Reykjavik, Iceland

If your idea of the perfect vacation is warm days full of continuous sunshine, then Iceland should definitely NOT be on your bucket list.  If, however, you are intrigued by quirky experiences, visually spectacular landscapes, geology, elves and trolls, go ahead and book your trip.

59A46220-4E2D-4D6D-BEF5-4A10E67F2C17
I was amazed that the plants were thriving in this cold, gray weather! 

Those of you that have been following me know that I am a lazy, somewhat random blogger, but my friend Nancy is not.  If you want interesting, timely accounts of our trip, hop on over to her blog.  She’s done such a fine job, There is no need for me to take you over the same ground.  Instead, my post is a loose collection of whatever caught my eye.

Although Mike and I arrived in Reykjavik a day before the tour officially started, we took it slow, using our extra time TRYING (and failing ) to get over jet lag.  

The one in the middle belonged to a giraffe

While in Reykjavik we DID manage to make it to the museum Nancy (intentionally and wisely) missed.  Unless you are particularly intrigued by pickled whale penises, I recommend you do likewise.  Save your $15,000 kroners admission fee ($10,000 for seniors) and buy a glass of wine instead.  Good news: You can tour the gift shop for free.

 

 

 

My family will be pleased to know I did NOT do any Christmas shopping there.

 

 

I am  particularly fond of outdoor art and Reykjavik had plenty of it, both traditional, like the statue of Leif Erikson ( a gift from the USA), and unconventional (on the sides of buildings).

 

Icelanders are hearty souls.  Check out this sign above one of the restaurants.  1E24E02F-2AB3-4A9C-A011-22E2511561AF.jpegFor those of us not familiar with the metric system, 5 degrees Celsius translates to a balmy 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  While we were in town, the mercury skyrocketed all the way up to 52 degrees, still WE drank our coffee inside!

The Hilton Reykjavik is a lovely hotel some distance from the town center.  No matter.  During our stay, we were content to spend our evenings at the hotel.  One night, Mike organized a surprise party to celebrate the start of the last year I’ll be in my sixties.  Yes, that banner DOES light up and yes, it WILL be used again for the August birthday girl in my life.  

The second night at the hotel, everyone was gathered either around the big screen TV in the lobby area, or by the smaller one in the bar, to watch Croatia win the soccer semifinals.

FD6764FA-8791-4A53-A5D1-A1DDC1CF9479
No restaurant meal for THESE soccer enthusiasts! 

Although ours is an organized tour, it is possible to go off on your own.  Sam did just that, hiring a guide to take him salmon fishing on  a “two rod river”.  What is THAT, you ask?  Well,  for that one day, Sam and the guide (2 rods) “owned” the river.  No one else was allowed to fish there.  Was he successful?  Well, OUR tour guide took home two of Sam’s three salmon.  (Photos courtesy of Sam’s guide).

 

While Sam was fishing, the rest of us were touring the Ocean Cluster House, an absolutely fascinating place.  With most of my family still living in or near New Bedford, Massachusetts, I am well aware of the impact changes in the fishing industry can make on an area’s economy.  Icelanders dealt with fishing restrictions very creatively.   They don’t (can’t) catch as many fish, so they have figured out how to extract maximum value from every pound of fish they are allowed to catch.4D7C4ED2-385F-4F10-A781-6D90B70F5B01
 This jacket is made entirely of processed fish skin.  It is incredibly soft.  Yes, I touched it. 

Fish skin is also being used as bandages.  Apparently, the fibers in cod skin are more similar to human skin than the skin of pigs, so the bandage can be absorbed into the body. 

Other products are used for cosmetics—fish intestines for hand cream, because (according to the Ocean Cluster House guide) someone noticed that Icelandic fishermen have very soft hands, and figured they got that way from handling fish intestines. (My Dad must have steered clear of fish intestines!) 

Even fish heads are utilized.  They are dried and exported to Nigeria for use in soup!?  By using all parts of the fish, Icelanders have upped the value from $8 per pound to about $3000. 

71551513-8F2B-4FF7-BDD6-F5B729E92814Better yet, because these products are manufactured in Iceland, they have created new industries and new jobs.  That’s a good thing, because today’s Icelandic trawlers are able to catch 200 metric tons in one trip, with far fewer fishermen, doing very little actual fishing; they now just monitor computers that run the equipment.   

72ECD07D-4C8C-4520-B301-B04F1823E5A0Our last stop was at the National Museum, an incredibly beautiful building, where we learned Iceland’s history through artifacts, clothing and household items.  Given that we will be riding Icelandic horses in a few days, I was particularly interested in the saddle exhibit.

Fortunately  women are no longer required to ride sidesaddle or wear corseted riding habits.

Next stop, Stykkishólmur.   Okay, so we have already been there for two days, and are now in Aqua-ree-ray (That’s how it is SAID, not how it is spelled).  I’m just having too much fun to keep current! 

Going Global

One month from today, I’ll be heading off for my sixth Global Volunteer Experience.  Timing is everything in life, and given recent political events, some think it is not the best time to go traipsing around other parts of the globe.  My opinion differs.  What better time to do something positive, to at least try to improve America’s image in other parts of the world, than now?

For those of you new to Global Volunteers, here’s a little background.  We go where we are invited, and do whatever we are asked to do, working closely with members of the host community.  We don’t proselytize — we have no political or religious agenda, other than to make friends and learn about a culture different from our own.   The only stated goal is to “wage peace and promote justice”.  I love that.

So far, I’ve worked in a preschool in Anse La Reye, St. Lucia, elementary schools in Hanoi, Vietnam and Rarotonga, Cook Islands and twice at a technical college in Queretaro, Mexico.

So, where to this time, you ask?  Beja, Portugal, in the Alentejo region.   Never heard of it?  Neither had I until I signed up.  And that’s one more thing to like about Global Volunteers:  you get to live in areas you might never have thought of visiting.

Another Global Volunteer plus is the wonderful friendships that you make.  This trip will be a mini-reunion for three of us that served on my very first project in St Lucia.

P1000382
Jeanne, Norina, Laurie and I in the bar at JJ’s Paradise Hotel, on our last evening in St. Lucia.  I will be joining Jeanne and Laurie in Beja.

Not only that, but during our stay, we will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the start of GV’s Portugal project.  Seems like perfect timing to me!

And that was the case for two of my other projects.  In November of 2013, I was in Rarotonga when their new Queen was crowned. What a fantastic experience THAT was–the music, the food, the costumes–how lucky was I to be able to share this joyous celebration with the most gracious, friendly people on the planet!

The Queen is the one in gold

Jeanne and I lucked out in  February, 2017,  by being in Queretaro for 100th Anniversary of the signing of their constitution.

Queretaro was the actual site for this historical event, so there were all kinds of special celebrations.  How cool is it to use the side of a centuries old cathedral as a screen for an outdoor multi media show?  We liked it so much,  we saw the show twice.  These photos don’t do the display justice.  Let me just say it was really, really wonderful.

IMG_3953 IMG_3954

If that wasn’t enough, another evening got to hear this stirring rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Wooden Heart” played on bagpipes, in Mexico!!   Here’s a little bit of the sound track for your viewing pleasure.  Irresistible, no?

So, who knows what awaits us in Beja?

I hope you will check back next month and join me, Laurie and Jeanne for a virtual Global Volunteers adventure.  Adeus e obrigado!

 

Ten Random Reasons to visit Malta

If you plan on vacationing in Italy, why not extend your visit a smidgen and hop over to Malta?  This amazing little country has an abundance of things to see and do, especially if you are interested in history and archaeology. We spent five days there in late May, and felt that our timing was perfect…perfect weather, not too crowded, reasonably priced.  Yep, there was a whole lot to like about Malta.

It is very easy to get to Malta from Italy.  Although we could have taken a ferry from Catania, we opted for the less expensive, faster way, via Air Malta.

The title of this post is “RANDOM Reasons” to visit Malta and that’s exactly what you are getting.  Not order of importance, or magnificence–just the order in which they popped into this lazy blogger’s head.

1. The Grand Excelsior Hotel

P1180753It’s beautiful, it’s just outside Valetta’s wall, it’s close to buses that can take you wherever you want to go, the service is great, the pool is fantastic, the views from the restaurant and bars are incredible, and it is relatively inexpensive (at least it was in May, with several months advance booking. )

IMG_4455
The Excelsior’s pool at sunset

Be forewarned, though. The hotel is located below street level.  88 steps below, to be exact. The steps aren’t steep, but you WILL get your exercise.  Which can be a good thing, if you eat as much as WE did.

P1180752

The hike up those stairs is so worth it, because where else can you find…

2. Flower Shaped Gelato

IMG_4473

 

Although there is an abundance of gelaterias in Malta, Amorino was our favorite.  You can’t miss it–it is on Republic Street (the main street), on the right, if you are coming through the city gates. Your flower can have as many flavors as you want.

It doesn’t get much better than that!

And since we are on the subject of food, we discovered this wonderful restaurant close to the Blue Grotto.

3. La Cucina de Bettina

P1180899

 

The owner of the restaurant was also our waiter. That’s him, in the black tee, explaining the menu to customers.

P1180895

I’m ordinarily not a HUGE seafood fan, but this was incredible–the best tuna I have ever tasted!  Fresh?  Well, the owner told us our lunch had been swimming in the ocean just a few hours before.  Take a look.

No, that was not the serving size, but close.

We also had a wonderful antipasto platter, and a bottle of wine recommended by the owner/waiter.  I should have made a note of what we spent for this feast.  All I can remember was that it cost MUCH less than we ever expected!

I could go on and on about the Malta food, but I’m sure you get the idea.  It was delicious, varied and affordable.

4. Valetta

P1010761

Let’s just start with the festive Republic Street.

Yes, it does look a bit crowded, but if you want a more peaceful experience, all you need to do is duck down a side street.  Cruise ships dock in Valetta, so when multiple ships are in town, you do get throngs, but after 5, the city is yours.

The Grand Master’s Palace is on Republic Street, and there IS a guard changing ceremony every day.

Other activities in Valetta definitely deserve their OWN number, like…

5. The Malta Experience

P1180772Perhaps you arrived in Malta without doing any research at all.  You know NOTHING about its history or the history of its many invaders.  Not to worry.  All you need to do is buy a ticket to The Malta Experience, then sit back and enjoy.  You will be quickly brought up to speed!  There are other options on the island, including one that promised you a 5D experience (moving seats, water spray, air blasts and leg ticklers) but this was the one we chose and we were not disappointed.  Now if we had been traveling with children, we probably would have opted for the multi-sensory extravaganza.

6. St John’s Co Cathedral

It is impossible to capture the majesty and magnificence of this building.  It doesn’t look like much on the outside.  In fact, we walked past it a couple of times without even noticing it.  But walk inside and WOW!

 

We’ve hit a lot of churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, and the Americas, but this has to be the most jaw-dropping one I have ever encountered.

“The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is in the Co-Cathedral, but just off to the side.  I needed to ask directions to find it.

The painting is HUGE–it fills a wall.  You can’t get close to it, so I was unable to verify whether Caravaggio’s signature was formed by the blood flowing from the Baptist’s neck.  TIP: If you go, bring binoculars or opera glasses to get a better view.

You are not allowed to photograph the painting.  If caught, supposedly they confiscate your photo card.

No, I did not break the rules.  This is a photo of a postcard, purchased from the gift shop.  A poor substitute, but better than nothing.

7. Transportation Alternatives 

Here’s another tip: forget about the Hop On Hop Off buses here.  You are better served riding the regular city buses.  They are far less expensive, and more frequent.  Normally we are huge fans of HOHO, but this one had a host of negatives.  Its headsets were not reliable.  Some worked–some didn’t, and the information they provided was not that great.  There were long periods of silence, causing me to wonder whether the headset had stopped working.  I was frequently consulting the brochure to try to figure out where we were.

We soon discovered the HOHO doesn’t necessarily stop in front of attractions listed in their brochure.  But it DID stop at listed attractions that were closed.

We made the mistake of buying the two day, (red and blue) pass, so never tried out the city buses, but we sure saw a lot of them.  Next time, city bus will be our preferred mode of transportation.

If you DO decide to go the way of the HOHO, you can get aboard near the bus station close to the Grand Excelsior.

8. Tarxien Temples

If you are into archaeology, you’ll love the Tarxien Temples.  Full disclosure.  We had wanted to see the Hypogeum, but that was completely booked.  And the Tarxien Temples were supposedly on the HOHO route, (not exactly,  as noted above, but we found our way), so why not?

These four temples date back to the Neolithic age (3600-2500 BC).  The Romans, 2000 years later, used the site for agriculture. The original structures were discovered In 1913, when  local farmers complained about the large blocks of stone they were striking while plowing.

There are other ruins for those that are really, REALLY into prehistory, but this was enough for us.

9. Gozo

We wanted to spend a day touring Gozo, and after our experience with HOHO, decided to book a private tour through the hotel.  We were not disappointed with our choice.  Marco picked us up at 8:30, drove us to and from the ferry and around Gozo, making sure we spent our time the way WE wanted.

View of Gozo harbor from the Ferry

We drove by Popeye’s village, now a tourist trap, formerly the set for Robin William’s 1980 movie, stopping just long enough to take a couple of photos.  

I remember suffering through the Iliad and the Odyssey during my Freshman year in college.  Maybe if I had known I’d be visiting the cave of the nymph who bewitched Odysseus, I would have enjoyed the books more.  (But probably not). The cave was closed because of “geological movement”, so we could only look at a hole in the ground, partially hidden by bushes, but the view of the nearby beach with its red sand was quite lovely.

Gozo had lots of beautiful ocean vistas, a lovely cathedral, a great multimedia show in Rabat, (the old center also known as Victoria), fantastic food—AND this rather graphic painting of St. Agatha.  Seems the Roman suitor she rejected got a bit miffed and decided to cut her breasts off in retaliation.  

She looks remarkably unconcerned, maybe because the little angel hovering over her head (holding a crown) told her that in years to come, the Maltese and Sicilians would create a pastry in her honor.  Think I’m kidding?  Take a look.  They are called “Minni di Sant Aita”. Honest.

The Azure Window would definitely have made the list had we traveled to Gozo in 2016. Unfortunately for us, in March of 2017, the arch tumbled into the sea, so we had to content ourselves with this post card image, and a view of the site where it once stood.  Still a scenic  and lovely area, though.

10. Mdina

The oldest city on the island of Malta, Mdina was built and inhabited by Arabs until they were expelled by the Christians in 1250.   Another fortified city, it has the mandatory moat and gates.

It also has the requisite cathedral, old buildings repurposed as cafes and gift shops, but MY favorite thing was the Palazzo Falzone, a 13th century building loaded with an incredible collection of antiques and the very coolest sound system ever.  

You just put on the headset, point the wand at a plaque on the wall and voila, you have a narrative about the article/ room you are viewing!

Olof Gollcher, a Swedish philanthropist and heir to a shipping fortune, purchased the building in 1927, and used it as a repository for his collections of art, silver, furniture, weapons and books.

There you have it.  This lazy, random blogger got you started.  These ten highlights barely scratch the surface of all that is wonderful and glorious about Malta. The rest is up to you!