The Bunny’s new alias: Bella Historica!

Hello readers! I want to tell you about another page I’ve recently started, to try and focus on the aesthetic beauty and emotional resonance I find in historic sites and artefacts. The account will be mostly based on Instagram and Facebook and specialise in small, digestible bites of content (alas, the digital age!) rather than my more rambling, in-depth articles.

If you’re interested in beautiful pictures accompanied by insightful quotes, apropos poetry, or interesting facts, then please feel free to follow Bella Historica on Instagram, and/or on Facebook! But I’ll be doubling-up those posts here as well, so you’ll get them anyway – and hopefully you enjoy them!

Many thanks for being my faithful fans for over five years now as I continue to explore and be puzzled by this crazy world!

Much love,

Steffi

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Clues to the Past: Uncovering conservation secrets at the Burgie Glasshouse

In June, eighteen intrepid volunteers traveled to Scotland to help conserve a 1912 timber glasshouse on the ancient Burgie Estate. The task was not easy, but it seemed straightforward: Repair and clean the timber framing, paint and prime it, then replace the missing glass panes to restore its former beauty and function. In spite of the occasionally “dreich” Scottish weather, our “AstraGals” as they christened themselves, restored beauty to the old timber structure, and got the frame and the historic cast iron sanded, painted, and water-tight.

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Volunteer crew hard at work up on the scaffold!

 

But when eighteen people spend two weeks up-close and personal with a building, you’re bound to find some unexpected surprises…

All of the things we found challenged our ideas and preconceptions about what a historic greenhouse was “supposed” to look like. At first we didn’t look past the surface: everything was painted a crumbling, flaming white, which dovetailed easily with our own aesthetic that it was probably a crisp, glowing structure all of gleaming white paint and glass. But as soon as the first paint layers came off, it became clear this was not the whole story….

It began on Day One with the cast iron gutters, which were covered in peeling white paint and needed to be sanded down before being repaired and repainted. Within a few minutes, the power-sanders had penetrated the white paint and all the rust to reveal… a layer of deep green! This was particularly exciting because the other intact cast iron elements in the interior.. are also painted green. So now we have the idea that the green ventilator levers and brackets aren’t just an accent colour – we’re getting evidence of an actual paint scheme working within the greenhouse.

We were in two minds about the green thing. The trouble was, the green was the absolute bottom coat of all the layers. Generally, ironwork is and was painted with a priming coat of red lead paint, prior to the exterior layers being added. But here, we had to grapple with the question of whether perhaps for whatever reason, they used green paint to prime it, meaning that the visible layers would still have been white. OR, that perhaps the original installers cut some corners and didn’t prime it at all but painted the decorative green straight on.

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The poor gutters – they do look white though, don’t they?

The glasshouse also has a decorative cast-iron finial on the roof ridge of the central house (there were formerly two matching finials, but one was stolen long ago…), and when we prised it off its base and started sanding down its white paint and rust, guess what we found… More green! Curiouser and curiouser…

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How many layers can you spot…?

Our volunteers spent two solid weeks face to face with the timber structure, sanding, chiseling, and repairing every spot they could reach, so it’s no surprise they picked up on things a casual observer might have passed right by. The glasshouse has stood for over a hundred years, and it’s definitely been repainted at least once in its lifetime. But, in some harder-to-reach corners, we were able to spot patches of what must have been the original paint – a very pale green! Now before we get carried away on the idea that the entire greenhouse was actually, well, green, I’m fairly certain that this was the original white lead paint that has aged to grey that just happens to have a greenish hue. Lead paints do tend to go greyer and paler as they age, as lead paint ages differently from modern oil or latex-based paints which crack. Lead-based paints powder away into a fine dust. So, for example, a door that was originally red would after a hundred years be much closer to pink.

Another exciting find was a decorative motif that still survived on some of the doors. Based on the flecks of paint still left, this curved ornament around the handles was originally a deep maroon, and even where the paint doesn’t survive well the outline of the motif is still clearly visible on most of the doors, indicating that it was pretty much ubiquitous throughout the glasshouse. It seemed a curious but distinctive feature, and when we mentioned it to Hamish, the owner, he told us that the Burgie Estate colour was, in fact, maroon.

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These maroon motifs were on almost every door in the greenhouse!

So there we had it, that little motif, that could so easily have been overlooked and carelessly sanded away, was a little piece of the original pride of Alexander Thompson’s new house and gardens. Just a little touch added, to say “Here I am – this beautiful building is mine.”

While the jury is still out on the original colour of the gutters and finial, the next conservation session definitely has plans to restore the maroon motifs to the doors. Paint samples were taken from various parts of the greenhouse to see if examination under a microscope revealed anything that our eyes couldn’t see, and I’m still slowly researching whether the green paint is more likely an exterior coat, or just a priming coat.

Another curious feature which I must have looked at a hundred times but never thought about, was the presence of little pulley wheels attached to certain parts of the greenhouse. Our brilliant volunteers theorised they could have belonged to adjustable blinds, which were sometimes used at greenhouses to provide shade in too-sunny conditions (in Scotland, seriously…?). This sounded plausible enough to me, though I didn’t know much about it, until a week later it turned out the AstraGals were right on the money!

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An example of how a pulley and blind system would have looked.

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One of the “mystery” pulleys identified by our volunteers.

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Close up!

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They don’t look like much, and it looks like someone tried to burn them, but I’m almost positive these are our blinds!

You see, down in the old boiler room are some rather strange-looking objects, that look like they’ve been thrown down there as a pile of old rubbish. I’d seen them a dozen times, but never wondered much about them, but once the seed about “greenhouse blinds” had been planted in my head… It suddenly clicked. Not only did we have the pulleys as evidence for the blinds, we actually had the blinds themselves sitting down in the boiler room all this while! This is incredible not just because we now know for certain that there were blinds, but now we even know precisely what they looked like and what they were made of. Until we can go down and rescue them and see what state they’re in, we won’t know whether they’re salvageable to actually re-install them. But maybe someday, when we find the expertise and/or a bit of funding, we can recreate the blinds to their original historic appearance. Gotta keep dreaming…!

Travel to Scotland for a Conservation Adventure!

Adventures In Preservation, a leading heritage conservation non-profit, is pleased to announce its upcoming session – restoring a historic greenhouse in the north of Scotland!Burgie Poster 2 Corrected
Participants will help repair and restore the 1912 glasshouse of the historic Burgie Estate, learning traditional craft and building skills in the process. The project will include hands-on training in window glazing, glass-cutting, and cast-iron conservation, as well as introductions to the gardening and arboriculture practiced on-site. The project not only benefits a beautiful historic structure, but also supports the effort of its owner, Hamish, who has dedicated his life to the environmentally-sustainable cultivation of trees, which he nurtures in the glasshouse.
The project takes place in two week-long sessions: September 24-30, and October 1-7, 2017. Participants can attend both consecutively, or just one.
The participation fee includes:
  • Transportation to and from Inverness airport
  • Accommodation in a house in the Scottish countryside
  • Catered meals
  • All work and safety equipment
  • On-site training and supervision by a specialist in Scottish conservation
  • A 2-day tourguided excursion to the Isle of Skye (during the second week)
For registration and further details on a truly unique opportunity to travel, learn, and help preserve a piece of history, please visit AdventuresInPreservation.org
You can also follow the project on Facebook by liking Adventures in Preservation and The Burgie Glasshouse and Arboretum Restoration Project. If you can’t attend but would like to contribute, donations are greatly appreciated, and will go directly toward the material costs of the restoration. Adventures in Preservation is a 501(c)(3) and all contributions are tax-deductible.
To register, donate, or for any enquiries, please get in touch at trips@adventuresinpreservation.org, or call our trip director Judith Broeker on (303) 444-0128.
And watch our new project trailer!

Restore the Greenhouse, Restore the Future!

Restoring heritage is always about more than just the buildings. While we might get caught up in questions of authenticity, of style and architectural purity and period-accurate method, at the end of the day, I think anyone who preserves heritage does so with the conviction that doing so ultimately makes the world a better place. Even if it’s just in a little tiny way – one building, a doorway, a chimneypiece, a stair-rail – there’s a satisfaction in knowing that you’ve concretely improved one tiny corner in a measurable way. Sometimes its difficult to see just HOW improving heritage improves the world… But then again sometimes it’s really very simple.

At Burgie, Mr. Hamish Lochore is using his historic building to save Scotland’s trees. He’s spent the past 12 years creating an enormous arboretum on his estate, where he grows both endangered Scottish species, as well as exotic species that a huge international network send him from all over the world (legally, of course!). He’s realised that all eight of Scotland’s native surviving species have already been negatively affected by climate change, and are increasingly vulnerable. He’s realised, as many at the Forestry Commission refuse to acknowledge, that the future of Scottish forestry might just require investigating alternative species. Despite the milder microclimate of the Moray coast, tiny seedlings of exotic varieties need a little help in their earliest years before they’re ready to brave the Scottish weather. And this is where the “so what” of the historic greenhouse comes into it.

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Hamish has turned his arboretum into a beautiful country park that locals and tourists can visit and enjoy! Swans included 😉

Hamish has done an amazing thing with his ancestral estate. In the grand tradition of country estate owners everywhere, he has moulded and crafted his land into something better than itself. He has made it productive as well as decorative, educational as well as functional – and the same is true for his greenhouse.

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Don’t let the dull fibreglass roof deceive you, this glasshouse is a beautiful diamond in the rough!

The glasshouse was originally built in 1912, and it belongs to a world that no longer exists. The social structures of Edwardian Britain eroded after the First World War, and the rural economy and lifestyle changed forever. The glasshouse was built for a household that was designed not just to function, but to impress, with a staff of household servants as well as landscapers and gardeners to keep things running inside and out. The Burgie glasshouse speaks eloquently to this division between those who serve and those who are served; it has separate entrances for staff and visitors, as well as extensive sheds “behind the scenes” that are plainer and clearly meant for the dirtier staging-work of the paid gardeners. And one can just picture the wee coal-monkeys who were sent down into the lowered boiler-room to keep the water-pipes heated. Meanwhile, family members or meticulously-dressed visitors could come in from the walled garden to a gleaming fantasy of crisp, white timber, translucent glass, and of course a well-maintained riot of exotic plants and flowers.While this might not be every person’s ideal, with great divisions in wealth and privilege, it cannot be denied that such divisions wrought beautiful objects, buildings included. But the world has moved on, and the societal structure and purpose that appreciated greenhouses as status symbols and works of art no longer exists. And, like most buildings nowadays, century-old greenhouses are finding that they too must earn their keep to survive.

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Historic glasshouses can be positively stunning. Although it’s hard to picture Burgie looking this grand, it once really did, and it could again!

How fortunate then that Hamish’s interests find more than enough uses for his broken-down old greenhouse! Hamish values his land and his heritage. As he said himself, “Who are we if we don’t leave things better than we found them?” But at the end of the day, he needs a working greenhouse for his eco-conservation work; whether it’s historic is in some respects neither here nor there. If he’s got one already on-hand, all the better! But in the state that it’s in… the Burgie greenhouse can’t exactly be said to be “working.” Most of the glass in the roof has fallen out over the centuries, and just to keep the water out Hamish put up some fibreglass sheeting. It keeps the inside relatively dry, but the essential function of a greenhouse – the capture and storage of heat and light through glass – is utterly lost. Right now it’s essentially just a glorified shed, and Hamish’s plants are suffering for it: shaded species are fine, but every year he loses dozens of carefully cultivated plants because they simply can’t get enough light and heat.

One of Hamish’s dedicated volunteers also has a love of historic buildings, and she saw the need – and the solution – right away. She reached out for help and enlisted the support of Adventures in Preservation, an American organisation that pair travel and tourism with heritage volunteering and conservation work. In June they brought 18 volunteers from the US and Australia (almost all women, as it happens!), and Hamish ripped the dirty sheeting off, freeing the beautiful wooden skeleton from its fibreglass prison! Over two weeks, the team sanded, chiseled and cleaned the entire wooden frame of the central house, then primed and painted it until it just glowed – literally, so white!

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Fifteen beautiful “AstraGals” got the timber frame trim and glowing during AiP’s June session!

More about the amazing things we discovered during our work – and a few unsolved mysteries we uncovered – in a subsequent post.

But for now, Hamish’s beautiful greenhouse is roofless and gaping open to the elements, and Adventures in Preservation and I are working hard to get a group back in the autumn to get a roof on it before the winter weather sets in – a scenario that would be bad for the greenhouse, and bad for Hamish’s trees!

Registration for the September-October session is live, and will involve cutting and laying the glass for the roof! Visit http://adventuresinpreservation.org/upcoming-adventures-old50/glasshouse-conservation-project-reglazing/http://adventuresinpreservation.org/upcoming-adventures-old50/glasshouse-conservation-project-reglazing/ to register!

 

History in the Crossfire: Kosovo’s Endangered Monasteries

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We could see it coming up the road, a simple but radiant structure in pink and white stone that glowed in spite of the rain. The church of the ancient monastery nestled into the base of a mist-topped green mountain, its cultivated fields and vineyards, still producing sustenance after seven hundred years, spread around it down the slope of the hill like a lady’s skirt in variegated patterns. Decani Visoki looks the very picture you’d expect of an active monastery: tidy, quiet, and prosperous.

Until you come to the KFOR barrier gate, draped in camouflage and topped with barbed wire, where incoming vehicles must state their purpose, surrender their passports, and submit to a search if the guards armed with AK-47s think it’s necessary.

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Such is the protection required for Kosovo’s only UNESCO site, the Medieval Monuments in Kosovo (actually four separate sites spread across the country, but grouped under the same listing). The trouble is that the monasteries are tiny islands of medieval Serbian Orthodoxy nestled among a sea of Albanian Islam, and such beautiful and potent symbols of the resented old regime that they can’t help becoming targets – in this part of the world, memories don’t have to be long to remember violence and genocide. It seems that most Serbian sites require this kind of protection, even from the visiting public – Gizmestan Tower, the intensely Serbo-nationalistic monument to the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, also required me to surrender my passport to an armed guard before entering the tower’s barricaded enclosure. And the protection is warranted – in 2004 some isolated tit-for-tat violence between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo escalated into a nationwide orgy of anti-Serb violence which, in addition to costing thousands of lives, also resulted in the deliberate burning and bombing of Serbian churches and heritage sites.

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Another medieval UNESCO church in Gjakova, southern Kosovo – closed to the public.

As recently as a year ago, Islamic extremists were arrested trying to pass a truck full of weapons through this very same barrier to the Decani Monastery that I passed through, and there have been incidents of ISIS and other extremist hate-graffiti appearing on the ancient stone walls. 

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The world is becoming a scary place, and the fact that heritage sites are at the epicentre of conflict just shows that history is anything but past. In Gjakova, the site of another of the UNESCO monasteries, Serbian worshippers were prevented from entering a church on Christmas Eve by Albanian protesters who stoned their bus. Not half a mile outside the Decani Monastery’s gates, the citizens of Decan are right now protesting a recent ruling that favored the monastery, in a conflict over some disputed land rights with the town. Kosovo’s recent bid to join UNESCO was an important effort to use heritage as a platform for increasing recognition of its statehood. But the rejection of Kosovo by the committee elicited relief from Serbs who feared for the fate of their monuments under a potentially hostile Albanian-dominated government.

But walking through the gates of the monastery, one can leave all the madness behind. It was quiet, we were the only group visiting and we had to wait for the monks to finished lunch before a lay brother could give us a guided tour of the church. Photos are disallowed, perhaps for copyright purposes or to protect the sense of seclusion, but photos would not have done justice to what we saw.

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The exterior is luminous, and the carvings as crisp as if they’d been executed yesterday. Other than a recent cleaning of the stone, our guide was uncertain what conservation had been done to the outside. It’s possible the carved decoration has been restored, but considering how little restoration (or even maintenance) we saw elsewhere in the region, I’d say it’s unlikely, which means that the beauty of the stone has been preserved magnificently unaltered for seven centuries.

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It was the interior that was truly breathtaking though, and pictures wouldn’t begin to do it justice. To modern eyes accustomed to bright colors and poppy graphics, medieval frescoes probably seem like a pretty lame medium, as their colors tend to be more muted than those of other medieval art. And the frescoes that entirely cover the walls of Decani monastery are at a particular disadvantage because they have not been cleaned or conserved, and so are dulled by the smoke and dirt of centuries. But photos, as usual, can’t convey the spirit of the place, which is what makes it so powerful. Delicate but strong stone columns frame the entryway, or narthex, footed with roaring beasts and depictions of sin and salvation.

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Trampling the enemies of medieval Serbia…

As soon as you walk in, you are struck with the weight of seven centuries that have had time to gather and mature here, between walls whose images of kings and saints – a visual chronicle of Serbian history – soar upward until they’re lost in the shadows of the ceiling.

The UNESCO monasteries were built by monarchs so enshrined in epic and history that they were canonized in their own eras, each king of the Nemajic line entering sainthood upon his death. One of these king-saints, Stefan Decanski, the patron of the monastery, rests just next to the altar, where his tomb is opened every Thursday so that worshipers can view (and kiss!) his embalmed body, miraculously uncorrupted after seven centuries.

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The tombs of the Serbian saint-kings, their bodies displayed to worshippers once per week. The wall paintings are a genealogical record of the dynasty.

But I don’t think its the beauty of the frescoes that make the Decani monastery so special, but rather what they represent. The physical survival of the mural paintings alone is remarkable – the world has a very limited supply of frescoes that old and that intact. But this monastery in particular sits in a region that has seldom known peace since the medieval period. The monastery has stood like a rock while different tribes and empires and regimes have swept over the region, bringing their own religions, prejudices, and political agendas. Under the Yugoslav state, communists attempted to void traditional religious sites by chipping out the eyes of statues and painted figures, disfigurement that was still obvious at several sites we saw. The medieval heritage sites of Kosovo have had more than their share of volatility to contend with, and their very survival is humbling and awesome.

And all it would take is one factional, sectarian idiot with a bomb to blot it out forever. Building is the work of heroes, but destruction takes just a coward’s second.

8 Off-the-beaten-path Adventures to Have in Iceland

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If you’re a human living in the world today, you’ve probably heard about how awesome Iceland is. Well I’m here to tell you that everything you’ve heard is true. You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve probably watched Game of Thrones (or James Bond, or Tomb Raider, or Beowulf…), but I’ll also tell you that none of these really prepares you for what you’re going to see. In brilliant 3D color, with the wind whipping past you through the sweeping mountain slopes and over the vast volcanic floodplains, the variety and scale of what you’re looking at is overwhelming. In four days and five nights, we managed to make it around the whole of the country and, while there were certainly places and experiences that didn’t fit into our timeframe, armed with just a 4WD and an adventurous spirit, we managed to have some remarkably unique experiences. And these are all IN ADDITION to all the top tourist attractions we also visited – the Blue Lagoon, geysers, waterfalls, etc.

  1. Get up close and personal with a glacier

Glaciers, like waterfalls, are everywhere in Iceland, and the best ones (and the most easily accessible by car) are tongues of the vast Vatnajokull ice cap found in Skaftafell National Park. Now there are a plethora of guided tours, glacier walks, and cave excursions – definitely DON’T go onto a glacier without a guide. But we, being fans of the more impromptu “let’s see where that twisty-looking road goes” method of adventuring, found ourselves practically (but safely) on top of several awesome glaciers. The first was Skeidararjokull, which we found by accident by turning onto a dirt track and following it until the road stopped. After a bumpy ride which took us into the bounds of Skaftafell national park, the road terminated before a vast floodplain of dark grey gravel with the glacier tongue massive and wide in the distance. A quick scramble up the flood barrier (in place because massive glaciers tend to also cause massive flash-floods) gave us a panoramic 360-degree view of the countryside.

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The second, even awesomer one we found next, was Svinafellsjokul, which we came upon by following potholey but paved road branching off from the Skaftafell turnoff. A small trail leading from a parking lot leads past an iceberg-choked lagoon and along the northern side of the glacier, where you can look down (from relative safety) into the crevasses and, as you keep walking, get a sense of the superhuman scale of the thing. Among the deep blue ice, you might get a glimpse of an ice-climber no bigger than a gnat, and you’ll understand how enormous even a relatively small glacier is.

To get to Skeidararjokull: Heading east along the Ring Road (1), exactly twenty miles east of Hof (not to be confused with Hofn, which is elsewhere), there is a turnoff to the left. It’s marked on Google maps as Haoldukvisl (so you can plug it for directions) but in reality the only marker is a picnic bench by the side of the road. The road is gravel and mostly good, though if you’re not in a 4WD I’d go quite carefully. It terminates after about a mile and a half.

To get to Svinasfellsjokul: Continuing east along the Ring Road, with the titanic mound of Vatnajokull looming ever closer, there will be a well-marked left turn for the 998 toward Skaftafell. Don’t turn here, but continue another half mile until you see a dirt road turn off to the left. Take this and bear to the right until you come to a small parking lot, with a trail leading off through a gate and along the glacier.

2. Chase the Northern Lights

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No winter visit to Iceland would be complete without a view of this spectacular phenomenon. There are tour companies that offer “Northern Lights tours,” which promise to take you out nightly until you’ve sighted the lights. I’m skeptical of these, as they keep you tied to Reykjavik, obligate you to someone else’s schedule, and cost money with no guarantee of success! I’d use apps such as Aurora Watch or Aurora Notifier which will alert you when activity reaches a certain threshold – meaning the lights are more likely to be visible. If it’s a clear night just get in your car, park yourself in some wide open place with a view of the sky, and spend some quality time staring upwards. Worst-case scenario, you’ll spend a night bonding with the breathtaking northern sky, resplendent without the light-interference you’d likely get back home. Best case scenario, what begins as a faint glow, like moonlight without the moon, might blossom into undulating cathedrals of flickering green light. It’s not as vivid in real life, the colors you see in photos come from long exposures which have time to gather the light and make it look brighter. If you have any kind of camera that will hold the shutter open for a few seconds, have some fun playing around capturing the effect. You’ll want a tripod to hold the phone/camera absolutely still (or just balance it on the hood of the car like I did).

3. Drink champagne in a geothermal hottub

12963565_10206771317497575_1088245128966900349_n.jpgHottubbing is the national pastime of Icelanders. Any hotel worth its salt will have at least one little pool sunk into the hillside, probably fed by natural hot springs, where strangers or lovers can hang out and keep their bodies warm while their ears freeze off. Because it was a special occasion, we requested a bottle of champagne from our hotel, but you can pick one up more cheaply at the airport dutyfree. The magic of Iceland is grounded in its nature, so there’s no better way to spend an evening than out of doors. And the freezing temperatures will keep your drinkypoo chilled, although you might want to hang onto your glass in case the wind takes it away. Oh, and don’t let the cold daunt you. You really haven’t lived until you’ve run out of your hotel room into sub-zero temperatures in your bikini, and getting back out is even worse – you might just need to linger all night before you get up the courage to dash back to your room…

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How can a place be so cold, yet so hot at the same time?

(Hot tip: The Icelanders use their volcanic resources in all sorts of cool ways. Besides heating their houses, and their saunas and spas for romantic sexytimes, our hotel let us cook our eggs in a volcanic steam vent. No lies – it took eight minutes, and it was totally legit!)

4. Spend the night in your car

I can’t recommend this way of traveling enough. The experience itself is a cozier version of camping. We used cheap duvets in addition to our sleeping bags to make a snug nest in the back of our Suzuki (but you don’t need an SUV to be comfy – any car will do as long as you can put down the back seats!). It’s not that you can lie in the warm comfort of your car and watch the landscape as the sounds of nature lull you to sleep. For one thing, the condensation of your breathing will quickly block the windows, and without the heater running the inside temperature of the car will soon match the outside temp (but don’t worry, with a duvet or a sleeping bag you certainly won’t freeze, particularly if you have somebody to snuggle with!). No, the magic of car-camping is picking your perfect spot to spend the night, whether it’s looking over a beautiful valley, by the seashore, or, as we didit, by the shore of the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. It’s getting your bedding and luggage

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Our view the next morning – and we had it all to ourselves!

all sorted out, and passing back and forth a bottle of wine as the sun sets. It’s wondering what strange sounds are in the night, or waking your partner up at 3 am because your phone just sent a Northern Lights alert and stumbling out into the crackling blackness to try and spot them. Then it’s waking up with the dawn and washing your hair with a bottle of water, then brushing your teeth while you contemplate the misty landscape, none of which you would have done if you’d slept in a boring old hotel room.

5. Find the Solheimsandur Plane Wreck

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The wreckage of a US plane that made an emergency crash-landing on the southern coast of Iceland in 1973 (nobody died – yay!), makes a weird and unique tourist site. The burned-out shell of the plane, a decaying sort of ruin, rests in the strange landscape of a black-sand beach surrounded on one side by a bowl of impressive mountains, and on the other by the powerful motion of North Atlantic waves. There are companies (or individuals!) based in Vik that will drive you out to the wreckage, but the most popular – and definitely the best – way to access the site is by walking. (Note: you used to be able to drive up to the site but now the owner has closed the road to private vehicles). Here is a great description of how to get there – you’re really just walking south in a straight line, but the sand dunes and contours of the land make it slightly disorienting. The walk is about 2 miles each way, and as it’s flat and not too difficult, it makes a great and low-risk way to get yourself out of the car, off the road, and into the Icelandic countryside. The plane and its setting are a Disneyland for photographers (some of whom have damaged the wreck by lighting fireworks inside to get cool exposure shots – naughty!), but after you’ve posed for a Biggles photo, I’d urge that you take the extra few minutes and continue down to the beach itself. We spent as much time hypnotized by the crashing waves – that amazing contrast of the white sea foam on the black sand – as we did poking around the plane wreck.

6. Drive through a mountain pass in a blizzard

I suppose this isn’t something you can exactly plan to do, and I wouldn’t *quite* recommend doing it if you can help it, but it’s definitely an experience I won’t forget in a hurry. It’s not exactly surprising that if you travel to Iceland at the end of March, some of the roads will still be closed from the winter snow, and even those that aren’t can get pretty bloody cold. We’d had a bit of a scare two days previously as we were driving into Vik, which you reach by going up over a short, but not inconsiderable pass between two mountains. It was snowing slightly, which made us nervous about ice, but the real bogeyman was the wind. During the day I’d felt it trying to blow me across the road while I drove, and when we parked it rocked the car back and forth. In this pass, with the snow and the day getting dark into night, it was extra scary. The worst moment was when we passed an RV that had actually been blown off the road, and was blocking one lane, while another car seemed likely to get blown into the blown-away RV. Morty was driving, so naturally I was filming.

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We spent our last day on a driving marathon: we woke up (in our car) at Jokulsarlon, and our goal was to make it around the whole of the island and back to Rejkjavik in time to catch our flight at 7 the following morning. It would appear that we, too, like to live dangerously. We probably should have been tipped off by the two road closures we encountered before noon. But we took the detours and kept going. We probably should have been tipped off by the mountain pass out of Reydarfjordur which, even though it wasn’t closed, was so snow-covered that the only thing visible was the road itself.

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And this was before the storm even began – complete whiteout!

The entire world, hills and sky, was a perfect, impenetrable white – a very disconcerting experience. But we made it to Egilsstadir without incident, got petrol and hotdogs at the gas station, and set out on the next leg with a full tank and plenty of coffee. Half an hour later found us two inches deep in new-fallen snow (read: unplowed) and visibility almost zero in spots.

7. Go bond with some horses

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One of the strange things about Iceland is that there are horses everywhere. You would think with such a harsh and mountainous climate the main livestock would be sheep, but apparently not. And they’re not just regular old horses, but these wonderful shaggy ponies that seem perfectly adapted to the frigid cold. Some of them are skittish when you approach them, almost wild-seeming, whereas others come right up to the fence and are quite friendly. Perhaps too friendly for my taste… I had the weird impression that this girl was trying to steal my man!

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8. Watch the waves crash at the Dyrholaey cliffs and lighthouse

One of the most beautiful sights we saw on our trip was the view around Dyrholaey point, about half an hour west of Vik. You get there by following a tiny single-track road branching off to the right/south of the main road. At the end of it is a parking lot just at the edge of the cliff, with the most spectacular 360-degree views: the ocean to the south, the cliffs and black sand beaches to the east and west, and the mountains disappearing off to the distance to the north. You can walk up to the top of the cliff and get a panoramic view across Reynisfjara, Iceland’s most famous stretch of black sand, with the black basalt sea-stacks of Vik in the distance. You can watch the waves crash spectacularly against the rocks and through naturally-formed blowholes, forming rainbows against the sun:

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Honestly, the waves and the scenery were so mesmerizing, we actually spent almost two hours just at this one spot:

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Then, when you can finally tear yourself away from watching the waves smash against the rocks, you can take another short road (definitely recommend 4WD for this road, otherwise it’s only about a 15-minute walk) up to the lighthouse that towers over the point, and this was the point at which I wasn’t even sure what world I was in anymore – Middle Earth? Narnia? Asgard? – because the view was so spectacular I still have trouble believing I really saw it, even when I look at the pictures.

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These are just a few of the non-typical adventures we had in Iceland. We had a lot of the more traditional tourist experiences as well: the Blue Lagoon, Thingvellir National Park, geysers like Strokkur, and waterfalls like Skogafoss. But I figured there are probably a million blog posts out there on those things – I thought I’d write one on some of the more special things we did that didn’t come from a guidebook, but that made our trip even much more magical. Hopefully they can make your trip wonderful too 🙂

‘This blessed plot, this earth:’ The UNESCO World Heritage Register

Survived Week 2! Turns out life isn’t so bad when you’ve not got a cold – this whole crazy commuting thing might turn out alright after all!

After our Week 1 crash course on history and theory, we have finally gotten to the fun bits: actually getting our hands dirty with the real work of conservation. My first attempt to survey the dimensions of a room using a ruler, a compass, and a technique called “triangulation” was pretty comical, but we’ll leave aside tales of me on my hands and knees crawling under antique furniture and poking my nose into really really dirty corners of staircases to examine their construction for another post, when I have a better sense of what I’m actually doing.

This week was also our first taster of elective courses, and mine – World Heritage – is totally awesome. By now pretty much everyone has heard of the UNESCO World Heritage sites – if you’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame de Paris, Westminster Abbey, visited Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, or set foot in the city of Edinburgh, congratulations! You’ve experienced a monument of “outstanding universal value” to the entire race of mankind. Really the list is quite extensive – now over a thousand entries – and growing every year. Here’s a version from the World Heritage Centre’s own website, grouped by country: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

But the rationale behind the list might be surprising. Okay, the sights I listed above – you might think the Statue of Liberty, how *yawn* very American (even though it’s French) – seem like an obvious “who’s who” of tourist destinations, almost to the point of being trite. But really the list (which you should totally spend a couple hours poking about and getting lost in), is a lot more complex in its composition. Even though lots of people turn it into a kind of to-do list, the “attraction” of the site, or the ability to take a selfie in front of it, takes a backburner to the significance of the site, which might not be that instagrammable, or even suitable to visitors. If the list were all just castles, cathedrals, and national parks, it would hardly be a comprehensive representation of globally valuable heritage. No, the scope is so much broader, and encompasses, for instance, sites that illustrate progress in human development. Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge is very impressive, but think of the power of a site that tells a story not just about one nation at one time in history, but actually links in with our evolution as a species. For example this site near Mount Carmel in Israel, contains an unbroken record of human habitation, stretching back over 500,000 years, leaving archaeological remains that actually trace our development from pre-human species, to hunter-gatherers, to settled cultivators of the land. But pictures won’t tell you that, and millions of tourist feet tramping over the site would only damage it. (This is one of the unfortunate consequences of the list. Inclusion on the list does not come with funding for maintenance, but it does usually come with hordes of tourists who use UNESCO as a sort of hit list)

Apart from including sites important to humanity, UNESCO also tries to include a diversity of types of sites, that can be representative or typical of some particular aspect of nature or culture. This includes sites of colonization or settlement, such as L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of pre-Colombian Viking settlement in Canada, as well as testaments to human technological and industrial achievements, such as the Wieliczka Salt Mines outside Kraków, Poland.

Natural sites are fair game as well, and are selected for inscription based on their extreme aesthetic beauty or remarkability, for their perfect illustration of geologic phenomena, or by representing phases of the earth’s formation. The Grand Canyon seems a no-brainer judging by its listing description as “the most spectacular gorge in the world.” The Galápagos Islands were the very first site to be listed, based on their clear evidence of the volcanic processes that formed them, and on their status as a “living museum” of evolution.

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More recently, the focus has shifted to sites that span both the human and the natural worlds, under a category called “cultural landscapes,” that illustrate ways in which spectacular natural formations have interacted with outstanding human settlement or achievement. This encompasses sites such as Thingvellir National Park in Iceland, where the medieval Norse settlers used the dramatic rift between the North American and European tectonic plates as a titanic ceremonial stage for their sophisticated and participatory system of law.

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The spectacular and dramatic formations of South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains are littered with prehistoric human settlements and contain the largest concentration of cave paintings south of the Sahara. And the Tokay Wine Region in Hungary is remarkable for its centuries-old tradition of a very specific, highly regulated viticulture, making use of the landscape and traditional methods to make [really really delicious] wine. In an otherwise unremarkable region of Sweden, one large hillside is littered with the remains of an ancient people, who carved tens of thousands of images into the rocks of the landscape, over a period of several thousand years. The Tanum Rock Carvings depict an amazing variety of very human images, such as two lovers embracing, or a woman mourning a man, and they interact with other archaeological features in these hills, such as enormous chambered cairn tombs.

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Here are the 12 sites that comprised the very first list published in 1973, and from which the present list has grown: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/13/travel/unesco-first-12-world-heritage-sites/

Check it out, and prepare to be surprised – given what we think of as the world’s great tourist sites, the ones that made the list of the dozen most important sites in the world as of 1973 are probably not what you’re expecting… 🙂