Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, Vik, Iceland

A beautiful beach, only an hour drive from a volcano, with sand made of pebbled lava. Only in Iceland…

Last year, on the morning of my birthday, I woke up in Iceland. We had a bit of a drive ahead of us to get to the Buubble, where we’d be spending the night. But before that, I wanted to get back to this beach for one last visit. That photo above was taken around 10am, when the sun was finally coming up for the day.

Those huge rock formations in the water are known as the Reynisdrangar Columns. Legend says they’re all that remains of a two-troll battle that involved a ship; nature says they’re parts of the surrounding mountain that became eroded and separated from the main bulk. Either way, they’re an impressive sight.

They’ve got some killer basalt columns, too – having seen Giant’s Causeway before these, I have to say Iceland’s were a hell of a lot more impressive – less tourists, no entry fee, and more than safe enough to climb over. We heard that in summer, it’s not uncommon to see birds nesting up on top of the columns. We were there in winter, though, so we made do climbing the huge steps and hanging out in the cave when the wind got strong enough to almost knock me on my backside. Bonus tip: don’t visit without a wind- and water-proof jacket, and water-proof boots. I felt really sorry for one group of tourists who neglected all of that and spent a fair bit of time huddled in that cave.

The “sand” ranges from fist-sized, smooth black stones, to tiny little grains of lava. Walking from the carpark to the beach, you’ll go through a field of large, volcanic rocks – when they’re blanketed in snow like they were when we visited, it’s an alien landscape that absolutely takes your breath away. Iceland is one of the few places where all of the lame travel clichés like “the quaint little cottage” and “the landscape was an assault on the senses” and “it just took my breath away” are actually valid. There couldn’t have been a  better place to spend the morning of my birthday.

Asolo, Italy

I know I’m incredibly fortunate to have two parents hailing from opposite ends of the same country. The north and south of Italy couldn’t be more different, and I’ve had some wonderful opportunities to see both. Mum’s side of the family are from the north, up near Venice, so I really wanted to show some of the little towns and villages in the area that most people who visit Venice never get to. While the island is obviously incredible, I wonder how many people would kick themselves if they knew what they were missing on the mainland…

Asolo is one of those little towns up in the foothills of the Dolomites that you picture when you think to yourself “how gorgeous it must be to hire a car and just drive and explore little medieval cobblestoned villages.” Dating back to pre-Roman times, Asolo has been around for a very long time, and hopefully won’t be going anywhere soon. And getting there is as easy as leaving the Venice islands for the mainland and hiring a car.

With cobbled streets, creeping greenery, delicious food in windows, remainders of medieval buildings, and seriously stunning views, it’s easy to see why so many artists and writers find their way there. Dame Freya Stark, explorer, traveller and writer, was one of those – she visited Asolo for the first time in 1923, eventually retired there, and passed away a few months after her 100th birthday there. That’s her villa in the photo below…

Asolo is one of those towns that managed to retain all of its old-world charm while Venice was being slowly commercialised and destroyed by tourism. They don’t get a heap of visitors, comparatively, and it’s so much more beautiful for that (so if you visit it, please do so respectfully!) – it’s the sort of place you want to find a little table balanced on cobblestones to sit at while you drink wine, a place you’d want to visit with a sketch book and pencil, even if you can’t draw. The fact that there isn’t a heap of big tourist attractions to see and do there is what makes it such a great place to visit as a break from the chaos that can be Venice.

Graceland Cemetery, Chicago

Graceland Cemetery
4001 N Clark St, Chicago
https://www.gracelandcemetery.org

I could tell you how Chicago’s Lincoln Park used to be the city’s premier burial ground until Chicago’s City Council banned burials there. Or that it was decided to move the city cemetery to what’s now Graceland. I could tell you that the cemetery spans 121 acres, and holds the remains of the city’s most eminent residents, including architects, sportsmen and politicians. I could harp on about how beautiful a garden cemetery it is, how it feels like you’re taking the most magnificent nature walk when you’re in the middle of it, which Chicagoans have been doing since it’s establishment in 1961.

Instead, I’m just going to show you how absolutely stunning Graceland is through some pictures I took when I visited late last year…

Cemeteries get a bad wrap for being creepy places. They generally don’t rank very highly on the traveler’s list of things to see and do. But Graceland felt much more like a museum crossed with a park than a burial ground. Visiting in autumn was magic, with all the leaves turning gold and red. The map you collect when you arrive is also particularly helpful, and adding to the museum vibe is the list of the important citizens buried there and a little biography of them all. And the only remotely creepy thing was the Eternal Silence statue below, and that’s only because Atlas Obscura told me that “looking into its eyes a person could see the nature of their own death…”

Bárður Snæfellsás, Arnarstapi, Iceland

Bárður Snæfellsás, Iceland

The morning after we arrived in Iceland, we hit the road for our drive around Snæfellsnes Peninsula a little later than intended. We were exhausted, because we arrived in the middle of an Arctic storm and had to drive around 300km through it. But that’s a story for another day.

One of the stops we planned to make was at Arnarstapi, a little fishing village and old trading port. It’s an odd little place, full of contrasts – there are large area of flat, grassy land – then there are towering basalt columns and cliffs. Small, modest cottages dwarfed under mountains. And then there’s the Bárður Snæfellsás sculpture that sits at the top of the hill against the grey sky.

Iceland is steeped in mythology and stories, and it isn’t just confined to story books. There’s a small plaque at the sculpture, I’ll let you read from it directly…

The imposing figure seen here was made in 1985 by the sculptor Ragnar Kjartansson. This work is Ragnar’s representation of the guardian spirit Bárður Snæfellsás, Deity of Mt. Snæfell.

Bárður’s story is told in the saga of  Bárður Snæfellsás. He was descended from giants and men.  Bárður was the son of a king from Northern Hellaland in Scandinavia. He staked claim to the land of Laugabrekka by the Glacier at the end of the 9th century. Later in life  Bárður’s giant nature became ever more apparent. In the end, he disappeared into  Snæfell Glacier, but did not die.  Bárður became a nature spirit and the local folk around the Glacier petitioned him in matters large and small. 

This work commemorates the couple Guðrún Sigurðardóttir (1878 – 1941) and Jón Sigurðsson (1876 – 1956), who lived here, and their son Trausti, who died of exposure on Jökulshals mountain pass in 1928, only 19 years of age.

We visited in winter, on a particularly overcast day where we were the only visitors, so it wasn’t difficult to imagine the sculpture as a giant. And it feels fitting to have it sitting there up on a small hill, because once you’ve walked around it and taken it all in, you realise there’s a gentle sloping path leading down behind it to a view over the cliffs…

Bern Münster (Cathedral), Switzerland

Bern Münster
Münsterplatz 1, Bern, Switzerland
https://www.bernermuenster.ch/en/berner-muenster/infos-kontakt/

After several days of indulging in mulled wine, cheese, and potato rosti, I figured we were due to do something slightly more labour intensive than raising a plastic cup to our mouths. Over a 10am beer and pretzel, I asked husband what he thought of climbing to the top of the cathedral’s bell tower. He looked down at morning tea and agreed.

We arrived around midday to find the gates just being opened, and made our way in – it may be a place of worship, but it gets a lot of international visitors, so you’ll still enter and exit via the small gift shop. It costs CHF 5.00 (around AUD $7.00) for a ticket to climb the 100 metre bell tower, and there’s only one staircase to take you up and down. One staircase made up of 312 steps.

Word of warning: it is small and dark, and as I mentioned, there is only one way up and down, so if you’re on the claustrophobic side, please be careful! But if you can push yourself up, you’ll be rewarded with some really spectacular views over the UNESCO World Heritage city.

I also really loved the carvings up on the bell tower itself – they’re one of those things that look like such small, insignificant details from the ground, but up close they’re some seriously impressive pieces of art.

On the way down, you’ll pass the actual bell of the bell tower. It’s an absolute behemoth, and when it rang on our way down (we were almost at the bottom), the whole tower vibrated. Consider your timing on the climb – I’m not sure how pleasant it would be standing right next to that bell when it rings…

If your legs aren’t completely jelly after 624 steps, you can make your way into the cathedral, too. It’s small, but beautiful – the stain glass windows and ornate ceiling are worth the visit alone. There’s no entry fee, it’s just asked that you’re quiet and respectful, as it is still a functioning church with parishioners.

Because Bern’s historical centre is so small, climbing the bell tower really does give you the best view over it. And the good news is that when you’re done climbing, you’re in Switzerland, so a big pot of cheese fondue won’t be far away to replenish your energy stores. Everyone wins!

An art gallery with a difference: Urban Spree, Berlin, Germany

Urban Spree
Revaler Strasse 99, Berlin
http://www.urbanspree.com/

If you’re not a big believer in “what’s meant to be, will be,” let me tell you a little story that may change your mind. After a long day in Berlin, I was flopped on the bed in my PJs having a look at the Berlin city map on my beloved Sygic Travel app to see what else was in the area of a particular Christmas market we planned to visit the following day. I saw a little logo right near the market and clicked on it: Urban Spree. The description read “This eclectic space hosts concerts, workshops, exhibitions, markets, festivals and other artsy events – just dive in and explore this vibrant place.” Great idea! Until I looked at the rest of the day’s activities and realised it was one of those days we’d be doing lots of stuff I’d enjoy/stuff that husband just tolerates because he loves me.

Fast forward to the next morning, and off we go to the Christmas market. We walked from the train station and followed the blue dot on the phone’s map towards the area of the market. And found ourselves in an absolutely incredible area that can only be described as hipster art gallery meets the apocalypse; we accidentally turned up at the back entrance to the market, which happened to be the front entrance of Urban Spree. And husband thought it was awesome, anyway. Meant. To. Be.

It’s actually kinda hard to describe Urban Spree. The website says:

“Urban Spree is a 1700 sqm artistic space in Berlin-Friedrichshain dedicated to urban cultures through exhibitions, artist residencies, DIY workshops, concerts, an art store and a large Biergarten.

Within Urban Spree, the Urban Spree Galerie is a 400 sqm independent contemporary urban art space. Set in a 70.000 sqm postindustrial compound in the heart of Berlin, the gallery benefits from its large urban grassroots ecosystem and offers its invited artists and photographers an ideal space for experimentation through ambitious on-site residencies.”

On the day I visited, without having read any information about it other than what was on the app, what it looked like to me was a crappy old industrial area full of abandoned buildings left to decay. Which was then taken over by a band of entrepreneurial hipsters and artists who decided to make something beautiful out of it. What you have to understand here is that I’m a Melbourne girl; I’m spoilt, I’m used to great street art projects, and it takes a bit to impress me. Urban Spree totally knocked my socks off. The bars and shops and galleries within it weren’t open on this particular day, but that only made for a better experience – there were only a few other people around, so we got to wonder around this phenomenal area in peace. Instead of snapping a photo and running to the next mural, we got to actually look at the pieces; I’m quite an introspective creature, so I couldn’t have been happier with all of that physical and mental space to take it all in and mull it over.

I imagine it’d have a pretty awesome atmosphere in full swing with people all around, live music playing and drinks flowing, but if you’re there for the art, I’d really recommend visiting early in the morning. We spent a good hour walking around before we finally made it to the Christmas market, and could have easily spent an hour more pouring over all of the artwork. With the rise of artists like Banksy, it’s really great that cities are slowly forming a more progressive view on art in its many forms – what would have once been considered graffiti on derelict buildings is now seen as real art, and the casual, outdoor gallery that is Urban Spree is getting a new generation involved in art in a way that the stuffy art galleries of old never could.

   

Through my eyes: Siena, Italy

When we talk about Tuscany, everyone’s heard of Florence. But not quite as many people know Siena. And the few who do generally only know it for the horse race held there every year, the Palio – horses topped with bareback riders race around the Piazza del Campo in an ode to the times of old. If you’re still unsure about what I’m talking about, maybe this scene from Quantum of Solace will ring a few bells.

But I’m not talking about the Palio this morning, because there’s so much more to Siena than a horse race. The beautiful little city, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site way back in 1995, still looks every bit the picture book medieval town it probably was back in 30AD when the Romans plonked a military outpost there. There are uniform terracotta roofs as far as the eye can see, those beautiful but somewhat difficult to walk upon cobbled paths, and symbolic and religious iconography around every corner. There’s also the incredible Tuscan food, the sweet little corner stores, the steeply sloped alley ways that you just have to wander up and down, and the best door knockers you’ve ever seen.

Welcome to Siena, through my eyes 🙂