Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Arriving in Iceland was something like landing on another planet – vast open spaces of lava rock, covered in greenish lichen and moss, endless skies, and the Atlantic Ocean on one side... then suddenly there’s the airport! It is about an hour’s ride by flybus from the Keflavik international airport to the country’s capital, Reykjavik. Reykjavik holds about 2/3 of the country’s population, the entire of Iceland which is a mere 310,000 people, and is surrounded by volcanic mountains. It is heated by underground thermal springs, which makes it a common sight to see steam rising all around and within the city from shunts, and pipelines zigzagging among the lava fields. It is the land of the midnight sun; days are long midsummer, which gives the evenings a surreal quality of colour from a slowly setting sun.

Shortly after my arrival, I took off on an evening tour of the famous Golden Circle. This took me to see the multi-faceted Gullfoss (golden) waterfall, the Þingvellir National Park, where the Icelandic parliament Alþingi was established in 930 AD and is one of the world UNESCO heritage sites. Also the location where the North American and Eurasian continental plates meet... which also means that Iceland gets its fair share of earthquakes each year! Finally, we stopped at a geothermal area with geysers that explode every few minutes up to several metres high.

The next day, I went on a Icelandic horse excursion. They gave me a little chestnut to ride, of which I felt rather big sitting on, compared to 16.3 hand Sweet Melody. They split the riders into two groups: the “fast group,” and “the slow group.” Naturally, being one for speed... plus an experienced rider, I chose the “fast group,” which meant we went along for the most part at a gait specific to the Icelandic horse, the tölt. The tölt, (if you sit properly) is quite smooth, and fun to ride. After some jostling, I found my seat, and enjoyed speeding along on my little horse among a herd of probably 15 other riders in the mountainous area covered with lava and tundra plants. At one point, we gave the horses a rest and walked a short distance to the edge of a gorge that had an unexpected little waterfall.

After my horse riding tour, I continued on to the Blue Lagoon, to enjoy a beer while lounging in its warm geothermal seawater. The water is quite an usual colour; very light blue, and contains silica and minerals, which coat the surrounding lava rock. It was common to see freakishly white faced people (which included myself) slowly wading around, since there are poolside vats with ladles, that contain free-for-all mud masks made of silica, minerals and algae.

I joined day excursion to Þórsmörk (Thor’s Woodland), a nature reserve shielded on three sides by glaciers and mountains. Along the way, we came across a big herd of both riderless and mounted horses, freely making their way alongside the road, which was magical. Our group took a short hike to a scenic outcrop of volcanic rock in the nature reserve, that looked over the valley – we made it back just in time as clouds quickly rolled in and it started to hail (which is ironic, given that Thor is the God of Thunder). Sure enough, the storm passed as quickly as it came, but it gave our group enough time to enjoy a hot chocolate in the picnic shelter before carrying on. The tour bus was a rickety old thing, converted from an old truck, with big wheels to manage the rough roads and stream-crossings. We stopped at the lush Seljalandsfoss waterfall (one of the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen, complete with mist rainbows) and a hike into the gorge of Stakkholtsgjá, which involved multiple crossings of its glacial melt river. (yes, I had to Google the names again).

I spent my last morning exploring the pretty city of Reykjavik, with its many coffee shops and downward slope towards the harbour, before catching the flybus to the airport, driving past several of the many modern sculptures of the city and lichen-covered lava fields beyond. Luckily, it was a clear day, and I got some great views of Greenland as we flew over it on my way home... to Canada.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Mr. Brightside

My flight was delayed leaving Scotland - feeling a little pressured, I was ready to scoot off the plane quickly enough to catch my shuttle in time... sure enough, there was a fire alarm at London Stansted airport, which inevitably kept me on the plane a little while longer. Luckily, there was another shuttle an hour later, and despite a driver with a cold who decided to stop for a coffee and a re-fuel, I made it to my hotel; self and luggage intact! After a bit of running around, I managed to find my Contiki 21 Days Camping tour registration and tiny room in the huge maze of the London Royal National Hotel. A convenience store dinner and a beer or two at the hotel pub was a fine finish to that travel day!

Day 1: escargot and “the city of love”

Bright and early the next day at 6 am, four coach buses of Contiki groups met to go on their separate ways – eventually, myself and the rest of my group found our bus and were soon well on our way to Dover, England to take the ferry to Calais, France. That evening, we arrived at our Paris campsite, and set-up our twin-share tents for the first time – refugee style! After a taste of escargot, we headed into Paris for a quick walking tour of the Eiffel tower, and a drive-by of famous monuments such as the Louvre and Arc du Triomphe. “Mr. Brightside” by the Killers became our tour song, destined to be played every morning as we disembarked on the coach, to pump us up for the day.
Day 2: larger than life

The day was ours to explore Paris. With one other, I spent some time in the Louvre – found the Mona Lisa, which is much smaller than one would think, and is located directly across from a extraordinarily larger than life painting called “The Wedding Feast at Cana.” The Louvre had incredible ceilings, painted to coincide with the exhibits in each wing of the palace-turned-museum. Other notables include Notre Dame Cathedral (the inside was beautiful and ornate with paintings and woodwork), Arc du Triomphe (up close and personal), champs elysees, conciergerie, St.Chapelle, and du Musee d’Orsay. That evening, I dined on a 3-course French meal that included orange marinated duck, cheese and red wine before going to a French Caberet. The caberet was fun and my front-row seats gave me a great view (sometimes too good a view) of the (occasionally topless) can-can dancers, and comical performers.

Day 3/4: cable cars

A day’s drive from Paris to Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland brought us to the most beautiful campsite of all; surrounded by cliff faces with waterfalls, and snowy mountains in the distance. I spent my full day in Switzerland alone – exploring the mountain villages. A cable car and railway took me from the valley town of Lauterbrunnen to Winteregg. A scenic hike from Winteregg to Murren and Gimmelwald took me among slopeside hobby farms with bells hanging on the sheds for large livestock, and beautifully decorated wood houses. A cable car from Gimmelwald to Stechelberg and a walk to Trummelbach led me to the relatively unknown Trummelbach falle, a waterfall that has chiselled itself through the inside of a mountain. From Trummelbach, I wandered along the glacial Weisse Lutschine river, with hang gliders in the air all over the place and the snowy Jungfrau mountain in the distance. Not a bad day, I must say! That evening, we celebrated the land of the Swiss, dressed in red and white – it was a good thing that I had shorts underneath the white towel I wore as a skirt because towels don’t stay put very well!

Day 5/6: I smell Nice

After setting up camp in Antibes, France, we spent a day in Nice, France. After a stop at a French perfumery for a promotional tour, I got myself some etoile scent and carried on to the beaches of Nice. That evening, we took a trip into Monaco, the world’s second-smallest country. Monaco was very posh with its harbour full of multi-million dollar yachts, clean streets and casino parking lots packed with Rolls Royce, Bentleys and Mercedes. Apparently the country’s unattractive prince has a reputation for having a long line of women companions that frequent his palace...

Day 7/8: heat stroke

40 C temperatures slowed me down completely in Italy. Drinking lots of water, and dousing myself, clothing and all got me through those temperatures. However, I still managed to “push” and “kick” the leaning tower of Pisa, and Florence was beautiful with its canals, old architecture, naked sculptures (including a replica of David), leather and silver. A multi-course Italian pasta dinner revived me enough to shake it up at a retro space disco dance club. I was woken early one morning at our Florence campsite by something brushing against my foot... turns out that one member of my group was drunkenly dragging himself into my tent, and passed out half-in, half-out. I finally kicked him out when I returned after a shower and saw him starting to drag himself towards my sleeping bag and pillow... ah, Contiki! Day 9/10: Do as the Romans do...

Rome was old, very old... the city is built upon ruins from older civilizations, and many ruins lie throughout. It boasts the colosseum/forum, Spanish steps, the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain (throw a coin in for each three wishes – a first wish of your choice, a second wish, you will fall in love, a third wish, you will fall in love with an Italian...) I visited the world’s smallest country, the Vatican City. After going through countless arches with masses of people (we weren’t sure which arch signified the end of a long tour through the Vatican Museum -> xxxxxxxxxxiii????), and sneaking a picture of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling (all of the ceilings and tapestries of the Vatican museum were spectacular), it was time to wolf down excellent pizza at the Piazza Navona. I showed my true colours as a rider on a mechanical bull, in a bikini at a beach party at the Rome campsite, yeehaw... oh, and pole dancing in the bar afterwards was a nice finale to the night!

Day 11/12: left behind After a stop in the university town of Bologna, we arrived in Venice. A water taxi ride into the mostly concrete city of Venice led to a day of viewing the St. Marks’ square, St. Peter’s basilica, glass blowing demonstrations, a visit to a lace maker, and lots of bridges with gondolas tied nearby. A quest for pizza at a good price with the boys satisfied my appetite and gave me energy to explore the markets full of glass, china masks and lace. Before our water taxi home, I made a quick stop in a supermarket to stock up on sunscreen, and it turned out that security wouldn’t let me in with my backpack. Tight for time, I handed it over to a member of my group and went into the store. I ran out afterwards, with only my camera and wallet, to discover that I didn’t know where exactly the ferry was, and missed it... stuck in Venice with no documentation of my campsite or map, I was a little panicked. Luckily, there were more Contiki groups heading back to the same campsite, so I returned 2 hours behind schedule... and proceeded to comfort myself with red wine.
Day 13/14: Wien
Our first evening in Vienna (Wien), Austria we spent at an amusement park and went on a few roller coaster rides, which was a treat after spending the better part of the day traveling on the bus, driving past the craggy peaks of the Italian and Austrian Alps. The next day I spent in the city, mostly on the popular main shopping street (believe it or not, I bought myself a dress for those occasions when I am required to look somewhat more feminine), and had a quick tour of the famous Spanish Riding School. The riding school was beautifully kept, with a chandelier hanging from the ceiling of the arena, and the tack room immaculate, with two sets of equipment for each Lipizzaner horse, all of which come from a single breeding farm in Italy. I spent the evening at a Mozart and Strauss concert, in the very building that Mozart composed his music (which I got to explore during intermission). Day 15/16: Czech this out

Our tour made a stop in Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO world heritage site. The buildings were very colourful, and the castle of Cesky Krumlov had painted-on building blocks, which was a different design than what I had been seeing in other parts of Europe. Prague, Czech Republic was another pretty old city, with palaces and cathedrals throughout. A revolution in Prague after they became liberated was to incorporate modern art into the city, so much of Prague is dotted with unusual sculptures and creations. One in particular had two “men” swivelling their hips, peeing on the shape of the Czech Republic, another was a giant iambic pentameter up on the bank of the river. A lunchtime cruise down a canal in Prague was most pleasant and gave a good view of all the modern mixed with the old. The metro of Prague was memorable... I could barely stand on the never ending escalator, given its optical illusion effect, being very long, bright and the signs on the same angle as the escalator. We got lost, trying to find our way around the metro (Czech can be a bit tricky to read, yet the signs for watching out for pickpockets were quite clear), so nevertheless, I had to ride the escalator more than a few times...

Day 17: PROST! A jaunt to the glockenspiel and the German market (sporting cherries, pig heads and strange looking fish) in Munich was a prelude to a large dinner at a Bavarian beer hall. I lost count of how many times we prosted in-between trumpet playing and German dance performances, not because of the size of our beer mugs, but because of the number of times the trumpet player reached down to pick up his mug and demanded “Ladies and Gentlemen... a prost!” (which was literally every five minutes or so). I was happy to oblige, and enjoyed a big meal of pork knuckle and dumplings in-between.
Day 18: a table dance, sir?
My tent-mate and two others indulged ourselves to a night in a cabin in Heidelberg, Germany after a few damp nights prior. Such luxury it was to sleep on a mattress with a solid roof over our heads after 18 nights in a tent! (By then, our tent had started to deteriorate after the number of times it had been pitched and taken down in haste, and now resembled a tepee with its broken fly pole). After an evening of exploring the small town of Heidelberg, we had an excellent campsite supper with lots of food, spiked strawberry punch, red wine and Bailey’s chocolate mousse pie for dessert. This led to fun in the laundry/mess hall. I desperately needed to do laundry by then, and all I had to wear was my short skin-tight tiger print dress... which set the stage for table dancing. I’ll explain... in a little (silly) game of spin-the-bottle and truth and dare, I chose dare. Luckily, my darer was kind, and all I had to do was dance down the picnic tables to music – no problem!
Day 19/20: Amster-damn!
Our first evening in the Netherlands, we were given the option of going to a sex show – I figured, it’s Amsterdam... why not!! After visiting one of the local cafe’s and enjoying some home grown, I carried on to the show with the others... in one of the scenes, a guy dressed as a policeman strides down the aisle and picks one of the girls from my group... I’m laughing away, until he pointed at me – haha...uh... well, sure, why not! So, up on stage I went, and got “searched” by his police baton... a naughty policeman!! Then, piece by piece, we had to undress him, and apply body lotion... Amster-damnn!
The remainder of Contiki was much more low-key – we visited a cheese and clog factory, went for a little bike ride in a Dutch village; I visited the famous Ann Frank house and tulip market in Amsterdam. The following day, we passed through Belgium, back to the Calais, France ferry, and finally to London, and said our good-byes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"I'll take the high road, if you take the low road..."

It was the strangest thing – flying to Scotland that is. I left Toronto at 6pm, and arrived in Glasgow at 5:45am the next day. It wasn’t so much the loss of a night’s sleep, but the fact that the sunset and sunrise seemed to last for hours as our plane headed overseas. It was like we were trapped in some kind of portal that was sending us through a neverland of cloud tinted with orange, yellow, red and purples. Within half an hour or so of the sun finally going down, it rose again, with renewed bright colours of a new day. Now, you’re probably wondering why the heck I’m going on about the sky, when we’ve all seen a sunrise and sunset... that’s probably because I had nothing better to do except stare out the window of the plane for the better part of 7 hours... The other option was to watch “Bolt” (the wonder dog), which I’ve seen before – with no captions, on a tiny little tv screen in the aisle of the plane with a headset that didn’t work properly... eat terrible plane food, or to read a magazine I already read two hours ago... yep, sunrise was much more interesting!

Scotland – the country, it was amazing. Friends of the family, Pauline and Bobby welcomed me into their home in Dundonald, for the better part of the 2 week stay. They were extremely kind in their hospitality, and took me to see many places in the lush green country of the kilt. Scotland is located relatively on the same latitude as Churchill, but has a very different climate due to the Gulf Stream – palm trees, need I say more? Every town had its own castle, some dating back to the 1100’s, so crumbling castles became a common sight, but still ever neat. I was impressed with Scotland’s turn towards sustainable energy – modern wind turbines spun on rolling hills dotted with sheep... lots of sheep (aka haggis... which is very yummy by the way!)

I spent a weekend on Holy Island, which is the site of a Buddhist retreat. Their Centre for World Peace and Inner Health is open to all faiths is located at the North end of the little island. All I can say is that there is something truly magical about the place. The moment I stepped off the ferry (which really is a small boat that makes its way between the larger island Arran), I walked out among wild Eriskay ponies and Soay sheep that were grazing on the front lawn of the retreat, while sailboats were moored nearby. The animals peacefully coexist with the humans, and are not interfered with, as the island is also an animal sanctuary and nature conservatory. The retreat survives pretty much soley on the crop of the gardens – the meals are rather granola, but very fresh and healthy. I hiked/climbed the two mountains on the island, Mullach Beag (759ft) and Mullach Mor (1026ft) first thing one morning; the top was enclosed in fog, but that was perfectly fine by me – I keep reminding myself of a quote throughout my trip (not sure who said it) “it’s not the end result that matters so much as the journey to get there.” This has proven to be the case time and time again – hikes, life experiences, etc. The hike to the top and around Holy Island was very peaceful, and on my way back to the retreat, I came upon a second herd of Eriskay ponies – a bunch of young bachelors who were on the path in front of me, so I ended up going the last leg of my hike along with the herd of wild horses. I was just slightly put out that I hadn’t seen any mountain goats on my hike. I had some lunch, while there was a brief summer rain, and sure enough, the sun came out, and I discovered a whole herd of mountain goats had settled themselves nearby the retreat. I was truly in my element when I sped after them to start taking pictures – I hung out with them for a little while, braving the dive-bombing seagulls (for the umpteenth time on this island).

Feeling refreshed, I left Holy Island for Aran, and was given a tip by the ferry captain of a place that was terrific for seal and dolphin watching. I waited for a bus heading that way, but none seemed to be coming anytime soon. Not about to miss-out, I stuck out my thumb, and started walking – a kind local picked me up, and took me most of the way, thankfully. Sure enough, it was well-worth the trip!

It was one of my dreams to gallop a horse on a beach, so I signed up for a 2.5hr ride to the beach in Ayr. Most of it was riding along the Scottish countryside roads and through the city, but sure enough, I got my ten-minutes of absolute freedom – another thing to check off my list!

I spent another weekend with some people in Glasgow who have a cottage on Millport Island, including a night in their trailer on the island. One of my hosts, Robin, took me on a 4.5hr hike up a “ben” (mountain) called “The Cobbler”, which aside from its stunning view, has a jagged rock that sits on top of a sheer drop, and has a hole in it. If you climb through and on top of the rock, it’s called “threading the needle”... and you bet, I threaded my needle ;)

I'll finish off this post with another favourite quote that crossed my mind a few times during my trip: "life is not about the numbers of breaths you take, but the number of times that your breath is taken away" (once again, I don't know who said this... but it's good!)