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BUDGET ICELAND ROAD TRIP DAY 5 – THE BLUE LAGOON AND SELTUN


Seltun

After our rather intense (but amazing) fourth day of travelling around the spectacular sights of Southern Iceland, we decided our fifth and final day in the country should be a rather more subdued affair, particularly as we had covered a lot of ground the previous three days.

It is common knowledge that you can’t visit Iceland without going to the Blue Lagoon – its often ranked the number one single greatest thing to do in Iceland, especially if you are short on time – so who were we to turn it down. Off to the Blue Lagoon we went.

THE BLUE LAGOON, ICELAND

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The night before, we had gone out in Reykjavik to discover the infamous Icelandic night-life (at least at the weekends), that we had heard so much about. We had heard stories of restaurants turning into bars then into nightclubs, people getting quite literally blind drunk and groups of friendly Icelanders initiating visitors into their unique night-life culture in big friendly packs.

What happened on our night out in Reykjavik is not quite for this blog (also I can’t remember everything still today), but I woke up on day 5 not even hungover, but still extremely drunk with only vague recollections of ending up in “Kiki’s Gay Bar” having a wonderful time and managing to lose my new baseball cap in the process. How fantastic the Blue Lagoon was the main itinerary for the day. I highly doubt I would have been able to cope with any kind of hike state I was in, never mind walking behind a waterfall.

The Blue Lagoon is not in Reykjavik itself, but about 45 minutes drive South East of the capital, quite near the airport. Being such a huge tourist attraction, I was sort of expecting to hate the Blue Lagoon. I expected it to be a packed, money grabbing tourist trap….luckily for me I was proved wrong!

Upon driving up to the Blue Lagoon you start to see large pools of LUMINOUS (the pictures don’t do the colours justice at all) pools of water, and this bizarre shock of colour starts to form a twinge of excitement in your stomach -

Blue Lagoon Iceland

Blue Lagoon Iceland

When I visited, the basic Blue Lagoon entry package was around £35, with  the next price level up not really offering enough to justify the spend (as long as you bring a towel with you). Unless you are flush with cash, or really want the entire Blue Lagoon experience, I don’t think most people would need more than the basic entry level price.

The Blue Lagoon is Scandinavian magnificence.  For such a huge tourist attraction it is clean, slick and organised enough to never feel too full of people, despite the opposite probably being true. I was personally really impressed. I never felt rushed, or overwhelmed by other people, and the whole experience was quite wonderful – probably much better than I ever expected.

Upon entry you are handed a magic wristband, which is your locker key and your payment in the Blue Lagoon itself  - you can buy beer, wine, smoothies and treatments with it – you pay upon exit so no money needed in the pool. Its a simple but very clever system, and makes the process of being in the Blue Lagoon much simpler, and queues much shorter.

The actual Blue Lagoon itself is brilliant. It was quite a cold day when we went, but the Lagoon is more than warm enough that you don’t notice the weather at all (the entire complex is located outside). The juxtaposition of the freezing cold air and warm water is pretty awesome, and there is a free steam room, face masks and thermal waterfall (which feels like “a troll pummelling on your back”) even with basic entry.

I had a great time, and it really helped sort out my stinking hangover. We spend out 3 hours in the lagoon itself, and loved every minute. Eventually we left, and carried on South East to the amazing Krysuvik region…

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If you only have a short amount of time in Iceland, I would certainly recommend the South East corner of the country as a really great place to go, much more so than putting yourself through a Golden Circle tour. It offers some very unique landscape (particularly in comparison to the relatively bland landscape surrounding the nearby Reykjavik), it is near to the capital, Blue Lagoon and the airport and most importantly – there is loads to see!

We were too tired/hungover and relaxed following the Blue Lagoon to really make large headways into this part of the country. But we did pack in a few sights before leaving Iceland for good.

SELTUN, KRYSUVIK, ICELAND

The Krysuvik region is an area of South East Iceland that features particularly large amounts of geothermal activity. You see a lot of lava fields, smell a lot of sulphur in the air and see a lot of milky bright blue water.

One of the most impressive areas is named Seltun. Amazingly this area is free to visit, and very easy to walk around. It feels like you are visiting Mars.

You will know you have arrived at Seltun, as you will see this ominous abandoned farm standing tall by the roadside, looking like a David Lynch film location -

Seltun

Right next to this building is the lake Grænavatn, a former crater that is now filled with the bright blue water we saw at the Blue Lagoon -

Graenavatn

Almost across the road from here is the otherworldly Seltun itself.

Seltun is pretty much the closest you are going to get to Mars on earth without actually going there. The area isn’t enormous, but well worth a visit. The landscape is steaming, scorching, bubbling and really quite amazing. Here are a few pictures -

Seltun 19 18 16 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 Seltun Iceland

Incredible right

Just around the corner from Seltun is the extremely beautiful lake Kleifarvatn. I was VERY tired at this point, and didn’t have the energy to get out and explore (something I obviously regret now), so all I got was this lonely photo, again the colours in the picture do not do real life justice -

kleifarvatn

It was then back home, ready for a final meal and our flight back to the UK the next day. We had an amazing time in Iceland, as a country it really is completely unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been on earth.

If you want to read about the rest of our trip, here are the blogs of the other days -

Budget Iceland travel advice 

Day 1 – Reykjavik 

Day 2 – Western Iceland

Day 3 – South West Iceland

Day 4 – Southern Iceland and the Golden Circle

 

BUDGET ICELAND ROAD TRIP DAY 4 – JOKULSARLON GLACIAL LAGOON, SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK, SVARTIFOSS, GEYSER AND GULLFOSS


Svartifoss

And so following on from our day 3 adventure where we saw several of the delights of the South coast of Iceland, we woke up early on day 4 and set off to our next location, which luckily for us was a short 20 minute drive from the hostel we were staying in. We were headed to the ghostly, and quite fantastic location of the glacial lagoon Jokulsarlon…

Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

Jokulsarlon

The glacial lagoon of Jokulsarlon is really quite amazing. Formed where the huge Icelandic glacier Breioamerkurjokull started receding into the Atlantic Ocean – and very easily accessible from the Route 1 ring road – it is well and truly a natural wonder.

It is so easily accessible from the ring road, you may even get a shock when you drive through it. Surrounded by typical Icelandic landscape for the region, you suddenly drive over a bridge and find yourself in a ghostly Icelandic graveyard of ice and freezing blue water. Minute icebergs float around the lagoon, and the ice lake stretches all the way back to the foot of the glacier.

Its really a very impressive and otherworldly sight – so much so it has been used in several Hollywood blockbusters, including two James Bond films – A View To A Kill, Die Another Day, Tomb Raider and Batman Begins.

Jokulsarlon Jokulsarlon

Impressively, Jokulsarlon is – like most natural wonders of Iceland – completely free. Most other countries of the world would charge a steep admission to see this place! My best tip would be to get there early. We stayed nearby overnight and was able to get to Jokulsarlon around 8.30-9am when it was still relatively quiet and the dreaded coach loads of tourists had yet to turn up. This meant we had a little while to wander around ourselves and enjoy the eerie silence of the lagoon ourselves.

The sound of the lagoon itself is worth a mention – you hear nothing but silence, the creaking of the lagoon, and wind whistling through the ice. Sparse and wonderfully creepy.

By about 10am the lagoon was already starting to get busy, with keen amateur photographers abundant. Despite being a glacial lagoon, it wasn’t all that cold when we visited in April. Obviously wrap up warm, but the area itself wasn’t freezing sub-zero temperatures despite being the setting of an ice lake.

Otherworldly, atmospheric, and so easy to access, Jokulsarlon should definitely feature high on any Iceland road trip list.

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After a quick warm-up coffee in the tiny gift shop handily located next to the lagoon, it was back into the car and onto our next location, again not located too far away…

SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK AND SVARTIFOSS 

Skaftafell is a huge Icelandic national park, with the entrance and visitors centre located about 1KM from the Route 1 ring road. It is decently signposted and we had no issues finding it. Skaftafell is located around the area of the Breioamerkurjokull glacier (which Jokulsarlon above is formed from), and offers a variety of hikes around the region, some of which take you right up to (and even on) the glacier itself!

Sadly we didn’t have time to go on a glacial hike (as much as I would have liked to), so we settled on the much shorter (and I’m sure almost as impressive) hike to the beautiful waterfall Svartifoss.

The hike to Svartifoss starts to the left of the Skaftafell vistors centre, and is clearly signposted. It is not a particularly difficult hike, being just a few km on a relatively easily incline. It takes about 45 minutes to reach Svartifoss, and the hike is well worth it – you pass over the top of two other waterfalls on the way to Svartifoss, and the drama of watching the water tumble down from the top is always a fascinating sight to behold. After a while, the incredibly picturesque Svartifoss starts to come into view -

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A few minutes later, you are standing right in front of it

Svartifoss svartifoss

Svartifoss is STUNNING. Such a reward for a small amount of work to see it. Similar to Jokulsarlon above, Svartifoss shares some of its ethereal, other worldly appeal.

The gothic, black, basalt columns formed by lava that surround the fall are incredibly atmospheric, and look too perfect and beautiful to be formed by nature alone -

svartifoss basalt columns

We stayed and had a picnic. Certainly one of the most scenic lunches I have ever partaken in -

svartifoss picnic

A short hike to the side of Svartifoss (less than 1km) is another trail to a viewing platform and compass, that I certainly recommend even if you are short on time. The trail leads you high up to the top of the mountain you have been climbing, which overlooks vast, vast kilometres of barren landscape below. It is a fascinating view. With nothing to block your way (this is a very isolated part of the Route 1 road) you can see all the way to the sea. Such a huge distance in visible we saw areas that were currently being rained on, and where the rain starts and stops.

On the opposing side of this spectacular view of the valley below, is fantastic views of the surrounding mountain range and the glacier Breioamerkurjokull itself.

Svartifoss viewing point

Svartifoss viewing point

Having dipped a toe into Skaftafell (there are much more intensive hikes available had we desired), it was back to the car and a long drive to our next destination…

GULLFOSS AND GEYSIR

Two iconic sights of Iceland, and stars of the famous “golden circle” of Icelandic must-see sights. We couldn’t come to Iceland and not see Gullfoss or Geysir. So in order to see everything we wanted to see, we had to fit them in today. Gullfoss and Geysir are very close together, but not at all close to Skaftafell, Svartifoss or Jokulsarlon. They are however vaguely close to Reyjavik, which is where we were headed back to, so back in the car it was for a long drive back across the country (break it up by stopping at service stations and tasting different flavours of Skyr yoghurt drink – top tip).

The drive back is full of incredible views, at least in the Skaftafell region, with waterfalls a-plenty and huge rock formations abound. Driving through a valley we genuinely saw the end of a rainbow! -

rainbow beginning rainbow end

alas no pot of gold was to be found

We also passed the historic peat church located in Hof -

Hof peat church

After a very long drive, we eventually arrived at the first of the two attractions, Geysir.

To be honest, I was quite disappointed by Geysir. As you pull up you initially just see a gigantic gift-shop and restaurant, and very little in the way of steaming geysers. Eventually you find the entrance across the street. Perhaps seeing so much awesome stuff previous (a glacial lagoon! Svartifoss! Walking through a geothermal meadow! etc) made Geysir seem terribly sterile in comparison.

Essentially what you see is this for a long time -

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Followed by this, which is over so quickly you miss actually seeing it as you’re trying too hard to get a picture of it on your iphone -

geysir iceland geysir iceland

It was perfectly fine, but the sights we had seen the day previous at Hveragerdi were comparable and MUCH more impressive.

Back in the car again it was to Gullfoss, the famous gigantic waterfall and star of the opening credits of Prometheus.

Sadly, again I was disappointed by Gullfoss. Perhaps being blown away earlier that day by the beautiful Svartifoss didn’t help, neither did visiting the incredible Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss the day previous either.

Gullfoss IS incredible. Much more visiually impressive than Geysir, but such a force of nature it was – at least the day we visited – quite hard to get close, or see it. There was SO MUCH freezing water in the air it kind of hurt your face. Lots of railings were closed off to see closer to the waterfall – not the fault of Gullfoss for being an awesome waterfall, just a little disappointing for us having travelled to see it -

Gullfoss

I wouldn’t want to go on a Golden Circle tour myself. Compared to some of the sights we saw (which were not difficult to access at all), they just seem a little tame. Svartifoss, Hellnar, Seltun (which is to come on day 5), Vik beach, Jokulsarlon, Seljalandfoss and Skogafoss are all so much more impressive.

Back in the car it was again, and back to Reykjavik. We did intend to stop at a crater lake named Kerid that Bjork had once performed at on a raft -

Kerið Volcano Crater, Iceland

Alas, our car got stuck in the mud extremely close to the Kerid crater, and we ended up being pulled out by a local (and very kind) Icelandic man in a tractor -

iceland tractor

Tired having had a very busy day (and it was dark), with a car that we didn’t want to stick in the mud again we gave Kerid a miss sadly (I will return one day!) and made our way back to Reykjavik. We then proceeded to have an extremely drunken night out on the town in Reykjavik as is apparently the custom in Iceland.

We had one more day left, day 5 bought us a stinking hangover, the Blue Lagoon, and the amazing Mars-like Seltun…

Lykke Li live – Village Underground May 8th


lykke li gunshot

Lykke Li live review – Village Underground, London, May 8th 2014

So Lykke Li has stood me up not once, but twice in the past. ~Firstly during the release period of her (mostly great) debut album “Youth Novels” she was due to perform at a London club night as a live PA, but cancelled due to sickness.

Secondly, around the same time she cancelled a festival appearance she was scheduled to perform at  -obviously I was in attendance and missed seeing her once again. All this was during Lykke Li’s debut album “messy bun” hair period, which spawned a million copycat messy hairstyles all over East London (some of which are still seen today). I was gutted to miss this iconic hairstyle in person -

lykke li hair bun

During the promotion for her wonderful second album “Wounded Rhymes” she only played a couple of small London gigs which sold out almost immediately – I didn’t manage to get tickets, so now on her third album “I Never Learn” (striking album cover below) I was determined to get tickets as soon as she announced she was playing London Underground, which is conveniently just down the road from my house. Luckily I managed to get hold of some, and finally I was able to see Lykke Li in a live setting (something I had heard rave reviews about in the past).

During all this time I had spent not being able to see Lykke live, I had become quite a fan of her work . I find myself consistently returning to her albums, their charms revealed more and more with every listen.

Her artistic growth over the course of her three albums has already been quite striking – from the optimistic youthful exuberance of the “Youth Novels” album, certainly her most positive point, with upbeat tracks like “Dance, Dance Dance” and “I’m Good I’m Gone” standing out above the bleaker moments. Her second album “Wounded Rhymes” definitely started to see Lykke become a little jaded with relationships and the opposite sex in general (“Sadness Is A Blessing”, “Unrequited Love”), but still had time for boppy female empowerment (“Get Some”, “Jerome”), we now meet Lykke on her third album “I Never Learn”, and things have gotten bleak

lykke li i never learn

The album cover (above) speaks a lot for the album inside it. Dark, black, dramatic. Lykke Li has had her heart broken, and badly. The album is bleak, depressing (in the way only Swedes can do true misery) and also really very good.

The set at her gig very much reflects the album cover. The stage has black fabric hanging down from the ceiling, everybody on stage wears black (she brings a full band, including TWO pianos), the lighting is dark and dramatic (changing to pitch black after every song), and Lykke herself emerges after an instrumental intro to “I Never Learn” (the song) wearing a sparkly black cape, her make-up dark, her hair matted and wild.

The first thing you notice is that Lykke’s vocals are flawless. So flawless I was sceptical whether she was even singing live during first track “I Never Learn” (the song being a genuine career high I feel). However as her set progresses it becomes very clear it really is Lykke singing, managing to very much wring emotion from pretty much every note. How she manages to sing like that on a full tour and keep her voice in good order I have no idea, but I’m pretty glad she does.

A reoccurring theme of her set is sadness and misery. She really reinforces the heartbreak of her new album by carefully selecting tracks from her back catalogue. “Hanging High” from “Youth Novels” is transformed into an acoustic torch ballad and the three-punch of “Gunshot”, “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone” and “Sleeping Alone” from “I Never Learn” would get even the blackest of hearts openly weeping.

Not to say that the entire set is heavy. Bouncy “Little Bit” is gladly received by the crowd, as is “I Follow Rivers” – a song has taken on an entrire world of its own since release. “Youth Knows No Pain” borrows Beyonce’s “Drunk In Love” chanting to quite unexpectedly become an extended crunk dance track  (which genuinely works), and “Jerome” is re-giggled live slowly building to a huge percussive chorus.

Lykke herself is in very good voice, and is in typical Swedish misanthrope mode telling (not asking) the crowd to stop spending the gig on their phones, forget about Instagram and Facebook just for a while, and concentrate on her – being as she is pretty much (emotionally) naked on stage. This doesn’t actually go down quite as well with the crowd as she probably expects, with her statement receiving a mere scattering of applause, and people secretly taking pictures as the gig progresses.    

In terms of the set-list there are a few surprises. The more upbeat “Youth Novels” album is represented lightly with singles such as “Dance Dance Dance”, “I’m Good, I’m Gone” and “Tonight” all absent (probably for being too upbeat, although “Tonight” would have been appreciated) and most surprisingly her track “Possibility” – best known for appearing in the Twilight films – is also missing, with “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone” seemingly taking its place as torch ballad of choice.

So after two aborted attempts I finally got to see Lykke Li. Was she worth it? Absolutely. I really feel she is on the cusp of greatness, perhaps not quite there yet, but should her albums keep coming as strong as they have been doing in the future, this girl has a very bright path ahead of her. Live, she was everything I had heard in a  performer, the audience were very much in her grasp at times, and vocals like no other. I spotted plenty of messy buns in the audience too.

I think the set-list pretty much went like this -

I Never Learn

Love Out Of Lust

Just Like A Dream

No Rest For The Wicked

Jerome

Hanging High

Never Gonna Love Again

Little Bit

Gunshot

Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone

Sleeping Alone

I Follow Rivers

Rich Kids Blues

Heart Of Steel

Youth Knows No Pain

Get Some

-

Du Ar Den Ende

Sadness Is A Blessing

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CINQUE TERRE, ITALY – VERNAZZA, CORNIGLIA, GUVANO BEACH and MANAROLA


Manarola

 

Lets take a quick detour from my budget travel blog of Iceland for a few moments. I recently also went to another incredibly beautiful destination – although extremely different from Iceland in almost every way – the Cinque Terre region of Italy. Situated upon the Western coast of Italy, this region is actually a national park, with very strict building regulations in place to help preserve the unique look and feel of the region.

Predominantly made up of five main coastal towns (although there are other small villages and Hamlets along the way), Cinque Terre is quite unique in that there is a complete hiking trail between all five towns along the coast – widely regarded as one of the most beautiful (and not too difficult) hiking trails in the world.

The five main towns of the region are – Monterosso Al Mere (the biggest), Vernazza, Corgnilia (the smallest), Manarola and Riomaggiore. I didn’t get chance to visit Monterosso or Riomaggiore on my travels unfortunately, although I have heard Montrosso is very different in feel to the other towns in the area, being something of a large touristy beach town as opposed to the quaint winding Italian coastal villages found elsewhere in the area.

We ended up staying in a rather basic, but absolutely wonderful AirBnB property in a tiny hamlet called Prevo, situated between Corniglia and Vernazza. Prevo was so small the only way to realise you were there was the word “Prevo” written on a bin left by the roadside!

The views from where we were staying were absolutely sensational, this was taken from our bedroom window -

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Outside the house itself, the views were even better – a complete panorama of the bright blue Italian coastal sea. It was quite the sight to wake up to – particularly when I’m used to seeing the delights of East London’s Hackney Road every morning -

 

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To get to the Cinque Terre region we flew into Milan, rented a car from the airport and drove to the coast – a perfectly fine option, but bear in mind the drive is reasonably long (about 3 hours), and once you arrive at Cinque Terre you probably have about another hours drive along the incredibly steep, winding and borderline terrifying mountain roads of the region – this isn’t an area you can speed in. Apparently flying into Piza is a more time efficient way of getting to Cinque Terre if you are driving, or you could fly into Milan and get the train down (although I would be nervous relying on the Italian train infrastructure personally – they were on strike the weekend we visited!).

Where we were staying was absolutely charming, but we we itching to get out and explore the area, so decided to take the car to the town we had read a lot about and was the closest to us – Vernazza.

VERNAZZA, CINQUE TERRE, ITALY 

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Vernazza is I believe, the second biggest town in the Cinque Terre region after Monterosso, and is famed for having two ruined forts standing watch over the town (one pictured above), and a comparatively happening nightlife scene for a small coastal town located in an Italian national park.

Guys, I’m going to level with you right now – I wasn’t too into Vernazza. The region had apparently been hit by heavy flooding over the last year, causing a lot of damage to the area. Whilst most of the other towns were now almost back to normal (especially as several of them are much higher up altitude-wise than Vernazza), Vernazza was clearly still trying to get itself back together when I visited – no big deal, these things happen.

The issue I had with Vernazza was the sheer amount of tourists flooding the town! The town was absolutely packed – and we visited in early April. Whilst the locals mainly rely on tourist trade for income so are probably somewhat grateful for their presence, when we visited it seemed most locals just wanted everybody to clear off so they could get their town back in order, and not have to deal with people shrieking at them for their wifi password.

Vernazza is the only town in the region aside from Monterosso (which is much further up the coast) that has an accessible beach. To reach it is quite charming – you have to dip under a huge rock that leads off the main street through the town. The beach itself is quite beautiful (if a little dirty after the flooding), but again when we visited was absolutely so overrun with people it was difficult to really stop and enjoy yourself -

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The town also has many restaurants, a picturesque harbour and small church and lots of shops clearly focused on the tourist wallet. Vernazza was ok, but not really wanted from my holiday in Cinque Terre, so we had some dinner, went to the local deli, stocked up on wine and went back to our amazing hut in Prevo to watch the sunrise over the sea.

The next day we woke up and decided to explore the town on the other side of where we were staying, Corniglia….

CORNIGLIA, CINQUE TERRE, ITALY

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So having woken up with a rather sore head (on account of drinking all the wine we purchased from Vernazza the day previous), it soon dawned up us that to actually get to Corniglia, we would have to walk there – what better way to cure a hangover than a mountainside cliff hike right!

We only had enough food in the house to make ourselves a rather frugal breakfast – think fruit and yoghurt rather than a lavish brunch (and no coffee), so off we set with our heads clouded and our energy levels a little dulled.

Luckily for us, the main walking route between the towns was a short hike down the mountain from where we were staying (when I say hike, it was more an imaginary trail behind buildings, bushes and scrambling over walls) until we eventually found the trail. The view – as always – was stunning, try and see if you can spot Corniglia on the cliff in the middle of photo one (hint – its the beige coloured blur) -

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It was about a 45 minute hike (it probably took us an hour considering the state we were in) from Prevo to Corniglia (Corniglia to Vernazza is probably about 1.5 hours). Its a relatively simple hike with some steep parts, but nothing too troublesome. We found ways to amuse ourselves along the way -

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Eventually you spot the town of Corniglia small in the distance (initially depressing as you realise how much further you have to walk, particularly when hungover and hungry), but it soon comes around pretty quickly -

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I cannot say enough good things about Corniglia. This town was GREAT. Everything I wanted Vernazza to be. Smaller, windier, more authentic. Much fewer loud screeching tourists, less obvious tourist shops, lots of nice cafes and restaurants and much friendlier locals – most locals seemed quite welcoming to visitors here.

Corniglia is not a massive place, it probably won’t even take you an hour to walk around it, but it is certainly extremely charming. We had a wander through the streets. Halfway through is a piazza with several cafes and a chapel -

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One thing I will say unashamedly about the Cinque Terre region is that the food is GREAT. Forget trip advisor or online reviews – we didn’t eat badly anywhere the whole time we were there. Follow your nose (and the locals).

We stopped in the piazza for what was intended as breakfast, but ended up as a light lunch. Even simple food here is fantastic. We lunched in a cafe called Cafe Matteo and ordered a fresh orange/lemon juice made with lemons from the town – so fresh and delicious, it was amazing. Some simple bruschetta followed to start, and as a main I had gnocchi with fresh pesto (delicious), and my friend had tagliatelle with mushrooms and parmesan. This may all sound VERY bog-standard Italian fare, but trust here – this was simple, but made with love. The tagliatelle was one of the best pasta dishes I have ever tasted – everything in my mouth tasted incredible. Looking around the tables near us, all the locals were eating it too -

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Elsewhere in the town we discovered the local deli, which also doubles as a local grocery store. Wandering around investigating Italian biscuits in the back, we noticed a small (and very old) Italian woman making pesto in the back -

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wandering up to have a look, her daughter (who was also in the back baking biscuits) had a good chat with us, and introduced her mother – the pesto maker – who was also borderline deaf. She told us to come back tomorrow, as there would be an Easter parade for Palm Sunday. We watched Mama pesto work before politely slipping off (she must have found us a little odd) -

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Also of interest in Corniglia is a small pottery boutique, amusingly named “Fannys Bazaar”. Whilst the music playing in the store was horrendous Italian RnB, the pottery itself was delightful – very brightly coloured and a little bit camp. Everything had sea creatures, grapes, olives or flower scenes on. Hideous to some I’m sure, but also quite a nice splash of Mediterranean colour to others -

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Sufficiently charmed by Corniglia, we grabbed an ice-cream (top tip – fig and ricotta flavour is divine), and went off to explore a nearby beach we had read about…

GUVANO BEACH, CINQUE TERRE

Despite being on the Italian coastline, the Cinque Terre region is not famed for its beaches. Its a very mountainous region, with most of where the seas meets land being cliff and rock. We had google beforehand however and discovered there was a beach located almost directly underneath where we were staying (Prevo), situated somewhere between Prevo and Corniglia. We had been told to look out for a sign on the hiking trail which led down to the beach, which was famed for being quiet, and rather beautiful (and also a naturist beach). We found the sign on our way to Cornigila, so upon leaving we followed the trail back -

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This was the sign that led to the beach. So we went off the hiking trail and started walking down the cliff, following a very faint track that had been left. We fallowed was a borderline TERRIFYING experience following a very feint, steep and often ridiculous path down the mountain to the beach. Rustic is definitely the word. I would not recommend this for anybody vaguely unfit or out of shape, I’m a pretty good hiker and I found parts completely insane – the path literally disappeared at times just leaving you with a huge drop down to the bottom of the mountain in front of you, and a ledge to shimmy across. It felt like I was in a brush-forest level of Tomb Raider.

The trail takes about 20 minutes-half an hour, and boy were we glad when we eventually seemed to join onto a basic road. In rustic Italy you are lucky if you get a signpost at all (there definitely wasn’t one here), so we followed the road down the mountain to what we assumed would lead us to the beach. Another five minutes walk, and after a reasonably traumatic hike we were there!

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Luckily for us, all the effort was worth it. Guvano Beach was wonderful. This was my first time on a naturist beach, and being a self-concious Brit I sadly didn’t join in with the nudist fun. There were several other people on the beach in swimwear also, so don’t be too concerned about offending local Italian naturists – nobody seemed to care.

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You quickly learn on a naturist beach the etiquette applicable to the beach you are on, and on Guvano Beach it seemed that staring is a-OK! Myself and my friend couldn’t really help but gawp, even when we weren’t intending to – some of the people on the beach were VERY relaxed with their bodies  (I definitely saw more anus than I was intending to that day), but fair play to them if they have the balls to do it. Almost everybody on the beach was gawping at each other – some of the people on the beach clearly enjoyed it, with some strutting around like peacocks. It was a very fun and interesting experience, I’d definitely consider going to a naturist beach in future – this one was very clean, quiet and relaxed.

I decided to have a wander – the beach is halved by rocks in the middle, with a cove section on one side and a more normal rocky beach on the other -

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It was reasonably warm the day we visited, so we decided to have a dip in the sea. Despite being April the water was definitely a swim friendly temperature – you just have to get through the initial shock of entering the water – although this can be tough, once your body adjusts the water was lovely, clear and smooth -

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After several hours on the beach, several swims and making several friends (one of which seemed a little too keen to try and convert me to his staunch cause of naturism), my friend and I decided to head back home before darkness was upon us (in Cinque Terre when it gets dark it gets VERY dark). Not really wanting to go back the way we came, we decided to try a different route to get back to civilisation and had a walk around eventually coming to a big old railway tunnel – people seemed to be walking around and about the opening of the tunnel, however when we got there we saw a big sign on the wall saying entrance is forbidden. With signs being so rare in this part of Italy, we took this as being very important, so decided the tunnel couldn’t possibly be the way out.

What happened next was genuinely quite terrifying.

Logically we decided that if we couldn’t get back using the bottom of the road we joined onto when we first came down the cliff to the beach (the tunnel is at the bottom), the way back must be at the top of the road.

So we proceeded to walk back up the road further and further up the mountain.

The road soon became a path, which in turn became a winding trail.

The winding trail started to get more and more sketchy, and we were getting higher and higher with no clear end in sight.

Eventually we came to a wooden sign saying “Guvano Beach, Welcome!” despite the path being somewhat bizarre, this gave us a flicker of hope we were on the right track back, so we carried on, despite the trail getting steeper and steeper, thinner and thinner.

Eventually the trail just STOPPED.

The trail just stopped. There was no indication of anywhere to go. We were basically faced with an entirely blank cliff edge with nothing but a very steep drop to the other side in front of us.

I thought I could see the trail continue a bit higher up, and we had come so far, I really was not in the mood to admit defeat and turn back now.

So despite that we hadn’t seen any form of human life in a while, and that I had a sheer drop directly below me, I proceeded to try and climb vertically up the cliff to the “continuation of the trail” I thought I could see.

Clearly this was no trail, and very rapidly the sand and soil beneath my feet started sliding down the cliff and I had to hold onto a branch a bit above me to stop me sliding down the cliff edge with the soil.

Looking back my friend looked absolutely petrified, and looking down there was pretty much nothing below me apart from sheer cliff edge.

This was the moment I realised this probably was not the route back to civilisation, and perhaps now would be a good point to swallow my pride and admit defeat.

I managed somehow to slide back to safety (cutting my leg in the process), admitting the whole journey had been a huge waste of time, we decided to walk back where we had come from, and perhaps attempt the walk back the route we had come initially down the mountainside (although NEITHER of us wanted to do this at all).

However on our way back, we noticed a small slim olive grove truck had appeared on the road below. This was very bizarre, we couldn’t understand how a truck could be here when there was absolutely no obvious or connecting route to the beach other than the trail down the mountainside we had earlier taken. We decided to approach the truck and ask where we were supposed to go (something we probably should have asked somebody earlier), and maybe try and grab a lift back to Corniglia.

Unfortunately, tired, sweaty, bloodied and more than a little fed up of this damn mountain we reached the beach again…and the truck was nowhere to be seen. Rather frustrated and confused we luckily saw a young Italian couple walking around the area, so quickly ran to them and asked them where the hell we were supposed to go. Their English wasn’t great, but we did understand one word…”TUNNEL”

Guvano Beach railway tunnel…it had been in front of us the entire time.

The tunnel is actually a disused railway tunnel that leads from Corniglia railway station straight to Guvano Beach, sheesh if ONLY we had known about this earlier. The tunnel however is not a quick stroll. Its about a 1.5km walk in pitch black darkness to the other side. Only do it if you have a torch, or torch on your phone, or enough phone battery to light your way for the whole journey (about 15-20 minutes). This tunnel is PITCH BLACK. I’ve never experienced absolute pitch black, unable to see anything at all before in my life, and despite the tunnel being reasonably safe (I assume), turning your torch off and trying to walk forward is a truly bizarre (and terrifying) experience – you feel like you are moving backwards, or not at all – do it for long and I imagine you’d just fall over, you really feel utterly powerless.

Another strange quirk of the tunnel is that trains still ruin either above, across, or alongside this disused tunnel. At one point there was a huge scream of engine, flash of light and whoosh as you realise a train has just done something very close to you, but being in pitch black you can’t quite work out what. Still to this day I’m not sure where the train was (it may have been crossing the tunnel!), so beware! Don’t get run over by a train.

After a very bizarre couple of hours and a pich black walk, we eventually returned to civilisation and daylight. This is the REAL entrance to Guvano Beach, and the route you should take if you want to go there (and bring a torch) -

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The entrance is located down a curved street (more like an alleyway) across the bridge from the train station (I think there was some graffiti with an arrow saying Guvano Beach).

Unfortunately for us, our ordeal was not yet over. Having arrived back in Corniglia we were actually at the very base of the mountain (the village being located at the top), meaning we had to climb the unexpectedly VERY steep steps all the way back to the town. There are 365 steps from the train station to the town (one for every day of the year apparently) and they are very (unnecessarily) steep. Give yourself a good 10-15 minutes to climb upwards (groaning all the way back up).

Eventually having made it back to Corniglia, and not facing a further 45 minute cliff hike back to Prevo (in what was becoming darkness on the mountainside), my friend made enough fuss of herself in the local shop until a friendly local offered to drive us back to Prevo as he was going that way too. NEVER has a ride in a car been so sweet.

Exhausted, but very happy, we proceeded to spend a second evening drinking wine under the stars watching the sea disappear into the night…

BUDGET ICELAND ROAD TRIP DAY 3 : SOUTHWEST ICELAND – HVERAGERDI, SELJALANDFOSS, SKOGAFOSS AND VIK


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Following on from our eye-opening (and often jaw-dropping) day 2 trip around the West of Iceland, day 3 started us off on the biggest leg of our Icelandic road trip. We were going to drive from Reykjavik all along the South West coast and spend the night in a hostel near to a Western Icelandic town named Hofn. This was so on day 4 we would be able to visit the incredible Icelandic glacial lagoon (but more about that in the day 4 blog-post).

Luckily for us, Iceland is almost entirely based around an enormous ring road that spans the entire country (imaginatively named Route 1), meaning it is very difficult to get lost unless you veer significantly off the road – you only really have two choices of direction, left or right!

We didn’t have a set plan for this day, we knew there would be some awesome stuff to see along the way, so we decided to set off and see what happened…this turned out to be an excellent plan, although we were perhaps a little over ambitious with how much we packed in (there really are not enough hours in the day).

Our first stop was somewhere that had a couple of paragraphs in the guidebook and sounded like an interesting stop off point. About 45 minutes drive out West of Reykjavik you find yourself driving through quite a few large greenhouses I assume are full of vegetables…ladies and gentleman, meet the town of -

HVERAGERDI

As mentioned, our guidebook briefly mentioned this town, so we decided to stop and have a look around. The town itself is nothing to write home about, a very standard small Icelandic town. The pull of Hveragerdi lies in its location. The town is situated on a site that has high levels of geothermal activity. The familiar smell of sulphur is particularly strong here, and the mountains surrounding it all mist with hot steam pouring from cracks in their sides.

There is apparently a geothermal park in the town centre with mud pots and hot springs, however this was closed when we visited. The guidebook did also however mention a steaming hot river Reykjadalur…intrigued we  decided to investigate further.

A small drive to the left of the hill behind the town lies the beginning of the trail to the mysterious steaming river. Wanting to see some geothermal activity ourselves in the flesh we decided to take it. We weren’t really anticipating a hike so early into our day, but our excitement pretty much glossed over that – “3KM in’t THAT far” was definitely a common reasoning used when we were deciding whether to hike or not.

The trail to the river Reykjadalur starts at the foot of a set of mountains. Unfortunately I was so excited about a magical boiling hot river I forgot to take my phone with me, so I don’t have a lot of pictures to illustrate very well.

The hike is initially quite easy, going relatively slight up the hill. The hill from the car park is quite exciting, first walking through a lukewarm (and very shallow) river, then as you climb the hill steam starts arising from the ground left right and centre. At the top of the first hill you conquer is a wonderful prize – a HUGE belching, bubbling, angry mud pot. Very much a taster of things to come, it certainly fills you with excitement and anticipation for what lies ahead.

Following the muddy belching highs of the first hill, the trail does unfortunately become a little less exciting although extremely scenic. What follows is a 2.5km hike through the mountains. Its not a particularly difficult trail, but it does get steep at times, and the weather was very erratic the day we went so come prepared!  Stupidly, we didn’t quite grasp the scale of a 3km hike (and back) through the mountains, and didn’t bring any food or much water with us – this is something I would definitely recommend you do! Whilst not overwhelmingly far, a little food and drink would have certainly made the walk a little more pleasant.

The scenery on the hike is predictably incredible. You start to climb rather quickly after the first couple of hills, and you rapidly find yourself up high without having really noticed. Views of stunning steaming mountains, and a distant gigantic waterfall are really quite amazing. The trail wasn’t massively busy when we went either, so competing for space with other hikers shouldn’t be too much of an issue.

Eventually after 2.5km, you hit the really sweet spot of the hike, and one of the most wonderful places I have ever walked through – Hveragerdi’s amazing geothermal meadow!

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The ground is steaming, sulphur is strong in the air, you can hear oozing, bubbling and hissing noises – this place was absolutely incredible. It felt like being on another planet, or in some sort of insane film set (it actually really reminded me of the initial room of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Augustus Gloop falls into the chocolate river, but less tropical obviously).

Explore, run about, look at all the crazy shit. Each geothermal pool is different, all visually stunning. My personal favourite (and luckily my friend snapped a picture) was this enormous gleaming powder blue bath. The blue was sparkling bright (not represented as well as it could be colour-wise in the picture). Unlike anything I had ever seen before, and completely amazing -

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There are loads of these pools all over. Some blue, some red, some brown, some bubbling, some angry, some belching, some stationary, ALL AWESOME. It is a really special stretch of landscape, and the ability to wander through it and get right next to the crazy steaming pools and bubbling pots is different to other more tourist-focused parts of Iceland. In some places insane geothermal activity is roped off – very much “look but don’t touch”, here you can get stuck right in!

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The hike to get there is SO worth it. A spot not too far out of Reykjavik I heartily recommend.

Having played in the geothermal meadow you will notice towards the end large amounts of steam coming from around the corner of the mountain in front of you. This steam tells you that you have finally arrived at your intended destination (although with all the geothermal distractions you may have temporarily forgotten) the magnificent boiling river  Reykjadalur. 

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As I said, I unfortunately forgot my phone for this entire visually stunning hike, so the only picture I have of Reykjadalur is the one above of my friends in their underwear.

As you can see, the river itself isn’t particularly deep (or at least it wasn’t when we visited in April), but it really is a fantastic juxtaposition compared to the cold climate all around it. The river is not boiling, but a balmy temperature – very much like a hot bath. Having hiked all the way to get to it, taking at least your shoes and socks off and relaxing in what is essentially an entirely natural spa is incredibly satisfying – some people got well and truly stuck in, we saw one couple get completely naked and lie on their stomachs in the river and have a good slide around (despite the water level barely coming past my ankle).

With time pressing on, and still so much to do we hiked back to our car. The entire hike from start to finish took about 3-4 hours which we hadn’t planned on at all, but it really was so worth it. We then had a longish drive to our next destination, the truly stunning…

SELJALANDFOSS 

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Seljalandfoss, wow. Nature at its most formidable, and most interactive. This is an absolutely enormous waterfall, enormous and incredibly beautiful. (to get a sense of scale check out the bridge in the top left part of the picture below). Easily viewed from Route 1, Seljalandfoss is famous for its beauty, and also for being a waterfall that you can walk around. You can see this waterfall from all angles, and it really is extremely impressive and special up close.

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Starting on the route behind the waterfall, you instantly get a real sense of the absolute power Seljalandfoss has. You can actually feel its enormous energy as the water pummels the pool it falls into, and as you get close you get absolutely drenched with sheets of freezing cold mist and water vapour being given off from the fall. Its a unique experience and really quite amazing.

Going behind the fall, everything is completely hypnotic. Watching the falling water make shapes and patterns as it falls, then crashes below. Its definitely somewhere you can easily just stand and stare at.

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Definitely a highlight of the trip, and a sight that is well worth seeking out. There are several other waterfalls a few metres to the left of  Seljalandfoss too that are worth having a look at, although obviously none as impressive as this beast. Bizarrely the waterfall second biggest to Seljalandfoss has had a small concrete hut built directly in front of it, spoiling what could have been a second obscenely picturesque waterfall within a couple of hundred metres. Very strange positioning decision there.

Around 10 minutes drive on Route 1 you soon come to another of Southern Iceland’s most impressive waterfalls…

SKOGAFOSS 

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Similarly massive, and also reasonably interactive, Skogafoss is another beautiful and awe-inspiring sight. If you are doing a Route 1 trip West however and returning the same way, I’d actually recommend seeing Skogafoss on your return from the West, or at least independently from Seljalandfoss if possible. Two very impressive natural wonders within 10 minutes drive of each other inevitably means the impact of Skogafoss directly following Seljalandfoss diminishes somewhat, which is unfair as Skogafoss is extremely impressive in its own right.

Similar to how you can walk behind Seljalandfoss, with Skogafoss you can walk to the top! The climb is rather steep but not particularly difficult (prepare to be short of breath though), and from the top you can see the calm river behind drifting towards the fall, then crashing down below. The calm of the river to the drama and violence of the fall is again really quite impressive

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Skogafoss is quite a wide waterfall and is really beautiful viewed from the bottom too. The basin is surrounded by dark rock and mist making it feel like a cave (The Little Mermaid “Kiss The Girl” scene vibes are rife here).

Our final stop of the day (friendly Icelandic petrol stations and supermarkets not counting) was another hour-ish drive down Route 1, and again something incredibly beautiful and scenic, the ghostly beach at…

VIK  

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Often voted one of the worlds most beautiful beaches, Vik is really something special. For some reason the usually bright blue Icelandic sea appears extremely white around the Vik area. Added to this the jet black sands of Vik beach and you have a landscape made in monochrome heaven.

The beach itself really does at times feel like the world has suddenly transformed entirely into black and white (think Pleasantville : Icelandic beach edition), and its hard not to have a bit of a beachy moment.

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The white waves crash against the jet black beach in an absolutely stunning way, similar to the waterfalls above, its quite easy to be a bit mesmerised watching the tide crash against the shore -

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Vik beach is also famous for its four black rocks jutting out of the sea in near distance, these rocks are named Reynisdrangur and are said to be the final resting place of four trolls that got caught in the daylight -

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Reynisdrangur looming on the horizon as black silhouettes just add to the eerie otherworldly feeling of Vik beach, it really is a very special part of the world.

By now time was getting on, and we were still a long way from our final destination for the day near the town of Hofn. What followed after Vik turned out to be mildly terrifying. The night quickly came in, and soon we were driving in absolute pitch black. Route 1 doesn’t have any road lamps, just (very effective) cats eyes to light the way, and with no civilisation to light the route either we actually were driving in absolute darkness. Our hostel was about 3 hours drive away, and the last hour where the night really came in was actually quite scary at parts. If you are driving in Iceland don’t make the mistake we did, try to get to your destination before night comes in strong, driving in the pitch black isn’t too fun!

We did however eventually make it safely, and very quickly went straight to bed…we had a date with a glacial lagoon early on day 4…

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