Reykjavik, Iceland

*I visited Iceland in 2011 and wrote about it on the website Ciao. I’ve decided to edit and publish a version of my holiday diary here*

Reykjavik, seen from the Hallgrimskirkja
Reykjavik, seen from the Hallgrimskirkja

I recently went on holiday to Iceland, staying in the capital city, Reykjavik. Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world, and is also the smallest capital city in Europe, but then Iceland itself doesn’t have the largest population either. Greater Reykjavik has a population of just over 200,000 people, which is two thirds of the population of the country as a whole. A small island to the north west of Britain, it does tend to get overlooked when concentrating on mainland Europe, but from what I’d heard it seemed like an interesting place to visit, and after seeing signs all over the Tube advertising the place, I took it as a sign that I needed to book a trip!

My Icelandair plane
My Icelandair plane

I booked my trip with Icelandair and the flight from Heathrow Airport took around three hours. During my time in Iceland I went on the Golden Circle tour, bathed in the Blue Lagoon and explored Reykjavik.

The flight from London to Reykjavik takes around three hours. Planes land at Keflavik Airport and you need to catch the Flybus or take a taxi (a more expensive option) to get into Reykjavik. The currency is the krona, which went down in value considerably in 2008 after the financial crisis, so Iceland is no longer quite as expensive for the visitor as it was. It’s best to exchange your money there as you’ll get a better exchange rate (I exchanged mine at the airport) and currency can be difficult to obtain back home. British nationals do not need a visa to enter. Iceland is a member of the Schengen Agreement: nationals of countries that have implemented the agreement do not need a visa either. Iceland is not a member of the EU, and you can therefore purchase duty-free products and get tax relief on many purchases there.

Tap water is perfectly safe to drink in Iceland. Medical facilities are good and available to UK citizens with an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card). The climate is milder than you might expect for somewhere so far north – it was around 4 degrees Celsius when I was there at the beginning of April, though the weather can be changeable, and it’s unwise to go off exploring unless you know what you’re doing.

***A potted history of Iceland***
Did you know modern day written Icelandic is close enough to Old Norse for Icelanders to be able to read the language of the old sagas? Or that 80% of Icelanders are descended from Scandinavian and British men but Irish women (since Viking raiders headed to Ireland to kidnap prospective wives before sailing off to Iceland)? These were just two of the interesting facts I learned on my trip to Reykjavik.

The first settlers are largely agreed to have landed in Iceland in the ninth century and claimed land in order to farm. A Parliament, the Althing, was held (in what is now Thingvellir National Park) annually to decide the policies of the Icelandic Commonwealth, until Iceland was brought under the rule of Denmark and Norway in the 13th century. Centuries of poverty followed, with Iceland being hit by the Black Death on two separate occasions. Christianity had been introduced during the medieval period, but during the sixteenth century the nation converted to Lutheranism and the last Catholic bishops were beheaded. During the nineteenth century, a growing independence movement inspired by romantic and nationalist ideals eventually helped to bring about a referendum in 1944 in which Icelanders voted to become a republic.

(This is an extremely short and greatly simplified version of Icelandic history!)

Reykjavik harbour
Looking out towards the harbour

***A little about Icelandic geography***
Iceland’s geography is so unusual and rich that I thought it worth mentioning. Iceland is on the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly moving apart at the rate of about 2 and a half centimetres per year. In fact if you visit the Thingvellir National Park (the Golden Circle tour comes here) you can see the edge of the North American plate which looks like a cliff looking over the plain below. This situation explains why Iceland is prone to so many volcanoes (including the infamous eruption last year, from which you can buy bottles of ash in several places in Reykjavik!), which helps enormously when trying to date archaeological excavations. In addition it explains why you get geysers and hot springs as well as the geothermally heated Blue Lagoon and other similar pools, heated by the flow of magma beneath the earth’s surface.

Although Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city, it has the feel of a seaside town, with old buildings, a harbour, and brightly-coloured metal panelled houses. I stayed near the historic centre in the Leifur Eriksson Hotel, which was small but clean and comfortable. My hotel was right next to the Hallgrimskirkja, a unique modern church with a tall spire. It’s possible to go up to the top of the church tower to get a good look around the city – one advantage of it being new is that there is a lift instead of the winding spiral staircase you normally get! An advantage of staying here was that it was impossible for me to get lost in Reykjavik – anywhere I went, I could see the church spire at the top of the hill so all I had to do was follow it!

The Hallgrimskirkja at night
The Hallgrimskirkja at night

It was simple and easy to walk around the city and I found that I got my bearings very quickly – impressive considering that my sense of direction is less than wonderful. I found it to be a very quiet, sparsely populated place on the whole – very different to the bustling atmosphere of London. Down by the sea it could get quite windy. Further in, the old buildings were unusual and very Scandinavian. I seemed to see lots of fairy lights in windows wherever I went – perhaps to compensate for the long winter nights, although at the time of my visit daylight hours were longer than those in Britain.

Statue of Leifur Eriksson
Statue of Leifur Eriksson

I knew that the crime rate in Iceland was very low, and I felt completely safe and at ease during my time there. However there were a few times when I was walking around in the evening and it was getting dark, there were few people around, and the wind was whistling through the buildings that I actually felt quite spooked. The atmosphere at these times was rather eerie and I can’t really blame the Icelandic people for being superstitious!

Below I discuss the different places I visited in the capital. I haven’t normally given prices as they are subject to change, but I thought costs in general were reasonable.

-Reykjavik Welcome Card-
This card is available to buy from the Tourist Information Office for 24, 48 or 72 hours and gives free entry to several museums, as well as free travel on central buses and access to the city’s thermal pools. I got the 24 hour card which got me free entry to the National History Museum, the Culture House, Reykjavik 871 ±2 Settlement Exhibition and the Reykjavík Maritime Museum which worked out as excellent value for me.

Central Reykjavik
Central Reykjavik

-National Museum of Iceland-
This museum was hard to find as it was slightly out of the city along a main road and looked nothing like a museum. It had the appearance of a factory or out-of-town office block and I only knew it was the right place because a. the map told me so, and b. there was a small sign in front of it with ‘Museum of Iceland’ on. I had to walk to the end to find the entrance and to my relief it looked much more like a museum on the inside.

The museum tells the story of Iceland in chronological order over two floors, beginning with the first inhabitants right up to the modern day. I found the exhibits were well-chosen and the accompanying text informative and interesting. There was an excellent balance between giving plenty of information and not boring with too much.

-National Art Gallery of Iceland-
This museum was very small and there were only three or four rooms. Most of the exhibits were modern paintings and sculpture. Modern art isn’t my favourite thing in the world, but there were a couple of works that caught my eye.

-Reykjavik 871 ±2-
This exhibition was possibly my favourite, being an underground room in the centre of which are the remains of a Viking longhouse, dated to the year 871, plus or minus two years (hence the exhibition’s name). The house itself would be very interesting to see, being very well preserved, however the creators of the exhibit have not relied on this, instead creating a fascinating interactive exhibit on the surrounding walls, providing information on how Vikings lived and the history of the Icelandic people. There is also an interactive table with a plan of the house: you can click on different sections to find out about different areas, with text in Icelandic, English and even runic script. I found all of this incredibly interesting and spent about an hour there – not bad for what is effectively one room!

Inside Reykjavik 871 ±2
Inside Reykjavik 871 ±2

-Reykjavik Art Museum-
This museum was pretty much full of modern art. I wouldn’t recommend going to this unless you’re a huge fan of the stuff. There were some interesting collages on the first floor using images from American popular culture, but that’s about it.

-Maritime Museum-
This museum was right on the harbour with a large boat just in front. It was over two floors and there wasn’t a great deal to see, but it was reasonably interesting, particularly the model of the inside of the fishing boat.

Reykjavik Maritime Museum
Reykjavik Maritime Museum

-Culture House-
The Culture House is the former National Library of Iceland, and now houses manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas. As a librarian and a bit of a rare books geek, I loved looking at these! They are incredibly important works of literature and it was awesome to be able to see the original manuscripts.

***Food and Drink***
Iceland is famed for two main kinds of food: fish and lamb. I didn’t try the latter, but as a pescatarian made the most of the former. Vegetarians should have no trouble finding suitable food as there are plenty of Italian restaurants serving vegetable pizzas. I also noticed a surprising number of Thai restaurants. I think there are several Thai immigrants in Iceland and I imagine the food of the two cultures blends well together as both use lots of seafood.

For lunch, I tended to have a coffee and a pastry: there are a number of coffee shops in Reykjavik, but no global chains – no Starbucks or even McDonalds! On the Golden Circle tour there was a café at the geyser area serving sandwiches, salads and fast food such as burgers and chips. There is a wide choice of food in Reykjavik so there is sure to be something for everyone. Meals can be slightly more expensive than in the UK but not overly so, particularly at the more informal places.

A lot of people go to Iceland for the nightlife as Reykjavik is famed for being a party city. I didn’t see much evidence of this on my visit – perhaps because Icelanders tend to drink at home owing to the high cost of alcohol in bars and clubs before heading out at around midnight (by which time I was tucked up in bed!). I could see plenty of bars as I walked around the city, though the quiet atmosphere that was generally present was a far cry from, say, Newcastle on a Friday night. As a female travelling alone, I wouldn’t have been comfortable going clubbing by myself but I did have a quiet drink in a bar every so often.

Central Reykjavik
Central Reykjavik

***Golden Circle Tour***
The Golden Circle Tour is a famous tour in Iceland, reported to be the most popular tour taken by visitors to the country. This is perhaps due to the fact that the landmarks you see on the tour are all in close proximity to one another, and they can all be visited on a day trip from Reykjavik. In addition the sights you see are incredibly impressive!

Several companies run the Golden Circle tour and it can be booked in several ways both before you go to Iceland and after you arrive. I booked mine online at as part of a package including my flights and hotel. As part of the tour I was picked up and dropped off from my hotel so the whole procedure was very easy.

The three main sights you will see on the tour are the waterfall Gullfoss, the geyser area and the Thingvellir National Park. However, aside from this main itinerary each tour will differ slightly with the places visited.

My tour started off at a town, Hveragerði, known as the greenhouse village as geothermal energy is used to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers in greenhouses. This was billed as a toilet/coffee stop but I immediately recognised it as the obligatory gift shop visit you get on pretty much all organised tours anywhere abroad. To be fair to the organisers, this was the only gift shop stop of the day (I’ve been on tours that included more) and the prices there were no more expensive than anywhere else – I was happy to stock up on a couple of gifts there.

The second stop was a church at Skalholt, the site where the last Catholic bishop was beheaded after the adoption of Lutheran Christianity in the sixteenth century. The church itself is comparatively new but does hold a first edition of the Bible in Icelandic – in the Catholic Church the Bible must be in Latin so the translation of this work into the vernacular so that ordinary people had the chance to understand it was significant. The views here are pretty impressive I must say, and you can still see the outline of older buildings in the ground.

Church at Skalholt
Church at Skalholt

Finally, we moved on to the three chief sights of the tour. The first place we stopped at was Gullfoss. Gullfoss (the name means golden falls) is a fall on the Hvita River. In the 20th century there was some speculation that the waterfall might be used to generate electricity, but this was strongly opposed by Sigridur Tomasdottir, the daughter of one of the owners. Today, the waterfall remains preserved in its natural state.The bus pulled up in a car park which also contained several other buses – clearly the place is popular. It was a cold and windy day, but dying to see the waterfall, everyone on the bus tumbled out and headed down to the viewing area. Gullfoss is an impressive two-tier waterfall, which isn’t something I’d ever seen before. The water rushes over one tier and turns at an angle before tumbling down another and rushing down a gully. As you approach it you can’t see the river – it looks like the waterfall is simply rushing into the earth.


This view was suitably awe-inspiring but I had an urge to get closer. I could see that there were several people standing on a stretch of rock right next to the waterfall so I headed back, down some wooden steps and along a rocky path right up to the waterfall. Luckily I was wearing my Dr Martens which enabled me to keep my footing despite the ice which was still on the path. I was able to climb onto the rock right beside the waterfall and it was amazing to see the power of the waterfall close up.

I really liked Gullfoss as it was really impressive and different. It’s not supposed to be as good as Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe (in north east Iceland), but this one is much easier to reach from Reykjavik! Anyone can go to see the waterfall but if you’re going to go close up you really need to be wearing suitable footwear and have no mobility problems. I did see several children by the waterfall, supervised closely by adults.

Our next stop on the tour was the geyser area. The bus pulled up at around lunchtime and we were given almost two hours to explore the area, visit the exhibition and have lunch. The weather was absolutely freezing, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see a geyser in action!

The geyser 'Strokkur'
The geyser ‘Strokkur’

The spring named Geysir (the name comes from an Old Norse verb geysa, meaning “to gush”) actually gave its name to geysers in general. Geysers are generally found near volcanic areas, and are formed when water near the surface of the ground works its way down and contacts hot rocks warmed by magma. The resultant pressure causes the water to intermittently erupt from the surface vent. Several geysers are found in this particular area in Iceland, but many are now extinct and others, including Geysir itself, erupt very rarely and unpredictably. However, one, Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”), erupts reliably and often and this is the one most tourists now flock to see.

Like all the other tourists from the bus, I crossed the road to the geysers. The air was rather misty and there was a distinct smell of sulphur in the air. I wandered over to Strokkur, the most active geyser, and waited like everyone else with an expectant air. Strokkur reliably erupts every eight or so minutes and it was rather funny standing around waiting with all the other tourists with cameras glued to the spot. Eventually, with a gurgle, it erupted quite spectacularly and there were several gasps! I waited around to watch the eruption a couple of times and it was pretty impressive and like nothing I’d ever seen before. Just before it erupts it starts to bubble so you have about half a second to prepare yourself before the explosion!

Afterwards I took the time to look at some of the other geysers and pools. Geysir itself doesn’t erupt much these days. There is a pair of pools a little further up, one is bright blue owing to the mineral content and one is incredibly warm – I stood downwind and felt like I was next to a radiator, a relief in the freezing weather! You are advised not to go past the ropes as you run the risk of being burned.

I crossed the road to the building housing the exhibition. The exhibition room was dark and had some videos of volcanic eruptions and more information on the history and science of the hot springs. It doesn’t take very long to look round.

The final stop on the tour was the Thingvellir (or Þingvellir) National Park. The park has a long and distinguished history: the Icelandic Parliament was established there in AD 930, remaining there until 1789. The National Park was founded in 1930 to protect the remains of this site and also the natural aspects of the area. The Parliament helped to forge a common cultural heritage and national identity among Icelanders. The Althing (assembly) was held here, at which people could make speeches and present cases which were judged by the laws of the time. Thousands of people would flock here, setting up temporary houses and selling goods, watching entertainment and drinking ale.

The park is also significant for geographical reasons. It lies on the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which are drifting apart at the rate of 2.5 cm a year. The North American plate in particular is especially impressive, towering over the flagpole on the Althing site.

As we drove towards our stop the driver pointed out the edge of the Eurasian plate. Over the years the plates have moved apart leaving a kind of low plain in between. Our coach stopped next to the North American plate which looms like a cliff over the plain.

Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park

As a group we walked for a couple of minutes up towards the North American plate, crossing a bridge and walking slightly uphill in the process. There were a couple of wooden platforms where you could stop and take photos. We stopped just beneath the plate at the point where the Althing used to be held. On the ground it was still possible to see the outlines of some of the huts built to house people attending the parliament. Our guide also pointed out the bridge at which women and criminals were drowned!

While anyone who wished could go back to the bus, most of us chose to walk up to the top of the plate and meet the coach which was going to drive round. This involved walking up a gully next to the plate. At this point a snowstorm came on and I felt as though I was in The Lord of the Rings!

At the top, the views were very impressive. We could see the sea to our right and the plain spread out in front of us. It was strange to think we had crossed over a divide in the Earth’s crust. After looking around for a while we all got back on the bus and were driven back to Reykjavik, arriving at around five. Everyone was dropped off at or near their respective hotels.

If you hired a car in Iceland it would be possible to drive to all of these landmarks and visit them yourself without the restrictions of the tour group. However, this would mean you had to find your own way around and you’d need to be a confident driver. For most people, booking onto a tour would be the easiest and most convenient way to see these major attractions.

Personally, I found the Golden Circle Tour to be one of the highlights of my trip and I’m extremely glad I decided to take it. Gullfoss was really impressive, watching Strokkur erupt was a unique experience, and visiting the Thingvellir National Park was unforgettable and significant. I thoroughly enjoyed the day and I saw, and learnt, a great deal.

***Blue Lagoon***
The Blue Lagoon is a famous, geothermally heated pool and it’s one of the most popular places to visit. I booked an excursion so my payment included return coach travel and the entry fee. It was incredibly surreal to be bathing outside in water as warm as your average bath, while sunlight almost blinded me and the wind whipped the skin off my face!

Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon

Overall I loved my trip to Reykjavik and I’m really glad I went. There was so much to see and do and it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. I do recommend it as a destination. It’s unusual enough to be different, enjoyable and sound impressive when people ask you what you did on your last holiday, but it’s also a safe and comfortable place to be with effectively no language barrier. Definitely worth considering as a holiday destination.

Looking out across the water

Amsterdam 2013; or, how I learned that going back to the same place can be fun

Amsterdam Central Station
Amsterdam Centraal Station

I have my friend Elisa to thank for persuading me back to Amsterdam. She’d never been; I had spent a few days there when I was a student, having travelled over on the ferry from North Shields. Perhaps I still wouldn’t have gone back if it hadn’t been for the reopening of the Rijksmuseum – Amsterdam’s national art museum that had just undergone a ten-year refurbishment.

Church in Amsterdam
Church in Amsterdam

Unlike last time, I was to travel to Amsterdam by plane; I came up to Newcastle on the train the day before. Elisa picked me up at an unearthly hour the next morning; we drove to Newcastle Airport, parked the car in Car Park K (“K for Kardashian”) and began the tedious process of checking in, leaving our bags and navigating the maze that is the airport. I couldn’t decide whether I was horrified or impressed at the number of hen parties already dressed in matching pink T-shirts and accessories.

View from the hotel window
View from the hotel window

Though we felt pretty tired, we did recognise the advantages of getting such an early flight. Even after we’d landed, got the train to the city centre, taken the tram to our hotel and then packed, we still had most of the day left. The first stop was the aforementioned Rijksmuseum – I’d said that I would only go to Amsterdam if we could go here!

Inside the Rijksmuseum
Inside the Rijksmuseum
Going to see the classical paintings
Going to see the classical paintings
Sculpture room
Sculpture room
Rijksmuseum Library
Rijksmuseum Library

I was impressed by the building: it was huge, and stunning. There was a bit of a queue to get in, but once inside, there was lots of space and a huge amount to see. The great attraction is Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’ but there are lots of other paintings from the likes of Vermeer and Van Gogh. There is also a modern art section, which I found rather bizarre, particularly the ‘womb tomb’, a brightly-coloured, coffin shaped, fluffy object with a hole in the middle.

Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch'
Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’
The 'Womb Tomb'
The ‘Womb Tomb’
Nineteenth-century costumes
Nineteenth-century costumes
Beautiful cabinet
Beautiful cabinet
Gorgeous cabinet for books
Gorgeous cabinet for books
Painting of a windmill
Painting of a windmill (unfortunately I can’t recall the artist)

I got separated from Elisa and ended up wandering around the ground floor – which had the medieval art and the costumes – on my own. When I got back to the foyer she’d been sitting in the café with a glass of wine, having given up on the museum some time ago.

The Heineken Experience
The Heineken Experience
Vintage Heineken poster
Vintage Heineken poster
Inside the museum
Inside the museum

We still had plenty of time, so we decided to head to the Heineken Experience. Now, this was not somewhere I would have thought of going; I’m not the biggest fan of Heineken, and it would never have occurred to me to go here. Elisa wanted to, though, and I’m so glad she did, because I loved it! There was so much to see and do. The experience began with a short exhibition on the history of Heineken, followed by a look at the old brewing equipment and a look at the creation process. We got to taste some Heineken and then experience a kind of interactive presentation where you could ‘be’ the beer on its journey from creation to bottling!

Inside the old brewery
Inside the old brewery
Pretending I'm a DJ
Pretending I’m a DJ
A nice bike ride by the canal!
A nice bike ride by the canal!

The best bit, though, was when – slightly tipsy by now – we reached the interactive part of the experience. We got our photo taken on some Dutch bikes against a background of an Amsterdam street, and sang along to a music video showing us on a canal boat – which I promptly emailed to my mam!

On the canal trip
On the canal trip

We then had a free canal boat ride up to the Heineken Brand Store. Obviously this is all just a big ploy to get people to buy Heineken products, but it was fun nevertheless! We had a great day altogether, actually. It ended with drinks and Chinese food and frozen yoghurt covered in lots of amazing toppings.

Church near the Anne Frank Museum
Church near the Anne Frank House

The next day, we had planned to go to the Anne Frank House. Elisa set the alarm on her phone, but unfortunately hadn’t realised that it was still on UK time. So by the time we got up and went out, we were an hour later than we should have been.

Looking down the canal
Looking down the canal
Cute little car
Cute little car

Still, it was such a lovely morning that we took our time getting to the museum, having a slow walk along the canal with bagels. When we got to the museum there was a massive queue, as expected, but although we had to wait an hour, it didn’t seem that long. The museum is small, but as moving as I remembered.

Sex Museum
Sex Museum

Later we visited the Sex Museum. Again, this was somewhere I had already been, although it was just as entertaining this time around. The moving flasher in the foyer was still there, and I recognised several of the exhibits. This museum also has one of the fanciest bathrooms I have ever seen – it is inspired by Mucha and the Art Nouveau movement and the sinks are shaped like flowers. Afterwards we went on a canal boat trip which was really relaxing. We went for a walk in the evening, had some tea, and then went back to the frozen yoghurt store – naturally.

Amsterdam from the water
Amsterdam from the water
Main square in Amsterdam
Main square in Amsterdam
New York Pizza
I came across the hotel we stayed in last time I was in Amsterdam – and the New York Pizza beside it that was turned into a breakfast room in the morning!

We didn’t have time to do anything the next day, as we had to go to the airport. I would definitely go back, though – even after two trips to Amsterdam, there’s so much to see and do there, and it’s such a lovely place, that I’d be happy to see it again.


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View from the Old Town looking south

I’ve just got back from a weekend in Luxembourg. I realised I hadn’t been abroad since I went to Portugal in summer 2011, so I decided to rectify this. I also thought it would be a good time to tick London City Airport DLR station off my tube station list. City is the only airport in central London and the only one (apart from Heathrow) to be located on a tube map. After using it, I would encourage everyone to fly from City at least once. The view over central London – taking in the Thames, the O2, the London Eye and the famous bridges – is not to be missed.

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Cercle Municipal

Luxembourg is the world’s only Grand Duchy. It is a tiny little state bordered by Belgium, Germany and France. The inhabitants speak Luxembourgish (yes, that is a real language), French and German and there are several temporary and permanent immigrants contributing other languages and cultures to the place – a real melting-pot.

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St Michael’s Church

The flight from City took an hour and twenty minutes. It left at eight so I had to get up ridiculously early in the morning – I actually caught the first Tube train of the day out of Ealing Broadway, which made me feel oddly thrilled. I was surprised at how many people were actually around at that time of the morning. Luxembourg is an hour ahead of the UK, so by the time I arrived and caught the bus into the centre of town it was getting on for eleven – which still left me with practically a full day ahead of me.

One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the temperature. It is mid-March after all, and I had assumed that the weather would have been vaguely spring like. This was not the case. It was colder than in Britain (although the temperature did improve over the next couple of days), and there was snow on the ground, though it didn’t actually snow while I was there.

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I walked into the centre and picked up a Luxembourg Card from the tourist information office. This card is amazing and I recommend it to anyone who visits. For 27 Euros (for three days; one-day and two-day cards are cheaper) you get unlimited travel on public transport, plus free admission to most of the museums in the country, and discounts on the rest. I used mine constantly and, with the exception of the 2 Euros I paid to take the bus from the airport, didn’t spend another penny on sightseeing or transport throughout my trip.

This first day, I spent some time wandering around town and getting a feel for the place. There seemed to be a lot of scaffolding, so I suspect they are jazzing the place up in preparation for the summer. The Old Town – which is UNESCO-listed – reminded me of Bruge, although I didn’t think it was quite as nice.

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Looking towards the Bock Casemates

The first thing I did was visit the Bock Casemates, down towards the eastern edge of the Old Town. These are fortifications built into the rock several hundred years ago which were designed for defence at a time when the castle on the hill was chosen for its suitability in this respect. I found them interesting to explore but got rather spooked at some points and had to make a hasty exit – or would have, if I hadn’t had trouble finding it.

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After a quick stop off for a Panini and a cup of coffee, I headed to the Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art (National Museum of History and Art). This huge museum was well laid-out and fascinating, with five floors below telling the story of Luxembourg from prehistoric times to the present day, and five above, displaying the fine art collection and temporary exhibitions. There was an English guide available for the information boards on the lower floors, which came in handy, and I particularly liked the impressive Roman mosaic on display.

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Roman mosaic at the National Museum of History and Art

Unfortunately the medieval galleries were closed, but I enjoyed the others, including an in-depth prehistoric section with details of archaeological discoveries. The fine art collection was wide-ranging and varied: there were even a couple of Turner watercolours there, as well as a sculpture by Rodin and an artwork by Picasso. One temporary exhibition was about Japanese art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and was fascinating, and the other was concerned with the Dutch landscape painter Barend Cornelis Koekkoek.

After my visit I walked through the town and came across an amazing café that I just had to go into. You choose a flavour of chocolate, select a block with a wooden spoon embedded into it, and dip it into a cup of hot milk. They should definitely get something like that over here. I had chilli chocolate flavour and it was delicious.

Afterwards I headed towards the station and checked into my hotel. Once I’d unpacked and had a rest, I headed out to find something to eat. I managed to find a nice Italian restaurant, not too busy but not to quiet either, and with other solo diners, so I didn’t feel too self-conscious. I am afraid I took the easy option and went for the mushroom pizza – as much as I would like to sample the local cuisine, I understand that Luxembourgish specialities tend to include meat, so they’re off the menu for me.

Whenever I go abroad, I always like to check out the supermarkets to find out what the locals like to eat. I love looking at all the weird and wonderful foods that are so like, and yet so unlike, the stuff you get in the UK. I saw one lady carrying a Dr Oetker frozen pizza with what looked like salmon on top – it looked lovely and I am disappointed you can’t get that variety here!

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Luxembourgish wine

I always make a point of trying some local alcohol and chocolate. At least, I try – I don’t think the chocolate I managed to find was from Luxembourg, but I’d never seen it before, so I thought it would do. The wine was local, though.

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Tasty chocolate

Not wanting to hang out in a bar full of drunken individuals, I sat in my room with a book, some chocolate and wine, and had a perfectly lovely evening.


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Stained glass window inside the railway station

The following day, I dragged myself down to breakfast and demolished some rolls with chocolate spread and jam. I also had some waffles, but since the toaster didn’t work these weren’t as nice as they might have been! Sufficiently full-up, I wandered over to the rather impressive station. I had plans to go to Vianden for the day, and knew that I had to catch the train to Ettelbruck and then a bus to the town of Vianden.

It took me some time to decipher all the signs, but eventually I got myself on the right train and enjoyed a relaxing journey to Ettelbruck. I didn’t have to wait too long for the bus when I got there – it was a relatively short journey to my destination.

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Vianden is gorgeous. It is a small compact village full of quaint little houses, with a river flowing through the centre and a curved bridge crossing it. Above it all, the castle overlooks the town high on a hill. I decided to visit the castle first, in order to get the climb out of the way. This was a good decision, as it was exhausting, and I don’t know if I’d have been able to manage it later!

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Castle Vianden

Looking over the castle didn’t take ages, as there were few information boards or other things to see, but it was definitely worth it. The castle was apparently sold by its nineteenth-century owner and dismantled, leaving it in a state of disrepair not rectified until the twentieth century when it was rebuilt. It still looks pretty good, considering. The place is just how I would have imagined a fairytale castle to be, with round towers and a stunning hillside location.

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Victor Hugo’s House

After a crepe vegetarienne in a local café I popped into the Victor Hugo Museum for a quick look around. The great writer stayed in the town on several occasions, and some of the letters he wrote here are on display. His study has been recreated in the room facing the castle. Unfortunately the displays were all in French so I couldn’t understand them, but it was still exciting just to be in a place connected with the man.

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Museum of Military History

I caught the bus back to the town of Diekirch, which my guidebook said was full of museums. The major attraction was the Museum of Military History, covering the Battle of the Ardennes (better known perhaps as the Battle of the Bulge) of 1944-45. I knew my mam, who is really interested in the war, would have been fascinated by the museum. I had a good look round, but the place went into a lot of depth (it is used by military historians as well as the general public) and I skimmed a lot of it. The personal testimonies and modelled recreations of real-life scenes (taken from photographs) were moving and really brought home what life would have been like during the battle.

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Crypt underneath Diekirch church

I popped into the town’s own museum too, but the boards were in French and German so I couldn’t actually understand anything. However, the museum is next to the church and you can actually get into the crypt via the museum, which I thought was quite exciting. I then visited a bizarre museum, home to a selection of classic cars and a selection of Diekirch beer glasses. I had planned to sample a beer in the little café, but there seemed to be some sort of event on, with lots of people arranged in chairs and sandwiches wrapped in cling film, so I made a hasty exit.

Though there was no castle, there were several quaint little streets and I grew to quite like Diekirch. Apparently the town’s mascot is a donkey, which explains the fun statue which lets you move the limbs of the donkeys into whichever position you choose.

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One of the rather sweet donkeys

I had planned to eat in the Old Town when I returned to Luxembourg City, but I couldn’t find anywhere that was both quiet and cheap. On the way back to my hotel I stopped at a decent-looking place and had – you’ve guessed it – another mushroom pizza. Well, it was either that or a cheese omelette.

My evening passed much as the previous one did, with wine and chocolate and books. I had debated trying to get tickets to a concert or a theatre performance, but I couldn’t decipher the leaflets, and thought it would probably be really expensive anyway.

The next day – my last – it was raining. I walked through the Old Town for the last time, taking in the view, and visited the Musée d’Histoire de la Ville de Luxembourg (Luxembourg History Museum). This has been cleverly built within a number of buildings from different periods of the city’s history, with stone from the old defences forming part of the basement. I loved the video installation exploring the landscape and nature of the city. I could have sat looking at it for hours.

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Luxembourg History Museum

After a couple of floors exploring the city’s past, the museum began to look at different themes relating to Luxembourg, including its role in industry, within Europe and the natural world. Finally, the temporary exhibition was ‘The ABC of Luxembourg’ – exploring the national identity of the Grand Duchy through an irreverent and entertaining alphabet. I thoroughly enjoyed this excellent museum and I’m glad I made the effort to look for it, tucked away on a back street.

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Musée Dräi Eechelen

I debated whether to catch the bus, but I ended up walking to the next museum, which I’d passed en route to the centre from the airport. The Musée Dräi Eechelen tells the story of this fort overlooking the city, with armour, swords and a frightening-looking guillotine all displayed. I popped into the MUDAM (Museum of Modern Art) next door, too, but the exhibitions were in the process of changing over. The building itself was very impressive, though.

I could have caught the bus back into the centre, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered, so I just went straight to the airport. I spent a couple of hours there recharging and writing up my holiday diary (which I keep religiously every time I go abroad) before going through security and spending far too much on chocolate and liqueur to bring back with me.

The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein – The Queen’s Gallery

I really like the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. It has rotating exhibitions which change every few months or so, and when you buy a ticket you can get it converted into a 1-year pass enabling you to go back as many times as you want over the course of the year. I had the day off on Wednesday and visited the Gallery for the third time this year, in order to see the exhibition The Northern Renaissance: Dürer to Holbein.

I studied the Reformation in Europe as part of my History A Level and many of the pictures in this exhibition were of figures I am familiar with. One painting, which appeared in the first room, was of Desiderius Erasmus, a hugely important intellectual figure and inspiration to Martin Luther who kickstarted the Reformation. In our class he was known as ‘Daddy Rasmus’.

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‘Daddy Rasmus’

This painting, and many others at the beginning of the exhibition, was by Albrecht Dürer, a German painter and printmaker who is commonly regarded as one of the greatest artists of the period. I recognised several of his engravings, including the Knight, Death and the Devil, from A Level textbooks. Much of his work has a strong Gothic feel, and he utilised classical imagery in his work. He drew and painted many of the prominent figures in the Northern Renaissance.

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Hans Holbein the Younger is known for his work at the Tudor court; he came to England from Germany where he first developed as an artist. Sketches, drawings and paintings by him show his ability to capture in detail the expressions and personalities of the figures of the period.

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The work of other artists was also represented in the exhibition: tapestries, altarpieces and paintings all capture the important themes of the period, reflecting the turbulent age in which they were created. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were a time of dramatic change in Europe, with intellectual exploration, religious questioning and a shifting of the balance of power. The works of art portrayed here are interesting in their own right, but are also emblematic of the wider issues of their age.