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2016 March 15

Eyes landed on Iceland

2016 June 19

We are writing this from the Keflavik airport, where our flight is delayed by over 3 hours, in typical WOW airlines style.  We have commandeered a corner of a cafe, and are watching the close match between Iceland and Hungary for the second time.

Since our last update, we have completed the Ring Road, and had some relaxing days in the Reykjanes Peninsula, navigating around other tourists for the first time since we left on our journey.  After dropping our fifth puffin at the airport, we enjoyed a relaxing day in the surprisingly cute town of Keflavik.  For dinner, we drove to the scenic Golden Circle area.  On our way, we stumbled upon, by way of a random gas station encounter, the Viking Festival at Fjörukráin.  It was National Day after all (June 17th) and the attendees were in full Viking regalia. Kim and I had our fortunes told, translated by a 14-year-old Philippino girl, while Cory shot arrows, and James chatted up shop-owners. Several rocks pained with iconic birds were purchased.

Continuing on, dinner was along the gorgeous Þinvallavatn Lake at the Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel.  Despite its corny name, this is one of the best restaurants in the country, and the food presentation was to die for.  The glass-walled bar was tended by an LA hipster, and our servers were mostly from the Czech Republic.  We finished the evening with a soak in our private hot-tub at the AirBnb, watching the sun/moon turn various shades of pink before setting at 4am.

The next day consisted of a long walk around the harbor area of Kevlavik, driving to Grindavik, and walking as little as possible around the harbor area there, due to the heavy rains and closed cafes.  In the time it took us to cross the peninsula, the skies had opened, the wind had roared, and we could not even open our car doors without fear of them blowing away.  We ducked into a tiny fisherman’s cafe, decorated with nets and buoys.  The menu consisted of soup, self-service with self-service coffee, but this was not just any soup.  This was Bryggjan, with the best lobster soup in the world, as we were told, with people coming from all over the world to eat it.

We struggled to find any rooms still open in this run-down town, asking around until we found ourselves in the peeling stairway of a fish factory, with screams coming from the upper floors.  We were told to wait there, until a woman come to lead us to a partially completed house, without a locking door or a completed kitchen.  We paid whatever she asked, in a combination of cash currencies.

Finally, we drove all of seven minutes to the famous Blue Lagoon, the most infamous tourist trap in the country.  Not a single Icelandic native came that day, to brave blinding winds and chilly waters.  We dodge from hot-spot to hot-spot, leaving the water only at a dash to get to the steam room or sauna.  My hair still feels stiff, like salted fish.

Today, before the airport, we did a final round of Reykjavik shopping and downed an under-whelming “natural” breakfast.  I snuck into the Reykjavik Art Museum, and James purchased an authentic Icelandic wool blanket.  We still have almost three hours of the heavily commerced airport to wait, before we bid this country with its endless fields of volcanic moss and falling water ado.  Now to “Joe & the Juice” for out last round of vegetables before a long, dehydrating flight ahead…

Our top list of Iceland includes (and not in order…):

  1. Blue whale sightings and the all-whale feeding frenzy
  2. Epic waterfalls along amazing hikes
  3. Natural baths and sulferic waters (aka Blue Lagoon and Myvatn)
  4. Glaciers floating on the iceberg lagoon
  5. Looong days and hours of sunlight
  6. Visiting the northernmost tip of the world (for us, thus far)
  7. Cooking collectively at home (omelette, eggplant pasta, risotto)
  8. Staying in cabins on farms and by the sea
  9. Dinner at the Grillmarket and lobster soup at Bryggjan
  10. Stories from old fisherman and at the Viking village

Sauntering along the south

2016 June 17

We left artsy Seydisfjordur on the east coast, in search of a hike to start our day. We had not driven far before one of the endless waterfalls along the Ring Road caught our eye more than any other, and we got out for a mossy trek and rock scramble. Waterfalls are like trolls in Iceland: they hide around every corner, roaring with their teeth glinting in the sun, and I am sure that some turn to stone, but apparently not until late summer.

The next sureality to catch our eye was the serene and supernatural-like lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Icebergs, great and small, stood in motion-captured floating around a huge area. As we walked, we saw seals duck in the water, ducks hiding in the rocks, and rocks sealed into the ice. We also got to witness the collapse of a colossal wing of an iceberg, breaking into a chaotic mess of chunks, slowly settling into new configurations.

Our sole planned stop was a hike around the Skatafell region of the country-sized Vatnajökull National Park. Another waterfall, and then to the lookout over a glacier cascading between two mountains. The scene looked like army of snow ripples charging through the mountains, forcing them to cleave apart.

We ended the day over a meal of Icelandic cheese and linden-berry jam pizza, where we also learned that 10% of the country was currently at the soccer game.  We drove across what Lonely Planet describes as the “soul-destroying wasteland” of Sandar, which we found rather beautiful in a yet a new way.

Our AirBnb for the night is on a horse ranch with an hospitable and industrious host.  Earlier, we learned that the field after field of horses in Iceland are not for work nor for transportation, but purely for show, so these were beautiful creatures.  That said, I also found “real leather” wallets, with big horse emblems on them.  Our host also does “super-jeep” tours, such as are the only way to get into the highlands.  We were in fact in need of a super-jeep, since the end of our hike for today required three river fordings to get back to civilization.  Ultimately, we decided to make a loop of the trek, which was the awesome Fimmvörðuháls trail between the recently-erupted Eyjafjallajökull and another even-larger volcano.  After passing myriads of waterfalls (10 of the 22 in the hike), we turned around and made our way back for a day of chill complete with homemade risotto.

Genteel Giants

2016 June 15

Iceland may be best known for Björk and Eyjafjallajökull, but a few whisper of its even greater strengths: whales and bubble baths.  Today, we sought out the best of both, as we crossed the north from Sigló to Seydisfjordur on the east coast.

We sketched out an ambitious itinerary last night, and managed to make it if anything a little more ambitious as the day went.  Following the coast brought us to a pair of endless tunnels, cutting two whole finger-like peninsulas off the top of the island.  Before long, we were in Húsavík, the capital of the world for whaling (or whale-watching, but I’m reclaiming the word).  11 species come here for feeding, to get fat and ready to be ostracized to the desolate seas near Boston which they try to leave again as soon as their young are ready.

We sprung for an excellent fast boat with Gentle Giants, which started with Puffin Island.  We confusedly stared at the pretty but puffin-less island that the boat first approached, before it turned back to sea and waded into a crowd of puffins thousands large.  Each one looked like a rubber duckie, slowly spinning in place, until it decided to make another flight attempt, wagging its clumsy arms but only able to raise itself inches from the waves.  Our next stop was a real treat: a rare blue whale sighting.  We chased after its double-blows, approaching within 100 m of its massive crests, each time before it took another dive and surfaced a random kilometer away.  Then we approached the mountains and abandoned monastery, first finding a single humpback and admiring its warty maw and patterned tail.  We were all feeling satisfied, but had no idea that the best was yet in store.  Our final stop brought us into the middle of an impromptu feeding frenzy.  A half dozen humpbacks and minke whales circled us, cresting often in unison and flashing tails, while the air filled with sea birds following closely.

We lunched at a hip new restaurant called Fjaran, feasting on baked brie and sweet potato fries, and a lobster salad and a barley pesto fit for Brooklyn.  A short 45 minutes later, we got to the geothermal gem of the North: Mývatn Lake.  Every nook of the lake has lava sculptures and steaming vents.  We hiked around Hverir, an alien landscape of sulfur yellows and fungal-looking purples, with black and grey muds bubbling.  Next we scrambled up the slippery mountain,  not really sure where we were headed nor why, until our path disappeared in the dust.

After some head scratching, we got back in the car and not 4 km up the road, we arrived at natural sulfueric baths,Mývatn Natural Baths in English or Jarðböðin, where we luxuriated in 14.5 degree water, silk with minerals.  There were empty watery expanses, socializing crowds, coveted booths, a packed hot-tub, and saunas.  We slinked from steaming pools to shivering wind and back, and all emerged feeling thoroughly bendy and chill.  Two hours later, we arrived at a cute cabin on yet another single-occupancy road, for an elaborate home-cooked meal to finish our quintessential Icelandic experience.

The never ending story of our drive

2016 June 13

Following the museum, we drove out to the Snaefelsnes peninsula where we hiked along the cost, from Arnarstapi to Helnar (5km).  Stunning views including rock formations and an ever changing terrain of mossy meadows to scrambled rocks. Rita suggested we “ground” and reconnect to the earth in bare feet.  We had a filling dinner at Helnar hotel catching views of proposes/finned creatures that may have only been rocks.

 

Several more hours of twilight driving brought us to the “town” of Borgir, which is more of a sheep pasture.  We arrived at 2am, which was still bright enough to see the sea.  This morning (Monday, 6/13) we are enjoying solitude and warm beds. Recommended if you want to feel very remote and have packs a car full of provision. See photos of outstanding breakfast creation.

We are about to set out to Siglufjörður and enjoy the hot springs later this afternoon, aka 10pm.

Eating up Iceland

2016 June 12

James and I landed, picked up our off-road-approved vehicle and set off along the violet flower-lined road to meet our friends in Reykjavík. We had a partial address for our Airbnb (the street of Njálsgata, this listing) and with the help of several group WhatsApps and a note to our host, we arrived at our cute, well-located flat. Situated perfectly for exploring on foot, and our first stop was the Phallological Museum, dedicated to the phallus of all species.  The museum contains a collection of more than two hundred and fifteen penises and penile parts belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland.  Since we arrived within 20 minutes of closing, I bargained for a “cut” price.

Together up with Kim, Cory and Rita aka #teamicelandyeah aka #5puffins, we wandered up the pedestrian only streets, found cafes and outdoor bars where the locals drank (heavily) in t-shirts, entertaining us with stories about their lives as tug boat captains.  It’s true what they say that locals are extremely friendly and not at all put off by tourists.  A couple more hours of weaving in and out of wool shops, we stopped for a quick snack or “snarl” as it’s said here, at Taco Barinn, the Mexicanish space with a cool crowd, decorated with body art, and puffed chips and creamy guacamole.

Dinner was at the outstanding Grill Market, thanks to my colleagues Jenny and Virginia for the tip!  Some of the top delicacies were a local “Redfish”, with a meaty, snapper-like taste, and the Viking boat filled with desserts including a fruity mush not on the menu.  This memorable meal only ran up a bill of $500, which we are quickly learning is “about averages” for a nice dinner out.  After dinner it was only midnight, and we had hours before the streets were to fill up with the clubbing crowd, we strolled around (legally publically drinking) in and out of bars, in search of live music.   At 2pm, we wandered into a rock/punk/house bar where we danced to abandon on the strobe-lit dancefloor.  A few elderflower and lime ciders later, we wandered back home around 3:30am, feeling like we had given the city a go and were ready to go. Worth noting: the sky was the same color it was at 8pm, and the streets were rush-hour-busy.

This morning we woke up at the dusky hour of 9.  The sky had been the same shade of blue grey all night.  We packed our bags and set out for the Laundromat for what was a massive and gratifying brunch, particularly the Clean Brunch with sand-dollar-sized pancakes, granola and honey yogurt, and a yellowy hummusy mush. Such a great concept for a business too—washing machines, café and a children’s play area.  Also, the wifi passcode of iloveyou is worth replication.

We were extremely full, but why stop?  Rita made a bee line for the reputed “best” hotdogs in town and chowed down on a goat, beef and lamb dog, with all the toppings.  We photographed the monumental event.

I’m writing this post from the Settlement Center where James, Cory, Kimberly and Rita went to learn of Iceland’s Viking heritage.  I took a walk around the peninsular town.  A few things they learned:

  • Going “berserk” was the way to make Iceland possible
  • A woman can own as much land and she can lead a calf around in day
  • From Rita “they are Vikings, not at all Inuit, but, huh #Bjork?”
  • The greatest Viking was a poet—Egil, also handy with a plow.

Avoiding the flood: Paris and beyond

2016 June 10

In Paris for about 25 hours of adventure!

Though we arrived on Tuesday evening, due to hours of flight delayed on the budget WOW airline, we are only today getting the chance to embrace the City.

I was in London for work Wed-Thur, love my colleagues, the lovely office and rare sunshine, while James was teaching at a Columbia University Summer School,. co-hosted with Sciences Po.

This morning, we woke up, caught up, sent up a large quantity of emails and then headed up to the summer school to hear Marion Dumas speak about policy, complexity and economics. I was mostly there for the free snac– er, the international dialogues about the pressing climate issues of our time.

We are now exploring the Latin Quarter and more on foot, taking a quick stop at a cafe to do some much needed work-work. Also, we are planning our upcoming (Saturday!) Iceland trip with some friends. Follow us on Instagram #teamicelandyeah.

Our itinerary at the moment has us whirling through the Ring Road in a mighty 4×4, which is actually just an SUV, staying in AirBnBs along the way:
6/11: Reykjavik
6/12: Snæfellsnes
6/13: Sigló
6/14: Seyðisfjörður
6/15 – 6/17: Skógar (recovering from a 23 km hike here)
6/17 – 6/18: Reykjavik

Bye, bye Balkans: Day 10

2016 March 22

Today we used our “artsy-side” city map and explored some cool neighborhoods, alternative cafes and artist-workshops.   This city seems very alive: graffiti (from signs to murals) buttresses government buildings, and modern shops are surround local peddlers with home-grown flowers.  For lunch we revisited the fantastic Moroccan place and for dinner, had very tender homemade pasta at Pastorant (16 Tzar Asen St, Sofia).  I realize that a disproportionate amount of my reflections concern food, but I feel this is a way that I can really experience a culture.  Beyond nourishing the body, food energizes me to interact with new people, in new environments in new way.  Food is deeply and spiritually fulfilling.

In between meals, we visited the National History museum, with its sometimes spotty coverage of everything from 5000 BC to the present, with the exception of the entire span of Ottoman rule.  The way the museum tells it, Bulgaria is a land inspired by many different cultures, except for the ones that follow Muhammad, which the people toiled under in stalwart resistance.  We also spent a while in front of our laptops at one of the back-to-back cafes along  Sofia’s broad, pedestrian Vitosha boulevard.  This one had neon chairs and techno music, but like all of them, delicious cappuccinos, and like far too few, not very much smoke.

We’ve booked a taxi for 5am tomorrow to bring us to airport where we have about 13 hours of travel ahead. If all goes well, we  will arrive in time for me to dash to the office and James to Columbia.

In sum, this trip has been a great foray into eastern Europe.  No urgent need to return,  but all in all, a positive experience and very accessible place to travel, with welcoming hosts and no shortage of coffee.

Suffice to say: Sofia, Day 9

2016 March 21

In the past 35 hours we have been in 4 countries.

Yesterday we had a very full car/ferry/plane/bus/train day. A few challenges involved boarding the wrong car ferry, with the wrong currency, on the wrong end. Fortunately, I spoke with a Croatian/Australian couple and they helped us direct the car, paid a fee in a currency we did not have and arrive to the airport 2 hours before our flight. There we were welcomed by clouds of smoke, with the last cigarette literally extinguished on the railing as the passengers boarded.

We flew back to Belgrade, and secured beds on the Bulgaria-bound train for that evening, with plenty of time for wandering a now-familiar city. We spent most of our time criss-crossing between closed museums and empty markets, but the weather was beautiful and the people-watching bountiful. By 10pm, our legs were exhausted, and we slumped into our own private train cubby. I would say the train was nicer than our India overnight experience but not as good as the Nile one. We layered both of the wool blankets provided and huddled together to stay warm. At 5 we were woken up by border control (leaving Serbia) and then, about 40 minutes later, we were again asked for our documents, to be stamped as we entered Bulgaria.

Arriving just after 8 we walked the 2 km to our Arte Hotel, with a very deco look. We didn’t know until later that “art” here is a catch-all phrase, for anything from leather goods to bars. We dropped off our bags, showered, and set out to explore the vibrant city on foot. There are threading boulevards lined with “art”, cafes, fresh fruit vendors and a very welcoming spirit. We enjoyed magnificent churches, brass lion flanked bridges, and pedestrian only streets for sipping coffee. We stumbled upon a high-end indoor bazaar across from an grandiose synagogue and a long book boulevard (English pickings were slim). Picking up a few souvenirs along the way, we now have a woven rug, hand painted bowl, ceramic bell, locals rose infused lipstick and an interactive magnet.

Lunch and dinner were my highlights of my day. We lunched at a fantastic (and apparently, sole authentic) Moroaccan place called Annette. Our mezzes included hummus, stuffed pita, and roasted vegetables, all accompanied by perfectly sweetened mint tea with pine nuts. The streets around Annette are filled with hip crafts, and in one of the stores we got a road-map for eccentric Sofia, recommending biocafes, a steampunk boutique, hand-made shirts, and insomnia-fueled skating. We needn’t have worried though: around every corner we took, we found plenty to explore.

After several hours more of walking around, snapping photos, it was time to find our way back the hotel for James to do some work while I took a luxurious nap. Much needed. It was drizzling as we explored this evening, winding from posh Prada streets, through parks, past government monuments and to a homey, traditional dinner complete with rakia, a distilled grape drink. The wonderfully friendly waiters added brandy and home-made coffee liqueur on the house and helped us hide away a napkin-full of their olive oil spice blend. I would recommend Manastirsak Magernitsa for newcomers to the city.

Tomorrow we plan to head to a neighboring town to see the national history museum and likely consume more Banista, phyllo dough filled with salty cheese.

Language learning: thank you – blog ‘o da’, ya?

The cat walk, Day 7

2016 March 19

Today we are counting cats.  This city is teeming with felines and so far, we’ve seen 29 in our 12 hours of counting.

Leaving our apartment this morning, we nearly passed by the”market” without noticing. Upon closer inspection , we found a few vendors selling touristy items including decorative braided reeds (in the traditional style), sachets of lavender and some local spices.  I purchased the latter (5 for the price of 4, thanks to negotiations, but still Whole Foods-like prices of $4 per spice sample) and look forward to giving them to Erin (shout out) and the fabulous chef Noah.

Our first stop was the contemporary art museum, a privately owned villa converted to a museum after WWII housing the work of exclusively Croatian artists.  The first floor is largely modern, focusing on Croatia’s most famous artist, Vlaho Bukovac.  The second had more contemporary art, including a large temporary exhibit with paintings that merged abstract patterns with aerial representations.  The best part of visiting was getting a “student discount pass” to all of the town’s museums–entry to 9 museum for $5 (the advertised price for 1 was $20).  This allowed us to enter the famed city walls (also $20) for free, by “sneaking” in through the Maritime Museum.  James qualifies this by saying “sneaking” does not legal entrance make, but I’m pretty sure it’s the best option.  We only saw about ¼ of the walls before a “ticket control” station sent us back down, but this afforded fantastic photos of the marina, with islands spotting the horizon.  None of the museums are all that impressive on their own, (Ethnographic: lacking, Marina Drzica: uninformative, Natural History: closed, Cultural History: renovating) but there is little else to do but take in the scenery and spend money, so museum hopping has filled our day.

Some observations:  The smoking here is less prevalent than Serbia. The pronunciation of “good day” “Dobre dan” also seems different, or shop keepers insist on replying in English.  Wine is sold at the grocery store in a “bring your own plastic water bottle” way.  The local red blend is very jammy.  I brought a vessel from our rented apartment and using the psychological tactics of “anchoring” and “recency” got about 1/2 liter for $4.

At 5:49, we hatched a plan for securing wine and a spot to view the sunset, scheduled for 5:59 pm.  We ventured out onto the rocky crags of the old city where we found an isolated spot–for the first 15 minutes–and took some photos of muted colors.

For dinner we checked out a hot spot called Nishta,which means “nothing” going in with expectations that our  meal would really be somethin’ (www.nishtarestaurant.com) .  The food was “fast casual” Indian, but had a great set menu deal and a good salad bar.  We met Andy and Lynn (blogging their adventures here: http://moneyleftfortravel.com/) and talked US politics and exchanged travel tips.

Sunday will be an early morning drive (with ferry) back to Montenegro to return the car and catch our flight to Belgrade, where all planes go to rest.

Listening to the country, Day 6

2016 March 18

En route from Mostar to Dubrovnik, we listened to Serbia pop, which has a distinctly country-meets-latino flair, and some erratic and repeated 80’s English music.  We made three stops: one monastery, one winery and one foot bridge.  I was least impressed by the third. James was impressed by  it.  Its  unique 16th century design, and the fact that it held up to being deconstructed and reconstructed after all that time, 30 years ago.  The monastery had lush paintings on its arched ceiling; you could hear the river to the east, where we enjoyed our packed picnic of sandwiches made form pilfered breakfast items—James’s included pâté from a spam tin!

Once we found our way up a steep footpath to the Podrumi Vukoje, a swanky wine and tapas tasting room overlooking rust-colored vineyards. We sampled three of the vineyard’s wines– a white, rose and red– all 100% locally grown.  We accompanied the beverages with a heap of smoked carp served with horseradish apple sauce and a sizable cheese plate that I could not event finish.  Shocking, I know.

Tonight, we are in the charming sea-side town of Dubrovnik with its high walls and decidedly international flavor, this may be our favorite location so far.  That said, prices are far higher and our dinner of salad and vegetarian bureks plus a single glass of local wine was NYC priced, at $70 USD. The wine we had was Posip Cara Nerica and we were treated to a dessert honey wine called Medovaca on the house.

We are now staying in Marc’s apartment, www.karmendu.com, a generous host who has amassed incredible treasures, some foraged, traded and many constructed himself. His father rubbed shoulders with Jim Morrison and then recommended his grave site.  His first floor landing sports a priceless, drawn infographic of the history of Dubrovnik, given him for impressing its author with his knowledge of the history of steamship photography.  The headboard of one of the rooms was built for him for free by traveling carpenter journeymen out of the floorboards of a 500 year old palace.

Tomorrow will hold visits to the palace, possible art museum outside of town and some self-catered meals to help alleviate the burden of a place most accustomed to cruise ship spenders.

The trials of travel will take a note as well. We have learned many tricks to optimize our flights. However, in this final leg of our trip, where we need to get from Tivat, Montenegro (where we rented the car) to Sofia, Bulgaria (where we catch our flight back to NYC on Tuesday) there seems to be very few options.

Goal: Spend as little money as possible while maximizing locations and avoiding flights before 6am.

Outcomes: (1) All flights in the region go through Belgrade.  There is no avoiding it. (2) No cheap flights leave Belgrade after we arrive, so we would have to spend at least one night. (3) Reasonably priced flights to Sofia all have stops, typically in locations far from both Belgrade and Sofia, like Warsaw, Rome, and Athens. (4) If we flight to any of those intermediate spots, we still need to fly through Belgrade again on the way to Sofia.

flights

*le sigh*

New plan: fly from Tivat to Belgrade on Sunday, allowing us to spend 2 nights in Dubrovnik. Head directly to the train station and try to book an overnight train from Sofia, leaving 10:40pm and arriving at 8:30am Monday. Wish us luck!