Wednesday 31 August 2016


Beautiful Montserrat - A journey into Serenity

The Benedictine abbey of Santa Maria de Montserrat is located on the mountains of Montserrat, standing secluded in the centre of the  most populated part of Catalonia, Spain. Montserrat literally translates to serrated, the obvious reasons can be seen in the spectacularly jagged peaks of the mountains on which the abbey is built. Tracks lead further up into the mountains, popular with walkers and climbers alike. The abbey is also home to the famous Black Madonna - our Lady of Montserrat, the patron saint of Catalonia.

About 50kms from Barcelona, the abbey can be reached by a steep ascent on the cable car or by a scenic route on a more comfortable gradient by the rack railway. From Espanya rail station the R5 rail line goes through to Aeri de Montserrat for the cable car, or the next stop Monistrol for the rack railway. Ticket purchased for one route cannot be used on the other, so two separate singles are advisable if anyone wants to experience both aspects. Funicular railways lead to other parts of the mountains as well for which a combined ticket is also available.

Sharing some photographs from my short trip.

Montserrat from Aeri de Montserrat - cable car station
Montserrat from Aeri de Montserrat
Montserrat from cable car station at Sei de Montserrat
Montserrat from the cable car station at Sei de Montserrat
Montserrat cable car - Aeri de Montserrat
Looking down the steep gradient we just climbed up from the cable car station on Montserrat 
Montserrat view
Montserrat view
Montserrat view
Montserrat rack railway station
Walking around the main abbey
Montserrat jagged peaks
The jagged peaks of Montserrat
Walking around Montserrat
Montserrat abbey complex
Montserrat abbey buildings
Montserrat atrium
Montserrat basilica entrance, the arches lead to the atrium
Montserrat basilica entrance
Montserrat basilica entrance, looking outwards
Montserrat atrium
The basilica atrium beautifully done on black and white
Montserrat basilica facade
Montserrat basilica facade
Montserrat basilica
Montserrat basilica interiors
Montserrat basilica
The altar of Montserrat basilica
Montserrat basilica
Montserrat basilica alter
Black Madonna Montserrat
Our Lady of Montserrat - Black Madonna 

Finishing off with photographs of colourful prayer candles brightening up the caves beautifully in their soft light, the atmosphere is of utmost peace and serenity

Montserrat prayer candles

Montserrat prayer candles

Montserrat prayer candles

Montserrat prayer candles

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Friday 26 August 2016

Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part IV

Aurora Borealis from Smyrlabjorg
Northern lights from Smyrlabjorg 

Finally the amazing Northern lights!  

The sighting of the Northern lights on our way to Smyrlabjörg had considerably delayed our arrival (Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part III). Once our rooms were allotted, a late dinner was served in the annex building. We were still finishing off our food when one of the staff burst in and announced the appearance of the aurora. Everyone scampered out, some dashed to get their cameras.

A fluorescent green band of light was stretching from the north to the east, curving like a river. By the time I had set up my camera, the band of light had changed its path and shape, and so it kept moving through the next hour or so. The light danced around, gradually changing its shape, weaving patterns in the dark and starry night sky.

The wind wasn't strong tonight which made the cold bearable and the camera stable. By now I had grasped the technique to photograph the aurora, though I was still as uncomfortable with the tripod (which I had borrowed from a good friend only for this trip) as I always have been. So set up my standard unconventional ways to stabilise - any stackable flat objects. On went my money purse and lens cap on a Detective Rebus book. Must have been an impressive sight since a few people who were struggling with their equipment started asking me for advice. So there I was, a veteran of two aurora sightings, giving tips to the novice photographers. However, what surprised me was, given the advancement in digital photography in recent years, this was one of those rare occasions when I realised the difference a DSLR makes to the captures.

Aurora Borealis from Smyrlabjorg
Northern lights
Aurora Borealis from Smyrlabjorg
Norther lights at Smyrlabjorg
Northern lights Iceland
Aurora Borealis
The aurora was still on full display after an hour, but things had started to quieten down on the ground. I had packed up my camera and was enjoying the unique phenomenon still in action above me. Some of the other guests had started to retire for the night. And then suddenly the sky came alive. The band which had been swaying gracefully through the past hour started rippling vigorously. Shades of red started erupting from the fluorescent green. I vaguely remember shrieking out in delight. I was too mesmerised to take out my camera. But then, I have no regrets. I would have definitely missed the amazing experience if I had tried to capture the moment on camera. It lasted only a few minutes and then the aurora started to go faint.

It was not easy to get to sleep that night as I kept replaying the images on my camera and in my head. It was getting closer to 2am now. We were having an start early the next day. The plan was to catch the sunrise at Jökulsárlón.

Woke up to an extremely windy morning. Even going to the annex building for breakfast was a struggle as we tried to fight against the wind. While we were still at our tables Siggi informed that we would have to delay our departure till the weather improved. Driving would not be possible in such high winds, especially for our high sided vehicle. It was blowing over 160 kph. Disappointed but not too unhappy, I went back to bed. This time the plan was to leave at eleven when it would be calmer as per the forecast.

Morning sun 
It was still windy, but calmer when we started off just after eleven. Our destination Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon at the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park, also the location for the Pierce Brosnan starrer James Bond movie Die Another Day.

Even before we had reached the lagoon, the ice cap was visible ahead of us, the highly compressed glacial blue ice spanning for miles. We were dropped off at the car park and asked to come back in an hour. It was an amazing experience seeing the blue icebergs floating around, breaking free from the blue glacier which spanned to infinity up ahead. In summer, boat trips on the lagoon take visitors closer to these icebergs. Some seals were swimming at a distance.

Glacier lagoon at Jokulsarlon
Jokulsarlon - black sand and blue ice
Blue ice at Jokulsarlon
Jokulsarlon blue ice
Jokulsarlon, glacier ahead
Blue ice
Icebergs from glacier - Jokulsarlon
We then headed over to the sea where the lagoon empties itself, depositing the icebergs on the black sand beach. The view of the blue ice on the black sand only adds to the surrealism of Iceland. In this country all rules of nature seems to be defied, colours here are not what we are used to seeing and the low sun adds to the effect. That's what makes Iceland so special.

Jokulsarlon - a very rough sea in the high winds
Blue ice on black sand beach
Jokulsarlon - icebergs deposited on the black sand
The previous night on our way to Smyrlabjörg, we had travelled through the Vatnajökull National Park in complete darkness. Today we could actually see the renowned beauty of this place and also the reason why the place holds so much ecological importance. Vatnajökull is the largest ice cap in Iceland covering about eight percent of the country. The vast glacier seemed to be everywhere, it's blue dispersing into the bluish white of the sky. Global warming has caused extensive melting of these ice caps and Siggi showed us the point where the glacier used to be when he was younger. Hundreds of metres of glacial bed now covered in black dirt and rocks. It is fast receding, a fact many responsible organisations refuse to accept unfortunately.

Vatnajokul national park
Blue glacial ice - now fast receding due to global warming
Glacier straight ahead
Driving pat glacier
The highlight of the south coast trip is the glacier walk either at Skaftafell or Myrdasjökull, two other glaciers after Vatnajökull. We would visit the later which would also involve seeing ice caves. After the debacle with my knee at Skógafoss, I was apprehensive about walking on unstable ground, but Siggi assured me I would be fine. The wind was still strong as we stopped for lunch. Roadside signs warned of gusts of 140 kph. The glacier walk was uncertain before they were finally confirmed to be cancelled. The road to the glacier was under heavy snow from the strong winds. A four wheel drive jeep had attempted the route and was now completely stuck. It was a big disappointment but at the same time a relief for me.

Extreme Iceland
Iceland longest bridge
The longest bridge in Iceland, close to a kilometre
The wind persists
We were now on our way back to Reykjavik as the sun started to set. I would spend the next day in the capital city, not having enough time to visit the Golden Circle. The experience of actually seeing the tectonic plates of America and Eurasia is a unique experience as like many others in Iceland, so probably will need at least another trip.

Before I visited Iceland, I was not sure what to expect and now the magnificent journey was finally ending. It was an experience I would definitely remember for my entire life. The weather hadn't been favourable always, but I had seen the country in its true elements and there is still so much to tempt me back. I definitely have been really lucky with the northern lights. I met a few people on my trip who have been traveling here for past three years but still haven't been lucky and not even on this occasion as they were not at the right place at the right time. A colleague at work spent a week in the highlands, further north, but the aurora eluded them. But then on the other hand, Iceland has a lot to offer even without the aurora, though after that spectacular display cannot deny the lights definitely is the crowning glory.

I had mixed experiences traveling in a group, but would definitely recommend a tour if anyone is willing to visit in winter. Have seen instances of the inexperienced driver swerving off the road or getting stuck in the deep snow, the roads can be treacherous in the extreme weather.

Extreme Iceland was a pleasant experience and they even refunded part of the trip price since the glacier walk was not possible. Teitur also conducts his own private tours if someone wants to have a more personal experience, he is a very good guide, the main reason being he loves to travel himself and understands the woes of not having a knowledgeable guide. Contact me if you need his details.

Day end at Vik
You can read about my previous days through these links and please leave a comment
Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part I
Winter Iceland and the search for Aurora - Part II
Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part III

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Wednesday 24 August 2016

Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part III


Sea stacks, black sand beaches and spectacular waterfalls

The waffles came out perfect this time, simply needed a readjustment of the dials. Today after breakfast I would head off to the south coast of the beautiful island country with Extreme Iceland on a 2 day trip. Over breakfast met a lovely couple from Canada who asked me to join them at their table. They were very excited to hear about my aurora experience (Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part II). They had been out the previous evening but had missed the sighting. Once more I was reminded how lucky I was. We were soon joined by another guy, he was carrying a full-frame DSLR. We watched in awe as he showed his collection of photographs of aurora. He turned out to be an astronomer from the Midlands in Britain, who ran educational trips to Iceland, his speciality being the northern lights. I could only feel jealous, but then he had decided on his career while he was a kid and went for his dream, unlike many who get distracted on their way.

It was well past half nine when the minibus arrived at the hotel. Was surprised to see how quickly the days were growing longer. Only a couple of days ago it was much darker at this hour while today it was a proper morning. Our driver for this trip was Siggi, a very quiet man unlike Teitur. He also worked as a mountain rescuer. The mini bus this time was not as full as my earlier trip, neither the demographics as varied. On the trip to Snaefellsnes, we had a healthy mix from many parts of the world and some very interesting people. It had almost altered my perception about group travel, but then my apathy was to be reinforced after this particular trip. However, this blog is about the much more pleasant experiences, so will try to not divert from that.

We drove past Iceland's geothermal plants, smoke billowing from cracks in the ground as the winter sun cast a golden glow on the white landscape.

Iceland geothermal activities
Iceland's geothermal activities, smoke billowing from cracks in the ground as the winter sun casts a golden glow on the white landscape.
And we drove past Thjorsa, the country's longest river at 230 kms. Our first stop was at the impressive waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss, which plunges down 60m from a steep cliff. In summer months it is possible to walk behind the curtain of water. But at this time of the year, it was icy and extremely slippery. A few people landed on their bums while one skidded spectacularly on his belly. I tried to hover close but decided it was much more entertaining to stand at a safe distance and watch.

Seljalandsfoss waterfalls Iceland
Seljalandsfoss - Iceland 
Seljalandsfoss waterfalls Iceland
Seljalandsfoss - Iceland

The source of the Seljalandsfoss waterfall is the glacier in Eyjafjallajökull. This is the infamous volcano that had erupted in 2010 bringing all Transatlantic and European air traffic to a complete standstill. This was to be our next stop.

Eyjafjalajokul volcano Iceland
Eyjafjallajökull - the infamous volcano
Iceland traffic
Iceland traffic
I was not convinced Siggi was pointing in the right direction when he showed us where the volcano was. Unlike how we normally visualise a volcano, as a conical mass of subterranean debris, this was quite flat. But that's how volcanoes look in Iceland, in a country formed by geothermal activities, where the magma still flows relentlessly, erupting from fissures when the energy surpasses the tolerance level. Siggi reminisced how as a young boy they had gone trekking when an eruption happened right in front of them. Luckily, the magma had flowed north and they had a safe escape to the south. The volcano warning system has since then improved and now gives a three hours advance warning, enough to clear away the small number of people from the scantily scattered villages. The villagers also build a treeline on the hills, in the path of the magma flow if one were to happen. It is possible to trek in Eyjafjallajökull and go up to the glacier, but probably will not be easy in winter.
But before that we managed a photo shoot of these.

Icelandic horses
Icelandic horses
Tiny yet sturdy Icelandic horses are a familiar sight around the fields of Iceland, even when the grounds are covered in snow. We met a band of horses by the road and cameras came out.

Icelandic horses in snow covered field under the low winter sun
Further down the coast, our next stop was the magnificent waterfalls of Skogafoss in Skogar. Though apparently it drops the same height of 60m, it looks far more impressive and is considered as the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Stairs lead up to the top of the falls for a different perspective, however they were now covered in snow and ice and extremely tricky to walk on. I had an injured knee from a bike accident couple of months ago but still stumbled on hoping I was getting better. However the knee gave in in the thick snow and I had to turn back, disappointed.

Stogafoss waterfalls Iceland
Skogafoss - the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland
From Skogar we headed over to the village of Vik, which translates to the word 'Bay'. The place is renowned for it's black sand beach, basalt rock columns and the Reynisdrangar sea stacks. Though I knew what to expect, I still had to pick up the sand in my hand to actually convince myself that the expanse of black in front of me was actually a sandy beach. Siggi had warned us about the strong waves and soon I realised why. What appears normally as a definite safe distance by the sea was lost in seconds as the waves came gushing ferociously. Definitely stay away if you do not want to have wet feet, especially in sub zero temperatures. The basalt columns rose vertically from the beach and it is possible to walk around them and visit a cave with a patterned roof formed of the basalt columns. However, the water level was high and there was a probability of getting cut off, so not done.

Black sand beach and sea stacks in Vik
Black sand beach of Vik with the basalt columns on the left and two of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks in the background
Black sand beach in Vik
Black sand beach of Vik with sea stacks

After a beautiful sunny day, daylight was already waning when we reached Vik. We had our lunch in the village at Vikurskali, a standard stop for the tour coaches. We then headed off for our overnight accommodation at the Country Hotel Smyrlabjörg. The journey would take us through the beautiful Vatnajokull National Park, but not comprehended in the complete darkness. It was time for aurora hunting again, and we got lucky. But the night had more in store for us, so keep tuned for the next installment

Northern lights in Iceland
Norther lights on our way to Smyrlabjorg

For my earlier posts on the Iceland trip, follow these links
Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part I
Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part II

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