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 :)