History


“Gratitude doesn’t change the scenery. It merely washes clean the glass you look through so you can clearly see the colors.”  –Richard E. Goodrich

Lois Joy Hofmann, Author

Lois updates her journal in Nurata, Uzbekistan.

A big thanks to YOU. I’m grateful for my readers. You made my day when I noticed that my blog had 917 followers. You’re one of those followers if you signed up to receive my blog online or in your inbox, and for that, I’m exceedingly grateful. Your continuing interest fills me with joy and encourages me to write more about the wonderful world in which we live.

I’d like more followers like you to share the joy. You can help me build my following to that magic 1000 number by forwarding my blogs to friends and family who might want to know more about the Great Outdoors or experience my adventures vicariously.  I would appreciate it if you would “like” my Facebook Author, Twitter, and LinkedIn pages as well.

I’m also grateful for the opportunity to travel by land and sea. I would not trade our eight years spent circumnavigating the world for any object money can buy. Travel has taught me to invest in money, not stuff. It has taught me to collect memories, and to press them—like flowers between pages of a book—within the folds of my heart. I’ve taken thousands of pictures, and when I look at them, I realize that I’ve collected the sights, sounds and smells of nature—and the laughter, joy, and sorrow of people around the world.

Gunter and I recently returned from a road trip to visit shut-ins. As usual, we combined our trip with sightseeing, some of it off the beaten path. Spring was ripe with fresh new growth. Along with fragrant blossoms, myriad possibilities were bursting forth. The scenes reminded me of a quote by Friedrich Gauss: “Life stands before me like an eternal spring with brilliant clothes…”

Finally, I’m grateful for my life and that I can still enjoy the Great Outdoors at will. Each of our lives is a precious gift, my dear followers. Maybe you travel and maybe you don’t. Maybe you can’t. Whatever you do, don’t let life pass you by. Cherish each day as if it would be your last.

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Related blogs:  spring and new beginning; new beginnings and second chances.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website https://loisjoyhofmann.com.

 

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I’m posting the first of my Ireland blog series. My husband Gunter and I toured Ireland in September 2018 as part of a mission to reconnect with European cruisers with whom we had sailed during our world circumnavigation. We had the good fortune of being hosted by Patrick Murphy, a native Irishman who loves his country, and his partner, Geraldine. Upon arriving, we checked into a hotel in Howth overlooking the Irish sea with a view of Ireland’s Eye, a small uninhabited island off the coast. We were close to Howth Harbour, where Pat still docks his yacht Aldaberan after sailing it around the world. During the week we spent in Ireland, Pat took us to yacht clubs, maritime museums, and shipbuilding exhibits, including the Titanic Exhibit in Belfast. These are covered in another blog called Cruising Camaraderie.

Howth Marina

Howth Marina

The Howth Castle. This was the first of many castles we saw in Ireland, including the imposing Dublin Castle. It’s a hidden gem, the private residence of the Galsford-St. Lawrence family and still occupied by the descendants. The view from the top of the peninsula of Howth Head, northeast of Dublin, provides a stunning view of the harbour and village below.

Howth Castle

Howth Castle

Sightseeing in Dublin. During our first full day in Ireland, we took a city bus directly to City Centre and then bought tickets for a city bus tour, the best way to get an overview of this vibrant city. This gave us a nice overview of the city, landmarks such as the National Museum of Ireland, the National Gallery, Dublin Castle, the Temple Bar district, Christ Church Cathedral, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Guinness Storehouse, and Kilmainham Gaol and Hospital. After that preview, it was time to walk the city.

The Story of the General Post Office. The main avenue in Dublin is O’Connell Street, 500 feet wide, with monuments to Irish history in the middle. All the way, we couldn’t miss the Millennium Spire, a 395-foot high stainless-steel monument which replaced the 19th century Nelson’s Pillar blown up by anti-British rebels in 1966. O’Connell street’s most famous landmark is the General Post Office, which Pat described to us at length. “See these bullet holes,” he said. “These were made during the Easter rising of 1916, when a group of Irish nationalists proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic. They and 1600 followers staged a rebellion against the British government in Ireland here. They used this GPO as their headquarters.”

We talked with a “soldier” posing as a rebel outside the Post Office. Then we went inside to view commemorative plaques and statues about the Rising. We learned that the rebels, along with some 1600 followers, seized buildings in that area and clashed with British troops. Within a week, the British quelled the rebellion and left 2000 dead or injured. The leaders of the rebellion soon were executed. Initially, there was little support from the Irish people; however, public opinion later shifted, and the executed leaders were hailed as martyrs. In 1921, a treaty was signed that established the Irish Free State, which eventually became the modern-day Republic of Ireland.

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South of the Liffey. Dublin takes its name from the southwest of the city. Apparently in prehistoric times there was a dark pool (Dubh Linn) at the confluence of the River Liffey and what was once the River Poddle. During the 18th century, the Temple Bar became a center for merchants and craftsmen. The southeast was undeveloped until the founding of Trinity College in 1592. St. Stephens Green was enclosed in the 1660s but was private until 1877. Today the south is the hub of the fashionable scene, with designer stores and fine restaurants.

Liffey River

Liffey River

Trinity College. Visiting Trinity College, Ireland’s most famous educational institution, is a must. Since its foundation in the 16th century, it has produced many impressive alumni—including Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Samuel Beckett. Entering the cobbled square surrounded by green lawns, 18th and 19th century buildings, and a 100-foot bell tower might have been like walking into a bucolic time-warp—except for the hundreds of students, posters, and booths filling the space. A student orientation event was in process and the lines were so long that we couldn’t get into the library. Too bad. I would have liked to view the 200-foot long room, with two tiers of oak bookcases holding more than 200,000 books. The Old Library is home to one of Ireland’s greatest treasures: the 9th century, lavishly illustrated Book of Kells, containing the four gospels of the New Testament in Latin. We exited the campus at the front arch, in between statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.

St. Stephen’s Green. This 22-acre park with two miles of walkways is a great way to take a bucolic break within the city limits. It still has the original Victorian layout. Bedding plants are changed out during the year. We strolled past sculptures and around a serene, man-made lake. Lunchtime concerts are performed throughout the summer.

Serene lake at St. Stephen's Green Ireland

Serene lake at St. Stephen’s Green

Back at City Centre, we enjoyed a magnificent lunch at Bewleys Grafton Street Café. But the food was only a small part of our fun there. We were seated in the main dining room on the ground floor. Although the café was jam-packed tightly with tables, we didn’t mind. The entire 1920s café was decorated with art nouveau and stained-glass windows designed by celebrated Irish artist Harry Clarke. After lunch, Geraldine and I walked to the second floor to find a charming art deco café, then went up another flight of stairs to discover a small theatre at the top. Do stop here—even if it’s just for a cup of tea.

After lunch, we watched the street entertainment for a while. This cyclist/knife juggler took our breath away. He deserved his tips!

On the way back, Patrick stopped to show us a tree carved with every species of sea-life imaginable.

Magnificent Carved Tree Ireland

Magnificent Carved Tree

Finally, enjoy “the craic.” Despite the sights, Dublin would be nothing without the warmth and conviviality of the Irish people. Craic (pronounced crack) is term for news, gossip, fun, or entertainment. It’s the perfect word for describing the bubbling, sparky mix of fun and banter that is Dublin.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

Sightseeing in Reykjavik. Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, is home to one-third of the country’s population of about 340,000. This city is Iceland’s business, cultural, and intellectual center with a world-class concert hall and numerous small-scale museums tracing Iceland’s history. The entire city runs on geothermal power. Summer is best, when whales swim in the bay, Icelanders picnic at the park fronting the Parliament Building, and children play in the street until midnight.

Holly and I had booked a top-floor room at Alda Hotel in City Centre that provided a roof-top view of the bay. All week, we squeezed in an hour here and there in between our road trips to see the city. Our first sightseeing walks during the week were to that bay—not surprising given my love of the sea and sailing. We loved to photograph the Sun Voyager sculpture in all kinds of light. Afterward, we learned more about the Viking explorers and our Scandinavian heritage in the museums and bookstores. We ambled through some of well-to-do residential areas in the city, admiring their brightly-colored, corrugated metal-clad houses with well-kept green lawns surrounded by quaint picket fences. We frequented cute cafes and bakeries, planning what we would cram into our SUV for the following day’s Ring Road excursions.

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Saturday was our final day in Iceland. We raced to photograph as much of the city as we could before flying back on Sunday. Visitors once thought of Reykjavik as little more than a stopover to Iceland’s dramatic landscape: volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, lava fields and massive glaciers. Now the city is a “happening” place. If you have the time, you can enjoy the cultural scene; Iceland has an internationally acclaimed symphony orchestra, two professional theatre companies, an opera company, a national ballet and national and municipal art galleries. There’s even an annual arts festival. Nightlife is vibrant, as we could attest to—not by staying up until 4 am, (we preferred touring) but by hearing the noise of the city when we slid open the glass doors of our balcony room. If you do want to participate in the night life, it’s comforting to know that Reykjavik is one of the safest capitals in the world.

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Icelandic Lore, Legends, and Sagas. When we entered Mal-og-Menning, what we thought was a small bookstore, we were amazed. We were in a different world—three floors of history, sagas (a delicate blend of history and fiction), poetry, geography, science (e.g., thermoelectric power), travel, and adventure. We wandered around in a daze, wondering what was worth taking home. Would we read Icelandic history, fiction, or fairy tales when we returned? Finally, Holly settled on a Viking history book and I bought a book of Nordic Noir short stories to read on the plane. Dark stories and crime fiction seem to fit the environment here—one of cruel winters and overwhelming, mysterious landscapes.

Most literature of the ancients was written for a small and privileged elite. Icelandic sagas, however, have always been the property of the common people. Because the Icelandic language has changed little since medieval times, stories remain accessible to Icelanders in their original language. Almost every Icelander is familiar with the character and plots of major works. Iceland claims to have published more books per capita than anywhere else in the world. Numerous prize-winning authors are among its tiny population; in fact, in 2011, UNESCO designated Reykjavik a City of Literature.

Between 2008 and 2014, Iceland’s adult literacy rate remained stable at around 99 %! Preserving the purity of the language and Iceland’s rich literary tradition is important to Icelandic identity. Think about it: Anonymous 13th-century saga authors living in a desolate northern island during a raging civil war were the first to write prose in their own language instead of Latin. The sagas include countless historical chronicles, romances, fables, legends, and the lives of holy men. But the best known are the family sagas, dating back to the settlement of the land. They were passed down orally until they were finally written; however, until recently, they were regarded as undisputed historical fact! The story lines encompass great epic sprawls, with dozens of characters and sub-plots, spanning many generations. Fate plays a strong role and tragedy is usually the result of simple bad luck.

Even though sagas are the result of fact and fiction, events can be pinned to actual places. We found markers at many locations throughout Iceland. Just follow your guidebook. Many road signs merely denote the name of the farm at which the event took place. In addition to our two guidebooks, Insight Guides, Iceland and Iceland’s Ring Road by Lonely Planet, I read the paperback Burial Rites before I left. Also recommended: The Day is Dark, The Silence of the Sea, I Remember You, a Ghost Story, and Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland.

Understanding Icelandic Language. Icelandic belongs to the Nordic family of languages; it most closely resembles Norwegian and Faroese. It has not changed much from the language of the early Norse settlers. As a visitor, the language is daunting. But no worries—most Icelanders, especially the young, speak English fluently, as well as Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish. German and French are also taught in school. To pronounce a word, put the stress on the first syllable; however, you’ll find that many Icelandic sounds do not exist in English. We found the following phrases useful just to be polite:

Hello/good morning: Góðan dag
Good evening: Gott kvöld
Good night: Gott nótt
My name is: ég heiti
Goodbye: bless
Yes: já
No: nei
Thanks: takk
Yes, please: já takk
Cheers!: Skál!

After four days of touring the Ring Road, we could put together a few place names by understanding how to interpret a long string of letters:

Snæfellsnes Peninsula: snae=snow; fell=mountain; nes=peninsula
Gulfoss: foss=waterfall; gul=gold
Sönghellir: hellir=cave; söng=song
Eyia Flatey: eyia=island; flatey=flat
Laugarvatn: laug=hot spring; vatn=lake
Vatnajökull: vatn=lake; jökull=glacier
Reykjavik: reykur=smoke; vik=small bay

Icelandic History. While sagas blend legends with history and geography, one museum you don’t want to miss is the War and Peace museum depicting Iceland’s strategic role in World War II. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but well worth it. You will need to take the tunnel detour when entering or leaving the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The photos represent only a small part of hundreds of artifacts you’ll discover there.

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Iceland now has one of the highest standards of living in the world. So, it’s impossible to imagine that, prior to World War II, many visitors thought Iceland to be barely out of the middle ages. The transformation occurred almost overnight. Quonset huts and military installations dotted the landscape and the Ring Road was built to provide transportation around the entire island. This frenzy of development created an economic infrastructure for the post-war period. Iceland was proclaimed an independent republic on June 17,1944.

Churches in Iceland. I’ve never been in a small country with such a variety of church architecture. In Reykjavik, we saved the best for last: Late Saturday afternoon, Holly and I strapped on our Canon EOS cameras and walked directly uphill from our hotel to the imposing Hallgrímskirkja church. With a 244-foot tower, this modern concrete structure was designed to resemble columns of Iceland’s basaltic lava. Hallgrímskirkja, towering over the capital city, is a photographer’s dream! In front of the church is an impressive statue of Lefur Eriksson, a gift from the US in 1930 commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of the founding of the Alþingi, the oldest parliament in the world.

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And how many churches are there in Iceland? The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland owns more than 350 churches in the country. Hallgrímskirkja, of course, is the largest. Other Christian segregations own about 50 houses of worship. Most of the churches we saw in the countryside did not bother to provide a sign with the denomination. We suspected that all churches outside of the capital are Lutheran. Even though a fraction of Icelanders attend church regularly, they are still registered at birth. 97 percent of Icelanders say they believe in God. Social scientists, however, were astonished to discover in an opinion poll that the majority still claim to believe in the existence of elves and spirits. Apparently over 500 ghouls, trolls, and paranormal beings haunt Iceland! In a survey of the supernatural in Western Europe, Icelanders claimed the most ghost experiences, with 41 percent claiming contact with the dead, compared to the European average of 20 percent. This island—with its long periods of darkness during the winters and surreal lava formations—provides the perfect camouflage for spooks! Ghosts are not always benevolent; they could take the form of zombies. Elves, though, are held in high regard as the “hidden people.” Then there are the trolls, beings who turn to stone if they are caught outside in the daylight. The Icelandic landscape is dotted with such trolls, including the great troll-cow Hvitserkur, caught having a drink of water just off the northwest coast.

 Flora and Fauna in Iceland. A joke making the rounds in Iceland is: How do you get out of an Icelandic forest? Stand up. Nowadays, it is said, even a giraffe could stand up and not get out of the Hallormsstaðir forest in East Iceland. The trees in this forest are the Icelandic equivalent of US redwoods—eighteen-meter-high downy birch (Betula pubescens). They are almost 200 years old but look gnarly and withered. These were the type of trees that Icelandic farmers got rid of so they could grow crops and easily round up their sheep.

Holly and I—familiar with the giant oaks, maple, and walnut hardwoods of the Midwest—didn’t come to Iceland to see trees. But we were curious why so few were spared. We found out that the country lost most of its trees more than a thousand years ago, when Viking settlers took their axes to the forests that covered one-quarter of the countryside. Now, Iceland is slowly but surely gaining back its forests. The country hopes planting trees will improve and stabilize the country’s harsh soils, prevent windstorm erosion, and aid agriculture.

The flora we found most interesting were the wildflowers, lichen, and moss. At times, miles and miles of soothing green would extend all the way to the horizon—like puffs of green clouds sleeping on the ground. When we stopped to check out these moss heaths, we discovered that they have an exquisite texture that dissolves into a fine powder. There are 606 different species of moss in Iceland. One of the most abundant species is called the woolly fringe-moss, which dominates lava fields across the South and West. Iceland moss is a lichen—algae and fungus growing together in a mutually helpful relationship. Lichens draw their nutrients from the environment and are easily contaminated. They grow slowly—about 1 centimeter in length every year. They survive well in Iceland because this country is one of the least polluted in the world. It’s easy to understand why signs ask you to stick to the trails. Those areas could take years to re-grow! Take only photos but please don’t leave footprints.

The Arctic Fox is Iceland’s only indigenous land mammal — rarely photographed. We did photograph a few birds, as well as sheep and mountain goats, but the Icelandic horses took our breath away. They are cuddly and cute, like ponies, with long, wheat-colored manes. Because they have never been threatened by predators in their natural environment, they are approachable and friendly, not easily spooked. Their spirited but gentle temperament makes them perfect for riding. All along the Ring Road, you’ll find farms promoting rides to tourists.

These horses were developed from sturdy ponies transported by sea to Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries. Selective breeding has developed them into their current form. They sport a thick winter coat that they shed at springtime; they are undaunted by high winds and snowstorms; and they easily wade through glacial rivers and cross tough terrains. In 982 A.D., the Icelandic parliament passed laws that prohibited importation of any other horse breeds into the country; consequently, Icelandic horses are one of the purest horse breeds in the world.

Tips for Visiting Iceland:

  • Think about what photography equipment you might need. To watch a video about what shots are simply too dangerous for amateurs, go here.
  • Book your flight and hotels early. I recommend Iceland Air, but beware of package deals which may put you up at a hotel near the airport, away from everything. I recommend staying near the center of Reykjavik most nights so you can walk to check out tourist spots and enjoy the nightlife. Then take your road trips from there. We stayed a single night at two different Ring Road hotels as well (see my previous blogs).
  • Pack for the forecasted weather. You can buy cold-weather clothes there. For ideas, see this IceWear
  • Above all, chill out and have fun. (If you don’t want to get too chilled, go in the summertime.)

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke and Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

Destination: the Fjallsárlón Lagoon
After a night’s rest back in Reykjavik, Holly and I were off on our next Ring Road tour of Iceland. This time, we would drive Iceland’s Southeast Coast. We needed to check into the remote Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon to be prepared for a morning iceberg boat tour at Fjallsárlón Lagoon.

Iceland lava field

The view was ever-changing, the lava field never-ending.

Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss Waterfalls. Along the way, we never tired of the view because the landscape was always changing. Of course, we had to visit more waterfalls! Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, reportedly the most visited in Iceland, with a 200-foot (60-meter) drop. Tourists climbed the steep hill to go to behind the falls. We contented ourselves with a view from the bottom. The river Seljalandsá originates underneath the glacier Eyjafjallajökull. The volcano beneath this ice cap was the one that erupted in 2010 and caused havoc at airports across Europe.

Our next waterfall stop was Skógafoss, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful in Iceland. The river Skoga, fed by two glaciers, runs through a canyon, then descends from the edge of a moor in a 45-foot-wide (15-meter), 186-foot-high (62-meter) waterfall. According to legend, a settler called Þrasi hid his chest of gold behind the falls. For a long time, the chest was visible through the waterfall, giving it a golden sheen. The ring to that chest can be found in the Skógar folk museum. The following verse has been passed down through generations:

The chest in Þrasi’s secret lair
Under the Skógar waterfall
Rewards the one who ventures there
With endless riches, great and small.

Dyrhólaey nature reserve was our next stop. Formerly known by seamen as Cape Portland, this reserve occupies a small promontory located on the south coast of Iceland. From the glittering black sand beach, we could view the arch near the end of the promontory. We would have loved to hike for hours, but we had to move on. We passed by Vik, a charming village of about 300 souls nestled below the cliffs, but stopped at an IceWear outlet for deals on Icelandic wool outerwear.

Laufskálavarða is a lava ridge surrounded by hundreds of small cairns. Travelers believed that making a cairn would bring luck and fortune before starting their journey across Mýrdalssandur. A farm located here was destroyed in a volcanic eruption in 894 BC.

Laufskálavarða

Lois waves from behind a cairn in Laufskálavarða.

Kirkjubæjarklaustur. After driving through miles and miles of lava fields covered with every type of moss and lichen one can imagine, Holly and I decided to make a detour to the road less traveled. We ended up in the quaint town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur, a tongue-twister that translates into church-farm-cloister. The town is even small by Icelandic standards: a petrol station, convenience store, and a few houses and farms scattered over a vast green oasis—brilliant after all those lava fields. We searched for a waterfall tumbling down through a man-made forest from high cliffs, thought to be the dwelling place of some of Iceland’s “hidden people.” We found Foss a Sidu but saw no little people—only this sign:

Sign along the walk to the falls

Sign along the walk to the falls.

We were surprised to discover hidden falls that reminded us similar ones from ancient glacial traprock in Wisconsin! Back in the nearly-deserted town, we explored the peaceful church and graveyard and delved into its colorful past. “Cloister” was first settled by Irish monks who fled the Vikings but left a curse on any pagans who would venture to live there. A Christian Norseman lived there happily for many years, but when a second Viking decided to move in, he surveyed his future farm and immediately dropped dead!

The site continued to have problems. A cloister set up by Benedictine nuns closed during the 16th century Reformation because two nuns were burned at stake for sleeping with the devil. A third was punished for maligning the Pope. And then, during the 1783 Laki eruptions, a wall of lava came close to wiping out the settlement. The local curate herded everyone into the old wooden church and delivered a fire-and-brimstone sermon while great chunks of ash crashed outside the windows. When the commotion stopped, the congregation stumbled out to find that they were miraculously saved. A marvelous new church commemorates this divine intervention. Laki, however, had devastated Iceland and is still considered to be one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history.

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Touching Icebergs: Vatnajökull Glacier and the Fjallsárlón Iceberg Boat Tour. Before long, we were into glacier country. We stopped to photograph the massive Vatnajökull icecap, the largest in the world (except for the polar cap). The average thickness of the ice is 1,300 feet, but it is 3,300 feet thick in some places. Excursions on the icecap were possible; we’d planned a tour by boat instead. The anticipation built as we check into Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. In the morning, we would be touching icebergs!

It was only a 20-minute drive from our hotel to the majestic Fjallsárlón iceberg lagoon at the south end of the glacier Vatnajökull. We couldn’t miss it; it was right off the Ring Road with a huge parking lot and facilities. We walked into the cabin-like office to present our tickets. A rack of foul-weather jackets in all sizes—with built-in life preservers—lined the entire wall. “You won’t be needing your sailing jacket,” the clerk said. “You’ll be plenty warm in one of these. Let’s check your size.” Soon we were suited up and ready to go. Our group filled two 8-person zodiacs. Seating was on the rim; each position had safety holds. During the safety briefing, our guide told us that our preservers would inflate immediately upon hitting water. Then he warned, “Do not fall in. If you do, you have about two minutes in this frigid water before hypothermia sets in. You could die.” Even though I’m quite used to a dinghy, I made sure I kept “one hand on the boat.” For a short time, that is. How can one take great photos with only one hand? We learned a lot about how and why glaciers “calve,” why icebergs are blue, and how the glacier expands into the lagoon during the summers and recedes during the winter. Our guide broke off a few pieces of icebergs and passed them around for us to feel and taste.

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We couldn’t get enough of the gorgeous lagoon. After we returned our jackets and donned our own, we walked around taking one photo after another. We were about to drive back when we encountered a tourist who insisted, “You must see the larger glacier lagoon. It’s only a little farther along the Ring Road.” So, we continued on.

Icebergs in Fjallsárlón Lagoon

Icebergs in Fjallsárlón Lagoon.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon did not disappoint. This lagoon is Iceland’s deepest and most spectacular glacial lake. The entire lake was full of icebergs, streaked blue and back, floating with the tide, occasionally crashing into each other and breaking apart. In less than a century, this vast frozen landscape has collapsed into a mess of shattered ice and liquid. A river soon formed, and found its way to the sea, pulling broken icebergs into the North Atlantic and sculpting unearthly shapes along its black-sand banks. Every year, this fledgling glacier lagoon is made larger as icebergs break off Vatnajökull glacier, float around in the lagoon, and eventually drift out to sea during the summer months.

What a photographer’s paradise! Holly and I were in heaven. No wonder this site was used in the opening scenes of Roger Moore’s A View to Kill (1985). Some of the icebergs were glassy teal; others, a deep, luminous blue. These shades of blue contrasted with the white background of the glacier and the black sand beach to make awesome compositions.

We had been blessed with optimum weather (for Iceland), but finally, during our return trip to Reykjavik, the rain began. We didn’t mind. We held sunshine in our hearts.

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke And Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

Iceland was far down on my bucket list. But I had promised to take my granddaughter Holly there, and in July of 2018 I made good on that promise. This country far surpassed my expectations. It is indeed “the land of fire and ice.” Volcanoes spew fire and glaciers spawn ice floes. Eventually though, this country will explode your senses; it will grab you and pull you in. But only if you dare to venture out of Reykjavik and its touristy Golden Circle to explore the hinterlands along the Ring Road. My advice: Drive around the entire Snaefellsnes Peninsula for starters. You won’t be disappointed.

Iceland

The word Snæfellsnes might seem like a bit of a mouthful, but it’s less so when it is broken down. It translates to Snow Mount’s Peninsula, a fitting name for a long peninsula tipped with a glacier on top of volcano. “Snæ” means snow; “fells” meaning mountain, and “nes” means peninsula.

Borgarnes. We had reservations for Fosshotel in the town of Stykkishólmur and our guidebook, Iceland’s Ring Road, said the trip would take three hours nonstop from Reykjavik. No problem; we would sleep in. It was still light at midnight, but we pulled the light-blocking curtains in our hotel room and tried to catch some zzzs. Still, the light came through! We decided to set out early for the second day in a row. We’d beat the traffic out of the city and buy coffee along the way. Famous last words. We could not get coffee anywhere so early. Finally, driving through the foggy fishing village of Borgarnes at the end of a rock-strewn peninsula, we discovered Café Braka. The sign said “OPEN 9 A.M.” So, we wandered through this quaint town of 2000 souls and fell in love with it. Men with metal lunchboxes trudged toward the wharf and its fish factories. Other workers bicycled to work. Storekeepers opened shuttered doors. A narrow road into the Snæfellsnes National Park led to the town’s backdrop, brooding Hafnarfjall mountain–blackened with volcanic ash. When the café opened, Holly and I savored the egg dishes and sipped cappuccinos. “This was worth it,” we exclaimed in unison. Fueled with caffeine, we continued our drive around the peninsula.

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Volcanoes, Lava Fields, Waterfalls, and Moss. What amazed me about Iceland was that no two views were the same; in one photo stop, we could see moss sprawling and oozing over lava rocks, backed by a volcanic mountain, and to the side, snow-capped peaks! Ten minutes later, we would stop again to photograph a ridge with three different waterfalls. The drive was never boring. But after the 25th waterfall, we decided we needed to limit our stops. We’d already gone 8 hours into a supposed 3-hour drive and our destination was still far away. With light until midnight, we weren’t worried about having to drive in the dark; however, the hotel restaurant might not be open late and places to eat along this part of the Ring Road were few and far between.

Hellnar. Seeing a turf-roofed Fish & Chips restaurant and a little settlement—all painted black with white trim, caused us to stop again. Later, we stopped to view the famous pitch-black Búðir Black Church.

Rauðfeldsgjá is a deep gorge that cuts into Botnsfjall, an unusual mountain. In the summertime, it is possible to hike into the crack in the mountain wall, which cleaves all the way down to the root of the mountain.

auðfeldsgjá Gorge Snaefellnoss Penninsula Iceland

Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge Snaefellnoss Penninsula.

Lóndrangar Basalt Cliffs are uniquely-formed remnants of ancient basalt volcanic dikes sticking out from the sea. Both Lóndrangar and the hill Svalthufa are the remains of a crater eroded by the sea. Legend has it that farmers in the area never made hay on the hill because it belongs to the elves living in the area. Below the hill, the poet Kolbeinn Joklaskald reportedly had an encounter with the Devil. Younger lava fields surround the old crater ruin.

lóndrangar cliffs iceland

Lóndrangar cliffs.

Skarðsvík Beach was another must-stop. Surrounded by harsh, pitch-black lava, the soft orange-yellow beach and shallow baby-blue Atlantic Ocean provided a surprising contrast. Fortunately, we visited at low tide! An intact Viking grave was found here in 1962; the skeleton and his belongings are now preserved at the National Museum of Iceland.

skarðsvík-beach

Skarðsvík Beach.

After one final waterfall stop that we couldn’t resist, we were on our way to our destination.

Waterfalls Snaefellnes Penninsula

Waterfalls everywhere in the Snaefellnes Penninsula.

Stykkishólmur. After a day of country landscapes, we were treated to this charming town, the gateway to the numerous islands dotting Breiðafjörður Bay. With all its renovated, historical buildings, this town of 1200 souls felt like a place lost in time. What once was a library is now an art installation; a fish packing house is now a restaurant; an old recreation center is now a volcano museum. The architectural structure of church in Stykkishólmur fascinated us and the view from the church over the bay took our breath away. We arrived at Fosshotel Stykkishólmur in time to change quickly for dinner. Wow! That first sip of wine was lovely!

Stykkishólmur Iceland.

Stykkishólmur Iceland.

The Long Way Back to Reykjavik. Because we didn’t want to go back the way we came, we were forced to choose 40-50 miles of gravel road. Our SUV was a four-wheel drive and the roads were well-maintained; however, there were some challenging moments. Some of the roads were quite narrow—with steep overlooks and no guardrails. Was it worth it? Yes!

Skallagrimsgardur in Borgarnes. After that exhilarating drive, we needed a rest. We ended up back in Borgarnes at Café Braka for cappuccinos and muffins. On the way back to the Ring Road, we noted a sign for a public flower garden called Skallagrimsgardur. We’re both flower-lovers, so we had to stop. We were surprised to see such an abundance of blooms. We met a colorful display around every bend in the gravel path.

We realized that—although the growing season is short—the days are extraordinarily long.

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The Tunnel Detour and the War and Peace Museum. Again, Holly and I chose the road less traveled. Instead of returning through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, (3.6 miles long and 541 feet below sea level), we took the tunnel detour. Thank God Holly is an excellent driver! The detour curving above the peninsula was scarier than the tunnel. “Just don’t look down,” I warned Holly. In addition to the view, an unexpected benefit was touring the War and Peace Museum. I never realized what a large part Iceland played for the Allies during World War II. The entire island was turned into a defensive bulwark. Farther down the road, we stretched our legs by walking to a pretty little waterfall called Fossárrétt on the grounds of an ancient Viking encampment. It was a refreshing end to tour of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke And Lois Hofmann

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s nautical adventure trilogy.

I recently took an eight-day trip to Iceland, the land of fire and ice and loads of surprises.

My granddaughter Holly and I had been intrigued about Iceland for some time. Others in our family wondered whether we had lost our minds—giving up a gorgeous summer week in Wisconsin to don warm clothes, tromp through tundra, and touch glaciers.

The joke’s on them! We came back raving about spectacular waterfalls, faithful geysers, steaming mineral baths, volcanic mountains, mysterious landscapes, turf roofs, and gorgeous flowers (yes, flowers—only the interior quarter of the country was frozen.)

Holly offered to rent a car to drive Iceland’s Ring Road. That eliminated the need to backpack our Canon Rebel cameras and bring layers of clothing on daytrips. Fortunately, we received a free upgrade to a four-wheel drive SUV Subaru Forrester, which we loaded down to “live on the road.” No group tours for us! Now we’re convinced that self-drive tours are the only way to go (during the summer). We used Reykjavik, the capital, as our home base and stayed right downtown at the Alda Hotel. That allowed us to acclimate during our arrival day and to beat the traffic to tourist sites the following days.

Thingvellir Park and Oxararfoss. The next day we awakened at 4 a.m., too excited to sleep. We opened the black light-blocking curtains. The sun was already up! By 5 a.m., we hit the road for the Golden Circle. We were surprised to have the road to ourselves. Our first stop was Thingvellir Park, which sits on a rift valley caused by the separation of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This stop overlooks the picturesque Thingvellir church alongside a meandering river. This is Iceland’s most historic site as well as a place of vivid beauty. Here, the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþingi, in 930AD. The meetings were convened annually, outdoors.

Our second stop, a waterfall called Oxararfoss, was our favorite of the day. We meandered through a canyon flanked with rocky cliffs and fissures and filled with gorgeous wildflowers. After an hour, we reached a spectacular falls. We had it all to ourselves! We sat for a while, immersed in the sounds of nature: the roar of the falls contrasting with the gurgling river below.

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During our walk back along this natural amphitheater of Pingvellir, we stopped at Law Rock, where judgements were handed down by the Alþingi, the national assembly. This grand experiment in democracy occurred at a time when the rest of Europe wallowed in rigid feudal monarchies. I was amazed to learn that this Viking system lasted, despite lapses back into chaos, for three centuries. We continued to drive round Lake Pingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake at 84 sq. km.

Map of Lake Pingvallavatn Iceland's largest lake.

Map of Lake Pingvallavatn Iceland’s largest lake.

Geysir. Stop three was the site of Geysir, which has lent its name to all water such water spouts around the world. We had soup for lunch—lamb stew for me and cream of mushroom for Holly. Afterward, we walked along a trail called “the land of boiling waters.” We passed steaming vents, bubbling turquoise pools, and multicolor mud formations—all the way hearing the loud belch and burst of the big one. We finally reached Strokkur (the churn), which shoots upwards every five minutes or so to about 20 meters (66 feet). By the second belch, our cameras were poised for action!

Gullfoss, the Greatest Waterfall. Nine kilometers (six miles) further along Route 35, we reached Iceland’s best-known natural wonder: Gullfoss (Golden Falls). We followed a path from the upper parking area, overrun with busses and vans, leading down to the deafening falls, where the River Hvita (White River) tumbles 32 meters (l05 feet) into a 2.5km (1.5-mile) ravine. One can take another trail to get within an arm’s length of the awesome flow. No way! I felt the wind rushing from above and tugging me toward the waterfall. I saw tripods tip like toothpicks. That was close enough for me. I pulled my sailing jacket close around me and tightened my scarf around my neck. Every so often, clouds of spray descended in wind gusts, forcing me to turn my back to the falls. What a spectacular view of raw nature combined with stunning beauty!

After this thrilling experience, we were ready to return to Reykjavik to rest up for another day of touring.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

We travel not for trafficking alone,
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned.
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
__James Elroy Flecker, 1913

No name is as evocative of the Silk Road as Samarkand. Founded in 700 BC, it is one of the most ancient cities of the world and the most famous city of modern Uzbekistan. In 329 BC, the city was conquered by Alexander the Great who said, “Everything I have heard about Marakanda is true, except that it is more beautiful than I ever imagined.” During the centuries that followed, Samarkand became the key trading center along the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean Sea. Fast forward to the present, and you’ll find that even after the capital was moved to Tashkent, Samarkand continued to play an important role in the region’s cultural and economic life. After Uzbekistan declared its independence in 1991, the city became an important industrial, cultural, and tourist center.

Samarkand was relatively unknown to the western world until 2001 when the city was added to the World Heritage List. The 2,750th anniversary of the city, a contemporary of Rome, was celebrated internationally by UNESCO in 2007. Today, tourists can enjoy architectural masterpieces as splendid as the greatest monuments of India, Egypt, Greece, and ancient Rome.

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Gunter and I were blown away by the Registan Square in Samarkand—arguably the most splendid sight in all of Central Asia. If I saw nothing else during the trip, I’d have seen the best. An ensemble of three majestic madrassas built during the 15th & 17th centuries form the public square, the centerpiece of the city. I loved the expanse and grandeur of the square combined with intricate carvings and exquisite blue mosaic gracing the portals and domes.

Ulugbek's Observatory

Lois and Gunter rest after touring Ulugbek’s Observatory.

We walked on to visit mosques and mausoleums that dripped blues and greens; however, we were most fascinated by Ulugbek’s Observatory, one of the great archeological finds of the 20th century. Ulugbek was more famous as an astronomer than a ruler. He built his three-story observatory to observe star positions in the 1420s; all that remains is the astrolabe’s curved track. We had seen a similar observatory in India, but our guide claimed that Ulugbek’s lab preceded that one!

Map of Samarkand and Silk Road Cities

Map of Samarkand and Silk Road Cities

Most tours of Uzbekistan begin at Tashkent, the capital, and circle around to Khiva or to Samarkand. We ended our tour with Samarkand.

Our Uzbekistan itinerary had saved the best for last. Samarkand ended our tour. Our guide and driver took us back to Tashkent, the capital, where we relaxed for a day and then flew via Turkish Airlines back to Istanbul and then to San Francisco and on to San Diego.

Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace

Lois writes in her journal in the courtyard of the Lotte City Hotel Tashkent Palace.

If You Go:

Contact Zulya Rajabova, founder and president of Silk Road Treasure Tours, Office: 888-745-7670, Cell: 908-347-4280. Her company manages independent and luxury travel tours throughout the Silk Road Countries of Central Asia, as well as to Mongolia and Georgia.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

This is the final blog in the Uzbekistan series. Lois’s next blog will be about Iceland, where she will travel next week.

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