Iceland

Jenny and Charlie traveled to Iceland November 9-15, to see the Northern Lights.  We did not, but this trip was fun anyway.  See our separate post on what we learned about seeing the Northern Lights.

The country

Iceland is small – 338,800 people (the entire country has fewer people than most American cities, half the population of the state of Alaska) and ranks 175th in the world, with an area of just under 40,000 square miles (108th largest).

The official language is Icelandic, but EVERY person we talked to spoke fluent English.  Their TV has many American programs with no subtitles nor dubbing, interspersed with commercials in Icelandic – a shock if you are watching your favorite show, but perhaps that is where they developed their English skills with American accent.

The use of credit cards is quite universal (but be sure they are chip cards, and occasionally you will be asked to enter your PIN).  (Some Nordic countries no longer use checks. There is a rumor that some of the Nordic countries will discontinue cash completely in the next few years, and will use “plastic” for everything.)  We did not carry any Icelandic Kroner (equal to about one cent, similar to the Japanese Yen).  Only two issues arose… when they passed the plate in church, I didn’t drop in my credit card – I figured they could handle American cash.  And one restaurant would not allow the tip to be added to the card (“but we can take cash in any currency”).  Even the pay toilets accepted credit cards (US$1.93 for each of us – yes things are expensive there.)

How much to tip?  Believe it or not, it was a waitress that said “you are not expected to tip in Iceland.”  But there were tip jars near many cashiers, and most restaurants would add a tip to the bill upon request, so if they don’t expect anything, then I figured 10% or more would be good.

The Countryside

Winters are long nights and short days, Summers are long days.  When we were there in  mid-November, sunrise was about 10 am and sunset was 4:20 pm, and still a month away from the shortest day (December 21 this year) when the sun rise is 11:22 and sunset is 3:20 for a day length In Reykjavik of just over 4 hours.  If you visit in the summer, be sure to take a sleep mask, because the night is that short, and not all rooms have blackout drapes.

Sunrise
My camera tells me that this picture was at 953 am. Yes, the days are short

The Keflavik international airport is on a peninsula about 30 miles or 45 minutes from Reykjavik (which has a separate domestic airport) .  That Reykjanes Peninsula  has many features that we enjoyed.

Lighthouse Cafe
The first night we drove out to the northern tip of the peninsula, and found this “Lighthouse Cafe.” We never found the cafe part, but it was in a place that was appropriate for a lighthouse.

The Blue Lagoon is a famous tourist destination.  For about US$50 you can swim in the pool, and for an extra charge can use the swim up bar, cafe, or restaurant that overlooks the pool, or for a major extra charge can get a massage.  We just looked, and later found that it was all man-made, not even based on a natural hot spring.

Blue Lagoon
Yes, that is Jenny, wrapped up standing on the snow covered deck of the 100 degree pool.

Not far from the Blue Lagoon is one of the places that the North American Continent touches the Eurasian continent above ground.  The have built a bridge from one side to the other, so you can run back and forth between Europe and North America in a few seconds.  The continents are drifting apart at the rate of about 2 cm per year, so I figure in my lifetime I am now 5 feet farther from Europe than when I was born.

Bridge between continents
Yes, that is me standing under the bridge, not sure which continent I am in at the moment.

Along the coastline (I would not call them sandy beaches) you can see steam venting from the ground.  Most of the houses in Iceland have hot and cold running water, and heat their homes with the hot water from underground, no hot water tanks or furnaces.

The shoreline is not suitable for swimming, even in the summer, because of rough currents and rocks.

Although there are lots of outdoor activities (in season), casual cross country (off trail) hiking is not one of them.

Southern tip of the peninsula

In this general area are some thermal wells that are used to drive huge electric generators – the water comes out of the ground at 300 degrees Celsius (about 575 degrees F), and at high pressure (still liquid, not yet steam) and is used to drive turbines.  The visitor center was only open in the afternoon, and we were there in the morning.  From the outside they are just large industrial buildings venting steam.

Most of the larger trees have been harvested long ago; the impression we got was that, if you didn’t count trees obviously planted as a windbreak, there were no trees.  The “natural” evergreen trees we saw were so few and stunted that they couldn’t have supported a Christmas tree sale.

Note the “forest” along the ridge line.  Look closely at the left.

Our hotel (formerly on a US military base, probably a BOQ) had what I would have called a decent stucco finish, but while we were there, they were adding insulation on the outside, covered with corrugated metal.  I always considered corrugated metal cheap looking, but in Iceland it is upscale.

We did our usual museum thing, at the National Museum of Iceland.  Or as they would say, the National Museum of Þjóðminjasafn Íslands .  Some joke that if you can properly pronounce the name of the Island (not just Iceland), you may qualify for citizenship.  Hint:  Þ is the capital  letter “Thorn” and ð is the letter “Eth.”

English is so widespread, I wondered why they bothered with Icelandic, until I learned of the depth of the culture … for example, Christianity was adopted about 1000 AD, so they translated and printed the bible in Icelandic before Gutenberg invented movable type.

Church Counters
These wooden counters were used by priests hundreds of years ago to tally how many people made their confession or received communion

Of course we had to visit the Lutheran church – Hallgrimskirkja – the largest church and one of the tallest buildings in Iceland, built 1945-1974.  The design was to suggest the volcanos.  The statue in front of the church is Leifur Eriksson, a gift from the United States before the church was built.  Eriksson discovered North America about 500 years before Columbus.

Lutheran Church
Hallgrimskirkja church. If you ask a local for the Lutheran church they will not know what you are looking for until you say that name.

Reykjavik built a concert hall, “Harpa,” with great views from the inside and colored glass so it glows blue at night.  The reviews made it sound like they were hoping it would become a landmark like the Sydney Opera House.

Harpa concert hall
During the day Harpa is not impressive, so we did not tour it.

Golden Circle

The golden circle is a combination of three natural attractions that practically every tour group offers, typically for US$100 per person or more.  We took our rental car and saw the three attractions, and a lot of the countryside, for far less money and more fun.

The Þingvellir National Park was the center of  culture and government for centuries, where the various tribes met (during the summer) before there was a constitutional government.  It is also another place where the North American and Eurasian geological plates meet above ground.

split
This is a path down the split. It was cold and the ramp was slippery. This is as far as Jenny wanted to venture. But remember that this split is moving apart at 2 cm per year, 5 feet in our lifetime.
Earth Split
We were able to drive around to a parking area at the bottom of the split. This is where we would have come out if Jenny had continued down the ramp.

Gullfoss is an amazing waterfall.  In numbers I don’t know how it competes with Niagara Falls, but it is comparably impressive.

Gulfoss
We met a couple girls from Canada, and took their picture, so they took ours. Even they admitted it was bitterly cold.
Gullfoss
Most of the falls was flowing water but some of the edges were frozen. It was a wonderful sight to see. We drove to the top where the Tour buses parked, but it was a long walk from there to the view.  At the left is a shorter water fall that leads  to an island from which there is a second waterfall (the center of the picture)

Geysir Geothermal Area is named after the largest and oldest, but now largely dormant, Geysir (from which the name Geyser originated and is used worldwide.)

Geysir
Geysir has become a boring bubbly hot tub. One of the signs says the water is really 100 degrees Celsius (boiling). Don’t test it with your finger; you will be burned. The nearest hospital is 50 miles away.
Hot Springs
The area has countless springs, boiling mud pots, and steaming pools, not just the geysirs for the tourists.  It was odd to see boiling pools surrounded by ice.

Strokkur has taken over the duty of entertaining the tourists.  It erupts about 100 feet every few minutes, for a few seconds.  If you don’t like your picture, you will have another chance in a couple minutes.

Strokkur
Strokkur had a crowd watching despite the cold. I can’t imagine how big the crowd would be in the summer
Strokkur
Another Strokkur eruption
Litil Geysir
I think it is meant as a joke, but there is a tiny boiling pot that bubbles occasionally, named Litil Geysir.

Generally we felt that Iceland was flat (in part because of the way the “wind kept whipping over the plains”) but we know it is not.

Hill
Yes there are hills in Iceland, that I bet would be beautiful in season. There are even volcanoes that erupt occasionally, but not in the part of the country were we were.

We saw a large number of horses.  The Icelandic horse has a heavy coat, are small (almost the size of a pony), and have five gaits – the usual walk, trot, and canter/gallop, but also a tölt (described as a four beat single foot gait (which hopefully means something to a horse expert) and a flying pace which allows these small horses to reach 40 mph.

Icelandic horses
In horse areas, there were pasture after pasture with these horses.

Avis provided a map with Iceland driving rules (like headlights on, day and night, year around)  It also showed an area, about half the total area of Iceland, in the center and southern part of the county, where all the roads are closed.

Summary

The people are quite friendly and welcoming.  The language is no problem – everyone also speaks English.  Food and beverages are expensive – expect to pay US$5 for a soda, US$10-15 for a beer, US$20 and up for a pizza.

Driving is routine EXCEPT most roads are two  narrow lanes with no shoulder, have names that you cannot remember (way too many letters), and change names and directions too often.  We thought we could use paper maps and not bother with a SIM card for our phone, but we spent an hour or two looking for our hotel – which was never more than 10 minutes away.  We then bought a prepaid SIM card for one of our phones (US$20), and either Google or Apple maps kept us happy.  If your phone is locked, use an iPad or other wireless device that works with a SIM card.

Iceland was interesting in the winter, but I hear it is beautiful in the summer (and I bet half the roads would not be closed).

France

Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport: The train into the city essentially becomes a subway within the city; if it doesn’t stop near your hotel, you can transfer to any subway line without a new ticket.

We were warned that credit cards were not widely accepted. In 2013 we were able to use credit cards for almost all expenses.

The service (tip) is included in the restaurant prices – not a service charge added to the bill, nor are you expected to tip. The second time we raised the issue, the waiter said “If anyone says that you should add a tip, they are taking advantage of you as a tourist.” Yes, it was a waiter that said “no tip.”

If you have a drink or coffee at a bar, the price is lower than at a table (which includes the service charge for the waiter). Don’t buy something at the bar, then sit down at a table.

Ask the waiter for a “Carafe” if you would like a (free) glass of water with your meal.

Emergency Numbers

In addition to 112, there are other emergency numbers in France such as 15 for medical, 17 for police, 18 for fire, and others.

Netherlands (Holland)

By Dutch law, the service charge in a restaurant must be included in the price of the food, so no tips are necessary. At a cafe, a “different” waitress than had served us brought our check, so I asked if tips were shared. No, management just takes all the tips. At nice restaurants, a tip of 5-10% is accepted with great appreciation.

Credit cards are widely accepted, but there may be an extra service charge for using the card. The surcharge was about 50 cents for the train tickets into town, 35 cents at a cafe, but no extra charge at nice restaurants or museums.

Amsterdam Schiphol (SKIP-pull) airport is about 5 miles from downtown (and incidentally 6 meters – 20 feet – below sea level). The recommended way into town – to the central train station – is via “NS train.” Tickets available from vending machines for €5.20 each (€4.20 plus airport surcharge of €1.00), runs every few minutes and takes about 15 minutes. You can buy several tickets at once, and use a credit card (some vending machines do not accept cash) for a credit card service fee of about 50 cents for each purchase.

In town the transit tickets for tram, metro and GVB buses are purchased from a vending machine or on the tram (cash only); a one hour (one trip) ticket is €2,90 (about US$3.20), unlimited travel for 24 hours is €7.50, for 48 hours is €12.50, etc., up to 7 days for €33. The time on each ticket starts the instant it is first used.

On the airport train and on GVB public transit in town (all but a few buses), the proximity ticket is passed near a validation machine (single beep) at the entry to the tracks (in the airport) or as you enter the tram (in the city), and again as you exit (double beep).

The highly promoted I AMsterdam city card for 1-4 days (€55 to €85) includes a 1-4 day GVB public transit ticket, a “free” canal cruise (worth about €16), and a free ticket to many (not all) museums (you still have to get in line for the museum ticket). The big advantage is access to shorter lines even if the entrance is not free. We found it a convenience, but not a financial savings.

Emergency Numbers

The universal emergency number is 112, answered in Dutch, German, and English, within 3 seconds.

Germany

Berlin Airport: The good way into the city is the TXL bus (TXL is also the Berlin airport code), that leaves from the front of the airport terminal every few minutes. €2,60 each, or about US$3.40. Buy your ticket from a vending machine or from the bus driver. Once you are on the bus, “time stamp” the ticket in the machine on bus aisle. For the return we left our hotel at 5am so sprang for a Taxi (under €30 with tip).Credit cards are widely accepted. I hear that sometimes a chip and PIN card is necessary for tickets and unattended gas stations. Your chip and signature card may also have a PIN that sometimes works for these situations.

In Berlin we were able to get cash, with no ATM service fee (better than in the US), at our choice of ATMs, available every block or so. Credit cards are widely accepted but not universal – for example, at one place there was no apology or regret about “our machine is broken.” We carry enough local cash to cover a meal, and if we don’t want to bring the local currency home, we use what’s left towards our hotel bill.

If you have a car in Germany, you will travel on the Autobahn (at well over 100 mph). The Autobahn is analogous to the Interstate Highway system in the United States, but far superior maintenance, allowing far higher (unlimited) speeds. I made a web page of the experience (and driving hints for the German speed and driving customs/rules).

Emergency Numbers

In addition to the universal European 112 emergency number, 110 is used for police emergencies in Germany

Poland

We flew in and out of Warsaw, and used the train to get into town. Krakow was added to our trip after we had our air tickets, so we took the train from Warsaw to/from Krakow. Looking back, we could have flown into Krakow if we had planned better, but at this instant Krakow is more expensive than Warsaw (150 miles away).We were able to use credit cards for everything, so had to work to use up the balance of the $100 equivalent we withdrew in local currency. There was a modest fee for using the airport ATM, refunded by our bank.

We only go to McDonalds overseas in an emergency, such as early morning in the Warsaw airport when that is all that is open. They have a slick way of placing your order electronically in a choice of languages on a large touch-screen with pictures.  When we were there in October 2015, if your credit card is mag stripe or chip and signature (rather than chip and PIN), your order is canceled and you have to speak to a cashier with very limited language skills. (This problem has been fixed in other countries, so may now be fixed in Poland.)

Tips in a restaurant (up to 10%) are always paid in cash, never added to the bill on the credit card.

Emergency Numbers

In addition to the universal 112 emergency number, In Poland 999 is used for ambulance, 998 for fire, and 997 for police

Spain

Barcelona: The recommended way from the airport to center city is the Aerobus A1 to Plaza Catalunya for €5,90 each. Plaza Catalunya is a park that is a few blocks from the port and the center of everything for tourists. We were able to use credit cards for practically everything. No problem with excess currency if you travel like we do – they use Euros, and you will certainly be back to some European country!Most tourist attractions and locations in Central Barcelona are in Zone 1 for Metro, city bus, tram, and RENFE (airport train). A metro ticket is valid on everything except the airport bus. You can transfer between modes – a single trip is up to 75 minutes from when you start – you can switch metro trains, but cannot leave the metro and reenter. A single trip is €2,15

A T10 ticket is for 10 transit trips and costs €9,95, so is less than half price if you take 10 trips. Multiple people can use a single T10 ticket. First person goes through the entry puts in the ticket and takes the ticket completely out to open the gate. Leave the ticket on the machine surface for the next person to use. Purchase at a vending machine.

Every city has pickpockets, so how could Barcelona be worse? Any pick pocket under 18 years old is not prosecuted. Therefore crooks have kids working for them, who are immune from prosecution. I hear the loophole is being addressed, and we saw no problem in 2015.

A few years before Barcelona we visited Madrid.  Everyone’s advice (which we agree with after the fact) is that you should spend 20% of your time in Madrid, and 80% in Barcelona and elsewhere.  Madrid was the place we had the worst language problems… few people spoke usable English.  Worse than any place else in Europe OR ASIA.

Emergency Numbers

In addition to the European universal 112 emergency number, in Spain 091 is police, 092 is local police, 061 medical, 080 fire

Portugal

Appetizers are not free!  Americans visiting an Italian restaurant at home often find a bottle of water and a bottle of wine on the table, and have no problem ignoring them. The waiter often makes them disappear when they are not purchased. In Portugal you may have 5 or more appetizers on the table… bowls of olives, pate, cheese, bread, etc. If you eat (or even sample) them, you will be charged for them. If you don’t want them, just set them aside, and the waiter will make them disappear, they will not be on your bill unless you taste. Many restaurant reviews by Americans cry foul at this “scam.” It isn’t a scam, it is a different country, and that is the way they do things for the locals as well as the tourists. Even bread is not free – consider it a cover charge if you are offended by paying for the bread!

Credit cards are widely accepted. Service (tip) is not routinely included in a restaurant bill, and is not easy to add on the credit card – leave a cash tip of around 10%. Many restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7 pm or later, and don’t get busy until 8 pm – dinner is late!

Portuguese is naturally the language, but English and French are widespread. If you are not good at languages you may think Portuguese is similar to Spanish, but the locals reportedly prefer English and French to Spanish.

The local currency is the Euro.

Porto (Oporto) – the recommended travel from the international airport into town is via the metro. The fare is €1.85 plus €.60 for the rechargeable ticket. (Taxi is €20-30 and potentially slower.) There are vending machines, but you can also buy them from a person in the tourist office in the station. Escalator down and under the road, then up to the train – be sure to “validate” your ticket for the ride at the base of the escalator (touch the ticket to the machine). Everyone seemed concerned about whether they were on the right train… it is the end of the line, so any waiting train is the right one. It run every 20 minutes, and in about a half hour you will be at the Trindade station in town – a 10 minute walk from our hotel, but we switched to the yellow line and went two more stops to São Benito metro station next to the train station of the same name, and very near our hotel.

The inter-city train station (Campanhã) is about a 12-15 minute taxi ride from center city, also accessible by metro.  The in-town São Benito station is for commuter (suburban) trains. We took a taxi (Uber) to Campanhã as we were leaving.

Lisbon (Lisboa) has two major train stations… Estação do Oriente is the primary station but quite a way out of town; we were able to get a train from Porto to Santa Apolónia station closer to central Lisbon.

The recommended connection to the international airport is by metro, but the metro only starts about 6 am and we had a 6:55 flight. Uber (taxi) in a Mercedes was €6.56 (USD 7.50) and took less than 15 minutes, door to door, and picked us up at our hotel in just a couple minutes.

Emergency Numbers

In addition to the Universal European 112 emergency number, 115 is also available

Hungary

Budapest: Do NOT take the airport shuttle bus. In 2007 it took us 2 hours and $22 and a high stress trip (including a fender bender) to get the 10 miles to our hotel. The return to the airport in a 30 minute $40 taxi ride was worth it!

Overall our visit to Budapest was great – full travelogue available.  It is often compared to Prague Czechoslovakia, but having been to both, we preferred Budapest.  The multilingual signs in Prague were scarce, so practically everyone joined an ad-hoc tour of 20 people who moved slowly, blocking the narrow streets – it felt like Disneyland.

Emergency Numbers

In addition to the universal 112 emergency number, 104 is used for medical, 105 for fire, and 107 for police in Hungary.

United Kingdom

London Heathrow is on the underground (subway) lines, so this is the “normal” way to get into the city.

If you are staying “at the airport” the “Hoppa bus” with several different routes replaces the traditional airport shuttle to most hotels, and runs every 20-30 minutes, for about £5 per person. Not great, but they didn’t ask my opinion.

No problem using credit cards for everything in 2015. In 2012 (before we had a chip card) chip and pin cards were virtually necessary in gas stations and grocery stores. (For example, in one 20-pump gas station, there was no magnetic stripe card reader; in a large grocery store only one of the 10 check-out lines accepted a magnetic stripe, so we had to cancel our purchase and start over to check-out on that one register.

Edinborough Scotland and Manchester in Northern England are good starting points, but we have rented cars in those cities so have less advice about getting from the airport into town.

Is the money the same in England and Scotland? Well, simple answer is yes, but only “sort of.” The Bank of England pound sterling works everywhere. In England and Southern Scotland that is all you will see. But as you go farther north in Scotland you may start to get Royal Bank of Scotland notes, or even money from other banks like Clydesdale bank. In general, they are fully interchangeable, but we did have one Englishman, far from Scotland, who was reluctant to take the Scottish note.

For my technical friends… I put the notes in the scanner, and the scan preview worked fine, but when I said “scan” it gave an error and stopped within the first inch – the scanner somehow detected that it was currency, and would not proceed. I had to take a photograph rather than a scanned image.

Emergency Numbers

The new EU universal emergency number of 112 is used along side the older 999 national emergency number.