Tips for travelling to Iceland
In August I spent 11 days travelling across Iceland, mostly driving a rental car around the Ring Road. I covered all 3 WHS, 3 TWHS and some places of interest in between on this itinerary. Similar to Namibia or Mongolia, man has stayed on the fringes of this country and nature is intimidatingly prevalent. Find below my top tips for travelling to Iceland as a World Heritage Traveller.
1. Take advantage of all its natural attractions being free to enter
Iceland may have the stigma of being an expensive destination, but the good thing is that all its natural attractions are free. This includes not only the ever-present pretty landscape surrounding you, but also top class sights such as Thingvellir Park, Vatnajökull, the geyser fields, Gulfoss, Lake Myvatn. To be able to enjoy all this without paying is a major drawing card of Iceland. The sites all look well-kept but have few amenities and no visible ranger presence as in the US for example.
2. Don’t expect to meet many Icelanders
In a normal (non-Covid) year, tourists outnumber the locals 6:1. Hotels, restaurants, tours - especially outside of Reykjavik - therefore are often staffed by young people from all around the EU. The effects are similar to that of the working holiday scheme in Australia. It does take away a bit from the authenticity as these youngsters probably know as little about their surroundings as you do yourself. And they don't at all look like that guy from the Skyr advert.
3. Choose your tours wisely
The surge in visitors to Iceland over the past years – combined with the total downfall due to Covid – does not bring out the best in tour operators and beforehand it is hard to decide which one to choose for what, if any. I used them only to get to places where I couldn’t go with my 2WD rental car.
The tours on my trip were: Ingolshofdi Puffin Tour by FromCoastToMountains, Whale watching tour from Husavik by Gentle Giants, a Superjeep tour to Landmannalaugar by Arctic Adventures and the (private) tour to Surtsey by SACA. All come recommended, except the whale tour. These whale tours always seem to disappoint me; the boat also was too crowded and the itinerary unimaginative.
4. Allocate 10 - 14 days
To do a loop around the Ring Road, do some hiking and a tour or 2, see the 3 WHS and all TWHS (I skipped Breiðafjörður) it takes about 10 to 14 days. Reykjavik is often used as a stop-over destination only, but when you limit yourself to the southwestern corner of Iceland for only a few days you miss a whole lot.
5. Enjoy the food
Don’t bring all the food with you as some budget tips suggest. I love exploring foreign supermarkets and trying out local snacks; Icelandic chocolate bars filled with salty liquorice taste really good! Especially the fish meals are excellent all around Iceland and the fish of the day usually costs a reasonable 25 EUR. Also expect a lot of hipster food culture (think food trucks, roasted cauliflower, pomegranate seeds), mixed with New Nordic Cuisine in the more expensive restaurants. The Skyr mousse desserts always are to die for.
Els - 20 September 2020
Els Slots 20 September 2020
Regarding Breiðafjörður - the place to visit there is Flatey Island, but I believe there weren't any boat trips available from a place near the Ring Road when I did my research. It would also have added 1 or 2 days to my schedule.
Frédéric M 20 September 2020
Can I ask why you decided to skip Breiðafjörður? Logistic reasons?
Zoë Sheng 20 September 2020
One more tip: Don't go to the Blue Lagoon ;)
Blog TWHS Visits
Icelandic Turf House Tradition
Iceland isn’t a country to visit for its rich cultural heritage. It has Thingvellir as a cultural WHS, but that’s a cultural landscape with mostly intangible features. The capital Reykjavik has some modernist constructions of interest (the Hallgrímskirkja, several art museums and sculptures), but the rest of the country was quite poor and isolated until the beginning of the 20th century. A reminder of those times lies in the Turf House Tradition, a series of 14 locations on the Tentative List.
Most of those 14 properties lie close to the Ring Road. During my first attempt I was confronted with a closed gate at Keldur after driving 4 km on an unpaved road, so I decided to be more picky with the others as not all are welcoming tourists.
The first satisfying one lies 15 kilometers east of Skaftafell: the turf church Hofskirkja. It is the village church of the hamlet of Hof. This turf-roofed church, which is still in use, was built at the end of the 19th century. It is set in the middle of a contemporary cemetery, which is perhaps even more interesting than the church itself. Each grave lies beneath a small grassy mound.
My other visits are from the north of Iceland. The peat church Víðimýrarkirkja for example: its black-and-red exterior is the most beautiful of the series. It is accessible for most of the day, the caretaker seems to live next to it and he opened the church when he saw me and another couple arriving. There is an entrance fee of 1000 crowns (6 EUR), for which you also get a brochure in English. It's small and cramped inside: there are a few benches and an altar; the only decoration consists of the wooden carvings.
It was already getting late and I doubted whether to visit the turf farm Glaumbaer about 8 kilometers away. Fortunately I did, as I found it the most illuminating one on how the turf farms functioned. This site is also open to visitors and there were dozens of them present when I was there. A fee of 1,700 crowns (10 EUR) is charged. It is a large farm, consisting of 13 linked "houses" (rooms). They were made of a combination of turf, stones in a herringbone pattern and wood. Some of the houses date from the 18th century, the rest from the 19th.
If you'd want to spend time / money on only one interior, choose this one: it has one long corridor to which all rooms / houses are connected. It is very dark inside and it stays warm even in the winter. Each room had a specific function (storage space, kitchen etc) and the sleeping area could accommodate 22 people in 11 beds shared by 2 persons each.
This TWHS has a 100% thumbs up score from the 7 visitors so far and I’d wholeheartedly support that. The turf ‘houses’ are very fine pieces of vernacular architecture, which is a gap on the List. The site description on the UNESCO website is very elaborate, so the Icelanders must be preparing something….
Els - 13 September 2020
Blog WHS Visits
WHS #738: Surtsey
When you look at my ‘Missing’ map, you can see that I have visited nearly all European WHS except for those tiny islands scattered here and there at the fringes. Last year was a true debacle in that regard, missing out on both St. Kilda and Skellig Michael in the same summer due to unfavourable weather conditions. The same risk applies to Surtsey, though it lies not so far out as St. Kilda. Also, unlike the other two, Surtsey is not served by scheduled boat tours and the once available flightseeing tours have been discontinued. So I did not dare to hope to reach it during my trip around Iceland.
Fortunately, those intrepid Norwegians Randi and Svein visited 2 weeks before me and proved that it would be possible. Just cross your fingers for calm weather and bring a stash of money (in Iceland this means: have a creditcard with a high enough limit). The go-to guys for a private charter are SACA. When I saw that the weather forecast for the weekend was sunny and calm, I contacted them by email on Wednesday. On Friday evening, when the detailed weather maps for the next day were available, the final decision was made to leave the next morning at 9 a.m.
So we went, captain Simmi, his adult son and myself on a so-called RIB, something that looks like a inflatable dinghy - but with a sturdy hull and the qualification "unsinkable". It is completely uncovered and has room for 6 passengers (which is really, really small). I was given a warm coverall to wear against wind and weather. They directed me to sit on the front bench and then we sailed out of the bay of Heimaey.
We first navigated between the other Westman Islands. These are grouped together in a cluster. Like Surtsey they are of volcanic origin, often not much more than rocky points. The largest puffin colony in the world lives on one of those islands with a million pairs breeding. There were still plenty around this late in the year. The grass on the slope was covered with white dots, all of them puffins. Later we also saw young bobbing on the water. Another island's cliff face is popular with nesting gannets. To see these large birds together in such large groups is really special. They had pooped all over cliff.
After we left the other islands behind, the trip to Surtsey was continued on the open ocean. The waves were a lot higher here and the boat was constantly hitting the water. If you sit in the front, you always get hit - this expedition is not recommended for people with back problems! But of course you have the best view. At one point we sailed through a large group of birds that congregated at sea. They flew all around us.
Surtsey soon came into view. The island is easily recognizable because it is bare, brownish and has the shape of a table mountain. Due to erosion by wind and water, the island is getting smaller every year; since its birth almost 50% of the surface has vanished. It has two volcanic cones and a lava field. On top of one of the cones are the remains of a lighthouse - it was supposed to be removed in 2007 (a promise upon inscription!) but still stands. There is also a cabin on the island for researchers.
We sailed all around it; it is less than 2 square kilometers in size, so it didn't take that long. The coast consists mainly of a cliff and there is one cave. We saw the head of a gray seal emerge from the coastal waters. Seals were the first mammals that started breeding here, in 1983. The first birds were already there in 1963, 2 weeks after the volcanic eruption started and the island was formed. Now 89 bird species have been counted that occasionally reside on Surtsey. You can also see small patches of green appear on the slope of the volcano.
On the way back the wind strengthened and halfway through I exchanged my spot in the front for the much more comfortable seats behind the skippers' backs. We sailed into some more caves in search of rare birds and then ended in the beautiful bay of Heimaey again. The excitement beforehand and the journey towards it made this visit to Surtsey special, also because you know that this is a rare ‘tick’. The number of sea birds you see along the way is incredible. The island of Surtsey itself is not beautiful, but it is fascinating and combined with the much greener other Westman Islands makes for an unforgettable experience in Iceland.
Els - 6 September 2020
Clyde 6 September 2020
That's great. I'm glad you found my review useful Michael :)
Els Slots 6 September 2020
It takes about 45 minutes to go directly from Heimaey to Surtsey, but we stopped a lot on the way. The full tour was just under 3 hours.
Jay T 6 September 2020
That looks like an amazing adventure — I’m so glad a boat trip to a remote island finally worked out for you! How long was the trip out to Surtsey and back?
Michael Ayers 6 September 2020
As Els said, yes they take cards, but last year they were just getting that set up, so it took some effort, now it should be smooth.
Also, I have been meaning to mention to you that this summer I went to Falun Copper Mountain, and I was fortunate that I read your review first, beacuse otherwise I might have not known about the chance for the Eagle-Owls. Because of your comment, I went back in the evening and had a great look at one. I owe you a life bird!
Els Slots 6 September 2020
Everything is credit (or debit) card based in Iceland, Clyde. Even the tiniest turf house can by paid by card. SACA has got a small hut in the Heimaey harbour, which they opened up right before the tour to get my coveralls, pay with the card machine and drop my luggage.
Michael Ayers 6 September 2020
This is outstanding! Since I noticed Surtsey on you "recent visits" list, I have been looking forward to this post. Glad you made it and it sounds like you had good weather, but maybe a little more rough seas than I did. It's also nice to hear that saca has gotten some more Surtsey customers. The island was one of my favorite site visits, and your post brings back some great memories. Though, personally, I felt the island was very beautiful, just in its own special way.
Clyde 6 September 2020
Quite an adventure! Thanks for sharing. Just one question: does the skipper accept credit cards or cash only?
Blog WHS Visits
WHS #737: Thingvellir
Thingvellir is probably Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction (well, the geysers may just beat it), but surely the core of the country’s national identity. Its meaning has already been well explained by previous reviewers: it comprises the remains of the place where the Althing, the Icelandic ‘parliament’, met yearly to make judicial and administrative decisions. I’ll focus a bit more on the practical details for visiting as I was surprised by some.
I arrived by car from the north (road 36) and was immediately confused where to park. There are signs, there are numbered parking lots, but the pros and cons of those were unclear. I ended up in parking lot P2 which is at the northern end of the park. It is a paid parking, it costs 750 ISK per full day (4,60 EUR). You pay with a credit card at a machine after typing in your car registration plate number. P1 and P5 are also paid, but lot P3 is free however located a few hundred meters further away. P4 is for handicapped only.
A pole with signs in Icelandic awaited me at the start of the trail, signs to… yes to what actually? There were things on it like “Lögberg 350m” and “Hakid 300m”. I decided to just follow the main path along the ridge, where I encountered the following (fortunately with information panels in English too):
- The intriguing “Drekkingarhylur”, which turned out to be a place where women were drowned as punishment. They were tied in a bag and thrown into this water hole.
- The “Lögberg”, which is really what it's all about: this is a rocky outcrop where the Speaker of Parliament had his seat and from where speeches were held. The exact location is unknown and may have moved due to changes in the landscape. Where they think it was, a large Icelandic flag now flies.
- “Snorri’s Hideout”, which includes the remains of an encampment where the visitors to Parliament stayed overnight during the two weeks of the meeting. With some imagination, traces of it can be seen in the grass.
I ended up at the Visitor Center. There’s a mildly interesting exhibition that can be viewed for 1000 ISK (6 EUR). No entrance fee to the park itself is charged. Remarkable I found also that there is no café or restaurant or other ostentatious tourist complex within the park area. The visitor center has a souvenir shop and a refrigerator full of soft drinks and the ubiquituous sandwiches, but that’s all. A bit further along road 36 there is a Service Centre with a few more amenities, but nothing like the craze at Geysir or Gulfoss.
The site is not huge, I spent 2 hours on a leisurely visit that covered all in the upper and lower areas I think except the Öxarárfoss waterfall. I was intrigued by a signpost ‘Silfra 400m’ at the bridge. It brought me and some other curious travellers to a fissure that has been formed due to the Eurasian and North American plates drifting apart and subsequent earthquakes. Its clear groundwater and location within the continental rift makes it an interesting spot for scuba divers, however for a casual visitor there’s not much to see.
Els - 2 September 2020
Blog TWHS Visits
Mývatn and Laxá
The Mývatn-Laxá Nature Conservation Area in northern Iceland consists of Lake Mývatn - a shallow lake - and its outflowing river Laxá. Together they are important for bird conservation, especially of ducks. Of course (this is Iceland after all) they are located in an active volcanic area as well, which has shaped the landscape. There are several short walks that you can do from the road around the lake, which combined make for a fun, active day. Fortunately the weather was dry and sunny when I visited; in the rain the charm of this area will soon elude you.
I started at Höfdi, a small peninsula / rocky promontory which reaches into Lake Mývatn. I had arrived early, but the trail turned out to be closed between 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. to give the birds a rest. So I stopped by again later in the morning. The 1 hour-hiking trail here leads through a forest, which is a rarity in Iceland. It provides access to several excellent viewpoints over the lake and its rocks and islets created by lava.
I continued my loop around the lake by visiting Skutustadir. This is where the pseudo craters can be seen, the other potential OUV of this site next to the duck life. Pseudo craters are small hills that look like extinct volcanoes, but were actually formed when hot lava reached the lake. Water that came under it eventually pushed itself out of the “crater” like steam. This rare feature can only be found here, in Hawaii and on Mars.
In this area 2 walks are signposted: a short one to the top of the largest pseudo crater and a longer one along the waterfront and several craters. I choose the latter which took an hour – it was pleasant enough but nothing exciting. In the hotel opposite Skutustadir I ate lunch: very appropriate for the rich bird world of Myvatn I choose a ‘pulled goose’ burger.
I spent the rest of the day visiting some more spectacular geothermic and volcanic sites, but these probably will not be included in a future WH nomination. After dinner I went out again once more: to the point where the Laxá River enters the lake. This fast-flowing river is full of fish (Laxá means salmon, but there is also trout). The river mouth is particularly popular with the ducks of the lake. No fewer than 13 species live and breed here, including the rare harlequin duck. Unfortunately the prettier species had already moved to the sea for this year, so I had to make do with rather boring brown and black ducks (wigeons and tufted ducks I think). Spring offers the best possibilities to see them all.
While I was watching the ducks from the bridge over the Laxá (right at the crossing of roads 1 and 848), I noticed for the first time the large swarms of midges that give the lake its name. They do not bite people but are a delicacy for the birds. A substantial group joined me in the car, but died or otherwise vanished quickly.
In conclusion I’d say that Lake Myvatn is an excellent stop on the Ring Road for a day or so. I am a bit inconclusive whether it is outstanding enough for WH material, but its volcanic setting and the resulting hydrological conditions provide scientists with enough material to think and write about.
Els - 30 August 2020
Els Slots 30 August 2020
No, but I was not interested
Zoë Sheng 30 August 2020
Are the hot springs closed?
Blog WHS Visits
WHS #736: Vatnajökull
Vatnajökull National Park only exists since 2008 and therefore the areas included may not be commonly known under this name. However, it is one of the most deserving WHS that have been added in the past 10 years. Its IUCN evaluation upon inscription was full of superlatives and the site comes across as highly unique. The park covers a complex interplay of a large ice sheet with the largest glacier in continental Europe, moving tectonic plates and ten volcanoes. So far on this website it has achieved a very high 4.36 out of 5 rating by 28 voters.
I started my visit at Skaftafell, the park's westernmost visitor center. I got there at about 3pm and was surprised by the crowds. There is a very large parking lot for what really only is a starting point of a few hikes. The shortest and most popular hike is the one to Svartifoss - the "black waterfall" surrounded by columns of black basalt. It is only a half an hour walk, steeply uphill. I didn't like it much, neither the walk nor was I impressed by the waterfall itself.
I found a more pleasant short hike behind my hotel, Hotel Skaftafell. Here you walk on a path through the bushes to yet another glacier tongue. Apparently so few visitors come here that the birds jumped in panic when I walked past ‘their’ bushes. The walk ends at a small lake, from where you can continue to one of the trails in Skaftafell.
The next day I drove about 60 kilometers east for Jökulsarlon, the glacial lake. Along the way you’ll encounter several typical Icelandic picnic areas from where you can take good pictures of the lake. I started at the last parking spot before the bridge where the water and ice from the glacial lake flow into the ocean. The weather generally was sunny, but the icy water left a mist cloud hanging over the lake. I sat on the moraine for a while and saw the clouds gradually fade away. It would be a matter of patience before I could see the entire glacial lake.
I decided to await that moment at the other side of the bridge, where you have the best overview of the whole lake and the icebergs floating in it. I noticed a couple of seals also having a great time in the lake. I enjoyed the spectacle from a quiet spot. As with Skaftafell the day before, Jökulsarlon is very busy with tourists; but most of them don't walk far past the parking lot.
After an hour all clouds had cleared and I got a full view of the lake and the enormous glacier wall looming in the distance. This wall used to be right at the ocean, but due to the melting of the glaciers the lake is getting bigger. The glacier now lies 1.5 kilometers from the coast.
Unfortunately one can only get to the edges of Vatnajökull National Park, but you keep looking at that large ice mass. From the Ring Road you can see the enormous ice cap and several glaciers for dozens of kilometers. For me the glacial lake Jökulsarlon was the highlight. And don’t forget: it’s all Free Entrance!
Els - 26 August 2020
Tsunami 27 August 2020
Well, I can distinguish between Gulfoss and the like of Svartifoss. :) In fact I believe I saw the little waterfall on the way or back from Gulfoss. Claiming Vatnajökull WHS just by seeing Svartifoss from afar is ludicrous anyway, so one day I'll pay a proper visit to Vatnajökull.
Els Slots 27 August 2020
@tsunami - the big Gulfoss also has a basaltic background. Its setting is very different, but when you have a close-up they might look alike. Svartifoss on a day tour from Reykjavik is not impossible, but it would have taken one of those very long tours (14h or so).
tsunami 27 August 2020
I have seen a waterfall in Iceland in 2000 that is identical to the one in the photo with basalt rocks. If it was this waterfall, that means I have been to this WHS. But I don't believe that the one-day or half a day tour I took out of Reykjavík went as far as this national park. I have a print photo of the waterfall, but it is stored in Los Angeles. Does anybody know if there is a similar waterfall nearer to Reykjavík? I googled "waterfall with basalt rocks in Iceland," but the only waterfall that comes up is this Svartifoss.
Els Slots 26 August 2020
Yes it is, though Ilulissat may be just a notch more "otherworldy". Vatnajökull is probably more diverse.
Clyde 26 August 2020
Seems lovely! Judging simply from your reviews and photos it seems pretty comparable to Greenland's Illulissat, or am I mistaken?
Zoë Sheng 26 August 2020
One of my favs too!
Blog TWHS Visits
The Icelanders keep on having difficulties to provide catchy names for (possible) WHS - the Torfajökull Volcanic System / Fjallabak Nature Reserve is just another example. I will just call it Fjallabak. “Landmannalaugar” may even be a better choice, as it is the best known and most spectacular part. The Torfajökull volcano created this colourful landscape with its rhyolitic lava flows.
With a "normal" 2WD car, almost the entire interior of Iceland is off-limits: the roads here are unpaved and you have to traverse a river every now and then. So I booked a super jeep tour to Landmannalaugar to still be able to see some of the inland and this TWHS. The drive out there from Reykjavik took about 3 hours. After entering Fjallabak we first held a short stop at Ljótipollur, a crater lake with red colored walls and bright green spots. It is filled by groundwater.
At Landmannalaugar we arrived in a sun-drenched valley where fellow tourists walked around in t-shirts and shorts. You really arrive to something here: it is perhaps the busiest place in all of Iceland! Dozens of cars were parked there and just as many tents were pinned on the rocky surface of the campsite.
There are 2 major things to do here: enjoy one of the geothermal hot pools or go for a walk. I choose the latter and followed our tour guide for a hike of about 2 hours. The trails are marked so it is quite easy. From the ridge behind the Landmannalaugar camping complex there are good views into the valley and right at one of the colorful mountain walls for which this area is famous. These many colors are due to the rhyolite rocks that are light in color and consist of small crystals. In the sunlight it lights up and takes on a white, yellow, pink, brown or gray-green color.
The valley lies on the edge of the Laugahran lava field, which was formed after a volcanic eruption in 1477. While hiking at the back of the mountain ridge plumes of smoke are visible: they come from the hot sulfur springs. We walked straight through the lava field back into the valley. It required some scrambling but there is still a well-marked trail. The lava field contains much of the rare obsidian or volcanic glass.
The last part of the trail we took is flat and runs parallel to a river, opening up yet another piece of scenery. One of the mountain walls here is even green. There is also said to be a blue mountain, but it did not show its color very well today. Back in the valley it felt like walking in a desert, it could be Namibia. Many hikers here are preparing for the 4-day Laugavegur trek, which runs for 55 kilometers through Iceland's interior. You can stay overnight or camp in mountain huts.
On the way back to Reykjavik we drove a different route. Twice we met a group of tourists on horseback: riding the native small horses is also a popular activity here. We hoped to catch a glimpse of the volcano Hekla, but unfortunately it was already hidden behind clouds. We did drive through a spectacular volcanic landscape again though.
This is a truly spectacular place and writing this a week after my visit – at the end of my Iceland trip – I can say that Fjallabak belongs to my top-3 of sights in this country and it would be a worthy WHS.
Els - 23 August 2020
Randi Thomsen 23 August 2020
I agree, this place is worth an inscription!
We did the trip with our small 4x4. There are no river crossings if you enter from the north. It seems like we also hiked the same route 😊
Blog TWHS Visits
Old Wastewater Treatment Plant
Just 2 weeks before my summer weekend trip to Prague, Czechia added the Old Wastewater Treatment Plant in Prague-Bubeneč to its Tentative List. Of course I immediately put it on my schedule, despite (or thanks to?) the odd subject. The site represents early 20th century state-of-the-art sewage technology and has been preserved in its original form. It is already part of the European Route of Industrial Heritage and is featured in the thematic study ‘The Water Industry as World Heritage’ from 2018. The latter states that heritage of the modern water industry is underrepresented on the List "despite its unarguable relevance to human development".
The Plant proved to be easy to reach from the Old Town where I was staying: I took the commuter train S4 for 2 stops to Praha-Podbaba, and from there it was an 8-minute walk. I arrived at 3pm, just in time to take part in one of the guided tours. These tours are conducted five times a day in the weekend and less frequently on weekdays. I joined 4 elder Czech visitors. The tour was in the Czech language, but I was given a document with explanations in English. The friendly guide also made sure in each room that I knew what I was looking at.
Although the site has interesting surface structures (such as the Main Hall which nowadays is used for exhibitions and events), most of it lies underground. This means that a lot of climbing up and down stairs is involved in the tour. The first hall of interest holds a ‘sand trap’, where the sand was filtered and raked out of the water in 3 stages – the machinery here still works though of course no contaminated water is present anymore. Mechanical treatment such as this ensured that dangerous materials were removed from wastewater of Prague’s sewers before it was discharged into the Vltava river. Entering this hall I was wowed mainly though by its wonderful brickwork, including arches and air holes.
The pride of the Plant lies in its steam engine room and boiler rooms, apparently the best preserved Czech examples of steam power. Here still-functional pump units from 1903 can be seen as well as 2 coal boilers. They pumped the sludge into tanks, so it could later be transported and sold for fertilizer. There used to be a huge water wheel as well, but that has gone. The site also had its own narrow-gauge railway, some tracks and carts are still left.
The tour ends with a walk and a boat ride through the sewers, accessed via an inconspicuous entrance at the back of the Plant. Here at the entrance we – the 5 sewage tourists - mingled with the nicely dressed guests of a wedding party which had taken over the adjoining beer garden. The sewerage is an extensive underground network, also completely built in brick.
The visit reminded me a lot of the Woudagemaal: all those blinking machines and the pride that the current conservationists (the site in Prague-Bubeneč is managed by a NGO) take in keeping them in good shape. What I enjoyed most though was the skillful brick architecture. It undoubtedly is an interesting piece of European industrial heritage, but becoming a World Heritage Site might be a bit too ambitious.
Els - 16 August 2020
Blog WHS Visits
WHS #735: Kladruby nad Labem
I’ve never liked horses. I’ve never had the common young girls crush on those stereotypically ‘noble’ animals. As an adult, on a group tour to Turkmenistan, I remember an obligatory stop at a breeding farm of Akhal-Teke horses which bored me within minutes. So the appearance of the horse farm of Kladruby nad Labem on the World Heritage List last year did not give me great joy. But well, you gotta go to every single one WHS and the subject in this case at least is quite original in the WH context.
I did look forward to the day trip as a whole though, starting the small expedition by public transport to the Czech countryside fresh of the plane. Having learned from previous reviewers, I visited on a Friday to make the best of the railway connections. On weekdays there are 2 trains per hour between Prague Central and Recany nad Labem, the closest station to Kladruby.
It was a gorgeous sunny day, which proved to be a blessing for the final 3km roadside walk. There are white-blue-white markers painted on trees to show the way, but it is easy anyway: just go straight ahead from the station. The first 1.5km of the walk is extremely boring, only when you cross the Elbe river (Labe in Czech) the landscape becomes more interesting. There are pastures bordered with white fences in which the horses run their laps every now and then - but I saw only few of them outside.
When I arrived at the ticket office and asked for a tour of the stables, they turned out to be sold out for the rest of the day! They only had tickets left for the tour of the castle at 3 o'clock - that meant waiting an hour for an undoubtedly boring tour. The gods of European castles and palaces may have had their revenge on me for my disparaging comments….
I bought the ticket anyway (90 Czech crowns / EUR 3.40) to get a taste of the atmosphere of the farm. At least I got a nice looking entrance ticket with a close up of a horse head in return. Access to the general areas is free and the WHS covers a large cultural landscape so it is not hard to get your ‘tick’, but the more interesting parts of this WHS are only unlocked by guides.
So I hung around for an hour - luckily there were benches in the shade available, as well as an ice cream cart. A side entrance to the stables was open and I could peek in there to see some of the horses. The Kladruby horses are sturdy animals: they are either pure black or white (light gray). About 250 are kept and trained here. They were especially bred to pull carriages, in contrast to the more famous Lipica where the Habsburgers bred their riding horses.
I can be short about my tour of the castle. About 20 fellow visitors showed up: all Czechs and the tour was also in Czech only. I received an explanation booklet in English. The (small) castle, more similar to a hunting lodge, has been heavily restored in recent years and looks newish. The only room of interest I found the one where copies of the studbooks of the Kladruby horses are displayed.
Els - 9 August 2020
Blog TWHS Visits
Mértola, a possible WHS for 2022 or 2023, was the last stop on my short trip by rental car through the north and center of Portugal last month. The town is located just like Vila Viçosa in the Alentejo region. I drove there via a quiet back road, where you’re allowed to drive 90 kilometers per hour. The largely uninhabited landscape is pretty with its cork oaks and olive trees, with some cows here and there that apparently can tolerate the heat.
On the last kilometers before Mértola I suddenly saw a remarkable warning sign: beware of devils? Of bats? A bit further on there was a textual explanation: the animal head represents a Lynx. It turns out that Iberian lynxes have been reintroduced in this area in recent years. The life of one of those already ended under a car and local authorities apparently wanted to prevent further damage. Not that it kept the Portuguese drivers from speeding though.
Mértola used to be an important river port. Already in ancient times it was inhabited by Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans. They took advantage of its strategic hillside location on the navigable Guadiana River. It held this position when the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. The Muslims built a castle and a mosque there. For a long time, Mértola was an independent Islamic empire that had to defend itself against Arab and Christian neighbors.
The mosque dates from the 12th century and later was converted into a Christian church, keeping its original architecture. I visited the town on a Sunday afternoon, unfortunately then (and on Mondays) the castle and the mosque-church are closed. There are also excavations to be seen from the Roman and Arab times. From behind the fence they looked very limited, there are a few fragments of mosaics which might be of interest.
The area reputedly is also very good for hiking, but in mid-July when I visited it was much too hot for that. Even at 6pm, it still felt like walking into a suffocating blanket. I spent the afternoon at the pool of my hotel, from where I had a good view of life on and along the river. I saw a man walking his goats and a single speedboat raced across the water. Freight transport no longer seems to be using this river.
In the absence of other entertainment I joined 7 Portuguese at 10am the next morning to make a one hour boat trip on the river. That was of course much too late to see any activity of birds or anything else. But we did see a few overjoyed pigs that were allowed by their owner to dive into the river. The best thing about the trip on the river however was the approach to the town of Mértola, with its imposing castle that protrudes above everything. In earlier times, skippers must have really had the feeling that they arrived at an important place.
Els - 5 August 2020
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