Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Takers?

Damn
Having had a blast (literally) in Iceland this March, let's look at what may or might not be making waves on the European natural hot spring topical trends.

Oddly when featuring Iceland, there's a lot to do about etiquette. Here's a funny entry by Averagedinks on a walk to Reykjaladur:
'Our plan now was to find a part in the river where we could go for a little skinny dip, we had the whole valley to ourselves and when else would you get a chance to do something like this. We walked and walked testing points along the way for the optimal temperature, as it turns out Mother Nature can not regulate her streams as well as we can our baths, the river was either luke warm or boiling hot. After a few soakers and a mud covered shoe we found a spot that was accessible, it was sooooo hot, I sat down and the water was almost bearable at times but the rocks on the stream floor were a little much for my manly parts. I jumped out and started running down the stream looking for another spot to bathe. I didn’t make it far before the ground turned to quick-mud and swallowed my leg, it scared the shit out of me. Once it registered that I was not in any harm, I could hear Deana laughing asking me to stay still so she could take a picture.

Ryan testing out the water temperature before Deana gets in. Quote of the day: “Hot Dog” – G. Coxford
I cleaned my naked self off and went to grab a towel when I heard Deana say that we were not alone, 4 guys were coming around the corner, Damn! Our private part/valley wasn’t so private anymore, I put my shorts on'.
And thus ends what could have been their slice of heaven if only they would have been more comfortable with themselves and less worried about others ...

Here are another two recent experiences on much the same theme.

Maya Seaman has a nice blog entry (December 3, 2013) on American experiences of Swedish sauna's. It gives good insights into how relaxed Europe is, how uptight the US is and how to adapt:
'What I do know is that after four weeks of being naked in a Swedish co-ed sauna (excluding the American ogle-fest that was week three) I learned that it is possible to like my body, and for men to appreciate it without sexualizing it—two statements I never thought I’d hear myself say—which is really the saddest part of the story'.
An entertaining entry on a visit to a true Turkish bath by pegsonthline (November 23, 2013) in which the author is flabbergasted by what is the right way to experience a hamam and what will come next:
'I sat on the stone stool, filled the plastic bucket and threw it over my head for the last time. I wrapped myself in the fluffy towel and plodded back to the changing area
I don’t think I’ve ever been this clean.
I was scrubbed, washed and massaged all over'.
And before we head over to the country entries, just take a note that Fodors published (January 7, 2014) a list of Europe's best hot spring spa's

France
Very few real natural soaks left here, so it's surprising when a European natural hot spring photo pops up on instagram. This is from Rennes les Bains by leucatois:
Greece
On rappler.com an entry from AFP's Sophie Makris, which supposedly was somewhere on AFP's own site in French on April 8. It's a very interesting article on the perils of business operations and hot springs in Greece:
"We have an exceptional product but it is poorly used," sighs Markos Danas, secretary general of the union of Greek spa towns.
He notes that across the country less than a dozen sites offer acceptable tourism infrastructure.
"Hot springs are mostly run by local communities, and this has limited the scope of development," he adds.
...
For years much of the clientele were Greek pensioners on state-funded curative tours.
However, in the wake of the economic crisis gripping the country for the past five years, demand has fallen dramatically.
The union of spa towns reports a 50-percent drop in paying customers since 2009.
The spa towns are now hoping an EU directive that authorises reimbursing citizens taking hot baths in other member states will revive interest.
Greece's state privatisation agency last year also offered four hot springs in central Greece, including Thermopylae, for sale to private developers.
But there were no takers ...'.
LA Swimming crossing the borders, to the Pozar hot springs of Loutra, Greek Macedonia. Great photo's.

Earlier this month Emily visits the hot springs on the island of Kos:
'Welcome to Therma Beach! These hot spring were discovered by the Italian archeologist Laourentsi in 1934. The hot water runs straight down to the ocean, where a pool is carved out for soaking.
When we arrived, there was just one Russian couple getting ready to leave.
Rob and I soaked in the water for over an hour as cool waves splashed over the rocky barrier. We had the pool to ourselves the whole time. The hot spring contains potassium, sodium, magnesium, sulfur and chlorine that are "ideal for rheumatism, arthritis" and many other ailments. The smell isn't as sulfur-y as the hot springs I'm used to in California'.
Greece is still a great country to find dreamlike hot springs, take this one from the Spanish website of furgovw from the island of Samothrace:

'Y en Termopilas también está esta maravilla'.
Italy
In Italy they are developing environmental friendly geothermal energy (think geoenergy, January 29). And here we were thinking that geoenergy can only be eco-friendly. The article fails to mention why it's environmental friendly, low impact?

Meanwhile Maremme Tuscany wishes us a Happy 2014. Thank you. Then it let's us in on a secret:
'A lot of love for the Maremma was given to Saturnia and her magnificent hot springs. The Lonely Planet listed it as one of the top 20 hot springs in Europe. Not bad for a tiny, obscure town in Southern Tuscany.
Saturnia is practically in my backyard, so it’s only fitting that I share my secret for experiencing Saturnia’s hot spring like a local'.
Head over to the website and it will reveal the secret ...


Spain
Termatalia is an international trade fair promoting the spa industry between Europe and Latin America. the upcoming meeting will take place this October in Termas de Rio Honda in Argentina. Heavy sponsorship comes though from Galizia and especially the city of Ourense (see the Eurosoak entry on ourense and it's hot springs), which has a fair claim to being one of the worlds capitals of hot springs. One of the web pages has a lot more info on the hot springs of Ourense.

A good French blog entry on the hot springs of Zujar / Granada complete with photo's:
'Eté comme hiver, il fait bon se prélasser dans des bains d'eau chaude sulfureuse à ciel ouvert dont la température moyenne avoisine les 40°C.
Cette source située en  montagne est un petit endroit privilégié.
Aucune structure n'est construite pour s'y baigner ou y accéder.
Les petits bassins formés naturellement par le débit de l'eau sont composés d'argile et de petits graviers.
Sur le Jabalcon (ancien volcan), il est possible de randonner, de voler en parapente, de se baigner dans le lac Negratin et de s'offrir une petite trempette insolite en eau chaude'.
Meanwhile nearby (Santa Fe / Granada, I presume) more exposure:


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Hidden


It had been a tiring day, leaving Reykjavik early, heading through the snow eastwards along the south coast of the island. The further eastwards we got the deeper the snow was. Past Skógar we stopped at a few places, taking sideroads through the virgin snow and also went up Solheimajökull glacier, not with the expected cramp-ons, but with snow shoes so as to deal with all the fresh snow. It had been the best of snow of the season they said. After catching our breath, we headed to Skógafoss and as the heavens closed there was still the need to visit to hot spring.

The hot spring of Seljavallalaug is up a valley heading towards the  Eyjafjallajökull mountain.  From Iceland's highway 1, it's an easy 5 kms up side road 242. Continue as far as possible to where there's a small car park. From here it's a 15 minute walk upstream to Seljavallalaug, which is hidden from those heading there, behind a cliff.

Where art thou? 
The path is obscured by the now slowly falling snow. There are still a few persons returning, but we seem to be the only ones heading the other way and  intending a real winter soak. The path scrambles over some flat scree (?) and past a rock strewn side valley which also entails a jump or two over a small stream to reach the other side.

After this crossing, one skirts a big rock cliff and wanders along the pool and can feel the heat from the source at this end. At the far end, the changing rooms are empty save for some refuse. A quick strip and a jump into Seljavallalaug.

Looking south, from the changing rooms, the hot spring is at the far end.

What I hadn't read was that the waters were just 30 degrees, meaning a lot cooler than expected! A quick length is made to the heat source at the other end, but Seljavallalaug is something more to be savoured in summer ...

Lessons learnt
Originally the bassin at Seljavallalaug was constructed so as to afford swimming lessons. Snaeland & Sigurbjörnsdóttir (2010) add that construction took place in 1923 and the pool size is 28 by 10m. 
If one follows the link to this photo of those first swimming lesson days group shot. 

More history:
'A local man, Björn J. Andrésson, had been appointed to teach sports and swimming. He decided that a swimming pool should be built above the farm of Seljavellir, where geothermal springs flowed from the rock. He gained the support of local farmers, promising them free swimming lessons when the pool was completed. Twenty-five men took part in the task.
The original Seljavellir pool was built of traditional Icelandic construction materials, rock and turf, in 1922.  Nine metres long and 4-5 metres wide, the original pool took two days to build. Swimming lessons were due to commence three days later. Twenty-five people were registered for the first swimming/sports course, during which they camped at the swimming pool in tents.
The swimming pool was such a resounding success that the following year a larger concrete pool was built on the site, inventively constructed using the rock face as one side of the pool. It was the largest swimming pool in Iceland at the time'.
The changing rooms: a little tired?

Since the nineties it's role of catering to summer guests swimming needs has been take over by a more recent construction, downstream. Volunteers though have been maintaining the facilities, but there is only so much they can do. Once a year the whole pool is scrubbed down, so it's hoped that the current users have the sensibility to not pollute the waters. Or the changing rooms.

As Seljavallalaug lies at the foot of Eyjafjallajökull, after the 2010 eruption, these volunteers took great efforts to empty the pool (photo).

Privilege
Once more Seljavallalaug is also rated as one of Iceland's best hot springs (source). Britain's Guardian (20 July 2013) also rates Seljavallalaug in it's 10 of the world's best swimming pools:
'At the bottom end of the valley, the amazing Seljavallalaug geothermal pool was built in 1923, making it the oldest in Iceland; and it was its largest until 1936. It is now partially filled in with the ash of the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull but the scenery is fantastic and the water naturally nice and warm'.

Seljavallalaug gets four and a half stars from Tripadvisor which is not too bad for a natural attraction with only the visiting public needing to maintain the site itself.

 

A good blog entry on Seljavallalaug comes from the wonderful unknown:
'I've been having doubts about sharing the Seljavallalaug swimming pool. Although it's very close to the Ring Road where thousands of tourists pass every day towards the nearby Skógarfoss waterfall, nobody seems to know it. Except the locals and a few foreigners. And that's a good thing because the atmosphere around this pool is created by it's solitude. We've had the privilege to enjoy it all by ourselves with the surrounding mountains as our only companion and it wouldn't be the same when crowded.' 
Another nice entry comes from iheartreykjavik which also has more background on the need for swimming instructions back then.

Finally, here's a video of Seljavallalaug.

Note:
Snaeland, J.G. & Þ. Sigurbjörnsdóttir (2010) Thermal pools in Iceland. Skrudda, Reykjavik, Iceland


  
The return journey

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Chill


Soaking sheep
There aren't many hot soaks that are as picturesque as that of Hrunalaug, Iceland. 

I've seen references (Snaeland & Sigurbjörnsdóttir, 2010) in which it was suggested that the hot spring of Hrunalaug may be originally intended as a sheep dip.

However since long discontinued (hopefully), the sheep troughs are now delightful hot springs. Whether there is no need for dips anymore or whether there are no sheep, the older structure now functions as a the changing shed, for the attached hot spring. This tub can hold about 3 persons (see below). 


Behind the shed is a larger and also hotter spring which is half carved out of the hillside. This tub can hold a lot more persons, I've seen photo's with nearly 10 persons crammed in here, but that does seem to be the upper limit.
Temperatures of both hot springs are said to be a delightful 37-38 C [1].

Whipped around
This being early March though, winds are whipping around the grassy hills that surround the village of Flúðir
Before or after this village, one can take a turn eastwards, onto gravel roads that loop to meet near the 19th century church of Hruni (source). 

Pass this church, then turn right (there's a small sign directing to Solheimar). This is before the gravel road heads up in the hills. 
Down this straight road for 300m and there's a small car park with a no-camping sign, on your left, just after a cattle grid / fence (see below).


Park here, cross the hillock on foot, the hillock providing some protection from the howling winds.
Out of the wind you will see the small shed with grass on the roof, with a pool in front. This shed can be used for changing, essentially keeping you clothes dry and keeping yourself out of the wind. At the southern end one can jump in the small pool but on a cold day as today, the slightly hotter pool carved in the hill at the back is the better choice.


On my visit, the waters were delicious, considering the near zero temperature outside temperature, a massive wind-chill factor and the need to walk bare-foot on iced snow to get to the hot spring behind the changing shed. 

Enjoying this hot spring just meters away from the shed, a soak lasts long in these conditions. 
Consider the choice: stay longer or get out walk through the cold to your now cold clothes? So I stay longer ....

Take-off?
Hrunalaug is easily rated as one of Iceland's best (source). The article adds:
'The little hut is convenient to change your clothes in (or well, just take them off - most people just bathe naked since there is no-one around you!), especially at winter time'.
Probably your best source of information especially concerning  the directions  (but don't worry, it's not so difficult) is an excellent photo blog which can be found at getoffthebeatenpath.


Interesting side stories include the more recent past of Hrunalaug hot spring. This website offers information (in Icelandic) that the spring has had it's ebbs and flows. Apparently after the Hekla volcano eruption of 1980 the spring flow stopped. Slowly the spring reappeared but colder. Only in 2000 after an earthquake the temperature and flow re-established itself.

Another interesting point is that it's also used for Baptism (source)!

Less encouraging is that I have seen that in times past the place has become a drop-off point on the party scene. I can certainly imagine the charm of a night time soak, howver the discussion on a German language forum, noticed that the revellers were less keen, the morning after in clearing their rubbish ... Hopefully,  such habits won't last ...

Here's a youtube impression of Hrunulaug:

 

Tourist trail
A soak in Hrunalaug is easily to combine with a visit to some of Iceland's most popular tourist sights. Less than 20 km's away from Flúðir one can visit both the Gullfoss waterfall as well as the mother of all geysers: Geysir. 

Gullfoss is a essentially a lot of water dropping 30m into a crevice over a 2 km wide drop. In winter, the waterfall is winter wonderland (see below).



Geysir is the site of what would be the original geyser, one of the very few Icelandic words that have made into the English language. Through the ages Geysir has had it's ups and downs, literally. However recent eruptions are infrequent, partially as the workings have become victim to tourist vandalism. Not to worry too much as just besides Geysir is Strokkur geyser which erupts 10-30m every few minutes (see below).


On a final note, Iceland is known for it's freedom to roam policy. When visiting the two above expect that entrance fees may well be required as this philosophy seems to be crumbling as the ever increasing influx of visitors is requiring more and more efforts to manage; therefore the need for cash. 
Looking further let's hope that tourist numbers will not spoil such great places as Hrunalaug!

Note:
Snaeland, J.G. & Þ. Sigurbjörnsdóttir (2010) Thermal pools in Iceland. Skrudda, Reykjavik, Iceland

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

White-out



Gem hunting
Few soaks come better than those in the hinterland of Hveragerði.

The village of Hveragerði, which is located 45 km's due west of Iceland's capital of Reykjavik, is a minor hot spot in it's own rights. Those just passing by on Highway 1 can notice the greenhouses all running on geothermals, while on the river which flows north of the village, one sees quite a bit of steam rising.

The local website tries to entice more of those passing by to stop:
'Without doubt, Hveragerði´s, most precious gem is it´s geothermal park'.
The park has it's own Facebook page. 
Especially during summer, the village highlights it's geothermal background, there's even a geothermal oven to bake bread! It's good to see that the inhabitants take pride in their village and it's geothermalism.

However, despite Hveragerði having it's own hot swimming pool, those tourists with non-fixed programmes can seek the hills yonder. 

Guidance
Alternatively the area where I am heading is named as Reykjadalur (which means steamy or smokey valley), Hengill (after the volcano), Klambragil (one of the springs) or Rjúpnabrekkur, probablt the most accessible site. The former is explained:
' ... named so because of the winter population of ptarmigans in the area'.
With the possibility of mixing these up, let me start at the trail to Reykjadalur valley, the starting point which may or may not be called Rjúpnabrekkur. To get here, from the main highway one turns into the village itself and takes a left once the main drag has come to an end. 

Looking back at the car park

Then follow the river (named Varma), the asphalt surface runs out where a loop around grassland one comes to a parking spot near a bridge over the now much smaller river. 

Beyond the bridge crossing the river, are a number of hot springs, though it's not here that tourists are heading. Instead avid soakers zig-zag through the springs up the steep hill.
Note though that Throb of LA Swimming also mentions there are some hot soakable springs near the parking lot. Other mentions are made of luke-warm springs.

This way up

Beyond the steep ridge, more ridges are to be traversed but after a good half an hour hike, the path rejoins the river once more. That's not before a couple of great vista's have come and gone: behind one, out towards the ocean or of the valley itself with a rather big waterfall.

Once back near the stream itself, there are a number of hot springs, on the west bank, it's very evident by the steam. One can bypass these boiling hot pots including a few muddy ones. If into mud take a sample to use once cooled down!


This is easy soaking territory. You predecessors have already enhanced the soaking opportunities with the construction of small dams, making small pools up to half a meter deep.

Small world

My visit was on an eery snow laden day. The track up was do-able, but once beyond the ridges, the track was barely visible under the snow. And out to sea more snow threatened. So taking the trail up, soaking and heading back down it was all done in a rush.
Despite the adverse weather conditions, there were still a few other soakers in Reykjadalur. 

All that was needed to make a great soak, was to make a choice of pool: your predecessors have constructed small dams making 30-50 cm deep pools. Helped on by differing temperatures, one could take a soak in the white landscape.

Despite the lack of gawkers, todays dress code was well-dressed? 

If one continues onwards, a left turn brings one to the hot spring of Klambragil. Further up the valley a shelter used to exist, while the other valleys nearby also have their own springs, not sure what their soaking qualities are though.

In summer many tour companies organize activities in the hills above the village: cycling, hiking, horse-riding. Naturally all expecting to finish with a soak!


Otherwise
There's plenty of info on Reykjadalur and the other hot springs nearby, fear not. For instance Gonguferdir.net has a couple of photo's plus a link to a walking track, great to download on your mobile whatever electronic device: if need be, you can seek advice.


Other good resources (and reads) are besides already mentioned Throb's trip account are those from Unlocking Kiki and alavigne which describes a good and entertaining entry on a hot spring hunt. 

Note that Reykjadalur is rated as one of Iceland's best soaking sites (source).

Finally, in Snaeland & Sigurbjörnsdóttir's Icelandic soaking bible, the authors have separate chapters on Klambragil and Rjúpnabrekkur / Varma. 
They describe ways of getting to both (they note an alternative way from the Hellisheiði power station) and have pointers on temperature; in Klambragil these of course they can vary, while at Rjúpnabrekkur temperatures are a little low, 33C.


Note:
Snaeland, J.G. & Þ. Sigurbjörnsdóttir (2010) Thermal pools in Iceland. Skrudda, Reykjavik, Iceland

Euro soaks visited