A lovely few days spent in Iceland with more than a few photos to mull over. The beauty of the place is undeniable with its bizarre volcanic landscape contrasted with stunning snow-capped peaks. It seems very prone to rainy weather, which we certainly encountered. But we got some absolutely beautiful sunshiny days as well and that certainly made up for anything else. I can imagine winter there would be especially grim. Possibly it brings a better chance of seeing the northern lights, which we didn’t.

The downsides? It is horribly expensive. This may be a matter of knowing the place better and how you could find the cheapest possible alternatives for food. Accommodation is dear and while there is Airbnb, it is also pretty expensive and some of the places would be in some studenty spare room. These days I’m not really interested in that and our dumpy Airbnb in Dublin made me think I should be a bit more discerning.  Not that either of us need luxury, basic comfort is fine. We stayed in hotels which were by and large fairly bland and a little disappointing. The Base, near Keflevik airport, where we first stayed was very good and by getting a free upgrade we were pleasantly comfortable. It’s an old army base but they have converted it very well. It is first and foremost a backpacker hostel, which these days would make me run a mile, but it is not all dorms, so we managed to get a comfortable room and as cheaply as you could hope for.

The trip was not a triumph of research and organisation on my part. Thinking the Golden Circle (an abbreviated tourist route taking in some geothermal stuff and the stunning Gullfoss falls) would take over a day to explore, I booked two nights at a dull place called Selfoss. In the end it didn’t matter too much as the rain would have put paid to the best sightseeing plans. We still did some interesting exploring on that extra rainy day with a visit to the Kerid crater and photographed some of the interesting beach houses down on the black sandy beaches around Stokkseyri. As it was, we were fortunate to enjoy mostly good weather days and made the most of them.

The drive out to Diamond Beach was a bit of an epic in the end. It was a 320km return drive from Vik and it took a bit of effort to fit that in to an afternoon. I probably drove 450km that day which you might not have thought possible in a place like Iceland. But it was certainly worth it! We were wowed by the amazing backdrop of glaciers and massively towering dark volcanic and weirdly shaped green hills.  The light on the golden grass, the moss-covered volcanic rocks on the ground and the black sand beaches with crashing waves on the other side of us. We had to drive back the same way but the light had completely changed by then, so we were treated to a different version of the same spectacle. But the place itself with it’s stunning lagoon full of icebergs and those on the beach were also quite breathtaking. There were a few tourists around but enough space to escape them.

The wind was as good as anything Wellington has dished up I think. Firstly, at Dyrhólaey on the cliffs and then at Jökulsárlón, as we approached the icebergs. The gusts could sometimes be outrageous and knock you sideways but there has always been wind in my soul and this kind of weather made me smile and laugh. My £15 Primark winter jacket was brilliant for the conditions. It provided protection for some of the bitingly cold wind blasts and was waterproof too.

Hörse. You can’t help but be struck by the number of horses in Iceland. I have read that they eat them but that is not their primary purpose. Which is for riding it seems. Apparently, part of their unique attributes is that they have an extra gait. This is beyond the normal walk, trot, canter and gallop. They add a lölt to this which is some sort of fancy lateral step or something. Of course, they came to international prominence in 1955 when a team of Icelandic horses stunned the world by sweeping all before them at the England Ballroom Dance Championships in Blackpool. But seriously, they must be hardy souls as they can be seen standing out in the fields in the most cold and blustery conditions. There are cross-like fences in many fields that would provide some shelter from the freezing winds.

On the last night in Reykjavik we finally treated ourselves to a decent meal. This was a bit overdue as even the most awful food was costly. Iceland supposedly has the healthiest diet in the world, but I can’t say much that was unique seemed to be available. No pots of Icelandic yoghurt with rolled herrings. We largely snacked on supermarket food and even went to a KFC one night.  Our final night’s meal was delicious and not too bad really for about ISK9,770 ($A110, £52) for two mains and a beer. The bonus was that it came to the exact amount of Icelandic krona cash I had. Reykjavik also appeared to be overrun by tourists – loud American was the main language that could be heard in the streets. It was a struggle to get a table at most restaurants in the city and there was a weird way they liked to make people queue for them. We managed to get in a on a table by co-opting a young American woman to share ours. She, like more than a few people had dropped into Iceland to visit the Blue Lagoon.

Ah yes, the Blue Lagoon. On our way back to Reykjavik from the south we visited it, that is we had a look at it. Jackie is not a huge fan of thermal pools and after a lifetime of sitting and swimming in them in New Zealand (of course), Indonesia and Japan, I am rather underwhelmed by them. We could see what was on offer, the place is built nicely but it was a run through of the usual lot ticking things off the bucket list. Interestingly, no one seemed to be walking out with a big smile on their face. The basic entry price of $100+ just didn’t seem worth it, especially as would have paled into insignificance after the other sights we would have seen. Even our young dinner companion had said the whole constant push to upsell stuff to the tourists there was a turn off. Clearly it is on some must do tourist circuit somewhere. I would think New Zealand is a better bet for that stuff.  To give everyone their due as well, many would never have seen anything like it before.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of visiting Iceland was the lack of insight I really managed to get into the place itself on a social level. We tended to have little conversation with locals. I always like to talk to people about their country and what life is like for them. From my own perspective I think if I grew up in a place like Iceland I would have wanted to get the hell out of it. With only 350,000 people it is tiny. This is also its charm of course. There is a bit of similarity with New Zealand here despite that country being larger in area as well as population. There is always the opportunity to talk with staff in hotels, restaurants etc but most of these were foreigners – large numbers of east Europeans who are found everywhere these days, so little interaction with locals.

Iceland interested me as a small island that is relatively isolated and how plays out in the lives of ordinary people. It must be stultifying on one level as everyone would always know your business and there would be limited opportunities in many areas of work and life. But it one of the wealthiest countries in Europe by GDP per capita and wages are high. That flows into prices too but with most things needing to be imported and a small market with limited competition that it always going to be a fact of life. I never knew any Icelanders in London, I’m sure that’s where I would head first off if I had grown up in Iceland. So, I never really got the chance to understand the thinking that pervaded those who did.

While I have spent most of my life out of New Zealand, it still exerts a strong influence on my consciousness. The physical memory of the country never leaves you and of course the childhood memories. For Icelanders I would expect this would be very much the same with even a stronger influence of the very small population and the unique language. It would be in many ways hard to just leave it all behind. As we drove around we would often see houses standing alone in a huge, imposing area of green fields interspersed with black volcanic rocks and earth. There was a haunting beauty in the absolute desolation of it. But I always asked myself: could I stand living there?

Europe in a dash

Of course the aim of this one year trip was to spend most of our time in India. Due to my injurious delay we ended up in the UK in the summer school holidays which rendered nearly all travel prohibitively expensive. So, when the month ticked over it was time to be off to visit friends in Europe.

Part 1: Sicily

First off the list were Mick and Kath in Sicily. Out first experience with Ryanair wasn’t too bad. There was a big delay by the time we flew into Comiso. The car rental queue was not so much very long but very slow and took over an hour. Poor Mick and Kath endured the wait with us. By the time we set off in convoy it was around midnight. We had to park the car one side of the river and all pile into the Toyota Landcruiser to make the last leg to the farmhouse. It had changed massively since our last visit in January 2014. The inside looked fabulous and we were treated to a brilliant bean and vegetable stew by Kath all harvested from the land around. The kitchen had been done really well and main room was beautifully homely, of course decorated with many Afghan and Moroccan homewares and furniture. The real bugbear has been the electricity which is still to be connected. There is a generator that provides part time power but solar, and therefore full-time power, is still in the pipeline.

Waking the next morning allowed us to appreciate the beautiful setting. Jackie, having been mauled by mozzies during the night was keen to move to the ‘matchbox’ (their small flat) in Modica. Kath had to be in the UK the next day for work so took the bus to the airport. The matchbox had also changed a bit in that the last time we saw it, it was being pretty much used as a storeroom. It is very compact but a nice space. The mezzanine bedroom area works really well despite the occasional head knock. Parking was easy in the town but as usual in Modica there was a bit of an uphill walk to get to the matchbox.

Mick needed to devote much of his attention to the other bugbear of the farmhouse, the river. It had decided to destroy much of the ford in one of its bad moods. This had led to Mick’s early departure from the UK to fix it. There had been a trail of nuisance in getting the materials and lining up the labour to help fix it.

We used the time to do some further exploring and top of our list were the legendary mosaics of Piazza Armerina. Luckily, Mick and Kath’s friend and local real estate personality Ramsay, had advised us that the satnav would lead us to the middle of a field if we used it. He was bang on for that one as that’s where we ended up before having to use old school techniques like following signs. Easier said than done but we arrived there reasonably early (again advice from Ramsay) and beat much of the increasing loads of coaches that seemed to bring only crowds of old people. The mosaics were quite amazing and those with the wild animals and the bikini girls were a great source of fascination.

The following day we had a late afternoon drive to Pozzallo and finally a splash in the Med. We did some exploring on the south coast seaside towns the next day. It was a pretty coastline, but the towns often were littered with deserted buildings that were a bit of an eyesore on the drive. Eating out was excellent and of course reasonably priced. Laura and Oriol from Spain arrived after the second day with a strong desire to stay at one of the yurts on the farm. The threatening deluge of rain never eventuated so the farm was never cut off as predicted and the ford was repaired. There is a hell of a lot of work that has gone into the farm and I have to say I would no longer have the energy or at least the desire to undertake a project like that. It has been an adventure for them and I think life should be nothing but an adventure.

Part 2: Malta

There is always a lot of fuss involved with flying, especially the 25 minute flight to Malta from Comiso. After locating the car hire people (not that easy despite having an office at Luqa Airport) my first surprise was that they drive on the left. I wasn’t expecting that, but it was a breeze after driving in Italy where there is a certain ‘style’ to driving that I am pretty used to now. One thing I am not used to however is their occasional suicidal acts of overtaking on blind bends. Nuts.

We stayed in an Airbnb in a lovely part of the capital, Birgu which is across the harbour from Valetta but part of the same network of cities (I think).  The second surprise on arriving at the accommodation was that they use British power plugs. We were rather unprepared for that as we had come equipped with European ones and left the British ones in Epsom. Reminder to do more research on coming to a new country next time. Birgu was delightful with narrow cobbled streets and houses with colourful balconies.

We drove the next morning to Rabat where there are lovely walls and streets as well. We visited the extensive catacombs which were interesting. There is some nice coastline on the island and the good weather meant there were still plenty of tourists. That meant crowded beaches. European style beaches mostly with the usual set up of deckchairs and umbrellas. Give me an Aussie beach any day.

Much of the main island is fairly barren with few trees and lots of rocks. The coast is better. We had a swim at the Blue Grotto on the south coast. A lovely setting but the swimming area reminded more of Clovelly in Sydney. Much of the walled towns have a Game of Thrones feel and I know it has been used as a location for that series including the neighbouring island of Gozo. While I like the series, I wasn’t particularly bothered about hunting out locations. It was great to take a small boat across the harbour to Valetta. The highlight for me was the palace armoury museum which had a quite amazing collection of armour and old weapons. After three days we flew for the first time on EasyJet back to Gatwick. On previous trips to Europe I had avoided these budget airlines as I had been able to get similar fares on Air France and British Airways.

Part 3: Ireland

Two days after getting back to London we were on our way to Ireland. We took off in bright sunshine and flew over Wales (also in bright sunshine). I was glad I had been allocated a window seat and had to evict a grumpy old Irish woman who had occupied it. Stuff you entitled old git.

We were originally going to stay with Siobhan and Bill, but he is quite ill now and their house was having government sponsored modifications made so we stayed in an Airbnb a bit out of Kilkenny. It was great to catch up – especially Jackie and Shove getting some girl time together. We did a limited amount of sightseeing. Kilkenny Castle and some of the surrounding countryside. Of course, there was the well documented (on social media) visit to Tipperary – not much to see there and down to Waterford. Ireland was a bit more multicultural than I expected. Especially a town like Waterford where there were all manner of races and nationalities noticeably present in the street. In the centre of Dublin there was little evidence of anyone even speaking English in the street. A pleasant city but it didn’t grab me especially. Probably more for the young and those out for a drinking good time.

Part 4: Spain

Well always one of the favourites. This time we didn’t really travel anywhere but completely chilled out in Denia. The place was largely devoid of tourists and pleasantly quiet. I was chuffed to get a near new Ford SUV for a week for the grand price of £45! I’ve been amazed at some of the prices of rentals. We had a Ford Fiesta for 3 days from Gatwick for £14.50! I’m at a loss to know how they make money.

The area of Spain is so familiar to us. It was good to meander around and of course spend time with Phil and Mara. We had some great lunches and a more than a few laughs. It’s always good to return to our second European home. We climbed the Montgo – that is Phil, Jackie and me. I had done it before we left Denia in the 90’s when I almost ran up it. I took a more sedate pace this time. It was relatively easy to climb and we were cooled by the brisk north wind. It would be a bit harder in full sun and heat. The hard part was coming down. We went over the other side towards Xabia and eventually to the town of Jesus Pobre. It was a bit of a hard one for me. I had worn sandals as were the best footwear for my readjusted toe. The route down the other side had quite a different surface with some razor-sharp rocks on the path and it required care to not lose footing. Falling over would have involved shedding blood. The view over the coast was great. Going downhill was always going to be a test of me knee and foot and so it proved to be. My knee was in a fair deal of discomfort by the time we reached to road at Jesus Pobre. It was frustrating as it took away some of the pleasure of the walk and reminded me of the toll of the passing years and accumulated injuries. We resolved to come and spend three months on the Costa Blanca at some point and venture to the north west of Spain which I have wanted to see for years. It’s always a case of being there reminding you of what a lovely place it is. Coming back to Gatwick I went from left hand drive automatic SUV to right hand drive Golf seamlessly. It’s less of a challenge the more you do it – the brain just clicks over.