City escape to Algiers

I´ve tried, and failed, multiple times to visit Algeria. The land border between Morocco and Algeria is (mostly) closed. There wasn´t a visa available for Icelanders or Canadians in Tunisia, since Algerian embassies only process visas for residents of the country they´re in, so London threw the same answer in my face and told me to ask Stockholm since Reykjavik doesn´t have an Algerian embassy.

the statue of Emir Abdelkader and one enormous flag

I succeeded in Sweden and flew to Algiers via Barcelona. It’s a short, one hour flight over a small piece of the Mediterranean, and arriving there wasn´t different than arriving in Marseilles – the French architecture and French-Arab street language, with a mix of other African nationalities, felt like I was at home in Southern France.

our couchsurf hosts

The goals in Algeria were simple – the live and enjoy the city life of Algeirs with two locals, our couchsurfing hosts. Mary and Daniel were both Algerian, born and raised in various cities, but had both spent a significant amount of time living and studying in Paris. They lived in a 12th floor apartment in a highrise on a hilltop overlooking the city, the port and the sea. Most of the outside walls were glass windows, offering spectacular views and light all the time, although one had broken and wind and rain could meander its way inside anytime.

the fish market

We wanted to find the best local food, and in a city of 3 million, there were only three restaurants worth trying: El Djenina, Le Caid, and El essaoura (all with doorbells you had to ring to enter). The secret was that the best food in Algiers is found in the homes of Algerian´s kitchens. We shopped at the fish market and cooked BBQ meat at home, with Algerian wine to pair. We bar hopped too all the dark and grungy corners of the city, the few places where mostly older men gather to drink in smoky bars, where no windows or doors were left open to avoid the taboo of being seen in a bar. The restaurants that served beer or wine would only serve it with food, but you could buy shots without eating since their liquor license permitted serving aperitifs and digestives without food on the table.

not the most welcoming entrance – it reminded me of a prison door

We were there for Halloween, which noone seemed to notice since it was overshadowed by the November 1st holiday, which celebrates the Anniversary of the Revolution. Not everyone was sure which revolution or even which victory it refers to, but at midnight there were dozens of canons fired into the sea, not all at once but one at a time in a slow, melodramatic kind of way, with 45 seconds of fireworks in a far away square. It was a new and unusual way for me to spend Halloween.

how to get free tickets to the soccer game – take the gondola from the Botanical gardens to the top of the hill to get this view

The couchsurfers took us on a walking tour of the Casbah, were we walked past decaying buildings and piles of trash. The old town of Algeirs was once nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site listing, but after a whole bunch of money was granted and thrown into the project, only a handful of buildings were renovated and the rest of the money seemingly vanished into thin air. While passing some ruins on rue Barbarossa, they told us tales of pirates, and I asked if there were still any pirates. The answer was yes – the government. Hopefully that changes soon, and then the casbah might stay standing long enough for future travelers to enjoy.

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Stockholm & Åland

Sweden is the only Scandinavian country I´ve been to only once, back in 2009, so I was overdue for a second visit. My intentions were wrong – I was going to get access to the Algerian Embassy since the Stockholm mission handles Icelandic visa applications (we don’t have an Algerian embassy in Iceland, but to get a tourist visa you have to apply in your resident country, a perfect catch-22). What I didn’t know was that I´d fall in love with Stockholm in the four nights I had to stay there waiting for the visa processing.

Stockholms stadshus in Kungsholmen

I stayed in Gamla Stan, getting voluntarily lost in the old island-esque city center, and wandered the more modern streets of Norrmalm. I wined and dined with Scandinavia’s second best chef of 2009, eating at the Michelin restaurant Ekstedt. We were on the waiting list to get into the 3-star Frantzén, but no luck this time, which gives me a valid reason to go back a third time.

sunrise ferry time

We arrived on a Wednesday, just in time to apply before the embassy closed at 1pm, but they admitted it wouldn’t be ready by Friday and they´d open next on Monday. This sparked the possibility to squeeze in a weekend trip to Aland, a sort of sovereign country-state that’s outside of the EU, owned by Finland, but Swedish speaking.

picturesque Åland

I bought a ferry ticket for €2, return, with Viking line supposedly making profits off €1 tickets since passengers buy so much cheap booze and cigarettes from the technicality of leaving the EU. I couchsurfed two nights with a friendly Alander in Mariehamn who had a Finnish sauna in his apartment, and could walk anywhere and everywhere along the coast and an incredible network of pink trails. The roads were pink too – the granite used to make paths and streets are called red by the locals, but it was all very pretty in pink to me.

they´re pink, no?

The highest point of the island isn’t very high, at least not high enough to be called more than a hill, but what Aland didn’t have in highland they made up for in islands; countless islands, all shapes and sizes, with or without vegetation, and most, with cabins. My host explained that some were summer houses, vacation homes, and others, lived in all year. People arrived by private boat, and all had a Finnish sauna to warm up in after a dip in the sea, whatever season.

one of the many bustling food halls in Stockholm

I couchsurfed my last couple nights in Stockholm near Solvandan, sleeping in the loft of a top floor apartment where a ladder led me to my room I couldn´t quite stand up in. My host gave me a city bike card, so I had access to free bicycles to explore the city further. We found some live jazz, delicious risotto, and a wine bar whose goal is to cover their walls floor to ceiling with corks. Ill have to go back if/when the gets accomplished – yet another reason to visit Stockholm again.

Shippensburg, Pennsylvania to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware

I often find myself unexpectedly in Washington DC – my best from from college days Ursula lives there and there’s always an excuse to visit her. There are direct flights from Keflavik daily to Dulles and Baltimore, Maryland, and I had never realised how close Pennsylvania, New York, Virgina and Delaware all are to eachother in that corner of the states. The east coast is a confusing place geographically.

Shippensburg University Main Building

This time around, I was making a pilgrimage to Shippensburg – the university town my father studied for many years and met my mother back in the seventies. I was taking parts of him and his memories back to the few remaining friends I found there, retracing some of his footsteps and rediscovering a history I had never known.

the last of dad’s ashes left in Shippensburg

I stayed with Charles, a retired, 81-year old professor who met Einar through friends. He never taught him, but they became close and Einar lived in his house for a year and spent some time helping fix up the 19th century home in exchange for Charles’ help in buying his first car – a Ford Pinto. Charles still lives in the same street on North Earl Street, and I stayed in the same room my dad lived in nearly forty years ago. He described dad as a womanizer. A glutton that always wanted immediate gratification.

my gentlemen hosts

Charles is a historian plagued with short term memory loss, and I don’t think theres anything more ironic or confusing than being obsessed with history while losing your memory. He walked with a cane made from a ski pole, and always wore a hat outside after recently removing some cancer cells from his nose. He has catalogued every belonging in his home, with binders of inventory that describe the origin, worth and inheritance of each item. I inherited Dads inheritance – a beautiful clay pot from Mexico.

my father in the same house I stayed

We visited the Franklin science Center where my father took all of his biology and chemistry classes on campus. We drove to the address where he first lived in a trailer with my mother. The trailer is gone, but the address still existed on google maps. We went to the pubs he frequented. I visited the home where my parents were married in 1978. We went to dinner with his college buddies who shared stories of my father and mother, and lunch with the best man from their wedding John, whose wife is also suffering from short term memory loss and rediscovered the date of her own mothers death thru a letter I returned to John from 2006 that I found in dads office. They described dad as a charmer, never free of a cigarette or a beer in his hand.

a common sight in Shippensburg

After a whirlwind visit and a roller coaster of emotions, I dried the tears from laughter and sadness with a solo roadtrip thru Amish country. The peaceful scene of passing farms and horse drawn carriages made it feel like time travel, and Rehoboth Beach was worlds away from small town Shippensburg. I spent three days there, a stones throw from the sea, in Ursula’s beachhouse that her grandmother frequented back in the 1940’s.

oysters for happy hour

We were three ladies, the mandatory cute gay guy and two purse-dogs to accessorise the beach by day, and danced every night away back to the beach where skinny dipping was no big deal in the warmth of the darkness. Our diet was mostly a combination of beverages, and a gaggle of men was never far away at one of the bars, nightclubs or drag queen shows we spent the evenings.

old time selfie

It was nearly 30°c every day, I got a beach tan, verging on a burn, and took an old time photo of our group as an inter-racial group of bandits from the 1920´s. I cant imagine a better way to have ended the week, a perfect, mindless holiday to distract me from the realities of yesterday and tomorrow.

Winter is not coming

Today was the first day the nights are longer than the days. We had no summer in June or July, and finally it arrived in autumn. The first snow dusting the tops of Esja mountain Reykjavik fell last night, a month later than last year. But its still in the teens, and the sun has been shining more hours today than all 30 days in June.

looking for sheep in the highlands is easy to do when theres almost no snow

The sheep gathering has begun in most corners of the country. The north began rounding up the first week of September, but riding in a tshirt and getting sheep to waddle home one hundred kilometers in a wooly bunch is unusual. Wearing sunblock on a ride in the highlands when you know there’ll be frost at night seemed unconventional, but totally necessary.

some stubborn sheep have decided they wont be chased home and found an impossible place – a common problem when the weather is this nice

The northern lights, however, arrived much earlier than normal. This was the soonest I’ve seen them, August 15th, and again the 17th and 21st. The entire sky turned flickering shades of green on September 3rd, much to the delight of 29 Swiss tourists I woke up to see them.

biking by the Blue Lagoon on an extra sunny day

Biking around Reykjavik has been glorious, now that there’s finally good weather. Though its strange to remember that nightfall has crept up on us, and biking home at 9pm without headlights makes me feel uneasy, especially knowing that next week it will be dark by 8pm. It’s a shame that Nautholsvik, the local man-made beach with a hot tub and steam room, is open every day and free only during the summer season, which they’ve decided ends August 15th. That was probably the first day of summer, but now its only open 4 times a week and costs 650kr to use.

riding to the beach is a must on a sunny autumn day

Winter is not coming, since its finally summer in September. Autmn has yet to arrive, with the grass still green and the trees still full of luscious leaves. I hope autumn comes in winter, and winter gets skipped right to spring. But that’s pretty wishful thinking in a country that typically has 2 seasons – winter, and not winter.

Southern Greenland in September

Air Iceland Connect has the occasional package deals to Greenland, which are significantly cheaper than just buying a return flight, even though it includes a hotel for 3 or 4 nights. Steve and I decided to go to Ilulissat in February for a joint birthday celebration, and paid for a 3 night package that turned into an 8 day, all inclusive trip, courtesy of Air Iceland, because flights for grounded for 5 days after our original departure day, due to bad weather. The bad weather wasn’t in Ilulissat, so we didn’t mind the extension, especially considering the price of things to travel to Greenland.

Hej Greenland!

We tried our luck with fate again, this time to Narsarsuaq, for another 3 night trip. We flew low over the glaciers, with spectacular views of the ice fjords. Since it was southern Greenland in September, there were less chances that weather might delay us, but we had fallen so completely head over heels with Greenland (and a couple of Greenlandic people) that it was always going to be worth going again.

the taxi boat

We flew into Narsarsuaq airport, and took a one hour boat taxi to Narsaq where we’d stay at the Narsaq Hotel, run by an Icelander and his Greenlandic wife. The sun was shining and the sea was dead calm, and we had returned to a completely different paradise. We even went seaswimming, enjoying the icecold sea just fine knowing the sun would warm us dry.

Steve seaswimming, not so far from a skinned seal carcass we noticed later on the beach

The boat captain dodged small ice bergs as we watched the farms roll by, many only reachable by boat or horse, and noticed some familiar looking sheep and freshly rolled hay bales. This area of Greenland is the only place where Icelandic sheep and horses are kept, and we had planned on riding and spending as much time as possible on the water or hiking near it. The only problem was that roundup time had also begun here, and the few horses normally rented to tourists to ride were now being used by farmers and their friends to bring the sheep home.

newly cut hay fields and the colourful homes of Narsaq

Instead, we checked into our hotel where the view from our window looked straight down at the slaughter house. We fell asleep after a long night of barhopping, which involved moving between the towns only two bars a couple of times to catch a glimpse of the changing crowds and live music, and most of our drinking comrades were actually Icelanders who had come in on the same flight. The DJ adapted accordingly, playing a spotify playlist of top 50 Icelandic songs, and it was hard to remember where we really were. We woke up to sounds of belting sheep, and really thought we had come back home, when we looked out and saw an entire herd of sheep herded into the field adjacent to the slaughter house. Their numbers slowly dwindled over the next few days, so we tried some local lamb and felt good for contributing to the local economy, but slightly guilty for their murders.

the quant little harbour of Qaqortoq

We took a boat trip to Qaqortoq, the biggest town in Southern Greenland, and felt as though we had arrived in a metropolitan city. The town was cutely nestled in the slopes of hills and valleys, all meeting in a charming harbor, much more densely inhabited than anywhere I had imagined in Greenland. We visited the Viking ruins at Hvalsey, where the remains of a stone church still stand, but the last farm in the valley had been deserted a few years earlier.

Hvalsey church ruins

We learned a lot about the differences of West and South Greenland, and have east Greenland on our horizon soon, depending on Air Iceland’s next offer. The night before our flight back, rumours about strong winds started circulating among the hotel guests and a panic arose that the flight might actually be cancelled. The others, including the hotel owner himself, left that night on the latest boat back to Narsarsuaq to increase their chances of making the flight, but we grinned at the chance to be stuck again, staying put until the morning. We woke up to an empty field of sheep, and a perfectly calm morning, so grudgingly packed our bags and walked down to the harbour for our ferry to the airport. The boat temporarily broke down, and we thought we had cheated fate again, as half the boat moved over to a smaller one and left us at the docks. Only fifteen minutes later, the boat started, and we were off too, and made it to the airport where the plane would arrive on time. We chatted with Fridrik the owner, and Im pretty sure we were both offered a job at his hotel or soon-to-be brewery, so we may be back sooner than we know.

Backroads Beach Clean-Up Day

In honor of World Cleanup day coming up on September 15th, Backroads decided to join forces with SEEDS in Iceland to remove trash off a beautiful piece of beach on the west end of Reykjanes Peninsula. We were a group of nearly twenty volunteers, interested in giving back to Icelandic nature, protecting sea life and birds, and getting rid of all the disgusting pieces of plastic scattered along the coast.

the trash collection growing

Our meeting point was Grindavík, 10 am, on August 22nd. In charge of the project was legendary Tommi Knuts, founder of the Blue Army. He has been working for over 25 years to help clean and protect Iceland´s coast, and spent the day with us sharing insights into his project, vision, and environmental philosophies.

Tommi sharing his stories

The day started off optimistic – the weather had cooperated, and after getting the SEEDS van stuck in some sand for a moment, we were off on foot to scour the coastline for trash. Saga Films had a production team on site to document the project, interviewing Tommi and sharing his message with to others around Iceland.

clean up time

Tommi drove his bright blue Toyota Hilux (a donation to the Blue Army courtesy of Toyota) along the bumpy old road to the coast, where the only things around were a few birds and an old turf house ruin. And plenty of garbage – most of it has washed up on shore from the fishing industry. We used large coffee bean sacks to fill the larger white trash bags loaded on his trailer, and filled 6 or 7 metric-ton sized bags.

picnic time

At the end of a beautiful day on the beach, we filled our tummies with a true, snackroads style Backroads picnic, and the good deeds of the day filled our hearts. Backroads has donated to the Blue Army to help with the waste collection and processing, and plans to take part in Beach clean ups around Iceland every year from now on.

it´s amazing what you can find on a remote beach in Iceland

If you´d like to learn more about Tommi, the Blue Army, or World Clean-up day, then there are plenty of ways to get involved and help clean up garbage, either in Iceland or beaches around the world.

Rainy Days in Bergen

It was hot, dry and summery in the rest of Norway, and apparently also in Bergen until I arrived, but the rains came in with a cooling relief.

coffee at the harbour

Walking around in rain boots and an umberlla were welcomed changes, especially since I had both in my backpack, and I couchsurfed with some friendly students at the University of Bergen dorm.

cobblestone skipping

I spent the majority of my two days there jumping in puddles and finding cafe´s to write at, and I accidentally ended up at a couple of concerts. I saw an organ concert at St. Mary´s church, Mariakirken, and a brass quintet at Statsraaden Bar. I wanted to see a Grieg concert as well, but my vacation got cut short for a family emergency.

Mine and Steph´s reflection in the mirror ball

The photographer from Liv & Benni´s wedding was also in Bergen, so we took the opportunity of traveling together to try and get some more photoshoots done.

an American diner´s outside seating in Bergen

The original plan was to find a fake fiancé and do an engagement shoot, since she specialises in engagements and weddings, but tinder didn´t work well enough for that.

wishing that was my vespa

Instead we ended up roaming around Bryggen and old town Bergen in the first break in the clouds, and even managed to see the sun shine on us in rainy Bergen.

a Banksy-esque moment

Check out Zakas Photography for more photos, and if you know anyone getting engaged or hosting a destination wedding that needs a photographer, Steph is your lady.