Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Wednesday, August 31st, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands


Maes Howe is the fourth of the Orkney sites included in the Heart of the Neolithic Orkney World Heritage sites.  Built five hundred years before Stonehenge (3200BC), it is the largest neolithic chambered cairn and passage grave in Europe.  The grass mound hides a complex of passages and chambers built of carefully-crafted flagstone slabs, weighing up to 30 tons.

And though taking photos inside is prohibited,  decided that the inside is so important for others to see, I have chosen to include some from the internet.

After a long low stoop, the inner chamber and side depositories are easily navigated, and one can imagine their use as bone storage for a chosen few.  What's more easily imagined is the visits of viking warriors two thousand years later.  The stones contain the largest concentration of viking runic grafitti resulting from a couple of recorded winter occupations in the eleventh century.

The Stromness Museum nearby is hosting an early exhibit of some of the finds from the Ness of Brodgar, so we had to go visit.  We were also looking for the Skare Brae Buddo (right), the mascot of neolithic Orkney archaeology.

After lunch, we drove back to the Ayre Hotel (About time I gave them a plug), and walked over to the Orkney Museum to read some of the local newspaper reports of digs in the area, and look at more of the museum's collection.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Wednesday, August 31st.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Tuesday, August 30th, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands


We drove to three of the four of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney's World Heritage sites today.  We'll see the fourth tomorrow morning (Maeshowe).  Though closed for the season, Caz gave us the details on the Ness of Brodgar, which is revealing new information on its role as the center of a huge ceremonial complex, including the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness.

Skare Brae has been called the oldest known village in Europe where you can still see the houses with their original stone furniture.  Built five thousand years ago, it consists of eight or more dwellings of square rooms with central hearths, stone beds on both sides, a shelved stone dresser opposite the entrance, covered passageways, and utilizing commons drains.
Revealed by erosive storms, its future is continually threatened.

The Ring of Brodgar, an almost true circle of standing stones, 104 meters in diameter, it is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles.

Thought originally to contain some 60 stones, the circle has lost stones to local destruction and at least one lightning strike.  Standing between two and seven meters high, the current count is 27 stones.

The Standing Stones of Stenness contains fewer, taller stones, arranged originally in an oval, built earliest, and with a hearth stone area in the middle.  A common misunderstanding is the depth of the stone in the ground.  The answer is much less than is believed, with wedged stones supporting a short burial.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Tuesday, August 30th.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Monday, August 29th, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands


In the northwest of the Orkney mainland, across Eynhallow Sound from where we were yesterday, lies the Broch of Gurness.  An early iron-age, stone tower settlement, it is almost surrounded by three stone-faced ditches.  The main structure contained an upper story with a thatched roof and wooden floor, and was accessed by a wall walk linked to stairs to the ground floor.

Leaping ahead a couple thousand years, we visited the palace of a much-disliked son of the half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, Patrick Stewart, who became the 2nd Earl of Orkney in the late 1500s.  Two years after construction began, Earl Patrick was imprisoned (1609) for financial mismanagement and his brutality against the local population, first in Edinburgh Castle, and then in Dumbarton Castle.  From the castle, he sent his illegitimate son, Robert, to seize the palace and most of the area around Kirkwall.  James VI's Privy Council ordered the Earl of Caithness to respond, and the rebellion was soon defeated.  Twelve officers were hanged at the palace gate.  Robert was taken to Edinburgh, put to trial, and hanged.  Soon after, his father was also tried and executed.

Driving west to nearly the northwest tip of Orkney, we crossed at low tide an up-ended seafloor causeway separating the mainland from the tidal island housing a 6th century monastery, 7-8th century Pictish, and 9th century Norse settlements.  The recovered evidence here indicates that the seat of power during these centuries may have been here, and the defensive attributes of the site reinforce that perception.

Barony Mills has been grinding barley (bere), tolerant of the cold weather and short growing season, since 1873.  Barley has been growing here since the Neolithic period.
Orkney Beremeal Bannocks 
There are various recipes for baking bere bannocks, but the most common is probably something like this:
2 c. of Birsay beremeal
1 c. of plain flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cream of tartar
salt (if desired)
Mix thoroughly, add milk, water or buttermilk to make a stiff but soft dough, roll out on a floured (mixture of flour and beremeal) board to form the bannocks (this will make 2 or 3), then cook on a hot, ungreased girdle 5 minutes or so each side until both sides are browned and the middle is cooked. Practice will make perfect. Consume with copious amounts of ale (plus plenty of Orkney butter and cheese.)
Ending the day at Kirbuster Farm Museum brought home to all of us how important the hearth was to families over the past milleniums. The museum was opened to the public in 1986.  It is the last un-restored example of a traditional "firehoose" in Northern Europe.  It has a central hearth, complete with peat fire, and a stone neuk bed, reminiscent of the Neolithic interiors that can be seen at the sites we have visited.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on: Monday, August 29th.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sunday, August 28th, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands


Joined by Dave and Jane, Brian and Eileen, and Sophie and Odile, we were off today, led by Caz Marnwell of Orkney Archeaology Tours.   The group is full of interesting and traveled people, with whom we've shared four meals, two ferry rides, and four neolithic and iron age ruins.

On a warm, almost windless day, we drove from Kirkwall to the ferry at Tingwall, and sailed to the island of Rousay (population 300).  In the course of a day, we saw structures which spanned almost 3,000 years.  And the youngest of these was a thousand year old by the time of the earliest Mayan temple.  And what struck Pat most was the fact that these ruins are surrounded by only a few islanders, no facilities, hardly any signs, and certainly no other tourists.

Listening to Caz, displaying her passion for both the present islanders and those who lived here for the past five millenium, we were fascinated by how much these preserved stone tombs, cairns, and brochs could reveal to us.  And by how many questions they left unanswered.  Few other spots on earth contain such a long, continuous, record of occupation leaving such detailed fresh evidence to study.  Absent only greater organic materials, one can hardly imagine a more valuable documentary treasure of man's existence.

In the next five days, we'll accompany Caz on a journey across the hills, shores, and bays of Orkney Islands.  We'll see palaces, chapels, single and rings of stones, more tombs and cairns, more brochs and towers, and plenty of really, really, really old houses.  And we'll question and wonder how the people of this area lived and died in them.

To see the photos that were taken today, click on Sunday, August 28th.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday, August 26th, Kirkwall, Orkney


Hurry up, you'll be late for the wedding!

While wandering around Kirkwall, we discovered that a fairly well-connected local family was having a wedding at the town's church.  If you weren't invited, you were outside watching, waiting for the bride to show up.

Before the wedding, we walked through the three floors and garden in one of the best local museums we've seen in a long time.  There are few places where 5,000 years of history can be laid out in great detail, with displays containing evidence almost all from local sources, without having to explain that some foreign explorers took the best of it to museums in Berlin or London.  I could spend many more hours in The Orkney Museum.

The weather this morning appeared to be what most think it would be like north of Scotland - overcast and a bit a rain, so we had breakfast at our guest house (Castaway), and I composed a Google Map of our travels around the area for the next week.  Each red icon contains the itinerary for the day, and the blue spots are the sites we'll be seeing.  Be sure to zoom in using the plus sign and out with the minus, so you'll be able to accurately click on the site icons.  Use your mouse to drag around the map.

To see all the photos taken today, click on Friday afternoon, August 26th.

Thursday, August 25th, Kirkwall, Orkney Islands


Wednesday and Thursday, we traveled from Reykjavik, Iceland to Kirkwall, Orkney Islands.  Normally, it would have only taken one day.  But the flight from Iceland got into Edinburgh, Scotland about ten minutes after the flight to Orkney departed.  So we stayed the night just outside of Edinburgh.

The photos today show us coming in on the train to Edinburgh, spending the day visiting the Royal Botanical Gardens, and then using the tram to the airport.

We're now in Kirkwall, arriving a couple of days early, and we'll explore the town before we meet up with our archeological contacts on Sunday to begin our ruin adventure.

To see the photos taken today, click on Thursday, August 25th,

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Tuesday, August 23rd, Reykjavik, Iceland


We're back in Reykjavik, turned in the rental car, and picked up my wide angle lens at the hotel.  I'm relieved that no speeding tickets were waiting for me, they didn't notice the small pebble shatter on the windshield, or the plugged nail hole in the tire.  Of course, we paid a lot to cover more than that, so my worries (other than the tickets in the tunnel) were overblown.

If you really want to see what good photographers can produce from a stay in Iceland, check out the album from today.  I promise you'll have no trouble picking out the two photographs of mine from among the collection at Tuesday, August 23rd.

Tomorrow, we fly to London, Edinburg, and finally Orkney Island.  

Monday, August 22, 2016

Monday, August 22nd, Hellnar, Iceland


Nothing like a 5km walk over a coastal lavabed to test out your knees.  We made it, and are having lunch on a deck overlooking the cove back at the FossHotel Hellnar.  Two and a half hours from Reykjavik, we're sitting in 65 degree sunshine, with no-wind, watching a jet overhead fly back to Minneapolis.

A friend here provided some insight into why everyone seems to have found Iceland.  The answer:  Some tourist spots have become risky - Turkey, Egypt, France.  This is becoming the August vacation spot.

Our walk gave us great looks at basaltic hexagonal columns right at the cliff faces, and no one has a better blog about them than Shing.

But if you don't tire of her photos, check out these and other walk shots we took today at Monday, August 22nd.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sunday, August 21st, Hellnar, Iceland


Today was a sailing day.  I doubt if we saved time over driving. but the trip was restful.  The main link for island living in the northwest, the ferry delivers tourists returning to the Reykjavik area, and fresh fish to their markets.

We disembarked at Stykkisholmur on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, beneath the ice-capped volcano, Snaefellsjokull. Immortalized in Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth, the mountain today was obscured by a thick cloud layer which hung just above equally majestic sea bird cliffs.  We drove the remaining 200 kilometers around the Peninsula, and made notes on what we might come back to see tomorrow.

The FossHotel group has provided us with the majority of our accommodations, and done a pretty good job of it.   Located strategically in rural areas just out side of small towns, they have brought us clean, efficient, friendly service at a good price.  But I have a complaint.  What's with the cereal bowls?  This morning's bowls were just deep enough for three corn flakes to reach the top.  With a small splash of milk, it took about eight spoonfuls to take it all in.  This contrasts with the soup bowls at dinner which one could make a complete meal.

To see the few photos taken today, click on Sunday, August 21st.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Saturday, August 20th, Patreksfjordur, Iceland


To get the scale of this waterfall, be sure to spot the guy standing on the clifftop in the center-right of the photo.  This is Dynjanti, one of the jewels of Iceland's waterfalls.

We didn't make many stops today, as we drove almost entirely on rutted dirt roads over several mountains and around fjords at the western end of Iceland.  Down steep roads to reach the sandy beaches at Rauoisandur, and out to the very end of Iceland at the Latrabjarg sea bird cliffs.  

While gas is expensive in Iceland, if I had it to do over, I think I'd choose a stronger, bigger, more off-road vehicle for these stretches of travel.  Dodging rocks and ruts in a little French Citroen with little room between you and the road is exhausting.  Pat's a very good sport, but I can see her knuckles getting white as she braces against the dashboard as we slide around the steep hairpin turns.  And let's not mention the tickets I'm getting while speeding through the one-lane tunnels to avoid oncoming trucks.

One last photo might give you a sense of place.  Fjords and cliffs and roads - leading to a small town trying to make it easier on the swarms of visitors.  Patreksfjordur did just that tonight by serving us the best lobster rolls, salad, and seafood soup.  We're curled up in our hotel room, looking out at what seems like the never-setting sun, and planning our last few days in Iceland.

To see the few more photos taken today, click on Saturday, August 20th.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Friday, August 19th, Isafjordur, Iceland


We're staying around the town today, taking advantage of the 2-day stay here to do the laundry, and catch up on some sleep.  It's a small town, and our hotel is right in the middle of it.  We get a perfect view of the townsfolk, and the cruise ship passengers, out our hotel window.

With gas at $6 per gallon, Icelanders are exploring other means of transportation. Without a doubt, cars are necessary to travel the long distances between towns.  Around town, it's another story.  Skateboards, bikes, scooters, sit-down bikes, and busses are everywhere.

On our morning walk, we explored old houses and a strong salt cod industry, and saw the Cruise ship tourists who came off the two ships parked in the harbor.  The largest, carrying 4,000 passengers, unloaded this morning.  The ice cream shop across from our hotel seemed the place to congregate, and we joined them for an excellent bowl of chocolate, caramel, and berries.

Driving to a nearby natural history museum, we discovered an exhibit featuring a piece of lignite (formerly a redwood tree) retrieved by a local geologist from a coal mine.  Evidently, such trees grew on Iceland 14 million years ago.  A larger display is being hosted this weekend near the ferry we will take on Sunday.  It's being organized by a local park ranger,  and I'm eager to learn more about Iceland's redwood history.

To see the rest of the photos taken today, click on Friday, August 19th.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Thursday, August 18th, Isafjordur, Iceland


Directly in front of us, almost the whole morning, were rainbows.  We drove up and down the sides of six fjords on Iceland's West Fjords today, and were constantly encouraged to follow their lead.  It was pretty magical.

Along the way,  we encountered the first road signs used in this country.  Cairns (piles of stones) have been constructed all across the country since 1100AD marking the early routes taken.  Usually about four feet tall, and about two hundred yards apart, these markers were used to guide travelers to settlements.
Lately, it seems that hikers and environmental artists have chosen to build tightly-packed straight-sided stone structures which have you wondering who would spend that much time on something few will ever see.

But then the cairns along the road have been there for centuries.

This part of Iceland is where its fishing industry began, and we visited a local museum displaying the history of cod fishing.  They had an excellent video, which followed the exploits of the members of a coastal fishing crew over their 18-hour day (and had me wondering how they captured all of those great segments inside the 6-person oar boat in the winter at sea).

But, as interesting as it was, the collection of accordions donated by a local resident was the hit of the museum.

Lastly, the Arctic Fox Center at Sudavik is the real prize of the day.  Did you know that the reasons they can survive in extreme cold are: 1) they have 20,000 hairs/cubic inch (a cat has 200); they have very small ears and noses; and 3) their unique blood system design utilizes something called "counter current exchange" in the legs. The paws are necessarily cold, but blood can circulate to bring nutrients to the paws without losing much heat from the body. Proximity of arteries and veins in the leg results in heat exchange, so that as the blood flows down it becomes cooler, and doesn't lose much heat to the snow. As the (cold) blood flows back up from the paws through the veins, it picks up heat from the blood flowing in the opposite direction, so that it returns to the torso in a warm state, allowing the fox to maintain a comfortable temperature, without losing it to the snow.

Arctic foxes were the first mammal to occupy Iceland, long before the last Ice Age, and this area has the highest concentration of them in the world.

To see all of the photos taken today, click on Thursday, August 18th.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Wednesday, August 17th, Drangsnes, Iceland


Face it.  If I find surf, you're going to see it.  On Iceland's North Coast, near the town of Sauoarkrokur, some nice lefts peeled across the long sandy beach.  The 16-shot sequence is included in today's photo album.

But we didn't come to Iceland to find surf.  Why did we come?  Well, the trip was really all about going to Orkney Island to spend some time at a recent archeological project that you'll read all about in about a week.  But if we're flying over Iceland anyway, why not visit?

Two million of us decided to drop in this year.  From our experience, Germans, Spanish, Chinese, Italians, and French are the easiest to spot (hear).  There are tour busses, but lots of folks have opted for small caravans and 4-wheel drive SUVs to go on some of the rougher roads.

It seems like every sizeable farm has guesthouses, and towns have upgraded their old hotels into 3-star accommodations.  Old barns are now restaurants, with excellent local arctic char, lamb, and other meat selections (horse?).

  But you should come to Iceland for more than a comfortable way to see hot and cold rocks and water.  You should come to see how a country ought to operate.  Now, granted, no one has ever threatened to attack it, so there's no standing army (and very little defense budget).  It has a healthy democracy, that rocks back and forth between conservative and liberal parties in power, but still gets things done.  The taxes aren't too high, and residents get health, education, and retirement benefits.  There's very little unemployment, plenty of small businesses starting and expanding, and not much of a welfare state.

Yes, they're pretty homogeneous.  With 73% Evangelical Lutheran, and 94% native born, they also have a higher net migration rate than we do.  They're healthier (second lowest infant (and 8th lowest maternal) mortality rate in the world, and the 6th highest life expectancy) and 98% of the populace has internet.  In every major measure collected by our CIA, they beat us.

And they believe in trolls and lake monsters, and Norse gods, and celebrate their poets and writers and artists.  What's not to like about Iceland?

To see the photos taken today, click on Wednesday, August 17th.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Tuesday, August 16th, Skagafjoradur, Iceland


This morning, we backtracked east to two places that bad roads had kept us from visiting yesterday.  The first is a 10 km wide volcano which has erupted nine times between 1974 and 1984.  On the north side of the caldera is an explosive crater, 300 meters in diameter with a green lake inside.  The western side of Krafla is a geothermal field which provides ten percent of Iceland's geothermal power.  The closest one can get to a huge chunk of the Earth's core, visitors are especially asked to stay on the trails to avoid the heated ground.

Then we drove to the largest waterfall in Europe.  Even though Iceland is still trying to get into the EU, they seem to welcome accepting this massive flow of ice water.

One the way back, we stopped at the local auto repair shop.  One of our tires had a slow leak, and our onboard alert system had been making a fit for the last two days.  We filled it up yesterday at a gas station, but it became clear something was wrong.  Removing the tire, he pulled a 1-inch long house nail from it, reamed out the hole, and inserted a plug covered with superglue.

Above 66 degrees north, near the Arctic Circle, there is very little land left to see and photograph. As our retrace and fixit adventures took the morning and early afternoon, we had little time to complete the drive from Myvatn to the Skagafjordur fjord to our next guesthouse.  The landscape as we circumnavigated the fjords and mountains along the northern Iceland coast was mind-blowing, and warranted lots of stops and photos.  We were limited, and you'll just have to take our word for it.  We are including a panorama of photos in the Google album taken from our porch at the guesthouse.

To see those photos, and all of the rest, click on Tuesday, August 16th. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Monday, August 15th, Lake Myvatn, Iceland


Today, we went whale watching in the cold waters of northern Iceland.  Krill are plentiful up here at this time, and Humpback whales have just arrived from the Gulf of Mexico for their annual meal.  On our sail, our crew took us to deep water spots where familiar whales returned each year.

Our searching pattern was simple.  Park in their kitchen, and wait for them to surface. Station all passengers around the boat, looking in every direction.  When a whale is spotted (the captain yells "Humpback at 6 O'Clock"), gun the engines to get there quickly, but try not to upset them.

Cut the engines, and hope the whale stays on the surface for a couple of minutes replenishing their oxygen supply before diving again to feed.  Try to fight for a good place to take some pictures, without knocking someone overboard.

Repeat again and again.

The day would have been a much better success if I hadn't left my regular/wide angle lens in the pocket of my rain jacket on board the ship.  If they find it, the crew said they'd mail it to our last hotel in Iceland in Rekjavik.

Before I include the link to today's photos, I wanted to note one more geological anomaly.  The photo to the left looks like a small volcanic crater, but it's not.  When lava flows quickly over a really cold patch of ice, it explodes like a 500 pound bomb.  It leaves a hole locally called a pseudocrater. There are about a dozen of them near our hotel.

To see the photos we took today, click on Monday, August 15th, Myvatn,