Cruising the Norwegian Fjords

One country I needed to cross off my list was Norway.  I’d been to the other Scandinavian countries and this was the only one I was missing.  When Chris booked a Fjord cruise for us, well, it was perfect!  It was a cruise we’d both wanted to go on and with a good deal – he couldn’t resist.  Travelling with an ex, of course, has a set of unique circumstances but not only is Chris my ex, but one of my closest friends and so we still really enjoy spending time together and doing one of the things we both love – traveling.   Since the divorce I haven’t travelled as much (except a really AWFUL trip to Iceland – that we never mention) and so I was really looking forward to getting away. 

The night before we left we dropped Sugar off at the new (fabulous) boarders and settled in to watch the best TV of the year – Eurovision!  That’s a whole post on its own.  We leisurely headed to Southampton the next day in time to board the ship around 3:00.  Even though I’ve cruised twice before, I don’t think I ever get used to how big the ship is.  When we first saw it, it was pretty amazing.  Since it was run by Norwegian Cruise Lines, I took for granted it was a Norwegian Cruise Line (duh!??!).  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was an American cruise line which made the ship even better – a cruise and a taste of home – perfect!  Chris got an unlimited drinks package in the cruise deal so we indulged in Pina Colada’s (non-alcoholic of course) and sat on deck in the lovely sun waiting for us to head North.  It really was a beautifully sunny day.  Its always fun and exciting to explore the ship.  Its like a maze full of restaurants, shops, arcades, and bars.  I always think I’ll never find my way around when we first leave, and by the end of the cruise you know where everything is.   This ship, The Jade, was FAR larger than the other 2 ships we’ve cruised on before.  It always takes me a while to acclimate to the rocking of the ship but I was pleasantly surprised that my sea-sickness was at a minimum during this cruise (except through some particularly rough sea).

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Our first full day was a day at sea.  I was fully prepared with a good book (what I THOUGHT was a good book), textbooks and notebooks full of study material for my final essay for one of my University classes that was due a day after I got home, laptop, tablet full of games, podcasts, and music.  I learned my lesson from being bored on the Marco Polo Ship.  This ship was excellent and was full of activities for all ages and things to do, but I was content to sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by.

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Our first port was Stavanger.  To be honest I had no idea what to expect.  I didn’t do much research like I usually do before I travel and was just going to take things as they came.  We decided to do our old favourite – the hop on hop off bus.  They crammed us on like sardines for the first route of the day.  After a sunny day at sea the day before, it only took one look up to see that on this day we wouldn’t see a hint of the sun… and we didn’t.  We had LOADS of rain.  Off of the bus we took cover in an old church, which turned out to be a good choice.  It was ornate and the alter was unlike any I’d ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of old church alters after 11 years in England!). 

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We could only sit in the church for so long with so many other things to see so we braved the rain and headed out.  The village centre was pretty small so we just walked.  We looked at the market (full of tourist bait) and saw a circular building on a hill so we headed towards it.  At one point as we were sitting down for a rest, fortune smiled on me when I decided to see if there was a Pandora shop and there was one literally 5 steps from where we were sitting.  So of course, I HAD to get a charm for my bracelet (thanks Chris) and we continued on to the building on the hill.  Chris braved the cobbled street, but with my ankle I kept it safe utilizing the steps.  We arrived at the top to find… well… a circular brink building of no particular interest.  There was a plaque on it but neither of us knew why it was important – but there was a good view from all the way up there.  We headed back down the back streets just taking everything in. 

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Chris found where the bus stop was (I still don’t completely trust his sense of direction even though I REALLY should, 99.9% of the time he is exactly right and I am waaaaaaaay off).  We got on the bus and went and saw some older buildings…

**** I REALIZE I AM COMPLETELY VAGUE WITH THE NAMES OF THE PLACES WE’VE VISITED – IF YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW THE NAMES AND MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE PLACES WE SAW, CHRIS BLOG IS GREAT WITH THE DETAILS OF THE TRIP – CHECK IT OUT (I’M REFERENCING IT AS WE SPEAK, UH, TYPE). ****

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We got back to the ship with a little time to look around.  Chris looked for some souvenirs and I walked down the street to take some pictures of the houses along the waterfront.  The tour guide said that the houses on that stretch of road keep their curtains open and have a lot of traditional decoration for people to see how they live.  I didn’t get that far down the road – it started to pour with rain again.

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As we sailed away there were people putting their heads out of their windows waving and waving flags.  It was a lovely send off!  We were headed to the fjords next.  This was one of the nights we ran into some pretty rough sea and even Chris suffered with some sea-sickness.  With such a big boat you could really feel it listing back and forth – it was a bit unsettling, but I never felt unsafe or in danger, just not my favourite feeling. 

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Nothing could have prepared me for the view that we woke up to in Skjolden.  We had an inside room, which means we have no windows.  Our first view is when we walk out onto the deck.  This day we walked out to this….

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When you looked up all you could see were cliffs, clouds, and green and when you looked down you could see…

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It was Norway’s National Day and there was a band and the village all came out to greet us dressed in their traditional clothing, handing out flags as we got off the ship.  It was a quaint, charming welcome!  There was no hop on hop off bus here, so we did an excursion from the cruise line.  We got on a coach and started the climb up the mountain.  Some of the roads were narrow, and looking at the sheer drop out of the window I had to remind myself that they do this all the time – still scary though!

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The church was closed to visitors because they were having services for the National Day.  The people were so friendly and patient with people wanting to take pictures of them.  When we got back from the excursion we still had half a day left, so we walked along the edge of the water to the village centre.  Everything was closed because of the holiday, but we got to see some traditional homes and just take in the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a LONG time.  As we travelled, throughout the whole cruise, I can see why there are so many fairy-tales and folklore about trolls centred around this area – its magical!

It was so calming cruising through the fjords.  They are unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the water is like glass.  Waterfalls are every where you look.  There are little homes dotted along the coast line.  It makes me wonder how people live and thrive in such remote places, but part of me dreams of living a life like that.   The ship continued to impress with is great food and really entertaining shows. 

The next stop was Alesund.  This wasn’t a fjord, but a port town.  We got on the hop on hop off bus and headed up to the top of a very steep mountain.  We had clear skies and usually we’d do the whole route once and decide where to stop, but we didn’t know how long we’d have clear skies so we got off at this stop.  The view was breath-taking!  The top also had some old WWII bunkers, which seems like a pretty good place to have one, but it surprised me that even in this place there were effects of WWII.

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We got back on the bus and went and looked at an old church and the graveyard.  Even though it was a pretty big town, it still seemed pretty small and quaint. 

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We found our way back to the ship with only a minor disagreement (okay a bit of an argument) about directions and I only bring this up because although Chris STILL thinks he was right, well I think I am.  But, if the past is anything to go by Chris was probably right because it was all about how to get back to the ship. We went to a grocery shop to look at all the strange and usual food and to buy more chocolate than necessary.

When we leave the ports there are so many thing to see and beauty to take in.  You don’t know what way to look or what to focus on.

Next stop – Geiranger.  We had to amend the excursion because one of the roads that we were supposed to go on was still blocked with snow.  That didn’t matter, I knew the minute I took a step onto the deck we’d be spoiled with scenery no matter where we went.  We got on the coach and continued up another mountain with some of the most hairpin, sheer drop roads, I’ve ever experienced.  I just kept thinking – the driver knows what he’s doing.  And he really did.  We first stopped at a frozen lake.  The tour guide said, as we were getting out of the coach, “Don’t go far out its very deep and we don’t know how thick the ice is”.” Ummmmm, okay.  This Utah girl was pretty steady on her feet in the snow compared to some of the other people and the view was indescribable.  It was a frozen lake, but the sun was shining, and at the same time the fog was rolling in.  Beautiful.  The coach parked next to the snow bank so we could see how deep it still was.  One of the things that surprised me was that just when you think that there could be no more liveable areas, you’d stumble upon another house.  It is crazy some of the conditions the people live in.  I cant imagine it!

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On the way down from the lake, we stopped to take pictures of the Geiranger Fjord.  It was spectacular (I’m going to run out of adjectives, I’m going to need a thesaurus soon!).  We went to the other side of the fjord and went to a road with 10 hairpin turns.  It was hairy at points!  We stopped at another look out where you could see the whole fjord and the seven sisters waterfalls.  Back at the port we stopped at the shop and tried reindeer jerky, took pictures with a massive troll and headed back onto the ship.  I went to find a coveted seat on the deck with the best view.  I finally got 2 seats at a table right by the railing and then had to go inside because it was such a nice sunny day that I was getting sun burned!  We were lucky on the trip that we had pretty great weather.  Several tour guides said how lucky we were and that the groups the day before couldn’t see the view for the fog/rain. Chris stayed out on the deck and got some pretty amazing pictures – its hard to pick just a few!

Our last stop was Bergen.  We didn’t have a great time at this stop.  Once again they packed us on the coach and that started things off bad.  The weather was kind of blah (but no rain which is VERY rare), and we were both tired.  We did the hop on hop off bus stop but there wasn’t too much to see that was very different from our other non-fjord stops.  We went to the fish market and I was determined to have salmon right from the sea and I had been hearing about Norwegian strawberries off and on and when Rick Steves suggested them I was sold!  Luckily at the market they had some and they were some of the best I’ve ever had.  I also tried Cloudberry jam.  After struggling through the tourist shops we stopped for fish.  I got salmon and king crab and Chris got cod (he thought that was a safe choice, little did he know they barely cook it).  It was okay but, I didn’t quite know how to get into the crab very well and the salmon was lovely but garnished with some strange things.  Needless to say it wasn’t the best money spent on the trip (and it was VERY pricey!!!!).

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The next day was our last day and was a full day at sea.  It was really relaxing.  Chris spent a lot of time on the deck but it was too cold for me so I spent most of my time that day (and really, anytime on the ship – in the library.  It had big windows and classical music playing quietly and it was super quiet).  It was Sunday and I was falling asleep working on my school work and I looked on the book case for ‘take one, leave one’ and saw a Book of Mormon so I read, in a pretty nice setting!  Well done to the people who thought to leave it – missionary work done!

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We were in constant awe of how long it stayed light at night!

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The last night they had a Broadway show and I loved it!  We were given a beautiful sunset and I loaded up on the last of the American bacon, self serve all you can eat ice cream cones, and unlimited pina colada’s.

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A great summing up of our time together on this holiday!

We got home to several text messages about work and University essays due – that was reality with a hard landing!  It was a really nice holiday.  I would HIGHLY recommend Norwegian Cruise Lines, by far the best I’ve been on.  The fjords are something that you wont regret seeing and wont ever forget.  I’m so lucky to have been able to go.  Let me just get sappy for a minute – Chris and I didn’t have a perfect marriage and we both have many regrets about things that happened during that time.  But one thing that I don’t regret and will never be able to pay back is the fact that Chris, quite literally, gave me the world.  The things I’ve experienced and the places I’ve seen have been a gift, that I’m forever grateful for. 

Luckily one of the perks of staying friends is that we can continue to travel together  – we’ll see where the wind takes us next!  

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Finally Vienna (and Budapest, Brno, and Bratislava)

A few weeks after I got back from Poland, Chris and I had planned to visit Vienna.  It was a place that we’d always wanted to visit and what better time then Christmas.  Chris got a bit overly-ambitious and also planned for us to see Budapest, Hungary – Brno, Czech Republic – and – Bratislava, Slovakia.  This meant we’d see a lot more places and Christmas markets, but that I’d also be driving a lot more.  I just prayed that it wasn’t bad weather.  Like the previous post I’ll be doing my Top Ten (because I’m a slacker).  If you want more detail then you can always check Chris’ blog posts.

Vienna (and its neighbours) Top Ten

1.  Budapest, Hungary

I have to say this was my favourite part of this visit even though it was FREEZING!  We caught the train early in the morning and spent the day in Budapest.  We got to explore LOTS of Christmas markets and it was a very picturesque city.  I could have probably spent more time there (I didn’t get to see the Synagogue – not pointing any fingers….. Chris).  We took the City Sightseeing Tour, which included all the different routes and boats and everything.  We stuck to the first line and after 45 minutes on the open top of the bus, we pealed ourselves from the frozen seats and got out to see the market.  But it was a beautiful city!

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2.  Driving Through the Countryside

We decided on one day we’d visit the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  It sounds like a lot, but they were all very close and only a few hours at the most away.  I was so glad that it was nice weather.  It was foggy, which kind of ruins sightseeing while driving (and pictures), but that cleared and led to some off track sights and beautiful countryside.  Oh by the way, check your rental car for the Vignette before you pay for a new one for only a few hours – right Chris?

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Ode to Conchita Wurst (said in a think Austrian accent – by me). 

No idea who she is?  Well, SHAME!

 

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3.  Brno, Czech Republic

After finally parking the car in what might have been the tiniest car park ever (ever mindful of the rental deposit), we took a nice walk to the town centre to see the Christmas market.  Chris and I both remarked about how strange it is that you can cross a border (Austria to the Czech Republic) and immediately see the influence of the Soviet Era.  It was a quaint little market with a live nativity lots of little stalls and yummy food.  I really like the smaller markets, they are less commercial and have a lot more atmosphere. 

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4.  Bratislava, Slovakia

This little town was suggested by a wonderful friend when we once had a conversation about the places we have loved to visit.  I knew with her suggestion we couldn’t go wrong planning in a visit.  Vienna is only 30 minutes away and so we added this gem to our visit.  I wasn’t disappointed it was a lovely little town, one that I’d never visit otherwise, but well worth it.  We found a place to park just as the sun was setting so we didn’t get to see a lot of the scenery.  We walked past a little preview of a market and followed the crowds to a huge market!  Like most, it was in the shadow of an old church.  We walked around the stalls and through the Old Town.  I would love to go back here too!  A few hours wasn’t enough.

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5.  Schonbrunn Palace

The next day we had the whole day to spend in Vienna.  Unfortunately it was raining…. a lot.  Luckily we made it to the Schonbrunn Palace before it started to pour.  Chris really wanted to visit here because he’d seen in on TV.  It was spectacular!  We didn’t know it but, we got a Christmas market to boot!  It was pretty packed with school trips and LOTS of tourists.  It was quite the setting.  It may be the one place in Vienna I’d like to go back and see.

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6.  Vienna

I cant do a top ten of Vienna without adding Vienna, can I?  To be honest it wasn’t my favourite place ever.  I don’t think that helped that it was freezing and absolutely pouring down!  Would I pay to go again, no.  Would I go if someone paid for me, yes.  I am sure it has so much more to offer than what I got to see.  But, in-between the downpours I did see some lovely architecture and it is really nice to be completely surrounded by history.  Later that evening after drying off we headed to a concert we had tickets to.  We stopped by another market and, luckily it had stopped raining.  The market was WAY to commercial for my liking but it was a nice setting.  We tried Kinderpunch (the non-alcholic version of their version of mulled wine).  It was really nice and we even got a free mug! (Okay, not free they charge you a lot for the drink). 

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Did I mention it was raining… a lot…

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Equality street signs – I loved these.  They were left from when Vienna hosted Eurovision earlier in the year.

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7.  Audio Tour by Rick Steves

I find it crazy that Chris doesn’t know who Rick Steves is.  I spent many Saturday morning with him when I was growing up (maybe that’s what ignited my wanderlust).  I guess he is just an American treasure.  Anyway, this American treasure has an app to download free walking tours around Europe.  I found one for Vienna and decided that it was a great idea.  Unfortunately the rain, cold, and Chris had other ideas.  I was chuckling to myself during the first part at all of his lame jokes (they didn’t translate for Chris).  Before we turned it off and went to seek cover, he took us to an amazing memorial for WWII.  It was out of the way of the bus tour so I’m glad Rick (yeah, we’re on a first name basis – well at least I am) helped me find it.  From Chris Blog:

It is located in the triangle of Augustinerstraße, Fürichgasse and Tegetthoffstraße.

There are 4 carved granite columns (the granite comes from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz in Austria). Behind and to the middle of 2 of the columns is a cast iron statue of a Jew that was forced to clean Anti-Nazi slogans from the streets of Vienna afterAnschluss. This statue showed just how much the Nazi’s were prepared to degrade and humiliate the Jews and those not of the Aryan race.

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8.  Strauss “Concert”

While we were waiting for the sightseeing bus, we got accosted by a man dressed like Strauss (or that style) telling us about a concert that night full of Strauss and Mozart.  Chris was sold at the word Strauss (his favourite composer) and I was sold (well I was sold before we even met the guy – I was looking at tickets the night before) by the word Opera.  We got to the Palace Auersperg and got to see a semi-professional concert.  It was really beautiful, but don’t believe the guy when he says he’s giving you a deal because he only has a few seats left.  There was a great mix of ballet, instrumental, and opera.  The venue made it even more impressive.  We couldn’t record anything or take pictures during the show, so you’ll have to just take my word for it.  Worth the money?  Not really but if you love Strauss or Mozart you wont be disappointed. 

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9. and 10.  The FOOD

Okay, lets just pretend that I had 10 things I loved from this trip.  After looking through all the pictures there is one thing that is highlighted more than any other – the food.  The markets were full of unique food and I don’t think we’ve ever tried so much of it!  So here are some of the things we got to try.

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Berlin – Part 2

On this day of our holiday we decided that we’d take the Westend Tour that the company offered.  On our way to the bus stop we happened upon a huge parade going right down one of the main streets in Berlin.  There were tanks, Soviet flags, posters in German, and very angry people shouting in megaphones.  As we drove on we noticed an increased police presence and we knew something was going on but really didn’t know what.  It was strange and a bit unnerving.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many police in one place.  We had done this part of the tour the day before and there were none.  But because we didn’t speak the language we had no idea what the parade was in aid of.   We just carried on, oblivious to why onto the next tour.  The next tour was an hour long and didn’t run as regular as the other tours so we got to the stop and had to wait for about an hour to get on the bus.  We had a quick bite to eat at the biggest McDonalds I’ve ever seen!  It was 4 floors and at one point they had a theatre room for the kids to eat with tables set in stadium seating, cartoons on a big movie screen, and a bathroom attendant.  After climbing all those stairs I wasn’t about to go back down to get money to pay to use the toilets so I shyly walked past the attendant and did the same as I walked back out.  They really should put a warning on the bottom floor “Toilets are attended and FOUR FLOORS UP!”  Anyway, it was time to queue for the bus and luckily it wasn’t packed full.  We got good seats and got ready for our tour.

Our tour guide was just so lovely.  He was friendly and very knowledgeable.  The tour was all based in the old West Germany.  I found it very strange the more time we spent on the tour.  I don’t know if it was intentional or not, maybe for dramatic effect but they made West Germany seem so idyllic with tree lined streets, beautiful houses, lakes, forests, and peace and quiet.  The made East Germany seem dark, industrial, cold, and destitute.  As I spoke to my German employers when I got back they assured me this just wasn’t the case.  That the river we could see from our hotel in old East Germany has some houses built right on the riverbank and is one of the most beautiful places in Berlin.  In fact, he told me how impressed he was with how Berlin was now “just Berlin” not East and West.  He was there when the wall came down and so he can see the progress.  He assured me that the old East Germany isn’t the way they portrayed it and – with both East and West there are stunning places of beauty. 

We started by going by the picturesque Charlottenburg Palace.

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Then we continued on through tree lined streets full of little cafes and houses.  It was nice and quaint.  Then we realized our tour guide wasn’t just a tour guide but a singer.  He stood up on the top deck and started singing old German songs.  I missed his first song, but luckily it wasn’t the last.

Then we went to the Olympic Stadium from the 1936 Summer Olympics.  It was very empty but really nicely taken care of.  They were pretty proud of that stadium and we even got to go through the Olympic village behind it as well. 

Then out of no where we entered this heavily wooded area complete with a huge lake, boats, and cute little boat houses.  I couldn’t believe we were still in Berlin as we drove through.  Then the tour guide stood up and I started recording:

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It was like I was taken back into a different world.  If I tried it almost seemed like I was watching an old movie.  It was surreal and very memorable.  And the tour guide soaked up the applause.

Next we went to the bell tower.  We had a half an hour stop there where people could go to the top of the tower.  I decided that I wanted to stay in the bus and all of the sudden I was the only person on the bus – even the driver left (locking the door behind him).  It was the most peaceful part of the whole trip.  I sat in my seat with the sun shining down on me listening to the birds and the quiet all around and took a minute to be so thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had to see new places.  I would never have thought that in the middle of Berlin I’d have such a peaceful, spiritual experience but it was something I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Everyone started gradually getting back onto the bus and we headed back to the city centre.  On the way we saw more of Berlin and also a nudist park (I was on the wrong side of the bus to see this but by Chris’ surprised face, I am certain it was there). 

Once the tour was finished and we decided to head back to Alexanderplatz we had a bit of an issue getting back on the right U-Bahn.  I wont go into details but there was a bit of arguing and pouting and we finally decided that maybe a short river cruise would help lighten the mood.  So we got tickets to a hour cruise up and down the River Spree.  It was the last cruise of the day so there weren’t many people on board at all – but in typical Chris and Jamie style on the top of the boat with probably 50 empty seats a group of middle-aged, intoxicated, American women sat right next to us.  We were already in a sour mood and this definitely didn’t help.  So I’d like a do-over of the cruise please.  Despite the annoying shipmates, we did see some beautiful scenery from a different angle than the top of a bus.  It was just at dusk and was still warmish. 

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We got back to Alexanderplatz and decided we didn’t want to go back to the hotel yet so we tried some more currywurst (which was nasty and the man wouldn’t let us have it without the tomato sauce “It comes with sauce!”) we had some nice ice cream, did some more people watching, and finally headed back to the hotel.

The next day was our day home but we didn’t have to be at the airport until late that evening.  We debated what to do in the meantime and finally decided to utilize the luggage lockers we saw at Alexanderplatz and do another tour.  We got to the tour company busses and found that the ticket couldn’t be amended for an extra day (like the guy said the first day) and we went back and forth with different companies, got refunds, complained, sat in a packed bus for ages, and finally decided we were both fed up and just headed to the airport.  It would be better to just sit at the airport that deal with the MASSIVE crowds and incompetent tour companies we were running into on the busses.  What we didn’t know was it was the anniversary for VE-Day so there were an extra amount of tourists in town to celebrate.  We got on the train to head to the airport but found that part of the route was on strike and we had to get a replacement bus at a stop.  We got off the train at the stop and there were signs everywhere but we had no idea what they said or where to go.  We exited the train station and luckily found some very nice people to direct us to the bus stop across the street to get the bus.  As we were walking to the bus stop we noticed there were tons of people wearing orange and black ribbons and lots of cars with Soviet flags waving from there.  We didn’t know what was going on, but whatever it was, was huge right at Treptower Park by the station.  I later found out there was a huge protest at the park in connection with VE-day.  THIS is a good article describing what we were seeing:

This is the scene 70 years later: Teenagers are waving Soviet flags, young girls are dressed up in uniforms of the Red Army and muscled guys are wearing pro-Putin t-shirts. At first glance it seems as if the Soviet Union never ceased to exist. Most of the visitors wear the orange and black striped ribbon of St. Georges to remember the bravery of the Red Army.

It made sense with the parade and police in Berlin and the number of Soviet flags we saw.  It was very interesting.  I guess if nothing else it made me realize that not everyone celebrated or remembers VE-Day for the same reason. 

We were on the bus and I thought for sure we were miles and miles away from Berlin and then Chris leans over and says, “Does this look familiar?”  The bus stop that we had to get off at was the same station just down the road from our hotel!!!  I wasn’t a happy lady right then, but we weren’t to know about the strikes or the protests.  As we dragged out shattered bodies up to the train there was an old German man just shouting at us.  We had no idea why and as the lift door closed we just rolled our eyes at each other – only to have the door open and see that the platform was empty.  The man was shouting at us to not get on the lift.  At that point we were just done and got on the other platform and made it safety to the airport.  We walked through a maze of hallways to get to the door where we were boarding and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to get on an airplane – ever.

The flight home was uneventful and Chris took some great pictures from the window –

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Then I saw the yellow fields again (just like when we were coming home from Iceland) and I was glad to be home.

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All in all Berlin was very interesting and there is a lot to do – way more than we got to do and I wouldn’t mind going back again – but when I do go back I am going to make sure I pack better shoes and a better attitude. 

Berlin – Part 1

I have a long bucket list of places I’d like to travel.  I don’t think I would ever be really happy if I didn’t have an adventure to look forward to.  Luckily in the 9 years I’ve lived in the UK I’ve got to check off a lot of my European destinations on that bucket list.  Berlin has always been on that list and so when I had the opportunity and the reason to visit I was happy with that.  It was really a spur of the moment thing (blessing of being childless) and when we booked it I didn’t realize how close to our Iceland trip it was.  I don’t think I could travel THAT much – all the packing and unpacking kind of takes the fun out of it.  But it was a good opportunity so we headed out – staying near the airport for our early flight.

We had a bit of a tricky flight and landing and a taxi to park the airplane that took AGES!  We got off the plane and as we were walking into the airport this very firm German man came jogging towards us shouting at us in German (that’s scary!).  I thought, “Welcome to Germany!”  We then saw another airplane parking right where the passengers were walking – so we weren’t in trouble, just in danger something that seems hard to tell with that language.  They were very friendly once we understood what was happening and we passed through immigration without any problems – oh how I love the sound of that stamp in my passport!

Because the transfer from the airport in Ireland took so long I decided that we’d find a hotel halfway between the airport and the centre of Berlin.  So we walked (for a long time) to get to the S-Bahn (train) from the arrivals at the airport (really it was only about a 10 minute walk but it felt long).  I always put Chris in charge of public transportation because, well, he loves it and he is just much better at it than me.  So we got on the train headed to the hotel.  We did get off one stop early, but only because the names were very similar.  We got back on the next train and got off at the next stop for our hotel.  We walked about 10 minutes to get to the hotel (why do distances look so much shorter on maps?!!?).  It was a lovely hotel in Treptow and after a bit of asking, begging, and upgrading we got to check-in early.  Here are some views from our window:

 

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Lets just clear the air here – I was grumpy on this holiday – like, really grumpy.  There were a lot of reasons for it, but I think Chris is going to go back without me to really enjoy it Winking smile  I decided that I really needed to have a nap before we went into Berlin, so Chris went and got a travel card and explored the tram system and I got some much needed sleep.  He came back and woke me up and we headed into Berlin.  What I didn’t think about when I decided where the hotel was, was the time it would take us to get into Berlin.  Which, was about 40 minutes by tram and U-Bahn (Underground).  Luckily there were stops right near the hotel and the system was pretty easy to navigate so we got to Alexanderplatz without any problem.

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When we walked up the stairs into the square it was an overload of people and buildings – but it was lovely.

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We decided to find something to eat.  We had some Chinese noodles that we’d never have here – but we were hungry enough that they tasted lovely.  Then we decided to find a place to sit in the square and just people watch.  It was a warm day and it was really nice just to sit and soak up the atmosphere.  We decided to head back to the hotel and stop at a supermarket on the way back.  I needed about 10,000 plasters for my poor feet and we also just love looking around the grocery stores at the weird and wonderful food.  Plus, the people I work for are German and they have brought back some great spread that I was on a mission to find.  With only my memory of the label and what was in it we managed to find it and stock up on loads of sweets and head back to the hotel to get some much needed sleep ready for the next day.

The next day we planned to spend all of our time doing the hop-on-hop-off bus tour.  We like to see all the places of interest first before we decide what to do.  We, unfortunately, got on the bus with windows on the top deck (boo) and the pre-recorded guides that were HORRIBLE!  They kept referring to Americans as “The Yanks” and tried to have banter back and forth but failed miserably!  We decided to get off at Check Point Charlie and look around and have some lunch.  We hoped that we’d be able to get a live tour guide to finish the tour – and we did.

When we got off at Check Point Charlie it was a very strange feeling.  There is so much history in Europe – but in Berlin it felt different.  I think it felt different because it is so recent.  I remember vaguely when the wall came down in 1989 – I was in third grade and I remember watching it on TV.  But as I’ve been in Europe I’ve seen the whole WWII conflict in a different light and to be in Berlin really brought things to life.  At the actual check point they had 2 “American” soldiers dressed up holding flags and taking pictures with tourists.  I thought, there is no way the American military are using their soldiers to pose for pictures with tourists – and they aren’t, in fact former soldiers have some pretty strong feelings about it –

Verner Pike, a retired US army colonel and a former Checkpoint Charlie commander, has written a letter to Berlin’s city government calling the fake soldiers “an unacceptable spectacle inappropriate for the location and its historical importance”.

It did seem pretty strange to have such a serious reminder of the Cold War being made into such a tourist trap. 

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We decided to get lunch and since we had an amazing Currywurst in Warenmude on our cruise we wanted to try that again.  It didn’t disappoint – it was really nice and I spent the rest of the trip craving it.DSCN1929

This is minus the tomato ketchup sauce.

We continued on with the tour with a great guide.  He had lived in Berlin when it was East and West and gave a unique perspective. 

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Government Building.  You can go up in that glass dome and look down at the law makers.  They said it was so that the politicians could look up and remember who they are working for.

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Mosaic that covered a whole building.  Also used by the GDR to spy on the people out of the hidden windows.

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Brandenburg Gate – a pinch me moment.

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The Holocaust Memorial

There are a few things that you see in Berlin that make you try to imagine what it would have been like at the end of the war.  One thing that really hit home was a church.  They are working and building a new one next to the bombed one, but they want to keep the bombed one up as a reminder.  Really, just a short while ago the whole city was completely devastated by the war.  It was strange to see the church right in front of me as a physical building that still looked the way it must have years ago.  It was really moving to me and I am so glad that someone, in their wisdom, decided to keep it up.

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The Berlin Wall was another thing that I saw that really brought history to life for me.  It was so strange to be there – right next to it – when you only hear about it in movies or books.  We went to the East Side Gallery to see the pained and decorated wall, but we also went to the visitors centre and saw it as it was.  It was strange to touch it and Chris took a great picture of one foot in East Germany and the other in West Germany.

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The sun was shining and we were really enjoying seeing the sights.  We decided to take another tour that the company offered called The Wall and Lifestyle Tour, but before I move onto that here are the pictures from the first tour of the major sights of Berlin:

 

The next tour took us further outside of the city centre to see some of the neighbourhoods and other landmarks.  The Berlin Wall was never far. In fact, they have paved a path where the wall used to go.  You can tell a bit of different architecture as you go from East to West, but it isn’t too noticeable.  The tour guide would just add what side we were in and it changed back and forth a lot.  It seemed strange that we were travelling freely where others had lost their lives trying to travel. This is where we visited the colourful parts of the wall (they are in the gallery above).  Here are some pictures from this tour:

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The wall with the lookout tower behind it.

Stay tuned for part 2 tomorrow…

Iceland–Land of Fire and Ice (and Wind)

I have a small (actually pretty big) bucket list for my life – one of the things on it are to see the Northern Lights.  When we saw a travel package for a trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights, I was sold!  Being in Europe there are several places to go to see the Northern Lights at certain times of year and although neither Chris or I really had ever wanted to see Iceland we jumped at the chance.  Then we got the call – the package was full on the days we had booked.  They could book the flight for further in April, but the chances of seeing the Northern Lights that late in the spring were rare.  We decided that, hey, it was Iceland, Northern Lights or not we’d be interested in seeing and exploring it.  We had nothing but issues with Clear Sky Holidays – AVOID – but eventually we did end up in Iceland.

We stayed the night before the flight in a really, REALLY rubbish hotel near the airport.  We had some time to kill before it was time for be so we drove to the city centre of Luton.  We stumbled upon this beautiful gem –

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A few things we didn’t stumble upon were – parking spaces, kind drivers, or a place to eat.  Needless to say after that evening, the “hotel”, and a horrible nights sleep we were ready to be on our way to Iceland.

It was mid-April and in England and it was jacket weather.  I knew we’d need some warmer clothes for Iceland so I begrudgingly packed my coat.  After having some breakfast in the airport after landing and waiting for our hotel transfer, I stepped outside.  IT WAS FREEZING.  It took my breath away and the wind…. oh the wind…… was simply out of control!  As we boarded the bus and headed towards the Blue Lagoon (for a few hours before we got to the hotel) it really looked like we were on another planet.  Chris and I said several times there is absolutely no way to describe what Iceland is like – you just have to experience it (although I will TRY to explain and show it).  What I didn’t know was that a lot of Americans go to Iceland on their way to other destinations.  There were so many American accents!

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To get to the Blue Lagoon you drive over Lava Fields.  Its like molten rock covered in algae.  As we were driving it started to snow and it made for a very happy welcome to Iceland.  I was hoping for 2 things: snow and northern lights – one down, one to go!

We decided to book a coach that would stop at the Blue Lagoon so that we could see it and kill time before check-in at the hotel.  Neither of us were very keen to actually get in the lagoon (mostly because of the price) but we did pay to go in and walk around.  I am sure it is a pretty unique experience to actually get in – but just seeing it was quite amazing.  Something I’ve never seen in my whole life and doubt I will ever see again.

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After a nice tour of the Blue Lagoon we got back on the minibus for the rest of the drive to Reykjavik.  It wasn’t a long drive but I’d been up very early and I was torn between staying awake and watching the scenery go by and nodding off.  My tiredness won and I was napping when Chris nudged me and said (quite loudly through excitement), “Jamie, look!”  I looked out of the window just in time to see Taco Bell!  What?!?!?  In Iceland of all places there was a Taco Bell?  Well, as you might imagine, this deprived expat quickly put it on my list of places to visit in Iceland.  We also drove past a yellow chapel that looking VERY Mormon.  When we looked it up at the hotel we found that it actually was the LDS chapel.  We got to the hotel and they allowed us to check-in early and we were lead to a nice room.  As a side note: what is it with see-through or misted bathroom doors?  No thanks!  I decided that I really needed a bit of a nap (so that I wouldn’t be grumpy).  Chris decided to walk to the nearest supermarket and quickly found out that the out of control wind wasn’t dying down.  He got back and woke me up in enough time to have dinner and go to sleep for the night.  To be fair, being car-less and not right in the city centre there wasn’t much else we COULD do.  So we had an early night because we had a full day planned for the next day.

Doing some reading about Iceland one thing that was a MUST do was to take a tour of the Golden Circle.  We found a self-guided tour that looked really good to us.  Instead of being tied to a tour group/bus we could hire a car for 24 hours, complete with sat nav, and do it on our own time.  We went to pick up the car and they asked if we wanted additional “sand and ASH” cover – I should have known then that driving around Iceland would be an interesting experience.  They also said they’d run out of sat navs , but that they’d show us on a map how to get to the stops.  It was at that point I was seriously reconsidering doing this ourselves.  Chris demanded that they get us a sat nav (since that is what we paid for) and one of the big bosses went next door to a competing car hire company and borrowed one of theirs.  Thank goodness for that!  We signed our life away and jumped into the car.  Now, this was the first time in 4 years I was driving a right hand drive on the right hand side of the road (not to mention it was an automatic).  I think I did pretty well for being so out of practice.  We stopped to get some road trip snacks and some most delicious cinnamon rolls drenched in caramel and headed out onto the open road.

The wind was relentless and out in the wide open nothing stopped it.  Steering a car was very difficult and once the snow started to fall the happiness I felt the day before at the sight of it quickly changed to nervousness.

Þingvellir is where Parliament was first held in Iceland (hopefully in the Summer).  Its also where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year.  Although Iceland celebrated Summer starting in mid-April – I wasn’t convinced and so our pictures at the sights were more like a sprint to get the picture and a sprint back into the car, fighting the wind all the while especially when opening the car door.  Now, I’m not complaining, its just that since it was late Spring I wasn’t at all prepared for how cold and windy it was. The land was so desolate and so empty.  That alone was quite spectacular.

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After we saw Þingvellir we embarked upon what would be the scariest drive of my whole life…. ever.  We had a great drive just coasting around the valley and looking at the scenery.  It was rare to see another car and it felt like you were totally alone in this strange land.  Then we started up a hill.  I could see that we were headed to the mountains and could see the clouds and snow started to lightly fall.  The higher we got the more stormy it got.  And then all of the sudden it hit – a complete whiteout, not only was it snowing but the wind was blowing so hard you couldn’t see anything.  You couldn’t see any other cars, the lines on the road, THE ROAD, what might lie just off of the road (ditches or big drops).  I started to panic – Chris started to take pictures.

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As I drove I wanted to just to stop in the middle of the road, cry, and wait for the snow to stop.  But I knew I couldn’t do that.  There was BOUND to be other cars nearby so I did what any panicked person would do.  I did a U-turn.  As I turned I prayed that no one was headed toward me.  I managed to do it and as I drove back down the mountain I could see there was a queue of about 5 cars behind me.  So I headed back and after about 5 minutes I decided I would wait until I could follow some other cars and try it again.  So we headed back up but right when we got to the point where it was snowing again I turned around again…  I pulled to a little dirt patch and had a bit of a meltdown.  I wanted to turn around and go back, but I didn’t want to waste the money or the experience of seeing what was on the other side of that storm.  So, I tried one more time.  Inching along with a car following me and hoping and praying that the storm would eventually end and we’d get out of it safe.  It may sound like I am being dramatic, but coming from a Utah girl who has driven in her fair share of bad storms – this one beats them all.  It was the combination of the wind AND snow.  I managed to make it through the storm and prayed that it was the last one we’d encounter.  I have no idea why the road wasn’t closed.  There were gates at either side so it could be closed but I guess they trust the drivers skills.  Here is a pretty entertaining video – I didn’t know Chris was recording and I’m lucky there were no swears (it was worse than it looks the video is deceiving):

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Phew!!!  Our next stop was a geyser called Strokkur.  It smelled of sulphur and it was too windy (for me) to walk up the the actual Geyser.  Just a side note – did you know that the British pronounce geyser like: geezer (like an old man).  This was a source of contention for me and Chris because every time he’d say it that way I’d correct him.  It drove him crazy and eventually he just stopped saying it.  At any rate, I wasn’t too disappointed to miss it (I mean I’ve seen Old Faithful in Yellowstone!).  Had it been a warmer day or had I not just nearly died in a snowstorm I might have been a bit more keen.

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Next stop: Gullfoss.  Stunning.  It was stunning.  It was very reminiscent of Yellowstone in places, but I’ve never seen anything like this.  There were a million steps to get to it (we found out at the bottom there was a car park there!).  It was powerful and loud.

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Those were the three main sights for the Golden Circle tour.  We decided on the drive back to the hotel we’d take it slow and if we saw a church, town or landmark we’d stop and have a look.  We found a quaint little church in the middle of nowhere called Skálholt.  It is simply amazing how spread out people are the homes are.  When we were reading about the church in the book it said it was “a convenient place to meet”.  We had to laugh no where seemed “convenient”.

It was an uneventful drive back without any more storms.  We decided since we had the car until the next morning we’d stop at Taco Bell.  After we filled ourselves to the brim with yummy food we took advantage of the car.  We drove a short drive to the coast.  We weaved in and out of neighbourhoods filled with houses of many different styles and looks and painted bright colours of the rainbow.  We saw a house with a little house in the front for the elves.  I thought this was absolutely charming.  They have a tradition of building little houses and even churches for the elves and fairies to live in.  You have to keep a close eye to see the little houses but they are there – all over.  We also drove to the LDS chapel.  It was a Monday so we thought it would be locked up – it wasn’t – there were missionaries and people inside having a lesson.  We only ran into one person who said a quick hello.  We were free to explore.  It would have been nice to speak to someone, but we didn’t want to interrupt them.  While doing some research later that night we found out that the church in all of Iceland has less members than our ward here in Cambridgeshire.

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The next day we had planned to go whale watching (another thing on my bucket list that wasn’t to be) but because of the high winds this was cancelled.  We had a hop-on-hop-off bus tour booked but other than that we had a whole free day.  So when we went to drop off the hire car we asked if we could hire it for another day and for a small fee (because of the issues with the sat nav the day before and a kind employee) we had the car for another day and we planned to drop it off at the airport the next day.

First we went and parked the car for the bus tour.  It was an hour long and was absolute rubbish.  Not because Reykjavik is so small there isn’t a whole lot to see, but because of the driver and the lack of stops.  It was ridicules really and once we finished the tour we got back in the hire car and headed to the church – Hallgrimskirkja,  in the centre of the city.  We weren’t disappointed. We went to the bell tower and had some sunning views of the city.

I decided that next I wanted to get some fresh fish and chips. This desire lead us to driving all around the city with both of us getting frustrated.  We finally decided to stop looking and plan for the rest of the day.  We didn’t know if we should go North or South. We knew there was a huge space of Iceland marked out on our map that hire cars aren’t allowed to drive (the Highlands – after the day before I didn’t WANT to drive there).  After skimming through the travel book we decided to go in search of the black sand beaches in Southern Iceland – our ending point Vik.  We didn’t know what we’d end up seeing on the way but we were going to take our time, pray for good weather (I’d given up on wishing the wind away – it was there to stay), and head out.  But not before going to pull out of a random car park to find a tender mercy and a reminder of my family back at home (a whole world away – what are the chances?):

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We started our journey on what I can only describe as the Kansas of Iceland.  Flat land as far as the eye could see.  It was amazing to be in a city, in the mountains, on flat land, near volcanoes, black beaches, forests, rivers, and waterfalls and so many other changing scenery all with a few hours.

After about an hour we saw a waterfall in the distance.  We didn’t know then that it is a major attraction and so we stopped and had a look.  It was more simple than the one we saw the other day but it was spectacular in its own way.  It was still quite frozen, Chris defied the laws of fate and gravity (along with travel insurance) and climbed up some frozen stairs to get some pretty beautiful pictures.  During the summer months you can actually walk all the way around the waterfall, Chris wasn’t quite that brave, thank goodness!

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That little person at the top of the stairs is Chris.

All of this scenery was under the shadow of the famous volcano, Eyjafjallajokull, that shut down air traffic for days a few years ago!

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It was a surreal drive with the road right next to this massive volcano and the other mountains around it.  There were huge boulders dotted around the sides of the road looking right we could see the ocean at some points and looking left we could see a volcano.  It was still empty but there were still houses dotted around on the mountain sides.  One of the best traditional houses were those that are built into the side of the mountain and the roofs are covered with grass.  They blend right into the landscape.

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Next we stumbled upon this:

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It was getting late, but since it was late Spring it wasn’t getting dark until about 10:00 at night.  We saw there was an outdoor museum in the little town.  We tried our luck and hoped it wasn’t closed.  There was a half an hour left and so we got tickets for free.  I just love seeing how people live (I always tell Chris I should have been an anthropologist).

I still hadn’t seen the black sand beaches.  We had started to follow any sign that had the symbol for something scenic (yes, I know that’s not the official term but it was a symbol that took us to some place neat).  We weren’t disappointed – ever – from following the sign.  We had no idea there was this much to see on the way to Vik!!

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I could see the black sand… now I just had to get to the beach and I had no idea how to do that.  We got to Vik and couldn’t find a paved way to the beach so we decided that just seeing it from a distance was going to be good enough.  We stopped at a petrol station and stocked up on Icelandic chocolate and odd sweets for the drive home.  As we were driving back, after about 10 minutes from the petrol station, we saw another one of those scenic signs and decided to see what was there – IT WAS THE BLACK SAND BEACH!!!!  The wind had died down a bit and the sun was shining it was beautiful. Along with loads of black sand Reynisfjara features an amazing cliff of regular basalt columns resembling a a rocky step pyramid, which is called Gardar. Out in the sea are the spectacularly shaped basalt sea stacks Reynisdrangar.  According to folklore, two trolls attempted to drag a ship to land but were turned to stone as daylight broke, turning them into into the Reynisdrangar stacks.

It was starting to get late and although it was still daylight outside, we decided to head home.  We did make one more quick stop at an old church.  We just stood there and enjoyed the sounds of nature.  It was so peaceful and in the moment I could understand why people live in Iceland and seem to really be happy and enjoy it.

By the time we got back to the hotel the sun was just starting to set.  We had decided earlier in the day that we’d try to see the northern lights.  On the official weather scale they were at a 3 out of 10.  The girl at the front desk was careful not to promise us that we’d see anything but told us you can still see them at a 3 and gave us directions to a place just outside of the city centre that had no natural light and was a popular place to watch from.  So we waited until it got a bit darker and headed out.  We waited there for a few hours, but it had been such a long couple of days we were both falling asleep in the car waiting.  It was pretty clear that we weren’t going to see anything to see anything so we headed back to the hotel.  It was a shame that we couldn’t see them but it just made me more determined to travel during the right time to try again.

The next morning we checked out and drove to the airport.  We dropped of the car and waited for our flight.  It was an uneventful flight back to the UK.  When we were landing and I saw all the green fields and rape seed plants I knew I was home!

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A cafe near our hotel.  I took it as a personal message.  Its called GINGER and the tag line is: Be good to yourself.

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What could I possibly say to sum up my trip to Iceland.  Firstly, I would say definitely hire a car to explore yourself.  If you think you’ll be occupied in Reykjavik – you’re wrong.  Plus there is so much beauty to see outside of the city centre.  Another tip is that the hot water is all thermally heated making it smell of sulphur (rotten eggs).  You shower in this and you smell of rotten eggs.  You cant get away from it – bring perfume!

Iceland was spectacular and indescribable.  If you get the chance to visit – pack your bags and GO!  You wont regret it!

Ireland

Disclaimer:  During this trip I was either freezing or suffering with a major migraine so the memories are cloudy at best.  I’ll have to go back to experience it again to get the most of it.  Darn Winking smile.

To get to Ireland we had another really early morning flight.  So we stayed the night near to the airport.  It was easy going because it was such a small airport and we boarded the plane with no problems.  No sooner had we taken off and gotten to cruising altitude that we started the decent into Ireland.  And the landing…. well, lets just say…. felt like a near death experience.  It was one of the worst landings I’ve had in a long time.  We quickly got off the plane and went to wait for the shuttle to the hotel.  The hotel was about 30 minutes away from the airport and the hotel had a shuttle that had just left when we got to the bus parking.  So we decided to try our hand at the public bus system.  Chris managed to get us on the right bus and we headed to the hotel.  Because of road works and rush hour traffic this took over an hour.  I was hoping and praying they’d let us check-in early so we could have a bit of a nap.  I know a lot of people (including Chris) think it is a waste to nap once you get to where you are holidaying but I cannot function on little or no sleep and it is best for everyone (especially Chris) for me to have a little nap.  This time Chris ended up having a nap too – it was a REALLY early flight.

Once we got up we decided to take the bus to Dublin City Centre.  We had plans for the next day and tickets the following 2 days on the hop-on-hop-off tour bus, so we just got off near the Dublin Castle and walked up to see about tours.  They had a tour that was pretty cheap and we decided to do that.  It was really strange to see the castle set among the cars in the car park.  One of my biggest pet peeves is when taking pictures of old buildings, getting modern things in the frame like light posts, telephone wires, and cars.  I try my hardest to avoid these but at the castle there was no way around it. 

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It makes this American wonder why on earth you’d ever build a car park next to such a historic building, but I think that Europeans just don’t have a lot of room – especially in city centres – and they do their best to make the two worlds work together.  The castle was in great condition and the tour guide was very knowledgeable.  It was the end of the day and you could tell he probably had said the same speech over and over, but he was kind and answered all of our questions. 

As a side note: I am sure I’ve mentioned this before but I tend to take pictures of walls when we are out exploring.  I think about how much history is held in those walls.  I mean this wall was a fortress for a castle – that’s pretty cool right??  Chris thinks I am crazy for that and when we are travelling takes any opportunity to make jokes about it.  Am I the only one who likes pictures of walls???? 

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A wall that was excavated from beneath the castle.

 

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When we were done with the tour of the castle we walked out and all of the shops were shut.  We decided to take the bus back to the hotel and get some dinner so that we could go to bed at a decent time ready for the trip to Belfast the next day.

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Look at all of that green!!

The next day we woke up early so that we could get the train to Belfast.  After waiting for too long for the bus to come, we hailed a taxi and got to the station just in time to get some hot chocolate and get on the train.  To say that I had under-dressed would be an understatement.  I figured the weather would be the same as it was in the UK.  I was VERY wrong.  It was a lot colder and more rainy that the weather we were having.  Because of this I didn’t dress as warm as I should have, thus suffering quite a bit whenever we were outside – like on the top deck of the hop-on-hop-off tour bus.  As we were in the train I was trying to decide if I should stay awake and see all the amazing scenery everyone always talks about or have a quick rest (I never really can sleep when I am travelling).  As I was watching the scenery go by I thought to myself – This looks just like England.  So I closed my eyes and had a rest.  I hesitate to say that because I am aware of how beautiful Ireland is and England.  Maybe if I hadn’t been living in England for so long it would seem more special but to me it looked familiar.  Its thoughts like that, that make me realize how lucky I am to live here, and how long I’ve been here.   It was strange to see the street signs in Gaelic/English in Ireland and then once we crossed the border into Northern Ireland they all looked exactly like they would here in mainland UK. 

We got off of the train and walked out into the rain.  We (Chris) thought that the tour bus stop was near to the station but after a lot of walking and an angry phone call to the company we found we had to walk into the town centre to get the bus.  It wasn’t too long of a walk but – but it was still raining pretty heavily.  We found the stop and the bus wasn’t leaving for a while so we nipped into a cafe and tried to warm up.  Once we got on the bus we got a live tour guide (which is a lot better than the recorded guide).  He was friendly and pretty funny.  Of course Chris and I had to sit at the top of the bus (for the sake of pictures).  We got to go through the heart of Belfast where The Troubles were.  Now, I had no idea what The Troubles were until my first visit to the UK in 2002.  My friend Michelle and I went to see an Andrew Lloyd Weber play called, The Beautiful Game.  It was set in N. Ireland and was all about The Troubles.  When I got back to Utah I did as much research as I could because I found it so interesting.  As we drove through the neighbourhoods you could see all of the CCTV’s.  The walls and houses were all painted to tell each sides story.

The conflict in Northern Ireland during the late 20th century is known as the Troubles. Over 3,600 people were killed and thousands more injured.

Over the course of three decades, violence on the streets of Northern Ireland was commonplace and spilled over into Great Britain, the Republic of Ireland and as far afield as Gibraltar.

Several attempts to find a political solution failed until the Good Friday Agreement, which restored self-government to Northern Ireland and brought an end to the Troubles.

It seems that, for now, there is peace and the younger generations are working together.  To find out a bit more about The Troubles here is a good website. 

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At this point we were thoroughly soaked so we sought refuge in a beautiful cathedral.  It was called St. Anne’s Cathedral and it had caught our eye on the tour.  I was just as beautiful on the inside as it was the outside. 

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The rain had finally stopped and we decided just to walk back to the train station.  When we got there it was around 5:00 (our tickets weren’t booked until 9:00).  We decided instead of waiting in the station for hours and hours we’d pay the extra fee.  We got back to Dublin and headed straight to sleep.  Belfast was a nice city, that I’d really like to see in the sunshine.  The people were very friendly and it was definitely worth the 2 hour train journey to see it.

The next day we both had different things we wanted to do.  I saw that there was a new exhibition opening that I really wanted to see its called Animals Inside Out.  Since I have decided that I want to go into the veterinary field this exhibit was super interesting to me, not to Chris.  I can think of 1000’s of other things he’d rather do then look at preserved animal bodies.  So he decided to hop on the tour bus and explore.  That morning I woke up with a headache and I KNEW it was the start of a migraine.  I took some meds and hoped that I had caught it in time.  But, unfortunately, I didn’t.  As I walked around the exhibition my head got worse and worse.  I walked out of the building and tried to get Chris on the phone.  There was no way I was going to be able to go into town and sit on a bus.  So I finally got a hold of him and we decided he’d stay out and I’d go back to the hotel – take some heavy duty meds and try to sleep it off.  A few hours later he came back and I slept for a bit longer.  When I woke up the migraine was still there but dull – I should have just stayed and rested but I felt bad making Chris miss out so we headed out and hopped on the bus.  Well, it didn’t last for too long.  After about 30 minutes I had to get off the bus.  I tried to have some food and thought that might help – but it didn’t.  While we were eating though, a homeless man came up and asked if he could have our uneaten food that we were going to put in the bin.  We both felt a bit strange having him eat our unwanted food, so instead of giving him our scraps Chris offered to buy him his own meal.  He was very appreciative and I was so impressed that Chris was so thoughtful.  Since nothing was seeming to help with the headache we just decided to head back to the hotel.  I hoped that a good nights sleep would help although I knew it wouldn’t go away completely for a few days.  So this day was pretty much a bust. 

We were now on our last day in Ireland and I’d seen hardly anything.  My migraine had turned into a headache so we left the luggage with the front desk and headed out for the tour bus again.  We got quite good at navigating the bus system to get into town.  When we were on our way to town my best memory of Ireland happened!  There was a very large group of girls who got onto the bus.  They obviously ha no idea where they were going, but they were having a good time anyway.  One girl said to the other, “Well the man said it was about a yard away, but like, I was so confused because how far is that?  Everyone has a different size yard.”  Brilliant!!! 

We were visiting Ireland right near St. Patricks day and they were already celebrating.  Their pride in their heritage and country reminded me a lot of America and the 4th of July.

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We took our seats at the top of the bus.  Which was fine, until we reached a huge park with lots of wide open space – and then we froze.  I don’t know that I’ve ever been so cold in my whole life and from that point on I didn’t thaw until the car ride home.  We would have moved into the bus but it was full so the only seats available were the ones on the top.  It was quite miserable (see what I mean about having to take another trip over???)  At any rate, here are the pictures from the tour.  We went by the stunning St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  One of the main point on the tour (and Dublin) is the Guinness Brewery.  We didn’t stop there (although maybe it would have warmed me up??)

After a nice Mexican lunch we headed back to the hotel where we waited…. and waited…. luckily they had comfy sofas to rest on.  Finally it was time to head to the airport.  We took the shuttle from the airport and got there in plenty of time for the flight.  The flight home was a lot less eventful then the flight there.  Chris and I had to laugh when we realized that that flight was 45 minutes and sometimes it takes us that long to get to church on Sunday.  Crazy!! 

So all in all Ireland wasn’t my favourite place.  The people were some of the most friendly I’ve met and it was beautiful but because of the weather (well because I didn’t plan for the weather) and my migraine I demand a do-over!  Next time I’ll hire a car as well so I can really get out in the countryside. 

Fabulous Venice – 2014

Venice is a city I’ve always wanted to visit.  It’s always been on my travel bucket list, unfortunately it is one of the few places Chris had no interest in seeing.  So, I decided for my birthday I would visit Venice – even if that meant I had to do it by myself.  So I put it out there on Facebook that I was planning on going and did anyone want to join me – and luckily for me – a great friend called Susannah lived near(ish) and offered to let me stay at her house and said she would be happy to come with me into the city.  It had been a while since I had seen Susannah, we met at church and she moved away a few years ago.  I decided to take her up on her offer and planned the trip.

Because it is super cheap to fly on the low budget airlines I decided to use them to get to Venice.  Unfortunately, with those airlines it means flying at strange times – really early or really late.  My flight was early in the morning so I stayed at a hotel the night before so that I didn’t have to travel for an hour and half the next morning (or middle of the night for me).  I’ll put this out there – I was pretty nervous.  I hadn’t seen Susannah for a while and I worried if we’d have anything to talk about or if things would be awkward – but I needn’t have worried.  As soon as she saw me and hugged me it was like no time had passed and honestly, I don’t think we stopped talking during waking hours for most of the trip.

The day I arrived was my birthday but I didn’t tell anyone and Susannah didn’t know.  We went back to her charming Italian home and she made some salad for the Halloween party of some friends of hers.  When we arrived at her friends house I was instantly in love with the area and the scenery.

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We spent the day there just relaxing and chatting the women were very friendly and great hosts.  Its always interesting to me to see how people adapt and live in different parts of the world.  It is amazing to step into a home in Italy and feel like, despite the decor and architecture, you’re stepping into a home like back in Utah.  It was a lovely afternoon.

Once we got back to Susannah’s house we decided to order authentic pizza for dinner and go for gelato for dessert.  Still keeping my birthday under wraps. I did well until, for some reason, we got into a conversation with the kids about birthstones.  They were all surprised when I admitted it was my birthday.  Instead of cake we had yummy Gelato – perfect!  I have to say the pizza was some of the best I’d ever had (I was in Italy after all). I was a bit surprised at some of the toppings – we had a pizza with baked potato pieces (yummy) on it.  Here are some of the options (pay attention to the Chris option):

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At first I thought that the Coppa Spaghetti was actually spaghetti noodles topped with gelato.  Come to find out it is just spaghetti shaped gelato.  I was super impressed when the kids all ordered their treat in Italian.  I wasn’t brave enough to try it out myself, so luckily little “M” did it for me.  We went home and settled into sleep ready for a day full of Venice the next day.

We woke up early the next morning to catch the train into the city centre.  It would be a short train ride (about an hour – hour and a half) and we’d be dropped off right in Venice.  Luckily for me, again, Susannah knew how to get the tickets and get us there safe and sound. 

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We stepped off the train and we were there – we were actually in Venice.  When I travel I often have moments where I think to myself, “I cant believe I am actually standing right here.  I’ve seen in on TV and books, but I am actually here!”  I felt this stronger here than anywhere I’ve ever visited.

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The view right out of the train station…. overwhelming.

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The view over the Grand Canal – GUYS I WAS STANDING ON THE GRAND CANAL –

IN VENICE!!!!

We got to Venice early and it was just me and Susannah.  We had a concert to get to at 8:00 that night so we had the whole day to explore.  Susannah was pretty excited to get to explore without children (I think all Mothers would be).  At first we thought we’d be struggling through crowds the whole day.  It was blindingly sunny and pleasantly warm so there were loads of people around.  We decided to just walk wherever the mood took us.  When we came to a crossroads we’d choose left or right (usually the less crowded) and got lost in Venice and, to be corny but completely honest, it seemed magical.  There were streets and alley’s that we went down that literally were deserted.  For as busy as it was when we first got there walking around, away from the tourist areas, you feel like you might be the only people there. 

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Surprisingly, to us, there were a lot of wide open spaces.  It was so strange – you’d be walking through a labyrinth of alleyways and all of the sudden you’d walk straight into a wide open square.  Complete with trees, churches, shops, and children playing football (and STILL not too crowded!).

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The best part of exploring was finding hidden places and charms. 

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I love that little cat in the window!

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Sitting on some steps leading to the canal.  Not another person in sight for at least 15 minutes.

There are just too many favourite pictures here is an album with all the pictures I love:

 

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We decided it was time to take a break and have some lunch.  We found a place with some really yummy food.  Restaurants are great in Italy because after they give you your food they just let you sit there as long as you want and don’t disturb you.  We spent more time talking and enjoying lunch and then decided to head back out and explore some more. 

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After a while of more walking and shopping and eating pastries and chocolate we decided that the trip wouldn’t be complete without a visit to St. Mark’s Basilica and St. Marks Square.  In these pictures you can see how busy it was and how many people there really were.

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We decided that this was a great place to sit on the steps and people watch.  They are very strict about sitting on the steps and made us move (along with a lot of others).  We ended up sitting on the risers that they use when the tide is high and the square is flooded.  At one point (before we were told to move) we were sitting on the steps and this Asian man was taking me and Susannah’s picture.  I think he was trying to be discreet but it wasn’t working – we both noticed. I think he was just surprised to see two curly red-headed women (this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened to me).  It was starting to get colder so we went off in search of dinner and ended up at a pizza place having yummy pizza while waiting for our concert to start.

When I decided to go to Venice I knew I couldn’t go there and NOT see an opera – its Venice after all and I love opera!  I found a concert that was a taster opera program featuring performers in authentic period costumes and a mixture of well known opera songs and instrumental pieces.  It did not disappoint!  It was performed in a old concert hall and included some amazing singing, moving music, and temperamental singers (the audience never knew when to clap so when the usher directed us to clap in the wrong spot, after the song, the temperamental tenor stormed out and slammed the door).  It was long enough to enjoy but not so long that it got boring.  They were animated and entertaining and I would suggest anyone visiting Venice GO SEE THIS!  Even if you don’t like opera or classical music I’m pretty sure anyone would enjoy it! 

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We were planning on getting the last train of the night back to Susannah’s house.  So we thought we’d take a boat taxi to the station.  I am sure when those gondoliers saw two American women walking up to them they thought they would be making some easy money – they could say whatever price they wanted and we’d do it – WRONG!  After being quoted around 80 euro to get to the train station (the travel books I read said about 20) we decided to walk…. quickly.  We walked from one side of Venice to the other in time to get the train.  It wasn’t without its problems.  There were dodgy people hanging around in the alleys, rogue dogs, and we had to get out the phone to have the sat nav guide us out of the maze but we did it safely and with a few minutes to spare. 

Susannah and I were shattered once we got on the train (hoping it was the right one since we both didn’t know for sure).  As we were sitting there a young, dark, Italian man sat across from Susannah.  I will spare you (and her – for embarrassments sake) the details but the conversation ended abruptly with a flash of a wedding ring and awkward silence until it was his stop.  It kept us laughing for the rest of the train ride home. 

The next day was Sunday so I went to church with Susannah and her family.  I got to see more of the countryside.  The chapel was unlike anything I’d seen.  The members were gracious and kind.  Visiting that ward gave me a deeper understanding of what an opportunity I have to attend my ward here in England.  I got to spend the last 2 hours in nursery and enjoyed every minute. 

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Once we got home from church we all settled in and ate Halloween candy and watched the movie Life in Beautiful.  It was a emotional and thought-provoking movie that I would recommend to anyone.  We had a yummy pancake dinner and then Susannah dropped me off at the airport and I had an uneventful fight (LATE NIGHT) and drive home.  It was sad to say goodbye to Susannah and her family but luckily I get to see them soon and hopefully we can have some more adventures!

This trip was short and sweet but quite amazing.  Being around a women with such a strong testimony of the gospel, who is positive and optimistic was food for my spirit.  That short trip changed my life and made me realize things and make choices that will echo for a long time to come.  Some of the  things I learned and felt have lead me to some changes in my life that were a long time coming but just needed that reassurance. 

So at the end of the post I’d say:  VISIT VENICE!  Surround yourself with good friends and appreciate your beautiful life – no matter where you are living it.