Fadó, Fadó – An adventure through space and time

Fadó, fadó in a world not unlike our own, a group of people embarked on an amazing journey through the stars.

Our journey, as Homo Sapiens, started approximately 400,000 years ago. Like all stories, there is of course a long history to our arrival at the start of this journey, but this story is about our collective selves and how we have travelled. Before the castles and the aqueducts, before we farmed animals or spliced atoms, our collective protagonist (we) was about to embark upon one of the most astounding journeys ever taken through the stars.

A long exposure photograph of stars in the night sky

At a running start our adventurers have swept around the sun 400,000 times, and the vast Milky Way (that the sun is a small part of) has travelled around 16% of the way around the centre of the universe Continue reading “Fadó, Fadó – An adventure through space and time”

Budapest in a nutshell, on a shoestring (January 2011)

Picture courtesy of Amy

The towns of Buda and Pest were amalgamated into one city in 1873. The monumental castle of Buda became the focal point for the new city; it sits enormous on the west bank of the Danube. It is the latest in a long line of castles to be raised and razed in this spot, the current castle is a Frankenstein’s monster consisting of parts of the 18th Century upgrade and reconstructed areas of the medieval castle amongst others after the castle was heavily damaged in World War II.

The amalgamation of histories and styles is a reflection of the central European hodge-podge that is the capital of Hungary. Landlocked in the centre of Europe, Budapest’s history has seen war after war Continue reading “Budapest in a nutshell, on a shoestring (January 2011)”

From Aalborg to Skagastrond (Saturday, May 8th – Tuesday, May 10th)

This is part 3 of 3 from the blog post Driving From Ireland to Iceland. If you follow this link the original post will explin these entries further.

Saturday, May 7th 2011 – International Waters

Saturday started understandably groggy. After breakfast and a fond farewell or three I hit the road and got agonisingly lost again in Aalborg, seething at the inefficiency of the traffic system and worrying more than a little about missing check-in for the ferry to Iceland at Hirtshals port, over an hour from the Danish City. I eventually broke free from the web of the city and was on my way with time to spare.

The port was as disorganised a place as I have ever visited. There seemed to be no concrete system for checking in, and cars and campers were parked flecked and scattered across the four lanes of entry as we waited for the ferry arrivals to slowly pass us by. When they eventually did, I drove on to the second biggest ship I had ever seen (this time with what seemed a completely bursting-to-the-brim full contingent of passengers, although on board it seemed like they could take more) and got a jolt of giddiness as the engines roared and we set sail. The next time my feet touch land I will be in the ambiguous state of the Faroe Islands, and the next stop after that will be in the unambiguous certainty that I am for the first time in my life no longer resident in the European Union. This ship (the Norona, a Faroese ferry that is a central force in the Faroe Islands’ tourist industry) is taking me far, far away.

Sunday, May 8th 2011 – Sea Legs

Met an amiable German named Martin, who, it turns out, is also a couchsurfer, and is moving to Reykjavik to do some web work for a new company. We talked about systems and getting around such things, and figured out a couple of harmless scams to make the journey a little more comfortable!

Sailed past the Shetlands too as fog began to descend. Two shipping boats surrounded by flocks of pestering seagulls that looked like TV static in the distance braved the high waves and low visibility.

Monday, May 9th 2011 – Meeting Vikings

Monday brings us to the Faroe Islands. The fog is thick and heavy as we land at 5 a.m. I had declined the option to bring my car onto shore here when in Hirsthals, and wonder (after a conversation with Martin, who had done the opposite) whether I had done the right thing. I choose to brave Tórshavn on foot, and soon enough realise this was a good idea.

There are no customs checks, passport checks or really checks of any kind entering or leaving this Danish principality, despite the fact that it is a nation unto itself (sort-of technically) and is not an E.U. state (to all extents and purposes). Really, it just seems like the folk here couldn’t care less about customs etc., it’s all very easy-going from the off.

The first sight encountered is a beautifully classical red-and-white striped lighthouse at the port. Climbing its hill I discover that the area is a former viking fort, and was a military station for the Danes during the 17th-19th Centuries. In World War II the British took control of the Faroes after Denmark had been occupied by Germany, and used this same hill as a garrison fort. The old Danish cannons and more recent British guns are still situated here, rusty and forlorn on the hilltop.

I walked along the shoreline taking in the tumultuous waves as they pounded the rocky shore, and I decided to follow a path off the main road and up along this shoreline, past an abandoned quarry. The fog was incredibly dense and there was unfortunately little visibility. Before long I was no longer in the Faroese capital Torshavn (which is little bigger than my hometown Sligo) and am walking in full countryside. Before long again I end up back in Torshavn.

The people here really resembled vikings in every Asterix-comic way. But all were very friendly, greeting me even at the early hour that I was out for a stroll with a smile and an unfamiliar hello. And there seemed to be children everywhere as the hours rolled on. I presumed that either the Faroese are very fertile or everyone on the islands goes to school in little Tórshavn (I learn later that the latter assumption is correct – as the furthest town in only an hour away, most children travel to Torshavn for their education). I circled the city a few times aimlessly – it is extremely hilly and there are a lot of side-streets so I found myself lost and found regularly. Eventually I stumbled across the national football stadium and pop in to see if Brian Kerr is in. He’s not.

A short walk from the stadium I discovered the national gallery. An exhibition by Faroese artist Edward Fuglø was advertised, and it looked pretty interesting so I decide to visit, but unfortunately it has a later opening time than 8.30 a.m. and I had to return later.

In the meantime I sauntered around a wonderful park next to the gallery, which has a centre-piece of an enormous sculpture dedicated to second world war victims, featuring a figure on top staring out into the south. On the subject of sculptures, the city is full of bronze-cast figurative works that almost all seem to be made by one artist (I later discover that this artist is Hans Pauli Olsen, and is quite famous in the Faroes).

Back to the museum then! I sat outside waiting for the opening reading Man’s Search For Meaning until early arrival school tours clear out of the building and it is (almost) time for it to officially open. Greeted by the invigilator, who has good English and suggested I go for the student rate, I was given a brief description of Fuglø and the museum before I entered. The museum houses a collection of art from the Faroes from the last 100 years, curated (I was told with an air of pride) by Mikael Wivel, the famous Danish curator and writer. The Fuglø exhibition is their current temporary show.

Fuglø is a contemporary Faroese artist. He works in painting, photography and mixed media installation. He is very well known in the Faroe Islands. And he is very, very good. The show, entitled Merry-Go-Round was about Faroese identity, politics between the Faroes and Denmark, birds, eggs, and art. It’s really very strong work, in particular the semi-surrealistic painting pieces which are as bizarre as they are brilliant. The level of professionalism catches me completely by surprise, which might seem a little philistinical, but I had not expected such a small country to produce such powerful, professional and high-budget work. I had just presumed the funding wouldn’t be there for the 50,000-odd Faroese inhabitants, but apparently it is there in buckets! Fuglø has also managed to sell a couple of the pieces, which I imagine went for several thousand euro, if not tens of thousands each (judging by prices on other works). I felt completely ashamed of Ireland at this point.

My shame worsened as I see that Fuglø was not a one-off. The rest of the Faroese artists in the permanent collection showed an acute knowledge of contemporary art and a high level of professionalism and investment in visual culture. The tradition of visual art in the Faroes is relatively recent, but it has been taken on with fervour. The quality of work would challenge any national museum that I’ve been to, although there is understandably less of it, in particular the paintings of Ingalvur Av Reyni and Thomas Arge, the former a recently deceased expressionist painter whose shown work was from the 90s, the latter’s work was 1970s work and also really expressionist and vivid. I began to wonder whether Ireland will ever search out any form of cultural identity, or will continue to hide it while we pine for international recognition through economic prosperity (it’s a pipe dream lads, and the alarm clock’s ringing).

Back to the ferry in a hurry then.

Throughout the city the tradition of grass-roofed houses can still be seen on many old buildings, including the port-side governmental houses that I happened upon by chance after getting lost on the way back to the boat. My tourist info came as I met a friendly port engineer who walked me back, accompanying the stroll with some back-story to the area. The government buildings were apparently situated there since the landing of the vikings in the 10th Century, I learn through unconfident but strong English. There are also 500 boats in the harbour, the grass roofs have had a resurgence in modern buildings and the Faroese intend to stabilise a rock-face near the port with steel beams (I kept the engineer talking as we walk).

On board again and we set sail at 3 p.m.

Tuesday, May 10th 2011 – Sublime

Here at last we hit land at Seydisfjordur. My cabin-mate from my last night on-board, a German called Ro (again, a member of the Couchsurfing community), requested a lift as far as Akureyri, the second largest town in the country, and, as it was on my way to Skagastrond, I happily obliged. As he has no strict schedule, all was gravy with regards adventuring when we hit land.

Initial impressions of the country couldn’t have been much grander. Ice-capped mountains surround the small port town of Seydisfjordur. We journey a short distance through valleys until we come upon another small village, Egilsstatdir, where I stopped for diesel and some breakfast

Myself and Ro hit the road once we had fuelled car and people adequately, and aim for Akureyri. There is one ring road that runs around the entire island so we’re either going straight for the town or directly away from it. Map and compass told us that we were on the right path.

There was heavy fog when we departed. The road leads up and up until we are driving on top of a constant mountain of around 600 metres (surrounded on all sides by higher peaks still). There is still some of Spring’s ice on the verges, which are terrifyingly steep. Best to keep on the road here – any veering into the ditch would mean certain write-off. The fog cleared eventually, and cloudy but sunny weather stayed with us for most of the rest of the day.

At this juncture I would like to just point out the extreme culture shock faced when beginning this journey. I was down a 2-lane motorway in the middle of the day where I pass a car once maybe every five minutes (more seldom again at parts). People don’t bother to stop at junctions at all – there is no need. The population is so scattered we barely saw a living soul for long stretches. I had expected a sparsely populated country as promised, but did not realise that it would hit me this hard upon arrival.

There is an abundance of waterfalls on either side on the drive from Seydisfjordur, but very little in the way of civilization. On the lower levels we passed some minute towns, on the higher terrain there is nothing at all – not even the semi-common fields of grazing Icelandic horses with their drooping manes and heavy fur subsist at these heights. We stopped briefly at a small car-park (these are dotted about all over the place on this road, strategically located next to particularly scenic views) and admire a pthalo grey, hilly landscape. The rock we encountered here seems to suck the daylight away, and as this deep grey was the only colour for miles, and with no traffic on the road, it felt as if we are taking a break on a dead planet. All the waterfalls make me think of Dettifoss, the largest ‘fall in Europe according to tourist guidebooks, and I suggest a detour slightly off our route to Ro, who was more than happy to journey out and see the waterfall.

We took a side-road that gradually dissipates into nothing but dirt towards the waterfall. I drove in the middle of the road here to avoid wrecking my suspension. There was not another soul for miles around. Construction vehicles sat by the road as we travel, but they looked like they had been inoperative for some time. It is possible that this road was one of the casualties of the recession here. We got out at a toilet that stands like an island surrounded by run-off water next to a car-park (by car-park I mean a flattened mound of loose gravel where one other car is parked). There are two enormous waterfalls here – Selfoss is the first, and this runs further downstream into Dettifoss.

After a relatively brief hike, we came to Selfoss. There were a few other hikers out for a stroll on this sunny day, but most were on the far side of the river where there is another more popular tourist trail. The canyon is about 40 metres wide at least. This waterfall is astounding. Water runs from all sides down in streams in a semi-circle into the fast-flowing river below. I adventure up as far as I can to the top of the fall, skipping over the fast-flowing water onto dry rock patches to get a few shots and have a look straight down. I eventually dragged my hesitant traveling companion along for a view. Although we were at the top of the fall, the impact spray from the bottom jumps so high we can almost feel it. We are both astounded by this – little were we to know what was coming next.

Dettifoss is remarkable. For someone who has never seen a really enormous waterfall, I had no idea what to expect. In this case, the spray came so high and in such quantity it soaked us both to the skin as if we are in the middle of a heavy downpour. The banks that we walk along have patches of ice marbled with grey gravel or dirt that looked like something from another planet. The waterfall itself is indescribable. All I can say is it is enormous, powerful, loud, and very very wet. It is around 60 metres tall and gushes water in a long line that bridges the gap between the side that we were standing on and the far side of the canyon. From over a hundred metres downstream, high up on the hilly canyon sides, we were still showered with the ‘fall’s impromptu rain.

Eventually we decided that it was time to return to the car and get back on the way. Honestly, I felt as if I could continue hiking forever here, but we had to move on at some point. Time is ticking away and night will fall eventually, and I need to reach Skagastrond and rendezvous with the residency co-ordinator at some reasonable hour.

On the walk back Ro told me about his business in Dresden – a bakery employing over ten people, which I have to say I am very impressed with as I imagine he is not yet thirty. He has a lust for travel, however, but he feels safe leaving the shop in the hands of the others he has in his employ to take three weeks and venture around the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

We made our way back along the dusty trail and back onto the “1” road, promising no more stops until we reach our destination.

Less than half an hour later we stopped when we saw an enormous plume of while cloud emerging from the horizon to the right of the road, and on the left a field of fumaroles erupting the same white smoke on a smaller scale. This was Námafjall Hverir, in the Krafla valley. I parked and we got out to have a look.

The newer earth-stacks are built up like anthills, and hiss steam out at a colossal speed and with a piercing wheeze. There are a great number of them here, situated on the slopes of a mountain-peak (we are still 600 metres up at this point) that is made up of a strange bright orange clay, discoloured with an emerald-green mould and white residue that sprouts near the geysers. The older ones have collapsed in and form grey murky pools of angry, bubbling goo that heats to over eighty degrees. The smell in the air here was like sweetened sulphur, overpowering at times. Standing at the belching and gurgling, odious pools I tried to imagine what foul creatures the vikings might have first thought lived beneath the grey slime at these geysers.

We hit the road again after an explore. No more stops now.

Two minutes later we passed the hill that these geysers were on, and come across one monstrous “daddy” geyser on the far side. We stop for a look.

There are strange space-age domes built near the base of the billowing crevice. These are part of the geothermal power system that keeps Iceland electrified. There are natural baths here too. This is Myvatn, a popular tourist spot. Rain started to fall a little here, and lasted for a short while. At the foot of the geyser there was a small pool of near-luminous cyan-green water, that, Ro told me (he has seen geysers before in New Zealand) is the colour of water run-off from geysers such as these.

Onwards then, past thousands more waterfalls, looking into the distance at tall mountain peaks, all snow and ice-capped, black and white in the distance with thick, fluffy white clouds for contrast. This time there really is no more stopping, and a couple of hours later we reached Akureyri (a 4-hour drive has taken 7 hours at this point, including detours).

Ro departed at a guest-house in Akureyri and I move on alone. It is another hour and a half’s drive to Skagastrond, but I am geared up and giddy at this point so even thick fog coupled with stuck-behind-a-lorry-itis does not affect my mood. Eventually I find the turn and I contact Ólafía, the residency co-ordinator to let her know I will be arriving soon.

The town, directly translated meaning “peninsula strand”, sits at the foot of a monumental mountain that I will climb before the end of my stay here. There is a wall of mountains on one side almost separating Skagastrond from the rest of Iceland. On the other side is the sea, blue-black in the overcast evening. The buildings are all brightly coloured and noticeably spaced very far apart. So much so, in fact, that this town of just over 500 people seems much larger than it should.

And so ends my adventure from Sligo, North-west Ireland, to Skagastrond, North-west Iceland. 3 ferries, 18 hours of driving, 5 seas, 8 countries later and I had arrived at my home for 3 months. More Icelandic adventures to follow…

From Utrecht to Aalborg (Thursday, May 6th – Saturday, May 8th)

This is part 2 of 3 from the blog post Driving From Ireland to Iceland. If you follow this link the original post will explin these entries further.

Thursday, May 5th 2011 – Up Utrecht!

Morning arrived unexpectedly, and I awoke at the crack of dawn to go city-adventuring. Utrecht had seemed pretty cool from the stroll the night before, with an abnormal amount of bicycles and fashionable people so I figured I would stay until after lunch and see what the city had to offer.

When checking in the previous night, the receptionist had recommended the clock museum so I decided I would visit that at some point. A very groovy poster led me to believe that there was a good exhibition to be found at Kunstliefde if I could find it. And besides that I was feeling much better after the rest and decided a city adventure would be ideal!

So off I went, firstly heading straight back to the car to put a ticket on. Parked out the front of the main train station I figured it would be obligatory and necessary to appease the local authorities. A ticket for one hour was €4.95. I decided to pass up on this opportunity and take my chances with the clampers.

Following the chiming of the twinkling bells of the “Dom” (the impressive cathedral dedicated to St. Cathrijne) I arrived at the city centre. The cathedral tower plays chiming tunes all day long, which echo for quite a distance and are kind of sickly-lovely but not altogether distracting once you get used to them. From here I followed signs and a map and found the Aboriginal Art museum down by a pleasant sunny morning riverside, reaching the door just as they opened for the day.

A little on the expensive side to enter, the museum was definitely worth it. Showing works by members of CoBrA and Roar, there was an abundance of amazing stuff on display, both aboriginal work and imitations of these styles. The techniques and colours were wonderfully impressive and made me immediately want to reach Iceland and pick up a brush.

My next stop was Kunstliefde. I reached there at around 10 a.m. I rang the buzzer and upset an upstairs-artist and the receptionist there. She told me they opened at 1. I apologised and left.

Neglecting thoughts of a premature exit from the city, I decided to wander some more. I stumbled across the clock museum and snuck in the back entrance to watch the tour for free and take some sneaky photos. They had an inordinate amount of 18th and 19th Century hurdy-gurdies, cuckoo clocks, musical children’s toys, obtusely decorated automatic organs and other garishly tacky classical kitch that was all fairly wonderful in its own right.

I went for another street wander and came across a little shop called Kunsthandel Meijer that had very nice art on display in the window. The unassuming corner-stall looked like a boutique with simple white-framed windows and a rugged exterior that looked slightly worn and forlorn. Inside it was a two-roomed pokey affair, but the art on display was really nice and I was happy to look around. The owner eyed me warily as I entered but he was preoccupied with a phone-call (the first of many that he took while I was there).

Gazing around the room I couldn’t help but feel quite shocked at the high level of quality in the artworks. “Utrecht impresses again,” I said to myself, still reeling from the Aboriginal Art show. Finishing his call, the owner came and joined me, figuring out quickly that we needed to speak in English, and spoke to me about the works. “That’s a David Hockney,” he said unassumingly, “that one us Keith Haring, Wiessemann, another Wiessemann, Gundar Gundarsson, and there’s an Andy Warhol print.” I thought he was joking at first.

It turned out that this man, the image of non-chalance, was a keen collector of sixties pop art. He loved the stuff so much that every topic of conversation we got engrossed in eventually turned back to Pop Art. This was clearly his specialist subject, but he ended up being so full of knowledge that he was willing to share (including showing me a list of Icelandic artists that he recommended on his Mac, thrusting books at me, and raving about the work of one or another artist, some of whom I had never heard of) that I couldn’t get away from the engrossing conversation. Only when he stopped to take another phonecall did our conversation break. This was when I nearly fell in love with Utrecht.

Afterwards it had just passed one o’clock, and I returned to Kunstliefde. The head of the gallery, a really talkative artist with an obsession with Anselm Kiefer caught me looking at 3D paintings without 3D glasses and immediately assisted. Once we engaged in conversation he told me I should have just come in earlier and not bothered walking away.

Here was another fascinating character from Utrecht, who, bizarrely, seemed more interested in my own residency in Iceland than I was in this incredible open 2-storey gallery that he was clearly one of the heads of operations at. His name was Dirk. We talked passionately about a range of topics, but he could scarcely contain his excitement when he told me he would be meeting Kiefer that coming Friday after being wrought with jealousy at his girlfriend’s one-person media pass to the artist’s unveiling of an installation in Amsterdam, coupled with a talk from the German himself. After a coincidental meeting with one of the gallery administrators at a wild party that Dirk arrived at through a series of incidents that he recounted to me in detail, he was extended his own personal invitation, to his utter joy and delight.

Aside from the anecdotes, waffle and miscellaneous chat, Dirk also took the time to explain the show on the walls of this avant-garde hothouse. The gallery itself was a duplex unit, with tall ceilings and an industrial air, which was accented by concrete juttings at the joints in walls and iron railings on the staircase and upper bannister. Along the walls were exorbitantly priced but extraordinary works of art. Dirk explained that the gallery is run by a group of Utrecht artists who have been in existence for over 200 years and once included Willem de Kooning. This group, although regularly exhibiting works in Kunstliefde themselves, extended an invitation to workers in the media industry who have an interest in art / who practice art themselves to submit works for an open call. The stuff produced was nothing short of sublime, and the show was outstanding in every sense. An eclectic yet knitted display of mainly two-dimensional work, I was again impressed and inspired upon seeing the display. This was when I fell in love with Utrecht.

Funny city, about the size and population of Cork, and just as bustling and active, and like Cork I have taken an instant shine to the place. Maybe this is my ideal size of city… Also on that note, pretty much an identical population in Utecht (or Cork) to the entire population of Iceland.

Onwards then, and back to my car, where, I was assured by the head of Kunsthandel Meijer that I would have a ticket, as they check regularly. I didn’t.

On the open road again, and heading for a 4-hour drive to Bremen. Over the border and through the woods, passing many a chain of pylons, spotting so many huge windmills in both countries that I began to wonder if Ireland had missed an E.U. memo somewhere. Again I noticed the abundance of lorries perpetually conveying concealed loads across the continent. As I drove past them with the music off I noticed that each lorry engine emits a unique drawling, wailing howl that builds as you speed toward the front, then vanishes entirely just as you pass.

A word to the wise: Do not dare slow down on the German motorways. As far as I can gather there is a lane for cars and a lane for lorries and whatever ridiculous car-shuddering speed the cars are driving at, that is your speed and you stick to it. There are speed limit signs but apparently they’re ostentatious distractions that must be ignored. Either that or the 120 was miles/hour – I’m not sure.

Reaching Bremen I went directly to the central train station and hijacked somebody’s internet to search for a good hostel. I didn’t find any and was so immediately put off by the city so I headed on down the road toward Hamburg.

I had decided to stop and sleep in the front seat at Hamburg but when I got there it was around 9 p.m. Discounting a couple of stops for food and leg-stretching, I had been on the road for five hours. That said, I was in the mood for continuing so I pressed on toward Flensburg near the Danish border until my eyelids started to get heavy and I pulled over in a truck-stop.

Getting out and stretching my legs, my persistent cough persisted as I went to get a cup of coffee. Just after I arrived a van with black tinted windows and “Zoll” written on the side near the back wheel pulled up across from me and four heavy-set men got out inconspicuously with a couple of alsatians. I couldn’t remember what Zoll was but I was sure they were police of some kind, and the regular insecure paranoia of police presence came over me in waves telling me that they were staring at me. I felt very exposed and alone at that point. I left and got a coffee.

When I came back they were still staring, and the dogs were over near my car.

Nothing else came of it, and they drove off, seemingly satisfied.

I crawled into my sleeping bag in the front seat and read a few pages of Catch 22. A minute later I was blinded by headlights in front of me as an unmarked Mercedes pulled up and two men jumped out in hi-vis vests with “Zoll” on them. I rolled down the window nervously.

“Customs,” said the bubble-nosed, cheery ginger man at my window. Although he appeared quite comical with his round face and pin-hole glasses, and a constant ironic grimace, he also exuded confidence and authority and I figured he could probably break all my fingers just by looking at them. I did what every self-respecting Irishman would do in that situation. In my best culchie accent I barked out, “How’s it going?”

This seemed to catch him off-guard (he had clearly never done Garda Síochána 101) and he guffawed a small giggle before reassuming his authoritative and comical countenance. He asked the regular questions as his partner, a more naive, sparrow-like gentleman, poked and prodded and swabbed diligently. The lead-man made no secret they were looking for drugs. I assisted in every way as the flighty one probed all nooks and crannies, checking for hidden panels. I continued to make small-talk with the authoritative one which seemed to make him very uncomfortable. The drug test came up clean and they left without a fuss a few minutes later. I was genuinely surprised that this was the first hassle I had had on this trip (driving a van from Ireland to Iceland seems like something that would arouse a little suspicion from time to time) but this was all I had.

Friday, May 6th 2011 – Aalborg’s Welfare State

On I went the following morning, not stopping now until my journey reached its end. Denmark became more hilly, less built-up, more agriculturally based and more green than the last two countries, and for a while, watching the dairy farms roll by my window, I felt like I was driving at home. Except that I was on the wrong side of the road. And it was a real road. And there were still constant sightings of the towering windmills everywhere I looked.

Crossing an awe-inspiring suspension bridge near Vejle, I saw the most wonderful panorama Denmark was to offer, looking down on a beautiful fishing town surrounded by woodlands. I’m not sure what the town was, and I am sure that I should have been paying closer attention to the road, but the sight was majestic. Boats trawled through illuminated green-blue water in what was either a lake or the Scandinavian Sea, and different coloured rooftops reflected up brightly and invitingly but I couldn’t stop.

I ploughed on to Aalborg as quickly as I could, not in the mood for any more stops or driving. I had a place to sleep tonight thanks to Couchsurfing and I was looking forward to meeting my hosts who had suggested beers for the evening. I liked them already.

The Danish seem to like terracotta red a lot. A hell of a lot of the country’s buildings are terracotta red, including the walls and roofs, but there you go. Maybe it was the vibrant yellows, blues and greens that the Dutch used on their own homes and towns that formed a contrast in my mind, I’m not sure. But it did seem excessive.

Aalborg is a quaint city with a great big bridge and a very confusing road system. Getting around here was the first trouble that I had on the roads since leaving Ireland. The city had a convoluted traffic system that moved in circles and I kept getting lost. There were a lot of banks on all the main and side-streets. In my tiredness and frustration I strayed onto the wrong side a couple of times but thankfully nothing came of it besides a few belligerent Danish faces behind windscreen glass.

I stopped in a cobble-stoned market area and went for a stroll, taking in the nice market stalls but not buying a bloody thing (people always said that Denmark was expensive but my God they didn’t say how expensive!). There were banks all around, five in the main square itself. I was encapsulated by a little model train shop that had Deutche Bahn models for around €500 that brought back great memories to me. The models were incredibly intricate and really very beautiful and I decided there and then that when I retire I will endeavour to become one of those strange people with a model train fascination.

Visited a couple of small galleries and met another couple of artists here but was less impressed in terms of quality, and they weren’t too forthcoming with chat either so I left these behind. I went on up to the train station at Liebholz, near where I would be staying. I went to take a few photos of what I later learned was an old cement factory. There were quite a few banks here too. Denmark has a lot of banks.

Finally I met my Couchsurfing* host, Hans, who took me down the freeway toward his home, scolding me later for not having my lights on at one point, which is highly illegal in Denmark. I also learned that it is highly illegal to carry a blade of any kind (even a stanley knife unless you are on official duty and it is in a toolbox) and possession will leave you in jail for seven days. I am glad that I was never searched in Denmark as I had both a sharp kitchen knife for picnicking and a stanley knife in the car, neither of which I was too willing to give up.

*If you are unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, hit that link NOW and get familiar

I learned a great deal from Hans and his lovely girlfriend Melie as I got drunk with them later. Unlike many Europeans, the Danes thankfully know how to drink. We cleaned off a bottle of wine, a series of German beers (smuggled) and then some nice scotch before slurred, messy bed-time. I learned that Denmark has a fully functioning welfare state. It was really refreshing to hear residents of a country compliment having to pay high taxes in exchange for good roads and schools and fully functional public healthcare. Despite the current right-wing government, the welfare state was as embedded as the pathetic Irish business model, and as a result little could change under a right-wing group. Taxes can’t be suddenly halved once they are so high. It was bliss to hear these people talk about the system in such high regard. And it is true. All of a sudden I understood and sympathised with the high prices – the roads worked. The water was clean. The hospitals were, I was told, efficient. People, including Melie the politics major, were paid (!) to go to college. Every single citizen!

Much music and photography was discussed (Hans is a photographer and was full of useful tips). Balloo the black labrador was insatiably friendly and completely unaware of his own strength, which became more of a problem the less my balance subsisted. Eventually and inevitably the night ended and I spent a sorry drunken while desperately pumping an air mattress up with a pump that whistled piercingly every time I pushed on it. The quieter I tried to be (so as to not wake the couple sleeping next door) the louder it wheezed until I gave up and slept on a half-pumped bed.

Stage 3: From Aalborg to Skagastrond (Saturday, May 8th – Tuesday, May 10th)

From Sligo to Utrecht (Tuesday, May 3rd to Thursday, May 5th)

This is part 1 of 3 from the blog post Driving From Ireland to Iceland. If you follow this link the original post will explin these entries further.

Tuesday, May 3rd 2011 – The Wayfarer’s Initial Voyage

So the journey begins. Awake and barrel-eyed at 5 a.m. I make myself some breakfast, a couple of sandwiches for later in the day, bid my parents a fond, emotional and heartfelt farewell and depart on the greatest adventure of my life so far.

It all begins quite slowly. One 3-hour drive to Belfast where I pass without incident with my pretty Peugeot into Stenaline’s ferry preparing to cross to Stranraer. The skies are clear. My head is not, as I have set out amid a chesty cough and cold, and I can’t keep from sneezing, coughing or honking out an unhealthy dose of green mucus into a tissue, but them’s the breaks!

The near cloudless skies offer a rich view of Scotland for the first images of the land away from my home island. We dock at 2 p.m. On entry a customs officer asks me my purpose. I explain that I’m an artist heading for Iceland. He asks if I’m famous. I laugh. I think he might have been serious.

From here on out things get considerably less interesting. Eight solid hours of driving await, mainly down motorways and national roads that hold little of visual stimulus but I have no choice but to plough on, or risk missing ferry number 2 the following morning from Harwich.

For all the lack of interest on the road, I did drive past a fascinating series of stumpy sandstone-coloured chimneys at a power station somewhere near Stoke / Derbyshire that sat pluming smoke from their plump flower-vase figures. I also couldn’t help but notice the extraordinary amount of lorries traveling the length and breadth of the country. Without exaggeration, I don’t believe at any stage of the journey I was not driving behind or in front of at least one lorry, some so massive and carrying (as marked) “abnormal loads” such as entire sections of houses that I felt I had to swerve tightly on the lanes in order to avoid being crushed.

I stopped for an essential eye-lid invigorating nap and eventually made it to Harwich at 3 a.m. Slept wrapped in a sleeping bag in the carpark of Lidl, cramped into the front seat with all my art materials (frames, boxes of paints, spirits etc.) cluttering the back half of my auto.

Wednesday, May 4th 2011 – Set Sail For The Mainland!

That same clutter afforded me the chance to meet and chat with customs officers the following morning while waiting to board the Harwich – Hoek van Holland trip. In my tired and hungry delirium I divulged more information than I expect the customs lads were in any way interested in, but my verbal diarrhea let me off the hook and I was allowed to pass without my boot being tossed asunder.

Ferry number 2 then. A mid-ocean field of windmills awaits around half an hour off shore that look like a drowned mountaintop’s last relics are my first sight of the English Channel. We race a lot of vessels on this ocean; although the ferry is not busy at all it is by far the largest ship I have ever seen and also one of the fastest. It leaves other ships following the sailing lanes trailing. I have to compliment Stenaline at this point for offering a really great option with this land-bridge. Not only is it cheap and convenient, the ferry’s are top-class, the food is nice and not (extortionately) expensive, and there is free wi-fi!

When aboard I realise with irritation that if I was to successfully fight off this cold that I was suffering I would need to sleep in a real bed some time soon. I looked into the possibility of last-minute Couchsurfing in Utrecht, with no success, so I decided to fall back on a hostel. The one I picked was called Strowis. The internet description was interesting enough for me to make up my mind on the spot that that’s where my head would lay tonight. The hostel was a former squat that had been taken over in the 80s, and at some point in the 90s they needed to become a business to legitimise, so they chose a hostel as their calling.

Reaching the port I disembarked in Hoek van Holland, straight away getting into the swing of driving on the right, getting beeped at by impatient Netherlanders, and looking the other way at roundabouts. It isn’t half as frightening as I would have imagined…quite a bit of fun really. Besides running a red light in The Hague nothing too untoward happened behind the wheel.

What is immediately striking about the Netherlands is that there is so much occupied space. Everything seems built-on or owned, and everything is well bordered and fenced and looks well ordered and in good repair. Having such a large population in a small country must call for a good amount of order concerning space, and at this the Dutch really excel! Also, an extraordinary amount of dramatically enormous white electricity-generating windmills obscure the flat horizon. Also, the sky seems relentlessly everlasting here.

So I stopped for a couple of hours in the Hague. Having chatted to an interesting Australian-English lady on the ferry, my curiosity was piqued at the idea of the Ludwig House, a small museum in the centre of the Hague where countless priceless artworks adorn the walls. I looked around desperately for a few hours but failed to find any sight of the house (but in fairness hunger and sapped energy played a role in prematurely ending my search), and eventually after a nice city-stroll along tram lines I decided to head on for Utrecht.

I arrived in the city less than an hour later. I Parked at the central train station, Catherijne Hoog, I followed the online directions on foot and soon found what I was looking for. An easy and quiet night followed with my main focus getting as much sleep on a solid surface as possible, and grabbing a well-needed shower.

Stage 2: From Utrecht to Aalborg (Thursday, May 6th – Saturday, May 8th)