Friday, November 13th, 7 to 9 PM at Peterborough Collegiate and Vocational School, Peterborough.
We hope some of you can make it …
This, sadly for us, is the final entry detailing our travels. We will post in the weeks coming of our reflections on the year now that we’ve been home for almost 2 months.
Kaia wrote most of a very detailed blog about Iceland’s history, language and other key cultural elements as well as some of our activities. But alas …. the web version of WordPress is also glitchy, and the 90% of her entry vapourized. Agh! She was leaving for camp that day so she’s left it to me to redo the entry. Cam
Thanks “mormor” for your guest appearance on our blog last entry. You noticed things that I didn’t even see! I will emphasize different things in my entry here.
Iceland has always seemed rather “epic” in my mind. Everything about it seemed exaggerated; waterfalls, hot pools, volcanic activity, remoteness, midnight sun … and I never met someone who’d been there that wasn’t really taken with the country. It seemed like a fitting “last stop” on our journey this year. We were especially looking forward to the long days; the very northern tip of Iceland is just slightly north of the Arctic Circle and we would be there on the longest day of the year. We were also looking forward to having mormor along for this leg of the journey. She had already been to Iceland, twice, but wanted to experience it with us.
Iceland was first visited by Roman sailers in the 3rd century AD – likely blown off course. They did not settle though. Celtic monks followed in the early 800s. Permanent settlement was begun by Norwegians and Celts in 874, when Infolfu Arnarson named his settlement “Reykjavik” which translates to “smoking harbour” (smoke from hotsprings). Sixty years later (930) the settlers formed a government (Alþingi) that is now recognized by some historians as the earliest example of democratic government. Most early settlers were fleeing strife in Norway – their king sounds like he wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with. These people were vikings, and most of them worshiped Norse gods. Around the year 1000, King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway threatened to attack Iceland if they didn’t adopt Christianity, and at that year’s parliament, they took on the new religion … en masse!
Much of Iceland’s history is full of internal and to an extent, external conflict. Early settlement’s family stories are told through “sagas” which were written in the 1300 and 1400s (writing had now taken hold) about events 200-300 years earlier. Families feuded, and conflicts often ended brutally. But the sagas describe things rather matter-of-factly, so make for some rather surreal reading. People are identified by their settlement areas (eg. Cameron Jackson of Peterborough arrived at midnight to avenge the earlier slaying of his brother. But along the path he met Kaia Cameronsdottir who dissuaded him ….) Yes, my dad’s name was Jack, and Icelanders still identify their children through the father, though even this tradition is facing some challenges among the newest generation of parents in Iceland).
Some other historical highlights include:
Betty has already described our journey – 1 week with a camper, out and around the Snæfellsness peninsula then out and back along the south coast. We could have done the classic circumnavigation route (1400km) but didn’t want to spend all our time driving.
Instead of a diary sort of approach, I’ll instead use the photos to help make some impressions and tell some stories.
From the Snæfellsness peninsula we returned through Reykjavik and set out around the “Golden Circle”. I don’t think many tourists to Iceland have NOT done this famed loop.
The basault columns at Svartifoss above really looked like organ pipes. We had hiked up from the popular glacier tour center of Skaftafell. There were all sorts of glacier outings in including ice climbing and full day traverses, but costs were exorbitant. At this point in our trip, we felt like we had experienced lots of high adrenaline adventure (for much less money!) so were quite happy to simply set off on a hike.
Our final destination in our week journey was the Westman Islands (“Vestmanaeyjar”). Settlement of this archipelago of small islands got off to a rather notorious start when a group of slaves from Ireland killed their captain/master Hjörleifr (he apparently didn’t treat them terribly well). They escaped and settled on what is now known as Heimaey island in the group. Recall that justice in early Iceland was retributive. Hjörleifr’s brother Ingólfr found the Irish slaves and slaughtered them all. From that point on (875 AD) the islands have been known as Westman Islands, because the Irish were referred to as Westmen by the Norwegians to their East.
Settlers of the Westman Islands had a tough life, living on fish and puffin eggs which they collected from the cliffs. Puffin numbers are now in sharp decline so egg collection has all but stopped, but most of the uninhabited Westman islands have a single cabin that was used by the puffin egg collectors. I snapped the photo below as we approached Heimaey Island after the 45 minute ferry ride from the mainland.
The Westman Islands are notorious for another reason: their recent volcanic activity. Surtsey island rose out of the ocean in 1963, and in 1973 Heimaey Island hit the world media map when an enormous eruption started. There were 5000 inhabitants of the island at the time, and most were evacuated. A few remained to “fight” the lava flow using a previously untested technique of pumping cold ocean water onto the advancing face of the flow. The eruption lasted 6 months and literally consumed about 20% of the town, but the water pumpers were able to slow the advance and were able to protect the harbour from becoming completely closed off. The eruptions added 2.5 km² of new land to the small island, including our campsite.
We were a bit overdue for a shower, and this becomes an issue with 5 people living in a small camper. So we headed off to the swimming pool in Heimaey and discovered to our delight a fantastic outdoor play area.
The Westman Islands had proved to be well worth the “detour”, and our family never minds a ride on the ferry. The island really speaks to the remoteness, resourcefulness and courage of the early and more recent Icelandic setters.
Our final day back to Reykjavik involved further exploration of Iceland’s volcanic reality. Most people know that homes in Reykjavik are heated with geothermally warmed water, but I was surprised to learn that a whopping 96% of buildings across the entire country are heated this way! 26% of the country’s electricity comes from geothermal power stations, and I wanted to see what such a thing looks like, so we stopped at the Hellisheiði power station – one of 5 in the country.
Iceland power recently built quite a spectacular visitor center at the power station and we quickly found ourselves on a guided tour.
Geothermal power appears quite environmentally benign but there are increasing concerns about the impact of steam extraction on geologic stability – much the same as concern over small earthquakes around area of intense oil/gas fracking. Speaking of concerns in Iceland about electricity consumption, I learned of quite an interesting controversy that unfolded earlier last decade. 26% of electrical power in Iceland is geothermal – the rest is hydro power, so 100% of electricity is renewable, and there are many more untapped rivers in the country. The government decided about 10 yrs ago to diversify the economy by attracting large foreign investment aluminum smelters with cheap electricity. Bauxite ore would be brought from half way around the world to Iceland, processed on the coast, then shipped as aluminum to market. The new hydro project and associated smelter was sited in a very economically depressed (“desperate”, according to the government) area and was to help bring Iceland into “the modern age”. It became a flash point for contrasting notions of development and huge protests greeted every step of the project. Environmentalists believed that the hydro power should be exploited on smaller scales and used to power locally-grown industry like the electrically-lit and geothermally-heated greenhouses that are supplying an increasing percentage of the county’s vegetables. Icelanders pride in their wilderness and self sufficiency. Ultimately though, 5 massive dams were constructed (“Kárahnjúkar”), 70km of penstocks were drilled out by the Italians, a huge powerhouse was built by the Germans and the American Alcoa Aluminum company completed their smelter in 2008.
A second similar dam/smelter has just come online further north in the country, though the controversy and conflict persist.
By the way, the reason they zig zag steam pipes is because the heating and contracting of the pipes causes expansion and compression, and the zig zag takes up the associated stress. Pretty elaborate solution though, huh?
We didn’t spend time in Reykjavik when we arrived so did leave the later part of an afternoon and evening to explore a bit.
We had some time in the early evening to explore the many walking streets of Reykjavik.
I took some time to browse through a great little music store. I’d come to appreciate that Iceland has a vibrant music scene, and is rather over represented by new young talent internationally. I’m now enjoying my 2014 indie sampler. Have a look and listen to the popular folk band Árstíðir here.
We enjoyed the strong sun above the horizon when we left the restaurant at 11PM and found our way to the trail head of our midnight hike. Betty bid us farewell as we set off to celebrate the longest night of the year with a midnight hike. At 64° N latitude (just shy of the arctic circle), the sun set at about 1AM and rose again at 4AM, but it stayed light the entire night.
It felt fitting to end our journey with a hike. It is something we all enjoy doing, and we’d hiked in every country we visited this year, save a couple. Hiking was also the activity that gave us time “apart” … if you consider 10 or 20 steps “apart”. On a journey of 10 months where we were mostly within a few feet of each other 24 hrs a day, a few meters of separation for quiet contemplation was often welcome.
We grabbed 3 or 4 hrs sleep then headed back to Reykjavik to a swimming/bathing pool. The low but strong morning sun felt great as we lounged in the many different hot pools and the one VERY cold pool. A good soak seemed like a fitting way to prepare ourselves for the long journey home.
We’d really enjoyed Iceland. It was so different than anything else we’d seen or done this year. The people were gregarious in the best sense of the world. I would love to see more, but I have to say I found Iceland prohibitively expensive. A week was all we could afford, and with the exception of the camper costs, we were doing everything low budget. It is so expensive, in fact, that Stein travels once a year to the USA to shop. He buys electronics, clothes, toys and other stuff for the family, and the savings compared to Iceland purchase easily pay for the round trip. Iceland is of course rather remote, but that alone does not explain the exceptionally high cost of living. Maybe a reader can fill me in by leaving a comment.
The smiling faces of Canadian Immigration and Customs officers were so welcome at Pearson airport, but our taxi driver to my mom’s house in Etobicoke was over the top grumpy when we crammed the four of us and our luggage (which now included a bicycle trailer) into his car. “Why didn’t you hire a van?” We bid Betty farewell at the entrance to the brand new rail link that connects the 3 Pearson terminals to each other and to downtown (built for the PanAm games) and felt sorry for her need for one more ongoing flight to Ottawa -we were exhausted.
Yes, it felt great to be back in Canada, and to see mom again and sleep in familiar beds.
But I have no idea how to end this blog entry. How do you close this year? Yes, we are home, but the journey lives on in our minds, chatter, emails and activities each day. Thanks to our readers for staying with us this far. And talk to you next week.
This entry is written by a guest blogger; Yvonne’s mother, Betty.
The family suggested that mormor meet them on Aunt Marianne and Onkel Børge’s farm “Gyldenlund”, in Denmark. Douglases and Betty Leicht flew together to Reykjavik from Copenhagen. They picked up a camping van that could sleep 6 and successfully slept 5. It was a test for mormor, but Jake and Kaia found it a luxury not to pitch the tent nightly. Good protection from wind and cold. Duvets were provided.
Betty writes: I met an Icelander in Maryland, USA, in March, Steinn Steinsson. He provided good advice to our questions and he could keep some of our baggage (i.e. tent, bicycle trailer, and camping equipment) while we drove around in the camper with a minimum. And he lent us a folding table and a couple of chairs. When we left “stuff” at his house, and a week later picked it up, they had baked bread for us and fed us Icelandic–one example is dried “hard fish” eaten like potato chips with butter. Thank you, Steinn and family.
Cam did all the driving. He and Yvonne took turns making meals with food purchased in grocery stores. With some imported food, much in Iceland is local—dairy products, vegetables grown in geothermal greenhouses, meat, fish, bakery goods. We had most meals in the camper, but ate outside when possible.
White Nights kept us up late and we slept until 8:30 or 9 am. The beds were comfortable. I fell asleep quickly every night. I am an ‘up once in the night’ lady. I practiced holding my bladder and became good at it. I would wait until another person stirred because I needed help getting out and in and sliding the door closed (needed to be slammed). Climbing into the van and also out was a strain on my right knee and the rest of me!
I had heard that Iceland took a major decision a few years ago to import Alaskan Lupine. It adapts well to the climate and soil. We did occasionally see wild countryside with steep slopes of the tall blue flowers.
I also photographed the intriguing and charming local flowers. In the pictures they look big, but most flowers are smaller than your little fingernail. They rush to bloom in the cold, bright days of spring.
The birds are nesting. First thing in the morning and late in the evening, we were charmed by the varied bird chorus. Because there are few ground predators, a tern nests on the ground. We saw many as we parked near a glacier lake with icebergs. Tourist busses drove a circle around the nesting meadow. The birds were used to the traffic, but not the curious tourists who wanted many and closer pictures. The protective male swooped and warned the humans to pull back. We saw a tern draw blood on an onlookers head.
We drove through dramatic, spectacular countryside. We saw black beaches, ocean views, and sheep with lambs on uneven terrain. We could spot the mother ewe and her lamb (one or two). The sheep spread out in the large fenced areas. Tiny lambs followed the mothers. But my surprising observation was that lambs did not nestle close to Mom. They lay down facing her and she settled some metres away. I wished them warmth, but instead independence was an early lesson. Horses had foaled. All are “Icelandic Horses”; varied colouring, sturdy stature, elegant long manes and tails. No other horse is allowed in the country and if a horse is taken out for international competition or to be sold or bred, it cannot ever return to Iceland.
We explored phenomena of Iceland. The camper gave us freedom and possibilities. We were frequently calling out “foss” whenever we saw a waterfall. Gullfoss is the greatest and part of the Golden Circle which includes the original geyser and the earliest parliament “Thingvellir” the place for annual meetings and rule-making gatherings through the centuries. Another blogger will tell of the tectonic plates at that place.
Steam seen often was evidence of geothermal vents and action. The plant, making electricity from natural hot water steam, is where I got my best picture of our van called Lava.
A unique institution in Iceland is their geothermal warm swimming pools. The temperatures are kept the same summer and winter. Even small towns have pools. Pools and hot tubs are marked with the Celsius degrees of the water. Every Icelander knows how to bathe before swimming, and the rules are clearly explained. We campers appreciated the two to three hours we cleaned up, soaked and played–four different times. The slides and tunnels added fun. The most imaginative was a long slide with tunnel that dropped the person onto a trampoline slide and then into the water.
We took a ferry to the Westman Island of Heimaey. Bringing the camper meant we had our lodging, kitchen, and dining room. We drove from the port through town and up, up. It was very windy and cold. It was also late. We learned the next day about the volcanic eruption of Eldfell in 1973. We actually had slept on the lava flow (no vegetation) near the source of the eruption. The Volcano Museum told us much and showed a house that had been excavated for the museum. The island’s population had been successfully evacuated to the mainland as the eruption continued many months.
Our last night June 20 was Kaia, Jake, Cam, and Yvonne’s chance to celebrate the Summer solstice by walking up a mountain in never-ending twilight . They were “home” again at 2 in the morning and slept–starting our longest day which would end in Canada.
For the vast majority of the trip, we were in places we’d never been. Only Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand, Bali and Switzerland had some of us been to before. So it was great to finish our cycle tour at Gyldenlund, my mom’s aunt Marianne and uncle Boerge’s farm in northern Sealand, Denmark. My mom has been there at least 20 times (her father was Marianne’s brother), and it was Kaia’s and my fifth time there. It’s a beautiful farm, with lots of animals and vegetable gardens, and borders one of Denmark’s biggest forests, and with a train station really close by (1 hr to Copenhagen).
When we arrived on our bikes, we met Marianne and Boerge, and my Mormor (Danish way to say “mother’s mother”), who we hadn’t seen since we left in September. We spent a week on the farm, and had lots of fun. I’ll keep this blog post short, so here are photos of some of the highlights.
Being at Gyldenlund was really fun, and was a great change of pace from finding our way in new, unknown places, what we’d been doing for the past 9 and a half months. It was great to see Marianne and Boerge again, and Bruno all grown up (he was a puppy the last time we visited), and to see my favourite country in Europe, Denmark.
We plan do a public presentation in Peterborough in mid to late September. If you are not already signed up to automatically receive new blog entries and you would like to know the date and time of the presentation, then click on the dark green FOLLOW rectangle at the bottom left corner of the green panel on the left side. You will be sent the info via blog entry in September.
Thirty-eight days and 1700+km of cycle touring in Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and Denmark left us a little bit fitter and a lot more fired up about the possibilities of creative urban planning. We were impressed and inspired by the ubiquitous and well-planned bicycle infrastructure. I’ve been to Copenhagen many times and know that it has a unique and thriving bicycle culture, but this time, seeing it from the saddle of a bicycle was really eye-opening. Sometimes it was a little overwhelming to be on a downtown cycle path with so many other cyclists – I felt like a new driver who needs to be super vigilant about the surrounding traffic. Since there are often 2 lanes in each direction on the bike paths and many users, one has to be aware of oncoming cyclists, when and where to pass, making sure to follow traffic signals, and maintaining the flow of traffic (don’t just stop to look at a map or road sign because someone may rear-end you!) That said, our overall impression of cycling in all of these countries was that we felt SAFE. Why? Because the infrastructure was in place, often in the form of bicycle paths that are physically separated from the driving lanes and clearly paved in a different colour. When we needed to share the road, drivers were very considerate, leaving us ample room when passing. Probably because they are cyclists themselves and know how it feels to be the more vulnerable road user.
With so much emphasis on bicycles, there is of course a need for good and convenient bike parking facilities.
Many families in both Denmark and Holland own “cargo bikes” (50,000 in Copenhagen alone!) and about a quarter report that it is a direct replacement for a car. We saw many children being transported in the cargo area as well as dogs, groceries, and boyfriends!
Cam made sure we visited the planning departments in Groningen and Copenhagen to learn about their cycling strategies. Let’s just say they are light years ahead of anyone else in our part of the world.
Groningen is a city of about 225 000 in the north of Holland. It has a little more than twice the population of our city, Peterborough, but is similar in that both are university towns with vibrant art scenes. Groningen has a younger population than Peterborough and a long, strong history of cycling. A full 60% of journeys there are done by bicycle! (In our hometown, it’s only about 4%). This makes Goningen the unnoficial cycling capital of the world in terms of highest modal share of trips on cycle. The literature we picked up at the planning department revealed that the reasons for promoting cycling have little to do with the environment and mostly to do with health, quality of life, and the economy. Their stated goals are to:
Of course, reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions through the use of bicycles and public transportation contribute to improved health of the citizens (and the planet). Nowhere does anyone suggest eliminating cars from the mix, just increasing the modal share of cycling, walking, public transportation, and carpooling. In that way, people who need to drive can continue to do so without requiring major new road constructions (because many people will choose the cheaper, healthier, more sustainable, and, in Groningen, more convenient options).
The following photos were taken in central Copenhagen at 4:30pm on a weekday. How many cars can you count?
In the Copenhagen cycling strategy, they share the results of a socio-economic analysis of different forms of transportation. I don’t know exactly how they calculated this, but they say that riding a bicycle downtown during rush hour results in a net profit for society of 0.49 Euro, whereas taking a car results in a net loss of 0.89 Euro. I assume it is based on the reduced wear and tear on the roads by bikes, reduced congestion, as well as the significant health benefits of active transportation. Conversely, obesity and its associated societal costs are notably higher among those who drive a car. Based on that, what city or municipality can afford NOT to promote cycling?
Every new development in these cities we visited (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Groningen and Copenhagen) takes into consideration the needs of citizens to get around quickly, safely, and comfortably. Transit and cycling infrastructure are key. There were some really amazing details in their planning that blew us away:
The level of cooperation and creative problem solving is phenomenal. All I can say is, “Wow!”
We are feeling motivated now to help BE THE CHANGE in Peterborough. Last weekend, there was an event called “Peterborough Pulse” and on Saturday morning from 9 until 1, they closed a 3km portion of our downtown streets to car traffic. Imagine that! For four hours, people strolled and biked along the car-less streets, and many community organisations set up booths with information or activities. Kaia volunteered to set one up to share photos and information from our trip and ask participants what they would like to see in Peterborough with respect to active transportation. Our whole family got involved! Kaia (and I) baked about 200 bicycle-shaped cookies which were given out in exchange for the ideas. We had icing and candies so kids could decorate them. Cam chose some of our best photos of cycling infrastructure, printed them, and made a binder. Jake was there on the day to help set up, elicit responses, and help kids decorate cookies. It was a great event and, we hope, a first step towards a more pedestrian and cycle friendly downtown.
Recall that back in September, one of our first stops was Portland, Oregon, a city that has become the most bicycle-friendly one in North America. Cam wrote a blog about our 2-wheeled experiences there called Pedaling in Portland. We certainly have many lessons to learn from them — not least of all, PATIENCE.
In her book about the process, former Portland Bicycle Program Coordinator, Mia Birk wrote, “Behavioural change takes time. It has taken close to a generation to teach people to place their bottles, cans, paper and plastic in recycling bins. It will take a generation or more to integrate bicycling and walking into daily life, but only if we get rolling.” (Joyride, p.144)
So… here’s to getting rolling!
If you follow our blog at all regularly, you will realise that we haven’t made it home yet in our blog, and there has been a long lull in our writing. We indeed are settled, or I should say settling back into our home. We’ve been too busy unpacking, planting the vegetable garden and visiting with family and friends to write. But we are looking forward to writing about our final few weeks in Europe/Iceland. Cam.
Wind power. Love it, or hate it. Controversy abounding about this energy source seems to have polarised people’s views. Here in Ontario, most of us talk about wind power in the abstract sense – few of us live within sight of wind farms. But there were very few places during our cycle through northern Germany where you couldn’t see a wind turbine. In fact, for much of our cycling in this region, we could see vast wind farms – with so many turbines that I had to stop my bike to be able to count. I got up past 40 once before I gave up. And I, for one, like to count wind turbines (just ask my kids).
If you have no interest in renewable energy and just want to know where we cycled and what we did, you can skip down to just above the map below. Otherwise, read on about the world leader in renewable energy …
Germany in general and northern Germany in particular (that’s where the wind blows best) has seen a HUGE growth in wind power over the past 15 years. It is in part due to the dominant political climate in this part of the world that looks towards renewable energy for energy self sufficiency, and that actually cares enough about climate change to do something substantial and ambitious to reduce emissions. But the German story is something much more than this and it deserves a bit of attention. I had intended to write a fairly substantial piece on the German renewable energy story, but in light of the fact that my last entry (green Freiburg) was rather long and thick in content, I will stay short here in hopes that one or two readers will still peruse my entries :).
Germans have always been uneasy about nuclear energy, though they leaned heavily on it in the late 1900s. They also relied heavily on coal – some domestic and much imported. Oil and natural gas were imported. Hydro is all but non existent. And of course, Germany’s well known manufacturing base is hungry for electricity. A visionary in the late 1990s by the name of Herman Shear (passed away just a couple years ago) started agitating for a renewable future for Germany and by the early 2000s (he was then an MP) his plan was really taking hold. The cornerstone of his “Energiewende” (energy turnaround) plan is the Feed In Tariff (FIT). Under the FIT, independent renewable power producers were guaranteed access to Germany’s electricity grid, and were given 20 year fixed price production contracts. Their price per kWhr of generation depended on the technology. Roof-top solar PV got the most, ground-mounted solar next, industrial scale solar next, wind and biomass next most. The prices were set to provide significant incentives for producers to invest, and recognised the different build costs of the technologies. The prices also reflected the reality that solar produces when it is needed the most (mid day) and the idea that roof tops were otherwise useless areas (whereas fields and yards can and should be used for other things). In all cases, purchase prices were more than what the Germany utilities were selling for – so it was subsidised as green energy, and as a significant job creator. Importantly, the purchase prices dropped over the year to reflect dropping production and installation costs.
Germany had very ambitious targets for wind and solar PV. And in every case, they blew their targets out of the water. They would reach the 5 year goal in the 1st year, for example. They would surpass the entire EU target all by themselves. Superlatives abound. Money poured into solar and wind manufacturing, and new green collar job creation boomed. Germany had, in only a half decade, established itself as the world leader in renewable energy policy, technology and manufacturing. They are now surpassed only by the USA and China in terms of new production coming on, but these two economies are of course much larger than Germany’s. And almost all of this growth owes to the FIT.
Dalton McGuinty’s liberal government in Ontario took note of Germany’s success and in 2008 created a Green Energy Act that was modelled very closely on the German approach. We too call our incentive the FIT. In fact, Ontario Environment and Energy officials toured Germany and met with Herman Shear in their research. So if any Ontario readers wonder where all the roof top solar PV and the steady growth in wind power comes from …. thank (or scold, if that’s where your politics are) Herman Shear and his progressive colleagues. Yvonne and I installed 15kW of solar PV on our two roofs 5 years ago. We produce much more than we use on an average day. On a sunny summer day, the two roofs produce 90kWhrs, while our (one) house uses 5kWhrs. Our investment will pay itself off in a year or two from now. The rooftop solar PV (micro)FIT started at 82 cents/kWhr (we got in then). I believe it is now down in the 35 cent range. This drop recognises the substantial drop in equipment cost and installation efficiency – which is another sign of success.
Anyone who reads the word “subsidised energy” might rightly worry about rising electricity costs. Germans were worried. In the end though, the cost of electricity in Germany related to the FIT program rose by only about $50/yr for an average household. This was the cost of vast improvement in energy security, weaning off nuclear power, and tens of thousands of new high paying jobs. It is worth noting that after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, Germany decided to close out all nuclear power – even if the plant had service life left. This has ironically resulted in a return to domestic coal power (and increase in CO2) while the country awaits further roll out of solar, wind and biomass power.
We met many Germans during our travels this year. I would ask them what they made of their renewable energy leadership. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), most did not know they were leaders. And also surprisingly, most that did know just laughed, and told the story of the huge offshore wind farm in the north sea that ran out of money before the electrical cable that connected the turbines to the shore (grid) could be installed. They were hugely cynical. I asked some Germans in Germany about this and they acknowledged that they are cynics by nature and are their own worst critics. There is some push back against the FIT in Germany for sure, but the basic approach steams ahead.
OK, I’m done on the FIT. And YES, this is my short story! 🙂 Those with an interest in the German story should read Chris Turner’s “The Leap”.
Jake’s Holland blog leaves us hunkering down during a huge wind and rain storm in a fabulous little greenhouse that we found in a little campground on the east coast of Holland.
We made our way to the town’s harbour to take the ferry across the Eems inlet the next morning and discovered a large group of people waiting to board some zodiacs. Their leader was wearing a t-shirt with “Hansa Green Tour” written on the back.
This of course caught my interest! I learned that these energy professionals were touring solar, wind and biogas sites across Germany and Denmark and were meeting with local officials to study policy approaches. I then found the trip description on their website and laughed when I noted that the tour gave a prize to the participant with the lowest transportation carbon footprint. Charging stations for electrical vehicles had been mapped out across the route, and a tow truck was following the tour in the event that a participant ran out of charge. A significant portion of the participants were apparently driving Teslas, and the rest “just” regular lower end electrical vehicles! Welcome to northern Europe!! The tour was in town (Delfzijl) to see Holland’s latest huge wind farm that was built on the shore of the inlet.
The journey across the Eems inlet that separates northern Friesland (Holland) from Northwest Germany took only about 30 minutes.
Emden turned out to be a fabulous little city. The inner port was dotted with maritime museums, the tall ship above, and a great little fast food fish stand where we gorged on lunch. A large international film festival was starting the next day, and walking streets and cafés abounded. We spent most of the afternoon trying to line up tours of a wind turbine manufacturing plant and an actual wind turbine. On the latter, you can climb 60 or so metres up a wind tower to an observation deck located just below the nacelle.
They were however not offering the tour during our time frame. I know this because I used google translate to translate back and forth emails about 3 times with their German-only speaking contact 🙂 I was very persistent with our contact at Enercon’s HUGE production facility in Aurich and managed to get us a tour at 9AM the next morning. Aurich was about 40km away though so we needed to set off in the late afternoon from Emden.
I used the satellite photo feature on google maps to locate a forest right near the Enercon production facility in Aurich. We weren’t too sure how discreet the forest site would be for camping so planned our arrival to have just enough light to set up the tent before jumping in (yes, that’s about 11PM!).
We camped only 1.5 km from the Enercon factory so thought that the 15 minutes we’d left to get there would be ample. But it turns out that the “factory” is actually a huge campus of factories and support buildings, all with significant security, so it took quite a while to navigate to our tour desk. The four us met with 2 other Enercon employees visiting from their Spanish operation and our very energetic and extremely knowledgeable guide, Timo. Unfortunately, cameras are not permitted inside the buildings for competitive/security reasons. I say unfortunately, because the visuals of the production of 55m turbine blades in different stages of manufacture are really quite breathtaking. This facility produces blades for their 3MW Enercon 121 turbine model, which means that the rotor diameter is 121m. The hub sits atop towers that are anywhere from 100 to 150m high! Enercon makes blades for their other turbine sizes in 9 other factories around the world (though 6 of them are in Germany). Their largest, with blades 70m long sitting on 135m towers crank out an amazing 7.5MW. One of Enercon’s competitive advantages is that their blades can be “feathered” in high winds (change the pitch) so that they don’t need to be shut down like some competitors’ do (they DO need to be shut down above 30m/s which is storm like). The generators that sit in the hubs were produced in the next factory over, and the towers and hubs in other facilities in northern Germany. Enercon bought the local train company outright so they could customise it to get their blades to the port 45km away. This business is not for the faint of heart!
The factory is massive, of course, and was a hive of activity. Blade manufacture is still done almost entirely by humans. In this case, 3 shifts of 300 workers work around the clock, producing 1 blade per shift. So that is blades for 1 turbine each and every day. There were about 35 stations that the blades moved through … and at 55m long you can imagine that the task of moving the blades from station to station is not insignificant! Blades are a combination of fibreglass, resin, and lightweight plywood. And when spinning at such high velocities, there is no room for error.
Our guide was full of great anecdotes, and quite enjoyed describing his ultimate boss, the Enercon owner/founder, Aloys Wobben. This fellow is now relinquishing control due to his age, but he is apparently both very laid back on the shop floor (wanders around, just watching and smiling, blending in) and very demanding of his team. In earlier years he would be working on design issues at home on a Sunday, and when he thought he had a break-through he’d call up his senior team to come over to the house to provide feedback on the new idea. Telling him that you’re in the middle of Sunday dinner with your family was not an option!
Eventually the tour moved outside and I was able to pull out my camera.
I was impressed by many things on the tour. But mostly I came to realise how complicated, high tech and large scale (physically) the wind turbine industry is.
From Aurich we continued east across northern Germany … right into an Enercon wind farm!
A full afternoon of canal-side pedalling brought us to near Varel where we camped. At this point we actually had a “deadline” to arrive at Yvonne’s Aunt and Uncle’s farm in Denmark where they and Yvonne’s mom would be waiting for us. Sadly, we were out of time for riding in Germany so planned to catch the train across the rest of northern Germany, then north from Lubeck to the tip of the penninsula at Puttgarden where we’d catch a ferry north to Denmark.
This would normally be quite straight forward, even though the trip involved 4 different train connections. However, it became pretty clear to us the next day on our first train leg out of Varel that this was not just any day. It was Friday afternoon of a weekend with a beautiful forecast! We could barely move with our bikes amidst the throngs of travellers at the Oldenburg train station and wondered how we could possibly fit into the next train with our bikes – especially in light of the many other folks standing beside us with their bikes. At that point a Deutsch Bahn official approached us and asked us if we’d made a booking for our bikes on the intercity train. No, we hadn’t, and now it was impossible because they were all sold out, and you have to reserve at least 24 hrs in advance. That meant we’d need to take a series of regional trains, and our journey would extend from 7 hrs to 9 hrs, including the many waits at stations. Lesson learned. For anyone planning to take bikes on trains in Germany, here’s how it works:
Intercity Express trains: no bikes allowed
Intercity trains: reservations required
Regional trains: no reservation req’d, but sometimes you need to pay for bikes
We arrived in the port of Puttgarden at 9PM and quickly cycled to the ferry terminal to see if we could catch the 9:20 ferry to Denmark. Just in time.
The 1hr journey put us into Rødbyhavn Denmark a little later than we’d wanted to be looking for camping (10:30PM), but we were excited to get to Denmark. Yvonne’s late father Flemming was Danish and her mother Betty is an honourable Dane – she speaks Danish, cooks Danish, thinks Danish, and has visited Denmark probably 40 times. Yvonne travelled to Denmark almost every summer as a child, and the kids and I have been 4 times, thanks to Yvonne’s Dad’s desire for his family to stay connected to this fantastic part of the world. Making this all possible over the years was Flemming’s sister Marianne’s wonderful farm 1hr north of Copenhagen where we would stay. More on that in a later blog entry.
We weren’t really too sure what we could find campsite-wise in the falling darkness, but after 5km of rather random cycling we stumbled into the absolutely perfect freedom campsite – in a little park surrounded by thick forest, with a picnic table to boot!
We had about 210km to cycle to the farm, and decided to try to do it in 2 days. We’d been talking about putting in a really full day to try to beat our best day from Holland, and this seemed to be the day.
As soon as we hit the road we knew we’d chosen the right day to ride … we had the wind at our back, and were riding between 25 and 30 km/hr for long stretches of lovely bike path. Yes, Denmark too has fantastic cycling infrastructure, and Yvonne and I had cycled through Denmark when she was pregnant with Kaia and knew we’d be treated to highway-side paths all the way.
Yvonne had popped a spoke the day before and it became apparent that we had to have it fixed, but didn’t want to lose too much time on our record distance attempt day. A very obliging guy in a bike shop in Vordingsborg fixed it for free while we dined on sandwiches at the edge of the supermarket parking lot, then away we went.
We’d done 60 km by lunch, and were feeling pretty good until we hit a really hilly and side-windy section of about 20 km. Record-setting was in doubt until things levelled out again and we got the speed back up. We watched our previous best of 104 km roll by with a whoop, then 110, and cruised into Køge on the coast at 120. But by the time we’d cycled around the port, found dinner, and another freedom campsite, the odometer looked like below.
We’d actually decided to take a campsite that night to charge our google map-enabled phone, but they wanted about $40 for a little piece of grass. We all agreed that we could probably get enough charge into the phone during a bakery stop the next morning :), so we headed to another urban forest.
We got an early start the next day because we still had a long way to go and wanted to arrive in time for dinner at the farm. It was a fairly non-descript sort of day/ride, though I very clearly remember our lunch – that we made on a table just outside a fabulous bakery (OK, yes, I’m obsessed …). We cycled north past the western outskirts of Copenhagen and finally hit recognisable turf in the city of Hillerød. Aside from having all the great attributes of Danish towns (like walking streets, cycle shops and bakeries), Hillerød is known for Frederiksborg castle built on top of the ruins of a 1500s castle during the early 1600s by Danish King Christian IV.
We were pretty excited at this point. We had but 25km of cycling left to reach the farm, and we knew it was all through a large beautiful (Gribskov) forest. The well-marked gravel paths would take us right to the farm gate, and we knew the last few km very well.
We found the tiny path that cuts off the cycle trail towards the farm and all started ringing our bells to announce our arrival. Børge and chocolate lab Bruno were the 1st out, then Betty and Marianne as we rode the last 100m through their field. Their farm feels like a 3rd home to us.
Earlier in the year’s journey, I had wondered whether our cycle tour through a relatively familiar Europe could hold a candle to the exotic locales of Nepal, Indonesia and Vanuatu. Of course, they are very different, but the cycling was everything and more than I’d hoped for. We rode very well as a family and Kaia and Jake really found their legs. We had only 1 flat tire and 1 popped spoke over seven weeks on four bikes. We ate well. Yvonne and I drank well. The depth of history and the associated architecture astounded us. It was wonderful to reconnect with friends we’d met during other journeys. We were so independent, being able to easily get anywhere we wanted, and because we were willing to freedom camp, we spent no time worrying about or planning where we’d stay each night. We were outside 98% of the time, including sleeping in our tent all but a few nights. We were active, and became fit. But perhaps what stands out the most was the inspiration we all received by the remarkable initiatives the Germans, Dutch and Danes have put in place to help people get out of their cars and on to bicycles. It truly is a pleasure to cycle in this part of the world. We included this part of the world in our journey because we wanted to see and document their leadership in sustainable transportation and renewable energy. I did not get as far as I wanted to in documenting the energy story, in part because of the language gap for me in Germany. But we were (excuse the tired expression) blown away by the cycling and public transit infrastructure. After weeks of riding, when we thought we’d seen it all, we’d each day discover new innovations that made our heads race, thinking of possibilities back home. Yvonne will pick up on this thread in our next entry.
As I write this a full 5 weeks after completing our journey, my knees still keep me off my bike. But I trust they will heal soon with more rest, and I’m rearing to hit the trails and roads around Peterborough and Haliburton. Cycling rocks!
“Amsterdam is one of those iconic cities” said my dad as we rode into the city one afternoon after a very windy 50 km ride from Utrecht. Amsterdam first caught my interest when I read the book and watched the movie of The Fault in our Stars by John Green, which partly takes place there. And I can say that our visit to Amsterdam was at least as magical and beautiful as John Green portrayed it.
We are very lucky to have a friend in Amsterdam, who lives about 10 minutes by bike from the city centre. We met Saskia when we lived in Namibia. She was also there through VSO (Volunteer Services Oversees), and was living in the nearest city, Rundu. We stayed with Jelda, (also a VSO in Rundu) in Utrecht, and then with Saskia in Amsterdam. Lucky us!
Saskia was out when we arrived, but she texted us and suggested a very close Indonesian takeout spot for dinner. We had fun practising our (very limited) Indonesian that we had learned there, with the restaurant owner from Surabaya, Java. We brought the food back to Saskia’s place to eat it. It was delicious! Soon after, Saskia walked in. It was great to see her again!
She lives on the bottom floor of a 4 or 5 storey building close to downtown. Since she is on the bottom floor, she has a big backyard, where we could easily fit our tent (a bit easier than fitting our tent in Jelda’s backyard!) We caught up with Saskia about what we had done since we had last seen each other.
In the morning, Saskia said goodbye to us, because she was going to Belgium for the weekend, and invited us to stay in her apartment longer if we wanted. But before she left, she recommended to us the Rijksmuseum, an art gallery downtown with hundreds of paintings from very famous Dutch painters, like Rembrandt and Van Gogh. To get there, we rode though Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s central park. It was lovely. So many people out for exercise, or just chatting at a picnic bench. Also, there were the people like us, riding our bikes from A to B, and enjoying Vondelpark, at the same time.
When we came out of Vondelpark at the other end, we were in central Amsterdam. We weren’t exactly the “only bikes there”. Amsterdam is known for its bicycles. And no wonder! When we ride our bikes back home in Peterborough, we are almost always the only bikes on the bike lane, when there is a bike lane. So, we don’t have to be so alert. Amsterdam is a very different story… now we are the majority of traffic, not some strange outcast. Now we have traffic rules. Whoa. We will leave that for a separate blog entry. But, I just want to emphasise how many bikes there were. Mind blowing!
Finally, we arrived at the Rijksmuseum (say Rikes museum).
The art gallery is located across the street from a canal, as most of Amsterdam is.
I was blown away at the Realism painting style of the Dutch. I can’t really remember details or names (except Rembrandt and Van Gogh), but I can remember some stories associated with the art.
Rijks museum was very well done. The explanations beside the paintings were very interesting. But the best thing about Rijksmuseum was that there are sheets of paper for almost every piece of art, with a print of that specific painting on it. The print has circles around all the interesting parts of that painting, with explanations on the side. So you could take a sheet, study the painting and find the coolest parts of it. Then, you put the sheet back where you found it. Also, you can download the “Rijksmuseum app”, and listen to even more interpretation.
But we weren’t finished: we still hadn’t checked out the boat exhibit.
Wow… I was surprised to learn that there were so many amazing artists in such a small country. I would recommend Rijksmuseum to anybody who wants to learn interesting things about history, art, or just the Netherlands in general. Everything was really well explained, with just the right amount of detail.
Right behind Rijksmuseum, there is another one of Amsterdam’s landmarks: the I amsterdam letters.
By then it was raining, so some street musicians were performing in the tunnel under Rijksmuseum.
One thing you may know about Amsterdam is that the city has many canals. In fact, all of the Netherlands is full of canals. Amsterdam has many rings of them, with smaller canals connecting the rings.
The best ways to see Amsterdam are by bike and by boat. Since it was raining, we chose a boat tour.
Have you read the book of The Diary of Anne Frank? Actually, I haven’t yet. But she and her Jewish family lived in Amsterdam, in the secret annex of her father’s business during the holocaust. You can visit the Anne Frank house, if you are patient enough to wait in line! But we saw posters about an Anne Frank play, and people had told us that it was very worthwhile and if you see it, you don’t feel like you have to see the Anne Frank house. So, we booked seats for the evening performance. While we were riding there, it started POURING rain! But we were late and had to keep going. At one point, my mom had a very bad fall that still hurts to this day. Finally, google maps said “you have arrived at your destination”. We were in a construction site. We thought that google had sent us to the wrong place altogether, and we had paid a bunch of money for theatre tickets. But, luckily, we looked a bit more in that neighbourhood and found it! The play was about to start, so the people hustled us to some seats near the back right on time.
Since this is a touristy kind of play, there is a VERY slick translation system. The actors are speaking Dutch, but if you want another language, you get a stand that holds an iPad and earphones. You choose between about 8 languages, and audio and/or subtitles, and there you go. Someone behind the scenes is on a screen clicking whenever a line is said, so you hear the lines real time, even if timing varies between actors of the same role. I loved how even in the English translation, you hear the lines spoken in a Dutch accent. Listening to the translation hardly even detracted a bit from the overall experience.
Anne was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1929, but she, her parents and older sister Margot moved to Amsterdam in 1933. In 1942, for Anne’s 13th birthday, she received a diary. But unfortunately, shortly after, her family was forced to go into hiding in the secret annex of her father’s business. A woman named Miep delivered them food and supplies. Soon, 4 other Jews joined them in hiding and they were 8 in the tiny apartment. In her diary, Anne describes the challenges of living in cramped quarters. Since she was so bored, she starts flirting with the other family’s son, Peter. But she gets very tired of him, and he starts really liking her! At one point, she is forced to share her room with a very strange adult man! They would often fight over the table in the room — she wanted to write in her diary, and he wanted to study. The way she dealt with these problems was writing in her diary, because it was her only loyal friend to whom she could tell all her troubles.
Horribly, they were found by some Nazis and were brought to a concentration camp. The Nazis threw her diary on the floor. She and her sister Margot were together until the very end, and they died, probably of typhoid in early 1945. Anne was 15.
The only family member to survive was her father, Otto Frank. The family’s loyal friend Miep found Anne’s diary in the secret annex, and it was first published in 1947.
I really enjoyed that play. It showed the story of the Holocaust from a 14 year old girl’s perspective, which made it easier to understand and relate to for me. The translation system was so slick as well, which made this play really excellent. I highly recommend it. I’m now very interested in reading the book.
By the way, the production has only been on for one year, and it’s just getting started. The theatre it takes place in was built for this play. A few days after we went to it, my grandma emailed us and said that she went to see the Anne Frank play in Stratford, Ontario!
The ride home was a bit sketchy in the dark, but luckily we all made it home safely.
The next day, we were going to ride into the city and explore a bit more before riding out of town. But we were all so exhausted that we took a rest day, a day when we are not a) riding somewhere or b) intensely exploring a city. We rode into town again just to ride around and enjoy Amsterdam’s fantastic bike paths.
My dad gets an email news feed every day of ‘”clean tech” news, and the day before there was an article about a solar panel sidewalk in a village outside of Amsterdam. So he rode 30km out of town to see it. He said he didn’t mind riding on a day off because he did not have the bike trailer hooked up.
He said the ride there was great but the solar road was “underwhelming” to see. It is only six months old and was apparently quite controversial locally because of the cost and people didn’t think that the sidewalk would generate much electricity. But it actually has generated much more than expected (70m long and 3000kWhr in 6 winter months) so it seems to be a good news story. It was built by a company that is experimenting with generating electricity from road surfaces. Maybe we’ll see more of these in the future.
The rest of us just rode around downtown. We saw the Anne Frank house, and it had a really long lineup! We spent that night at Saskia’s place again, and rode out of town the next morning.
Amsterdam is such a beautiful place. It is on my bucket list to live in downtown Amsterdam for a year or more. A bicycle can get you anywhere in town, and a train can get you anywhere out of town. Arts and music are everywhere. The downtown makes you feel like you’re in the past. All of this together make Amsterdam a beautiful, magical and unique city! I’ll be back, Amsterdam!