where I want to be. I got off and walked around. It had stopped raining, and it was surreal that it was daylight and yet almost 11pm. I found the bus stop I needed to go to the hostel I was staying at, a couple of miles outside town.
I checked in, and then went for a walk. The rain clouds were spent now, and were disappearing rapidly. As it approached midnight, only their last dregs remained as wisps of white in a clear blue sky. The sun was low in the sky, but at the stroke of midnight it was still sitting clear of the horizon over the mountains of Kvaløya to the north. There was not even a hint of sunset red in the sky. It hung steady for a while, moving neither up nor down. By 1am it was on its way up again. It was another Arctic day.
My trip to Norway in 2002 had been so awesome that for years I’d been reluctant to think about going back. The chances were it wouldn’t be as good as the last time and maybe it would even be disappointing. But then one day I felt like going to the Arctic Circle, and flights to Tromsø were affordable.
So I flew to Oslo, and got a train into the city. I walked up Karl Johans Gate feeling nostalgic, passing familiar places and remembering good times. I walked down to the harbour and looked out to sea in the light drizzle. But before I could get too nostalgic it was time to go. I had to get a train to Rygge, to catch my flight to the Arctic.
While we were in Paris, the Villette Sonique music festival was on, and the last night’s star attraction was Joanna Newsom. I’d heard her music before, recommended to me with great enthusiasm by two of my friends, but I was not a fan. In fact, I thought it was unbelievably awful and I planned never to listen to it again.
But my friends in Paris wanted to go, and I reluctantly bought a ticket. And as it happened, the gig entirely changed my opinion. She was supported by Roy Harper, who looked pretty messed up and rambled vaguely between songs. But his music was pretty good, with just his voice, a guitar and a delay pedal.
And then Joanna Newsom came on stage. The audience were in raptures right from the start, which put me off a bit, but her voice didn’t sound as weird as it had done on the songs I’d heard before. It was one of those gigs where you start off quite liking it, and as the show progresses you realise it’s something quite special, where the musician is on supreme form and the audience is ever more impressed. By the encore I was clapping almost as enthusiastically as the rest of them.
We went to the Pompidou centre and saw some modern art. It was another classic Paris thing to do that I hadn’t done before. We also, being scientists keen to communicate what we do, joined in at Paris’s first “Science Corner”, where people from various disciplines set up stands on the plaza in front of the centre, offering the public the chance to ask us anything they wanted to. Not speaking French obviously made it a bit difficult for those of us from the UK, but none the less we got plenty of interest. There were some press people there and articles later appeared in a few newspapers.
It had been a long time since I’d been to Paris properly. I’d passed through on my way to Barcelona a couple of months ago, but now, two friends of mine were living here, so I got a eurostar early one Saturday morning to go and visit them.
We visited Notre Dame. I’d been there before but only to the inside. We decided to go up to the roof. It was a May bank holiday weekend so this involved spending a long time in a queue, creeping slowly across the square in front of the cathedral. It looked like it was going to rain heavily, and I was hoping it would so that some less enthusiastic queuers might go away and do something else, but it didn’t.
Eventually we made it up to the heights. By coincidence it was ten years to the day since my first visit to Paris, when I’d arrived utterly broke after a trip across Europe to celebrate the end of my degree. I thought then that I had just left UCL forever. I wondered what I would have made of it then, if someone told me I’d actually have got a job there, ten years on.
The day after our hike we headed back to the mainland. I had a night train to catch back to London, and the last time I’d wanted to get the night train I’d missed it. I hate waiting around but this time I got to the station ridiculously early.
Last time I’d got the Caledonian Sleeper I was the only person in the carriage. This time it was very different. The volcano I’d seen erupting just a few days earlier had now gone crazy, spewing out such a vast ash cloud that huge swathes of European airspace were closed. The night train was full of volcano refugees. It was not a particularly relaxing journey, but at least I was on it this time. I got back to London at 6.45am, tired from an intense week of travel. I was supposed to be flying to Frankfurt later the same day for work, and I was pretty relieved when the epic eruption meant my flight was cancelled. I went home and slept.
We followed the river back towards Brodick. The walk in the valley was not as interesting as the hiking in the fells had been, but the scenery was still impressive. The interior of the island was impressively wild, with no significant signs of human habitation to be seen. It always surprises me, a world traveller but an insular London resident, that there are places like this in the UK. I should go to them more often.
After the meeting I went to the Isle of Arran to do a bit of hiking with another astronomer friend. We got the train to Ardrossan, and the ferry from there to Brodick. I didn’t know much about the island – we’d just picked it as somewhere easy to get to where we could do some hiking and climbing. As we pulled into the harbour at Brodick it looked like a good choice with rugged scenery.
Our target was Goat Fell. The weather had been beautiful when we arrived but was a little bit more overcast the next day. We hiked up to the 874m summit in a couple of hours, and got some fantastic views over the island. In the far distance, the ferry was pulling out of Brodick on its way to Ardrossan.
On the other side of the peak we took a route along a spectacular ridge, descended a bit and then scrambled up a very steep slope to a viewpoint on the other side of the valley. We could see some rock climbers tackling a sheer face on another nearby hill. Our aims were less extreme, and after a few hours of good hiking we descended back into the valley.
I flew from Iceland to Glasgow, slightly weirdly going via Manchester. Absurd security regulations meant that we had to leave the plane, go through security, and then reboard. The tub of skyr that I’d bought just before boarding my plane in Reykjavík could not be taken through security in Manchester, nor left on the plane, so it had to be chucked.
I was in Glasgow for the National Astronomy Meeting. I had bad memories of the city, having had a very stressful time here after NAM two years earlier when my ferry from Ireland was late. I had missed the night train to London, had to stay in an unpleasant hostel and then buy a new ticket in the morning at great expense. Apart from that I’d passed through a few times before, but never stopped. I now had a week to see if the city deserved the bad image I had of it.
I considered going to some talks on the first day of the conference, but I’d spent all night on an Icelandic volcano and in the end, tiredness won. Fortunately I got a bit more out of the subsequent days, presented some of my own work in Glasgow University’s Bute Hall, talked to a lot of astronomers, and generally enjoyed the Glasgow vibe. It was sunny and warm. By the time I came to leave, I’d almost forgotten just how unpleasant it had been to find myself on Central Station just after the last train had gone.
The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless.
Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that.
Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind began to drop and the lights got brighter.
We reached sea level at about 3am. I was beginning to get a tiny bit worried – my flight was leaving Keflavík at 8am and it was going to take a few more hours yet to reach Reykjavík. But if I missed my flight, then so be it. Right now I was just concerned with feeling awestruck. We stopped at Skógafoss, reinflated the tyres a bit more, and here the lights were stunning, flying overhead like curtains billowing in a colossal breeze.
We drove on, stopping in the middle of nowhere briefly to pick up some people whose car had broken down as they were trying to get to the volcano. The lights seemed brighter than I ever remembered them and at the end of a spectacular day of travelling, this was almost too much to take in. I was having a natural wonder overdose.
We headed on. The small hours grew larger, and I fell fast asleep. I woke as we approached Reykjavík, where we arrived at 5am. I had just enough time to brew a painfully strong coffee before heading back to the airport as the sun was rising. My weekend had been perilously close to turning into an appalling waste of time and money but we’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I could not have been happier as I headed back to the UK. Later it turned out that just a few hours after I’d been there, the Fimmvörðuháls eruption stopped. After a day of calm, a new and much bigger eruption started a few miles away, causing massive disruption to European air travel as a huge ash cloud drifted over the continent. Much as I’d have loved to see that, my timing was pretty good. If I hadn’t left when I did I might still be there now.
Snæfell is still calling me. I’ll be going back to Iceland before too long.
From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view.
It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.
I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.
We climbed the road. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before too long we were 700m above sea level, and there was snow on the ground around us. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up.
It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our way up the glacier, eventually reaching 1400m above sea level before heading down into the pass. We’d left Reykjavík at 4pm, and we’d hoped to reach the volcano by 8pm, but the journey continued. By 9pm the daylight was fading fast, and suddenly in the distance there was a vivid orange glow. Our luck was in.
We passed Seljalandsfoss, and after a couple of hours we reached Hvolsvöllur. Seven vehicles were attempting the trip, and tiny Hvolsvöllur was briefly overrun by volcano tourists. I bought a coffee and weirdly spotted someone who I’d met in Greenland last year. I didn’t have time to say hello before we were back in the jeep and heading onwards. We reached a turning where a rough dirt track disappeared into the mist. Somewhere up in the clouds were the Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers, and in between the two, a split in the Earth’s crust from which molten rock was spurting. It hardly seemed possible.
We stopped to reduce the tyre pressures and coordinate the convoy, and then we headed uphill. Our route would take us high up onto the Myrdalsjökull, and then down into the pass.
Sunday morning dawned wild and rainy. It was beginning to look like my frivolous blowing of several hundred pounds was going to be in vain. My distant glimpse of the volcano from the plane might be my only sighting of it. Still, I hadn’t told anyone I was coming to Iceland as I felt that it might jinx the trip, so I could just not mention it.
I had time to kill. I was waiting for the phone call that would tell me if I could go to the volcano or not, and I stomped anxiously around town. The day seemed to drag on ridiculously, but eventually my phone rang. There was a chance, they told me, that there would be a break in the weather. Just a chance, and no guarantee of anything, but would I like to take the risk? I certainly would, I told them. I headed back to the hostel, and a vehicle appeared at 4.30pm. I met the driver, Árni, and my fellow travellers Diana from Portugal and two Swedes who lived in Algeria. We headed out of Reykjavík.
We stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts, and Árni said that this was our point of no return – if we quit the tour here we’d get our money back; if we went on and saw nothing, a not inconsiderable amount of money would have been wasted. None of us took the quitting option. We headed out of town. Soon we passed Hveragerði, where giant greenhouses with powerful artificial lights make the place look like a serious cannabis factory. Rain battered down. Quitting had never been an option but I was beginning to think I’d be very lucky to see anything.
Eight months ago, I’d stood outside Keflavík airport and seen the snow-capped cone of Snæfell, 70 miles away across Faxaflói. It was a clear sign, telling me that I would certainly return to Iceland. I felt that very strongly but I never expected to come back so soon. While I was in Belgrade I’d heard that a volcano had started erupting in the Fimmvörðuháls pass, close to where I’d been hiking. It was an impressive and easily accessible eruption. I couldn’t believe it had happened so soon after I was there and I felt annoyed that I wouldn’t see it. But then, the thought occurred to me that there was no reason why I shouldn’t go and see it. One Monday morning, with the eruption still going on, I decided to go back. I booked a flight for the Friday, and then spent an agonising four days hoping that the eruption wouldn’t stop, that the weather would be OK, and that I’d be able to see the eruption.
And so for the third time I got a late flight from Heathrow to Keflavík. I saw the northern lights from the plane window, the first time I’d seen them since my first trip to Iceland, and then I got a sudden, breathtaking glimpse of something red and pulsating far below. It could surely only be the volcano. By the time I’d grabbed my camera it had disappeared from view. I became furiously impatient as we slowly descended into Keflavík.
I got the usual bus into town, and felt an extreme sense of deja vu as I walked towards the city hostel. Last summer it had still been light and warm as I walked in to the city at midnight; this time the bus broke down on the way and we had to transfer to another one in a howling gale in the darkness. I got to the hostel and booked myself some transport to the volcano for the next afternoon.
The next day I walked around the city again. It was grim and rainy, and the signs didn’t look good. My trip for the afternoon was uncertain, and I couldn’t even book a trip for the Sunday. The forecast was for severe weather, and no-one was planning on making any trips. Eventually, I found one company who said they would consider doing a trip and I left them my number. I revisited a few of my favourite Reykjavík sights, and then spent the afternoon in a cafe where I ordered so many espressos that eventually they let me make my own. I was properly blazing when I heard the bad news that the trip to the volcano for the afternoon was cancelled. All my hopes were now on Sunday.
We took a trip out to Tarragona. It was a warm spring day and a nice journey down the coast of Catalunya. The old town reminded me a little bit of Mdina in Malta. Newer parts of town were quite different. I liked the Rambla Nova, particularly when I found a food stand selling churros filled with dulce de leche – a neat combination of two of my favourite food items.
We spent the day in Tarragona much as we had spent the days in Barcelona, relaxing and enjoying good food and drink. It was a perfect post-paper recovery trip for me, and it was a shame the day had to end when I had to leave for the airport.
I’d heard about the Font Màgica last time I was here. It sounded a bit cheesy and I wasn’t too keen on visiting, but on the other hand it was up on Montjuïc and I thought there might be some good views over the city. So we all went up there, arriving just as the show started.
To my surprise I was quite impressed. The timing was good, with the sun having set and the sky darkening as the water shone in rainbows of colour. The number of people there made it difficult to see the show that well, but it was better than I’d expected. And after it was over we walked up to the front of the Palau Nacional and looked out over the city as the crowds dispersed.
A week and a half after I got back from Belgrade, I was on the road again. My paper on Herschel results was submitted, my long month of hell was over, and I walked along to St. Pancras to get a train to Barcelona. I was going there with some friends to celebrate a 30th birthday, and it turned out to be cheaper to travel overland. So I got the Eurostar to Paris, pausing briefly at Gare du Nord. Last time, I was on my way back from Beijing, and after thousands of miles of travel across Asia with no problem, disaster had struck just 200 miles from home in a farce of missed trains and lost tickets. I held tightly on to my Barcelona ticket, crossed town to Gare d’Austerlitz and got a train to Portbou.
We crossed France during the night. In the morning we were in the far south, and I saw a full moon setting over the Pyrenees at Perpignan. Not long after that the train arrived at Portbou, where I had about 20 seconds to find the Barcelona train, otherwise I’d have to wait for two hours for the next one. I made it, jumping on board just before the doors closed. Then I slept all the way to Barcelona Sants.
I met up with my friends and went exploring. In my tired post-night train state this involved a lot of stopping and relaxing in cafes. We ended up in the Jardines de la Ciudadela, and relaxed by the lakes and fountains there for a while.
Gig time came. We headed across the river, back through the wide streets of Novi Beograd, at first just us and then later joining ever increasing crowds of people on their way to the massive arena. It was going to be awesome.
We had two spare tickets. Someone at the hostel had put us in touch with someone they knew who was looking for a ticket. We’d spoken to this person, Nikola, on the phone, and he’d offered us 1000 dinar each for the tickets. Face value was 3000 so we decided we’d try to sell them at the venue and see if we got some more. When we were outside, with huge throngs of Balkan metallers swirling around, I slightly wondered if I should have taken Nikola’s offer. I’ve never managed to tout tickets successfully even in London, so trying to cut deals in Serbia was not going to be easy.
In the end we sorted things out pretty quickly. There were plenty of people asking for tickets, and my only mistake was picking someone who was pretty wired and didn’t speak English. We had a haphazard negotiation, a brief tussle when he tried to take the tickets from me without letting go of his cash, a short misunderstanding when he thought I was also selling my own ticket, and then the deal was sorted. We headed in before anyone else tried to forcibly buy our tickets from us.
The Lisbon crowd had been quite well managed, but here it was boisterous, and the security was heavy handed. The entrance to the cheap part of the arena was overcrowded, and it took us a long time to get in. At one point the security had started shoving people around, and I thought it was going to get violent. Luckily the moment passed, and we made it in. We missed all of Combichrist’s set, but I’d seen a bit of them in Lisbon and I thought they were really, really poor, so I was not upset.
The gig was pretty much as awesome as the Lisbon show had been. The explosions were all well-timed this time, and I could see that it was all running smoothly. The only slight disappointments were that they didn’t play “Liebe ist für alle da” or “Seemann“, which had both been awesome in Lisbon. But it was still an incredible show. We were close enough to the front to get pretty hot from all the flamethrowers, and we weren’t even in the “Fan Pit”, the front third of the floor where tickets had been twice as expensive.
After the show we poured back out onto the streets of Novi Beograd. The next morning Sam got a train to Budapest for a few more days of travelling. I flew home, to another few days of 15 hour stints in the office. But it had definitely been worth coming.
We went to the Sveti Sava cathedral. On another beautiful spring day, the parks in front of the cathedral had a nice vibe.
Later as it got dark we headed towards the centre of the city. We passed the parliament buildings and the presidential residence, and I stopped to take a photo. As I took a long exposure, a smartly dressed guy who was walking by approached. He didn’t look happy. He demanded to see our passports. My first thought was that it was some kind of scam and I was going to walk away, but then he showed me a police badge. I showed him my passport, holding onto it carefully in case he was just trying to steal it. He asked us things in very broken English, the gist of which was that he wanted to know what we were doing. He didn’t speak very much English, and we did not speak any Serbian, so he just shouted at us a bit. He seemed bothered by the way I was taking photos, which he seemed to be saying was not legitimately touristic. Still, in the end it was just a few unpleasant minutes and then he walked off. I’d never got any vibe of ex-dictatorship on my previous visit here, but this was definitely that.
The next day we walked past the same place and noticed a prominent sign saying “No photography”.
Early the next morning we headed down to the station to catch the train to Belgrade. I slept most of the way, waking only to see endless flat green fields occasionally. Last time I’d crossed a border into Serbia, the guard had been remarkably jovial considering it had been 2am. This time, it was the middle of a beautiful spring day but the man who stamped our passports was definitely not happy. He looked at my battered document with some disgust, but stamped us in eventually.
We got to Belgrade in the early afternoon and checked into a hostel. At first it seemed incredibly welcoming and cool. Over the next few days, though, we’d find that the Swedish owner was pretty weird, vaguely racist and generally a bit unpleasant to be around. Still, they made me a coffee and that made me happy, and it was good to be back in Serbia.
We headed over to the Belgrade Arena to pick up our tickets. Last time, I’d only crossed the Sava briefly, to go to a club on a boat, so I hadn’t seen Novi Beograd at all. Under clear blue skies I really liked it. It was quite quiet, and we stopped for coffees and snacks at cafes along the way to the stadium. We got hold of our tickets with no problems, and it was nice to actually have one this time. Negotiating my way past layers of security in Lisbon when my ticket never arrived had been challenging enough; I was glad I wouldn’t have to do the same in Serbia.