The Roads to Stykkishólmur and Akureyri

Growing up, I remember watching  an old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movie entitled “The Road to Morocco”.  It may have been the first “buddy” road trip movie ever made.  It was a comedy that got its laughs from the strange costumes and mishaps that the two “buddies”encountered during their travel.

You’re probably thinking “yeah, so what’s the point?  Well, unlike my usual digressions, there actually IS a point, that point being that at times I FEEL like I’m in a buddy movie.  Perhaps that’s what happens when you travel with 14 of your friends.

3136B4DA-FEAD-44E7-87A2-906B8B397A0B

We haven’t had as many mishaps as Bing and Bob, but we HAVE had our share of comedic moments.

Those of us who didn’t feast on fermented shark were greatly entertained by the facial expressions of Sam and Nancy.   Believe me, they definitely weren’t acting.

SOME of us hiked to a nature reserve in a volcanic crater, on the coast.  The hard part was SUPPOSED to be the climb down to the “flat”area, except the FLAT area was actually a bed of mud with rocks poking up haphazardly.

8569B9BA-76D7-42BE-A476-958DFAB97BE1

At times, it felt like elves were hiding below the surface, trying to suck the boots off our feet.

We, however, were undaunted.  A bit muddy, a bit wet, but definitely undaunted.

CEDF9846-B957-4082-B50A-04AF47687DF8

Look, we are still smiling .  Helen is using Sam as a wind shield.  It is difficult to get a good group photo while standing in mud, being buffeted by wind.

Odd  costumes? Yep, we had a few of those.

45D513C6-C8FC-4D4A-8831-374313FA8C3E

The Galapagos have blue footed Boobies; WE have blue footed buddies.

If YOU had been experiencing misty, windy weather, would you want to get on a boat to go chasing after whales?  Neither did 10 of us.  Instead, we elected to have a leisurely breakfast, a stroll through the botanical garden, and lunch in town.  No mishaps and no funny costumes for us.

BEDBEED1-CD31-48C8-B791-279EB80168EA

 

The whale watchers, on the other hand, had both.  Sorry.  No photos of them in their bright blue jump suits.  All we got were very vivid descriptions of the experience from our participants.  Sharmon reported sighting “two whales and nineteen puking passengers”.  Fortunately none of our five were in her head count.  Even more fortunate, the sea sick whale watchers had the foresight to come equipped with plastic bags.  That presents another question.  If you thought you were going to need them, would YOU get on the boat?

In the afternoon, eleven of us (including four from the morning adventure) decided to try our luck riding Icelandic horses.  I’m happy to say that there was not a single incidence of motion sickness.  We DID manage to model some pretty funky outfits.

D2886E63-FBFD-4AFF-9E21-0CC8ED617957

Karen, Diane, Sam, Kathy, Carol, John, Helen, Sue, me.  (Sharmon and Luis were still getting suited up). 

Is it my imagination, or do some of us look like we are on our way to fight a fire?

Our ride took us through magnificent scenery.  The air was clear and fresh smelling, unless you happened to be riding behind Diane.  HER horse was desperately in need of the equine version of bean-o, emitting noises that would have had most third graders in hysterics.  (Okay, so WE laughed too. )

F1FCCC78-6A54-4411-B6E1-D8C7FA8F1787

But he looks so innocent!

Because we took so long getting fitted with helmets, choosing our trusty steeds, mounting and dismounting, we were running late for our dinner reservation.  Modern technology came to the rescue.  A google search for the restaurant phone number and a quick call via cell phone, and voila, problem solved.

We ended our “buddy movie” on a high note, having a great dinner at Strikiò Restaurant.

001896FC-8623-4DDD-B417-395304ED1EFE

Does this look like a rowdy group?  

 

 

 

Three Wish Mountain

We were on a mission, leaving rainy Reykjavík in search of sunshine.  Would we need to squander one of our three wishes on a request for some respite from the rain?  Read on, if you want to find out.

First up on our way to Stykkishólmur was a stop at a wool studio.  CBAC040C-4A7C-4401-8DCE-BC4E43710BA3

When I had initially learned that the itinerary would exchange a visit to a waterfall for a wool demonstration, I was a bit distressed.  Was I ever wrong!  The presentation was quite wonderful.  The explanation of  the chemistry involved in dyeing wool was fascinating.  In the OLD days, cow’s urine was a key ingredient; it has since been replaced with ammonia, and not just because of the smell, although that alone was a good enough reason for me.  The problem is today it is too difficult to collect.  The cows are allowed to roam free and don’t take too kindly to someone following them around with a bucket.   The urine of old women also had characteristics that produced a particular color.  I don’t remember the color or the age requirement, I DO remember several of us volunteered to donate.

Our next stop was at the Settlement Center in Borgarnes, where we were treated to a very interesting Norse history,  including an opportunity to stand on the bow of a moving Viking ship.

Lunch in the second floor restaurant was delicious: a choice of tomato or lamb soup and a salad bar chock full of my favorite items.  A nice surprise was that this lunch was now included, where at one time it wasn’t.  Given the high price of food in Iceland, this was a welcome change.

Today’s drive was a long one, blessedly broken up by several stops.  Here we are viewing vertical lava flows.  Our guide explained the geology behind this particular effect.  I promptly forgot it.

396BE91C-D9AF-4906-A865-58AB18F96F5A

Luis is posing for all of the photography enthusiasts.  By now, I can identify everyone from the back. From left: Karen, Kathy and Nancy ( and the fuscia arm in the far left corner is either Helen or Debby)

Finally, we arrived at Mount Helgafell, where, if you climb to the top without speaking and don’t look back, you can face the east and make three wishes.  They have to be of positive intent, and you can’t tell anyone what they are.

6A3880C0-A91C-4DEE-BD32-FFCC9CDB83F3

I’m facing the east, have made my wishes, and am now allowed to look behind me.

Being a generous soul, I gave one of my wishes for the good of our entire planet, (excluding Russia), one for Mike and me and one for a family member in need of a wish.   We’ll see if the Viking version of prayer works.  (At least none of us got turned into a pillar of salt!)

Mt Helgafell deserves a few more photos, so here goes:

The ascent was rather easy, because the path was well maintained, and the view was worth every step.  Although we hadn’t really found the sun, at least it wasn’t raining, and there were some patches of blue in the sky.

49E3DE40-C69F-42EC-98D5-68A69852CF44

The two Canadians: My blogging buddy Nancy (in red) and my newest friend, Sue.

Our second day on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula was also quite full, starting with a visit to a waterfall.  This short video, done by Mike, captures the beauty of the waterfall better than any of my photos, but if you don’t want to hop over to YouTube, this is for you.

 

F33D1211-FA1F-49D3-9611-448DE3BD1DA8

There’s one in every crowd. OURS is called Luis.

Kathy expressed an interest in bird life, so Hlynur took her for a little walk in a nesting area.  Wonder what happened?   Mike managed to get this action shot of Kathy being dive bombed by an angry mama bird.

It looked like a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. You know which one.

To be continued…

 

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!