My Iceland: Home of Sentimentality

“Iceland, for me, is bound to people of the past that are still important in my life. They are no longer physically present, but instead, their impact is felt mentally.”

There are certain places in the world that are magical to us on an individual level. For some people, it might be a beach in Spain that your family used to visit annually on holiday; for others it is the bustle and electric energy of a city that never sleeps like New York, and for some it could be something as simple as going back to the place you grew up. For me, Iceland holds a magical energy because of what I associate with this incredible island. This energy is made up of the perfect blend of sentimentality, family, friendship, and mysticism. This probably doesn’t necessarily make sense regarding what I’m trying to say about my love of Iceland, but hopefully by explaining my travels there, this will become clear.

Iceland Flight
No other airport can boast a view like this flying in.

The first visit to Iceland consisted largely of the Golden Circle tour, a pretty famous tour around the South’s most exciting tourist destinations. The tour consisted of three waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss and Gullfoss. Inter-dispersed between these three spectacles, we also visited a Geysir, a glacial lagoon (Jökulsárlón), and a (not so) secret geothermal bath. Among all of these monoliths of nature, what struck me was how alien the landscape was. At some points, we were the only coach on the road and the snow would cover the land as far as the eye could see. Not a single sign of another person could be observed. There was nothing but our little coach, the beautiful fluffy white wilderness, and, perhaps most shockingly, blue skies. On our final day we spent some time exploring the city of Reykjavik. Being probably the smallest capital city I’ve ever visited, it felt personal and homely. The low-rise wooden-slat buildings spread out further horizontally than they did vertically; the only vertical aspects of the city were the Cathedral, and the hill leading up towards it.
Some aspects of the culture were also briefly explained to us, particularly the ways that superstition and mystical belief were still very much alive in Iceland. Many natural monuments were considered to be important to mystical creatures, in the same way that we would value cathedrals. You couldn’t damage these sacred structures, as it would anger these powerful mystical creatures. Therefore, attitudes towards the environment were influenced by these superstitions; culturally infused respect kept the environment safe.

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Interestingly, I came away from this trip thinking that I would never visit the country again. Whilst I had loved the trip, I very much had a “been there done that” mentality, where I thought I had seen everything that Iceland had to offer me. The scenery was gorgeous, but at the end of the day a waterfall is a waterfall. Reykjavik was cute, but it was so small that there couldn’t have been much that we didn’t see. There wasn’t much else in my mind that could possibly tempt me back there. So when a friend from university suggested a February road trip to Iceland I was hesitant.

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The planning for the second trip to Iceland began with much more resistance. I was in my first year of university and struggling with workload, making pals, and keeping the ‘demons’ at bay. At no point in the planning stage was I that invested in going, but the fear of missing out kept me in the loop. Once the flights were booked, it was pretty much a non-refundable decision and I would be going to Iceland again, regardless of how much kicking and screaming I did. So, we kept on planning our trip bit by bit. The group was decided first, and it consisted of one of my roommates, and two of his friends; one of which I had met a few times prior, and the other I knew nothing about. We booked a hire car, places to stay, and came up with a rough idea where we wanted to go. The route we had decided upon was fairly similar to the route I had done on my first trip: it featured Reykjavik, waterfalls, the geysir, and some other familiar sites. But there were some additions to the itinerary that were new, including the Blue Lagoon. On paper, these two trips seem very similar but they were worlds apart.

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What stood out especially was that I felt like I really connected with the people on this second trip. As with any shared experience, you bond over the highs and the lows. This feeling, of building friendships through travelling, was something I had experienced before and it was electrifying. Before the week was out, we had squabbled, made up, come up with inside jokes, and formed a pretty strong connection between us all. Together, we endured some treacherous conditions and major disappointments, and revelled in the spectacular scenery and successes of the trip. My relationship with all of them was based on a different aspect: one friendship had formed through our shared skills of navigation and taking charge (as well as sharing a great music taste); another was formed on sheer enjoyment of the other’s company and how alike we were; and the final was based on how much she made me laugh. During this trip I felt an air of pure ecstasy, something I hadn’t felt all of my first year of university. The combination of these brand new connections, with my love of travelling led me to such a mental place of happiness that I never could have imagined I would achieve in that year; a year dominated by the stress and anxiety of university.

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There are some stand out moments from the trip that stick with me. Sitting in a small log cabin beneath snow-capped mountains playing cards around a tiny little table, eating a kind of pasta dish made from overpriced groceries counts as one of these. Another was failing to gain access to the Blue Lagoon, and taking some pictures to fake our entry, while simultaneously finding a different geothermal bath to enjoy later in the trip. I loved visiting one of the waterfalls where we parked on (what was essentially) an ice rink and slid all over the place as the wind took control of our bodies. Or sliding down the slopes of an icy crater to reach a frozen lake at the bottom. And I definitely will not forget driving through the snow fields of the national park, getting out and doing a mini photo shoot in the sub-zero temperatures. There are countless other moments like this that will go unforgettable and I could spend the rest of this article reciting them all. But these experiences are ours, belonging to the people who I travelled with, and no matter how we move forward they are locked into all of our pasts.

 

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Life moves on, however. People move on and return to normal life. Stress, anxiety and the ‘demons’ return. People drift apart naturally or explosively, and connections are lost. Iceland, for me, is bound to people of the past that are still important in my life. They are no longer physically present, but instead, their impact is felt mentally. My mind connects Iceland with the positivity of those relationships and the joy I felt travelling around in our little 4×4. Rolling around one of the most beautiful countries in the world, on one of the best holidays of my life.

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Twice I have been to Iceland and twice it has been incredible, but the ways it has been incredible were starkly different. The first time nature took my breath away; the second time was something else entirely. Iceland is one of the few places I have been in the world that I could imagine myself living in the future. I can imagine living in Reykjavik, having a fireplace, and a chilled out lifestyle where I can separate my life from stress. I can imagine building up a stock of food for the winter months, and celebrating in the spring as the light starts to return to the sky. And I can imagine heading out into the wilderness for pure serenity and calm, where only Mother Nature keeps me company. I have a feeling that Iceland is a country that I will not be able to stay away from in the future; it is bound to my understandings of mysticism, sentimentality, family and friendship.

 

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Stories From Verona: Letters to Juliet

Travelling through Northern Italy with two of my best friends was a standout moment of my gap year. While not being a conventional gap-year trip, I loved every single minute of it (even the ugly times). I now have such a strong emotional tie to certain places in the world because of the people I travelled with, the experiences shared, and the lessons learned. In particular, the city of Verona stands out as an impactful and sentimental place for me, despite being there for little over 24 hours.

Our journey to Verona was the second stop on our tour of Italy, and having just left Venice, we were pumped full of energy. After 4 days soaking up the culture, dealing with the hordes of people, and coming to terms with the absolute absurdity of a floating city we were ready to spend a couple of days in Verona. Before arriving I knew very little about the city; even the fact that Romeo & Juliet was based here had somehow vanished from my head. So departing the train and entering the city was like a breath of fresh (blistering hot) air… bear in mind it was peak summer and I am a ginger i.e. not made for the heat. I will spare all of the details about the arduous walk to the apartment we stayed in, or the severe sunburn that the back of my neck suffered but in short the flat was beautiful and in a fantastic location.

Verona Apt
Cosy little apartment in central Verona

We knew we had very limited time to work with (and to be honest we didn’t think we would need any more time there), so pretty quickly after settling in, a plan was established like a scene from mission impossible. Our target? Piazzale Castel San Pietro; a vantage point looking out across the whole of the city. Location? Other side of town. The route? Who knows. Suncream? Definitely. The decision to go all the way to the Piazzale was a wise one (thank you Caleb), as it took us all the way across town. That way, we could see all of the other sites of the city on the way to or from the Piazzale.

En route, we stopped at the Castelvecchio, only a stone’s throw away from where we were staying. A stunning construct, the castle housed a beautiful courtyard, complete with fountain. Nearby, there is the Arco Dei Gavi: a stone archway with an interesting story in amongst its bricks. The archway was erected in the distant past, and had at one point acted as an entrance gate into the city of Verona. During its lifetime it had been demolished, moved and reconstructed many times; the structure that we saw was definitely not the same one that was the entrance gate, built it was a nice replica nonetheless. But we moved on, we had more important things to explore…

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Grey Cobbled Streets and Terracotta Roofs

On our very rapid tour of Verona, we wanted to see the vantage point, Juliet’s house, and one of many hundreds of churches we would take pictures of on our holiday. And so we crossed a bridge and headed along what was (thankfully) the more shaded side of the river

Every corner we turned seemed to have another interesting story to tell. One bridge of mis-matched brickwork was partially destroyed in World War II, and had been reconstructed using a brickwork entirely different to the one first used. It seemed so bizarre to me, that Verona showed no other “scars” of war. The idea that something seemingly so simple as a disjointed brick type could represent such an important part of the city’s history seemed odd, and yet it was comforting; healing had taken place and the city had recovered. But alas, we moved forward, it was too hot to be standing around gawking at a bridge.

Reaching the vantage point gave us a spectacular view of city. The streets in front of us seemed to fold onto one another, and seamlessly blend into terracotta roof lines, and the rooflines themselves merged in direction towards the church spires. A very fine heat haze gently lay on top of the city and we watched life pass us by from underneath an olive tree.

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Pictures do not do this stunning view justice.

The Piazzale was a treat itself, and definitely worth the walk. You feel removed from the city, as an observer of the blissful life. A small writing on a wall read “we were here and we were young and we were alive” and I think that aptly summarises my feelings looking back at that moment: pure sentimentality and understanding what it means to feel alive.


Juliet’s House

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“Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou Romeo?”

Questions of the reality of Juliet’s house have flown around for years. The house that is thought to be Juliet’s from Shakespeare’s famous play supposedly belonged to a family known as the “Cappelletti” during the 13th Century, and there is a particularly pronounced balcony that overlooks the courtyard of the family house. It is speculated that any connection to the Shakespeare play is purely coincidental, and not based on any truth. The story may in fact all be fictitious, with the house never being owned by a ‘Capulet’ family. However, I realised during my visit that the truth behind the story is less important than what it represents.

To many travellers, the house of Juliet represents a commitment to everlasting love. It is said that those who rub the statue of Juliet will be blessed with eternal love, and so a tradition has come about wherein the statue of Juliet poses with thousands of strangers for pictures every day. Interesting choice, making Juliet a symbol of love, as her romance story didn’t exactly end well. But let’s pretend that doesn’t happen. What is important is all of these people bringing their hopes of happiness to Juliet, hoping for something to come true, no matter how insignificant it may seem.

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Juliet herself, bathing in the harsh glow of a tourist’s camera flash.

Despite the hordes of tourists crammed into a tiny space, there was a magical energy that seemed to fill the air. There was a mutual idea between all of these different tourists from hundreds of countries. Most of us could not speak the same language, and yet something was shared: the essence of hope. The only way I could describe it would be as a non-religious prayer. As cheesy and romantic as it sounds, this changed me. The understanding that there was something incommunicable that connected me to thousands of other people every day shocked me. I was part of a much wider web than just myself.


The Letters to Juliet

By far, my favourite part of the house of Juliet was the archway walking into the courtyard. Plastered on the brickwork were hundreds on letters, all varying in language, length and sentiment. Of the ones I understood, some said simple statements: “Forever, my dear”; others asked Juliet for true love: “Hallo Juliet, bring me please true love, love that I’ve wish for a long time. For Douglas.”

But a personal favourite of mine:
“Dear Juliete,
I am so fortunate to have 7 years with the love of my life.
I wish that you could help spread love to all the people who feel the need to hate & that by the time I visit here again we live in a world filled with love & peaceful people encouraging acceptance & diversity.”
I understood that Juliet stood to some people as more than just a character in a love story. To some people she was a symbol of compassion; an eternal and all-encompassing love. Juliet may not be a god that can answer prayers for love, kindness and acceptance but her existence has changed the world. Juliet’s House acts both as a tourist destination, and as a place to present your hopes, dreams and prayers for the world. My whole outlook was changed from this moment onwards, and I would say my current positive mentality is all thanks to the messages left at Juliet’s House. The world can manifest beauty in the strangest and most tourist-trapping of ways, but as long as we can find some way into universal love, we are moving forward. If you have the chance to visit this wonderful city, go to Juliet’s House and present your hopes, dreams and prayers to the symbol of love. For restoring my faith in humanity, I have you to thank, Juliet.

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Verona, you were a joy.