Michaela Merz

Iceland, Shetland, Scotland

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I took some time out to travel to the north. That won’t be your thing if you enjoy reliable weather, warm temperatures and a beach holiday.

The north is rough and if I can guarantee you something, it’s that it’ll rain at least once if not several times. It will be cold and windy but at the same time, you will be in awe.

Shetland is beautiful and when it is sunny, the beaches are unbeatable. When I arrived in Lerwick, the sun came out and the locals claimed that I had brought the summer with me.

It was the second half of July and up until that point they had had nonstop rain. The sea was barely 14 degrees celsius but since summer came, there were kids swimming in the sea. All the people that I met were incredibly friendly, open and happy that tourists like me had come and were interested in their life and history. They told me with pride and excitement about their islands, the life and their rituals. Even though I only had a short amount of time there, it was easy to lock this area of the earth into my heart and to really appreciate the people. Next to Lerwick and their landmark, the Broch of Clickimin- a fortress that had been built 3000 years ago at the sea shore, the picturesque city beach, the town hall and the town park, I also really wanted to see the St. Ninian Isle. St. Ninian isn’t really an island but a natural sand causeway that is connected to Shetland mainland by golden shell sand during the summer months. The isle was inhabited up to 1700 and is only reachable during low tide. Today the inhabitants are mainly sheep, rabbits and a lot of birds. When taking a stroll on the isle in the sunny and windy weather I wondered whether the rabbits (which dig a lot of holes in the floor and create a pretty large population) don’t have any natural enemies and what happens when it gets over populated. At the same time I see birds of prey dive towards the ground with incredible amount of speed to end the lives of those rabbits. It was deceiving to believe the isle was idyllic. I dreaded leaving this wonderful, unique location. As I observed the kids in the sea I walked through the cold water back to the main land. On the return journey I saw rock needles, wild coasts and seals that were sun bathing on the beaches.

Iceland is an incredible country, where nature conservation is of utmost importance. Nowhere else have I seen such consequent protection and maintenance of nature. One of the other travelers told me how he drove through the country in his rented car.  He ended up behind an extremely slow vehicle on a trip and was forced to travel at 20 kmh. That was frustrating, especially because he drove for more than thirty minutes at this snail’s pace without a chance of overtaking the other driver. As soon as he was able to do so, he left the street and overtook the vehicle. He sped up and continued on his journey. After a while he noticed a car that was driving behind him and that signaled. He didn’t understand what was going on and continued driving. But the vehicle behind him was persistent. After some time had passed he came to a halt. As it turns out, the man that got out of the other vehicle was a gamekeeper and said that he had seen how the traveler had left the street and damaged the moss in doing so and that he would have to pay a fine of 3500 euro for this. He explained that the vegetation on the Island only grew for a very short amount of time and that is why it had to be protected.

Imagine having to pay 3500 Euro fine for damaging moss. Since the perpetrator was a student who didn’t even possess that amount in his bank account they agreed to charitable work. So the student had to return to the spot where he had damaged the moss and had to clean up the spot and try save what was still savable.

I haven’t experienced this kind of environmentally friendly behavior in my entire existence. The interaction with nature is very careful and you hear every time how proud the Icelanders are when it comes to the beauty of it.

Their favourite hobby is camping. They like the tourists (they only come for 3-4 months a year) but need the winter months to recover from the crowds.

On the island you can pay with credit cards everywhere apart from in the city busses in Reykjavik. There you have to have the exact amount of Icelandic krona because the bus chauffeur does not give any change. I downloaded the app where you can buy bus tickets without paying cash but since the instructions were only in Icelandic I had to give up.

Ever so fascinating is the high amount of foreigners living in Iceland that work here. Around a fourth of the library in Isafjordur consisted of Polish books. Ever so fascinating was the avalanche protection in this small city. I’m not sure whether I would feel comfortable there in winter, especially when you read modern historical accounts and realize how many people have died there during the past thirty years due to avalanches. I know avalanche protection from the Alps; They built the protective wall here pretty much behind the last row of houses. I walked on those huge protective barriers and imagined how it would be here, when an avalanche hit it. I shuddered, at 20 degrees warm weather.

Everyone who visits Iceland should visit the hot spring and enjoy the bath. You’re allowed to drink in the bath and the bar sold everything to your heart’s desire – beer, wine, prosecco, yogurt with berries to drink. One of the most popular baths is the blue lagoon but I preferred the natural bath Myvatn. Both have beautifully blue water.

The most impressive trip I undertook – and I’ve seen many extraordinary things – was the trip to the inner part of the only accessible volcano. It means marching through moss scenery and I could barely see anything because it was raining continuously. I was able to protect the top half of my body pretty well from the rain. In my hiking boots however, there was a little puddle. Comfortable feels different. It was obvious, that what is adequate for Switzerland, is completely inadequate for Iceland. I would have loved to have slapped myself. But that wouldn’t have made it any better. Once arrived at the base station next to the crater I received a helmet and climbing harness and replaced my wet socks with plastic. The feet felt instantly more comfortable. Afterwards I descended 140 meters into the deep and could walk through the volcano. It was impressive. I soon had to realize that my head wasn’t happy and was spinning as if I was on a boat with high waves. First I thought that maybe there wasn’t enough oxygen down here but then they explained that there was even more oxygen than at the top. The discomfort was due to the lack of horizon. I got used to it after a while but had to be careful when climbing.

In Reykjavik please don’t forget to visit the concert hall in the city center at the seashore. It is impressive. It was built during the economic crisis and reminded me of the Hunger Wall which was ordered to be built by Karl the IV in Prague during the Middle Ages.

Scotland – There isn’t a better marketing – gag than monster Loch Ness. The stream of tourists at the lake (=Loch) (Ness actually referring to the name of the river) is impressive. Scotland however has even more to offer. I don’t want to talk about all the well-known landmarks but about a city that you don’t normally end up in. Invergordon. As a first impression, there’s no particular reason to visit it. But there are many impressive things. The story of the second world war, the stationed troops, a big polish batallion, the blossoming of industries in connection with the discovery of oil and the many oil rigs that you can see in the sea. I you are looking for material goods then there are impressive wall paintings of which you can see many on the houses in the city center.

Not last the flora and fauna. I was prepared for scarcity in the north. I experienced impressive flowers in all colours, fantastic well-kept gardens, in Reykjavik behind every third window a little avocado in a pot. I saw a two months old arctic fox, whose mom had been killed and who had learnt how to survive in winter by himself. I fell in love with the puffins, was in awe by all the different birds, the seals and was surprised that jellyfish were nearly everywhere.

Up to that point, I had lived under the belief that jellyfish only thrive in warm water. They were huge and slightly purple in Scotland and small with a white cross in Iceland.

A trip to the north is worth it. It was one of the best expeditions that I had ever undertaken. I took 10000 pictures and have experienced and heard about 1000 small stories. I could write hundreds of blogposts about those stories. I was especially surprised by how content the locals are with what they have and how good they have it. Nothing of the middle European hurry was to be felt even though efficiency in Iceland can be compared to the Swiss one.

If you decide to take a trip for next year – don’t forget – take your swimming costume, even if the sea is only 14 degrees warm.

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