Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Chasing the Northern Lights - Iceland's Celestial Treasure

"Far in the land of icetop mountains, far on the other side
pictures are appearing so serenely into my mind
Far in the land of meadows of fire, deep in forgotten life
memories are drifting away so silently from light"

"Along his quest for solitude,
a wise man came and told him to follow the stars..."

Little Dreamer, Ensiferum 2001

Since the dawn of time, my time, I was fascinated by the wonders of the heavens. As a child I was spending hours and hours under the star-filled skies, enjoying the magnificence of those trembling spot-lights in that vast pitch-black celestial canvas. 

At first with naked eyes, using my imagination to traverse from constellation to constellation. Then with a pair of binoculars my father bought me, struggling to spot star-clusters and other Messier objects. Then with a telescope... 

But during all these years, I was also spending a large amount of time studying. Books, magazines, encyclopaedias, you name it! And in -each and every- astronomy book you will ever open, you'll see a picture like the one that follows. A similar one was decorating my bedroom walls for a nearly decade.  


What is this? 
You have probably hear this phenomenon as "Northern Lights" or "Aurora Borealis". For the Greeks, "Πολικό Σέλας". Less common the "Aurora Australis" which is the counterpart of the Aurora Borealis in the South. 

These lights, which are painting the night-skies close to Earth's magnetic poles, are caused -in general- by the Solar Wind. After charged particles are released from the Sun during a CME, some of them arrive to Earth, and their interaction with Earth's magnetic field has this spectacular phenomenon as a result.

This phenomenon is very common in the polar regions of the Earth, and only in very special situations, also visible from other parts of the Worlds. 

And as a little dreamer, I always wanted to lay eyes on these lights. It was a goal to be completed at some point of my life. During my latest trip, I added a destination especially for this goal. ICELAND

After doing some research online, I found out that from December to February Iceland offers Ideal conditions to observe the Northern Lights. So, after crossing Europe, I found myself in a Car with 4 Argentinians chasing charged particles while driving the huge ring-road of -the unique- Iceland. 

Red and Green Northern Lights as captured by Fermin, while we were close to Vik, Iceland. 

Here are some tips and information that is good to know if you're planning to visit Iceland for this

What to have in mind?
  • Iceland is in the North. Far North. Far Far North. At a latitude of 66° 33′ 44″ (or 66.5622°) is one of the countries that borders the Arctic Circle. At this level of latitude there are some unique conditions regarding sunlight. During Summer months, the Sun sets for about only 3 hours, while in Winter -for example in late December- there are only 4 hours of sunlight. So don't show up in Iceland during June and expect to enjoy Northern Lights.
  • Since Northern Lights is a phenomenon caused by the Sun, you can't have a long-term prediction for when you'll be able to watch them. Using information from NASA's SOHO, we're able to have a short-term prediction, usually 3-4 days in advance. Once you are in Iceland, you can use the Aurora Forecast website to plan your observations. 
  • Iceland has extreme weather conditions. EXTREME. On our way to some hot springs, we begun our hike under light cloud-covered skies, caught up in a thick snowstorm, and when we arrived at our destination, the skies were clear and the Sun begun to shine. All these in a timeframe of 2 hours. Keep an eye on the weather forecast before heading out, but don't be surprised if you find it totally different. 
Weather in Iceland can be tricky. Here you can spot Aurora Borealis as seen through cloudy skies.
Photo by Fermin
  • Speaking on weather, since you'll probably head there in winter, make sure you'll have warm clothes. No, not that warm, warmer! No, not warmer, the WARMEST. Isotherm body underwear, layers of fleece, a windproof-rainproof jacket, gloves, hat, scarf, socks and some more socks. A hot beverage in a thermos will also be ideal. My crazy Argentinian friends used a 60% Vodka instead. Not wise if you're the one who drives, cause there's 0% tolerance by Police when it comes to driving after drinking.
  • Head away from the city lights. Don't expect to be inside Reykjavik or Akureyri and enjoy those spectacular views. Rent a car or take an (expensive) Aurora Trip by the numerous companies around the city, and go for the clear skies. You won't have a problem finding a spot, Iceland has pure dark-pitch-black skies all over the island. 
Orion as seen through Icelandic clear skies, away from light pollution.
Photo by Salome Martinez
  • If you want to take some photos, bring an SLR camera with you and a tripod. Aurora photography requires some long exposures (15+ seconds) and you'll definitely need that tripod. After all, everyone wants a photo like this one: 
Posing in front of the car-lights, beneath the Northern Lights.
Con mis amigos: Salo, Maca, Fer and Caro
With all that in mind, plan to stay at least 5-6 days, so that you have more chances to catch this celestial treasure. It's really worth every sacrifice you'll make...

"We reach for the stars, we’ll find a rainbow
We reach for the stars, we’ll find our lives"

"Will you reach for the stars?"
To Chase the Stars, Aslan 1989

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Belgium: Brussels for Backpackers - A useful free guide for any Traveller

Last month I spent some time at the heart of Europe, and by heart of Europe I mean Brussels!

The city of Brussels, built on the shores of Zenne River, (the WHAT? I didn't not see a river in Brussels! Yeah, that's because it was covered in the 19th Century due to the bad smell), provides a mixture of architecture, arts, history, entertainment and tasting, enough to cover every different styles and tastes. Lots of sightseeing, lots of museums, lots of everything.

Below you'll find some useful information and tips to help you plan your trip to Brussels.  :)


Grand Place: or Grote Markt, is the central square of Brussels. The touristic heart of Brussels is the most popular destination in Brussels. You will be amazed by the glorious 15th-Century Town Hall, which will be unlike anything you have ever seen. (khm, khm, Sagrada Familia, khm, khm). Imagine walking down to Brussels in the 1600 and come across that building. Just imaging the feeling of wonder that will flow through you and give you chills on your spine. 

Maneken Pis: The recognised emblem of Brussels. The boy pissing statue, will probably not be as you expected. But it worths the visit. After all, the size doesn't matter, huh? There's also a museum with all the clothes the boy has wear to date.

The Atomium: Now, this is what I'm talking about! Unlike the downscaled Maneken Pis, here the size does matter!! Yeah, it does! The gorgeous 102m tall building, constracted in 1958, is a landmark definitely worth visiting! You can get there by Metro, using the blue line (6 - from Elisabeth towards Roi Baudouin).

European Parliament: Just below the Luxembourg square lies the buildings housing the European Parliament, This is where Comitte meetings and some of the meetings of the whole Parliament take place. I was fortunate enough to have a friend of mine, George Economides, working there, and got myself an "inside view" of Europe.

photo by
Palais De Justice: When the Palace of Justice was completed in 1883, it was the largest building in Europe! There is a nice panorama in the area, where you can spot the difference between uptown and downtown brussels, and you can also use the glass elevator located by the side of the Palace for free, to move in-between the two levels of the city.

Place du Grand Sablon: A nice square located 5-10 minutes walk from Grand Place. By the square, stands tall the "Church of Our Blessed Lady of the Sablon", and some famous Chocolateries can be found in the surroundings. If you're lucky you'll also come across local street musicians.

Palais Royal: The Royal Palace and the Royal park that's on the other side of the road, is also worth visiting. Don't expect to see the King in the Palace, since he doesn't use it as his residence frequently. The park is suitable for relaxing walks, jogging and picnic.


Delirium Village: The Delirium Bar, world-famous for entering the Guinness Book of Records for having 2004 different kinds of beer, must definitely be on your list! The beer catalog, is a Book! Yes, a book! You can walk to the end of the small street, to see Jeanneke Pis, the little sister of Maneken Piss.

Chocolateries: Belgian Chocolate! You have to taste belgian chocolate! Even if it's expensive as hell, you can walk in one of the many chocolateries around Brussels and have an orgasmic taste. There are lots of places and lots of types to taste.

Comic Strip Trail: Brussels is the home of the comics. Cartoon heroes like the Smurf, Lucky Luke, TinTin and lots of others were born under a pencil here in Brussels. You can follow the comic strip in town, with comics painted on the walls of buildings scattered all over Brussels. Lots of interesting graffities can be found everywhere, like the one shown in the picture, having the intended pun "Maneken Peace"!

Waffles: YOU-MUST-EAT-WAFFLES-IN-BELGIUM. Yes, you must! Belgium is worldwide famous, apart from the chocolate-part, for the waffles. Down the road to Maneken Piss, stop at a shop in the street, and order one. Choose from a shitload of toppings and enjoy this tasteful miracle of mankind.

Brussels Grill: Pricy but tasteful! Even if they are a bit luxurious for a Backpacker, these restaurants are one of your best choices for food in Brussels. Go for the Rumsteak!! And a tip: avoid the dinner time, go during the lunch times for a better price. Locations can be found here

Tips and Useful Info

Lockers - By the Gare Centrale  and the Gare du Midi train and metro stations, you can find lockers to lock your stuff and luggages for as low as 3 Euro per 24h.

DayPass card - For 7 Euro you can buy a "Discover Brussels 24H" card which gives you an ulimited amount of usage on the public transportation during the whole day. It really pays off when you use the Metro lines a lot. Don't forget to activate it on the machines after you buy it.

Local Beers - One does not simply visit Brussels and doesn't drink at least a shitload of different beers. There are literally tons of different belgian beers to taste. Be careful of the high alchohol percentages cause it can get you dizzy fast.
Brussels, the ultimate place for Beers and Friends :)
Flea Market - While in the Palais de Justice area, use the glass elevator to get to the lower level of the town. Then go to the "Place Du Jeu De Balle", a square which hosts a daily flea market. Lots and lots of antiques, WWII memorabilia, arts, clothes, accessories, tons of vinyl records, you name it! You can find it all here!
You can find literally everything in that Belgian Flea Market
Frites - French Fries. French?? Did you say French? Prepare for war. These are Belgian Fries! Probably the most common food in Belgium. And no, they are not just like any simple fries. They are cooked twice in different temperatures and come with a variety of sauce to choose. Have at least one.

Student Hats - Don't be surprised when you see young people wearing strange baseball caps with long forehead screen and pins/medals attached to them. These folkloric Belgian hats are called "Penne", and to be acquired by someone, he has to be baptised by the "circle", after successfully completing a series of tests. One shall not let someone catch his Penne, so the owners have them chained around their shoulders.

Bus to/from Charleroi Airport - The recent years many visitors get to Brussels via low-cost airlines. These flights have as destination and departure point the Charleroi Airport, which is located an-hour-long road South of Brussels. There are Bus-Shuttles operated by Flibco, that connect Charleroi with Gare du Midi and Luxembourg City. There's a variety of prices from as low as 5 Euro to 14 Euro. Better to book it online to save the extra fees.

Taxi - A 5 minutes drive inside the City will probably cost you 10-12 Euro. If you can avoid it, do it.

Accomodation - There are many cheap hostels around Brussels to pick one. I was staying at the Sleep Well Youth Hostel which I highly recommend. Clean, warm, with free lockers and Wi-Fi, public computers to use, friendly personel and a tasty breakfast! It's a two-three minutes walk by the Rogier Metro Station.

Hope this one was helpful. Enjoy your stay in the heart of Europe.

Maneken Pis - The major Belgian tourist attraction, not so major IRL :)

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Weekly Sum-Up Vol5: Keep Calm and...

"Weekly Sum-Up" is a series of posts, posted each Sunday evening, and presenting numerous interesting articles that I came across during the passed week.

Vol 4: Keep Calm and...
...write your damn Thesis! As stated before, lots of work to be done during the following weeks. Major slice of the cake goes to my diploma thesis. Now lets make some coffee and get on with it....
So, didn't find much this week due to limited time online, but I came across a couple of interesting ones for you:

They Took A Camera To A Remote Area In Greenland... []
Visit the link and watch the video, but make sure to watch it till the end so that you can realize the magnitude of this event! Extraordinary!

Futuristic Skintight Spacesuits May Shrink-Wrap Astronauts[]
Have you ever wondered if it's easy to move with that bulky spacesuits? Well, it's not! But you have to be under pressure while in space so that comes with a bulky price. But now researchers try to eliminate and shrink the spacesuit volume.

If This Video Doesn’t Convince You To Put Down Your Phone, Nothing Probably Will []
A cool -deep- video that sum-up the outcome of the massive smartphone usage, regarding our social behaviour. Definitely worth-watching!

Auction of the Week: 
US Metal high top rarities are well known for fetching 4digit prices realised in auctions. Well, even though you have Militia and Warzwolf and Street Child in mind, this one is a 7inch record. And it's a rare one! A very rare one since, there are rumors that the band destroyed most of the copies. In any case, this single ended at a price of, hold tight, $3551! Yes, 3551 USD! Sick!

Sounds In Time Vol.5

"Sounds In Time" is a weekly post which is posted every Saturday, and presents the albums that sounded through my speakers during the passed week!

Kinda weird playlist since last week had lots of moods. A mix of 70s-80s-90s :)

1. Blind Guardian - Nightfall in Middle Earth [1998]
Last week on S.O.T v.4 I had Blind Guardian on the list also. This week I had a few (kinda more) repeats on their classic Nightfall in Middle-Earth album. Tolkien's stories transformed in music. Unique! Who hasn't heard the song Nightfall and didn't got chills on his back?

2. Cirith Ungol - King Of The Dead [1984]
Speaking of Tolkien's work, throw in some swords and sorcery and Voila. Probably the most eccentric band in the history of heavy metal! A monumental album, exceptional performance, a tremendous stage appearance, and the craziest vocals the human kind has ever released. Cirith Ungol, (whose name is taken from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and whose covers are taken from Michael Moorcock's Elric sequence) came out of California and released 4th monumental pieces of heavy metal history. If you're not familiar then you should definitely check em out!

3. Glacier - Same S/t [1985] EP
One of the most, if not the most, famous US METAL EPs that has risen from the undergrounds and, two decades after its' release, became -permit me to say- mainstream. :) And Hell it should have been years ago! This outstanding EP consists of 5 tracks, and with 3 different singers on it surely deserves a place among you collection.
The song mainly responsible for it's youtube spreading disease is Vendetta, which gathered more than 200k views.

4. H and H - L'Etendard [1986] 7" Single
TOP French Epic Heavy Metal. Not much to say here. Just listen and enjoy.

5. Iron Maiden - Somewhere In Time [1986] LP
Also not much to say here. Not because I don't have words, but because there are thousands of reviews regarding this monument of heavy metal music. Not many, if any, records can compete this one. If heavy metal was the world, this record would be the Alexander the Great empire.

6. Lordian Guard - Sinners in The Hands Of An Angry God [1997] LP
White sorcery written on the surface of a CD, and the carved lines of a Vinyl record... Yes, it is possible. The TOP Weapon of Mass Destruction in Christianity's armory has a name, and it's LORDIAN GUARD! If Lordian Guard music were played in Christian Orthodox churches then probably the whole planet would praise the Lord. Some of the fans find Vidonne's voice kinda annoying, but i personally find it exceptional and binding with the whole concept's atmosphere. It's a LoveIt or HateIt record. I'm on the LoveIt site as you can see. The video of the same-title song "Sinners In The Hands Of Angry God" made by Ioannis Katis worths every single second you're gonna spent on it.

7. Megadeth - Cryptic Writings [1997] LP
Speaking of Love Or Hate albums. Megadeth's 7th album, and probably the hardest to find on vinyl.
Most of the hardcore thrash fans of the band can't even stand this album. I personally like it a lot. I mean, dude, its the album that has She-Wolf. You HAVE TO like it!

8. Rush - 2112 [1976] LP
An extragalactic journey, a trip through time, a voyage through time, a traverse through dimensions, a climb on your destiny's peak, and a free fall in tour bottomless inner self.  Rush's 2112 is the album that redefined "the term "progressive".

"Attention, all the planets of the Solar Federation. 
We have assumed control." 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Weekly Sum-Up Vol4: Hello October

"Weekly Sum-Up" is a series of posts, posted each Sunday evening, and presenting numerous interesting articles that I came across during the passed week.

Vol 4: Hello October
Officially September is out. October's gonna (and should be) a productive month, since there's lots of stuff to cover during this period. But let's not hurry, I'll keep you up to date ;)
Onward to last week's posts:

This Drone Footage of an Active Volcano Resulted In a Melted Camera []:
I was scouting the worldwide web gathering info regarding Iceland's volcanoes and found out this article. Eric Cheng went to Iceland, to visit Bardarbunga volcano which for more than a month is ejecting hot laca out on Earth's surface! After a 12+h drive from Reykjavick towards the volcano he set-up his setup consisted of a DJI quadcopter flying drone and a GoPro Hero 3+ mounted on it, and managed to capture some magnificent wide-angle footage! After the return of the drone, to his suprice, the Go-Pro camera was meltedby the heat!!

Earth’s water is older than the Sun []:
Cool huh? Way to cool!! Accorting to this new study the water of our planet was formed into the interstellar space!

Brightest Planets to See in October's Night Sky []:
An astonomical monthly guide for planets visible this month

Funky-Shaped Solar Car Can Transport the Whole Family []:
Solar power applications grow larger day by day! But still, long way to go...

Auction of the Week:
When it comes to Iron Maiden collectors, one think is for sure! Crazy prices!! When it comes to Colombian Vinyl? Even more crazy prices! This Colombian press of Iron Maiden's Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son on Red wax fetched more than $1200 on an ebay auction last Tuesday!

"So it shall be written - So it shall be done"

Sounds In Time Vol.4

"Sounds In Time" is a weekly post which is posted every Saturday, and presents the albums that sounded through my speakers during the passed week!

If someone was to ask me what music I most listen, I would probably answer "80s heavy metal". And most of the time that's quite accurate. But during the last weeks I was more of a 90s guy! This volume of Sounds of time, as well as the last one, consists mainly of 90s-00s albums, but still, not far from the generic orientation presented in the answer above. So, this week's playlist has as follows:

1. Blind Guardian - Somewhere Far Beyond [1992]
"Now You all know, the bards and their songs..." I know you do! Everyone does! This song, is probably the most famous tune from BG. But this brilliant album has way more masterpieces than the Bard's Song (which btw, has a second part, not as famous as the first one, and it SLAYS). "Time what is time", "Journey Through the Dark"... Yup, I'm a teenager again...
Buy the CD From Amazon

 2. ESP - The Future In Now [1987]
When a US band makes its debut release through a French label, you know that it's gonna be goooood (and probably their only one! LOL [Glacier, Orphan Allies, e.t.c]) That's the same story with ESP. US POWER metal hailing from Connecticut with supreme guitarwork, that had its one and only album release on the French label Dream Records. Powerful album, quite rare and expensive to be obtained on vinyl, but a recent re-release in 2013 by Heaven and Hell Records made it easily available on CD. Volume up you speakers and hit play! Satisfaction guaranteed!

3. Graveworm - As the Angels Reach The Beauty [1998]
You were young. You were in love. Thinks didn't went your way (but when do they go huh?). You suffer from depression! Yes, you do! You lock your self in your bedroom, you close the windows so that not a single beam of light lights up the room, and you fall in endless journey through your mind. As the Angels Reach the Beauty is exactly one of those records you throw in your CDplayer during that period of your life. Dark, gloomy, emotional! As the title of the opening track says, "A dreamin beauty"! I couldn't describe it better. A dreaming beauty it is...
Available on Amazon

4. Heir Apparent - One Small Voice [1989]
Ok, bow down to thy majesty... The Princes of Heavy Metal. The masters of invasion, Heir Apparent to the throne! After their magnificent debut album "Graceful Inheritance", Seattle prog-power masters had a line-up change, that resulted with godly singer Steve Benito on vocal duties! And in 1989, one of the most beautiful records ever released, made its appearance on the recordstore shelves. ONE SMALL VOICE. I usually avoid to present my all time favourite albums, cause trying to explain the feelings with words leaves me speechless or graphic. Seriously, how can anyone describe "Screaming" "The Fifth Season" "We The People" "Cacophony Of Anger" "Alone Again" without using the words magical, lyrical, ethereal, unique, outstanding, extra-ordinary, sick, lustful, and, and, and... So, better stay speechless huh?
Buy From Amazon

5. Iced Earth - Horror Show [2001]
No. "Melancholy" is not on this one. No, neither "Watching Over Me". How about "I Died for You"? Sorry, not this one either... Do you feel bad? No? Good... Now that you passed the test, you then know this album. Not their best-of album but definitely a Masterpiece. Damien is one of my favourite Iced Earth songs, and more than that, this album carries the mighty Dracula! As a concept album on famous Horror stories, Iced Earth with Matt Barlow on vocals manage to release a marvelous arts-meet-music legacy!
Buy the CD from Amazon

There are some times, when you think of a song, you listen it, then you listen it again and you end up with the whole album on repeat. And that album leads to another. And so on... Kamelot this week was on of those times. During the week I had the Kamelot(&Khan) discography on repeat.

6. Kamelot - Fourth Legacy [1999]
Once the album is inserted in the player, and the first notes sound through the speakers, a symphonic orgasm follows. During the intro "New Allegiance" that prologues the same-title song, you're fascinated by the orchestral harmony, and then BOOM. Power Metal at it's best! With one of the BEST European metal singers on vocals, Roy Khan, this album writes the first pages of the golden history of Kamelot! Even though this was the second Kamelot album with Khan on Vocals, it was the first with the symphonic powerful orientation the band adopted, and set the base for their worldwide recognition and success.
Buy CD on Amazon

7. Kamelot - Epica [2003]
Speaking on their Worldwide Recognition and success, voila! Forth release with Khan (I'll leave Karma for another time), and personally my TOP Kamelot album! Lyrically a literature monument, as itself is a concept story based on Goethe's "Faust".
"Dolcissimae... oh Fortuna... Venit Meos..." The golden pages in the history of power metal are written letter by letter on these 52 minutes of pure power! The amazing performance of Roy and the solid composition (music-wise), combined with a splendid production, resulted a monumental wonder! Perfect 10 by far!
Buy the CD from Amazon

8. Shadow Gallery - Carved In Stone [1995]
Oh lords... what to be said and what to be untold when it comes to these legends?
While formed in the late 80s, and having release a handful of great albums, the NEVER had a live show till 2010!! Unbelievable huh? And it should be, cause when you first lay ears on Carved In Stone album, you'll wonder how the hell didn't this band Tour the whole f#ckin world when it was released!! Just listen the "Crystalline Dream" and if you won't get addicted then i'll rest my case!
Another Perfect 10 by far!
Buy from Amazon

"...we'll cruise the starways..."

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Caving: Exploring Old Abandoned Mines in Cyprus

Before you continue with the article, bare in mind that Caving and Mine Exploration can be a hazardous, and  probably fatal, activity! Proper training and special equipment are required before getting underground!

Underground river
I was always fascinated with Caving (also known as Spelunking). There's a whole different world underground, waiting to be explored! I once read in an article that only 20% of the worlds underground caving systems have been totally explored. Since a child I was hoping to find a "hole" in earth's crust so that I can be a modern Indiana Jones. Unfortunately in Cyprus, there aren't any huge geological formations, to have a vast amount of caves to fulfil that desire.

But there's a number of old mines, due to the rich mining history of the Island, that have some still-standing tunnels.

During the last years I made some decent research, gathered knowledge, skills and equipment, and finally entered the realms of the underground (literally).

The old wooden support structure, rotting, 
the final stage before collapsing
Some of the following photos were taken at an aproximately 0.5~08 Km (2000-2500ft) underground. The location of the Tunnels (3 different ones) are scattered through the mountainous north area of Troodos.

Collapsed gateways, underground rivers, rotting support systems, and PITCH BLACK! Not a single ray of sunlight reaches the lungs of earth.


Underground Selfie

You should watch your every single step!
A broken angle deep underground is NOT what you want!
Wait! Is that a human skull?
Hello there...

Modern Indiana Jones

Collapse ahead!
The end of the tunnel.
The King of the Underworld sitting on his throne!


Will be fun, they said...
Walking in cold water river - Not funny