Bani noticed this winter would be one of the best to see the northern lights in this decade. Granted, there are lots of places in Canada for that, but we decided for a stretch and went to Iceland. Adding a flight leg to the UK was cost-effective, and I threw in a train hop into France, ending up with a mix of Icelandic natural landscapes and urban highlights of London and Paris - two iconic cities I always wanted to visit!
London, UK (pictures)
London is, as expected, a pleasant place for someone that loves Toronto as
much as I do. Sure, imperial units get in the way, and Britain could have adopted the Euro (fun fact: Yelp’s
price ranges are marked with “££” instead of “$$”), but they make up with
french frieschips and a superior public transport system - we
had a hop on hop off ticket, but London’s massive
subwaytube and bus network is a better choice to move around.
You can purchase the Oyster card in automated terminals at any station for £5 using your own credit card, and add credits in £5 increments in the same way. Fare prices vary with the distance, and you pay again if you switch systems, but off-peak trips within a system usually go for less than £2, and it stops charging when you hit a cap. Just don’t forget to tap in and out - in particular on DLR trains, which don’t have blockades.
At Baker Street’s Canteen we had some English food staples: fish-and-chips for lunch, and tea with biscuits for dessert. Also visited the first Hard Rock Cafe (beware weblings: no Wi-Fi on the lower level) and had a delicious Piri Piri chicken at Nando’s - surely not an English thing, but I found this Portuguese/Mozambiquan food chain in South Africa a few years ago and missed it since then.
The English Breakfast is good enough that I had it twice: once at Krüger on the Financial District, and anothet at The Tin Goose, which was surprisingy good (and fast) for an airport restaurant. We also bought some bread and cake at the Borough Market - it is not very convenient to eat there, but is a nice choice for takeaways.
A few interesting spots were Ada Lovelace’s house and the building where the Beatles rooftop concert happened - we didn’t enter any of them, but it was nice to be there. Riding the gigantic London Eye ferris wheel was also a a great thing to do - the lines are gigantic, but the wheel “consumes” them quickly.
I wrapped the trip with Spamalot. It is far from being the best musical (or Python-related thing) I’ve ever watched, but it was fun (and appropriate to see in England). And as a special bonus, I’ve also played DDR at the London Trocadero!
Paris, France (pictures)
With just two days, I had to make the best of my time in the city. Fortunately, a local friend offered me shelter and walked me through the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, the Notre-Dame and other classic attractions, also including a cup of coffee in Paris - all on the first day!
The second day started with typical French breakfast at a cozy boulangerie, followed by a boat cruise on the Seine and an entire afternoon at the Louvre. Contrary to what I had been told, you can get really close to the most famous artworks, such as the Mona Lisa and the Venus De Milo (or, if you prefer, La Gioconda and Aphrodite of Milos).
Of course, the museum goes beyond those “blockbusters”, but visiting all galleries roughly compares to walking a quarter marathon, so pick a few areas of interest and focus on them. Taking pictures is highly encouraged, so charge your camera batteries!
The London-Paris Eurostar train is comfortable, but security and border checks are a bit more inconvenient than I had experienced in other European trains (but not nearly as bad as an airport - just arrive half an hour earlier and have a copy of your departure flight ticket). There is a food car, but I was happier with my own food.
Reykjavík, Iceland (pictures)
The main thing to see here is, of course, the Northern Lights (aka aurora borealis). Those are only visible at night and away from the city lights, so the best thing to do is to book a tour that includes some interesting place during the day and the lights during the night.
It is a hit-or-miss: you may go out and see nothing at all. On behalf of that, most tours will offer a second booking free of charge if the lights don’t appear, but you may want to book more than one trip anyway, since the notion of “appearing” is at their discretion.
I recommend Icelandic Mountain Guides’ Golden Circle and Magical Nights: in a single day you see beautiful mountains, waterfalls and geysers; spend a couple of hours on a geothermal spa; have a great dinner at Lindin (the owner is a pleasure to talk to) and chase the lights. It is really a chase: the guides from different excursions call each other and pass tips around, ensuring we can quickly move to the best spots at a given moment.
If you want to take pictures, make sure your camera has a configurable exposure time - anything less than 10s won’t register it. My otherwise trusty Nikon point-and-shoot didn’t do the trick, but at least it made me concentrate on seeing the thing, and there is no shortage of northern light photos online. As a consolation prize, I filmed a geyser.
For the less adventurous, there is Gray Line’s City Sightseeing and The Blue Lagoon tour: you see lots of significant places around Reykjavík in the morning, then go to one of the best geothermal spas. The entrance fee is not included, but as long as you bring your swimsuit and towel, the basic EUR 33 allows you to enjoy the thing in full - you can also purchase drinks on a bar inside the pool, if that fancies you.
A few things you should be aware:
Icelandic water is heavy in sulphur, making it smell and taste somewhat like… eggs! It is particularly noticeable on the hot springs.
You may feel a bit cold between the showers and the hot waters - the steam heats the air, but just a bit.
Even though silica is not harmful to your hair, Bani recommended keeping it out of the water, and I’d listen to her if I had any.
Anyway, those are just minor nuisances - I strongly recommend a couple of hours at Blue Lagoon. It is so relaxing that I felt my body weight for quite a minute after leaving it, like an astronaut returning to earth gravity!
The last day presented a tough choice: I could either visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum, or have lunch at Lebowsky Bar. Even though I’m as attracted to massive galleries of phallic specimens as anyone else, The Dude abides and so did I. It was a wise choice: nothing like a white russian to warm up in such a cold place (burger was also nice).
Speaking of cold: temperatures are not unlike what I’ve endured in Canada, but humidity plays a role in bringing the thermal sensation down, so you will want to have proper layered clothing. I was lucky to have found a UNIQLO store in London, where I could reinforce my inner/mid layers with an amazing Ultra Light Down jacket, some thermals and even turtleneck T-shirts (which I used to hate, until I tried their ultra-comfortable stuff). Anyway, if you don’t fear the cold, this is a trip you won’t regret!