Category Archives: Europe

Travels in Europe

Touring Icelands’ Ring Road

The following post outlines our recent trip to Iceland where we toured this most beautiful country via the Ring Road. The Ring Road, or Route 1, encircles the outer perimeter of entire island. It makes for the perfect guide to view everything this country has to offer. We branched off here and there, but always returned back to the Ring Road. Our trip ended up being about 2000km(1242 miles) total .

We decided to travel “the Ring” in a clockwise direction. The main reason for this was hit the Northern areas first before it got colder since it was late September. You can hit snow at this time of year in those areas and we did see fresh snow on some of the mountain tops in those areas some morning. We also wanted to save the South, which is comprised of the highlights of Iceland for the end. The other way might have been more anti-climatic.

Transportation & Lodging

We chose a small motorhome as our transportation and lodging the trip. Ours was a 3-person which ended up being perfect for us. They do have 2-person ones but they were sold out when we booked our trip. The motorhome is nice because you have a nice bed, bathroom, refrigerator, and cooking. There is also a nice size table and you can relax in there when the weather is bad. There is also ample storage to put stuff so it is pretty easy to unpack your bags a bit.

Heading out for our Iceland Adventure.

We used Motorhome Iceland to rent from which was really just Geysir Rental Car. They were ok, but we had to take the rental car bus from the airport to the Geysir Rental car place and then another guy came in a van and took us to their main office to get the motorhome. Also, the guys that transported us to and from the rental car office, were less than friendly. Especially the guy that took us back there. He just sat in the van and let us take our bags out ourselves.

Our pickup was supposed to be 8 AM, but after all the transporting and going over the vehicle, we didn’t get out of there until at least 10 AM. They also ended up overcharging me $1000 for some reason, but they quickly resolved that once I notified them about.  There are other places to rent, so you may want to check out reviews on some others like McRent and Camper Iceland for example.

You can also rent a “campervan”, which is basically a small utility-type mini-van with some bedding and cooking appliances in them. They are a bit more rustic than the motorhome and from what I saw can get a bit cramped. We saw several people ripping everything out trying to find stuff. Also, they have to cook outside, so when the weather gets really crappy, and it will, they just look miserable. If you are on a budget though they will do the trick.

The motorhome got around 22-23 Miles/Gal when said and done. We drove a total of 2207km, which cost us about $384 USD in fuel. The motorhome runs on diesel to which is a little cheaper in Iceland than regular fuel.

Cellphone/Data/Navigation

Before I left for Iceland I had my iPhone unlocked by AT&T so that I was able to put a local SIM card in when I got to Iceland. I purchased a Vodaphone Starter Kit at the register of the Duty-Free store in the Arrivals Hall baggage claim area. They are about $15 for unlimited calling/texting and about 300mb of data, although mine said it was a special deal with 1GB of data. You can top off your card along the way too, which I did. I think I paid about $20 for another 5GB of so I would not have to worry about it. I left cellular data on the whole time, tethering to my laptop and my wife’s phone, uploading pictures and still only used ~4GB.

Coverage was mostly 3G/4G, but there were only two times that I got no service and it wasn’t for very long. It isn’t super-fast LTE, but it was more than adequate for using Google Maps and uploading a few pics here-and-there.

I used Google Maps on my phone the whole time for navigating. It worked perfectly. I had taken a bunch of paper maps, but only used them for planning where I was going the next day or so. I also had cached the entire maps of Iceland on my phone before I went, so if I lost cell coverage I could still use Google Maps. I don’t think I had to fall back to that very much.

Dining & Food

Dining out in Iceland is super-expensive. This is where the motorhome/campervan pays for itself. Bonus grocery stores are quite prevalent throughout the country and food is much more reasonable in the grocery stores.

Day 1 – Keflavik/Reykjavik to Bogarnes

We arrived into Keflavik airport pretty much on time. We were a little groggy though due to sitting in an exit row without the ability to recline the seat. We grabbed some breakfast in the airport before heading down to pick up bags. The conveyor belt had stopped and our bags were the last ones just sitting on there.

We headed out to the pick-up area for the yellow rental car shuttle bus. It was pouring rain out and really windy. The bus came pretty quick and shuttled us over to the rental car area. We got off the bus too soon because the Geysir office was around the block, so we had to walk through some parking lots to get there. Next, we had to wait for about a half hour until some guy came with a van to take us to the place to pick up the motorhome.

After filling out paperwork and going over the vehicle, we were finally on our way. The road from the airport area to Reykjavik was very exposed and the wind was whipping against the side of the motorhome. I decided to pull off the road and park in a small picnic area just off the highway and we took a nap. About a 3 hour one!

Finally, the wind calmed down and we headed on our way again. Now, we were hungry though and we could not read any signs. In our search for a restaurant we found a Bonus supermarket, so we stopped there to stock up with some food. It was a bit challenging trying to shop when you cannot read the labels. I tried used my Google translate app in offline mode, but that didn’t work. I had even downloaded the entire Icelandic library. We searched near the Bonus for somewhere to eat, but nothing looked that great.

 

Alas, a Thai restaurant was found! We had a really good meal at Krua Thai just off the highway. After filling up our bellu, we were on our way to Bogarnes.

We parked down by the Settlement Center and then walked around the town a bit. It was a quaint little town. During our walk around town, we stopped at a cool little café in Bogarnes called Kaffi Kyrrð. Worth a stop.

We had dinner at the Settlement Center and it was really good. Their bread is amazing! They also had a veggie burger too which I was pretty stoked about. It is expensive, but all meals are in Iceland. This one was worth it.

Campground in Bogarnes

We ended up camping at the campground in Bogarnes. There was no attendant or caretaker, just an honor box. It has electric, toilets and  a nice view of the bay.

Day 2 – Bogarnes to Grundarfjörður(Kirkjufellsfoss)

Enjoying our first breakfast in our motorhome

After a good nights sleep and breakfast in the camper, we headed in a Northwesterly direction towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Our first stop was a little brown church that sits among fields of jagged lava rock near the sea called Búðakirkja.

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Budir Kirka, church, Snaefellnes, West Iceland, Iceland

We then headed over to Arnastapi where we cooked up some lunch in the parking lot waiting for a passing rain shower to pass. We then sauntered along the coastline hiking trail to the neighboring town of Hellnar. The rocky, basalt lined coast was quite breathtaking. There were a fair amount of people on the trail, but it was worth the hike.

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Coastline Between Hellnar and Arnastapi

There is a small cafe at the end of the trail in Hellnar that has really good food. My wife loved the veggie quiche. We took a more direct trail back after we filled our bellies with some snack in Hellnar.

Fjöruhúsið café – Hellnar

We then headed around the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, through Hellisandur and eventually getting to the place I had been eagerly awaiting…Kirkjufellfoss. Unfortunately, it poured all afternoon and the tide came in and flooded the easy path up to the waterfall. I tried taking an alternate route through some farmers fields up the road but each time I got drenched when the rain kicked up again. I got in a few shots, but was mostly spending all my time wiping my lens off.

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Kirkjufellsfoss

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Kirkjufellfoss

We started off camping in a little pull off just down the road outside the nearby town of Grundarfjordur. The wind and rain pounded the camper making it almost impossible to sleep. The wind was hitting the camper sideways and rocking it back-and-forth. I was just waiting for it to flip over. I finally got up and drove into town trying to find a more protected spot.

I ended up parking in the parking lot next to the liquor store and N1 in town with the nose of the camper pointing into the wind. It helped but the wind never ceased until early the next morning.

Day 3 – Grundarfjörður to Siglufjörður

We were awakened quite early the next morning when 2 SUVs packed with Asian tourists pulled in next to us in the parking lot. I didn’t realize it but we were in a car washing area of the N1 gas station parking lot. The one SUV pulled directly behind us within a few inches of our camper. They were all our running around and yelling like it was a fire drill or something.

We hit up the market in the N1 for some more grocery items and fresh coffee before heading back on the road towards the seaside town of Stykkishlomur.

We parked down by the Ferry to Flatey and hiked up onto the hilltop overlook of the ocean.

Stykkishólmur

Lighthouse in Stykkishólmur

We then stopped at Narfeyrarstofa for a really good lunch. Again expensive, but pretty typical for Iceland dining. Must have been a popular place since it was packed by the time we left and I heard waitress say they were booked for dinner that night.

Narfeyrarstofa in Stykkishólmur

After a delicious lunch, we started out on the long drive up to the Trollaskagi Peninsula towards Siglufjörður, or Siglo for short. The drive and scenery were really gorgeous, but there wasn’t a whole lot worth stopping for. We did end up stopping at the northern most tip of the peninsula to catch the sunset while having some dinner.

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Northern Coast of Iceland above Siglufjörður

We then headed into Siglo and setup camp at the campground which is on a patch of grass right in the middle of town. We found a spot to park and setup camp or the camper rather. They had a nice shower in the campground and it felt really good to clean up a bit. It was a Saturday night, so I was in the mood to go out on the town a bit.

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Siglufjörður Campground

The most popular and colorful restaurant in town, Hannes Boy, was a stone’s throw away from our campsite. I could see it was filled with people enjoying their fare on Saturday night. We walked over there and were quickly turned away by the waitress because they were closed for a private birthday party. Really…Closed on a Saturday night??

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Hannes Boy and Kaffi Raudka

Next door to Hannes Boy is the equally colorful Kaffi Raudka. This place has the shortest hours I have seen. Daily from 12pm to 5PM. So naturally they were closed.

We walked around town a bit and never really found anything worthwhile. We spotted the very new looking Siglo Hotel across the docks and headed over there. This place was very nice and open to the public. You could tell this had some American influence to it. I enjoyed a couple Icelandic IPA’s in a nice little lounge area that looked out on the water. Turns out the own had lived in the States for some time and came back to open this hotel. It was a very nice place.

We were abruptly woken by a group of young drunken revelers yelling at the top of their lungs walking down the sidewalk directly behind our camper. One of the disadvantages of camping in the middle of a town. There is another campground just up the hill outside of town too, which was totally empty when we were there. Not as convenient and no bathroom and showers, but probably a little less noisy too.

Day 4 – Siglufjörður to Ólafsfjörður

We managed to get back to sleep and woke at fairly decent hour. We walked through town and found our way to the Aðalbakarí Bakery, which was surprisingly open. I enjoyed some good coffee and some really good fresh baked pastries with some locals and a few other tourists too. Note: public places do not open very early in Iceland. Even places that claim to serve breakfast. It is a bit annoying at first, but if you plan accordingly you get used to it. It is helpful to have a camper with cooking utilities.

We putzed around the camper and caught up on some social media stuff in the later morning. We drove around a bit and found a small ski area up the mountain on the southern part of the town. It was a cool vantage point to see the whole area. The other campground was not too far away and we parked there while we hiked up the mountain side towards the avalanche fencing  on the top of the mountain which is named Hafnarhyrna. It was quite a breathtaking view of the whole fjord.

Pano View of Siglufjörður

We originally planned to stay in Siglo for 2 nights, but at the last minute we decided to head over to the next town of Ólafsfjörður instead. The Siglo campground has good facilities for dumping gray and toilet water as well as filling up with water, so we emptied out the camper before we headed down the road to Ólafsfjörður

The route to Ólafsfjörður is through a long single lane tunnel through the mountain. It was pretty crazy and when cars came through the other way they would sit in little pull-offs that they had every situated through the tunnel Ólafsfjörður felt practically deserted. The campground was totally empty except for us. We walked around the town a bit which seemed almost deserted. It was a Sunday night though, but nothing was open so we just ate in the camper. Another younger couple pulled in the campground and pitched their tent not too far away. It was getting pretty cold that night and I felt kind of bad for them out there while we were nice and toasty in the camper.

Little Church in Ólafsfjörður

The campground attendant stopped by to collect the tariff for the night. He was really friendly guy and we shot the breeze for awhile asking him about life in Iceland.

Day 5 – Ólafsfjörður to Reykjahlíð(Lake Mývatn)

We headed out of Ólafsfjörður pretty early making our way down to Akureyri, the largest city in the north of Iceland. It was rainy pretty hard that morning and the drive was pretty dismal.

We parked in the public parking area in downtown Akureyri. It is sectioned off my the amount of time you are parking there. There was no indication of how you were supposed to designate you paid or not so I was a little nervous when we headed to the little downtown street. I stopped in a tourist information center and asked and the girl said just leave a note on your dash telling what time you parked. Pretty loosey-goosey here. And why don’t they tell you that somewhere when you park? I headed back to the camper and put the note on the dash.

We did a little window shopping in town and stopped in a cafe for a cup of coffee while we waited for the rain to clear a bit. Before we knew it it was time for some lunch.

We made several back-and-forth trips on Hafnarstræti Street between Kaffi Ilmur and Símstöðin Restaurant trying to decide where to eat. We eventually settled on Kaffi Ilmur which was a little more homey. They had a fish buffet(~$20) upstairs, which Denise took advantage of, and I settled on the Falafel Fritters with gluten-free bread(2480 ISK, which is about $22). Everything was very good but typical expensive Icelandic prices.

We got back on the road after lunch making our way North, then West to Goðafoss (waterfall  of the gods). This was the first big Icelandic waterfall we had seen so far and it was pretty impressive. I was now in Photographer mode.

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Goðafoss Waterfall

It was a little tough shooting this falls since it was the middle of the day and the sun was immediately behind it. Not the optimal time to shoot a waterfall. It also had a lot of spray and the wind was blowing it right at us. There was also a bunch of people there too which makes things challenging too. I didn’t come away with any real barn-burner pics from this one.

We headed towards Lake Mývatn next. This was the less expensive, northern cousin to the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik. I was looking forward to a good soak at their nature baths there. It was really cold and windy when we got there, so Denise was a bit apprehensive at the thought of going swimming. When I told that it was ~$35(USD) each to go she was even less motivated. I eventually convinced her to go though.

It was well worth it! While it was freezing cold going from the showers to the nature bath, once you got in it was awesome. The pools were set on the top of a rise and had a horizon pool-style edge. The sunset was beautiful and everyone was taking pictures. I on the other hand, forgot to bring my GoPro and took none. What was I thinking?

We headed back to the Bjarg Campground perched on the east shore of Lake Myvatn in the town of Reykjahlíð. This was there last night open before closing for the season, so we unknowingly timed that perfect. Unfortunately, we had to walk to the bathroom and showers at the main building since the one close to our campsite was closed up. The bathrooms were also co-ed which was a bit odd. I wonder how people from North Carolina would deal with that? LOL!

I had been monitoring the Aurora Borealis(Northern Lights) activity since we had gotten to Iceland using a couple iOS apps on my phone. There had been some sightings of it before we had gotten over there, which was a bit odd for mid-September. This night was showing some good probability for seeing them and the sky was the clearest it had been thus far. I set my alarm for 1:30AM so I could take a look outside.

My watched buzzed at 1:30AM and I took a look out the back window of the camper. I saw looked to be clouds and they appeared to be moving a little more than typical clouds. I kept staring at them, wondering if I was just still in my sleep-fog or if they were really moving. Finally one triggered me to get out of bed and get dressed.

I walked outside and stared at the sky. I was now pretty sure this was the Aurora. I reached in the camper and grabbed my tripod with camera attached. I set the ISO to around 4000, opened up my aperture as far as I could, and set my shutter speed to about 8 secs. I aimed the camera at the sky and hit the cable release. As the image displayed on the back LCD I saw the bright green of the aurora displayed in all its glory. BINGO!!

My photographic adrenaline exploded. I was now wide awake! I ran back to the camper to wake Denise up.

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Aurora Borealis above Lake Myvatn

The one thing I had forgotten to do was set the focus on my camera, so the first shot was quite blurry. It is pretty hard to get focus on a camera when it is dark out. I found a nearby light that I was able to key on and get some focus set. I then proceeded running around the campground shooting images of the sky like a kid having a shopping spree in a candy store.

It was really cool that when we saw these lights that we were in a lakeside campground with tents pitched all over the place. Made for some cool foreground elements. I also got a shot of Denise staring at the sky while they lights bounced across the sky.

The moon was pretty bright out this particular night so it kind of diminished the actual color of the Northern Lights when looking at it with the naked eye. Denise was a little disappointed by this. A friend from work who had been there previously had told me this, so I had a little bit different expectations.

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Aurora Borealis above Lake Myvatn

The lights danced until about 2:30-3AM before they fizzled out.  I headed back to the camper to go back to sleep thinking about all the aurora pics I get to process the next morning. Really cool.

Day 6 – Reykjahlíð to Egilsstaðir

We headed just up the road to Mt. Namafjall/Hverarönd geothermal area after breakfast. It was kind of touristy place with a large parking lot and lots of cars and buses. Right next to the parking lot was a bunch of hot pots of bubbling grey goo and steam vents shooting geothermal mist into the air. The good thing was the people didn’t venture too far from the parking lot, so we took a little hike up the barren side of Mt. Namafjall and were quickly away from them. The view up top was pretty amazing. You could see the whole Lake Myvatn area on one side and then the barren geothermal plains on the other. it was a nice little hike, but it did get a bit steep as you approached the summit.

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Hotpots at Hverir Geothermal Area

The only thing bad about this area was that it stinks like rotten eggs! I cannot stand eggs or the smell of them and it was a bit unnerving. Denise loved it. You do get used to it though.

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Hverir Geothermal Area

Next stop was Dettifoss waterfall. This was located on an out-and-back Route 862 off the main Ring Road. It seemed to take longer to get there than I anticipated. We had some lunch in the parking lot before taking the hike down to the falls. It is a big powerful falls and quite impressive. I again hit this falls in the middle of day. but atleast the sun was behind me this time. I was able to get some good shots with rainbows across the falls which was pretty cool. Selfoss falls is also a short walk up river from Dettifoss, but I didn’t find that one all too photogenic. This was definitely a worthwhile stop.

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Dettifoss Falls

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Dettifoss Falls

Next, we headed to the town of Egilsstaðir for our final stop of the day. Egilsstaðir is a larger town and bit more commercial. There is a decent campground there on a side street in town and plenty grocery stores and places to eat.  There is also a bar right at the campground, but I didn’t check it out so not sure how it is. We ate at Salt Cafe & Bistro, which was quite good. There pizza and desserts are excellent!

Day 7 -Egilsstaðir to Seydisfjordur to Egilsstaðir

We made our way over the pass to the fjord town of Seydisfjordur after eating some breakfast. It was a pretty cool drive making our way up and over the fairly steep mountain. It was a very rainy day, so visibility was not so great.

I stopped along the way down into Seydisfjordur to take some pictures. It was quite scenic and there were some nice waterfalls along the way. Of course, when isn’t there waterfalls in Iceland?

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Falls along road coming into Seydisfjordur

We cruised around the small town that flanks the banks of the fjord in a U-shape. There was a very large ferry ship docked in the apex of the fjord, but didn’t seem to be much action there. They say that the town can get VERY busy when the ferry arrives or departs from/for the continent. I believe this is usually on Wednesdays but you should probably research that.

There are a lot of hikes in this area and we settled on one with an obvious trailhead marker and parking lot off the road on the sourthern side of the fjord. It was right across the street from the Brimberg Fish Factory. The followed a dirt road before eventually heading off onto a much smaller rocky trail. The rain picked up the farther and higher went.

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Tvísöngur – Seydisfjordur, Iceland

We eventually came upon these five interconnected domes called the Tvisongur Sound Structure. Each dome has a different tone in it and we took turns testing that out. It was also a welcome refuge from the rain. We headed farther up the mountain on the trail and hit some steeper rocky sections. While normally I wouldn’t think twice about these, the downpouring rain made them a little tricky. We walked on some more which basically was a bit flatter pastures.

Pano view of Seydisfjordur, Iceland

We decided to call it and turn around. The visibility was not great and the rain just kept pounding. So we headed back to the camper. We stopped at the Skaftfell Bistro but it didn’t open until 3pm. The guy inside said Hotel Aldan had a nice lunch buffet.

 

We drove back to the infamous “Blue Church” and parked the camper taking the rainbow colored road through the quaint little town. Not much was open, but the Hotel Aldan and the Kaffi Lara/El Grillo Brewpub. We checked them both out and settled on the buffet at Hotel Aldan. It was a wise choice. We had to share a table with two guys but not a big deal. Buffet was great and there was a ton of vegetarian options for me too. Iceland is far more veg-friendly than I thought it would be! We also saw the guy from Skaftfell Bistro come and start working here. I guess thats why he doesn’t open until 3PM! Life in a small town.

We headed over to Kaffi Lara so I could sample a couple of their craft brews after lunch. They were ok, but I ended up have one of my favorite IPA’s Úlfur Nr.3 Borg Brugghús . The rain continued on harder and harder. Seemed like a good day for drinking beer! Others had the same idea because the place filled up pretty quickly.

We then drove back over to Skaftfell Bistro and parked in their parking lot until they opened at 3 PM. Denise took a good nap and I headed into the bistro. I was the first person in there and found a nice booth by the window with a power cord. I set up my laptop and got to work downloading and editing all the pictures I took so far. It was a much-needed break.

The bistro was playing some music that I had never hear before but was really diggin’. Not sure if it was just the music itself or the fact that the bistro kept playing the album over-and-over again, but it seemed very familiar. I Shazaam’d it and it was a guy named Rodriguez, Sixto Rodriguez actually. His music seemed kind of 70’s -ish and rightly so it was. Kinda reminded me of Bob Dylan but much better. Turns out it is a pretty interesting story there.

The Bistro was also filling up and Denise awoke from her nap to join me. Several people ordered pizzas and they looked really good. I decided to indulge in one myself. I had had a couple beers too so I needed to soak those up a bit too.

We later decided to head back over the pass and stay in Egilsstaðir campground for another night. There wasn’t much going on in Seydisfjordur, so no sense in making the next day’s drive longer.

Day 8 – Egilsstaðir to Höfn

The next morning we ate, showered and headed to the N1 station to refuel. I also had to get a new tank of propane since ours was getting close to empty. I wasn’t sure if there would be any places to get more on the way to our next destination, Höfn. It was also about halfway so I figured that it was a good point to exchange it.

The drive got a bit windy early on and I had to make a couple stops since the camper was feeling like it was going to be blown over. Eventually, the road turned to stone as we headed up and over a pass. As we crested the pass we were presented with the most spectacular view. It felt like we were driving down into a crater. The waterfalls coming over the edges were actually blowing back up from the wind whipping up the valley. The land below was a patchwork of greens, yellows, and orange colors. It was simply breathtaking.

As we lowered down into the valley we were flanked by pastures of beautiful Iceland Horses and the farms they belong to. The high mountain walls behind them made for a spectacular backdrop.

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Iceland Horses in the East Fjords of Iceland

Eventually, we reached the coast again and encountered some different, but still beautiful, seaside views. We reached the town of Höfn as it was just turning dusk. There was a field full of Icelandic horses on the road into town and we had to stop off and take some shots of them. They had a bit of a moat around the fence line of the field, so you couldn’t get too close to them.

We drove around the town and checked things out. It had a small part with restaurants and supermarket, but most of the town was warehouses and industry buildings. We stopped at the Nettó supermarket and stocked up on some groceries. I got another bag of those little cinnamon rolls too…Yum! The beer store in the market was already closed up, they have VERY limited hours everywhere, so I had to settle for a couple 2%-ers in the market.

Next, we traveled down the block to Kaffi Hornið for dinner. There wasn’t a whole lot of options and this place looked decent. There also wasn’t much in the way of vegetarian either except one main dish that was way too expensive. This place is ALL about the Langoustine…aka Lobster. I ended up settling on the Langoustine Pizza which would fill me up without too much damage to the budget. They also had a good craft beer selection too. This place was crazy expensive even for Iceland. I think they knew you didn’t have too many other options so they nail you good. We also ran into the couple we met back in Egilsstaðir here and caught up with them a bit.

We decided to do the camp at the Campground in Höfn for the night. We had to pay, but it is so much easier than trying to find somewhere to pull off for the night. Plus, we get a shower and regular bathroom.

Day 9 – Höfn to Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon

Sunrise in Höfn Campground

Next, we headed to Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon. On our way, we saw the large glacier spilling down into the flats. You could see along the road how the glacier once met the ocean, but now it had retreated pretty far back to the mountains above. Sad.

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Happy to be in Jökulsárlón

We got to the lagoon pretty early, before the masses came. It was a photographers paradise. We walked around a bit but then headed West a bit to escape the crowds. We took a decent walk that flanked the West shore of the lagoon heading north towards the glacier. There were only a few other people here since most of the typical tourists don’t leave the visitor center parking lot.

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Jökulsárlón bay and the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier

We were able to get some really good views of the icebergs, glacier and even a sea lion hanging out on a floating chunk of ice.

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Sea Lion hangin’ out in Jökulsárlón Iceberg Bay

We had reservations in the afternoon to do a Glacier Kayak Adventure with Arctic Adventures, so we headed over to their meeting place at Skalafell Guest House after having some lunch. Once there they suited us up in dry suits and headed over the terrain in a tundra buggy. We stopped at a parking area overlooking the Heinabergslón glacier lagoon. Below was a fleet of kayaks waiting for us.

The trip was pretty cool. We paddled all around this massive chunks of ice that calved off the Vatnajökull glacier. We docked the boats a large chunk about the size of a football field that had a massive ice cave going through it. Our guide handed out MicroSpikes for us and we all went and explored the cave. We paddled around for another hour and a half and then headed back. My toes were pretty numb at this point so I was ready. It was kind of an expensive excursion but I think it was well worth it.

After the kayaking, we headed back to Jökulsárlón again. This time we went across the street to the Black Sand Beach where the Icebergs empty out into the sea and then get discarded on the beach. It is really cool since the ice becomes almost crystal clear and the contrast with the black sand makes for some amazing pictures. I could have spent a week here. I was on the beach until the last shred of light before heading back to the motorhome and having some dinner.

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Black Sand Beach at Jökulsárlón

The rain and wind picked up while we were eating dinner, so we headed back across the street and set up camp in a lower parking lot of the visitor center. There was another large camper there and we were a little more protected from the wind. Another rainy, windy night!

Day 10 – Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon to Skógafoss

The next morning I was up early to get some pictures of the glaciers in the lagoon before we headed on. It was a very dreamy like morning and made for some really cool shots. The light was so surreal. Such a cool place!

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Morning in Jökulsárlón Glacier Bay

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Misty Morning in Jökulsárlón

Next stop was the Skaftafell Visitor Center at Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park. The main feature here was the Svartifoss Waterfall. It was a nice little hike up to the falls and there were several other falls along the way. The Autumn colors were really brilliant too and made for some stunning views.

There is also a nice campground here too which was fairly empty. We did take advantage of it to empty out all our tanks and fill up with some fresh water.

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Canyon at Fjaðrárgljúfur

Next, we stopped at Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. The canyon is a short drive off the Ring Road, but the road is a bit rough. Especially for a motorhome. The canyon is really cool and we could have spent a bit more time exploring it than we did. I think at this point we were getting a little tired and kind of kept this short. I think the quantity of other tourists in this region, compared to the North and East, was a bit overwhelming for us.

We got to Vik as was getting dark and found the Halldorskaffi restaurant for some dinner. They had some good pizza and beer selection.

The wind and rain had picked up a bit while we were eating dinner. We stopped at an N1 and retooled a bit with some snacks, before heading Westward to camp for the night. We stopped at a small pull-off which was right next to the road and started to setup for the night. The truck traffic was a bit loud and there was not much cover from the wind here, so we decided to push on to Skógafoss falls. This would be a good move.

Skógafoss had a campground right next to the falls, so it would be perfect for getting some early morning shots. The wind and rain had also ceased and the Northern Light decided to light up the skies for a second time now.

I was out by the stream taking pictures and a girl from another camper came over and said “Do you think we have any chance of seeing the Northern Lights?” I said “Yes…there are right there.” and proceeded to show her the back LCD of my camera. She ran away yelling to her friends.

Day 11 – Skógafoss to Reykjavik

The next morning I was looking forward to some early morning shots of the Skogafoss waterfall. Denise was not in the camper when I woke up, so I figured she was in the bathroom. I took some shots of the falls from behind the motorhome. So glad I did this because pretty soon after the falls became loaded with tourists. I went back to the motorhome and Denise was still not back yet. I waited and waited, still nothing. Now the throng of cars were pulling in and filling up the previously empty camping lot. A large van full of Japanese models and photographers pulled up right next to our van and were making all kinds of commotion. I was starting to lose my cool now.

Denise eventually texted me and here she had hiked up the waterfall and back to the falls laying behind it. I waited for her to come back and then I left and did the same thing. Skogafoss is cool, but the falls behind it were amazing. I could have spent the entire day there. Unfortunately, it started pouring rain but I did get a few good shots.

Next stop was at the Seljavallalaug pool. It was a dirt road back into a little village nestled between some mountains. The road got a little rough before hitting the parking lot. Then a short little hike up to the pool. The pool was not super hot, but it was relaxing nonetheless. It got a bit crowded after I got in.

Enjoying a “soak” in Seljavallalaug pool

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Seljavallalaug

After my refreshing dip in Seljavallalaug, our net stop was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. The parking lot was packed with tourists. At this point, I was having my fill of tourist crowds. We had some lunch in the motorhome first and then headed up to the waterfall. It was a procession of tourists up, around and under the falls. Between the people and the heavy mist from the falls, I had a hard time getting some decent pictures here. It just didn’t have the same mystique that all those images I had seen of before had. We didn’t hang around here too long.

 

We continued on our way back to Reykjavik. I had planned to stop at Selfoss falls, but could not find it. I had kind of had enough at this point and was looking forward to getting to Reykjavik now. I didn’t really expend too much energy trying to find Selfoss either. I never thought I would ever get tired of photographing waterfalls, but I think I was pretty close at this point.

We finished up our Ring Road tour and set up our last camp at the Reykjavik Campsite which is right in the city. The campsite is really nice for being right in the middle of the city. Very spacious and nice facilities too. We took a nice walk into the downtown area for some dinner.

Walk into downtown Reykjavik

We made our way up and down Laugavegur Street and finally settled on a place called Harry’s. While it may sound pretty generic, it was a really nice place. I had a really good Vegetable Curry. They also had pretty assorted menu that would cover all tastes.

We did some more walking around town after dinner and made a stop in the Irish Pub for one last Iceland Pale Ale before we left. They even had my favorite, Úlfur Nr.3, on tap. While walking around we noticed something strange above us in the sky. Looking up we were presented again with another showing of the Northern Lights. Third time! Unfortunately, I only had my iPhone and no tripod to brace it. It was the perfect end to an amazing trip!

Northern Lights in Downtown Reykjavik

 

We returned our motorhome early the next morning. The guy from Geysir that met us there and took us to the airport was less than friendly. He literally dumped us of at the Geysir Car Rental Office. We rented a car for the day and drove around the city for the day. We had originally planned to go to the Blue Lagoon for the day, but realized that you needed to make a reservation beforehand.

This trip was one of my favorites. Despite not being quite as active as some of our past trips, the scenery and photography surely made up for it. Having the motorhome made it easy to be close to the good spots and get there before the masses of tourists invaded them. Typically, when we are on trekking trips you are kind of slave to a schedule so you don’t always get to the great photographic spots at the right times. The motorhome also made the high expense of eating out in Iceland a non-issue. My wife was on a specific diet, so she was able to stay on it since she could make her own meals. I will definitely consider doing the motorhome trip again.

 

My 2016 Year in Review – Topping My Charts

I have just returned from another fabulous Winter weekend in the Adirondacks to celebrate the New Year. While I was there I had gotten in some ample cross-training time skate-skiing, hiking and some photography. This outdoor time gave me a good amount of time to reflect upon the last year. I keep hearing others saying over-and-over how 2016 was such a horrible year, but for me, not so much.

Cascade Moutain – Lake Placid, Adirondacks, New York

You would think that as one gets closer to the big 5-0 that PR’s and things would become less frequent. But my 48th year was full of them. What is up with that? Perhaps the fact that I had well preserved myself well during my 20’s and 30’s may have something to do with that.

December(2015) was full of Winter cross-training in Banff National Park in Western Canada. They had gotten a good amount of early season snow there and Lake Placid had none. We hit the downhill slopes at Lake Louise and Sunshine Village, got some snowshoeing in on the Bow River and a ton of photographing the beautiful Winter scenery on the Icefields Parkway leading to Jasper.

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First Light on the Icefields Parkway

In January, we had plans to spend a week in the warmth of Sedona, AZ but that was cut short due to a blizzard that delayed flights for several days. We still ended up with an amazing, activity packed long weekend there. We got out for some amazing hikes and photography some beautiful scenery. I replenished my vitamin D store with the clear skies and bright sunshine. It was a great reset before turning my attention back to the long Ironman training season that lies ahead.

Chillin’ on the Bell Rock Vortex

In February I started up my official Ironman training season with Todd Wiley. I had gotten to know Todd over the last year or so through some of his workshops and Lake Placid training camp and really like his personality. He was a prior pro triathlete and has had a lot of success with some pretty high-level athletes over the years, so I thought I would see what he could do with this old, average dude. My goals for the season was to increase my IM run performance while maintaining my bike and swim and finalizing that with a sub-12 hour Ironman.

In March, I had my first official race of the season, The St. Pat’s Allentown 5k. While it is only a 5k, this would be the first test of my fitness to see what I had accomplished during the last two months. I would also use this as my Lactate Threshold(LT) test for my training. It did not disappoint. I finished with a 1 sec PR of 22:45(chip time) over my prior PR from 2013. 3 years older and getting faster.

St. Pat's West End 5k 2016

St. Pat’s West End 5k 2016

In April, I took things up a notch and competed in the local St. Luke’s Half Marathon which I hadn’t run in since 2013 when I ran with my wife. I was planning to run it in 2015, but got a stomach bug the morning of and had to bail. My current PR for this race, and half marathons in general, was from back in 2010 when I finished with a 1:46:41(chip time). I also had challenged my co-worker Steve, who is what I would consider more of a “runner”, to a duel for this race. It was a bit of a stretch, but I thought the extra competition would bring out a little extra in motivation for me. Although I didn’t come close to beating him, I did manage to eke out another PR for myself finishing in 1:45:10 after 6 years. 2 races and two PRs…not too shabby a start to 2016.

Next up was my first triathlon of the season, the French Creek Olympic Triathlon. I had never done this race before, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I knew it was a pretty brutal race with a very hilly bike and run, so you could not even compare it to any other Olympic Distance race. I obviously did not PR this race, but I did end up on the podium by taking 3rd in my age group. This was the first podium since my very first multisport race, the Belleplain Duathlon, back in 2008 where I finished 1st in my age group. So now 3 races and 3 top outcomes.

French Creek Tri Podium

French Creek Tri Podium

In June I traveled up to Syracuse, NY for the Ironman 70.3 Syracuse triathlon. Another race I had never done before, but was hoping for a good finish here given the prior results so far this season. The race started off well with one of my best half-iron swims and a decent bike leg where I felt I hadn’t “burned too many matches.” The run leg was a different story. The sun came out and the heat turned up towards the end of the bike and my body turned to mush. Reminiscent of the Ironman Couer d’Alene run I fell into a walk-run for the very hilly run course. Ok, you can’t have them all! So with no PR to be had this time, I took my setbacks here and turned it into motivation for the true goal “A” race of the season at Ironman Mont-Tremblant.

Finish Run Ironman 70.3 Syracuse 2016

Hurtin’ for Certain – Ironman 70.3 Syracuse 2016 – High Temps on the run left a little to be desired for this race.

July turned out to be a pretty hot month, so I gained some pretty good acclimatization to the heat while training. If Ironman Mont-Tremblant (IMMT) was going to cook me like Syracuse, I was now prepared. Well, as much as someone who does not like the heat can be.

August came around quickly and tapering was in full swing as we made our way up to Mont-Tremblant for the peak race of my year. When race day came I could not have asked for better weather conditions. It was very cloudy in the morning as I prepared to hit the water. A fighter jet buzzed us so close it brought tears to my eyes. Then the cannon blasted and we were off. The rain started during the swim and poured down all day! For me, that was perfect conditions. I was like a pig in the slop.

Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016 Bike Rain

Terrential Downpours on the bike leg of Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016

Due to some choppy lake conditions, my swim was not as fast as I thought it would be, but still one of my faster IM swims. My bike was one of my fastest so far but yet I still held back as I planned to save something for the run. The run was my best ever Ironman run. The rain came down and kept me cool while cranking out some 8:30-9:00 pace miles. I felt amazing the whole time. I blew away my sub-12 hour goal by about 14 minutes and coming away with an Ironman PR of around 50 minutes! I chopped off almost 30 minutes on my IM run time alone. Mission accomplished!

Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016 – Finish

So now 5 races completed for this year and 3 of them were PR’s and 1 podium. What more could I ask for? A fabulous end to an epic season for sure. Proof that aging does not mean you get slower. At least not yet. Maybe by the time I am 50 I can qualify for Kona? 🙂

Usually with the last race of the season comes a little depression that it is all over for another year. I like to schedule something big for after my last race that keeps me on the up-and-up. Just when you think things can’t get any better we headed to Iceland for a two-week journey around the island in a camper.

Kirkjufellfoss – Iceland 2016

I let my body recuperate a bit and broke out my camera for an incredible trip. It was the perfect diversion for someone who has only thought about training for the last year. The scenery was out-of-this-world and it was a great end to all the hard work that was put in over the last 8 months. I have been working on a full report blog post on this trip which I hope to be published very soon. Stay tuned for that.

While you would think that was all for this year, I had to do one more race. I signed up for the local South Mountain 10-miler run which was kind of a birthday run for me. I had never done this race before, but it looked to be quite challenging. It starts not too far from the Lehigh Univesity’s Goodwin Campus fields and a makes it was up to the very top of South Mountain, turns around and heads back down again. It is very steep and a big slog. I ended up 40th overall and 6th in my age group. Not a great result really, but I maintained a 8:12 pace which is just a bit off my half marathon pace. It was more for fun so I am not too worried about that.

I concentrated on my photography a bit for the remainder of the year, which tends to play 2nd fiddle to my training. I made a couple trips to Lake Placid and a short trip to Salt Springs State Park(PA) for some photography sessions. I came away with some keepers and also started getting more active with my Instagram feed. I dug back into my photo archives and found some great pictures I had taken in the past that never made it off my laptop.

So now as we head off into 2017 and I set my sights on Ironman Boulder and the inaugural Ironman 70.3 Lake Placid this year, I have great memories looking back on the amazing year that was 2016. Despite what many others have felt. I have so much to be thankful for. I can only hope that 2017 is even half as good as last year.

I can only hope that 2017 is even half as good as last year. Although, it is already shaping up to be a pretty full one. I have several races on the docket and plans are already being hashed out for an amazing trip to Croatia and Slovenia during post-race season. As for goals, Ironman Boulder should be a challenge in itself given the altitude so I am not putting any time goals on myself for that. Perhaps working on pacing myself would be enough. I think Ironman 70.3 Lake Placid may be my A race for the year and I would like to shoot for a half-iron distance PR there.

My other goal for 2017 is to get back to regular blogging here. I have fell off the wagon a bit over the past year so I hope to pick that up again. I have just “cut the cord” and cancelled my cable TV subscription, so besides saving money I plan on spending a little less time in front of the tube.

If you are reading this, I hope you had a great 2016 and a even better 2017 as well. Thanks for reading!

Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016 – Feeling pretty relaxed after finishing and just coming back from my post-race massage.

Tuscany, Italy 2014

I have been slacking on blogging lately and this post is long overdue. If you read my previous post about the start of our Tuscan holiday you know it did not get off to a good start. While it was not one of my favorite trips, looking at the pictures now I can hardly complain. It just wasn’t quite the active trip that I enjoy.

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Our flight arrival in Copenhagen, Denmark

We eventually made our way to Bologna, Italy after a couple short layovers in Oslo and Copenhagen, although it was a day later than planned. We were originally supposed to stay in Bologna the first night, so it wasn’t a huge loss skipping that one evening. Instead we just headed to the place we would have stayed the second night in Florence. It turned out that one day in Florence was enough anyway.

Florence

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Our Italian Wheels-The Fiat 500

While planning this trip we had read horror stories about how crazy the drivers were on the highway was from Bologna to Florence. They apparently have never driven with my wife. Denise drove to Florence from the airport and she fit right in there. Actually, it was fine and we had no problems until we got to Florence that evening. Florence is pretty confusing to drive in with the crazy streets, circles and traffic. Fortunately Google Maps app on my iPhone was AWESOME! I don’t know what we would have done without it.
We arrived at the Il Palagetto Guest House a bit late the first evening, but they waited up for us and were very accommodating. They even made us reservations at one of their favorite restaurants, Trattoria da Sergio, while we unpacked. We then walked a few blocks through the large gates of the old city of Florence and enjoyed a fabulous dinner. Now we were feeling like we were on vacation!

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Denise enjoying some wine at Trattoria da Sergio-Florence, Italy

After a good nights sleep and some breakfast, we headed into Florence for the day. As we got into the main part of the city it became very crowded! Loads of tour groups with their little flags and earbuds filled the streets. I was not diggin’ it. The area around the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo were the worst. We had hoped to go in the Duomo, but the line was around the block. Instead we opted for our first(of many!) gelatto tasting. Yum!

We had 2pm reservations for the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David statue, which everyone says you have to see. We headed over that way to find where it was and to pick up our tickets. People were lined up the street to get in there. Seemed kind of strange when all they had to to was purchase tickets on the other side of the street or online beforehand. Then they can walk right in the door at their reserved time. I don’t know why people would not do that? Whatever. We walked down the street and found Ristorante Accademia. We enjoyed a nice lunch while we waited for our entry time.  The food was delicious, our waiter was really nice and spoke good English too.

We headed back to the Accadmia with full bellies and entered pretty quickly. We started looking at some of the works around the entrance and then quickly skipped right to the main hall where the David statue was. We are not really “art” people so this was a stretch for us. I was not blown away by the David statue at first as some had said it would do. Perhaps the masses of tourists distracted me. It wasn’t until I got up close that I was really amazed. The size and articulate detail of this statue was amazing. Carving veins and bodily details out of solid marble like that just blew me away. Definitely worth seeing. We spent a bit of time looking at David and then sauntered through the other statues, but the other stuff was snoozeville compared to David.

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David by Michelangelo-Accademia, Florence, Italy

The rest of the afternoon was spent “lolligagging” around the city. My wife enjoys this, but it just bores me to death. It is like mall-shopping for me. We got a good lay of the city and ended up at Piazzale Michelangelo where there was a gelatto-fest going on. The view of the city from there was amazing too. We decided after this we had enough and made our way back to the Il Palagetto House and started on our way down to Lucca. We would be staying at Il Gallo Guest House just outside of Lucca for the remainder of our trip.

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Il Gallo Bed & Breakfast

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Our place at Il Gallo B&B-Bozzano, Tuscany, Italy

The drive to Il Gallo went suprisingly fast. Google Maps directed us precisely up the winding little road up the mountain and into the driveway. We were immediately greeted by our friendly hosts, Robert & Katinka. They showed us lovely accomodations and invited us down for some local wine and snacks after we unpacked and settled in. We immediately felt at home with Robert & Katinka. It felt more like we were getting together with friends we had not seen for a while than hosts we had never met before. They are actually Dutch, but have lived in Italy for quite some years and new the lay of the land. We had told them of our dietary preferences, me being plant-based and Denise more a hybrid paleo, and they were very accommadating with our breakfasts. They even adjusted the breakfasts throughout the week based on what we did and didn’t eat. The first night Robert drove up the road with us to the little village above. He took us into the local restaurant and translated the menu and ordered for us in Italian before driving back home. The little restaurant in the town of Bozzano was pretty much only locals and was only open a few nights a week, but the food was amazing and so inexpensive. It is one of those places you just don’t find on your own.

Every morning, weather permitting, we make a short walk up into Roberts’ olive grove to our private terrace for breakfast. Robert had already delivered our wonderful breakfast which would be wating for us there. It was just an amazing scene looking out over the mountains that surrounded us. I didn’t want breakfast to end. On days when it was cooler or raining we would eat down by the main house which was very nice too and still provided the spectacular views. My only complaint about the week was that we didn’t spend more time there hanging out a bit, but we had all these cities to visit.

Denise enjoying breakfast on the terrace at Il Gallo, Lucca, Italy

Denise enjoying breakfast on the terrace at Il Gallo, Lucca, Italy

Isola Santa, Barga & Lucca

 

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Denise walking through Isola Santa, Italy

On our first day we drove north towards Castelnuovo di Garfagnana then west to a little ghost village in the Alpuane Alps called Isola Santa. Isola Santa is tiny town nestled into valley surrounding a beautiful spring lake. The town is so small and hidden we almost past by it. The parking area is basically just a turnout on the road. We walked through the little town and explored some of the hiking trails around the lake. By the time we got back to the tiny village, it was almost lunch time. There was one place with some outdoor tables that looked like they would serve food. No one else was eating yet, but we sat down at a table and a girl came out with silverware and things. Immediately after that several groups of people came in and sat down too. It now looked like this would take much longer to eat than we planned since they were not heavily staffed. We decided to leave and get something at one of the towns down along the Garfagnano valley.

We ended up stopping in the city of Barga for lunch. Barga has a very large Scottish population, which is highlighted by there Sagra di Pesce e Patate(Fish & Chips) festival every year. So we figured it would be easier to order and eat there since they most-likely spoke more English. We ended up eating at L’Osteria located in a small courtyard in town. It was quite good and the waitresses spoke decent English with a slight Scottish accent. We followed up our late lunch with a little gelato at the shop around the corner too.

We walked around Barga a little more after luch and then made our way down to check out Lucca. I think Lucca is one of my favorite towns in Italy. It has all the characteristics of an old medieval city but a little smaller and less touristy than some of the others. It is surrounded on all sides by a wall which you can run and bike around. I did neither of those, but we did walk a little bit around it 🙁 . To get into the city you must go through very narrow tunnels through the wall entrance which has cars on the outside and people on the inside. This leads to a bit of confusion when you get to the inside and everyone collides in the street.

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Lucca town center panorama

The labrynth of streets in the city are lined with many shops. There is a central piazza called, Piazza Anfiteatro, which has many shops and restaurants. Our host Katinka works in one of the shops so we decided to stop in and say Hi. While there she gave us some things to see in the city such as the Guigli Tower and also an opera that was going on that night. The tower was pretty cool. It had trees growing on the top and provided a magnificent 360-degree view of the city. The opera, well, was not really our bag. I tried to keep an open mind but neither of us was into it and we left at intermission. 50 Euros down the tube.

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View of Lucca from the Guinigi Tower

We then went in search of somewhere to eat dinner. We ended up walking back-and-forth across town because Denise could not make up her mind where she wanted to eat. We ended up eating at Gigi Trattoria, which Katinka and Robert had recommended. It was a good meal, but we were a bit grumpy for the undecisive walking about we had done. We naturally followed up dinner with some more gelato sampling in town.

Fuori dal Centro Gelateria, Lucca, Italy

Fuori dal Centro Gelateria, Lucca, Italy

One stop was at a place on the main piazza which was ok. The better one was a place on the street outside of the main city, named Fuori dal Centro, which was right where we had parked. Denise had spotted some locals in there, so we figured it must be good. And it was!

 

Monte Forato Hike

We enjoyed anothe great breakfast before heading north again to the town of Fornovolasco to do the Monte Forato Hike. The Fiat 500 was getting bit low on fuel so we needed to stop and refuel. There is a gas station down the bottom of the hill from Il Gallo, but Denise said she had seen numerous other stations along the road we had taken the day before. As we drove on we didn’t see any and we were quickly approaching our turn to head up into the Alps. I finally spotted one on the other side of the road and made a turn in. I filled up the tank with around 50 Euros of petrol and then gave the attendant my Mastercard. Rejected!! I then gave him my Debit card VISA…Rejected! WTF!! I asked him to try my credit card again…still nothing. I didn’t know how much cash I had and started digging into my pockets. I managed to piece together the 50 Euros using every little piece of coinage in my pocket. Whew! Apparently gas stations in Italy use some special card for their gas purchases that is different from a regular credit card. I would highly suggest looking into this beforehand or just carry cash.

We eventually drove through the small town of Gallicano which had a ATM and a grocery store. We were also out of water, so we needed to stock up. I ended up purchasing a 6-pack of large bottles, but I unfortunately didn’t notice the word “sparkling” on the side. We noticed this later after we getting ready to start our hike in Fornovolasco. Not a good start to the day.

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Fornovolasco, Tuscany, Italy

We headed across the little bridge and up through the town. I somehow lost track of Denise while I was taking pictures, but eventually found her down at the lower end of the street. She was all mad about it, which I didn’t get since I thought I had seen her go up the way I had gone. I like to take my time hiking and take pictures and she is all focused on hiking, so she just takes off without me. We followed the stream uphill and eventually got off onto some trail going past some small gardens. There were some nice waterfalls along the way, but heaven forbid I stop and take pictures, so I just kept hiking. We eventually straightened things out at the next trail junction.

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Rainbow on Monte Forat Hike-Apuane Alps, Italy

The trail is mostly uphill for the first half before topping out on some rocky peaks. There are some great views of the valley and the coast on the opposite side. The trail had also gotten a little tricky to follow at the top as well. We ran into another couple on the climb up, who we chatted with a bit on the top. They John & Sarah from Massachusetts. We told them we were from Allentown, PA and John said he had done a Tough Mudder at Bear Creek Ski Area which is just up the road from us. They were a really nice couple and we had much in common with them. We hiked together for a little bit and then went our separate ways but kep running into each other again. We ended up hanging out with them at the bar back at the trailhead afterwards. We never got their contact information though, which I have regret.

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The great stone arch of Monte Forato-Apuane Alps, Italy

The climax of the hike is the rock archway with a view of the valley in the middle. It was really clouded in when we first got there, but eventuallly cleared up to give us a view. We also got a nice little rainbow on the other side too. The hike down was not as much fun. It has briefly rained and made for an extremely slippery descent. Denise and I both fell several times. One of my falls was pretty intense too and my wrists were hurting. It was a pretty nice hike and we could have lengthened it a bit more if we had more time.

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Fornovolasco, Tuscany, Italy

On our way up to Fornovolasco, we noticed a small church nestled in the cliff side of the windy road up the mountain. We decided to take a ride up the small driveway to check it out. The Santuario Mariano Eremo di Calomini was lit up really cool as it turned dark out. Unfortunately, they had it gated off so you could not get up close to it. We also noticed a very narrow driveway that skirted the cliffside and a sign indicating a agriturismo and restaurant. We decided to check it out. Threre was a sheer dropoff on the right side of narrow driveway. We eventually came upon the Agriturismo Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita. It appeared to be open so we went in and had some dinner. It was pretty basic, but good. The best part was that they had some local spelt beer which I had yet to try. Definitely a good add for my Untappd profile.

Montepulciano & Siena

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Toscana View from Montepulciano, Italy

Wednesday morning we got up a little earlier, had breakfast and were on the Autostrada heading to Montepulciano. Montepulciano is one of our favorite types of wines, so we were looking forward that. It was about a 3 hour drive down there via east to Florence and then due south. The scenery was nice, for being on a highway, but the landscape was a bit browner than I would have expected. Perhaps it was that time of year. We got into Montepulciano around lunch time, found a parking spot in one of the parking garages on the Southeast side of town and headed into the city center to get some lunch. Denise had picked out La Pentolaccia as a good place to eat in the Rick Steves Italy book and it ended up being right in front of us when we walked into town. Perfect!

La Pentolaccia translates to “The Stinkpot” in English, but there was nothing stinky about it. We grabbed the last table outside which we shared with anothe couple from Arizona. They were really nice and we ended up chatting away with them. The lone waittress there was really sweet, but she was so busy you could tell she was really struggling to keep her composure. The food took a little long, but it was so worth it. I had some bean soup and gnocchi for my main course. We also had a small bottle of wine to wash it down with. Rick Steves did not steer us wrong there.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town, which my wife likes to do. I tend to get a bit antsy when there is no particular destination in mind. We stopped at the de Ricci wine cellar which was really cool I got some pretty cool long exposure shots in there. The best part was at the end when you pass through the sliding glass doors into the tasting room. People in front of us were paying for wine tastings which were served at the counter. When we flashed our Rick Steves book at the wine stewards, we were immediately whisked over to a nice table and chairs complete with snacks and a full flight of tastings. Wow…Thanks Rick!

We then wandered around some more and then to the main Piazza Grande, which is the main square in town. I ventured into the Duomo and took some photos in there. It was fairly dark, so I had to do some longer exposures on the tripod. Next, was a short walk down the street to the left to Cantine Contucci to see the ever popular Adamo (Pallecchi) and taste some of the legendary Vin Noble. Adamo is known to be a bit of a character and he surely did not let us down. When Denise asked him if she could get her picture taken with him, he immediately starting fondling her and went in for the kiss. On the lips no less. Everyone was cracking up, including Denise and I. I didn’t manage to get the kiss shot because I was laughing so hard. It was so funny. Oh yeah the wine was pretty good too!

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Adamo putting the moves on Denise

We left Montepulciano in the late afternoon and decided to drive the more “scenic route” back to Lucca. We wanted to see more of the countryside and also avoid rush hour traffic on the autostrada. The countryside was beautiful, but much more brown and dry than you typically see. Most of the fields were plowed and the soil has very ash gray color to it. Nonetheless, it was still beautiful country. We decided to stop in Siena for dinner and check out the town.

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Montepulciano, Italy

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Duomo of Siena, Italy

Siena was really cool. Very old and has many tiers to the streets. The most impressive part was walking out into the Piazza del Campo, which is a large, amphitheater-like courtyard which is surrounded by the large Tower of Mangia on the lower end and numerous restaurants on the upper side. We headed past the Tower to dine outdoors at Antica Trattoria Papei, another Rick Steves recommendation.  Rick did not let us down this time either. The food was really amazing and they allow you to order a bottle of wine and only charge you for the amount you drink which I had never seen before.

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Panorama of Il Campo-Siena, Italy

As if Piazza del Campo was not amazing before, it was even better after dark. The tower was all light up and there were tons of people just hanging out in the piazza. We got some gelato’s and sat down for a while and took in the view. There was something really cool about that place, but I just could not put my finger on it. We then made our way back to Lucca and Il Gallo. But the excitement didn’t quite end there. I noticed that the gas gauge was going down pretty quickly on the way home. It was around midnight at this point and there were no open gas stations. I was sweating it out towards the end. The warning light came on and we still had a 12 miles or so to go. As I was winding up the steep and narrow road to our place, the warning light began flashing and some italian words came up on the dash. I pulled into the driveway on fumes around 1am! Whew..made it!!

The Cinque Terre

The next morning I literally coasted down the little road to the gas station at the bottom of the hill to fill up. Now that we had relieved ourselves of that stress, we jumped back on the autostrada and headed west to the city of La Spezia. La Spezia is the main trainstation for getting up to the towns that comprise the Cinque Terre along the coast. You can drive up there but it is not recommended since there is not many places to park in the tiny cliffside coast towns. We parked in a underground parking garage below the train station. The was a big sign on the door saying to take your parking ticket with you, which I would not normally do. But I suppose there was a reason for this. After taking some time to figure out where to get our train tickets we eventually got on the train and headed up to the town of Monterrosa, which is the most northern of the popular towns. It is also the most touristy and less quaint, but we were just there to get some lunch and then hike the trail down the coast to Vernazza.

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We had lunch at Cantina di Miky, which was right on the beach. To my surprise they had a full menu of Italian microbrewed beers! My Untappd profile got a few nice additions of some international brews and badges. They food was also good. Denise had some anchovies that were nothing like the ones we typically see in the States. These actually looked like fish and they didn’t even taste fishy. There was a group of four next to us who just arrived from St. Louis who gave them a try too. After several IPA’s, one a double, I was ready for some hiking! But, we couldn’t do that until we had some gelato first.

We made our down the crowded promenade towards the end of the beach to pickup the trailhead. Throngs of tour groups crowded our the walkway making it difficult to move at times. We eventually reached the narrow trail and began our making our way up. Two German women in full packs and hiking gear played hopscotch with us until reached the ticket booth of the trail to pay our trail fee. The trail was pretty narrow and with amount of people on it it made it very annoying. You would get behind people in high heels or flip flops who should have stayed on the promenade and then you would need to wait for a time when someone was not coming the other way to pass them. I was getting irritated with it quickly. This is not my idea of hiking.

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Monterrosa, Cinque Terre

Despite the traffic, the views along the coast were beautiful. This made all the more difficult since it was really hard to take it in. The highlight was when we rounded the final bend to get our first views of the town of Vernazza. It is so picturesque with the brightly colored buildings which bend out on a penisula into to the sea. The beauty becomes afterthought though when you enter the town into the masses of people bustling about. We wandered around the town a bit and stopped into the closes gelateria to refuel a bit. I don’t think we missed having a gelato in any town in Italy yet.

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Locks on the Cinque Terre trail.

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Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

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Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

We decided to skip the hiking since it was not what we were hoping for there. So next we headed up to the train station after checking out the town a bit more. They never checked our train tickets on the ride in, so we decided to try and ride for free this time. We skipped the next town of Corniglia and headed to Manarola.  It was a pretty quick ride, but it seemed longer since I was stressing about not buying a ticket. I don’t think it was worth the stress to save a couple dollars. Karma will come to play later in the day for doing this.

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Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

We spent some time walking around Manarola looking for prospective restaurants for dinner. We walked out the walkway to the North where the classic picture of the town is taken. It was early yet, so we walked to the little outdoor restaurant just above it to have a cocktail and take in the beauty of the town. By the time we were done, crowds of people had accumulated on the walkway to get their evening photos. Most were just smartphone or handheld shooters, but there was one or two other guys with tripods to get a real shot. The lighting was not spectactular, but it was still beautiful regardless. I took a bunch of shots including one of Denise and I in front of the town. Then we were off to find some dinner. We settled on Trattoria la Scogliera at the lower end of town. It was busy, but they had room for us. Food was very good too.

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Happy Travelers at Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

 

After dinner we hopped on the train again, this time with tickets, and headed to the next town of Riomaggiore. After a long walk through a tunnel, we popped out right in the middle of town. Riomaggiore is a very narrow town that is nestled between the mountain that surround it. It is very difficult to get a good shot of the town without going out on a very craggy seawall. The waves were pretty large crashing into it so I decided against that. We walked up the street into the town and found what else but a gelateria. Why not have a gelato! After finishing up our gelatos we made our way back down towards the train station. It was around 9:30pm now and the last train was at 10 or so. As we walked I started digging around my pockets for our parking garage ticket. Hmmm…nothing? We stopped and I went through everything to no avail. Ugh…Karma had struck. To make matters worse, the train we were waiting for was delayed so we stood there just anticipated the adventure that awaited us. Would we be stuck in the garage all night? Could we even get in to our car? I could see Denise was stressing much more than I was. With the train being even later was making our exit of the parking garage even less likely.

The train eventually came about an hour later and we were on our way back to La Spezia. We departed the train and made our way down the steps into the parking garage. We walked over to the ticket machine and tried to figure out what to do. There was nothing on the machine to indicate some option for help. Meanwhile, Denise ran up to the upper level and was trying to talk to a taxi driver who didn’t speak English. He didn’t know what to do. I had pressed a button which had an icon that resembled an RSS feed icon on it and a voice spoke in Italian on the speaker. I said “I lost my biglietto!” which is ticket in Italian. He said something I didn’t understand and then “drive to the gate”. There is a metal curtain gate at the exit to the garage. Right after he said that, I saw “€25.00” pop up on the little screen. I slid in my credit card and out popped a ticket! My stomach immediately eased. I ran up the steps to the upper deck and Denise was actually walking past the top of the steps. I said “Come on, I got it!”. We fired up the Fiat and headed out the gate.

So, we would have had to pay €17.00 to park had we not lost our ticket. So it cost us €7 more because I lost the ticket. That is about the same amount it would have cost us for the train ticket from Vernazza to Manarola. Karma?

We made the hour or so drive back to Lucca without too much issue. It was so nice to crawl into that bed though, since I had started wonder if we were ever going to that night. Friday was going to be a chill day at Il Gallo since it was supposed to rain and we had no real plans. I was looking forward to it.

 Chill Day in Lucca

I slept in a bit on Friday morning. There was a light rain which made it easy to roll over for some more z’s. Not that I have a problem with that. We had breakfast down on the veranda at Katinka and Robert’s home which offered just as nice a view as our terrace, but shielded us from the rain. It eventually started thunder & lightning and Katinka invited us in her home to hang out for the morning reading or catching up downloading photos. I was able to help them with some computer problems as well, which was cool. We invited them out for lunch and they took us to one of their favorite places in Lucca, Locanda Buatino. It was a really good meal and very inexpensive. Katinka had an appointment in town that afternoon, so we said we could walk around town some more and then take her back home.

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Our Favorite gelateria in Tuscany, Fuori Dal Centro, Lucca, Italy

We made a B-line for our favorite gelateria in Tuscany, Fuori dal Centro. It worked out great and we stopped at the grocery store and picked up some snacks too.

We lounged around during the afternoon and then had our last nights dinner at the little local restaurant up at the top of the hill. It was another fabulous meal and a great way to finish off the trip. We enjoyed a couple bottles of the local wine and some good dessert and cappucino before sauntered down the hill back to the house.

The next morning we packed up and said our goodbyes to Robert and Katinka. It was a wonderful place to stay and they are magnificent hosts. I would HIGHLY recommend staying here if in the area. We loaded up the Fiat and drove back to Bologna.

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Room at Radisson Blu Stockholm Arlandia Airport

 

The flights home went pretty smooth. We had a long layover in Stockholm, which we had picked because we love staying at the Radisson Blue by the airport. The rooms are awesome and the breakfast buffet is one of the best I have ever seen.

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Part of the breakfast buffet at Radisson Blu Stockholm Arlandia Airport

While this was a very nice trip, it probably wouldn’t be one of my favorites. The main reason for that is that it was it was just too short. I felt like we were just rushing all over the place to see everything. I like to just settle in to an area and really focus on that and do more hiking. I also am not into aimlessly walking around cities, but my wife is so she really like that part. I get kind of bored with it and I don’t like dealing with crowds of people. I also wished I could have had more time to do some cycling. The area we stayed is a mecca for road cycling and their were cyclists everywhere as drove to the next city. But the place we stayed was excellent and the area is beautiful. I would go back in a heartbeat, but I would just do some things differently next time.  Thanks for reading!

 

Tuscany 2014-Not Off To A Good Start

The day finally came and we were off to Newark Airport to begin our trip to Tuscany, Italy. We had a late flight so we made a stop at Pru Thai in Clinton, NJ for dinner on our way. Pru Thai is our favorite Thai restaurant and it was a good way to avoid the rush hour traffic too. We dropped our car off at the ABC Airport Parking and were quickly whisked away to Terminal B at Newark Airport. As we rolled up to the terminal it was starting to sink in that we were finally on our way. Or so we thought.

The SAS Ticket Counter

The SAS ticket counter was rather vacant of travelers, but there were several ticketing agents standing there. Hmmm…that’s strange? The ticket agent swiped our passports and said “do you know your flight was cancelled?” WHAT??!!! Suddenly I felt like I was in a dream and this was not really happening.

There was a lot of back and forth and the eventually all of the agents had come over and were huddling around trying to figure out alternatives for us. There wasn’t any, other than to fly out the next day. One option was to fly a little earlier on Friday morning with another airline that had a connection that was less than an hour. It would get us there 8 hours earlier, but we would risk missing the connection and possibly our luggage. The other, safe option was to leave at 6:55pm EST Friday via SAS with 2 stops and get to Bologna at 5pm on Saturday.

We chose the safer option and they put us up for the night in a hotel in Newark. Yippee!! The girls at the ticket counter were really nice and they told us we could use the airline lounge the next day since the one girl would be working the counter.We headed down to the welcome center at the airport to line up a hotel and shuttle pickup. Our voucher was for the Wyndham Garden hotel, but when I called the number the Hilton Garden answered. They said they would take our voucher and we needed to head to the P4 parking area to meet the shuttle.

Newark AirTrain

We made our way via the AirTran to the P4 Parking area to shuttle pickup. We waited while shuttle after shuttle came and went. None of which said Hilton Garden. There was Hilton, Hilton Newark but no Hilton Garden. There was even a Wyndham Garden! WTH? I asked the driver if that was the same as the Hilton Garden but he said no. Well we waited over an hour and saw the same shuttles come and go. We took the next Wyndham Garden.

We got a room at the Wyndham Garden, no problem, with vouchers for dinner and breakfast. I have no idea to this day where the “Hilton Garden” is or if it even exists. After checking in, I snagged some to-go Corona’s and water at the hotel snack bar and settled in for the night. I started cancelling and sending emails to change our reservations before falling asleep.

Wyndham Garden Newark Airport

We headed down for our free breakfast after a pretty decent nights sleep. We hung out in our room most of the morning until our late checkout at 1PM. I finalized changing our museum arrangements, rental car and cancelling our first nights room. We packed up our stuff had our free lunch at the hotel before heading back to the airport.

When we checked in at the SAS ticket counter and there was some more confusion with the ticket agents again. Now what?? The guy kept asking us what flight we were on and kept reminding him that they were supposed to be all confirmed for the day. He started going down the line asking the other agents something. Eventually he reached the last lady who seemed to know what she was doing. We walked down to her and got the scoop. She said there was two options. We could wait until 11:30pm and do a similar flight as what we were supposed to do yesterday with only one stop in Copenhagen. Or we could just do the two-stop flight that we were planning on doing which left at 6:55pm, but stopped in Oslo and Copenhagen. Either way we still got to Bologna at 5PM. We decided on the two stop flight just so we could get the hell out of the US. We made our way through TSA and headed to the gate.

The SAS Lounge - Newark Airport

The SAS Lounge – Newark Airport

I spotted the SAS Lounge and we looked through the doors and spotted the girl from the ticket counter the night before. She recognized us right away and we chatted a bit with her. She let us in to the lounge for free which was cool. It was free food and drink, comfy chairs and free WIFI. We enjoyed some nice snacks, wine and beer. They even had an open bar that you could make your own mixed drinks. It was pretty nice!

 

Before we knew it, it was time to head to the gate. We boarded the plane and settled into our seats. Our seats were at the exit door and bulkhead so we had a ton of leg room to stretch out a bit. SAS has gotten pretty stingy with their food & beverage service these days. They now charge for beer and wine on international flights which they did not the last time we flew with them. Oh well their flight was $400 cheaper(per ticket) than any other airline for the flight.

We taxied down the runway and we were finally off to our Tuscan vacation!

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In Flight Sunset

Haute Route Day 13-Europahütte to Zermatt

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Europahutte

I heard Denise’s watch alarm go off around 6am and I laid there until about 6:30am. We had shared the bunk room with another couple who slept on the bottom of the bunk and we were on top. They were a bit ricketty, so I was a bit self-conscious about moving around through the night, so I didn’t sleep all that well. We packed up and made our way down to breakfast at the Europahütte. More cereal, bread, butter, jam and coffee. Standard fare these days. I really miss my smoothie! My first glance out the window revealed total white out. It was looking more and more like a valley walk so far us. We had assumed that the others were going to hike back up to the other side of the suspension bridge and walk the Europaweg in to Zermatt, but we never actually talked about it with them.

We finished eating, paid up our beer and water tab, packed up and made our way down the mountain to the town of Randa. We had to meet the taxi there around 8:30am and it was almost a 3 mile hike down to the pickup point. We left the hut around 7am.

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Last Day on the Haute Route…down to Zermatt

Denise and I started at the back of the pack as we all made our way down. The descent was pretty steep with numerous rocky zigzags paved the way down. My knees were not used to the steep descent first thing in the morning and they were letting me know that in no uncertain terms. We usually start the day with a good climb and end with the descent, so this was a bit of a change. Denise had been sagging back a bit and I tried to stay in between her and the rest of the group who had gained a bit of a lead on us. I glanced back one time to find her taking her pack off. I stopped and waited a bit and saw her doing some stretches. I went up to see what was up. She said she had taken a pretty good fall and now had a stiff neck. She hadn’t fallen at all in the last 12 days of hiking and now she tumbled on our last day of hiking. This would solidify our decision to walk the valley in to Zermatt.

We continued down the trail slowly after Denise collected herself. She had been listening to the audiobook Unbroken by Laura Hildebrandt and was trying to finish it before the hike ended. Denise fell again a short time later. This time not quite as bad. I then stayed behind her a bit. I was now getting a little worried we may miss the taxi and have to walk that much further.

I caught up to Denise sometime later and she turned around in tears. I immediately thought she fell again and hurt herself and asked if she was ok. She turned around and headed down the hill not saying a word. I later found out that the book had a emotional ending that she had hit which was what caused the sudden burst of tears.

We eventually got down to the taxi pickup point and the taxi driver was coming up the road looking for us. We had decided we would walk the valley in to Zermatt since the clouds had not broken up high. It would not be worth climbing back up the other side of the bridge again. When we got to the taxi we were surprised to see all the others from our group were in there too. We thought they had left in another taxi already. The taxi van was quite full and Denise sat up front and I was crouched on the floor by the sliding door. The taxi stopped at the bus terminal in Tasch and we got out. We were surprised when all the others in our group got out too. They had also decided to walk the valley in as well due to the cloud cover.

We all walked over to a nearby coffee shop and reminisced for awhile about the trip some more. Afterwards we made our way to Zermatt on the trail that followed the river down the valley to Zermatt. The trail had a few undulations in it, much like the trail we started on 14 days ago in Chamonix. This time it seemed much easier now that we were all seasoned Haute Route hikers.

We eventually came to a small rise with a bench overlooking Zermatt and the Matterhorn peeking around the corner. We took a bunch of group pictures and had a big “group hug” to celebrate the long, two-week journey from Chamonix. It was a pretty special moment. We then continued down the hill into Zermatt town. It was the end of the journey.

Entering Zermatt was an immediate culture shock. There were throngs of tourists everywhere. Stores and restaurants lined the street. We spotted the Molino Italian restaurant for lunch and we headed in. It was a beautiful day so we decided to sit outside. I am sure we stuck out like sore thumbs amongst the extremely clean tourists. The pizza and the beer were really good!

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Celebration Meal

After lunch, we all parted ways to our respective hotels. As we were walking up the street, I heard my name being called. Huh? Someone knows me in Zermatt? It turned out to be Anne, Nate, Paul and Claire who had diverted off the trail earlier. We chatted a bit with all of them and then made our way to the Hotel Allalin. We had decided that the entire crew would get together for a big final dinner tonight and then hit some clubs afterwards. Sounds like a party!

The Hotel Allalin was quite the site for sore eyes. Especially after staying in a mountain hut the night before. The lady at the front desk was so friendly and gave us such a warm welcome. Denise had been hoping for a room with a view of the Matterhorn. She asked the lady if we had one, she said she wasn’t going to tell us with a little smirk on her face. When we got to the gorgeous room I glanced outside to see the Matterhorn in all its glory right in front of us. Ahh! The folks at Alpine Exploratory made a good call on this place, especially for your last night of your hike.

We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and doing our wash in the sink. The day had turned super clear and sunny and it our clothing dried rather quickly on the balcony. The plan was to meet the others at 7pm at the church in town and go out for a final bash before everyone leaves.

We all met up in town and walked up and down the streets for awhile trying to agree on someplace to eat. We ended up eating at the Ristorante Molino again(same place we had lunch), except we ate inside. After a good dinner, we ventured out searching for some type of nightclub to go to. A couple were pretty lame, but we ended  up finding this one in a basement. There was no one in there when we got there, but the tunes were good. It ended up getting pretty crowded as the night went on. We also started getting crazier as the drinks flowed. We were all dancing on some little platform and then swinging from a beam in the ceiling. Denise and I decided to head out a little earlier along with Nate and Anne, so we said our goodbyes and parted ways. It was fun trip and even though we had planned on doing this trip on our own, we met such a great group of people anyway to share the experience with. It all worked out really well.

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Post Hike Partying at the Disco!

Well technically the Haute Route trek is completed, but we still have another day in Zermatt. Would we dare venture out for more hiking? Or would we just relax around Zermatt all day? Hmmm…stay tuned. While the entire trek was supposed to be a 14-day trek, we combined the first two days into one doing the 17+ miles from Chamonix to Trient.

Haute Route Hiking Stats-Day 13

Europa hut(Europahütte) to Zermatt
Day
Hiking Time:3:42
Hiking Distance(mi):)7.15
Elevation Gain(ft):801
Cumulative Totals
Days Hiking:13
HR Hiking Time:76:14
HR Distance Hiked(mi):128.0
Elevation Gained(ft):40,977

Haute Route Day 12-St. Niklaus to Europahütte

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Denise, Val, Kathy, and Garreth heading out of Gasenried to hit the Europaweg

As I mentioned in my Haute Route Day 11 post, my mattress had a large crater in the middle of it and I spent most of the night sleeping curled around the edge of it. By the way, Paul from the UK informed me later that this was easily resolved by moving the boards closer together. Unfortunately, I am not that clever or motivated to get up in the middle of the night and deal with it I guess. Anyway, I heard Denise waking around 6am and knew I had a about a half hour until I needed to wake. We needed to pack up before the 7am breakfast at Hotel de la Reserve so we could make the 7:44am bus to Gasenried. We decided to take the bus up to Gasenried instead of making the 2.5 hour hike up there. It would be a long day even without the extra 2.5 hours. Kathy, Val and Gareth had decided on doing the same thing so it was an easy decision. They are all pretty hardcore mountaineers, so if they are taking the bus I really don’t bad doing the same.

After arriving in Gasenried, we spotted a little market and I picked up a roll, some Gruyere cheese, and a sleeve of cookies for my lunch. We met up with the others and started on our way.

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Start of the Europaweg

We walked up the road a bit, passed a church, crossed a bridge, made a left and were immediately in the woods and climbing. And climbing. We spent a good part of the morning climbing through the woods. Kathy, Val and Gareth stopped for a bit and we had kept going so we were split up for most of the day. Eventually we came out above treeline and reached a statue overlooking the towns below which was our first waypoint. Again the distances we got were far more than what was listed on the Alpine Exploratory route card we had. What they listed in km, I had in miles.

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DANGER!! Cross the rockfall quickly!!

After this, the landscape had changed to very steep and rocky. It would stay this way all day too. The path was very narrow with some serious exposure all day. The worst parts were the areas with the fresh rockfalls and the signs indicating that you are to proceed through quickly to avoid danger. One of the gullies I had crossed has some very loose rocks and I found myself on all fours, spread-eagled across the boulders, trying to make way without causing a rockfall myself. It was rather stressful to say the least. Right after this, three guys through and walked across it like it was nothing making me look like quite the wuss. Denise had been waiting for me to find my way and just followed the guys path and made it without any issue.

When you were not on a rockfall area you were skirting a very narrow, 1 foot wide or less path that had a sheer drop over the edge. If you mistook a step, you are a goner. Several areas in the paths had big cracks in them that looked like the whole walkway would just drop off at any second. There were also several sections that had ropes attached to the rockwall on the uphill side of the path. Most of these sections were a lot less scary than some of the sections that didn’t have any.

This went on for hours. I was very exhausted from all this stress. Normally there would be spectacular views the entire way too, which may make this difficult terrain more tolerable. But today the mountains were socked in with fog most of the time. As the afternoon went on, the clouds eased up a bit, but it was if they were playing hide-and-seek with us. They would reveal small parts of themselves, but never the entire mountain. The Weisshorn, the Grand Gendarme, and the Brunegghorn were never totally able to be seen in their entirety.

Eventually Kathy, Val and Gareth caught up to us and passed us. We mentioned to them about the scariness of rockfall areas, but they didn’t seem phased by it at all. I guess they are used to that or we just wussies! Smile Or both.

The path did ease up a bit and get a little wider making things a more relaxing. Just as we were settling into some nicer walking, we rounded a bend only to find a cabled suspension bridge linking up the trail across a section of the that was once the mountain. A large rockfall had wiped out a large section of the former mountainside. The bridge was pretty shaky and the narrow planks that were laid on the bottom of the braided cabling would frequently click into place making it feel as if they were giving way. The wood also looked like the thickness of wood paneling and seemed like I could break through at any second. As I approached the middle of the expanse it began to swing more and more. It was actually kind of fun though.

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EuropaHutte!! An oasis among the rocky mountainside. Note the other suspension bridge further on which was closed.

We finally arrived at the Europahütte after rounding a couple more bends in the mountain side. It was a relief to finally get there. We settled in and got the lay of the land for the place. We sat out on the deck for a while with Rich, Martijn, Val, Kathy and Gareth  and enjoyed some beers, snacks, laughs and the beautiful views of the mountains across the valley. We eventually moved indoors after it got a bit more chilly out.

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Apres Hike at Europahut with Martijn, Rich, Val, Denise, and Gareth

Dinner at the Europahutte or Europa Hut(in English) was some scallopini style meat and potatoes with gravy along with a consomme soupe and salad. We had some pink ice cream and whipped cream for desert and sat around talking for a bit. Tomorrow we had to make a decision of how we would proceed to Zermatt. There was another suspension bridge right after the Europahutte which was closed due to another recent rockfall, so we needed to decide whether we would take a taxi from the town of Randa below the hut back up to the other side of the suspension bridge or just walk the valley into Zermatt. Denise and I reserved the taxi, but would decide on the way down to Randa based on if the mountains were clouded in again. It sounded like the others would be hiking back up to the other side of the bridge and taking it in on the high side.

As the sun set, I broke out the tripod and tried to get some sunset shots beyond the mountains. The clouds had cleared up quite a bit now, but the sunset really didn’t materialize too well. We headed up to the bunks around 9-9:30pm for a good night sleep.

Haute Route Hiking Stats-Day 12

St. Niklaus to Europa hut(Europahütte)
Day
Hiking Time:6:58
Hiking Distance(mi):)9.27
Elevation Gain(ft):3,930
Cumulative Totals
Days Hiking:12
HR Hiking Time:72:32
HR Distance Hiked(mi):120.8
Elevation Gained(ft):40,176

Haute Route Day 11-Gruben to St. Niklaus

Haute Route Hiking Stats-Day 11

Gruben to St. Niklaus
Day
Hiking Time:8:05
Hiking Distance(mi):)12.5
Elevation Gain(ft):3,878
Cumulative Totals
Days Hiking:11
HR Hiking Time:63:35
HR Distance Hiked(mi):111.5
Elevation Gained(ft):36,246

We headed out of the Schwarzhorn Hotel after a relatively mediocre breakfast. It was an immediate grunt uphill as we left the building and switchbacked our way towards the Oberstafel . We started out at around 6500′ elevation and would peak at just short of 10,000′ in less than 4 miles.

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View on ascent out of Gruben

We were had a forced opportunity for a break part way up the mountainside as a stampede of cows were being coerced down the mountain by a young couple. They had a large bag of salt, which they would pour on some rocks on their way down. The cows would then follow along and compete with each other to get the salt. We were a bit startled by it at first as this large herd came bursting out of the trees. We didn’t know which way to go. They eventually moved on and we continued our slog uphill.

 

The weather quickly turned windy and cold as we exited the tree line. Now we could see most of the way up to the pass that we would eventually climb to. The terrain became very rocky and barren from here up. The next section was a little less steep and then it kicked up for the stretch before the pass.

We took a bit of a break at a large rock to put on some more layers, hats and gloves. Rich from CA had passed on by us. Eventually Martign(Ned) and Garreth(UK) came flying up behind us in hot pursuit. They had practically flew up the hillside, which was evident by the sweat dripping off both of their faces. Martign is very tall guy and one of the faster hikers I have ever seen. He just goes consistently fast and you may keep up with him for a little while, but eventually he will vanish.

The others passed by us and we could see them making their way up the large, rocky summit. It had started to snow after we put our jackets on and the pass was going in and out of sight. Denise and I somehow took a path to the right that wound us on the right side of a small pond before the steeper stretch. We realized this had taken us out of the way of the main trail and it was a little tricky getting back over to the left due to the large rocks that covered the area we were on. There was no real trail so we had to figure a way back over. Kind of burned up some time there.

Heading up the very steep section before the pass, the snow was coming down pretty good and a very cold wind blew. The rocks and plants had a very windblown, icy look to them like Sastrugi which makes this pretty evident. We eventually reached the pass where the temperature was well below freezing and the winds were whipping. I took a couple shots of the trail marker sign which looked pretty cool with the windblown snow and ice on it. The Schwarzhorn summit was just to our left, but the fog did not allow us to see it.

We started on our down from the pass on route to St Niklaus. It remained foggy for a while as we descended the rocky path. The path angled to the right side of the valley. I passed an older couple taking a break who brought a small group houses just below in the valley to my right. They could just barely be seen through the dense fog.

We continued bearing to the right following the mountainside. Eventually we came to a landing where Martign was taking pictures. It was an amazing view of the entire valley or “Valais” leading down towards Zermatt. The view was amazing despite the fact that there was a large volume of clouds covering the peaks of the mountains on the other side of the valley. We also watched a couple Chamois(deer-like animals) run around on the flat just below where we stood. It was a just an amazing viewpoint. We stood there taking it in for a while and Kathy and Val eventually caught up. Val took the picture of Denise and I here.

We had a snack and continued on gradually down the mountain side towards the small town of Jungen. We were hoping for the clouds on the mountains across the valley to lift, but they never did entirely. The town of Jungen was supposed to have a cable car to take you down to St. Niklaus too, which we were contemplating a bit.

Jungen was a cute little mountainside village with matching slate roofed cottages. As we came out of the woods the trail angled around the left side of the village eventually coming a small pond and picnic area. There was a nice area to view the valley immediately after where we could also see the cable car. We decided to keep pushing down the mountain on foot. It ended up being a great decision because we found a little restaurant in the narrow village pathways with a big grass terrace and the most incredible view ever! Denise asked me if I wanted to stop for a beer…Yeah…twist my arm!

We unloaded our packs and made ourselves at home on the wood picnic table overlooking the valley. There was yodeling music playing which really made me feel like I was in the Alps for sure. I ask German speaking hostess if they had any food. She said “Brautwurst and Rosti” in some Germany-English language. I gave her the thumbs up! And added a big bottle of Feldschlosschen beer too. Ahh….Life is good!

We were entertained by a group of older gentlemen hikers with a table full of empty beer bottles and wine glasses. I don’t think they were hiking down the mountain. I recorded a little video of Denise and I as we were enjoying the view. We thought it was funny.

Eventually Rich from California showed and joined us. My meal came out soon after and it was the best meal ever! I put my vegan hat off to the side for this one. Rich ended up ordering the Bratwurst and Rosti meal too after seeing mine. Nate and Anne(from Seattle) showed up too … it was becoming quite the party.
We eventually loaded up and started our way down the mountain. It was a little steeper now and consisted of switchbacks most of the way. Once down into St. Niklaus we had to navigate some train tracks and then we were in the town. It was a relatively modern looking town, but it seemed pretty deserted. There was a more quaint section with more shops and dining, but most places were closed. We eventually found our hotel, Hotel La Reserve, which was on the opposite side of town. Our hotel had a pizza place which was rated as one of the better places to eat, but it too was closed.

We settled into our bright yellow hotel room, unloaded our gear, took showers, and washed our clothes in the sink. I did some research on where to eat and decided to head back into town and do some searching there. We settled on the only place that seemed open. Turns out Nate, Anne, Val, Garreth and Kathy were there. Some of the others continued on up the mountain towards the town of Gasenried for the night. We would be starting there tomorrow, but would be taking a bus up to it.

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More Bratwurst and Rosti in St. Niklaus

The waitress did not speak very good English so it was a bit difficult for me wife to order since she has so many special requests. She ended up having to seek help from Nate who spoke a some German. We found that we had more trouble language-wise since entering the German-speaking portion of Switzerland. I think some of that may be because we prepared a little more for the French. Dinner was ok, but not one of our best meals.

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The bright yellow room at Hotel La Reserva

We headed back to the hotel for the night and settled in for a good night sleep. Or tried to. My side of the bed had the most enormous crater in the mattress I had ever seen. I ended up sleeping in “C” position on my side all night. We found out later on that Paul and Clare(UK) had slept in the same room a night or two later. Paul also had the larger crater to deal with. He ended up coming up with a more ingenious way of dealing with it, but I forgot what that was exactly.