France: Les Alpes (July 25 to 31, 2018)

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Taking a “step into the void” Whoa.

A few months after motorcycling around Corsica (see previous post), it was time for another road trip. This time, Mathieu and I decided to escape the summer heat in the Drôme Valley and explore the Alps!! – the highest and most extensive mountain range in Europe, stretching approximately 750 mi (1,200 km) across eight countries: France, Switzerland, Italy, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia [1]. 

Click HERE to go directly to the full photo album or click “Continue reading” to find out more about our 7-day adventure!

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France: Corsica – l’Ile de Beauté (Island of Beauty; May 12 to 20, 2018)

Last May, with the return of Spring to the Drome Valley (our home in France), it was time to enjoy the warmer weather and take a road trip. Mathieu and I packed the side and top boxes of his Triumph Tiger motorcycle with basic camping gear and some clothes, and drove about 3.5 hours to the coastal city of Nice. There, we loaded the motorcycle and ourselves onto the Moby Zaza, a overnight ferry adorned, oddly, with Looney Tunes characters (e.g., Tweety Bird, Wile E. Coyote) that took us to the island of Corsica (Corse in French).

Click HERE to go directly to the full photo album or click “Continue reading” to find out more about our 9-day moto adventure!

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Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice (June 17 to July 13, 2016)

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After two months in China (see previous post), I returned to Paris to reunite with Mathieu. It’d been over 4 months since we were together in Cambodia (see previous post) so I was super happy to see him again. During my 3-month stay with him, we took a trip to the beautiful country of Iceland.

Per Wikipedia, the Republic of Iceland (Lýðveldið Ísland in Icelandic) is a Nordic island country in the North Atlantic Ocean. It has a population of 329,100 (of which 207,174 live in Reykjavík) and an area of 40,000 sq mi (103,000 sq km) making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The settlement of Iceland began in the 9th century when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island. In the following centuries, Norwegians, and to a lesser extent other Scandinavians, immigrated to Iceland, bringing with them thralls of Gaelic origin.

About 85 percent of total primary energy supply in Iceland is derived from domestically produced renewable energy sources (primarily geothermal and hydrroelectric) and Iceland ranks among the top 10 greenest economies in the world. Iceland still relies heavily on fishing, including whaling, but its importance has diminished from 90% in the 1960s to 40% in 2006.

Iceland is volcanically and geologically active. The interior consists of a plateau of sand and lava fields, mountains and glaciers, and glacial rivers that flow to the sea through the lowlands. Iceland is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has a temperate climate, despite a high latitude just outside the Arctic Circle. Its high latitude and marine influence still keeps summers chilly, with most of the archipelago having a tundra climate.

So what did I do for nearly 4 weeks in the land of fjords, glaciers, volcanoes, lava fields, and waterfalls? Explore and trek of course, taking full advantage of the summer season’s midnight sun!

By the time our flight landed and we picked up the rental car, it was 2am, so we decided to find a nice place several miles away from the airport to park and spent our first “night” in Iceland sleeping in the car. Thank goodness we were prepared for the 24-hour daylight and had our eye masks. The next morning, we pushed up our masks to welcome a cool but mostly sunny day.

The first stop was Reykjavík to stock up on groceries and explore the city. The small capital city (population 207,174) was bustling with tourists checking out the numerous charming shops selling trinkets, souvenirs, fancy outdoor gear, and all things made of Icelandic wool. The Euro 2016 Championship had started June 10th and lucky for us, there was a football (aka soccer) match that day: Iceland vs. Hungry. So after meandering around the city, window shopping, checking out the waterfront, etc… we joined a few hundred spectators bundled up in the city’s main square to watch the football match on a jumbotron. It was cool to be in a sea of blue (jerseys, hats, scarves, face paint, etc…). Despite the drizzling rain that started shortly before the match, we had a great time singing, laughing, drinking beer, and cheering with the fans. The match ended in a tie (1-1) but the fans were happy. It was a great first day in Iceland!!

From Reykjavík, we spent a few days slowly making our way north on Roads 47 and 54, following the contours of the fjords, stopping along the way to marvel at the many waterfalls and rivers, then drove around Snæfellsjökull, a magnificent 700,000-year-old glacier-topped volcano located at the tip of long, narrow peninsula. Per Wikipedia, the volcano is one of the most famous sites of Iceland, primarily due to the 1864 Jules Verne novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth, in which the protagonists find the entrance to a passage leading to the center of the earth on Snæfellsjökull.

From there, we continued further north on Road 60 to explore the lesser-traveled Westfjords, stopping first at Látrabjarg, the westernmost point in Iceland and Europe’s largest bird cliff, ~9 mi (14 km) long and up to 1,443 feet (440 m) high. These cliffs are home to millions of birds, including northern gannets, guillemots, razorbills, and puffins! Per Wikipedia, this site hosts up to 40% of the world population for some of these species. It was amazing to finally see puffins for my first time! Adorable. We also watched a brown arctic fox run on the trail ahead of us searching for bird nests to poach on the cliff edge. The arctic fox, brown in summer and white in winter, is Iceland’s only native terrestrial mammal which came to the island at the end of the ice age, walking over the frozen sea. The view overlooking the sparkling ocean below was stunning, especially on such a gorgeous, sunny day. Along with seeing puffins and an arctic fox, the day was extra special (and extra long) since it was June 21, the summer solstice. I decided to stay up to watch the sunset on the longest day of the year. I bundled up, sat on a boulder on the beach near our campsite, listened to music, and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally at about 1:20am, the sun went below the horizon. Wow, it truly was a summer solstice to remember. (Note: I heard the next day from fellow campers that the sun rose again about two hours later. Crazy!)

As we prepared to continue our roadtrip, we met Gail and Terrence, a French couple who were hitchhiking around Iceland. Together we traveled along the small roads of the Westfjords, stopping at various waterfalls, viewpoints overlooking gorgeous inlets and bays, and small quaint towns. It was great to meet some fellow travelers and Mathieu was very happy to have some fellow French-speakers to chat with. After a few days, we said farewell to them in the village of Ísafjörður but luckily ran into them a few more times along our route in northern Iceland.

After walking around Ísafjörður (population 2,600) and enjoying a nice meal, including some Icelandic beer, we returned to our parked car to find it sitting in a pool of fluid. Apparently the fuel hose broke while we were driving on the dirt arounds along the fjords (not F roads, just regular dirt roads). This happens so frequently that this type of repair, along with cracked windshields, is not covered by the rental car insurance. Our friendly neighborhood police officer who’d been waiting by the car, called the rental car company for us and arranged for a tow truck to take the car about three blocks to a local garage. It was after 10pm on a Thursday, so we’d have to wait until the next day for the repairs. While waiting for the tow truck, we were joined by another police office and a fire truck with three fireman who cleaned up the spilt diesel fuel. Mathieu, all three firemen, and one of the police officers crawled under the car to confirm that the puddle was due to a broken fuel hose. So, there we were on the corner of this small village with our little rental car surrounded by two police officers, three firemen, a fire truck with lights flashing, and a few onlookers. We had the feeling we were the excitement for the night. The next day, we hitched a ride to the garage and paid our repair bill (about $250, mostly due to the after-hours towing). After a stop at a bakery to help us forget about the bill, we drove to Drangajökull, the northernmost glacier of Iceland. Per Wikipedia, the glacier covers an area of ~67 sq mi (200 sq km) and is the only Icelandic glacier which lies entirely below an altitude of 3,280 ft (1,000 m) and is also the only glacier that has not shrunk in recent years. The glacier-cut valley was stunning with numerous small waterfalls flowing down the steep sides and into the thundering river that flowed out of the massive glacier. Besides a few other hikers, we had the valley and the glacier to ourselves. After the hike, we drove to the tiny fishing village of Drangsnes, where we enjoyed the evening rain while soaking in a communal (aka free) hot tub overlooking a small bay. It was a great way to end the day and let go of any remaining stress over the costly car repairs.

From there, we continued our scenic drive east along Road 68 to Siglufjörður, a fishing village located at the end of a fjord, offering lovely views overlooking the ocean. After a night there, we rejoined Route 1, known as Iceland’s Ring Road encircling the entire country for over 800 mi (1,287 km). We stopped at Goðafoss, a large waterfall, and Mývatn, a lake that per Wikipedia was created by a large basaltic lava eruption 2300 years ago. Being on the very popular Ring Road, we shared these sites with numerous tour buses and an army of fellow tourists. However, both the waterfall and the lake were beautiful and like in most places, if you’re willing, as we were, to walk a few miles past the trailhead, you can escape the masses. After a nice day hike up a volcanic crater, through the lava fields around the lake, and through a piping hot geothermal area, we arrived to our destination for the night:  Dettifoss. Per Wikipedia, Dettifoss is the largest waterfall in Iceland with an average water flow of 193 m3/s, and the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The water comes from the nearby Vatnajökull glacier, whose sediment-rich runoff colors the Jökulsá, Iceland’s second longest river, a greyish white. The falls are 330 ft (100 m) wide and have a drop of 144 ft (44 m) resulting in an impressive thundering noise and crashing spray. It was a truly awesome sight! From the waterfall, we continued north on Roads 865/85 north and east to the fishing village of Þórshöfn, enjoying the dramatic views of the land meeting the sea along the way.

From Þórshöfn, we drove south on Road 85 along the coast, entering the less-traveled east Iceland via Hellisheiði pass (Road 917). It was an adventure driving over Iceland’s highest (2,152 ft (656 m)) and steepest pass, and to add to the adventure, it was cold and super foggy, with nearly zero visibility. After camping for the night at a lovely spot below the pass, we drove Road 94 to the end of the Borgarfjörður Eystri fjord to visit the cliffs crammed with breeding fulmars, kittiwakes, eiders, and puffins! After watching puffins fly out to sea to fish, return with fish, pop below ground into their nests, reemerge, and watching them just look adorable, we drove south on Roads 94 and 93 to Seyðisfjörður, a charming village surrounded by mountains. Per Wikipedia, the town is well known for its old wooden buildings and has a vibrant cultural scene with an arts centre, a Technical Museum, a local heritage museum, and the only two cinemas in the east of Iceland. There are also a few restaurants and bars, one of which we visited to have a beer and watch another football match: Portugal vs. Poland (Portugal won, making the team’s single fan in the bar very happy and the Icelanders very unhappy).

The next day, we drove the short distance to Egilsstaðir to pick up my brother Jabal, who flew from San Francisco to Reykjavík then to Egilsstaðir to join us. We’d last hung out in October 2015 in Antwerp, Belgium, so I was super excited to see him. After many big hugs, we took a scenic drive on Road 910 toward the Vatnajökull ice cap. We tried to remain positive and to ignore the wind and rain but finally we had to abort our plans to camp in the area and return from where we came and away from the foul weather. We ended up finding a good campsite overlooking Lagarfljót lake. We spent the night singing, dancing, chatting, and scanning the lake’s surface to catch a glimpse of Lagarfljótsormurinn, a cryptic serpent believed by some to live in the depths of Lagarfljót. Unfortunately despite our efforts, none of us saw the reputed serpent. Hmm….maybe a few more Icelandic beers and shots of the Irish whiskey Jabal had brought would have helped our chances. Ha!

The next day, we hiked along the Jökulsá River, accompanied by two very friendly herding dogs. It was a little rainy and cold but the river and surrounding valley were gorgeous and we had the trail to ourselves. We even got to cross the river via a bucket bridge, literally a 1-person bucket that is manually moved across the river on cables via a pulley system. It was very cool until the rope fell off the pulley wheel, leaving Mathieu on one side of the river and Jabal and I on the other. Luckily it didn’t happen while one of us was suspended over the thundering river! Jabal and I only had to walk a few miles (in the cold rain) to a bridge where Mathieu met us in the car.It was a fun adventure. The next day, we returned to Egilsstaðir and said farewell to Mathieu who had to return home and back to work. Thankfully, I’d be rejoining him in Paris after 9 more days in Iceland, so it was farewell only for a short time.

From Egilsstaðir, Jabal and I continued south on Road 92 to Reyðarfjörður where, at the end of the road, we did a great day hike. It was cold and wet but the views were absolutely amazing. We were surrounded by snow-covered mountains on three sides and overlooked the inlet of Reyðarfjörður, a massive inlet that looked even more dramatic with white-caps and shadows from the passing storm clouds. After setting up the tent at the campground in Reyðarfjörður, we went to a bar to watch another football match:  Iceland vs. France. This was a quarter-final match for the Euro 2016 Championship and the fans in the small bar were pumped! With beers in hand, we settled in to watch the game with the locals. The two teams seemed pretty well matched at first (in my very novice opinion), with each team spending about the same amount of time near the goal. But that all changed when France scored their first goal about 12 minutes into the match. Then, shortly after, they scored another goal, then another followed quickly by another. So by the half, France was winning 4-0. The mood in the bar was somber but still hopeful. I was bummed for Iceland but was secretly cheering for both teams:  Iceland because they were the underdogs and France because they were Mathieu’s team. Jabal, however, was really bummed out and didn’t want to watch the second half, so we left. We found out the next day from the campground hostess that France scored another goal during the second half but that Iceland also scored 2 more goals, making the final score 5-2 France. She was very proud of her team for making it to the finals. I read later in The Reykjavík Grapevine, a humorous, free alternative magazine, that this was the first time since the foundation of the Icelandic Football Association in 1947 that the team had ever qualified for the finals of a major tournament. No wonder the country was so excited that their team had made it to the quarterfinals. Good job Iceland!!!

The next day was clear and sunny (but still cold) so we decided to return to Road 910 to try again to get closer to the Vatnajökull ice cap. Per Wikipedia, Vatnajökull is the largest and most voluminous ice cap (aka miniature ice sheet) in Iceland, and the second largest ice cap in area in Europe (the first being in Norway). To get a better look at the massive ice cap, we did a 2-night backpacking trip around 6,014-ft (1,833-m) high Snæfell mountain, northeast of the glacier. While the weather during our trek was mostly cold, drizzly, and cloudy, and my feet got soaked crossing the numerous marshy areas at the foot of the mountain, the views of Snæfell, the surrounding mountains, and the distant Vatnajökull were amazing. Thankfully, we had a few periods of sun during which the various colors of the volcanic rock we walked over and the sparse vegetation in the area came alive. On the morning of day three, we hiked up mount Snæfell, stopping just below the summit. It was a sunny day (at least for a few hours) and the views overlooking the marshy valley between the mountain and Vatnajökull and of the expansive ice cap itself were breathtaking. And the storm clouds around us and over the ice cap added to the dramatic scene. It was one of my favorite sights in Iceland, and except the four people we encountered on our way down the mountain and back to the car, we had the trek to ourselves. Amazing! After the trek, we continued south, enjoying the changing views of the impressive Vatnajökull ice cap for about 100 mi (160 km) as we continued along the coast on the Ring Road.

Over the next few days, we stopped at various spots to day hike along the Skálafellsjökull and Breiðamerkurjökull glaciers, tongues of Vatnajökull ice cap. It was amazing to get up close and personal with these massive glaciers. We also stopped at the very popular Jökulsárlón lagoon where icebergs from Vatnajökull calve into the glacial lagoon. We joined the masses to watch as small icebergs floated out of the mouth of the lagoon into the ocean. It was a cool sight. From there, we continued along the Ring Road to Vík, the southernmost village of Iceland. Being only 110 mi (180 km) from Reykjavík and on the easily accessible Ring Road, the campground in the small village was packed with tents, RVs, and campervans. However, since the wifi was good, the showers were hot, and the communal kitchen was huge, it was a good place to spend a few rainy days. We’d been mostly lucky with the weather so far, with some sunny days and some days of only light rain.

After two days of relaxing, reading, journaling, and exploring the cliffs and black-sand volcanic beaches around Vík, we continued west on the Ring Road then to Road 26 where we crossed valleys of ancient lava flows and small volcanoes to get to Hekla (4,892 ft (1,491 m)), one of Iceland’s most active volcanos with over 20 eruptions in and around the volcano since 1104. The most recent eruption occurred in February 2000 and thankfully caused no damage. At the junction of Road 26 and Road F-225, we parked, able to go no further in our non-4X4 rental car. Lucky for us, we met Herman “the German” and Emmet (also German), who gave us a ride in their 4X4 to the trailhead. They’d taken the car ferry from Denmark to tour around Iceland for two weeks. We folded ourselves into the car among the camping gear, food, and mountain bikes and off we went to the trailhead. It was a bumpy and uncomfortable 5-6 mile ride but it beat walking. We ended up hiking up the volcano with our new friends, all of us enjoying the magnificent views of the looming snow-capped volcano above and the surrounding lava-covered valley below. It was cool to see tiny flowers growing out of the jagged volcanic rock that covered the ground. The day started out cloudy but dry, then changed quickly as we neared the summit, becoming rainy with some snow, windy, and foggy. It was so foggy at times, I could barely see my hand stretched out in front of my face. Oh crap, time to abort the summit attempt and get off the volcano. Trying to find the trail in the very cold, foggy conditions was really difficult and I finally understood how people got lost in this type of weather. Thankfully, the four of us worked together to stay on the trail and we made it back to the car unscathed. As we said farewell to our German friends, they gave us some really good German beer. It was perfect after a death-defying hike. Ha!

The next day, we drove west to Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake. Per Wikipedia, the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet in this area which we could see from the deep cracks and faults around the lake. Thanks to a local at the lake’s visitor center, we found a hike to the summit of a small mountain overlooking the lake. The hike went past numerous thermal vents and a steaming hot, sulfurous creek. We had the trail to ourselves. At the summit, we had a great view of the huge lake, the river flowing from the lake to the ocean, Hekla volcano in the distance, and Reykjavík. The sun, partially covered by a few clouds, was behind Reykjavík, casting a lovely light on the land in between. On the way down, we were treated to a gorgeous double rainbow over the lake. It was a fabulous end to the last day of the road trip.

After our last night wild camping, we returned to Reykjavík, where Jabal and I shared a delicious dinner at a cozy restaurant and a beer at a local bar before saying farewell. I returned to Paris and he enjoyed a few more days in Reykjavik.

Iceland is a beautiful country with varied amazing landscapes and very friendly people, 99.9% of whom speak excellent English. Traveling around the country is easy, wild camping is allowed, and for those who prefer facilities, there are numerous campgrounds, most with wifi. While we were there during the high tourist season (mid June thru August) and the south part of the island was very crowded, we saw relatively few other tourists in the Westfjords and in the north and east parts of the island (away from the Ring Road). I definitely want to visit this amazing country again, and when I do, I’ll rent a 4X4 so I can explore the interior highlands via the infamous F-Roads.

The nearly 4 weeks I spent exploring the beautiful landscapes of Iceland were amazing. I was thrilled to tent camp the entire time, sometimes off the beaten path and and sometimes at campgrounds (with hot showers!). But of course, my experience was even more memorable because I got to share it with people I love, Mathieu and Jabal. Thank you both for all the amazing memories.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full album: https://goo.gl/photos/ybqarwVE9gAWcwt89

Enjoy!

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Watching fooball in Reykjavik. Go Iceland!
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Latrabjarg cliffs.
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Puffins!
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Summer solstice sunset:
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With Terrence and Gail at Dynjandi waterfalls.
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Dettifoss. Wow!
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Icelandic beer and Irish whiskey near Lagarfjot lake.
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Overlooking Reydarfjordur inlet.
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Trailhead to Snaefell mountain.
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View from Snaefell mountqin, overlooking Vatnajokull ice cap.
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Overlooking Skalafellsjokull glacier.
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Near the summit of Hekla Volcano.
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Silly in Reykjavik.
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Last sunset in Iceland. Farewell. Until next time.

Europe: England, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, and France (Oct 8 to Nov 10, 2015)

After 7 days trekking in the Scottish highlands (see previous post), I went on a brief tour of several  other countries of Europe, visiting England, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, and France, for a second time.

So how did I spend about 5 weeks in western Europe? Exploring the culture and history of some beautiful cities and surrounding natural areas and hanging out with friends, of course!

London, England (Oct 8-11)

After a 5-hour train from Glasgow (Scotland), I arrived in England’s capitol city of London (population over 8 million), to visit my friend Sally who moved from Austin, Texas, where I know her from, to London over 5 years ago. It was great catching up with her on my first night over a bottle of wine at her cozy flat in Highgate. For my first full day in London, I explored the city. It was fun to see the sites I’d only seen on TV and in movies, including Piccadily Square, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Thames River walk. I also visited the British Royal Museum, renowned for its extensive art collection from all over the world and the Tate Modern Art Museum. Later, Sally and I walked around the Springfield area and she took me to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, for a drink. They usually adhere to a strict dress code but thankfully our smiles persuaded the door man to let us in wearing jeans and sneakers. The next day, Sally took me out for more sightseeing, including the Victoria and Albert Museum and The London Tower. After, we explored the market areas:  Camden Lock, Borough Market, and Inverness Street Market. It was an explosion of people and color and cool unusual things, mixed with repeat versions of the same old touristy crap. It was people watching and window shopping at its best! We roamed around these market areas for several hours enjoying the scene, then stopped for an pint at a pub where the crowd was completely enthralled in the World Cup rugby match on TV. It seemed like the quintessential London experience.

Antwerp, Belgium (Oct 11-14)

After a great visit with Sally in London, I took a 3.5-hour bus to Antwerp (population 510,610). It was interesting to be on the bus as it was loaded onto the train that then traveled under the English Channel to be offloaded on the other side in France. I went to Antwerp to hang out with my brother, Jabal, one of my favorite people in the world! He was on holiday in Antwerp to return to Belgium DesertFest, one of his favorite psychedelic rock festivals. I met him for Day 3 of the 3-day rock festival. We had a great time drinking Belgium beer, listening to music, and being the silly siblings that we are. Over the next few days, we explored the beautiful city of Antwerp, including the Main Square area, several lovely cathedrals, and the Scheldt River walk. Per Wikipedia, the Port of Antwerp is one of the biggest in the world, ranking third in Europe and within the top 20 globally. The city has a historic vibe despite the fact that it was hit by more V-2s than all other targets during the entirety of WWII combined. While the attack did not succeed in destroying the port, the city itself was severely damaged and was subsequently rebuilt after the war in a modern style. We also walked to an old fort located in a beautiful forested city park a few hours outside Antwerp. After a short train ride to Brussels, we visited Atomium, a structure constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. Its stainless steel spheres are connected so that the whole forms the shape of a cell of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It was very cool, as was hanging out my awesome bro!

Paris, France (Oct 15-23)

After a great visit with Jabal in Antwerp, I took a 5-hour bus to visit Paris for a second time (see previous post). This time, I visited my friend, Mathieu, a Parisian who I’d met in Argentina, then crossed paths with in Bolivia and again in Peru. I enjoyed relaxing at his flat and exploring parts of Paris I missed during my first visit, including the Eiffel Tower. Not only did I get to enjoy the amazing views of Paris from the tower, but Mathieu and I watched a movie from there. It so happened that NetFlix was having an event on the second floor to which we got last minute tickets. So we relaxed on bean bag chairs and watched the 2015 movie, Aloha, starring Bradley Cooper, on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower. So fun!

Amsterdam, Netherlands (Oct 23-26)

After a great visit with Mathieu in Paris, I took a 7-hour bus to the Netherlands’ capitol city of Amsterdam (population 831,279) to hang out my friends, David and Paul, who came all the way from California to hang out with me! And, they brought me a large bag of tortilla chips, two bottles of salsa, and tequila, three things I’d been missing from home. I’ll admit it, I ate almost the entire bag of chips the first night. We had fun exploring the Amsterdam night life, hitting some bars and dance clubs, and exploring the sights of the city including the infamous Red Light District, “coffee” shops, and the areas along the endless maze of lovely historic canals. It was so great hanging with my California boys!

Berlin, Germany (Oct 27-29)

After a great visit with David and Paul in Amsterdam, I took a 10-hour bus to Germany’s capital city of Berlin (population 3.5 million). This time, I was not in the city to meet friends, but to explore some history. To learn more about this historic city, I took a walking tour during which we visited sights including Brandanburg Gate, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the largest remaining section of the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Topography of Terror Historic Site, and the Spree River walk. During the tour, much of the WWII information I’d learned in high school history class came to life. On my second day, I visited the Sachsenhaus Concentration Camp and Historic Site. It was an emotional but very educational day. Interestingly, visiting a place where humans did horrible things to other humans helped me remember to always try to be compassionate, understanding, and loving towards others.

Prague, Czech Republic (Oct 29-Nov 3)

After visiting Berlin, I took a 5-hour bus to the Czech Republic’s capitol city of Prague (population about 1.2 million) to visit my Czech friends, Renata and Gabriela, who I’d met and trekked with in Peru (see previous post). It was great to have my local friends showing me around the beautiful city of Prague, taking me to sights including Old Town Square, Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral, Charles Bridge, and the Vltava River walk. Per Wikipedia, Prague suffered considerably less damage during WWII than some other major cities in the region, allowing most of its historic architecture to stay true to form. As a result, the extensive historic centre of Prague is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Along with exploring the city, Renata and Gabriella took me on a road trip to the Cesky Kras Protected Landscape Area, about an hour from Prague, where we hiked through a gorgeous forest in fall colors to one of the Czech Republic’s many castles and the nearby quaint village. It was so cool to hang out with such cool girls.

Paris, France (Nov 3-10)

After a great visit with Renata and Gabriela in Prague, I returned to Paris. This time, along with hanging out in Paris again, Mathieu took me to Cassis, a small city (population 7,793) on the south coast of France, just east of Marseille. We traveled there via high-speed train. By car, this trip takes about 8 hours; by high speed train, it takes about 4.5 hours. Wow! Cassis is a small, quaint coastal town filled with many shops, cafes, a small marina, and lovely beaches. During our visit, we also explored the Espace Naturel des Calanques (Calanques Natural Landscape Area), trekking along the limestone cliffs overlooking the gorgeous clear blue waters of the Mediterranean, and the Plage d’En Vau beach, swimming in the gorgeous clear but cold blue waters of the Mediterranean. Per Wikitravel,  “Qu’a vist Paris, se noun a vist Cassis, pou dire: n’ai rèn vist” (He who has seen Paris but not Cassis can say, I haven’t seen anything.” These words, spoken by Nobel-prize winning writer Federique Mistral, reflect the great attraction that Cassis exerts on all those who go there. I concur. It was great to hang out with Mathieu again and explore such a magical place.

While somewhat brief, my visit to these lovely, historic European cities and beautiful natural areas was wonderful, and my experience was made even more memorable by the people with whom I shared it with. Thank you Sally, Jabal, David, Paul, Renata, Gabriela and Mathieu for a great visit!!

Here are a few pictures. Click the links to see the full photo albums:

London, Antwerp, Paris: https://goo.gl/photos/RnWGC8T5oV46oJm3A

Amsterdam:  https://goo.gl/photos/vpc9h2GEvZiFBWau7

Berlin, Prague, Cassis:  https://goo.gl/photos/n9RxrgfxCdBx82mA7

Enjoy!

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London with Sally.
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Antwerp with Jabal.
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Paris with Mathieu.
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Amsterdam with David and Paul.
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Berlin – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
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Prague with Gabriela and Renata.
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Cassis with Mathieu.
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Cassis sunset.

Scotland: Walking the West Highland Way (Sept 30 to Oct 6, 2015)

After two months in Ireland (see previous post), I returned to Scotland to walk the West Highland Way. This 96-mi (154-km) long footpath through the Scottish highlands is listed among the top 20 epic trails in the world by National Geographic magazine[1].

So how did I spend 7 days in the Scottish highlands? Trekking of course!

Upon arriving in Glasgow, I reconnected with Dave (England) who I’d met in Chile (Parque Nacional Torres del Paine) and traveled with for almost three weeks in Argentina (El Bolson, El Chalten, and Bariloche). From Glasgow, we took a short train ride to the small town of Milngavie where the trail begins. After getting a map and taking a few pictures, we started the walk.

The West Highland Way links hike/bike trails between the small towns and villages it passes through. Per Wikipedia, parts of the trail follow ancient roads such as drover’s roads (to herd livestock), military roads, and coaching roads. Upon its opening in 1980, the West Highland Way became the first officially designated long distance footpath in Scotland, and in 2010, it was co-designated as part of the International Appalachian Trail.

While on the trail, Dave and I trekked through varying landscapes including rolling pasture lands dotted with black-faced sheep, native grass and shrub lands, and valleys bordered by rugged mountains, crossed numerous rivers and small streams, and walked for a day and a half along the shores of 23-mi long Loch Lomond. We also walked through patches of woodland and forest, some natural and some artificially created. Per the West Highland Way website, most of Scotland’s pine forests are made up of nonnative species such as sitka spruce, larch, and douglas fir. However, ancient Caledonian pinewood forests (consisting of Scots pine, juniper, birch, willow, rowan, and aspen trees) once spread across thousands of kilometers of the highlands. These native forests now remain at just 84 protected sites covering 180 km2 in the north and west where restoration is ongoing. Walking through the patches of forest was beautiful, contrasting sharply with the vast areas of pasture and grasslands, but walking through the patches of ancient pinewood forest was magical.

Along the way, we passed through several small towns and villages, the “villages” typically consisting of a hotel or lodge with a pub welcoming walkers to rest, use the facilities, and have a pint. Similar to my previous experiences in Scotland, the locals were very friendly, being used to hordes of walkers on the West Highland Way. Fortunately for us, we walked during the low season and therefore often had long stretches of the trail to ourselves, meeting only a handful of other walkers during the day. On our first day, we met Richard, a Scotsman, who we ended up walking and camping with intermittently throughout the rest of the trek. We was a wealth of information about Scotland, the highlands, and the walk. And, he walked in a kilt, adding to my Scottish walking experience (ha!). While many walkers opt to stay at the hotels along the trail, Dave and I tent camped each night, mostly at developed campgrounds. Besides having access to facilities (i.e., toilets and showers), camping at developed campgrounds also allowed us to enjoy a pint with our fellow walkers at the end of the day. A perfect way to end a long day of walking!

On our last day, Dave and I did a 10-mi (16-km) roundtrip side hike to the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the United Kingdom at 4,409 ft (1,343 m) then walked the last few miles of the end of the trail in Fort Williams. The summit was cold, windy, raining, and thick with clouds, preventing any type of view, but it was a great end to our 7-day adventure.

Walking the West Highland Way was a great way to explore the beautiful Scottish highlands, and my experience was made even more memorable by the people with whom I walked. Oh, and by the amazingly good weather we enjoyed for most of the trek (which we were told repeatedly is quite unusual). Thanks Dave for trekking with me again!

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/WVWTA4mPFrn3h1aB7

Enjoy!

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Ireland: Browns Mills, Kinsale, and Beyond (July 29 to Sept 29, 2015)

After 3 weeks in Dublin, Ireland, Elie, Scotland, and Paris, France with my Texas and Illinois peeps (see previous post), I flew back to Ireland for a planned 2-month stay with my Irish friend Martin. Martin and I have been friends since meeting 5+ years ago while camping in Death Valley National Park, California. After many years in San Francisco, he recently moved back home to Browns Mills, Ireland.

Browns Mills is a small farming community just outside of the well known town of Kinsale in County Cork [about 180 miles (286 km) southwest of Dublin]. Farmers in the area, and throughout Ireland, primarily grow barley, the majority of which is grown for livestock feed and bedding, with a small percentage of it grown for whiskey production, if the quality meets the makers’ high standards. Kinsale is a historic port and fishing town (population 2,257) located on the coast at the mouth of the River Bandon. The streets of this charming town are lined with colorful shops and delicious local cafes and restaurants. While it’s a highly visited town, it didn’t feel touristy, I think because there are no American chain stores (yeah!). It’s also known as the gastronomic capital of the Republic of Ireland.

Beside growing barley on his own 10-acre plot, Martin works as a contract farmer, meaning he’s hired to harvest, mow, and bale other farmers’ fields using his big toys (aka combine harvester, tractors, bale handler, etc). He is also the proprietor of Motofeirme, a service helping non-Europeans find, purchase, insure and store their own motorbikes for travel around Europe and beyond (www.motofeirme.com or https://m.facebook.com/motofeirme). Given his busy life, especially during the summer harvest, I came to Browns Mills to visit and to help him with Motofeirme.

So, what did I do for 2 months in Browns Mills, Ireland? Explore southern Ireland and learn a lot about farming and motorcycles, of course!

Upon arriving in Kinsale from the Cork Airport, I was treated to a very friendly welcome by Martin’s mom, Eileen, who is an adorable, exuberant person with a lovely warm smile and laugh. Martin sent her to pick me up from the bus stop since he was busy harvesting. In fact, I didn’t see him until my second day there and even then, only for a few hours over the next few days. Thankfully, Phil (England), my predecessor, was there to greet me and show me around. I settled into my private room in the 4-bed bunkhouse at Martin’s place then took a few days to transition from having just been in bustling Paris to being surrounded by farmlands for as far as the eye could see, hearing cows mooing in neighboring fields, and seeing tractors and giant harvesters, including Martin’s, drive down the narrow farm roads. It was nice to slow down and smell the barley.

Phil, who’d been helping Martin with Motofeirme since April, showed me the ropes during his last week there before heading home to the Neitherlands. Basically I would be the Motofeirme greeter, meeting and assisting bikers arriving to Martin’s place to pick-up or drop-off their motorbikes before/after their European travels, tend to the bunkhouse, and perform other odd jobs as needed. It was great meeting the bikers, mostly from Australia, Canada, and the US. It was especially amusing greeting those who were seeing their motorbikes in person for the first time, having purchased their bike through Martin, who they hadn’t previously met, via photos, phone calls, and emails. The sigh of relief that the motorbike they pre-paid for prior to boarding the plane to Ireland was there and in the promised condition was definitely perceptible. Some of the bikers I met stayed in Kinsale, but most stayed in the bunkhouse, some for a few nights and some for a week or more while they readied their motorbikes and gear for the upcoming road trip or unwound before returning home after many weeks or months of being on the road. Hearing about their travel plans and stories from the road was definitely a huge perk of the job.

When there were no bikers picking up or dropping off their motorbikes, I helped plant, harvest, and bag veggies for Horizon Farms, a local farm run by Martin’s friends, Colum and Liz, that supplies many of the area restaurants and markets. I really enjoyed learning about growing and harvesting veggies including leeks, onions, cauliflower, lettuces, spinach, and various types of kale and broccoli. I have a new appreciation for the amount of hard work it takes to bring gorgeous veggies from the farm to the table. And I was able to bring home bags of the veggies I helped harvest (all by hand) – a huge perk for a veggie lover like me! Working and chatting with the Horizon crew (Colum, Liz,  Nollaig, Philip, and Matt) made me feel like a local and definitely added to my Irish experience.

In between exploring Kinsale and Cork, hanging out with Martin, working for Motofeirme and Horizon Farms, I also got to hang with some of my friends from San Diego, California, whom I hadn’t seen in over 6 months! I spent 4 days with Anaika, Ron, and their girls, Zeia and Auni, during their stay on an organic cattle farm near Bray in County Wicklow (about 12 miles south of Dublin). Then I hung out with Jody, Randy, Kristin, Thad, Karin, Ryan, and Helen for 4 days during their trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. Then, Paul Kim came to visit me for 10 days during which we went on a 6-day road trip to explore southwestern Ireland, including the Cliffs of Moher, Dingle Peninsula, Iveragh Peninsula (aka Ring of Kerry), Gap of Dunloe, and Kilarney National Park. We had a great time exploring the spectacular scenery in our tiny rental car with a left-handed stick shift driving on the left side of many very narrow roads. Our road trip mantra:  to the left, to the left.

Living in and exploring Ireland for 2 months was a fantastic experience. It was great to learn more about Ireland’s rich history though visiting early monastic sites, forts, cemeteries, churches, castles, tombs, etc., talking with locals, and exploring the amazing scenery which included rolling pastureland and native shrub/grassland, oak/pine forests, limestone outcrops, and coastal mountains and cliffs. The experience was made much more special by the people I shared it with including my local friends, Martin and the Horizon crew, my Motofeirme friends, and my friends visiting from California. Thank you all for being part of a memorable visit.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/TCkrkb9XqsYoqQ47A 

Enjoy!

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In the Motofeirme bike barn.
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Getting a ride on the harvester.
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At the pub with Martin.
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Planting veggies with Philip, Matt, and Colum (driving).
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Having a cone wih Anaika, Auni, and Zeia at Powerscourt Gardens.
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With Ryan, Kristin, Helen, Thad, Jody, Randy, and Karin in Edinburgh, Scotland.
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Exploring a 7th/8th century oratory with Paul.
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Lovely day at the harbor.

UK/Europe: Ireland, Scotland, and France (July 7 to 29, 2015)

After exploring and trekking in South America for about 5 months (see previous posts for Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador), it was time to move on. I had an unforgettable experience in South America and definitely plan to return to explore the beautiful landscapes and cultures of the countries I didn’t get to visit, and revisit some of my favorite areas and new friends.

From Latacunga, Ecuador, I took a day bus to Guayaquil (Ecuador) where I caught a 14-hour flight to Dublin, Ireland, to join Steve and his mom, Glenda (Texas) and his brother, Jim, and friend, Sam (Illinois) on their 3-week vacation in Ireland, Scotland, and France. Steve, Glenda, and Jim had been planning this vacation for several years so I felt very lucky to be able to join them.

So, what did we do for 6 days in Dublin, Ireland? Explore the city and it’s pubs of course!

Dublin, the capitol of the Republic of Ireland, is a large bustling city (population 527,612) which, due to its accessibility, has a small city appeal. We stayed in a great apartment close to all the action. We spent most of our time exploring the city but also visited the small coastal village of Howth, about a 30 minute train ride northeast of Dublin. We had a great time walking around and checking out the sights, which of course, included the pubs where we chatted with the locals. Per Lonely Planet, “Dubliners at their ease are the greatest hosts of all, a charismatic bunch whose soul and sociability are so compelling and infectious that you mightn’t ever want to leave.” It’s so true! We were amazed time and time again by the genuine friendliness of the people we met on the street, on the train or bus, at restaurants, and at the pub.

From Dublin, we flew to Edinburgh, Scotland and stayed in Elie, about an hour north of Edinburgh and more importantly to Steve, Jim, and Sam, about 30 minutes from the town of St Andrews, the “home of golf” and the location of the 2015 Open Championship.

What did we do for 7 days in Elie, Scotland? Explore the beautiful Scottish coastline and immerse ourselves in golf of course!

We stayed in a beautiful house with a front patio overlooking the beach. Elie is a quaint, charming coastal village (population 940) whose resident population swells in the summer with tourists enjoying the beaches, watersports, and golf courses. We explored the idyllic coastal towns between Elie and St Andrews. While much larger than Elie, St. Andrews (population 16,680) is also charming. Per Wikipedia, “St Andrews is known worldwide as the “home of golf” in part because the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, founded in 1754, exercises legislative authority over the game worldwide (except in the United States and Mexico), and also because the famous links course is the most frequent venue for The Open Championship, the oldest of golf’s four major championships.” The day before the start of The Open, we toured the famous golf course and got to see several famous players (i.e.,Tom Watson and John Daly) on their practice rounds. I don’t watch or play golf, but even I couldn’t resist getting caught up in the excitement of walking on such a historic course and seeing some famous players. Steve, Jim, and Sam were like kids in a candy store walking on the course and even more so as they watched their favorite players battle it out on Day 1 of The Open from the sidelines of the historic course. While I didn’t go with them to The Open, I kept up on the golfer’s scores while relaxing at the house. That’s how infectious the vibe of The Open was!

Besides being the home of golf, St Andrews is home to the beautiful University of St Andrews, the third oldest university in the English-speaking world and the oldest in Scotland, founded in 1413. Notable alumni include England’s Prince William and Princess Kate. We also explored Edinburgh, Scotland’s capitol, for a day, walking around the large (population 492,680) but very accessible city and visiting the Edinburgh Castle (12th century). It’s a beautiful historic city which explains why Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town together are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And while in Scotland, we had to try the national dish, haggis, “a savoury pudding containing sheep’s heart, liver and lungs minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach though now often in an artificial casing instead.” It was….interesting. We had a great time walking around and checking out the sights of coastal Scotland, which of course, included the pubs where we chatted with the locals. Like the Irish, the Scots we met on the street, on the bus, at restaurants, and at the pub were genuinely friendly and fun to chat with.

From Scotland, Jim and Sam returned home, Glenda went to London, England for a few days before returning home, and Steve and I went to Paris, France.

What did we do for 9 days in Paris, France? Explore the well-known sights of the city and indulge in fabulous wine and food of course!

Paris is the amazing, vivacious city I always imagined it would be. This capitol city is large (population 2,241,346) and bustling but accessible and filled with history, and of course romance. We stayed in a lovely apartment close to Canal Saint Martin and Republique Square, an area with numerous cafes, patisseries, small markets, and shops. We spent the days visiting some of Paris’ famous sights including the Notre Dame Cathedral (12th century), the Saint-Chapelle (13th century), Louvre Museum (1792), Père Lachaise Cemetery (1804), Arc de Triomphe (1836), and Basilica of Sacre-Coeur (1914). It was very cool to finally visit these places I’ve only seen pictures of. We also had the good fortune of hanging out with Steve’s friend, Eddie, and some of Eddie’s friends, all French. It was cool to hang out at their favorite spots and feel like a local. Along with hanging with the locals, we also adopted the local  lifestyle and picnicked along the Canal Saint Martin and the Seine. It was surreal to drink wine on the banks of the Seine while watching the daylight fading behind the Eiffel Tower. In addition to the good wine, cheese, bread, and fresh veggies that made up our picnics, we also enjoyed delicious wine and food at some fantastic restaurants, and, oh yeah, more than a few macaroons from the local patisseries. Holy crap, it’s no wonder Paris is a gastronomic capitol!

Exploring Dublin, Ireland, Elie and St. Andrews, Scotland, and Paris, France was a fantastic experience made much more special since I got to share the experience with Steve, Glenda, Jim, and Sam. Thank you all for letting me share your vacation and thank you Steve for a wonderful time in Paris.

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/tTMnexAWsMG5UcUT9

Enjoy!

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In Dublin, Ireland enjoying a beer with Glenda, Steve, Sam, and Jim before a tour of the Jameson whiskey distillery.
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In Scotland touring the Edinburgh Castle with Jim, Glenda, and Sam.
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In St. Andrews, Scotland walking the historic golf course before The Open.

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In Paris enjoying wine with Steve on the banks of the Seine.
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In Paris at the Louvre museum.