Íslendingar of Past and Present

Grétar Thor Pálsson, carver&trader

The first Icelandic Vikings live on in the Íslendingar (Icelanders) of today. Well, their good parts do: their self reliance, yet close knit community values, hard work, sportsmanship, intelligence, and love of written language. Unfortunately the image of Iceland and Icelandic population has been molded over the years by a variety of very popular TV series showing the original settlers of Iceland as a bunch of ruthless killers

“Norsemen”, A Netflix original series, Season 2, Episode 1, ”East vs. West”

filling all the other peoples with horror whenever they showed up on the horizon in their fast moving open boats. After binge watching Vikings and The Last Kingdom we then laughed through the lighthearted “Norsemen” series. The Viking women and men are portrayed as beautiful and strong, wielding axes and/or swords ferociously while their long blond mane is streaking behind them.

Norsemen”, A Netflix original series, Season 3, Episode 5, ”Do You Believe in Dragons”

After half an hour glued to our iPad in the darkness of our bedroom, we feel like we have to get up and wash our sheets soaked in blood, before starting another episode.
If it were not for the entertainment industry we would have come to Iceland completely uninitiated. There were only a few rare Iceland related flashbacks from the past in my memory:

-in 1972 American wonder child/weirdo Bobby Fisher getting his Chess World title by

beating Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavík (appropriately so, when not plundering or ravaging the Vikings spent long winter evenings playing chess in lighthearted friendly competition),

-in 1986 President Reagan beating the Russians and beginning the end of the Cold War with Perestroyka man General Secretary Gorbachev during the Reykjavík summit (a peace-loving nation without a standing army providing a peaceful milieu for two Nuclear Superpowers?)

-in 2010 Eyjafjallajökull (Icelandic names are difficult to write and impossible to say)

volcano eruption beating and all together stopping the air traffic over North Atlantic and in Europe for days with 10 million tourists stranded. A devastating mayhem airport precursor to the COVID-19 impact in March 2020.


When we finally land in Keflavík International the first impressions upon arrival are rather confusing as no blood could be traced anywhere while walking from the gate to immigration. Smiling Icelanders guide us through the airport not to the bloodthirsty executioners as we might expect but to young attractive nurses taking us one by one into a private room and….no swords nor knives. Instead they stick long cotton swabs up our nostrils and down our throats to collect samples of our bodily fluids with pleasant smiles on their lips!

Imagining the smiles under the masks

All of that in still gentle manner before we are allowed to pickup our Hertz rental and drive to our pre-booked Hilton

New COVID seals on doors

to wait there in the luxury otherwise unheard of in the Icelandic history of simple housing. There we are nervously awaiting the ruling on our fate. Positive or negative? Luckily, over the generous breakfast served by lovely Icelanfic waitresses the merciful verdict is handed over in the form of an anxiously anticipated text message:

Thank you, it’s very kind of you, runs through my mind as we embark on our ten day drive, hoping to figure out, amongst other things what kind of transformation converted this bloodthirsty Norsemen tribe to pleasant peace loving cultural society.

We did read that Norwegian Vikings were actually not the first to land here. A few lonely Celtic priests found their way there in 7th – 8th Century AD, but they left terribly disappointed by absolute lack of women on this empty island. About two centuries later in AD874 the history of Viking settlement started when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson

became the first permanent Norseman settler. He landed with his wife and brother on the southern coast. After surviving the first winter he founded Icelandic capital Reykjavík (translated as Bay of Smokes) and the rest is history. Other Norwegians and to some extent other Scandinavians followed, bringing with them slaves, mostly women of Gaelic origin. After about one third of Icelanders very cooperatively signed up for DNA analysis the results prove that indeed their roots are a healthy mix between Nordic Y chromosomes and X chromosomes from the British Isles. Some speculate that some British women might not even have been taken as slaves. They actually followed Norsemen voluntarily! Why? There is an interesting theory that women enjoyed enormously watching those raiders and traders bathing regularly and combing their shiny long hair, thus making themselves attractively clean, nicely smelling creatures, after using a practice unknown to their own men of that time!

In the initial period called The Settlement, Icelandic population ballooned in less than 60 years to above 30,000! Good reproduction activities combined with immigration can produce miracles. And even as Iceland population jumped more than twelve times, now standing at 364,000+ the country is still more or less empty. With total area of about 40,000 square miles it has barely 9 Icelanders per square miles. And with its shore line almost 3,100 miles long and Iceland maintaining a 200 nautical-miles exclusive economic area there can be plenty of space for enthusiastic fishermen and fisherwomen. Less than 120 Iceland residents can enjoying exquisite fishing per each mile of their precious coast.


It did not mean necessarily that the Norsemen would be happy sitting at home fishing and farming. “Go West, Young Man!” was a rallying “Call of the Wild” for them. The North Atlantic some thousand years ago was a much warmer place (the first Global Warming without Greenhouse Gases?) and they happily visited and even settled in a place they called Greenland.

Note: The boats they used were much smaller and simpler

They ventured even further to another dry piece of land they named Vinland which by sheer coincidence was re-discovered by Mr. Columbus some five hundred years later and renamed America.

Unfortunately when arriving in Vinland, some locals were already claiming the living space there. As Norsemen preferred to be Masters of their own Universe nasty conflicts evolved. After killing some, but not enough to change the equation, Norsemen packed, turned around and left for Iceland just content to be killing each other back home!
Life in “Splendid Isolation” was hard enough through harsh winters without having to constantly look over your shoulder anticipating the next raid from your neighbors. Living conditions were poor and much energy went into keeping the simple dwellings warm. The dwellings of modern day Icelanders are still quite simple,

but the innovation in clean geothermal energy for heating provides for significant improvement and enjoyment of indoor spaces.
The typical housing in the time of Leif Eiríksson,

a super-Star of Iceland history, the first known European discoverer of Americas, can be seen at the historical site called Eiríksstaðír.

It is a former homestead of Erik the Red, a person of almost mythical standing for Icelanders, and father of Leif Eirícksson.
When not sailing the vast waters of North Atlantic, contemplating the future of their nation, and occasionally spilling blood, they spent their days and long winter nights in this rather poor housing. This is supposed to be a place for a nobleman, something we would call high end of the real estate market of that time! A longhouse of about 550 sq.ft. area with turf walls five foot thick set on base of rocks. In spite of the walls’ thickness its thermal insulation was so poor, that a permanent fire had to be kept in the long central fire place

filling the interior and lungs of residents with well conserving 24/7 smoke. The original Icelandic forests paid the final price for such poor heating management. Those forests are long gone, and the by-product of their disappearance are enough pastures for those idyllically beautiful sheep and Icelandic horses! If you think the longhouse interior could be a little bit more attractive and comfy you better think thrice. Guiding us through this excellent specimen of architecture was extremely knowledgeable local woman, seen on the photo above in the background. She provided us with interesting details from the life of rich and famous of Norsemen High Society, insight to the treatment of slaves (always very cruel and bloody), the facts of sharing the very private elements of life with the whole family (not always cruel, but not very romantic either,

How many can fit into one bed?

considering limited square footage available for the number of people and animals during the long winter nights close to the Arctic Circle!), and the ways of solving issues between neighbors (even more blood all over the place). Erik the Red, the original owner of this homestead, was a gentleman with temper running on a very short fuse, always embroiled in disputes. After yet another conflict with the neighbor who killed all his thralls (understand “slaves”) he slaughtered the neighbor in revenge, and was expelled from Iceland. He left for Orkney where he killed two more guys, and on and on and on. Good job, Erik, good job!


By now you would think: “Oh my, is there anything in those times indicating that Norsemen had started mellowing just a little bit?” Well, there were some hopeful signs. If you are browsing throughout the official history of human mankind you would get a strange impression that the other half of humans (with few sweet exceptions like Cleopatra, Mary Stuart, Jean d’Arc, etc ; you know how they ended, right?) were delegated to light physical disciplines such as working fields, collecting firewood and water, weaving warm blankets,

washing dishes, bearing children, treating injuries of their strongmen and after a full day’s of back breaking labor in the last resort of desperation whispering gently in their husband‘s ear:“Anything else I can do for you, honey?” Icelandic women were, I visualize, different. Actually physically quite strong, and remarkably independent they could own property (to the contrary in the rest of Europe women were the husband’s property; oh wow!) and could ask for divorce. To this day Icelandic women continue to build on those strong fundamentals and are considered to be in the position of the most equality in the world. Quite by coincidence we came across the statue of this remarkable strong woman explorer who undertook eight sea journeys!

Her name was Guðríður Þorbjarnadóttir, born AD980 and outlived three husbands. Read on how her special position in the history of Iceland and America is secured forever! Around the year AD1000 at twenty years old, already widowed twice, Gudrid organized an expedition with her third husband Þorfinnur to that piece of North America oothey called Vinland. They intended to settle there and she was the first white woman to bear a child, a son, the first born American of European descend! His name was Snorri, born in Vinland, and we all know the law: “Born in America, American for life automatically!” On the photo above, Snorri is carried on the shoulder of his mom in the memorial raised close to town of her birth on the southern shore of Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Guðríður’s life is a fascinating story intertwined with important figures of history of Iceland. Her second husband was the younger son of our hot headed friend Erik the Red. Gudrid was mentioned in historical sagas

Saga of Eric the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders. Guðríður converted from paganism of early Norsemen settlers to Christianity, and some of her descendants were either Bishops (males) or spouses of Bishops (females) in Iceland. Her son Snorri built a church at their farm in Glambaer.

Later in her life after the death of her third husband, she traveled to Rome to meet the pope – what an accomplishment for a woman, a single woman. There were not many like her, I remember just Eléonore of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II and mother of Richard the Lionhearted. She made it to the Holy Land, a little bit further than Guðríður, but more than a century later. And Eléonore to her advantage was definitely a lady of higher means!

I, as a person with lack of religious belief, do have strong doubts that Christian religious fervor could have seriously contributed to the mellowing of the hard core Norsemen society. The human history teaches otherwise. Probably more effective must have been establishment of Alþingi (“Althing” in English transcript), the oldest surviving Parliament in the world, in the year AD930. Yes, long before Magna Carta, my friends! This body did not have just legislative arm. It functioned as the highest judicial arm of Icelandic self-government; wow! ALL free men could attend Althing, the longest running parliament in the world. Those sessions were usually the main social event of the year and they drew large crowds of farmers and their families, parties involved in legal (remember judicial function?) disputes, traders, craftsmen, storytellers and travelers. It managed to end the blood feuds and corporal punishments.

The center of the gathering was the Law Rock, a rocky outcrop on which the elected Lögsögumaður guy (Lawspeaker) took his seat as the presiding official of the assembly. For a country with such an early start in democracy and state institutions it is strange to know that it got independence from Denmark only in 1944, when Denmark was too busy being occupied by Germans. It probably helped that at the beginning of WWII British, Canadian and then US forces arrived in Iceland in large numbers. An interesting repeat of history then happened as recounted by our Erikstadir guide. Icelandic women very really really impressed with the spick and span clean shaven soldiers in lieu of their fish smelling compatriots. And you bet that didn’t go down well with the local guys.
If you want to see Althing, it is quite close to Reykjavík on the shore of large Lake Þingvellir (Thingvellir) lying on the impressive seismic fault line between

Walking between two plates

North American and Scandinavian tectonic plates. It was here that Althing was forced by Norwegian king Olaf to accept Christianity as the State religion early on in AD1000. There is a small historical church in this location which

is consistent with simplicity of all religious as well as secular buildings you can find in this country. Of course, with slight exception of Reykjavík and a nice contemporary chain of Foss Hotels we had the opportunity to enjoy a few times during our trip.
Move a half millennia forward to see how far the standard of living improved. The progress is quite visible in its front view.

The reduction of turf usage helps visually quite a bit, and where it was still heavily used, the window openings make

its interior space surprisingly lighter as well as the usage of stoves for heating much healthier. The complex has its own church and cemetery around it

always as simple as possible. We found a varied palette of colors for churches, like this beautiful sample in a rather innovative black in combination with white trimming:

Truly a daring design in pure shapes and simple lines on the backdrop of distant, snow sprinkled mountains with a sensitive complement of the sheep family arranged in front of the compound’s front gate every morning and evening by the staff of a nearby luxury hotel for photographic needs of the hotel guests.

Icelanding churches might be small and simple, but they do come in a variety of colors.

Icelandic builders must have faced lack of wood as the forests, mentioned before, were mercilessly decimated for heating. Driving around we came to a small village of Hólar, which was the Episcopal See for Northern Iceland. Hólar’s current church was built in the middle of the 18th century at the site of five other, older ones!

Wars, religious transformations, or fires do not treat wooden structures kindly, so parishioners decided: “Enough is enough! Let us use something more durable!” and erected the church front from the nearby mountain‘s red rock.

You can see in these two pictures taken a few minutes apart, how changeable the weather in Iceland can be. This can not be said of Icelanders, they are steadfastly pleasant and friendly. Here we were welcomed by another knowledgeable guide who knew practically everything about his church and answered kindly all the questions we bothered him with during our long visit. We could not believe our eyes seeing fantastic workmanship and art.

The special surprise were two very old bibles, one in the church itself

and one, a rare copy of Old Testament in Hebrew displayed in the replica of the bishop’s house from 14th century.

All those wonderfully simple and aesthetically pleasing churches of Iceland reminded me of the cultural shock I experienced during my teenage years when I first traveled to the Baltic Coast. After heavy dosage of Central European dark, overly dramatic, heavily gilded baroque churches I could hardly believe that church interior could be almost

unbearably light, pure, and simple, almost gay in its expression. What a feast for the eyes! Everything warmed up by the kindly guide/priest’s presence. His big fluffy dog was a pleasant addition.

We were taken by surprise at how few dogs we encountered in Iceland. Yes, there were some hard working Icelandic sheep dogs out in the pastures, descendants of dogs brought by Viking settlers, but few pets. It seems that Iceland is more of a cat country. It didn’t come by total surprise then to find a bizarre total ban of dogs in the capital. The dog ban was issued in 1924 at a time when the population was overwhelmingly rural (just opposite of today) and Reykjavík was still small, but rapidly growing and overcrowded fishing town. The ban was only lifted in 1984.

Talking about bans, a few years after the dog ban was lifted, in 1989 exactly the Beer Ban was lifted as well, and after 74 years of only drinking wine and spirits the Icelanders could say Skál again with beer.
It would not be fair to leave unattended the progress of regular Icelandic housing in the last 50-100 years. Driving around the country you cannot help observe local preferences not to overspend on major ticket items with focus instead on cost effective functionality and comfort. Indeed Icelanders did stop using turf as a cost-effective material and built the simple light comfortable houses (the initial idea for Tiny Houses?) which serve them and us, tourists, very well.

The money saved on the house is then invested in a swimming pool or at least a hot tub. Icelanders are crazy about their hot water baths, another relic of the Viking times.

You can hardly see many Ferraris on the mostly two lane local highways with uniform speed limit which is barely 55 miles per hour and frequent signs banning overtaking on long stretches of straight roads. Only a complete idiot would not figure out that Ferrari is for Icelandic traffic seriously over designed and a complete waste of money! But with no public buses plying the countryside (ok, we did see ONE in our ten days) people do buy lots of cars and there is probably no country in the world where there is such a mix of cars. Icelanders are a brave and hardy stock, and they are used to driving under driving rain and on sleek ice. (And camping on ice, too, brrr). They also love crossing deep rivers and driving on glaciers and not all are smart enough to use big monster trucks so Search and Rescue teams are assured life long secure employment.
We did also notice a certain modesty when it came to sculptures and public art.

God Thor in a relatively human size

This one was one of the more grandiose memorials which at first looked more like a decorative pile of rocks.

The Bárður Snæfellsás statue was created by local artist Ragnar Kjartansson. Who was that Bárður guy? He was a half-man, half-troll who lived here after fleeing Norway. Another violent individual involved in a severe family argument, he exiled himself to the Snæfellsnes Glacier. This hot headed guy fortunately did not kill anybody, at least not that I am aware of! For centuries, the locals believed he was their protector and called him the Guardian Spirit of Snæfell.

On the way to this memorial I was slightly misled by my co-traveler (it happens rarely and mostly not intentionally, but still it does and she knows how to get my attention!). I was convinced there was to be a memorial to my favorite writer Jules Verne who located one of his many fictional adventure novel to a volcano

Voyage au centre de la Terre, First French édition 1864

crater here in Snæfellsnes Penninsula. We drove in circles around the Google maps dot proclaiming Jules Verne memorial, but could not find it.

Only partially disappointed by finding this other (for me) impressive piece of art l was happy to admire it for simple use of readily available material. As a matter of fact there is so much good quality rock lying all over Iceland that it would be quite easy to make a killing exporting their rocks all over the world.

Volcanic (Indian?) Rock

or

Fjadrargljufur canyon palagonite rock

The best in our view are the basalt columns (formed when magma cools slowly and cracks into columns) found in many places. On Reynisfjara’s Black Beach

are the most striking hexagonal basalt columns of the Halsanefshellir cave.

They are supposedly the inspiration behind the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavík.

We saved this one for our last afternoon. Just as any other Icelandic place of worship we found it blessedly empty, confirming the population’s laidback attitude towards any religion. They prefer to worship the sun in the plentiful outdoor coffee shops.

Hallgrímskirkja Church belongs to (Lutheran) Church of Iceland, the largest denomination in the country. It was not planned for it to be the tallest religious building in Iceland but….the church leaders wanted its spire to be taller just to outshine Landakot’s Church, the cathedral of the Catholic Church of Iceland standing a few blocks away. And their ego beat the State architect’s Gudjon Samuelsson’s design! The church, which is quite recent, from the second half of the 20th century, did not impress on arrival. But it does grow on you, the longer you look at it.

After the stark exterior the interior is a wonderful surprise of luminous light.

Back outside the kids were happily playing around the statue of Leif Eriksson.

No wonder, their parents come up close to the top in worldwide happiness surveys.

They have lost their zeal for shedding blood, and live in harmony and equality.

With so many places closed and few people about due to COVID we had, to our chagrin, less opportunities to meet the locals. But those that we did, were just wonderful.

Here again is my horse guide Helga.

We had such an immediate warm connection that she offered me a summer job on the farm and I was sorely tempted.

Ad here is an artist in Reykjavik, who dropped what he was doing and told us all about his family of sculptors and potters and Icelanders’ affinity for skulls.

I promised in the last blog to tell you about the Shark Sign. We were desperately looking for a morning cup of coffee all over the Snaeffelsness peninsula and came to a farm that was also a big shark museum. Normally we would be really interested in shark exhibits but that afternoon the coffee craving took over. While the museum was opened, its coffee shop was closed. But when the owner Gudjón

saw our need, he opened it just for us and personally made us two cappuccinos and then recounted his family’s history of hard work. And then wouldn’t let us pay for the coffee!

It is fascinating to know that most Icelanders can trace their family roots all the way back to the .first settlers and that despite the fact that they don’t even have family names, but use a patronymic system. Their names are set up from their father’s (occasionally mother’s) name plus ending of son or dóttir. So Stefán Gunnarsson (son of Gunnar) would have a son named Y Stefánsson and a daughter called X Stéfansdóttir. Add to this the fact that you can only pick first names from a list of preapproved names by Icelandic Naming Committe and I don’t know how many people then end up having the exact same names.

Even the nameless brief encounters with fellow Icelandic travellers were lovely. As in willing cooperation of this young lady to model for our photoshoot her hand-made Icelandic sweater at the famous Kirkjufell waterfall.

The sweaters were attractive, but only appropriate for the hardy Icelandic stock of Viking descent, because the wool was way too itchy for us.

We were told that the best way to meet Icelanders is to jump into one of the many hot pots. With the sharp wind always rearing its cold head we were not tempted until the very last day. We spent a few hours awaiting our returning flight’s midnight departure at the man-made Blue Lagoon

disposing of the runoff water from the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power plant, conveniently located some 10 miles from Keflavík International Airport. At this COVID time the normally overcrowded ”spa” was nearly empty and we did not have a chance to encounter many locals, but in the best of Icelandic traditions we submerged in the pleasant water with a free drink in hand. Your choice: non-alcoholic or alcoholic. Guess which for us? No need to guess twice.

P.S. This is our 3rd and last post on Iceland. We are now home in California, enjoying the adventures with our newborn granddaughter.

We still have some posts in the works and would also be happy to hear your suggestions or questions. And yes, our Bucket List continues to grow longer!

Iceland’s Wild Encounters

Sadly, we knew we were going to miss Aurora Borealis for we were in Iceland at the wrong time of the year.

But we were at the right time of the year for whales! We were very much hoping for some whales sightings up in Húsavík but weren’t sure with so few tourists around that any boats would run.

Many hotels and restaurants on our way north were still closed and so were the tourist information centers. It was the first week of the country’s post-COVID international reopening and there were only a handful of tourists joining a few of the brave Icelanders exploring their own, suddenly empty country.

So when we arrived on day 5 in the late afternoon to the charming little Húsavík,

the first thing we did was drive to the port and look for whale watching agencies. We found two and right next to each other, but both closed.

Luckily the receptionist at the hotel was sure there were two possible tours the next day and gave us the information.

“You gotta take the rib boat,” said the waitress at the restaurant where we ordered some salted cod for dinner. “That’s the way to get really close to the whales. Trust me, my dad started whale watching in the next town over. If you don’t see any whales tomorrow here in Húsavík drive to Akureyri and look for a cranky old man walking around the port.”

Luckily we didn’t have to. Our blue rib boat (Rigid Inflatable Boat) delivered! And then some. Alleluia, indeedy!

First it made a short stop by an island with thousands of nesting Atlantic puffins. Puffins mate for life, but only produce one baby puffin a year. They share their parenting duties equally, taking turns sitting on the egg and then feeding the new chick fresh fish. Puffins are awfully cute in their clumsiness. Their bodies are too heavy and their wings too small, perfect for propelling underwater, but a big challenge to start a flight with.

Sorry, my iPhone could barely get a photo of a giant whale, so you will have to make do with this Viking puffin mural.

We have done quite some whale watching around the world from Alaska to South Africa and you know, it is never really like in the National Geographic specials with whales pirouetting through the air and all. There is a lot of staring at the horizon, scanning for the telltale spray of spouting air and water.

And sometimes, despite all the effort and expense you come up empty-handed, like when we crisscrossed the Bremer Bay in Western Australia looking for killer whales. Read on, Iceland was a luckier place for those, too.

The Humpback whales might be big, but they are swift and mostly one will only see their top part with the dorsal fin.

Or the fluke waving goodbye.

Click for the wave

Of course it is always exciting to meet the giants of the sea. And indeed the recommendation was correct, you come sooo close to them in a rib boat, especially when they decide to swim underneath it. No Moby Dick moment that, just pure awe.

Click for video

As we disembarked excited about our morning adventure with humpbacks I complimented a German man on his giant photo telelens. “This was cool,” he then said, “but nothing compared to the spectacular orca trip I just did in Ólafsvík.“

Unbeknownst to us we were heading towards it as we planned to spend a few days on Snæfellsness peninsula. The peninsula being relatively small, we uncharacteristically decided to book the same accommodations for two nights. And what a location we found, just around the corner from the waterfalls.

Half jump only due to some back issues!

It was a simple modern cottage on a sheep farm with an unobstructed view

of Iceland’s most famous and most photographed mountain Kirkjufell (= Church Mountain), also featured in Game of Thrones series as the Arrow Mountain.

Here I went (photographically) batshit crazy. I wandered over the moors at all hours of night and day, crouching, climbing, and slipping.

Only horses witnessed my folly.

Ah, Icelandic horses! They might be domesticated and actually treated as part of the family, but they really are quite wild, as they spend their entire lives outside, rain or shine (and snow and ice). You know my love of horses and my riding adventures around the world, and yet, somehow, I didn’t really think much of horses when thinking of Iceland. They are kinda small and stocky, right? No noble steeds to ride on…

Oh, how wrong I was! One look at the horses by the side of the road and I fell madly in love with them. They are absolutely beautiful.

Even Mirek fell under the equine spell, and had a special soft spot for the “blondies”, as he called the unusual combo of brown coats and blond horsehair.

There are 80,000 horses on Iceland and they are each and every one different. The Icelandic horse is one of the most colourful breeds in the world. It has over 40 colours and up to 100 variations.

And they are all purely Icelandic as no foreign horse is allowed to come to the island and once an Icelandic horse leaves, he can never return. They are also intelligent, sturdy, fast and incredibly friendly. Whenever I would come close they would all crowd around seeking close contact unabashedly.

I had a wonderful stroke of luck finding Finnsstadir, (https://www.finnsstadir.is) a small farm close to the East Iceland town of Egilsstadir. The minute I called to arrange a ride, the voice on the other side felt like my kind of horse friend. It turned out that Helga

Helga on her white steed

chose her best horses for our ride and we were instant fun riding companions. Halfway through our ride, she let me switch horses with her, so I could have an added experience of riding not one but two fantastic Icelandic horses.

I knew that the horses of Iceland are a so-called gaited horse breed. This means that most Icelandic horses have at least one if not two extra gaits to offer besides walk, trot and canter/gallop. These are called tölt and flying pace. I had no idea how to get the horses into those gaits, but I needn’t have worried at all. They were so excited to be out for a ride that they just leaped into the tölt and then flying pace. What a fabulous new experience for an old rider. I found tölt so much more smooth and pleasant than trot, but I still prefer galloping to flying pace. And gallop we did any chance we had with a few little snack breaks in between.

I could see how these marvelous horses were more than a sure footed transport for man and cargo in Viking times and beyond. They were cherished companions and were often buried in a grave with their owner to accompany him in the afterlife.

If ever I was crazy enough to own a horse it could only be an Icelandic horse.

Helga had some other farm animals to enjoy, cute baby ducklings and two smart piglets and an orphaned lamb, who followed us around and wanted to play.

But the most wonderful surprise in store was two tiny Arctic fox cubs. Unfortunately, their mother was killed by a hunter, we were told, because he would get paid per tail by Icelandic government. While not critically endangered, beautiful Arctic foxes, the only native mammal in Iceland, are declining in numbers.

They are very hard to spot in the wild and we felt so very lucky to be able to hold these furry balls.

Taking advice from our fellow German whale watcher we headed to Ólafsvik and he was so right on all fronts. We got lucky with Laki Tours. https://lakitours.com/our-tours/whale-watching-olafsvik/

They took us to orca paradise.

Click on triplets video

As soon as we headed out there were orcas of all sizes everywhere.

Moms with babies to ooh and ahh over.

Big males to admire.

Different groups of orcas were forming feeding circles, accompanied by frenzied seaguls scooping up the scraps.

Iceland is the country where most (55) whales were taken from the wild to captivity so humans could admire them and be entertained by their tricks and jumps.

The famous whale Keiko from Free Willy movie was also captured in Iceland and after a long, difficult journey in captivity returned to the wild sea waters of Iceland. Unfortunately, he could not reintegrate and died a year later. I still feel terribly guilty that we took our young kids to SeaWorld to see orcas perform and so happy to know this practice has now ended.

Perhaps not as showy as whales, the birds of Iceland were ever present in huge quantities in any body of water. Ducks, geese, terns, and auks were everywhere, while the national bird called Gyrfalcon, the apex predator of the sky, remained elusive. What was especially lovely was the amount of young paddling behind their parents or even riding on their backs.

Common Snipes make the strangest buzzing bleating noise when courting

You might be getting tired of us regularly bemoaning the fact that we are no educated bird watchers, but we do try to improve. To that goal we visited the spectacular Sigurgeir’s Bird Museum’s interactive display at Myvatn.

It contains a specimen of all of the Icelandic breeding birds, with the exception of just one. No dusty vitrines here, fabulous, attractive, and painstaking work.

There we met a little visiting girl of nine years of age who knew ALL the names of the birds and who showed us a nest with little chicks under the eaves. So much for not feeling inadequate in our bird knowledge.

Can you spot the three yellow beaks?

Lake Myvatn is one of the well know birding areas and here are two more: Vestrahorn mountain

and the Dyrhólaey cliffs

But really, birds of over 370 species are everywhere. They are not always happy for visitors intruding into their territory. And rightly so. One night as I was roaming around in the light of the midnight sun I must have come too close to the nesting ground of a tern couple and they started dive-bombing me. I made my way away as quickly as I could and they followed me a good way off to make sure I would not turn back. Another time on one of my forays I came across four dead geese on a small beach. I asked around and nobody knew what could have caused their demise.

As a last surprise discovery let us share with you this find in the middle if nowhere:

More about Icelandic sharks and the man behind this sign in our next post on the wonderful Icelandic people we met.

Land of Ice and Infinite Raw Beauty

Iceland, we have done you wrong! Please forgive us, we will sing your praises, in repentance, forevermore.

CLICK ON THE VIDEO of the Skogafoss Waterfall !

Iceland was never high on our Bucket list.

So true for Iceland!

And there were good reasons for that. Firstly, it was, like other Scandinavian destinations, always exceedingly expensive. Secondly, it became excessively crowded, peaking at 2,3 million visitors in a country of only 360,000 people.

Well, not anymore. In this crazy 2020 year of travel, Iceland was empty,

Immense parking lots devoid of tourists

like every other country around the globe. Except that Iceland was incredibly successful in fighting COVID-19 and hence poised to open up to tourists first.

And your intrepid crazyparents were on the first flight from Prague to Keflavík international airport on June 17th.

Despite much trepidation (will the flight go, or the airlines file for bankruptcy first, will they let us in…?) our one and only plane was met with efficiency and speed. After two quick COVID swabs, yes, unpleasant, but free and totally worth it, we were in.

For once Hertz was there, the only rental company opened at night. The girl at the desk was so excited to see us, her only customers, that she gave us a triple upgrade.

And off we went into the late sunset, or actually early sunrise.

That’s the thing, with June days so very long we could drive to all late hours of the night on totally empty roads.

The few local cars we met, whizzed by, or overtook us immediately, stupid tourists following the limit signs.

Well, not only were we forewarned about the speed traps, more importantly, it was lambing season and the sheep moms with their cute little twin babies often wandered into the road.

Our plan was to drive the main Ring Road or Route 1, the only road that goes around Iceland.

Theoretically one could drive its mere 1,332 km (828 miles) in a few days, but with the awe struck photographer on the passenger seat the stops were exceedingly frequent. How could they not be?

We added two days on the Snaefellsnes peninsula and minimized our Reykjavik stay to one last day. A few extra days would have been good, but then, aren’t they always?

Never have we slept so little on any of our travel explorations because even when we finally got to bed, it was impossible to close our eyes. The show outside of the panoramic windows was ongoing and ever-changing.

Just when you would think that the sun has finally set in a blaze of pinks and purples and oranges, there would be a burst of sun rays from the clouds or fog and the sun would start rising again.

Despite the catastrophic weather prognosis of 10 days of 80% rain, the Norse gods smiled upon us and all together we only had two days of drizzle.

We had plenty of sun and dramatic clouds often chased by cold blustery winds.

One day there was even a record-breaking 24 degrees C (75F) which to us seemed a good time to peel off our puffy jacket layer,

while the tough Viking descendants stripped down to shorts and spaghetti straps. No wonder…

5C=41F

As the country’s name denotes we did expect plenty of ice, but found the presence of glaciers so close to the road astounding. It would have been cool to take a super Jeep and go walking on the glaciers, but even with a short hike one could get really close.

For those of you who haven’t met a glacier up close, there is often a lot of black mixed with white, especially nowadays with global warming and pollution.

The one place that was top on my Iceland list was the Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón)

and especially the unique Diamond Beach at its mouth.

I was looking forward to spending some creative fun time photographing the many pieces of ice on the black sand. Alas, this was our one day of rain, so the stop was very short.

Still, a few fun shapes emerged from the shots taken from under the umbrella.

Ice Salmon?

or

Big Haired Ice Lady sniffing perfume on her wrist?

Snow and ice for sure, but what really surprised us was how green Iceland was. From the large swaths of green pastures

munched on by sheep and horses to moss-covered glacier-fed stream banks, glorious green was jumping at us.

And there were many different colorful flowers. Some were tiny, brave, alpine flowers growing in tough rocky conditions

and some were surprisingly scarce radiant Arctic poppies.

The biggest surprise was seeing the enormous areas of blue and purple lupines by the sides of the roads or creeping up the mountains.

Lupines are a nonnative plant, considered by some an undesirable invasive species. It was introduced in the 1970s to help combat soil erosion. When Vikings came to Iceland from Norway in the late 9th century, they found a land so thick with woods they could only explore it by ways of rivers. Very soon they managed to cut all the trees down to build their homes and keep them warm in the long winters. The few forests of trees now standing were replanted only some 120 years ago.

Weeds or no, lupines are an impressive sight that we enjoyed again and again.

Now, where are the famous Icelandic waterfalls, you might wonder and why have you kept us waiting? Well, I guess the waterfalls are an Icelandic cliche, but honestly, they were indeed exceedingly beautiful and each unique, so we never tired of them, even though we are not real waterfall chasers. There are hundreds of waterfalls, small and big, gushing off of the side of mountains and canyons.

Gulfoss waterfall

Because of the sunny weather we were treated to rainbow shows in many places.

Skogafoss waterfall

Yeah!

Some waterfalls show two different faces, front

Butter cups of Seljalandfoss

and back

Seljalandfoss waterfall cave

Some are easy to get to, like Godafoss, where the pagan gods’ statues were thrown into the water, if not oblivion, after the switch to Christianity.

Others demand an early morning hike, like Hengifoss.

Halfway up

We have to share all this wild beauty with just a few other travelers, and it feels like we are back in the golden olden days when travelers were few and everyone actually talked to each other and asked for advice on closed roads and opened coffee shops.

Comparing notes is helpful indeed because sometimes road signs have not been removed after winter.

And the roads have not been repaired either… still, we bravely press on and after a lot of bouncing, we arrive at Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe.

I guess that is enough waterfalls for now. Then there are other phenomenal sights like geysers and more.

Saving those for the next installment.

Travel 101– Tips and Tricks for Independent Travelers

For our 101st post, we felt it would be fitting to jot down some useful tips for better travel from our own storied travel experiences. We made plenty of mistakes and then some. This post is useful for real-time travelers. Arm chair travelers can skip it and wait for our Iceland post coming up next.

PLAN WELL

so you have time to enjoy the trip and not stress. But also be flexible and spontaneous to deviate, drop something or add something special. Find your pace and at times slow down or take a break and rest.

FIND YOUR THING

Besides must do sites or natural wonders, what holds special interest for you? Chocolate shops,

birds, Christmas ornaments, city graffiti? It makes travel more fun and more uniquely yours.

GO TO THE TOILET

when you see one, not when you need one. Always carry a paper napkin and/or some toilet paper with you.

SMILE a lot.

A smile is disarming and shows friendly intent. It goes a long way also when you are in trouble, like with traffic police.

PACK LIGHT

You only have two hands so you can only lug two things: 1. Your main roller/duffel/big backpack 2. Small backpack Additionally pack a small foldable nylon duffel and a 1/3 left over duct tape roll.

PACKING CUBES

are the best invention for easy packing. Add some spare ziplock bags.

FANNY PACKS They might be lame, but they are the best for easy access and safety. Practice having walet, passport, and phone always in the same designated place in the same pocket. Alternatively small cross body bags are Ok, but they do strain your neck quickly.

Take small emergency FIRST AID KIT and hotel SEWING KIT.

TAKE SOME CASH upon arrival when you see an ATM (get an ATM card at home with no charges for international withdrawals and returns of the foreign bank fees) If you travel in pairs always go to the ATM together and know in advance how much you want to take out in LOCAL currency.

LEARN 5-10 WORDS in the language of the country: hello, how are you, thank you, goodbye, beautiful, I need, toilet, sorry (excuse me).

GOOGLE TRANSLATE

If you are limited in your foreign languages and are traveling to countries with limited English proficiency Google translate can be very helpful. Make sure it is downloaded to the offline library so you can use it without data service.

ASK QUESTIONS

of fellow travelers and especially local people. Where, how far, is it open, how bad is the road, where do you eat (for simple cheap food and where do they go for a special celebration dinner), how much should a taxi cost to your destination, where is a good spot to pick up Uber, which area is not safe at night?).

TANK UP THE CAR when you find a gas station, not when the tank is empty. Don’t dip below half tank ever. Needless to say we did not always follow our own advice. Unfortunately!

BUY RENTAL CAR INSURANCE

You probably won’t need it, but when you will need it it will pay back for all the times you paid it and didn’t need it.

MAPS

Get maps apps and download the country/area google maps or maps.me on your smartphone for OFFLINE navigation. Buy or pick up tourist printed maps too, it is much easier to find a place or plan a route while talking to a local.

PHONE

Get an international phone plan. We have been extremely happy with T Mobile that gives us free texting and data up to 2 G. We personally don’t bother with local Sim cards, but many travelers use them.

WHATSAPP

Download Whatsapp, it is now used widely in all countries to communicate freely instead of (sometimes expensive for the locals) text messages or phone calls. Skype is used less these days.

DRESS RESPECTFULLY

and culturally appropriate.

Err on the side of conservatism. Goes for men and women alike. Even in very liberal Western countries you should not enter a church in shorts and spaghetti straps. It is annoying to have long sleeves or a scarf in hot Iran, but it shows respect and solidarity with local women, that mostly don’t want to wear it either.

Sometimes we even wear some local clothes, which make people very happy or at least gives them a good laugh.

TRAVEL APPS

We are old farts and fairly limited in our technology know how, but Airbnb, Booking, Uber, Currency calculator, Culture Trip, Rentalcar apps are life savers on the road. Move those icons to the front on your smartphone screen.

TRIP NOTES

Keep simple notes of your days: the highlights, best places, special coffee shops, restaurants, accommodations. I type them in Notes on my Iphone. Some people are great at detailed diaries and budgets and expenses. We are not those people 😉 )

PHOTOS

Enable Location on for Camera and Photos so that all your photos are automatically labeled with the exact location. Go to Settings – Privacy –Location Services. This photo was taken at the Municipal House in Prague on June 8, 2018. Do you recognize the man on the right? He is Rick Steve, the American Travel guru we met there.

Clean up your photos in the evening. Delete, delete, delete. Those saved get at least an automatic enhancement treatment (open the photo, click Edit, click magic wand symbol underneath). It straightens and enhances your photo.

P.S. Take some time to enjoy your surroundings without looking through your photo lens.

BANDANA

is a great reusable tool to wipe your sweat, dry your hands when there are no towels in the bathroom, to soak it in cold water, and put around your neck when hot, etc. It can come in handy as a replacement for a face mask.

DOCUMENTS

Take photos of important documents: passport, driving license, insurance, credit cards (both sides for contact phone number), keep in your phone and also email to yourself. In case your phone is lost/stolen additionally to your wallet, you can get to it on someone’s computer from the cloud. Have a hidden spare credit card. (I keep it with my toiletries). Call your credit card company before your trip and give date of travel and countries you will visit. You don’t want your bank to block your card in a foreign country when you make the first ATM withdrawal at the airport.

Have a few hard copies of your passport’s first page and a few passport photos of yourself for visas. Always try to first offer a copy of your passport to anyone wanting your passport.

TRAVEL INSURANCE

So far we never bought trip insurance, trip cancellation, or baggage insurance. But we always had MEDICAL travel insurance. It is well worth buying basic medical travel and evacuation insurance for peace of mind. So far, knock on wood, we have not had to use it, but we are happy to have it. If you are old, beware that some insurance companies will not insure after a certain age limit and if you are young and tempted by crazy adventures get the right insurance that will also cover bungee jumping or heli-skiing. We have NO affiliated links, but here are two companies worth looking into: for American world travelers: World Nomads (https://www.worldnomads.com) and for Europeans a cheaper True Travelers (https://www.truetraveller.com)

Travel while you still can. Don’t wait for the right time. Make the right time. You can sit in your garden when you are 100!

As always we are most excited to hear from you and happy to talk travel with anyone. Any additional tips are most welcome.

Your Own Slice of Paradise

Where do you go in your mind when instructed to close your eyes and imagine a perfect place where you feel safe and happy?

I am immediately transported to a green meadow with a rich tapestry of blooming wildflowers encircled by buzzing bees, surrounded by tall spruce forest, edged by white birch trees. And enhanced by the occasional visit from the local beauties… This green meadow is a real place in a quiet corner of the Slovenian Alps. Here my parents have built a wooden log cabin and my children spent their carefree childhood summers.

We are here now and again in between our different travel adventures. Every morning we wake up to the silence enhanced by the trills of the meadow birds, measured by the steady coo -coo of the cuckoo from the forrest. The fresh mountain air wafts in through the half open window and the sun streams in, illuminating the wooden planks of our bedroom. I count the burs in the ceiling, remembering my dad and uncle putting it up plank by plank every free weekend.

In my mind and my life this place has always been a refuge. I counted the days till the school holidays began so I could take our girls to a place where they could run free, picking flowers and wild berries and climbing trees, and I, relieved of the stresses of modern-day parenting, could sit on the deck, overlooking the meadow, book in hand and a pot of tea at the ready.

In times of struggles, just the thought of this place gave me strength. If everything went to hell in a handbasket I would pick up the pieces and go to this cottage by the woods.

In the rare times of really dark mood, probably just after lost elections or when watching really depressing news I would imagine WW III breaking out and me and my family heading up to the mountains, living off wild berries and the potatoes and vegetables grown in the small garden my mother so skillfully tends to every summer.

Having been traveling for the third year in a row, I realized how important it is to have a little slice of paradise, a temporary refuge from the vagaries of nomadic life. Even when we returned to California for the first Christmas we didn’t go home, for our home was rented to a lovely Australian family. I only stopped by once to pick up some itinerant mail and introduce myself to the tenants, that I have only met on Skype once. It was strange to step into our old house, I felt like an intruder into someone else’s home. It was their home for the year, with their children draped over couches and their shoes and books and musical instruments scattered about.

I don’t know how real retired nomads do it? The ones who sell their homes and all their worldly possessions and go traveling around the world permanently. Perhaps a few years down the road we might get to that stage, too. For now, our home is still awaiting our return, the plants in the garden are still (over)growing and the neighbors ever so rarely drop a line.

While I am happy to plan new and better adventures all the time, I do realize what a blessing it is to have an occasional break in a safe heaven. Besides the stops to see my family in Slovenia, we also regularly drop by to see our loved ones in Prague. We are lucky to have a use of a family apartment where we keep some of our things and slowly fill the blank walls with exotic finds from our travels, hand woven textiles and masks and wild boar necklaces. It is a most special regular stop on our travels for we have two little Czech grandkids that are always excited by our arrival, and we sometimes even cross paths with our American kids traveling around Europe.

In the world that went crazy with Coronavirus fears we were so grateful, we could make it to this slice of comfortable and safe paradise to wait out the crisis. Some of our travel friends got stuck on the road for months in much less pleasant places and circumstances. We have never spent such a long time in one place on our travels, but after initial self quarantine and gradual lessening of restrictions we were able to have some interesting in depth adventures discovering glittering Prague and history-rich Czech countryside devoid of any and all tourists.

Our Asian worry free slice of paradise on Koh Samui is at the guest bedroom of our generous friend Jenni’s beautiful home. We have stopped at her colorful home a few times on our travels through Asia to rest, recoup, and plan in peace the next steps on the journey. To have a familiar face pick you up from the ferry or airport, to drop your jet lagged body into a familiar bed with fresh linens, to not think where you will find a late night dinner is such a welcome break.

Somebody asked me the other day where do I most feel at home? Is it Europe or United States? I didn’t have to think twice, the answer was just there, clear as day. I feel home wherever I drop my bag and pull out my pajamas. Sure, I am happy to return ”home” be it to the Alpine cottage by the woods, the Prague city apartment or the California house. But it is with the slightest tinge of regret and a whole new level of excitement that I lock the door behind me when I hit the road again. For many many people, it is difficult, nay impossible to understand the deep-seated desire to travel. They love their home and their community and they are happy to stay put. Great for them! For the rest of us, the world is our temporary playground or permanent home.

I believe some travelers are bitten by the travel bug (often when quite young) while many of us are born with the “wandering shoes” on. Sometimes we can trace our desire to explore to a family branch. I am sad I never got to meet my grandfather on my dad’s side to hear his stories about his vagabond life building water wells and repairing all things that needed fixing in villages on the way.

In fact, crazy as it may seem, the inherent urge to travel can supposedly be traced back to one gene, which is a genetic derivative of the gene DRD4, which is associated with the dopamine levels in the brain.

The gene itself, which is identified as DRD4-7R, has been dubbed the “wanderlust gene,” because of its correlation with increased levels of curiosity and restlessness, for the most part.

Wanderlust, the very strong or irresistible impulse to travel, is adopted untouched from the German, presumably because it couldn’t be improved upon.

It consists of two words:

wander

Verb

a passionate or overmastering desire or craving

What are the things people lust after besides of course sex?

Some are gluttons, or as it is more acceptable to eat just for fun today, they are called – “foodies”.

Some women might lust after handbags or shoes.

Some people are adrenaline junkies.

I freely admit that I am a travel addict. This fact became abundantly clear during the two months of COVID shelter in place. Even though we were not forced to stay inside like many other people, and we roamed abundantly within the borders of the Czech Republic, it was the knowledge that the borders were closed that really vexed me. That and the uncertainty of future travel. The thought that we might never be able to travel again was devastating to my psyche. I was on edge, irritable, and depressed. Life without travel had no meaning.

I scoured the news on countries with the best COVID outcomes and the possible reopening of borders. I figured Iceland would be one of the first countries to welcome tourists back, as they had very few cases and a great testing scheme. And with tourism being 10% of their GDP and 30% of their export revenue, I gathered they will be itching to get it going again. And voila, when they made the announcement that they will reopen borders to European tourists on June 15 we were poised to buy a ticket to Reykjavík from Prague. It was the drug fix I needed. Immediately the feeling of wellbeing spread through my veins. The need to get out of the apartment diminished. I would gladly sit at home, reading my Iceland guidebook and digging on the Internet for the best waterfalls the whole next month, just knowing that Iceland is awaiting our arrival.

I got the travel bug early in life and after every travel adventure I would come back to visit my beloved grandma. In her little kitchen I would find my colorful postcards prominently displayed and proudly shared with family and neighbors. For the rest of her life she would ask me, “Haven’t you had enough of traveling? Haven’t you seen everything?”

No, Grandma, people like us never have enough. The more we see, the more there is to see and discover. My Bucket List gets longer and longer. While in the beginnings there were great European cities with museums and galleries galore

then exotic countries with ancient temples and ruins, now there are secret tiny slices of paradise scattered wide and far. And besides beautiful places, we also enjoy different immersive experiences like native festivals or camel fairs or adventuresome scuba dives and horseback rides.

The longer we travel, the more important is the people connection. We enjoy meeting other travelers and sharing our experiences or tips from the road. On our last South American adventure we met a number of interesting and inspiring couples that we still keep in touch with. Here’s to you, bird watchers from Chicago and camper van vagabonds from Brazil!

We like staying in Airbnbs not because there is often an added comfort of a kitchen and washing machine, but because they are often run by warm, welcoming and chatty people. Here’s to you Anne France in Argentina and Bette in Brazil! We have had some wonderful welcomes from volunteer hosts Servas International members around the world. Here’s to you Stan and Marion in New Zealand and Ita and Avram in Israel. And here’s to the random strangers who shared a warm moment of connectedness!

(note: click on this video)

We don’t often have guides, but when we do they really bring a heightened level of understanding. I can easily find all relevant historical or geographical information in a guide book or online, but to have a chance to ask personal questions about life and family is a huge bonus. In that we find that hiring a female guide is a huge plus. Here’s to you Yuli on Sumba and Heba and Gigi in Egypt!

When people hear about our travels around the world, we often get asked a silly question: Which is your favorite country? We have favorite places for unspoiled beaches, tall mountains, blues lakes, vast deserts, green jungles, or depth of history, layers of culture, ancient civilizations, animal kingdoms, vanishing tribes, exhilarating adventures, or just best fishing.Tell us what defines your secret travel paradise and we will direct you to one or quite possibly more places.

If we were young again and looking for a new home as we did so many years ago, we would probably make a different choice. When we speak with young people wishing to leave their home and country we always say, “Try to go to New Zealand. Right now it is the best country in the world with most progressive policies and amazing young woman prime minister.”

But really, the truest answer to the question which is our favorite country in the world is simple:

The next one!

 

99 Best Toilet Signs on the Wall

Or did you think it was 99 Bottles of Beer on the wall?

Get it?!

It is our 99th post, believe it or not. No worries, we won’t make you scroll through 99 beer bottles, nor 99 toilet signs, though we have collected that many and then some on our travels.

Finding 99 local bottles of beer or 99 good restaurants is easier, but much less important than locating the very vital nearby toilet in time of need. And when you are on the road, that time of need can become urgent, possibly depending on what restaurant you had your dinner at.

While in many “civilized” countries you will find clear signs declaring Restrooms for customer use only, in “less developed” countries kind shop owners or even a local family will graciously let you use their own private facilities.

Queue for the loo?

I still remember this one time many years ago in India, when I desperately searched, stomach-churning, cold sweat running down my face, for a toilet. “My kingdom for a toilet!” cried king Richard III. Or was it a horse?

A merchant seeing my need opened his door and without a word ushered me to the back. Kind sir, your generosity and empathy will not be forgotten.

A strange juxtaposition

It is always so very helpful in foreign lands when important signs occur in a familiar language and/or alphabet.

And if the alphabet fails, representations come into play.

Yet at times human forms are not helpful at all.

Maybe the locals can see the difference between the man and the woman here, but we sure can’t.

And if you are not local and don’t know the language,

this smart play on words won’t help you either.

These guys at Hoggie’s restaurant were trying to be cute, but also informative.

If you are from a country that calls toilets very squeamishly Restrooms, Bathrooms or Facilities (talking to you, Americans!),

you will struggle with this one: WC= Water Closet in British English, used widely in Continental Europe, too, for the toilet. Unless it says FIFA in front of it and then it might be World Cup soccer/football.

Some signs, on the other hand, can be very creative, but maybe kind of too specific.

Or, really, TMI

And some totally out there and definitely not for the faint of heart. Way, way too graphic.

Just like a shag carpet your home, a toilet sign can date your establishment. Right?

A lot. Like, these children were put up when I was a kid.

These ones, I think are timeless:

While these ones are just plain fun:

And these from a national park Down under very ethnic:

Are these two classical or a bit sexist?

Marilyn squatting in the bushes…
James Dean smoking in the john…

And these ones too far in the opposite direction?

How about this one from a restaurant called Garage?Just right?

We share the work and the toilet equally.

Hmmm… big talk, but maybe just a little bit condescending? Humor me!

The true sign of equity is this opportunity for both, moms and dads, to have a chance to attend to their parenting duties.

But what do you do when you have a baby and you need to attend to your own pressing needs? The Taiwanese have the perfect solution:

The corner child seat… anyone ever left the toilet and forgot the kid behind?

We love the instructions found in toilets around the world.

Some are very simple and straightforward…

Some are open to interpretation…

Others are perfectly clear as for expectations…

Then others are a bit more long winded…

This sign is Gluten Free

This one on a farm in the outback gives a fair warning about the toilet lid:

The matter of the proper position of not only the toilet lid but also the toilet seat, should be addressed in any and all religious prenuptial courses and possibly added to prenuptial agreements, lest it is grounds for justifiable divorce. Of course, the toilet seat has to always be in the down position unless you want to be murdered in your sleep after your queen unexpectedly sits on the cold porcelain throne in the middle of the night in the dark. She didn’t want to turn on the lights, because she didn’t want to wake you up, you moron!

There might be one exception to this rule. You could possibly want to keep the seat up at all times if you had a charming toilet like this:

Pescadas… Washout… closet, huh, interesting!

I see the barmaid in this urban setting found a special solution to her toilet seat conundrum.

We do appreciate clarity in the area of toilet paper disposal.

In many countries, you are asked to never ever flush the toilet paper down the toilet as it will clog the antiquated or inadequate piping. You DO have to put it in the bin.

Though some toilet paper is just too cool to throw in the toilet. Or maybe even use…

As for the buildings in which the toilets stand, let me mention just three:

The most opulent ever golden toilets at the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chang Rai, designed, built, and owned by painter Chalermchai Kositpipat.

The most colorful and quite famous toilets designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser in Kawakawa, Northern New Zealand.

The weirdest and darkest toilets we have ever set foot in were at the Baan Dam Museum (also called Black Temple) outside Chang Rai designed by the artist Thawan Duchanee.

Hitchcock would feel at home here with the birds.

I do hope you enjoyed our toilet saga. Here is a Post Scriptum on special toilets in Cambodia:

For the last ten years, I have been involved as a volunteer with the Cambodian Community Dream organization. We have brought education, health, nutrition, and clean water to tens of thousands of people in the countryside. It is always a special privilege to visit the village families in the shadow of Angkor wat temples. Yet no other time was I so gratified and touched than when we visited a family who built an outdoor toilet – a brick latrine, with our help and sponsorship. A mother excitedly ran out of the meager thatched dwelling, carrying a disabled boy in her arms. Through our interpreter, she thanked us profoundly for helping her care for her child. We have made her difficult life just a little easier since now she could carry him to the latrine close to her home instead of hauling him into the bushes behind the house. My eyes still well up with tears now, remembering. At that moment I felt I have arrived as a human and that my life was not in vain. Since I was a teenager I tried to live by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success:

To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

I am sure you have had your successes and touched many lives, but if you are so inspired to help a family with a much-needed latrine please reach out to me or simply check this link:

https://www.theccdo.org/building-latrines

Thank you!

My young Californian friend Taby in front of the latrine donated by her family.

Bodacious Bohemia

What a strange title, you might think. While there are plenty of bodacious babes in Bohemia, real and sculpted,

the title was chosen for the other, original meaning: remarkable, noteworthy, admirable. The name Greater lands of Bohemia harken to the Czech royal past and is a much nicer moniker in my view, than the new, very unfortunately renamed Czechia.

Mention Czech Republic and immediately Prague comes into play. Or “Golden Prague”, as my grandmother used to call it.

As a poor factory worker she couldn’t travel, but she did get to Prague as a young woman, participating in a big Sokol gymnastic stadium exhibition.

Certainly Prague is golden when it comes to capitals of Europe and the world. Glitter of gold can be found on shiny roofs and spires, the mosaics and paintings on facades of palaces and townhouses.

If one has more than a few intense Prague days to allocate to exploration of Lands of Bohemia, there are a number of well preserved castles on hand.

All in all over a thousand were built, but of many only a few stones remain.

Another thousand chateaus in different state of disrepair dot the countryside.

Then there are smaller, provincial towns with well preserved historical centers like Česky Krumlov, which we extolled in our post “Photo Interlude of a Fairytale Medieval Town”.

But when you are stuck for two months, like we have been during this Corona time, in desperation you cast your net wider and you scratch deeper. Compared to our fellow travelers stuck in places with tight restrictions, we were very lucky and quite free to explore.

We drove all over tarnation and discovered many new things. We especially enjoyed finding little gems of Czech vernacular architecture. Ok, I haven’t meant for this post to be a linguistic lesson, but here goes:

“Vernacular architecture is architecture characterized by the use of local materials and knowledge, usually without the supervision of professional architects.”

I have always loved and admired the skill and design esthetic of indigenous people all around the world,

Sumba Island, Indonesia

who could and in some cases still can take local materials at hand (stones, bamboo, timber, grass,) and build without any advanced technology simple, useful, yet esthetically harmonious and pleasing structures.

Samosir Island, Indonesia

It is as if by living with nature they absorb the perfection of Nature’s creative hand and automatically build in the same vein. Have you noticed that no matter how strong the colors or phantasmic the designs in nature, they are always perfect and pleasing to the eye?

It takes people removed from nature, studying in concrete buildings of modern universities, toiling in ugly glass cubicles to come up with architecture that my husband calls “fist in the eye”, which is even stronger than the official translation of “sticks out as a sore thumb”. Staying away from the concrete and glass monstrosities that are inundating modern cities, we can’t believe the ugliness of many contemporary homes. The windows scattered willy-nilly on the facade, the ridiculous roofs and poisonously green or yellow or pink colors, clashing with green grass and blue sky.

Lest this becomes a ranting treatise of a frustrated art historian (yes, me), let me switch focus to our lovely local discoveries.

Driving slowly through backwater villages we found plenty of charming, well preserved cottages, now mainly used as weekend homes for city folks.

These simple, yet attractive black and white “roubenka” log cabins were all made by hand from more or less hewned logs.

I like to call them “zebra houses”.

Some of these can hardly be called cottages. In the very north there were quite prosperous farmers that expanded them to large family and cattle dwellings.

You will find care in the smallest details. Even the winter firewood is stacked just so.

I am very bold and nosy and like to peek in the little windows with lace curtains.

Or through the fence into the gardens

Geometry is the simplest way of decoration and it is fun to see how in the same village not two designs will be the same.

From very simple

to more elaborate

to more colorful

In the South a special style called Southern Czech baroque was developed and some house are downright bodacious. 😉

In the village of Holašovice the whole village square is beautifully restored and each house is slightly different and in different color combinations.

All are in gentle pastels

Except for this fire engine red door. Sore thumb and all.

In the middle of the village green is a tiny church

And like in every southern Czech village, “a kachnak”, a duck pond where carp and ducks coexist.

And where you have a pond you also have a “vodnik” – a water goblin. Parents will warn their children not to go anywhere close to the pond or the green water goblin will pull them in.

He is said to keep the souls of drowned people under the upturned cups.

There is a tradition of putting old cups on top of the fences in Czech villages, but for the life of me I can’t get anyone to explain to me why and if it has anything to do with the green vodnik.

It is cool to see the foundation dates marked on the houses and imagining the many successive generations that lived under the roof.

Oh, and if you are like me, you might be curious about the really important design feature of very house – the place where, as we say here, even the emperor goes by his own two feet.

And here is the inside of the outhouse.

In one od the future posts, I promise to finally get to the special Toilet Signs post. I have been collecting photos of the signs from all over the world and can’t believe the creativity of people. There are a myriad of ways to say Woman and Man in pictographs. And I have at leas 99 pictures to prove it.

The Joys and Tribulations of Argentine Travel

Marker on Argentina border with Chile

We shoulda, coulda, woulda have been more prepared. But as other gobsmacked travelers said to us: we had no clue, why is no one writing online about the everyday challenges of independent travelers in Argentina?

25 amazing tips to travel in Argentina would be more helpful

We knew Argentine peso was fluctuating and we did remember well how 20 years ago on our first trip Argentina had just defaulted and peso plummeted. It made for one cheap vacation then! And now again!

Money

Our first stumbling blocks were right at the arrival to the Buenos Aires International airport. After arriving to a new country and picking up our luggage we always head straight to the ATM to get an initial supply of local cash to get us into the country, to pay for taxi/bus/coffee/water.

Darn if we can find an ATM anywhere! After asking around in broken Spanish and getting responses in broken English we finally find two ATMs hidden behind the big McDonald’s. We join a few other befuddled foreigners trying to procure some cash. One of the lost looking American ladies asks us if we could please message her husband, arriving later, that she had lost her iPhone on one or the other of her flights. Poor woman!

We all try withdrawing money from different debit cards with no success. Finally a security guard watching us bemused, explains that we all want too much money. The max withdrawal allowed is $4000. Huh? Let’s get confused even more– the Argentine peso is in fact marked as $. 1 US $ is worth about Argentine $ 64. Well, it actually depends. There are many exchange rates as we learn in the ensuing days. A lousy 55 pesos to a US$ if/when you manage to withdraw some from ATM, 70-75 pesos if locals exchange cash on black market and 82 if you go to Western Union with a transfer through an app. If the teller is savvy enough to know how to do it, which will only happen in a few big tourist areas.

One can feel frustrated, but then feel really bad for the Argentines, who are only allowed to officially exchange US$ 100 in the bank every month. And if they travel outside the country any credit card transaction they make is taxed at additional 30% by their government. Impossible to travel, unless you are filthy rich. Certainly not if you are a retiree with the average retirement of US$ 200 per month.

At the end we don’t manage to withdraw even the minimum at the airport, but we do manage to get an official cab to downtown and we split it with a youngish German couple, paying with cash in a combination of dollars and Euros.

Transportation

Uber we understand is cheap and plentiful in Buenos Aires. We have the app, it is simple, let’s try it!

Nothing is simple or straightforward in Argentina. The first driver cancels just before pick up. Another comes and explains that he will only take cash as Uber doesn’t pay drivers. A third one we use doesn’t want our cash, because we already paid by app with our credit card, but says he won’t get paid, so we give him cash. It is very small amounts, so we feel ok paying twice. We dig on the Internet and find conflicting information. Uber is banned in Buenos Aires. Uber is not banned, but Argentinian credit cards are banned for Uber use by the government and all Argentines pay cash. International cards work, but drivers cancel pick ups when they see you paying by card, because it takes time and there is a surcharge to receive money.

Finally we find instructions how to switch our payment method in the app to cash

Change to Green bucks Cash, not Uber Cash

And when we order Uber, we also immediately send a message to the driver that we will pay cash. Nobody cancels on us again. Uber is indeed cheap and plentiful and gets us everywhere. Just for fun we also try the local bus. Very helpfully our Airbnb host left us two Sube cards that you need to use public transport. We top them up in one of the many Kioscos (where you can also purchase the Sube card itself cheaply) with a dollar each and off we go for 20 cents a ride. Clean, air conditioned bus. Some lines are particularly helpful as they have stops in all the main tourist areas.

Car Rental

Forewarned is forearmed. We did read plenty of scary stories about renting a car in Argentina, the scams and the problems. We also remember well how we arrived at the airport with three kids in tow twenty years ago and the rental car they presented us with wouldn’t even fit the people let alone more than one piece of luggage. A real disaster and a good cause for Mom’s nervous breakdown.

We have written about our frustrating experience with Hertz in Bariloche (in our post Blue, Blue Lakes of Patagonia). We have heard of similar experiences from other travelers going across the board of all rental car companies. While in some other parts of the world it often happens that the rental car agency will not have a small size of car upon your arrival, but will then automatically upgrade you to the next category, here it is exactly opposite. Much less acceptable when you have reserved and paid for a larger car and they claim they only have small cars available.

And you can be happy they even have a car. If you think you can wing it by flying in and finding a car at the airport, don’t. We can’t offer much advice on the car rental front, except in Mendoza. Should you find yourself in the wine capital of Argentina, upon recommendation from our Airbnb host we rented a great car from a wonderful small local car rental company Bace Rent a Car company. https://www.bacerentacar.com.ar/index_i.html. info@bacerentacar.com.ar

Talking of cars and driving, while we hear others complain, we find Argentines quite decent drivers. They generally obey traffic rules, even if some do like to overtake recklessly over a full line before the blind curve or try to mow down people on pedestrian crossings. I guess we have driven in many much much worse countries to be excited about that. We have seen surprisingly few accidents and very few traffic police on the roads.

A quick deployment of special department of Accidentologia)

Roads

When thinking of driving in Argentina it is Ruta 40 that immediately jumps to mind. I have seen some epic road photos through the front car window before our trip and imagined the ruta as a grand, albeit lonely road.

It is indeed such in small glorious chunks, but at other times it is hard to believe you are on a road at all. Sometimes it is used by four legged inhabitants.

At times it inexplicably becomes a one lane dirt path, or it gets totally lost in the detours through the many small out of the way towns.

Then there are plenty of dirt roads meant to be dirt roads. Of course if they are there, they are meant to be driven. That is our motto.

And because you will meet the best wildlife on a dirt road.

We break for llamas!

Language

If you think adventure is dangerous, routine is deadly.

Lest I come across as an entitled American tourist prick, I must remind you that English is for both of us our second language and no, I am not as arrogant as to expect that the whole world should learn English and yes, I feel a certain obligation to try to communicate in the local language of the country I am visiting. I have never studied Spanish, but because I did learn French in high school and travelled enough in Spanish speaking countries I can understand quite some Spanish and always try to put a few basic words together, even if I am sounding like a two year old.

Still, we are taken aback by how little English is spoken even in the tourist areas and even by young people. We know a lot of school English around the world is really lacking in quality and the teachers are lousy (what do you expect when you train and pay them so badly?)

But, but, … young people around the world all listen to the same international music and watch movies and play video games and use Internet. I do know people around the world that managed to learn a decent conversational English without school and only through big effort and help of all that media.

Just like in Turkey, our last travel destination before South America, and many other places on our travels, we keep coming across young Argentinians (we pick up hitchhikers, whenever possible) that are dying to travel or study or work abroad, yet can not put together a simple sentence in English.

English or no, the good news is that Argentines are warm hearted, friendly, helpful, and welcoming people.

In case you think English is important language, see its placement on this toilet sign

And then there is Argentine Spanish. You might be well aware that Spanish (just like English) is not a universally same spoken language in different parts of the world. There is of course much discourse about which is the purest form of Spanish, but we will not get into this now. Suffice it to say that even though written Spanish is so much easier to pronounce than ridiculously crazy English, there is a particular twist in Argentine Spanish that makes it harder for us to cope. The lovely coffee shop in ask Bolson we enjoyed so much, is called Jauja and actually unexpectedly pronounced Hauha (not dzaudza) and Villa is pronounced vidza (not viya).

Add to this a decent amount of Native Indian (Guaraní, Aymara, Quechua) geographical names and we are struggling, indeed. Try this tongue twister Lake Huechulafquen. Lovely lake underneath a grand volcano, thankfully called simply Lanin.

Our pronunciation makes for some bafflement and entertainment of the locals and difficult names make for some entertaining moments for us as well as we try to remember words by approximation. Pichi Traful becomes Pick a Truffle and so on.

Food

You better check the opening hours if you want to eat.

Who hasn’t heard of a juicy Argentinian steak? It can make grown men weep, I heard.

Carnivore’s Delight

Famous asado is a great memory from our first trip, especially as we were treated to this spectacle of Argentine version of bbq at somebody’s home garden. The huge complicated contraption with chains to lower and lift the grill over the fire would fit well into any medieval castle, in off hours moonlighting as a torture rack. Lamb is also famous in some areas and so is goat.

Just like with New Zealand lamb, there is a certain amount of bemoaning the fact that all the best beef is exported overseas.

It took a little persuasion for us to try lama meat, (oh, they are just so cute), but once we did, we were so impressed by a lama steak, we returned for seconds the next evening. We also enjoyed a stick of lama salama for healthy low fat snacking.

Deli best

But these days I am leaning more and more towards vegetarian and Mirek is careful to not let his old gout rise up its ugly head. Therefore we were happy to find non meat alternatives with plenty of Italian pasta dishes and some lovely trout in the mountains.

But the fact remains the menus are predominantly colored red with very little green mixed in.

7 lamb cutlets for dinner

A very familiar, Central European diet, I feel, with lots of meat and potatoes (or perhaps gnocchi or spetzle) heaped high on the plate. A few pieces of rucola or cherry tomatoes are considered more garnish than anything else.

A very special (and very expensive) treatment of vegetables at a fancy restaurant

What is most interesting is the lack of salt and pepper on the table. We get an explanation that it is a government health directive, and salt in particular can only be brought to the table if the customer specifically asks for it. That is all fine and well, but then you look at the tables laden with bowls of sugar. At breakfast I observed a young man put four packets of white sugar into a small cup of black coffee, accompanied by a pile of cookies and cakes.

The more sweets, the better breakfast

Ah, breakfast!! Breakfast is by far my favorite meal of the day and alas, Argentine breakfast is sadly a big disappointment. I understand Argentines are a bit like the French and they usually only have a few small croissants (medialunas) and coffee for breakfast. No wonder, since their stomachs must still be full from the very late, rarely started before 11 pm, enormous steak dinner accompanied by bottles of wine or beer.

Toasted ham and cheese sandwich is a lucky breakfast improvement in our favorite Mendoza bakery

Unfortunately even the best medialunas are a far cry from crispy, whispy French croissants and the jams being served at breakfast are another sugar overkill. If I can’t have a good Mediterranean or American breakfast, I will quite happily enjoy an assortment of jams and breads. I love different creative home made jams with a dash of ginger or chili pepper perhaps, though nothing beats my sister’s wild raspberry jam! But no matter what interesting fruit the jams are made from here (rosehips, anyone?) they all taste the same – Diabetes Goo!

Light breakfast

My second favorite meal of the day is desert and man, I am struggling here, too. Same problem, too much refined sugar that kills any possible patisserie refinement. A typical example of a sugar explosion is beloved dulce de leche, sugar cooked in condensed milk! Good for my waist, bad for my taste buds!

Dulce de leche desert with cream

Same goes for well known artisanal Bariloche chocolate, I heard so much about. And even good old desert fall back – ice cream is ruined. We spend a long time collecting the little plastic taster spoons at a well known busy Heladeria Jauja trying the many different fruity ice creams, and finally just had to go with dark chocolate and lemon. What a pity Italians did not manage to transplant their fantastic gelato along with pasta and gnocchi.

If I seem to be harping just a bit too much, the good news is food and drinks are extremely affordable.

2x 2 $ US

Especially coming from the exceedingly expensive San Francisco we cherish the low prices and nowhere more than in (craft) beers

Beer institution of Palermo Soho in Buenos Aires

Happy hour at the brewery offers less than US$2 for a great double IPA and fabulous local wines at any time for US$20 for a bottle of top Malbec at a nice restaurant. I have loved Malbec since I first discovered it twenty years back and I am happy to drink lots of it this time around.

Free wine tasting on arrival at Mendoza airport

Coffee

Sad bear cappuccino

As mentioned above coffee is generally drunk with lots of sugar and many places have premixed coffee combos to make cappuccino or latte. You need to clarify that you want your coffee “sin azucar”. Of course in Buenos Aires you can find top notch coffee shops that make excellent cappuccinos and flat whites. We had a nice discussion with a young medical student moonlighting as a barista who told us about how she is educating coffee drinkers, “Try it once without sugar. If you have good quality espresso or cappuccino, correctly made, it will be sweet and creamy and not be bitter at all!”

Airplane Flights and Tickets

Our transport plan

We start our two months trip with quite a stack of Internet bought air tickets taking us all over Argentina and into neighboring countries. It is high summer season here and personally I just don’t like the extra stress of winging it when flying. There is enough stress in decisions that have to be made daily: where to sleep and eat, which road to take, which places to visit and which to skip.

Not buying air tickets ahead of time certainly gives you more travel flexibility, but with long distances, it might also sentence you to a 24 bus ride instead of a few hours flight. Or having to buy a last minute expensive fare or getting stuck somewhere extra days paying for accommodation and food.

Buying tickets far in advance brings the risk of changes in flight schedules. Right upon arriving to Argentina we are welcomed by an unpleasant email. our Norwegian flight leaving Argentina for London two months down the line has been cancelled and rescheduled for a day later and thus we loose our Easy Jet connection to the next European flight that we purchased separately. And of course they don’t care and it is our problem to solve. And the only solution is to throw away the Easy Jet tickets and buy new, much more expensive ones. C’est la vie!

At the end of the day we get caught in COVID 19 travel disaster and are buying tickets left and right to get ourselves out of the country. You can read about our last minute escape in our post “I Cry for You Argentina, I had to Leave You”.

Accomodations

We relied on our standard accommodation options Booking.com and Airbnb. For one night accommodations we usually choose a hotel through Booking. Since you don’t have to pay a cleaning fee and booking fee, a one night is generally cheaper in a hotel and you get free breakfast to boot. It is also easier to arrive at night and check in with a receptionist, than waiting for someone to show up with a key to the apartment. Airbnb can be an affordable option if you stay longer and where there is enough competition, like in Buenos Aires, where the prices are kept quite low.

Lovely Airbnb apartments

With Booking now encroaching on Airbnb apartments rental, it is sometimes possible to find the same listing on both platforms. Booking will possibly be cheaper as you don’t have to pay a fee as a guest on their platform. And last minute cancellations might be easier and free. Plus you get an aditional Genius discount (10%) and treatment once you have a few bookings under your belt.

Payment is a different sorry. Airbnb is easy, as everything is paid through their app. To our surprise Booking would inform us ahead of time that payment will be handled at the property, or we were told at the property that we have to pay them directly.

We carried quite a large amount of cash, both in US$ and in local currency. If it was inconvenient, it was necessary and/or advantageous. Sometimes hotels did not accept a credit card or the cc machine did not “work”. At other times they wanted a large surcharge for paying by credit card (20-30%) or they offered us a discount for paying cash. Combined with our blue market US $ exchange, paying in pesos made it even cheaper. Sometimes they were happy to accept US $ and calculated them in blue market exchange rate. Always check that you as a foreign tourist are not charged the tourist surcharge. (It is another 21%). Some cities are charging an extra eco tax, but it is a negligible amount.

One of our favorite hotels with beautiful wood everything.

In tourist areas you could get help from Tourist Information centers. We only relied on this once in El Bolson, where we arrived towards the evening and it was a challenge as their English was very limited and they only have the information about availability in those establishments that they have an arrangement with.

Personally I do like knowing where I will lay my head down in the evening, so I tend to book things ahead of time. As we don’t get local SIM cards in different countries, but rely on our T Mobile international plan, we don’t always have the best of internet service, so it is difficult to look for accommodation on the phone in the car. So I try to choose a place the night before.

Choosing accommodations is a bit more challenging in Argentina because of the many names used for different (or the same?) kinds of lodging. That can be very confusing, and even Argentinians can’t explain what is what. We have come across these different names for places to sleep, besides of course, hotel: parador, hostal, hostel, hospedaje, hosteria,

Hosteria by Cero Tronador

cabanas & apartamentos.

Our apartment with a great and needed pool at Iguazu

We have tried all sorts of establishments and had great luck finding lovely places to stay.

At the end it is generally the price that determines the quality. I will address in another post some tricks of how to parse out a good place from descriptions and reviews.

Cleanliness

With utmost delight I have to report that Argentina is one of the cleanest countries around. And if I could nominate the cleanest town in Argentina and beyond it would surely be San Martin de los Andes. There is no plastic bottles, wrappers, bags or even cigarettes buttes lying around.

Does that mean you will find a lot of trash cans and recycling systems in place? Not at all. They have adopted a very different approach called:

Leave with your trash

Take your garbage with you! You will see such signs everywhere in National parks and along tourist routes. It seems to work very well!

If any of you are planing a trip to Argentina when this virus craziness is over, we are always happy to talk travel with anyone. Get in touch!

Epic, Wild and Very Looong Road Trip to Salta (and back)

Note to readers: this is the last part of Argentina we got to see, before we had to leave prematurely due to Covid-19 emergency. The post is finalized, while we await border reopening in Prague, Czech Republic.

When we mentioned to any local in Mendoza that we were planing a driving trip to Salta and back in 10 days, they looked at us strangely and said, “It is a long way, you know!”

“Yes, about 3,000 km (1,900 miles) round trip. But we are used to long distances and we like to drive!”

“It is the best road trip my husband and I have ever done!” claimed my Kiwi travel pen pal Michelle. “You will love it!”

The first inkling of the grandeur of different landscapes awaiting us on this drive was already at a day’s drive distance from Mendoza at the Valle de la Luna and Ischigualasto park.

It is only possible to reach this remote, desolate, moon like landscape in an organized convoy from the gate of the park and we were lucky to get to the booth just as the convoy was leaving. Actually they already left and we had to push after them with the ramp slamming down behind us. We were worried about our car being able to handle the dirt desert roads and then we caught up and saw much smaller cars happily bouncing along.

As usual good, reliable information is at a premium and a traveler has to learn to read between the lines and see who is writing and what is their slant. When someone warns you need a 4 wheel drive to get somewhere and then offers his services, you can take the information with a salt of grain.

It was not the selfie-famous Sphynx, Submarine or Mushroom rock formations that attracted us to the area. It was something that loomed large in our mind, but ended being a lot smaller than we anticipated. It was this pile of (very old) bones

left in their place of discovery. In case you have a hard time imagining what the heck it is, here is a nice model for kids of this Triassic herbivore dinosaur.

How the heck do you find it in a vast, inaccessible landscape like this? Truth be told, despite a beautiful museum building and informative display it was a bit of a let down, but we figured we will have grown much in the eyes of our dinosaur obsessed grandson when we sent him the photos and a cute dino T shirt to boot.

Driving further north we welcomed the greening of the landscape, even if only with the saguaros (cardones), whose first white buds had just started popping up here and there.

A welcome respite from the long drive was the town of Santa Maria, where we got a little introduction to the local inhabitants at their colorful craft center.

They are still practicing indigenous arts and crafts like loom weaving

and basket making

We could imagine these same skills thriving nearby more than a thousand years back at the Quilmes settlement, the largest pre Columbian settlement in Argentina. This indigenous Diaguitan tribe fiercely resisted first Inka invaders then Spaniards. In order to offer protection in time of war they built a strong stone citadel that could take in 5,000 people. I found it fascinating that we encountered in the walls the same quartz pieces – sparkling, sacred, white stones as in the old mountain village walls of Georgia in the Caucasus. Mirek insisted we have to smuggle in a can of Quilmes beer.

At the highest point we very ceremoniously sprinkled the ground with a small libation and then drank the rather warm beer. I kid you not, a fierce wind picked up

and we had to carefully descend, lest we were blown off the mountain. Mirek joked the old gods were mad that we did not offer the whole can, but I did worry we have callously offended Pachamama (Mother Earth), the mother of Inti (Sun) and Mama Killa (the Moon).

The moon was shining bright when we finally arrived in Cafayate for the night. Tired or not, we dragged ourselves to the beautiful, traditional Spanish looking Bodega El Esteco, the preeminent winery with a restaurant and hotel. It is always funny (when not infuriating) to see the reaction of staff at fancy places when we tumble out of the car with our Keen hiking sandals and fanny packs.

“Good evening, do you have a reservation?”

“Um, no, we just drove 300 km and um, I see only two other guests sitting in your 50 seat restaurant. Do you think you could possibly squeeze us in?”

The good thing about these places is that we can afford the best tasting menu and the best wines. What with the strong $ and favorable exchange rate and the fact that this place is in the middle of nowhere in South America. We don’t do it often, but when we do, it is nice. The wines of Cafayate, we were told, grown at 1,800 m – almost 6,000′ above the sea level elevation, are now becoming serious competition to Mendoza wines. While Mendoza Malbec will stay my favorite, I am intrigued by the new discovery of a Torrontés, a white wine with fresh, distinctive light fruity taste and aroma.

The next day’s drive brings the most challenging stretch of the Ruta 40. The drive to Cachi is only 170 km and that distance should be covered in about 4 hours says Google maps, while Maps.me can’t locate the route at all. It takes us the whole day. Of course we do make frequent stops for pictures and special encounters. We cross chocolate rivers,

peek into colorful graveyards,

climb up colorless viewpoints,

stop for horses and mules

and again for a long leisurely lunch in the 18th century governor’s house, now Hacienda de Molino.

We arrive in Cachi just with enough light left to find our way a bit out of town to a most impressive hotel La Merced de Alto. Someone with a great taste and a great art collection built it in a perfect spot, surrounded by fabulous gardens and crowned with spectacular views. It starts to rain shortly and we stay in for dinner, grateful for a warm place to rest.

We go to sleep with pitter patter of the rain on the large windows and the romantic impression of misty mountains in the distance,

only to wake up in the morning to

sunny blue skies with fresh snow sprinkled mountain tops. I mean wow, wow, wow! You just want to sing and shout! And stay there forever.

A chance encounter at breakfast with a couple of American bird watchers changes our travel plans.

“You simply gotta press towards Bolivian border and make it to this lagoon that nobody really knows about. There are thousands of pink flamingos and herds of lamas everywhere!”

Flamingos might not have been enough of an incentive, but lamas are. Our new travel friends show us the little blue splotch on the map and off we go. And stop immediately around the corner to greet a herd of horses,that literally rush over and line up to be petted.

The whole drive onwards we look backwards to the striking snow capped mountains rising above the plain. We can’t believe our luck. So maybe Pachamama did like our beer tribute after all!

We find Pachamama at the Parque de los Cardones, established to protect thousands of saguaros. There we read the native legend of the creation of this tall elegant cactus. To protect them from the wrath of a vindictive father Pachamama transformed two star crossed lovers into a saguaro cactus.

As if we didn’t have enough dirt roads we decided to take a shortcut over Bishop’s pass. Fortunately, the road is much better than expected and so are the deep green canyon views.

Wisely we decide to skirt the busy city of Salta and push onwards towards Purmamarca. It is a very well known landmark and for the first time we have to contend with tourist crowds, tour buses and parking issues. The locals charge entrance fees for any viewpoint. The colors of rocks are indeed extraordinary (and impossible to catch with an iPhone), but we are so unaccustomed to having to share with others, that we get out of there pretty fast.

We figure we can swap out the sightseeing time with a side trip to another interesting natural phenomenon. As we drive over the very high pass – for American readers exactly 13,681 feet altitude(!) and I am disappointed to note that my altitude sickness propensity has not diminished with age. Even a few steps out of the car make me dizzy and shaky. Luckily our goal is much lower at 3,450 m. Salinas Grandes are the less famous step sister of the Bolivian Salt Pans, but they are impressive nonetheless. We don’t get the typical dazzling white earth and blue sky shots, but we quite like the dramatic before the storm photos.

We are certainly happier here with just a few fellow travelers.

The next day we head out to the secret lagoon. It is indeed secret enough that nobody at our hotel in Tilcara can give us any information. We drive north towards Bolivian border past Humahuaca, joining some other admirers of crazy geology.

We manage to find Laguna de Posuelos Park headquarters in a small town of Abra Pampa, where we finally get clear directions on which dirt road to take to the park entrance. After registration, the lonely ranger points us towards a rutted trail. Luckily the rain from the Salt Pans did not reach to here. Still, it is a 7 hair raising kilometers with split second decisions on which part is worse, the left, the right, or the middle. Only Mirek’s steel nerves and driving skills get us to the parking area.

In the distance we can see the shimmering water and birds flying above it. We head out on foot and it is slow going. We walk and walk and the water is still far away. When we finally get a bit closer, the ground becomes soft and smelly, slippery muck prevents us from going further. We can see the myriad of pink flamingos, but still too far away. If that is a bit of a disappointment, the flat cracked plain we stand on, and the sky above covered with infinite white fluffy clouds is so extraordinary that we turn around and around in awe.

If pink flamingos were not close enough, the lamas make up for it. All the way on our drive back to the main road we encounter the variations of these camelids. They all seem very cute to us, though I read that the lamas are much bigger and very aggressive, while alpacas are smaller and sweet. Then there are also the lighter colored and more slender guanacos and vicunas. Anyway, we can never get enough of any of them.

In any shape and form..

The pleasant shopping and eating evening back in Tilcara is interrupted with a loud procession of local marching bands going to the church to attend the community meeting on Covid-19 protection.

We think the tiny little tots joining the big guys

are so cute. We don’t have the slightest inkling what harbingers of trouble they are.

The next day we finally make it to Salta. The one thing that we really wanted to see there are the three mummies of Inka children sacrificed in high mountains, but the museum is closed. Instead we listen to some Bolivian Indian music in front of it. We walk around and get some coffee. We pop into the cathedral.

If we only knew that this will not be only the turning point for our return trip to Mendoza, but the beginning of the end of our Argentine adventure, we would have dropped on our knees and prayed for a safe and easy return.

For how our escape from South America and the virus restrictions unfolded, you can go back to the I Cry for You Argentina, I had to Leave You post in case you missed it before.

Photo Interlude of a Fairytale Medieval Town

We enter through one of the more spectacular gates into any town I have ever seen.

We cross over a wooden bridge.

As we look down into the Vltava river Mirek says: “Last time I was here, I took a canoe on the river with a friend. Man, it was fun, we went under on those rapids over there.”

That was about 50 years ago. He has never taken me to Česky Krumlov. Why would we have not visited this picture postcard perfect, romantic, medieval fairytale town, when we have explored pretty much any castle ruin and half decent village the breadth and width of the country?

Because yearly 2 million selfie stick yielding tourists cram into the tiny town and about 16,000 tourist buses fight for parking. It is a postcard perfect case of over tourism. Or let me say, it was.

Because today there is nobody there. Not a soul.

Actually, I exaggerate. But indeed, when all is said and done, we meet less than a dozen people in the whole afternoon.

The streets are abandoned. It is eerily quiet. The town looks like a movie set after the end of a film shoot.

Everything is shut down.

All shops,

restaurants

coffee shops,

B&Bs

and hotels

are closed until further notice.

With the bizarre exception of

The one place we are really sorry to see closed is the Austrian painter Egon Schiele’s museum.

He lived in the town as a young man for a little bit, scandalizing the conservative society with his art and relationships.

On the riverbank in the only open coffee-to-go place we order two cappuccinos and chat with the proprietor. “Even in the dead of winter, it has never been like this,” he says.

It is a gorgeous spring day in April. Some of the early trees are in full bloom.

It is a photographer’s paradise.

No one to jostle with at the panorama points,

on the narrow cobbled streets,

or staircases

Anywhere you look something colorful and charming is vying for your attention:

Doors
Windows

Reflections in

Water
Glass

Water fountains

Pigeon feathers

Sewer covers

Abstract patterns

Why not?

For once I am not interested in the history of the nobility or clergy or the burghers. I am perfectly content to just wander around.

We are surprised to find the door to the church open

Gothic ceiling
Detailed wood cravings in church

As we climb higher and higher we are even more surprised that the gates to the four successive courtyards of the enormous castle sitting above the town, are wide open as well.

There might be no exposition but we don’t mind one bit. And yes, we do have our face masks!

We will just take some more pictures, thank you very much.

Peek through a few windows

Wow, what a spectacular, expansive view!

And then for contrast a sweet little courtyard.

Above the castle are vast renaissance gardens to stroll through.

If your feet are not hurting yet.

Ours are… so:

Goodbye beautiful, little fairytale town! May the sun shine over you.

We couldn’t have been happier to have visited, face masks and all!