Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Very Brief Visit To Iceland

Last spring, as we were making plans for the summer and beyond, Vicki found one of her usual screaming deals on airfares from London to the US: Iceland Express. We booked. Then we discovered that Iceland Express is not Iceland Air, and that comments in TripAdvisor and elsewhere on Iceland Express were not uniformly favorable (enforcement of weight limits, surcharges, seat sizes, food pricing, lateness, cancellations, etc). So, for some months, we were not looking forward to the return trip.

Iceland Express turned out to be just fine for us. Pretty much on time, despite weather issues in London, comfortable, and it got us where we wanted to go. It's a budget airline, so everything is for sale; or you can bring your own, as we did (cleaning out the cupboards...sausage from Colmar, pistachios from Gaziantep, cheese from Amsterdam, gingerbread cookies from Aachen, etc). Iceland Express jets you first to Rekjavik, Iceland, in three or so hours, and then, after an hour or less in Rekjavik (enough to visit the duty-free stores and sample Icelandic vodka), five hours to Boston, where we are presently. We give Iceland Express 4 stars; 5 when you factor in the price. Plus our passports now sport Iceland stamps.
First sight of Iceland; had I been sitting on
the port side, I would have seen Surtsey;
but not Iceland

Bombardier view

Mostly pretty barren, with lots of volcanic
features...crater lake

A mini caldera

Approaching Rekjavik



Temporarily well-behaved volcano

Farewell, Britland

We were in the UK largely through a change in plans. Of course, any reason for being there is good enough. But we had planned on shipping the Grey Wanderer back to the States from Southampton, concluding our European travels. At length, last May, after having already made the flight reservations from London, we couldn't bring ourselves to conclude our European travels, and, especially, our RV mode of travel in Europe. It has been too good to bring to an end. So we put the camper in storage in Amsterdam and have had these four days in familiar London to decompress and reflect before returning Stateside.
The breakfast view from Blenheim Lodge, a B&B in East
Finchley, where we stayed; Roger and Agri are superb hosts

Outside the National Gallery, George
Washington helps us focus our thoughts

Trafalgar Square and, look kids, it's Big Ben!

Lord Nelson

Our Dutch host in Amsterdam had recently returned from
his first visit to the UK, observing that every time an
Englishman learns how to ride a horse, they put up a  statue
of him

Olympic countdown clock; London is only slightly abuzz
about it all; transportation, I think, will be an issue

Departure from Gatwick

Two Days At The National Gallery

Monday and Tuesday, both days of rain, we took the Tube into town and stayed in the National Gallery, one of our favorite museums. It is not huge--the collection has somewhat over 2,000 items--but nearly everything in the world of European painting from the 13th to the 20th centuries is represented, sometimes very well represented, and the Gallery has its own surpassing masterpieces too. For us it was also a great review of much of what we have seen in Europe in the past two years. Indeed we spent the first three hours in the Medieval/Renaissance wing, looking at the now-familiar Cimabuies, Massacios, Corregios, Leonardos, Domenichinos, Lippis, Renis, Michaelangelos, Botticellis, Rafaels, et al. Getting to see Botticelli's Venus and Mars up close was a special thrill.

One of the things we like about the Gallery is its very effective display of virtually all the paintings. Sadly, in many of the greatest museums, there are issues of glare, glass, shadow, poor placement and lighting, that really dampen the experience. (E.g., the big Botticellis at the Uffizi). On the other hand, the Gallery has a no fotos policy, and, unlike many of the greatest museums, really enforces it, with a vigilant guard for every room. I didn't even try (except once). And the website, although exemplary in many ways, doesn't make it easy to download any items of the collection. The excellent audioguide costs a mere 2.50L for us concessionaires and, not least, the whole thing, like the British Museum, is free and open to the public. Admission and audioguides at the Uffizi or Prado or Louvre would have been $30-$50.
Botticelli's Venus and Mars

And, of course, there are half a dozen of the most famous
Turners, including The Fighting Temeraire, regarded by
Britons, according to the BBC, as the nation's most
important painting

Renoir's Gladiolus, a favorite of Vicki's

Monday, July 18, 2011

Return To The British Museum, Again

Our first full day in London, after the B&B breakfast of scones and clotted cream and other goodies, we set forth for another return visit to the British Museum, still our overall favorite here. Our real purpose was to look at all the things--vases, reliefs, metopes, marbles, busts, statues, entire temples--that were strangely missing when we visited Turkey and Greece last fall. Indeed we found many and were gratified to know we had "been there" and could well imagine how the removed object might have looked. I do hope the Brits someday will give a few of the Elgin Marbles back to the Greeks. France, as I recall, gave theirs back on the occasion of the most recent Athens Olympics. But I doubt France ever will give the Mona Lisa back to Italy.

It was the height of the the high season, a Sunday, and a rainy day in London as well, so the Museum was more mobbed than we have ever seen it. It's still always a pleasure and a bit of a thrill. In addition to looking for favorites and random exploration, we did tours on the Enlightenment Room--the first items the Museum collected, now together in what used to be the British Library--as well as on early Medieval artifacts.
The Nereid Temple from Xanthos

Reliefs from the Tomb of Kybernis, King of Xanthus

Stupid satyr tricks... (do not try this at home, kids)

Elgin Marbles

Mob scene at the Rosetta Stone

An old friend, the Queen of Lewis Chess

And always much new to learn; here a display on the survival
of glass-making in Europe after the fall of the western Roman

It was the height of the the high season, a Sunday, and a rainy day in London as well, so the Museum was more mobbed than we have ever seen it. It's still always a pleasure and a bit of a thrill. In addition to looking for favorites and random exploration, we did tours on the Enlightenment Room--the first items the Museum collected, now together in what used to be the British Library--as well as on early Medieval artifacts.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


We don't have much to show for our nearly five days in Amsterdam. We were there principally to put the Grey Wanderer in storage before our return to the States, to get it ready for storage, effect a variety of repairs, give it a good cleaning, and to sort through things and pack, with one eye on the coming year in California and the other on returning to Europe in 2012. Three days of sheets of rain didn't help with our sightseeing program either.
We stayed at a place called Droompark Sparnwoude,
outside Amsterdam, beyond the port; apparently a state or
national park, there were several campgrounds, very
popular, not so many campers, but many, many static
trailers and rental units; they honored our ACSI card which
made the cost relatively reasonable; and good bus service
into the city

But our first two days were spent not in camping or cleaning,
but in having some work done: the BBQ regulator (something
we never and never have used) failed, causing a serious
propane leak; we finally had it removed and the line capped at
a Volvo truck center in Amsterdam, the third referral

And then there was the partial failure of the Go Charge
dual battery charger, which took another day to analyze,
and (partially) work around; sheesh! the thing is two months
old and probably hadn't two weeks of usage

So, anyway, we appear to be in Holland (this
is from Friday, the one day it didn't rain)

And took the bus into Amsterdam, not to see anything in
particular, but just to walk around and do the ambience thing

A major part of which is drinking in the streets
and the consequent effluence, relieved, as it
were, by these strategically but not discreetly
located outdoor pissoirs

A street scene or two


Vicki in line for the world-famous "vegetarian" pommes frites
at VleminckX (since 1887); they were decadently good,
especially with the curry sauce

We'll do Amsterdam more properly, especially the Rijksmuseum, one of our favorites, when we're back in June of 2012. We EasyJet'd to Britland on Saturday afternoon, the16th, carefully weighing in both checked and unchecked baggage so as to avoid the various surcharges. It was a mercifully short 45 minute flight. From Gatwick we took the National Express bus into town (5.50L for us seniors) and then the Underground to our B&B in East Finchley, north of the city. The bus ride took 90 minutes, but was comfortable and a great opportunity to visually re-acquaint ourselves with beloved Britland, leaving the driving to someone else. Our stay here will be relatively short, with no opportunity to re-visit Beastleigh Dorking on-the-Bum or other favorite country sites.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Cologne is only an hour's drive or less from Aachen and we arrived about 2:30 in the afternoon. We parked a few miles out in the suburbs and took the tram into the centrum and back. We visited Cologne in 1979, then as now, mostly for the great cathedral.
Monster cathedral; I don't know where it ranks on the
Vatican's "mine's bigger than yours" list, but it is a bit
overwhelming both outside and inside

Chapel of the 3 Magi in the ambulatory; windows are the
oldest in the cathedral, 13th century

The center two windows date from 1265 and
depict corresponding scenes from the Old
Testament (prophecies) and the New

The Gero Cross, donated by Archbishop Gero
in 976; it is the oldest remaining monumental

Shrine of the 3 Magi; Fred Barbarossa donated
the bones of the 3 Magi, which became the
major relics of the cathedral and made it a major
pilgrimage site; late 12th, early 13th, actually
antedate the present cathedral

Beautiful mosaic floor throughout

North side windows, 1507-1509

Notable for the coats of arms of their donors; this one notable
for its elephants; or possibly a contribution of a political
action committee of the current Party of Greed and Hate

Ever popular crucifixion of St. Peter

Extremely rare fully rotated view

From the stern to the bow: immensity, yet light and lightness

We skipped the German-Roman museum this time; we think
we have seen our fair share of Roman stuff

The twin towers; Vicki poses for scale; they
are each 505 feet high--fifty stories

Cologne in 1945; it was the target for some 262 Allied
bombing raids; most were nuisance or diversionary raids, but
also included the first "thousand bomber" raid and other
major attacks; Germans nowadays joke that the Brits and
Americans were trying to hit the cathedral...which suffered
no major damage

We cross the Rhine and head for Holland


From Eupen we were only a short distance to Aachen, a town I had always wanted to see but never quite got around to seeing. We got to Aachen by 9 Sunday morning and easily found a parking place on the street just 3 blocks from the main square and cathedral. But the cathedral was in service, so to speak, and not open to visitors until 12:30. So we strolled about (shops were open), bought some of the decadent local gingerbread cookies, and bided our time.

Why Aachen? you ask. Several reasons. Aachen (aka Aix-la-Chappelle) was Charlemagne's capital; the "father of Europe," he who battled the Moors in Spain and who conquered and unified much of Europe late in the 8th century. The Aachen cathedral is also the oldest around in this part of the world, dating from 800, and it is widely regarded as the beginning of truly European art and architecture; the Carolingian Renaissance. Its central structure was Charlemagne's royal chapel, copied very closely on what he and his artistic advisors had seen at San Vitale in Ravenna. So we had to see it.
But first, Aachen's Rathaus...

The right tower of which is thought to have included (up to
13m), part of Charlemagne's great hall and throne room

The cathedral itself, although relatively small, is difficult to
see and photograph

The brass model helps; it's the central dome that is of chief
interest, being the oldest (although the rest is pretty old too);
the tower and choir are later add-ons; truly a hodge-podge, but
an understandable one

In a 2009 excavation, two large wooden pegs were found in
the cathedral's foundations; dendrochronology showed them
to be from c. 781

Inside the dome; very similar in lay-out to San Vitale; mosaic
and gold everywhere; but little of the mosaic is more than
geometric design...almost more Islamic than Christian; see our
posts from June 27, 2011, or search vitale

Later Medieval windows near the altar

Altar; lots of gold; Pantokrator and 4 evangelists

Mosaic over the altar area; no Pantokrator!

More mosaic designs; no Bible stories going on here; could
just as well be Islamic...

This mosaic by the entrance was of great interest...Roman-
looking figures, all of them Roman river gods...Tigris,
Eurphrates, etc.

Pulpit of Emperor Henry II; (looks gold but is
actually copper); 13th

12th century chandelier, a gift of Frederick Barbarossa, whose
coronation occurred in Aachen, as did those of most of the
Holy Roman Emperors

In the narthex, a She-wolf, 2nd century