Monday, 26 August 2013

Fowl misdeeds on Iceland's Ring Road

Splendid fjord views, geological marvels and in-car snacking on salted cod. I'm just back from driving Iceland's Ring Road, and it lived up to the hype.

A fjord-side stop-off in southern Iceland. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
The conversation in our rented VW was reduced to a series of appreciative murmurs as each new wonder came into view: the forbidding Vatnajökull glacier, the navy-blue waters of the eastern fjords, and Martian deserts that stretched off into the distance.

Following the Ring Road (Route 1) is also a lazy driver's dream. No risk of the sat-nav interrupting your reverie. You'll coast for scores of kilometres without a turnoff.

Colourful canoes in Seyðisfjörður, eastern Iceland. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.

I had taken to Iceland's roads nervously. Unused to driving on the right and flummoxed by Icelandic road signs, I had an iron grip on the wheel. No pothole would go undodged, no speed limit would be exceeded. Rustbuckets might overtake me, but I planned to explore Iceland without incident.

Unfortunately, then came the bird.

The previous day, I had been exploring the magical Mývatn region in eastern Iceland. This geologically wild area of the country doesn't just hiss with volcanic steam, it teems with birdlife in its enormous lake and wetlands. Spotter's guides to the local wildfowl were everywhere in Mývatn, so when a plump bird emerged from the roadside shrubbery, I knew at once it was a snipe.

A snipe in safer surrounds. Image by Axel Kristinsson. CC BY 2.0
He was safely tucked in among the tall grasses on a roadside verge, and as I trundled along at the speed limit of 90km/h I had plenty of time to admire the speckled plumage and graceful beak from afar.

What I didn't know was that the bird was cursed with unfortunate timing. Or perhaps he harboured a darkness in his avian brain, the prospect of endless days foraging for worms stretching out pointlessly in his mind. Maybe he could take no more, after another unsuccessful snipe mating season. We may never know.

Deadly driving machine. Image © Anita Isalska. See more on my Flickr page.
In any case, a mere moment before my car could zoom safely past, the snipe launched himself into the air - and thunked directly into my windscreen with a queasy splatter. After the collision, the bird ricocheted over my car. All that remained after that split-second was a dark trickle on the wind shield. 

I whimpered queasily as the windscreen wipers slicked the gory evidence across the glass. 

Later, Icelanders reassured me that Iceland's thickets and lakelands overflow with these chubby, unobservant creatures. Uncomforted, I mused darkly on how northern Europe's higher suicide rate extends to its waterfowl. And I took a break from driving.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Amphi Festival, Cologne: an epic gothic gathering in Germany

There's a lot to say about Cologne in Germany - the famous fragrance comes to mind, as does the iconic twin-towered cathedral dominating the city's skyline. The next thing I think of is the easy-living riverside drinking, and perhaps the famous locks of love affixed to Hohenzollern Bridge.

What you might not know is that for nearly a decade Cologne has been hosting a huge gathering of alternative music fans, bringing together punks, goths and dark techno addicts in an explosion of neon hair, black lace and flamboyant parasols.

Hohenzollern bridge and the Dom in Cologne at twilight - and an array of incredible
costumes at 2013's Amphi Festival. Images © Anita Isalska.
Amphi Festival, held at Cologne's Tanzbrunnen Open Air arena, saw a whopping 16,000 music lovers make a pilgrimage to the city in 2013. Despite being a music festival regular, my jaw was on the floor when I saw the level of love (and lacework) that had gone into the outfits.

More of Amphi's best-dressed, from parasols to wings to fake blood -
and leather, whatever the weather. Images © Anita Isalska.

Full Victorian ball gowns, leather kilts, elaborately stitched corsets and buckets of fake blood - it was like wandering around a macabre pantomime. Don't get me wrong, Normal Matt and I had put in some effort, but hats and feathers and fishnet is really nothing when you are facing off with a horned fairy princess in a pink corset and wings. Amazing.

Gross St Martin Church in Cologne, and the colourful taverns
of Fischmarkt. Image © Anita Isalska.

Cologne is the perfect city to host a parade of darkly fantastical characters. The Dom (cathedral) is among the more awe-inspiring in Europe, and is the largest Gothic church in northern Europe. It's hard not to gasp when you see its intricately carved facade - the largest in the world - right in front of you as you leave Cologne's main train station.

Panorama of Amphi Festival in Cologne. Image © Anita Isalska.
Outside the festival grounds, mojitos were being muddled into the early hours at the cocktail bars in the Alter Markt, at the kind of prices that make a (now) London girl reluctant to return home.

Bridge over the Rhine in Cologne, Germany. Image © Anita Isalska.
As many times as I visit Cologne, I always feel certain I'll go back. One thing is for sure, though - I'm coming back next year with a better costume.