Croatia by Land – Plitvice Lakes and Rovinj

Roger:
Sunday 28 June

Up early we were at the number one entrance to the Plitvice Lakes before nine. The lovely Irene at Villa Irene had suggested we get there before the tour bus crowds arrived. By nine we were zigzagging our way down the hill passing groups of Asian tourists wired for sound! It seems to be a thing in Croatia. Each member of a tour group has a box of a particular colour draped around their neck, a cord to one ear. Somewhere near by a guide rabbits on into a mike creating a no doubt colourful and creative story about what they are seeing.

There is a stringy eighty meter waterfall on the other side of the river. This sets the tone for what we are about experience. These lakes with their clear turquoise blue are staggered in altitude, the water flowing and seeping through the trees before dropping down mainly clay cliffs into the lake below. Trout, some quite large, swim near the edges but just out of tickling range. They must not realise that it is illegal.

We strolled from the bottom up the right side of the lakes, at times well up in the open beach forests. There are quite a few signs on the roads and carparks around here warning of bears. It is hard to describe the beauty of this area – hopefully the pictures will do that. After around four hours of walking and admiring this special place we caught the boat back down the lake. A climb up through a steep cave and a side-path to the eighty meter waterfall and our visit was over.

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 Some 30ks to the east we visited the Barac Caves. Our guide Katerina spoke excellent English with a great sense of humour. After a brief explanation of a couple of caves we couldn’t enter we arrived at the main cave. Helmets issued we waited at the mouth while she raced in to unlock the gates and turn the lights on. The cave goes in some 200m with huge stalactites hanging from the ceiling and some stalagmites protruding from the floor. In some cases these had joined up. In a pit of these 20 million year old caves speleologists had found animal bones from prehistoric lions, bears and hyenas which were much larger than their current descendants. Another pit at the back of the cave had revealed the body of a German WWII soldier. No other human remains have been found. Our guides humour and chatter made our 50 minutes pass quickly.

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A trout from the local waters at a nearby restaurant brought a day in this new found paradise to a close.


Sylvia:
Monday 29 June

We packed up this morning and left the very comfortable Villa Irene to drive to Rovinj, on the coast of Croatia in the Istria province. On the way we decided to stop and visit Kuterevo Bear Sanctuary. I had been a bit sceptical at first but we decided to visit anyway and I am very glad we did. It was a bit out of the way around some windy roads and stunning country scenery with lots of alpine-style houses all with colourful window boxes filled with flowers. Eventually we arrived in this very small town with lots of colourful painted signs. The sanctuary started in 2002 and rescues orphaned bear cubs. It is staffed entirely by volunteers and runs only on donations. The volunteers each paint a sign when they leave, hence all the colour around.

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Because the cubs are so young when orphaned they can never be released into the wild. They currently have 3 young cubs and 4 full-grown male bears that have grown up in the sanctuary. They also have 3 adult bears that have been sent to the sanctuary when zoos have shut down. We met a young kiwi volunteer, Rebecca, a very enthusiastic young woman who has been volunteering at this sanctuary for the last 3 months and is hoping to extend for a further 6 if she can resolve her visa issues. She had previously volunteered at shelters in the UK for birds of prey, wolves and monkeys. She took us to look at some of the bears and explained how things work. I was very impressed with the state of the bears and the tidiness of the enclosures. They try and feed as natural diet as possible and while we were there a group of volunteer scouts were cutting down trees to clear space for an extra enclosure. The bears seemed to be greatly enjoying chewing on the fresh leaves as they were thrown into their area.

There are about a thousand wild brown bears in Croatia, one of the largest populations of bears in Europe and the sanctuary is doing what it can to try and educate people on how to live in harmony with them.

After leaving the sanctuary we headed to a nearby town where Rebecca had recommended a place for lunch! It was certainly interesting. We wound our way up a narrow road to the top of a hill where an old monastery has been turned into a bar/restaurant that obviously gets visited by tour buses given the number of tables. It has stunning views over a valley where we could see people working their farms by hand – cutting hay with scythes and turning it over with pitch forks. It is a bit like going back in time several years. We were the only people in the place and if I had more inclination that way could have even felt a bit like we’d walked into a vampire lair or something – haunted by lost nuns perhaps given all the religious paraphernalia on the walls. We had lunch but it didn’t redeem the place.

We continued the drive to Rovinj around more windy roads with lots of switchbacks – fun for Roger, not so much for me. This included driving up the coast from Sveti Juraj through Rijeka, which provided some great views along the way. Eventually we arrived in Rovinj, a quaint seaside town with more narrow cobblestone streets and spent quite some time navigating our way around trying first to find our hotel and then the rental car place to drop the car off. Roger says I am very good at finding great, hard-to-find, boutique hotels. Villa Tuttorotto certainly fits that description, but was worth the hassle as it is lovely with its seven rooms, balcony with sea view (great for cigar smoking with a glass of bubbly) and fantastic service. We had plenty of time to relax and wander the picturesque, narrow streets before retiring for the night.

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Cruising the Adriatic – Part 2

         Roger:
Wednesday 24 June

 We had anchored for the night off an island opposite Hvar in the lee of an approaching storm.  Around eight we headed up the coast of the Hvar island. The sea was quite lumpy – Bruno the chef came up from the galley looking a little pale and sat out the ride in the saloon with the rest of the crew. Ogi the skipper paid attention to the sea in front as visibility was limited. An hour or two later we rounded the point into the Starogradski Zaljev, the inlet to Stari Grad. Stari Grad is apparently the oldest city in Europe – settled by the Greeks in 300BC.

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Tying up at a jetty just outside the now town, alongside the Hotel Arkada – originally built in the 70’s under the Tito regime. Apparently all rooms of equal size so the commoner could stay alongside the general and enjoy the same comforts. Abandoned in recent years it has now been bought and is being renovated by a hotel company.

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We enjoyed a late breakfast before a ten minute stroll into the town revealed the prettiest town we have seen in Croatia. Very old two and three storey buildings adorn small quaint cobbled alleys. We collected a walking map from the rather uninterested guy at the information centre. Heading up the hill on a track that is supposed to meet the walking track we come to a gate by a cell-phone tower. After some persuasion Sylvia agrees we need to duck through the holey, barbed-wire fence to find the walking track on the map. Through the fence on the other side we strike dense bush full of sharp vines. Abandoning the attempt to get to the tourist track we stroll back to the town. Mapping is not one of their strong points around here.

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Back at the boat Sylvia enjoys her massage as I chat to the crew over a nice bubbly. The weather is now fine as another day in paradise draws to a close, but not before an enjoyable dinner with the crew. Eighteen year old Bruno learnt to cook over the internet and really knows how to put together a great feed.

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Sylvia:
Thursday 25 June

 We were up bright and early this morning as we had planned to catch the 8am bus back to Hvar town to meet up with friends Steve and Karen and their three children. We had originally hoped Steve and Karen would be able to join us for the full cruise portion of our trip but they were unable to organise babysitters. They decided to come to Croatia (Korcula) anyway and with a bit of wrangling and some great help from Captain Ogi we had arranged to meet them in Hvar this morning (they were up even earlier, catching the ferry from Korcula) and have them join us for the remainder of the trip through to Split.

When we arrived at the bus stop a very entrepreneurial taxi driver was touting rides for the same cost as the bus so we hitched a ride with him and a young couple from Washington State, thinking we’d arrive good and early. The detail in the ferry timetables here is about as good as the detail in maps and as it turned out the ferry had docked an hour earlier than on the schedule so they were waiting for us anyway. No matter, we enjoyed catching up over coffees, cocoas and pancakes for the boys, before they all walked up to look at the Hvar fortress while Roger and I minded the bags. We then jumped in another taxi back to Stari Grad where two of the boys and I took the first dinghy back to the boat while the others explored a bit of the old city, meeting us back at Queen of the Adriatic about 30 minutes later.

All aboard, rooms sorted out and we headed to the island of Solta about a 2-hour cruise. Solta is a small island off the coast of Split. We moored in a wee bay and caught the dinghy to a small café for a late lunch before sailing around to another bay where we were able to dock for the night, tied up next to a few other boats. It was good timing, our first night at dock as we ran out of water just after arriving so could fill up easily.

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Bruno took several of us in the dinghy to a small bay where we swam, then back to the boat for some sun-bathing and general relaxing (my turn for a massage) before dinner. Tonight Igor had arranged a wine tasting with dinner but things don’t always go as planned. Poor Bruno had been planning an octopus dish but had significant challenges with the oven so the main course kept being delayed. In the end we had four courses, each with a different wine from Istria… a delicious shrimp cocktail, a cheese and cold meat platter, ice-cream sundaes, and then a fantastic octopus stew – an unusual order I know but the octopus was well worth waiting for. The wines were pretty good too. A local band was even covering some good songs in a bar across the bay providing some atmosphere for the evening.

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Roger:
Friday 26 June

Setting of from the island of Solta we headed east to the island of Brac. Bruno cracked out a great breakfast for the now seven of us. Mid-morning we rounded a headland into Bobovisca on the island of Brac – a small, but deep, bay surrounded by hills where the stone stackers have been at work over many decades on the now mostly defunct vineyards. I know I have mentioned these before but I am still staggered by these rows and rows or sometimes piles and piles of stones lifted and stacked to expose a bit of soil to plant a few vines.

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We took the dinghy to the south side of the bay where a path begins running around the inlet in front of the pretty orange and white houses. Of the hundred plus houses in this bay only around ten people live here all year. As with most villages on these islands they have holiday homes. At the back of the bay we found a narrow lane heading up hill. The clanging of a bell revealed a donkey and its newborn foal.  The top of the lane reveals a large old church and a few houses and other buildings. We headed north along a narrow but two lane road with great views over the bay and out to sea and came to a ridge overlooking the town of Lozisca. It has a tall bell tower which sparks up as we are admiring the beauty of this orange and white town. The three bells chime away for the best part of 15 minutes. Asking a local also admiring the view I am informed that this happens every noon. With interest we noted that some of the roofs in this town were covered with a slate-like rock much thicker than slate.

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The road eventually guided us back to the bay where we found a summer cafe and enjoyed a chat in the shade. Back on the boat we all enjoyed a swim. Sylvia met the challenge of leaping the three plus meters from the bow sprit into the clear blue sea.

Good friends Steve, Karen and their 3 boys have been living in the south of France for the year so. Through some great timing we are really lucky to have them join us. Karen a journo by trade writes a really great blog called Cat in My Throat. www.catinmythroat.com

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Prior to dinner Igor takes us through an olive oil tasting. Four oils are presented to us in shot glasses. Never having drunk olive oil before it was an interesting experience. One from Italy three from Croatia they varied from mellow to spicy.

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Bruno impressed us again by serving up a BBQ which included Cevapcici sausages – slightly spicy and I think made from lamb they were a great treat. We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and chatting. Steve and I were last to retire having solved a few of the world’s problems over some rather nice red wine.


Sylvia:
Saturday 27 June

After seven glorious nights our time on Queen of the Adriatic has come to an end. This morning we docked at Split and had to say goodbye to Ogi, Bruno, Igor, Matea and the boat. Steve, Karen and family had to catch the ferry back to Korcula and Roger and I had a rental car to sort out so it was farewells all around.

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After arranging the car and stowing our luggage Roger and I wandered around the old city of Split. Whilst not as clean as Stari Grad I was impressed with the old cathedral, bell tower, baptistery and the remains of the palace and city walls, some dating back to the 4th century. I always love wandering the narrow cobbled streets, finding cafes and bars tucked away into corners and never knowing what we might bump into. In one old ruin that had fantastic acoustics we came across an amazing a Capella group singing in a bid to sell a few CD’s.

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After a quick gelato stop it was time to drive to Plitvice Lakes, about a 3-hour drive. Inland Croatia doesn’t look that different from the coast around this area with lots of low scrub and hills with granite/limestone poking out the top. Closer to the Plitvice Lakes area the mountains got higher with more interesting rock formations and the trees got taller and denser. By the look of the road signs there are lots of deer and even bear around but no sign of any yet.

We checked into our apartment hotel in the small village of Seliste Dreznicko and spent the late afternoon, relaxing, catching up and reviewing maps etc in preparation for our visit to the National Park tomorrow.

Cruising the Adriatic – Part 1

Roger:
Saturday 20 June

After a great breakfast at Hotel Kazbek in Dubrovnik we took a bus to the old city.

This is the first actual city I have visited which is effectively a fort. Most such places seem to house castles. This place is indeed impressive with a still lived-in city completely surrounded by huge fortress walls built in the 1400s. We wandered around alleys and up steps and popped out through a hole in the wall to find a well-placed bar on rocks 20 plus meters above the clear green sea. The place is a maze with some alley’s leading to someone’s front door. There are lots of shops, restaurants and a couple of large churches.

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Eventually some steps lead us up to the top of the fortress wall. The chick in the box, who was a little annoyed I had interrupted her phone conversation, took 200 locals of us before the guy outside the box would let us through. Tickets in hand we headed off around the wall. From every part of it you see different aspects of both the city within and surrounding suburbs. The wall zigzags back and forward, up and down. Surrounded on nearly three sides by water the views are really cool. It took us over an hour to walk the wall as there are just so many interesting things to see. At the east side away from the sea is the highest point above the now dry moat. A funny thing I noted. Most bell towers no longer have bell ringers but electrically operated knockers to strike the bells. These guys have done it a bit better with men shaped knockers who swing a hammer to strike the bells.

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Next was supposed to be the cable car but the weather had closed it so we took a stroll back around the coast to the hotel where we spent the afternoon sorting pics and catching up.

Just before 5 we got a cab to Zator where a rubber dingy came to the wharf to pick us up. We headed out to the Queen of the Adriatic. Bugger me it was a bit bigger than I expected. The crew of this 27 meter yacht were a little surprised when only the two of us came aboard. Captain Ogi introduced us to the crew – Igor the steward, Bruno the chef, and Matea the physiotherapist/ masseuse.  Stacked with more wine, beer and spirits than we could drink in a year we cruised on up the coast sipping (well maybe sculling) champagne. I really think we might just have to pick up a couple of hitchhikers to assist us. The crew are all over us in a great way. We can feel right from the start that they want us to have just the best time.

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A light (by request) and very tasty dinner of prawns is served as we cruise into our mooring for the night off the island of Sipan. Here we sat up on the front deck watching the sun set before calling it a day.

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Sylvia:
Sunday 21 June

This morning we woke as the boat started around 7am. We cruised to the island of Mljet about four hours away. While we were cruising we had breakfast, Roger had his first massage and we generally caught up and relaxed. The countryside along the way is pretty consistently rugged hills covered with trees with granite showing near the top. We anchored in a lovely sheltered bay off the town of Polace, which has some old Roman ruins clearly visible from the boat.

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Mljet is a long thin island which has two connected “salty lakes” – actually large coves that are nearly closed to the sea. One of the lakes has an island in it with an old Benedictine monastery and church. We tendered ashore and walked over the hill to one of the lakes where we caught a small boat to the island. The water in the lake is a beautiful turquoise green and very clear. At the top of the island are more Roman ruins and an old stable, complete with donkey.

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We returned to our yacht for a HUGE lunch – I swear they are determined to have us leave this boat several kilos heavier. This required a necessary rest to digest before we did anything else. Eventually though, after laying about in the warm Mediterranean sun it was time to jump in for a swim. Roger managed a great dive off the bow!

Late afternoon we headed back to shore where we hired bicycles and rode around the lakes. This was a fairly gently ride except for the 1.5km climb each way to get over the hill. At least the climb got our blood pumping a bit. At the end of the lake we had to catch a water taxi across the opening to the sea. Roger and the boatman greatly enjoyed the bikini-clad scenery, which bent over at just the right moment.

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Back to the Queen of the Adriatic again and it was my turn for a massage. It is such an amazing thing to be up on the bow of a beautiful boat in such a lovely, peaceful location enjoying a wonderfully relaxing massage! Truly bliss!

Another quiet evening enjoying the peace and quiet, the champagne, (for Roger a cigar or two) and the company… What more could we want?


Roger:
Monday 22 June

 A bright blue sky covered us as we headed north into a strong breeze and relatively calm seas. Around ten we moored of the town of Orebic at the end of the Peljesat peninsular.  Just back from the sandy beach is a large hotel-like building. Bruno ran us carefully ashore as the water is quite shallow. We were met at the jetty by Ivo Cibilic, sales manager for the Korta Katarina winery. www.kortakatarinawinery.com

It turns out a US couple have brought what was a hotel and are restoring it. Behind it the have built a winery. When we said we were from NZ Ivo’s reply was “Nobilos from the island of Korcula -big competition. Today is a public holiday for anti-Fascist day, hence we are having a private sitting.

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We are first taken to the cellar which has the latest vats and wine making equipment from Italy. Ivo explains how the process works: the red wine having to stay settled in the vats for a long time to draw its colour and flavour from the skins; the white a quicker process. Back upstairs we inspect the shop before being led to the restaurant with its orange brick arched ceilings. Built recently with obviously great skill, I am buggered if I know how they get all the bricks to stay up there. A table has been set, complete with antipasto platter, by the window offering a picturesque view over the bay.

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Ivo presents with great enthusiasm and passion a white wine, Posip, which we taste with a tuna paté and bread. Next is their Rosé, accompanied with mussels and anchovies. Then comes a full-bodied red – Plavac Mali, accompanied with meat and vegetables. Ivo was born here and went off to study viticulture at university, returning here some years later. He explained how even as a child he drank one-finger of wine. One-finger means one finger of wine in a glass topped up with water.

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 Back on the boat I receive my daily massage from Matea as we motor the short distance to the island of Korcula. Pulling into a bay the anchor is dropped as we back into the rocky beach, lines tied to rocks each side of the stern to hold us at 90′ to the shore to make room for other boats in the small bay.

The dingy runs us around the corner into the village. On the point there is a fortress housing the old home town of Marco Polo. Back in the 1200s this was part of Italy and nearly every shop makes mention of Marco Polo and has touristy memorabilia for sale. A smaller version of the old city at Dubrovnik, this place is stunning.

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 Back on the boat we partake in our daily swim followed by Sylvia’s massage. Bruno prepares our steak dinner while on the rock behind us a woman lies naked enjoying the Mediterranean sun.


Sylvia:
Tuesday 23 June

I woke as the engines started this morning after one of those long nights where every time I nearly got to sleep a mosquito buzzed past my ear. Never mind – it’s all part of the fun. We had a five hour cruise this morning to Hvar, a large island not too far from Split. The wind was relatively strong but most of the time was coming from straight behind us so it was fairly pleasant out on the forward deck and Roger and I lazed the time away (Roger enjoyed a massage) until we reached a less sheltered area and moved down to the table at the aft while the boat rocked and rolled her way to Hvar. Nothing too serious or unpleasant but definitely some motion.

We anchored off the main city of Hvar, which is now a tourist destination with lots of bars and nightclubs. Originally it was built as a fort in the 16th century to defend the interior of the island from marauding pirates and invaders, although there have been defences in this area since the first half of the 1st millenia BC and was the site of a Byzantine citadel in the 6th century AD. Houses and shops have only been built near the sea since the 1800’s.

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We walked up to the fort and explored the towers and dungeons. The views from the fort, like from all the others we have seen were stunning, the deep blue and turquoise of the sea, contrasting with the white houses, orange roofs and vermillion bougainvillea . The prisons were particularly austere, small cells deep below the fort with a tiny window and a thin chimney for ventilation. I cannot imagine how uncomfortable it must have been to have been imprisoned there.

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 We had decided we needed to have a bit of exercise to walk off some of the very tasty, but huge, meals that Bruno has been preparing for us. At 18 years old he is incredibly mature and has a wicked sense of humour. He seems to really understand flavour and last night prepared an amazing bruschetta, followed by the most incredible steak with gorgonzola sauce, all finished with chocolate fondants with vanilla ice-cream. From the town we had seen another fort higher up, this one built by Napoleon, now an observatory. We made our way through the bush behind the original fort down the slope to a small valley where we walked along a road until we came to the path up the hill. There were even better views from the top and it was great to have the opportunity to stretch our legs a bit although I found the heat somewhat challenging. It is interesting that Roger seems to be adjusting to the warmer temperatures better – he must have an incredibly efficient thermostat!

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 We made our way back down the road to the port where we were met by a guide who took us for a drive across the island to another wine tasting. We were both in awe of the hard work that has gone into this island. It is an incredibly stony place and all over the island the stones have been painstakingly cleared and piled up into small walls and terraces to clear land. This was originally planted with grapes but there was a parasite in the late 1800s that wiped most of the grapes out. Much of the country has now gone to scrub but there are parts where they still grow grapes, others where they have olive trees and in a few areas lavender. All needs to be planted and maintained by hand and the ground continually cleared of stones.

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 We arrived at the Dubokovic winery and had the opportunity to taste one rosé, two white, three red and one dessert wine. I think the only one we really liked was the dessert wine, Prosek, which means first kiss. We also sampled some local olive oil that is infused with different herb oils – rosemary, basil, sage and chilli.

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 Bruno met us at the port and took us back to our boat. It was my turn for a massage – incredibly relaxing after all the walking today – before dinner, luckily a much lighter affair tonight.

We are now about half way through our time away. When I look forward it seems short but when I reflect back it seems a very long time since we arrived in Norway. Regardless, we are having a wonderful time and I cannot remember feeling quite so relaxed.

Turkey: Istanbul and Gallipoli

Roger:
Tuesday 16 June

The day began at 5am with the weird sound from the speakers from the surrounding local mosques. Opening one of the little boxes beside the bed containing ear plugs I realised why. The hotel Neorian provided an interesting selection of Turkish breakfast. This included everything from dates, nuts, mixed vegetables, cheeses, fruit, meats and eggs to a good selection of breads.

Our guide Ilke was waiting in reception to accompany us to the hippodrome, originally a sports stadium where chariot racing took place under the Romans. The obelisk, a statue which came from Egypt, was erected there by slaves who pulled it up by ropes in AD390 in about 28 days. It still stands today.

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Next was the Blue Mosque. Built by one of the Ottoman Sultans in the 1800’s it has 6 minarets. He got in a bit of strife for this as only Mecca is allowed 6 minarets so he had a seventh built and sent it to Mecca – problem solved. This place is huge with large domes and running water at taps outside to allow folk to wash feet, hands and face before entering. There is an upstairs gallery for woman who even now cannot pray with the men. Sorry feminists. The gallery is now closed as people started stealing the Izmit tiles (of which there are thousands), which were the last made by a famous factory. They now sell for upwards of 5k pounds each in London. The women now pray in a screened off area at the back on the ground floor.

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Next stop was the pink mosque or Hagia Sofia. This was originally a Christian church built in the 300’s (even bigger than the blue mosque) and was then converted to a mosque some centuries later. All the paintings and drawings were whitewashed over and later plastered over as they are not permitted in a Mosque. Now a museum, many of the paintings including some impressive mosaics are being uncovered and restored. There are hollows in the marble by the huge doors where guards stood. An impressive cobblestone ramp takes us to the upper balcony where the women prayed as one of the sultan’s wives refused to be carried up stairs.

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Next was the cistern (reservoir) built around 400AD. This held 85 thousand tons of water to supply the palace and mosque in case of a siege. The water came by viaduct from a forest 19km out of town. With huge columns and arched ceiling it is a real feat of engineering. In one area columns are stood on large blocks with Medusa’s head carved into them – obviously pulled down from somewhere and reused here.

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People lived here in caves back as far as 8000 BC. As Constantinople it was ruled by the Romans for centuries and at one point (the Byzantine era) was the capital of the Roman Empire. The Turks migrated here from East Asia, as far away as India and China, around 600 BC. The Ottoman Empire rose after the demise of the Romans.

They brought in slaves from as far away as Romania and parts of northern Africa, educating them and converting them to Muslims to build their population and empire.

Next we caught a ferry from near the spice markets. What seems like a river is really the Bosporus Strait, 30km long and connecting the Marmaras Sea with the Black Sea. This was a good way to get a bigger feel for this city of 14+ million people. Up on the hills in parts houses and flats look like they are squeezed in. In the distance numerous cranes tower over new 30+ story apartment blocks. Close to the water are many mansions, shops and restaurants. Two large suspension bridges cross the water. This strait is the dividing line between the Asian and European continents.

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At the second bridge the boat turned back, dropping us off half way back on the Asian side. From there we took a ferry across to the Ottoman Sultan’s summer palace which turned out to be a rather flash pad. Built in the 1860’s it has nearly 300 rooms, 60-odd bathrooms, 40 hallways and huge entertainment areas. Each room or hall we entered had a magnificent chandelier, the biggest weighing over 4 tonnes. Behind the palace is a building that housed around 200 princes and the harem of around 200 want-to-be first ladies.  That Sultan must have been a rather busy chap.

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Leaving our guide we took a tram back to the spice markets. Not only do they have piles of colourful spices but gold and silver jewellery and many other products for sale as well.

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In the evening we headed to the roof top of the Adamar Hotel where we watched the sun go down with a great view over the city while enjoying a romantic dinner for two.

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The funniest thing I saw all day was a group of women in a full burkah with only slits for their eyes, one wearing sunglasses and carrying an iPhone and selfie-stick.


Sylvia:
Wednesday 17 June

 After another Turkish breakfast this morning we wandered up the hill to visit Topkapi Palace a huge group of buildings that was initially built in the mid-1400’s as the home of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed. There are huge ornate gates, a massive palace where all the official meetings were held and the harem area where the wives and concubines lived, looked over by the black eunuchs. There was also separate housing for the crown princes (sons of the sultan). We opted to wander around on our own and started with the palace kitchens with their huge pots and pans as well as some lavish dishes and platters. Neither of us was overly interested by the room with all the Muslim relics – many swords and things belonging to the prophet including supposedly the staff of Moses. However we both really enjoyed the armoury with its elaborately decorated swords, daggers, bows, quivers, guns and armour.

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The harem area was also very interesting with loads of coloured tiles on many of the walls and stained glass in some areas. I think I would have got tired of all the detail and longed for something plain after a while. Interestingly, the concubines were some of the only women in Muslim history to be educated as the Sultan did not want his potential offspring to be the children of uneducated women.

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Overall I was just blown away by the obvious wealth and opulence.

Our next activity was to drive the 350-odd kilometres to Gallipoli. I must admit to being quite happy to let Roger do most of the driving, particularly in Istanbul. It is a pretty busy city and the traffic just seems to merge, stop and start with no real sense of order. It took me a few minutes to get the GPS working and there was nowhere for us to stop so Roger just had to drive, deciding to head towards Fatih as it kind of looked like faith. Good call – it ended up being the right road.

Driving out of Istanbul we passed huge apartment buildings, some still in construction, some painted in rainbow colours and several very plain all looking the same. As we got out of the city I had expected quite dry, barren and somewhat rugged land and was pleasantly surprised to see field after field of golden wheat, interspersed with green fields of what looked to be potatoes and the odd patch of darker green woods. This, with the odd glimpse of the Marmaras Sea or later the Dardanelles made for quite a picturesque journey and once out of the city the traffic eased and we made good time on a four-lane highway.

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We stopped just past Tekirdag to try the local specialty, kofte – spicy meatballs that look more like sausages to us and come about 8 to a plate with salad and bread. Very tasty but way too much for lunch! We drove past Gelibolou, which is the town at the beginning of the Gallipoli peninsular and on to our accommodation for the next couple of days, the Gallipoli Houses. This is a small guest house close to the ANZAC cove area run by a Belgian man and his Turkish wife. As it is a fair distance from anywhere they provide breakfast and a four course dinner which provides a good opportunity to meet the other guests, on this occasion a few rather large, loud Aussies and a couple of English people.


Roger:
Thursday 18 June

 It’s 3am at the Gallipoli Houses. We are woken by what sounds like a naval barrage. It’s the loudest and longest barrage of thunder I can recall with lightning lighting the whole room while the thunder is continuous.

At 5am Mohammad sparks up on the local mosque speakers. It’s not a song and not a poem and of course I can’t understand a word of it.

Over 30 cemeteries were built on the Gallipoli peninsular containing the remains of 19,000 commonwealth servicemen, of whom only 6,000 were identified. A further 2,500 who were believed to be buried are commemorated in the cemeteries with Special Memorials. The remainder of those buried in unknown graves, or whose remains were never found make up the 27,000 named on six different memorials in the area. Unlike in Flanders, unnamed burials are not marked so there are large open areas in some of the cemeteries.

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Around 9am we headed off to ANZAC Cove. We drove up and back along the shore past the many cemeteries and memorials. Then up the loop road stopping at Lone Pine cemetery where a large monument stands in honour of the fallen. We took a stroll down a track to try and get an appreciation for the ground. Heading further up the loop road we stopped at Johnston’s Jolly and Quinn’s Post where there are still out lines of both Turkish and Anzac trenches only meters apart.  There are many Turkish memorials and cemeteries along the road, some of which we stopped at. All the huge Turkish flags are flying at half-mast today in honour of Suleyman Demireal a past leader of Turkey who died yesterday.

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After a few more stops we arrived at Chunuk Bair. Here the New Zealand monument stands, built so it could be seen from the sea as when it was built the powers that were thought no one would visit it. We took a stroll some 500 meters down the hill to Farm Cemetery, a well-kept piece of ground in the middle of this rugged and scrubby land. It is sad to see the head stones, designed by Scottish Architect Sir John Burnet are now starting to show wear from rain and hail. They were designed as a box to cater for the soft ground. Unfortunately I doubt most of the names will be unreadable in another hundred years.

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Continuing down the loop road past more Turkish memorials we reached the Kabatepe Museum. It is interesting to note the first Turkish memorial did not appear until the 1990’s. This recently developed museum, although lacking continuity, has some fantastic displays and is well worth a visit.

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Heading back to the Cove we took a stroll up to Plugges Plateau where more people are buried. Continuing up the ridge some way we dropped down into Shrapnel Valley making our way down the creek through the scrub coming out at the cemetery.

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We continued along to the ANZAC commemorative site situated by the beach. Strolling along the beach and looking up into the steep ground above I now have a much greater appreciation of how difficult it must have been to fight up through the gullies onto the ridges behind. This is something that one can never appreciate looking at pictures, watching documentaries or reading books. Furthermore as noted at Flanders we will never really appreciate what those brave men went through.

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We then headed south to the Helles area. I understand my grandfather was at the landing at W Beach now named Lancashire Landing.  He was commissioned in the field there. Many of the officers were killed during the landing. We parked the car at the west end of the Lancashire area and strolled across the tops of the steep banks rising 30 to 50 meters almost vertically from the sea. There are a number of circular brick structures which may have been gun emplacements. Over a kilometre to the east we were suddenly looking down onto W beach. Approximately 200m wide with high ground on each side – back then layers of barbed wire were stretched across the beach. The men were towed close to shore in row boats and cut loose to row ashore. With heavy machine gun and rifle fire coming from the high ground all around it is astonishing how anyone even made it ashore let alone through the wire.

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Six Victoria Crosses were awarded at W beach that morning. My grandfather, David Price-Owen survived Gallipoli, going on to Palestine as a British officer in the Bengal Lancers. He rode in a large cavalry attack, apparently with Lawrence of Arabia in 1918. He stayed on in the Bengal Lancers, based at the Khyber Pass, until medically retired from the army and given six months to live in 1922. He lived until he was over 80.

New Zealanders fought and perished from Helles in the south right up to Suvla in the north not just at ANZAC cove as many people perceive. “We must remember them”.

We headed back up the east side of the peninsular watching many large ships heading in and out of the Dardanelles. Along the way there is a fourteenth century fort at the narrowest part of the channel. There are a huge number of statues and cemeteries around the Peninsular commemorating the Turkish involvement as well.

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As we walked in for dinner a lady we had met briefly the previous evening and seen breakfasting with Sir Peter Jackson that morning asked us to join her for dinner.

Anita Young, an abstract artist here painting scenes of Anzac cove, is the granddaughter of the legendary Lieutenant Colonel Malone who fought and died at Chunuk Bair. Sir Peter had flown her here in his private jet, we think partly as thank you for sharing her grandfather’s diaries and letters with him and also as he is probably a good bloke who appreciates the sacrifices people have made. We had a very interesting time chatting to Anita about her grandfather’s exploits, the plight of her grandmother, her painting and her contribution to the WWI exhibition now on at Te Papa. Her website is www.anitayoung.co.uk.


Sylvia:
Friday 19 June

 I lucked out and got another travel day and am very glad I didn’t have to write about yesterday as I found it quite challenging. I am incredibly glad to have had the opportunity to visit both Gallipoli and the Western front this trip but I am hugely saddened by the seeming waste of healthy young lives. I have also come away with a bit of a passion for the need for more education around the wars. I was woefully ignorant about what went on. Most New Zealanders will have heard of Gallipoli and will know that we lost a lot of men there. We remember the landings every ANZAC day. Even though we talk about commemorating all soldiers on ANZAC day we make very little mention of the Western front and many more of our soldiers died there. I suspect many kiwis have never even heard of Passchendaele and it was there that NZ suffered its highest ever casualty rate in a single day from any disaster. The opportunity to visit these places and experience even in only a small way what our soldiers experienced is a huge privilege.

This morning we had breakfast with Anita again and she was kind enough to show us some of her paintings and some photos dating back to 1915 when the war was underway. We will look forward to seeing more of her work when we get to Te Papa to see Peter Jackson’s exhibition there – she recommends early next year when it should be finished.

We headed back to Istanbul for our flights, first to Zagreb and then on to Dubrovnik, driving first past ANZAC cove again and through the Suvla area. The drive seemed quicker somehow and went very smoothly with only a wee challenge in finding the rental car drop off which required a few circuits of the airport. Perhaps it was the detailed discussion of the workings of hand-grenades that helped pass the time.

The two flights were fairly painless – the first slightly delayed which meant a pretty short layover in Zagreb. We were met at the airport in Dubrovnik and transferred to our hotel for the night. It was dark when we arrived but we could still appreciate the prettiness of the town. Our driver was very enthusiastic and informative. Dubrovnik is apparently a very safe town with tourism being the major industry of Croatia. Unfortunately though, the country has a very high rate of unemployment, which means many of the young people are leaving the country. He also gave us a good run down on the recent home wars and the different makeup of the countries that were once part of the old Yugoslavia: Montenegro, primarily Greek Orthodox; Croatia, primarily Roman Catholic; Bosnia-Herzegovina, primarily Muslim; and Serbia, predominantly Serbs. He said that things seemed to be relatively settled here and expressed hope that the current generation would be more sensible than their parents.

Having moved the clock forward an hour when we hit Turkey we have moved it back again now we are in Croatia – the same time zone as Belgium. This will be the last time on our trip that we put the clocks back. From now on in, any time-zone changes will be forward, closer and closer to home time.

London and Belgium

 Roger:
Friday 12 June

A late relaxing start to the day. The Charlotte St hotel where we are staying has a great breakfast in its well decorated restaurant. It was a good chance to catch up on a few things before heading off to the Tower. As with most people from out of London we found the tube (train) system very efficient.

Arriving at the Tower of London we joined a tour with one of the 35 Beefeaters. This ex-army Warrant Officer was quite a hard case and very good at telling the many stories about the tower.  Pointing out Tower Hill where most of the executions took place he explained how after the head had been chopped off it was stuck on a pike, carted through the streets and placed by the river to deter wannabe bad buggers. The headless bodies were buried in the chapel. One guy did get to keep his head as it was recovered and sewn back on. Someone had realised after the event that they didn’t have a painting of him.

The tour continued through the grounds finishing in the chapel. The tower was built by William the Conqueror in 1078 as his residence. It was mainly used as a prison from the 1100s on. After the tour we watched the changing of the guards then went for a look through the tower. I was last here in 1984 when, from memory, there were racks and racks of various weapons and armour throughout the tower. Now it is more of a museum with lots of arty type displays and exhibits. I think I preferred the old set up. Obviously the tourist dollar rules.

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Next was the crown jewels. A long queue lead us through passageways with displays and sometimes movies on the walls. Eventually passing through a couple of very substantial safe doors weighing 2 tons each we entered a chamber of  wealth. The collection is amazing – from huge gold plates to emerald studded swords and crowns. A conveyor takes you past the main stuff. No photos allowed. A stroll around the walls of the outer fort walls constructed later concluded our tour. I highly recommend a tower visit for those that haven’t been.

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Later that evening we were sitting outside the hotel enjoying a drink when along came Dave – a well-to-do chap from Manchester, in town visiting his actor son. Dave was somewhat upset that this son had come to see him wearing cheap, non-branded sunglasses. So upset in fact that he had given him his Raybans!!


Sylvia:
Saturday 12 June

 Today was another travel day. Another delicious breakfast at our Charlotte St Hotel and we were off to catch the Eurostar to Belgium. Despite the requirement to check in 45 minutes early it was a quick and painless process and we were soon underway – the countryside, first of the UK, then the chunnel, France and finally Belgium whipping by at a mere 320 kmph. We arrived in Brussels just after 2pm, only 2 hours after leaving London.

Our first taste of the Belgian psyche came when we went to pick up our rental car to be told the office closed at 2pm. When I explained that I had been clear about our time of arrival and the fact I was coming on the train when I booked, the woman seemed nonplussed – “Lots of people say they are coming on the train when they are not”! Nonetheless she begrudgingly checked us in, eventually warming up and even gracing us with a smile before we left.

We were planning to go and see Kirstie in a cycle race at about 4:30pm and thought we’d have just enough time to drive to Bruges, check into the hotel and drop our bags off and still make it to the race. Things were not to be quite so simple – there were roadworks in the street next to the hotel and we could not access. Bruges has lots of very narrow, and often one-way, streets and we ended up spending at least 45 minutes driving around trying to find the hotel, including at one stage finding ourselves in a dead-end street having to reverse out past a large Mercedes van and a number of parked bicycles with loads of pedestrians and cyclists giving us dirty looks. We eventually arrived at the hotel and were told in no uncertain terms – “we emailed you to let you know about the roadworks and how to get to the hotel” – oops, my bad!

By this stage we were clearly late for Kirstie’s race so dropped the bags and headed back out to drive to Besele-Waas, unfortunately encountering severe delays due to roadworks. We arrived at about 5:30pm just in time to see Kirstie race past at the front of the third peloton before her whole group got dropped from the race. No matter, Roger enjoyed a couple of Belgian beers while we waited for Kirstie to cool down and have a shower and then we all headed back to Bruges for the night.

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Bruges is a beautiful city with a long history and some gorgeous buildings dating back to the 13th century. We had a typically Belgian dinner at the square and enjoyed catching up on all Kirstie’s news.


Roger:
Sunday 14 June

We wandered down to the rather picturesque square in Bruges. Some artist has stuck a big mirror sculpture in the middle which stuffs it up a little. Youngest daughter Kirstie and her friend Tamara who had driven over from Holland were there to meet us. Kirstie, now a NZ Track Cyclist, is riding for a local road cycling team for a few weeks during the off season. The breakfast at one of the many cafes in the square was huge. Tamara had brought a book along she had had done with all the photos of her and her boyfriend Tom’s recent trip to NZ in it. We dropped Kirstie off at her place in Aalst as she had to train and study for an exam for her Masters in Sports Psychology.

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We drove to Ypres to visit the Flanders Museum – In Flanders Fields. It took us a bit of looking around to find it. We had not realised it was in a large ancient church-type building. I hadn’t realised that the whole town here had been wiped out during World War I. What looked like a large Gothic church turned out to be the museum – originally built in around 1300, completely destroyed during the war then rebuilt completely after the war as an act of defiance to the Germans. We climbed the 230 odd steps to the tower where there is a breathtaking view over the city and surrounding farm land. This gives one a true appreciation of the extent of devastation this whole area suffered. The town has been rebuilt in the same style of houses and buildings that existed before the war maintaining the quaintness of this Belgian area.

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 The museum gave us some appreciation of the hardships suffered by not only the soldiers but also the civilians during the three odd years the battles stagnated over this land. There are many screens here where a character comes forward and tells their story then fades into the darkness as another appears. Most of these stories are from letters written by solders nurses and doctors from both sides. Weapons and uniforms from both sides are on display.

From there we drove to the Passchendaele Memorial Museum. This is situated on the historic and stunning grounds of the chateau of Zonnebeke. Adjacent to the museum is a small fishing lake. Entering what looked like a small building we were treated to a maze of passageways and exhibits. Gaining an appreciation for the different armies and regiments that fought here and the courage and bravery of men. There is an excellent representation of weapons from the smallest pistols and knives to large artillery guns and shells. All sorts of other kit and tools are also well laid out. Sections for each country display badges, uniforms, and campaign and gallantry medals awarded during the campaign.

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Heading down some steep steps we find ourselves in a representation of the underground bunkers where officers and men, at times, lived to stay protected from the constant shelling. Basic operating theatres, cooks, blacksmiths bunk rooms commander’s quarters and much more is all represented here. Eventually this led us out into the trenches – a great representation of how each army built their trenches. As we moved through some hundred meters of different styles of trenches and materials used we got a small appreciation of how men fought, died or survived.

Missing is the mud, rats, cold, constant shelling, sniper fire, going over the top, watching mates fall injured and dead alongside you, and much suffering the stupid decisions made by senior British officers and generals. We can only respect the sacrifice that so many people made and still do so we can maintain our freedom. Lest We Forget.

Close by is Tyne Cot Cemetery. This was the German front line for some time. It was captured by the Australians in October 1917 and used as an aid station. 340 soldiers who died of their wounds were initially buried there. Between 1919 and 1921 it was extended to a full cemetery. Of the nearly 12,000 buried there only 3,800 are known by name. We wandered the rows of grave stones, all well maintained with flowers growing in front of them. We spotted many head stones with the fern on them representing NZ soldiers. Most had no names. There are over 500 New Zealanders buried here. On the back wall there are some 35,000 names of solders who perished and their bodies have never been identified.  New Zealand personnel of which there are hundreds have their own alcove.

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 When I think about the devastation that prevailed on these people fighting for king and country, initially largely with inexperienced officers and newly trained men, I cringe every time politicians reduce our defence spending. Lest we forget.

Having run out of day we headed back to Bruges in time to catch the last horse carriage ride from the square around this old and beautiful city. Many buildings date back to the 1200s. Gentle curves in streets would indicate it was originally built from the river front. Some 12km of canals were added, 4 of which are still in use as a tourist attraction. The horse clip clopped over the cobble stones at a fast trot. People waved and took photos. I endeavoured to do a royal wave back. We stopped while the horse was rested and refuelled. The lady driver gave us a very scripted talk about various buildings but was reluctant to be drawn into conversation. Of note the council building was built in the 1300s and could be easily mistaken for a church with its gothic look.

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Sylvia:
Monday 15 June

It seems I have lucked out and landed all the travel days for this blog. Makes for quick, easy writing. We had a straight-forward drive to the airport in Brussels this morning which meant plenty of time at the airport before our flight to Istanbul. A good chance to catch up on blogs, photo-editing etc.

The flight to Istanbul passed without event and we picked up our rental car. We encountered a bit of a delay while we got the GPS sorted so it could be read in English and then heavy traffic on the way into the city. In the end, it took us longer to get from the plane to the hotel (about 44kms) than it did to fly to Istanbul from Brussels – over 3 hours in fact. So it was with relief that we got checked in and wandered to a nearby café for a quick bite to eat. Our hotel is located right in the heart of old Istanbul near the Grand Bazaar and other major attractions. Should make for a good day of sight-seeing tomorrow.

North and West Iceland

Sylvia:
Tuesday 9 June            

It was beautifully sunny when we woke up this morning and it seemed the wind had died down a bit – at least it did until we decided to wander across the road to look at the pseudo craters a bit more closely. Still definitely windy! The pseudo craters are formed when hot lava meets a lake or pond and there were several perfectly formed ones just over the road from the hotel.

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We headed off, stopping briefly at Godafoss, a large horseshoe shaped waterfall. We have seen so many waterfalls on this trip with snowmelt water cascading down cliffs everywhere, sometimes in thin trickles and others in mini-torrents. Godafoss was one of the few we have seen where the water was not crystal clear.

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We carried on along Route 1, taking a wee detour on Route 83 to visit Laufas, a well-preserved 19th century farm that has been developed as a museum. I loved exploring the turf houses complete with numerous period belongings. I was particularly taken with the beds which reminded me of the seven dwarf’s beds from Snowhite – particularly as they were in one of the upstairs rooms.

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We had a great chat with a young woman at the café next door who gave me an excellent lesson in the Icelandic language. No wonder I have found it complicated – not only are their 32 letters but even she says the rules on how things are pronounced are not consistent. And to make it even more challenging they have “bendy nouns” – a place or thing has a different name if you are there or if you are going there or leaving there. But at least I can now say Pingvellar (the name of the old Viking parliament place we visited on day 1) properly – and it is nothing like what it looks like – pronounced “thing-vet-lick”.

We carried on through Akureyri, where we stopped briefly at the Aviation museum, and then around Trollaskagi or the Troll Peninsular. This is another stunning peninsular with a number of long tunnels – we went through a 3km single lane tunnel, then a 7km two way, followed nearly immediately by a 4km two way and then later by another slightly shorter single lane one. The single lane ones had plenty of passing bays but still took a lot of focus.

We stopped in Dalvik, a tiny fishing town for some delicious Icelandic fish soup, which always seems to be served with an endless supply of fresh, homemade bread and butter.

We arrived at our hotel in Saudarkrokur fairly early. The hotel itself was in an old 18th century building but our room was in the slightly newer annex next door. The bed was made up beautifully with the towels folded as swans on the end. We decided to head up route 748 to see if we could arrange a trip to Drangey Island for some puffin watching but no luck. Instead we settled for a quick soak in the natural Grettislaug hot pools – pleasantly warm but a bit slimy for my taste.

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We had dinner in a small restaurant back in Saudarkrokur, Olafshus, where we tried the Icelandic Country Platter – a mix of foal steak, beef tenderloin and lamb. Despite my misgivings the foal steak was delicious!


Roger:
Wednesday 10 June

As we head west out of Saudarkrokur on Route 744 Sylvia has a different appreciation of the foals grazing on the roadside. Last night we had had a superb meal at Olafshus restaurant which included a very tasty foal steak.

We stopped at Blonduos for a coffee where we met a Utah couple who were touring on a BMW motorbike they had hired.

Continuing south we turned east on to route 50 then 518 to the Hraunfossar Falls. These are not specular but interesting as the water gushes out the side of the volcanic rock into the river forming a spring some 75m long. There is definitely no water shortage in this part of the world.

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As we head up the valley we pass numerous farms with their large stock barns. Horses are more prominent than sheep in this area. Like most parts of this country farms seem to be carved out of swampy land with deep ditches running at the sides, ends and sometimes through the middle of the paddocks. Often ditches have been freshly cleaned out and the soil spread over the surrounding land. Ditch diggers have to be the rich guys around here. There are around 4.5 million sheep and 80,000 horses in this land. That’s one horse for every four people.

We head further east onto route 518, a shingle road heading up to the Surtshelli volcanic caves or tunnels stretching over 2kms with periodic openings. You’re supposed to be able to walk most of the way through them. With sharp jagged rock falls inside and icy snow some distance inside them we only did a few hundred meters underground. Sylvia demonstrated her rock climbing skills climbing a 3 m rock face to exit through the first opening. I had to follow.

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Our plan was to head south on 550 but a sign told us it was closed. The many shingle roads here are really well maintained and easy to drive. Just now many are being graded I presume in preparation for the summer tourists. We headed west to the coast following it south. Around Hvalfjorour we passed a number of disused but well maintained fuel storage tanks. This area, it turned out, was a large allied naval refuelling base during WWII. There are also remnants of military buildings and gun emplacements around the fjord.

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Arriving in Reykjavik we headed to the waterfront for a meal. We tried the tasting dish which included Minke whale. Very tasty it is. For all you “save the whale” folk, minke are a well-managed fishery in and around Iceland and Norway. Even the naturalists on the National Geographic Explorer seemed to agree with their harvesting.

In summary Iceland is a rugged land of intriguing beauty. One can appreciate the effort and hardship people must endure to live here. Even the basic things you see around the country homes such as heavily insulated water pipes and sewerage lines are just a small illustration as to how harsh the winters must be here.


Sylvia:
Thursday 11 June

Ever since we arrived in the Arctic I have been on the look-out for puffins and although we saw a few up near Svalbard they were very distant so this morning we had organised a one-hour puffin watching trip around an island in the Reykjavik harbour. There was only one other guest on board the small boat and we departed right on time at 9:30am. Within 15 minutes we were circling the island with many puffins in view, some sitting on the water, others flying and several on land standing in front of their burrows. They used to be hunted here but have been protected for the last 10+ years and seemed pretty comfortable with the boat. Apparently they are still hunted in the north of Iceland. We also saw black guillemots, eider ducks, arctic terns and northern fulmars before heading back to shore bang on 10:30.

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We had a quick wander around the harbour – interestingly several of the older houses here are clad in corrugated iron – and stopped at the viking monument along the shore.

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Before flying out to London we did a short circuit of the Reykanes Peninsular to the southwest of Reykjavik. We did a drive-by of the Blue Lagoon, one of Iceland’s most well know tourist spots, but at 60 euro per person for a hot soak I thought it was more than a little ridiculous, despite the beautiful blue water contrasting with the lava landscape. We also passed a couple of large geothermal areas and wandered briefly along the continental divide between the American and the European continental shelves.

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After an uneventful flight to London we took the metro to arrive at our Charlotte Street Hotel. We were on the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters, which was announced at each of the 17 stops between the airport and our hotel, much to the amusement of the American woman in the carriage opposite us.

That is the end of the Arctic and Iceland leg of our journey. Several people commented when we were in Iceland and they found out we were from NZ, why have you come here – it is the same back home. From my perspective there are similarities yes – geothermal activity, sheep, lots of coastline etc but also significant differences and I am very glad to have made the trip. Now on to the beginning of the next chapter in our travels….

Eastern Iceland

Sylvia:
Sunday 7 June

 We woke to a glorious sunny day and set off from Hofn heading up the Northeast coast to Egilsstadir. (The Iceland language is incredibly tricky with lots of funny vowels and letters that sound like something else. For example Hofn is pronounced Hopn, Pingvellar is prounounced Thingvellar – all very confusing).

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The guidebook, which has a tendency to rather over-use superlatives, described this area as the most stable with the same beautiful fjords, waterfalls, mountains etc only in even more majestic proportions… The scenery certainly is impressive, even if it doesn’t quite live up to the guidebook descriptions.

We took a brief detour to Stokksnes with some great views over a very calm sea towards the glacier and mountains. Unfortunately the road to the end now requires payment to the owners who have set up a viking café. We decided to continue on instead. Alongside the road, steep shingle banks (something we became very familiar with over the course of the day) lead up towards craggy peaks that looked like they could easily slide down the slopes on top of the scree.

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We left behind the whooping swans and greylag geese of the lagoons in favour of the eider ducks and oyster catchers of the fjords. The plains gave way to steep mountains, often topped in pyramid or cone shaped peaks and all striped from the layers of basalt. We also saw a lot more sheep, a lot fewer Icelandic horses and even a few reindeer.

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We arrived at the small fishing village of Djupivogur and stopped for traditional Icelandic fish soup and delicious carrot cake at a lovely café in an 18th century building by the harbour. As we were driving out we stopped to photograph a series of sculptured eggs atop posts beside the harbour – sculpted by a local artist to represent all the birds of the local area.

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We then wound our way up and down a number of small fjords passing some quaint fishing towns and one rather odorous one with a large factory on the wharf. We stopped at Reydarfjordur to visit a War Memorabilia museum. There were a number of Nissan huts and old WWII vehicles as well as some good dioramas depicting scenes from the war when the allies used the town as a base. There were a couple of very interesting women taking money for tickets etc – almost like something out of the movie “Deliverance”. They were quite harmless though and resumed their card playing as we wandered around the exhibits.

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Early evening we arrived in Egilsstadir and had some fun trying to find our hotel. The GPS kept directing us to a very dilapidated looking building and I was getting a little concerned but when we finally gave up and went to check the building was most of the way through restoration and had in fact only opened 2 days earlier. The room was small but clean but the restaurant was not yet operating so we headed into town for dinner at a small café with some great “healthy” pizza.

Roger has attracted a number of sideways glances over the last few days from people wrapped up in gloves, hats, ski-jackets and hiking boots who don’t seem to be able to believe their eyes when they see this bloke wandering around in shorts and jandals. He does deign to put on his jacket every now and then but regularly comments on how warm it is when we pass temperature signs stating 7-degrees. I am definitely looking forward to warmer climes when we get to the rest of Europe but am not sure he will enjoy them as much.


Roger:
Monday 8 June

An average breakfast at the newly opened but not quite finished Valaskjalf hotel in Egilsstadir, set us on an interesting journey into the high country. Heading northwest on highway number one we viewed some pretty barren country with hints in places of the Central Plateau in NZ. Large areas of just rock, volcanic shingle, stunted shrubs and the odd excuse for a tree.

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Turning west onto route 901 we headed through the high country farms. At 400 odd metres above sea level there is still lots of snow on the hills above us. Remembering that Iceland, although just below the Arctic Circle, is considered part of the Arctic as the average temperature in July doesn’t get above ten degrees. As with coastal lands, every now and then there are green grass paddocks mostly with deep ditches running around and through them. It seems that anywhere that grows anything more than a few weeds here is swampy ground. Like the rest of the farms there is no sign of irrigation, the green must come from good hardy grasses and fertiliser. The wintering stock sheds up here are huge.

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The guide book’s wine-bottle description of this land goes “on a clear day the lack of vegetation on this route is compensated for by the fascinating vistas, featuring remote lakes, rocky passes and rushing streams. But, when the rain shadows and mist descends, obscuring the view, the atmosphere becomes charged with eerie presence, creating the brooding mood and scenery that ghost stories are made of!”

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Funny thing is after finding route 907 to the south closed we arrived at Morudalur, one of the earliest settled farms around here, now with modern turf roofed buildings a 1949 church and a cafe. The girl in the café, working there for the summer, had just completed her degree in creative writing – maybe she will be writing guide books one day.

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Getting back onto route 1 we headed northwest to route 864. Five kms up the road and it is barricaded closed. Next was 862 to see Europe’s largest volume waterfall. Hyped up in the guide book this was somewhat disappointing. We had seen for more impressive falls through the high country.

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Next was route 863 to the Krafla Crater. It was by now blowing a gale to the point we had trouble standing on the top of the crater rim. As we walked back to the car some guy asked me how the swim was in the crater lake. I explained the lake was iced over and he looked surprised. For some reason he thought my long shorts were swimming togs!!

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We checked out the Myvatn Nature Baths. Picturesque as they were with great views, the wind was so strong we passed up the swim.

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Arriving at Sel Hotel on the south side of Lake Myvatn our room had a great view over the lake and a number of small perfectly shaped craters. The wind is so strong it’s creating white caps on the lake and rocking camper vans in the car park. The locals just accept the weather as “this is Iceland”.

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Southern Iceland

Roger:
Thursday 4 June
Saying goodbye to Joel at 0615 we headed to Iceland. Joel is heading back to Christchurch to prepare for uni exams. He has been such great company over the past couple of weeks. He met us in Oslo as we boarded the flight to Bergen. He had this huge excited smile on his face that just never went away. He has been a star amongst the passengers, chatting eagerly to everyone. He definitely has to be classified as a good bastard.
Landing in Keflavik around nine we grabbed the rental car  and headed northwest into the bleak and almost barren volcanic landscape. Our first stop was Pingvellir. This is the place where the Vikings held council over a thousand years ago. Supposedly the world’s earliest parliament. In the Viking days bad bastards were banished from their community for a period of time and the real bad ones permanently. If they returned the victim’s family could terminate them. When Norway took over in the thirteenth century they brought in beheadings for men and drowning for women. The site with its grand rock faces, waterfalls and board walks is still used for national celebrations.
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A drive across the top of lake Pingvallavatn through more rugged volcanic land, this time with shrubs and other vegetation, brought us to a valley where swampy land had been drained and is farmed.
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We then visited the Gullfoss waterfall which is to say the lest impressive.
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Geysir was the next stop where the main attraction bubbled up before blasting it steam hight into the air every few minutes.
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After checking into our hotel at Hveragerdi we headed up the road to Fakasel Horse theatre. Here the unique to Iceland horses strutted their stuff. Brought here by the Vikings over 1000 years ago they are unique with their 5 gaits, the fastest being the super tolt or flying trot. Size-wise they look more like a pony. If a horse leaves Iceland it may never return in order to keep the breed pure.
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A tasty lamb soup capped of the show followed by a drive around the local district. It was interesting to see new houses being built using a small tower crane. Also farms that often hosted a small church on their land.
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Sylvia:
Friday 5 June
It was nice not to have to be up too early this morning. We did a bit of catching up, enjoying having plenty of Wi-Fi access again before setting off to explore the Southern area. We headed slightly NE with great views of Mt Hekla, one of the more frequently erupting volcanoes in Iceland. I love the scenery here – small farmlets, with large barns and often a wee church dot the landscape which is often fairly barren lava field. There are plenty of Iceland horses around and I am quite fascinated with the sheep – it seems the black ones can have white lambs and vice-versa.
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We stop for a short climb up Gaukshofoi for views over the river to Mt Hekla and then carry on past dams and wind turbines. We stop for a great vegetable soup at a small restaurant with more great views towards Mt Hekla before heading back to the coastal road towards our stop for the night, Vik.
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There are numerous waterfalls along the way and one area I likened to a waterfall theme park with several falls, one of which we were able to walk behind and another that we clambered over a large rock to get to and then walked through a cavern. At 4om high it was pretty impressive.
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We also drove by Mt Eyjafjallajokull ,which erupted in 2010 causing chaos to air traffic around the world, and Myrdalsjokull, the fourth largest glacier in Iceland.
After having pretty nice weather all day , we encountered rain and cold winds when we reached the beach and cliff area, which is also a bird sanctuary. There were some lovely rock formations and we saw numerous Arctic Terns and Northern Fulmars nesting in the area but didn’t stay too long.
We checked into the hotel which has great views over the beach area towards a row of impressive basalt spires that according to folklore are the masts of a troll ship turned to stone in the morning sun.
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Roger:

Saturday 6 June
Leaving Vic, Sylvia studies the Icelandic travel guide as we drive east. The guide is written with such flamboyance it reads like the back of a wine bottle. Along the way we spot a few rather small birch trees stunted by the harsh Iceland climate.  The guide book described them as “birch woods of magnificent proportions meet a wealth of wild flowers and vegetation”. Some bugger must have picked the flowers and given the vegetation a dose of round up. I am sure the guy or guyess  that wrote the guide book was or is practising for a PHD at Cambridge.
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In all fairness the scenery here is pretty overwhelming. There are hints of NZ here and there mainly in how quickly the vista changes. From endless lupins through flat growth-less plains, volcanic shingle plains and lichen covered boulders, to grass mounds resembling breasts, nipples included (there is a thing around here about stacking stones!!) The road is built up above the tundra a meter to three meters in places. Long one-lane bridges with passing bays have steel decks. Clumps of land rise vertically like they have been shoved up in the middle of a plain with vertical sides. Farm buildings are sheltered under the vertical cliffs that run up to Europe’s largest glassier occupying eight percent of the land mass here. Many farms have jumped on the tourist train and offering accommodation and more.
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The sheep were originally brought here by the Vikings. Short and stocky  with no tails and very tasty, we are not too sure about their colour. One coloured skewbald  had both a black and white lamb.
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As we headed now northeast we checked out the Skaftafellsjokull glacier. A 20 min stroll from the car park with a small terminal lake. Further up the road we found the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon. Here growlers floated from the terminal lake under the road bridge to the sea, some cast on the beach. There is lots of touristy activity here but not one sign saying “swimming with the icebergs”
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Arriving at Hofn we enjoyed a meal including local lobster, scallops, lamb and ice cream. A little expensive but that is Iceland.

Arctic Svalbard

After leaving Tromso we headed ever northward, first to Bear Island and then on to Spitzburgen, the main island in Svalbard. We eventually made it above 80 degrees longitude and explored many of the fjords and waterways around Svalbard enjoying some great hikes and fantastic wildlife viewing.

To read more click on the links below (Note – due to technical difficulties I have had to upload four separate documents…

Arctic Svalbard

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Arctic Svalbard_3

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Northern Norwegian Fjords – Beyond the Arctic Circle

We continued northward stopping in a variety of fjords and at several of Norway’s northern islands – the last few days before we head far North to Arctic Svalbard. Now we are in 24 hours of daylight.

To read more click on the link below:

Norway 2015_4

FYI – we realise that picture quality in these postings is not great but we are limited to satellite internet coverage. We will post photos into the photo gallery once we are back with reasonable coverage.