Tag Archives: Europe

Primeval Iceland

When planning a trip to Iceland, you don’t have to balance options.  No need to make dining reservations, study museum hours, or finagle time for shopping.  If you’re going to Iceland, you should go solely to experience one-on-one its raw, primeval nature.  And, you will not be disappointed!

Our magnificent encounter happened in July thanks to a five day layover with Icelandair.  (Not only was our trek to Spain, our final destination, less expensive, but we also received the bonus of extending our vacation in Iceland for “free”.)

As we only had five days to explore, we limited our route to the southern region of the island. This gave us a reasonable amount of driving each day and the perfect excuse to return soon to this volcanic paradise.

Let’s Talk About the Challenges

For starters, be clear about the type of terrain that you’re going to be driving.  Our route did not require a 4-wheel drive.  This worked out for us this time, although we missed some spectacular scenery that we could have visited off of the main road.  There are five types of roads in Iceland that you should be familiar with.  Many roads have terrain and river crossings that are not for the weak-kneed.  Also, be aware that it is highly advised to get all insurance coverages offered such as those for gravel and ash.  When renting vehicles, we usually go bare-bones on coverages but we made sure to get full coverage on this trip.  Upon returning our car, the rental agent inspected it top to bottom, much more thoroughly than anywhere else that we’ve ever rented.

Another transportation challenge is buying gas.  You’d think that it would be pretty straight forward.  It’s not.  The first obstacle is finding an outpost large enough to have a gas station. Then, you often have to buy a prepaid card such as this one from N1.  For more information about the gas station culture of Iceland, read this post with insights such as “For many people in Iceland, the big night out on the town is dinner at the N1 gas station.”

Iceland is expensive.  Incredibly so!  A fellow tourist that we talked to paid $23 for a breakfast bagel with an egg on top.  To combat food expense, we took pasta packets and canned tuna with us.  These were easy to prepare in a house/apartment kitchen and quite delicious after a long day of adventures!!  Luckily some friends recommended to us the supermarket, Bonus.  Here, we were able to stock up on some essentials for fairly reasonable prices.  (Although even here, a ¾ pound of salmon cost $60.)  To reduce housing costs, book early and be willing to share bathrooms with other guests.  Close to the airport, we stayed at the Base Hotel,  a former NATO base used by the US Navy and US Air Force until 2006. While the room was super small, it was exceptionally clean and the staff very friendly and accommodating.


Iceland has one main road that goes around the country.  Highway 1 is a fairly straight, easy-to-drive two-lane highway.  Most certainly it is more challenging to drive during the dark, icy winter months.  Although this is the main road, we often found ourselves alone in desolate areas even during the busy summer tourist season.  It was thrilling to have the vistas all to ourselves but it’s also something to consider when planning your trip, especially if you will be traveling alone.  For more information on driving the Ring Road, see this article by Rick Steves, one of our favorite guidebook authors.

The Rewards are So Worth It

Around every bend, there are rewards of panoramic views, towering waterfalls, and otherworldly terrain.  In this region, we were often driving between the immense glaciers of Vatnajökull National Park on one side of the road and artic blue ocean on the other.  Throw in a sod covered church, hay bales, and a glacier lagoon boat tour and you can see why we were totally captivated with this country.


Blue Lagoon

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Reynisfjara, black sand beach, close to Vik

Seljalandfoss waterfall and David standing in front of Skógafoss waterfall

Oddi and Hofskirkja churches

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Jökulsárlón Ice Lagoon


Icelandic horses at the Arabaer Farm, our AirBnB in Selfoss.

Landmarks (and a Few Surprises!) in London

You can repeatedly vacation in London and follow a new itinerary each time. For our seven days there, we chose to visit some of London’s landmarks and by sheer luck encountered some unforgettable surprises along the way. With its fusion of peoples, foods, music, art styles and languages, London reveals the positive nature of multiculturalism.
We flew into London on a two-hour EasyJet flight from Valencia. Our vacation home host, Driton, met us and helped us get oriented. We stayed one block past Essex Road close to the Islington and Highbury Underground station. A nearby supermarket supplied us with food for breakfast at the apartment and a packed lunch so we could have an impromptu picnic each day.
Free entrance into the National Gallery provided an afternoon of viewing a world-renowned collection of art including sunflowers by van Gogh, bathers by Monet, and cousins Jesus and John by da Vinci.

nat gallery1

Trafalgar Square

A walk through Camden Town’s many small, cobblestone streets led us to vintage shopping, Amy Winehouse and a walk along the canal. The Polish food @highlander.game brought back great memories of our trip to Krakow last year with their pierogies and half-metre sausages.

A short walk from Camden Town led us to an unobstructed city view at Primrose Hill.


Primrose Hill

For Harry Potter fans, a visit to Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter seems mandatory. Even for those of us who don’t know all the rules of Quidditch, it’s an inspiring excursion. While it sounds like it might be an amusement park, it’s actually the studio sets and props used for filming the movies. You can’t help but be impressed by the level of detail used to create everything from hundreds of handmade bottle labels in Snape’s potions classroom to the realistic Diagon Alley streetscape. It’s also interesting to learn their tricks for using computer generated imagery to bring the fantasy of Hogwarts and wizards alive. Because these tickets sell out quickly, we bought ours online several months ahead of our visit.

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One could probably admire and read the exhibits in the British Museum for months. It’s unbelievable the trove of historical items that they’ve collected. Based upon the crowds, the ancient Egypt exhibit wins the “most popular” title. However, you can easily view other antiquities without crowds around you. It was incredible to reflect upon objects like the Rosetta Stone, an Easter Island statue and Parthenon sculptures that record the history of humankind.

Needing a break from history and museums, we spent one night out in Covent Garden. Although we previously attended a Mamma Mia! production, the second time at the Novello Theatre was just as fun and danceable. We bought the tickets online in early March for our mid-July visit.


The pace for our day on the South Bank was a bit slower. We began with a morning walk through the Borough Market to watch the vendors prepare for the day. Next, we passed by the Globe Theatre and visited the Tate Modern following an enjoyable one-hour tour. The view from the 10th floor was spectacular not only because of the downtown London vista but also because you could get a peek into the impeccably furnished flats of the high-rises next door. We followed a quick look into the Imperial War Museum by spending a few lazy hours in The Kennington Coffee Shop. Here, while sipping lattes, iced coffees and iced teas, we chatted with several regulars about politics (Trump and Brexit), life in London, past travels and future plans.

At the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels took center stage; however, equally intriguing was learning about the prisoners detained there, its one-time impressive collection of royal beasts ranging from lions to polar bears, and the 2014 art installation, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, to commemorate England’s fallen soldiers from WWI.
We ended our week with a walk through the more affluent South Kensington district where we popped in to see the food selection at Harrods. We visited the magnificent Natural History Museum only for a brief time just because we had lost stamina for museums. (Something for the next visit!) At the Lebanese cafe, Noura, we relaxed a bit and tried a new drink. Jallab is a wonderful concoction of grape molasses, dates and rose water topped with pine nuts that tastes as great as it looks!

What were those vacation surprises we mentioned?
On our first day in London, we encountered a rather large surprise. We walked early in the morning to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guard, completely unaware that it was the day for the Royal Air Force 100th anniversary celebration. Not only were we able to see military parades and the flyover of 100 planes, but we also saw the entire Royal Family watching along with us from their palace balcony.

We did make it another day to watch the changing of the guard. We waited an hour at St. James Palace with just a small crowd. After watching the ceremony there, we walked up the mall to Buckingham Palace alongside the guard as they played music. As we got closer to the palace, it was more crowded and difficult to see, but we felt like we were able to see more up close this way than if we had watched only from Buckingham.


The changing of the guard at St. James Palace

The British Library’s Treasures collection preserves awe-inspiring history. We entered a very unpretentious room to find displayed the original Magna Carta, the Gutenberg Bible, Handel’s handwritten Messiah, a notebook of Da Vinci’s ideas and sketches, and so much more. It’s a small, quiet space where the crowds are manageable. So happy we hit the history jackpot with this discovery!
Dining surprises included Beijing Dumpling where there is a line out the door for a reason and Sutton & Sons where traditional fish and chips are served in an interestingly diverse neighborhood. The creamy, vegan, bourbon and toffee milkshake at @cookiesandscreambakery is reason enough to return to London soon!

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Meandering the Adriatic

Having visions of visiting Venice, the question remained, “Where else do we go?” An excursion through the Adriatic which connects northern Italy with the Balkan countries of Slovenia and Croatia seemed like the ideal destination.

After a flight to Milan/Bergamo and an hour’s drive east, we spent our first night in Verona. Is it stereotypical that our first Italian meal was pizza? Even so, it was a delightful initiation at Pizzeria Ristorante Olimpia. @pizzeriaristoranteolimpiaverona

Verona provided a smooth transition into vacation mode. During the day we easily visited the historic town center with the balcony of Juliet and the Roman amphitheater (3rd largest in Italy).

A couple of Spritz and some quiet moments away from Verona’s crowds at the ZEN Lounge Cafe. @zenloungecafe

An hour and a half’s drive later and we arrived in Venice.  Luckily, our rental house offered us private parking in a garage on Tronchetto Island.  Now, unencumbered by a car, we prepared to explore the canals.


Suitcases in tow on the vaporetto ride from Tronchetto to Giardini stop

Venice is one of those places where you can have an extraordinary experience or one overwhelmed by crowds and commercialism. To avoid the latter, the best suggestion is to plan your active times for early morning and after 4pm. At these times, the cruise ship inundation can be avoided and the city is actually as peaceful and romantic as it should be. This is particularly true for gondola rides. We saw bumper to bumper gondolas during the day. But, when we took ours just before 7pm, and the change to the higher nighttime rates, there was not another gondola in sight. This truly made the ride mesmerizing and memorable.

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Early morning walks let you appreciate how this city functions. It’s all about moving things in and out.

We chose to stay a bit of a walk out of the city center. Via Garibaldi in the Castello District is an island of tranquility and authenticity. So glad that we centered our homebase in this area!

To continue the adventure, we next visited Trieste, one of Italy’s eastern-most cities. Here, we enjoyed the combined Italian and Greek hospitalities of two charming restaurateurs.    While deciding which terrace to choose, these owners invited us to enjoy both restaurants, Taverna Sapori Greci @tavernasaporigreci and Sorsi & Morsi, simultaneously.

A quick jaunt south took us to Slovenia’s only coastal area and a charming village surrounded by blue Adriatic Sea. Piran is about being in the moment to enjoy its vibrant colors, ocean breeze, and slow pace.  (To get into the zen-zone, use a garage just outside of the village and the free bus to the plaza!!)

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After this busy day of exploration, our first Croatian home welcomed us with fresh made raspberry bread.  Our stay at Holiday Home Ivana (found through Airbnb.com) was unfortunately shortened by impending rain, but we loved being surrounded by all of the homey details provided by Ivana at her spacious, clean and cute vacation house.  Next time we hope to enjoy the hot tub and fabulous vistas!


With rain a day away, we drove the next morning to arrive in time for a quick lunch and nap before heading to the Plitvice Lakes National Park.  The beauty and awe inspired by this park cannot be captured in pictures.  It is an odyssey to walk up the boardwalks to be met at each level with a new set of stunning green-blue lakes and cascading waterfalls.  As in Venice, we found that going later in the day (around 3pm) allowed us to avoid the crowds. So, while not alone, we were also not crowded or uncomfortable.

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The next morning, a drive north led us to the city of Zagreb where they’ve achieved a pleasurable balance of old world with the new. (Pleasurable, at least, after the hour-plus wait to pay toll.)  Here, we spent two days and nights surrounded by the historic city center but were taken by surprise at various turns with encounters such as WWII bomb shelters turned into artsy tunnels, the enormous central food market, the intensity of the Museum of Broken Relationships, and the bluesy-retro concert, nighttime city view and convivial ambiance that we enjoyed at StrossMartre.  As David kept saying… “This is such a COOL place!”

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A two-hour drive west took us to the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, which we passed to drive another 45 minutes to visit Lake Bled for the day.  Although cloudy and threatening rain, the water remained a striking blue color.  The trip in a traditional boat to the island was enjoyable and felt like a “must-do” although there was not a lot to see once there.  Overall, the area felt very touristy with minimal parking. We’re not sure what people find to do there for several days as it’s not a place of relaxation.  For us at least, it’s a site to visit once to soak in its beauty but not a place to linger.

The trip back from Bled to Ljubljana brought us one of our most enjoyable experiences of the trip.  Having faith in the GPS, we ventured into the unknown and found a small rural restaurant. In fact, we unknowingly discovered a Gostilna Slovenija, a small Slovenian inn recognized for its traditional cuisine. (If interested in these inns, see also http://www.gostilnaslovenija.si/ ) Gostilna Mlin has a 4 foot local river channel between the inn and terrace.  After ordering the trout recommended by our likeable waitress, we watched with enthusiasm when a man strolled 10 feet to catch our dinner with a net.

We arrived in Ljubljana in time for our host, Stane, to walk us to his 15th century home a few steps away from the Town Hall before heading out for a late afternoon walk of the city.  Ljubljana takes many measures to preserve the historical integrity of its buildings and streets and its city center is pedestrian only.  In 2016, Ljubljana was recognized as the European Green Capital.  All of this combined with outdoor lights, music wafting down streets and friendly locals creates a magical medieval haven.  Some highlights for us besides the pure pleasure of strolling the cobblestone streets lined with cafes included the beautiful interior of the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church and a delicious menu-of-the-day lunch at Druga Violina which supports special needs adults by providing employment.

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Fortunately, when planning this trip, we had the foresight to build in a couple of days of downtime at the end.  With our longest day of driving (5 hours), we returned west to Lake Iseo in Italy. All we really needed here were a market to buy fish, pasta and Prosecco and a few lounge chairs.  Residence Ca’laRipa built in 1791 and warmly hosted by Andrea provided the perfect spot for relaxing with its spacious rooms and patio overlooking the lake.  We did venture one day to see the small town of Lovere.  But, most of the time we were happily relaxing on our patio with the mystical lake views, trying to remember all of the delightful experiences of the past days.

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