Location: Reykjavik, Iceland
The Markhams have earlier flights so they packed up and left with the usual accompanying palaver.
We left and locked up sans palaver, heading to the city centre for a guided walk. Via the Christmas shop because Jase wants a decoration involving the Jul Cat. The walk given by [unpronounceable name] known as Erik, was interesting. He walked us around the centre, pointing out the parliament building, cathedral, thermal water heated roads/pavements, statues, church on a hill, and a pretty central lake where the locals ice skate, all whilst sharing information and stories. For example Iceland's prison has 92 places (which is full) and a waiting list of about 200. While you're waiting for a cell to become available you carry on with your normal life, job etc.
Stopped for lunch at the Café Paris, then headed to the airport for our late-running flight.
Location: Reykjavik, Iceland
Today we did the Golden Circle, on probably the best weather day we have had. Lovely blue sky and sunshine. We headed for Geysir, and the waterfall at Gullfoss. The drive was typically cold and snowy, but the roads were better prepared for normal 2wd cars to be able to travel.
Didn't stop idiots putting their brakes on suddenly to pull into the road side for a photo.
Also, didn't stop them getting stuck on the roadside and looking forlornly at us as we drove past them in the Land Cruiser whilst they slowly froze.
Stopped in a couple of picnic areas to take scenic photos, fortunately the snow was quite deep getting to them, which discouraged the hordes from disturbing our peace.
Geysir was a collection of several hot pools, the Great Geyser hadn't erupted for the last few years, so we didn't wait for that. Strokkar was quite regular, so got some shots of that. It went off about five times while we were there.
Then on to Gullfoss, an amazing large waterfall that had been earmarked for a hydro electric dam, but that, fortunately, never happened.
On the way back we stopped for ice-cream at a cafe with a window on to the cow byre (Efstidalur II).
Then we drove to a nice restaurant (Lindin) overlooking Hekla (volcano), met the chef and owner, Baldur, who told us a bit about the area and I had a reindeer burger, while Ali had a soup and a very nice chocolate mousse topped with watermelon pieces in a raspberry sauce.
Then another drive, further than anticipated to the Blue Lagoon to meet up with the clan.
The pool was very well organised, though the shock of the outside air on wet bare skin before getting in the water was, invigorating.
We had a bit of a laugh at some of the Instagram girls, trying to take the perfect picture of themselves, whilst avoiding any contact with water in case it melted their makeup, disturbed hair, etc. I honestly don't get it, instead of doing something useful with their lives, they seem to think that fame (and I use that term very loosely) is something permanent and don't realise how fleeting it is.
Or maybe I'm just jealous.
Excellent three course meal a la Markham for dinner. No competition going on of course. But I would point out that they 'borrowed' our dessert. Which technically is cheating.
Location: Höfn , Iceland
Up early for the drive back to Reykjavík. Ice clearing off the 4x4 first, then on the road, Markhams behind us somewhere.
Very cold, lots of snow and ice on the road, but after driving in worse conditions over the previous couple of days, actually being able to see where the road went helped us keep a good pace.
Stopped off at a hotel to grab a cup of tea and a bit of a rest from concentrating on the drive - we had a few whiteouts on the way, which made things interesting. Much to our surprise the hotel receptionist decided not to charge us for the teas. Maybe we looked like travellers in need.
Met up with the Markhams at Vík, where we had a nice hamburger lunch, somewhat cheaper than the soup on the way out. Still not cheap though.
While the Markhams did the Golden Circle, we headed straight to the AirB&B to get stuff together to cook dinner and settled in for a rest. Hahahaha, were with the Markhams, no rest there! Somehow managed to cook a three course meal for six with limited kitchen equipment and ingredients we couldn't understand. Only one panic when Jase managed to lock the induction hob, cue frantic googling to work out how to unlock it.
Location: Diamond Beach, Iceland
The Markhams got up very early to go and see an ice cave. Jase and I got a slower start and went out for a lazy hot chocolate. We then drove to diamond beach for lunch. When we got there we actually met the Markhams in the car park (that's how lazy a start we had).
We took a look at the Jokulsarlon glacier flowing into a river and took a few photographs. We then crossed over the bridge to diamond beach itself which is a black sand beach with chunks of ice on the beach.
On the way back to Hofn, we stopped at a cafe for hot chocolate, and went into its museum for a famous Icelandic author (Þórbergur Þórðarson).
Then back to Hofn for langoustines for dinner.
At the hotel the hotel receptionist said there's a good chance of the Northern Lights tonight. So we all got ready with our coats, hats, gloves and cameras. The receptionist was popping out to check the sky about every ten minutes and we were also keeping an eye on the app. When it reached its peak likelihood (27%) we went outside and past all the houses and lights to look over the harbour.
Ali couldn't see a thing, but generally pointed her camera into the direction of where everyone else said they could see something. (It looked like a cloud to me.) Strangely enough it turned out a really good photo of the Northern Lights. Jase had a proper camera with him so he was doing special stuff with lenses and long exposures. We'll have to wait and see what they look like, as he was using real film.
Location: Hella to Hofn, Iceland
Hurrah, the road is open! So after a few photographs around the farm we set off in convoy. Well, the Markhams were very slow setting off, so we stopped on the driveway to say hello to the Icelandic horses. They were unimpressed by the fact that Ali brought only hay, not carrots. Icelandic horses are quite unique. They look like Shetlands butthey have five gaits rather than the usual 4. The 5th gait ( the 'tolt') is like a trot but it is about twice as fast so the rider gets no bumpiness at all. An Icelander told us it was like riding on a flying carpet.
First stop, the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, where James fell over on the ice in the carpark and Jase discovered his boots had no grip on well-trodden snow and ice. The waterfall is high but quite narrow. We stopped for strap on crampons (and a pair of green puffin socks) in the car park souvenir shop.
Next stop the Skógafoss Waterfall. Jase strode out confidently across the carpark in his newly cramponed boots. We started at the bottom of the waterfall. As we were walking there we were practically blown away by a snowstorm. But as we arrived about 5 minutes later the sun came out, it was blue sky and and the rainbow was forming little rainbows at its base. We are quickly learning that this changeability is what Icelandic weather is all about.
We started hiking up the path to the right of the waterfall, but Jo could not make it up the steps because of her knees, and Jase was never that keen to start with, so he and Jo went for a hot drink at the local bistro.
Craig, Courtney, James and Alison made it up the top, despite some fairly poor queuing etiquette across the ice at the top. Jase would have hated the view from the top of the waterfall downwards. Then we followed a path behind the waterfall along the river where to our surprise we found another beautiful wide cascade. It was easier coming down than up.
We stopped for a delicious hot chocolate at the bistro.
We all fancied a light lunch so we stopped at the soup kitchen in Vic. We had not quite realised how expensive soup would be in Iceland. But the lava soup was very interesting, they had somehow captured the flavour of ash.
We did the trip from Vic to Hofn in one go. There was not really anywhere to stop anyway. But it was a full-on drive across snowy icy roads that would certainly have been closed in any other country. There was one point where we mysteriously stopped for half an hour with cars coming the other way but the cars going our way not moving at all. When we finally got to the blockage it seemed to be some sort of broken down lorry, we were not quite sure. Later we discovered there might also have been a car off the road and part of the blockage had been the people who had stopped to help them (possibly including that lorry?) Not helped at all by icelanders coming the other way not stopping to allow people through.
We were all very tired by the time we arrived in Hofn. We rushed out for dinner and tried practically every open restaurant before finding a menu we were satisfied with. It was at Otto's restaurant, and we all enjoyed a delicious meal, worth a small mortgage.
Location: Rejkjavik, Iceland
Enjoyed a substantial breakfast at the hotel then we set out from Rejkjavik. The aim was Hofn, to the east.
The drive was an adventure. The roads were very snowy, and the car behind us span off the road. We thanked our lucky stars again that we were in a 4wd not a Golf.
We settled behind another car and let them do the work. Arriving at Selfoss we stopped to de-stress at the Riverside café, which was very nice, and we had a chat with the waitress about the road, which was closed at Vik. The Markham's let us know they had just landed.
We drove on to Hvolsvoller where we stopped at the Lava Centre which had an interesting exhibition and film on volcanos.
The Markham's caught us up there, and unfortunately by that time the road had been closed beyond Hvolsvoller.
Having spoken to the search and rescue people it was clear we were going no further. We moved the Hofn accommodation and booked ourselves into a hotel/horse farm for the night. Made our way to the hotel and settled into the lounge for the evening.
Location: Reykjavík , Iceland
Dropped off the cats, in an awful rush, at the cattery as we needed to get to Heathrow to catch the flight. They will be pissed off with us when we return.
Uneventful flight to Keflavik, then baggage and customs. Short transfer bus to the car rental and after a talk with the rental folks, decided to change from a Golf to a 4x4 as they didnt think we could get to where we wanted in a 2wd.
Spoiler: they were right and we were glad we changed.
Drove from the airport to Reykjavík and checked into the hotel. Ali booked us tickets to a show (How to be Icelandic in 60 minutes) also on recommendation from the car hire company. It was amusing and we now know how to pronounce Eyaflallajokull in case it erupts again.
Grabbed dinner at a bistro in town, then back to the hotel for a deserved nights sleep.
Location: Ambrosden, UK
En route to pick up the cats we stopped at the Christmas Tree farm to choose our tree. On learning that the farm delivers, Jase was persuaded (without much effort) to buy the tallest tree at the farm.
From there to pick up the cats, who were suitably grateful to see us. When we got then home they raced about a bit, checking out the smells. But then they settled in front of the fire for the rest of the afternoon.
Ali wrote Christmas cards all afternoon (apologies to those overseas, as they will be late) and Jase cooked a roast. A nice relaxed day at home.
Location: Düsseldorf , Germany
Last day today. Had a bit of a lie in before heading out to the Christmas market to grab a bite for breakfast and a couple of goodies.
In the theme of the day, it hailed early, resulting in us sheltering for a bit, before going to the Maritime museum in the old castle tower (Schloß Turm). Very interesting, especially the films on Dusseldorf's history and harbour, but we had to rush to catch the start of the walking tour.
The tour was supposed to be in both German and English, but a lot of the more interesting tidbits werent translated for the English sections, so I tried to translate as much as I could follow. Not a lot, tbh.
Freezing cold winds tested our clothing out, resulting in us grabbing lunch at a Japanese restaurant (no port or potato) before sourcing one of the best hot chocolates either of us have had. Even the air in the café smelled like liquid chocolate.
Absolutely pelted with hail whilst making our way back to the hotel for our luggage.
Airport, home, lit a fire.
Location: Bremen to Dusseldorf, Germany
Unfortunately the English language walking tour in Bremen isn't until 1.30pm which is a bit late for our timetable. So we again did the Tourist Information's self guided tour. This one took us down to the river, though a cute little area called the Schloor (string) area which had lots of painted old buildings, and narrow alleys, then into the main square which had the Rathaus, and various other old municipal buildings. It would be a very pretty platz, but was hard to take pictures due to the Christmas market in the middle of it. We saw the statue of the Town Musicians of Bremen, then we went down the picturesque old Cooper's alleyway, before finally finishing the tour and heading to the medieval Christmas market on the waterfront, for an early lunch. Jase failed to impress the stallholder with his 50 note, it wasn't early enough in the day for her to be able to change it easily.
We're now on a train to Dusseldorf, our final stop.
Location: Lübeck to Hamburg to Bremen, Germany
It's Thursday so this must be Lübeck. Yes it's getting a bit like that. We breakfasted at a cafe, before doing the Tourist Information's self-guided walking tour of Lübeck. Lübeck is a pretty town and was part of the Hanseatic League for many years. The tour took us past some pretty bits but unfortunately without a lot of commentary. It was clear to see that the town had been very rich though, with lovely municipal buildings, merchant houses and a plethora of almshouses. The town has a beautiful old gatehouse, which is leaning in various places at some rather alarming angles, but the Germans don't seem to think it's about to fall down.
From there to Hamburg where we aimed straight for Miniatur Wonderland, a recommendation from Fay (she must have read about it, we don't think she's ever been). Well what a surprise! For starters it was indoors whereas the other miniature villages we have visited previously we all outdoors. And secondly, it was absolutely full of tiny little jokes and details, such as underwater cows starting scuba tanks, aliens in the Arizona desert, and a dead body with related Police investigation. There was also a surprising amount of sex going on, in offices, cars, sunflower fields and up mountains (it would never happen in Bekonscot!) It also had a working miniature airfield, complete with aircraft taxi-ing, taking off, landing and taxi-ing back to the gate. Parked at one of the gates was the Millennium Falcon too. We thought it would take us a couple of hours; we were actually there for about 3 and 1/2!
Back to the station for the train to Bremen. We had dim sum for dinner, we're getting a little tired of German cuisine.
Location: Berlin to Hamburg, Germany
We have done Berlin pretty thoroughly in the past, so today we just walked up the Unter den Linden from the Brandenburg Gate to Museum Island.
We started with a visit to a lovely music box shop that Ali had been visiting since she first came to Berlin in about 1999. Then breakfast at a lovely cafe, the Einstein. We've eaten there before, it's a great place for brunch. Newspapers and plenty of time to relax.
Then a trip to the Amfelmann shop before Ali persuaded Jase to go to a Berlin Christmas market that was supposed to be a little different. It lived up to its billing ... we picked up a few Christmas presents there.
Finally we got to the other end of Unter den Linden to see how the rebuilding of the Imperial Palace was going. What a surprise! When we first started coming to Berlin it was a horrible orange glassed Palace of the People, full of asbestos. Then an empty building site with nothing but design plans. But now Berlin has practically finished rebuilding the Imperial Palace from scratch. It looks absolutely phenomenal, and you would hardly believe it hasn't just been standing there for the past 500 years, in all its glory.
From there to the station, and the train to Hamburg.
From Hamburg, a change to another train, this one to Lübeck. Checked in, then dinner at a Bavarian restaurant because, apparently, Jase cant go to Germany without eating Apfelstrudel at least once...