My husband and I are creating a travel blog together to keep from forgetting the highlights of our one year travel adventure and to keep our friends and family in the loop. Mirek is a retired bridge engineer and Ksenija a roving humanitarian, poet and translator. We have 3 grown daughters together, one bonus daughter and two bonus grandchildren from Mirek’s side. Oh, and two son in laws, balancing the estrogen in the family a bit.
What I miss most at this isolating time of Covid is hugging people. Can’t say that it is quite the same emotional high, but hugging a tree
can indeed be very calming and grounding. Even if I don’t often feel compelled to hug a tree,
I like shaking hands with a tree – touching it’s skin. Every tree has a different bark, some are wrinkled and calloused as a hand of an old wise grandmother,
and some smooth as a trembling young bride’s hand waiting for the wedding ring to be slipped on her finger.
Bamboo has the smoothest skin of all.
Wait, bamboo is not a tree at all, but a grass. Though it grows in bamboo forests.
I can’t prove that trees have souls, but they definitely have faces and they keep looking at me!
Planting a tree is the ultimate sense of hope for the future. You hope your grandchildren will sit in it’s shade when you are long gone.
If you need shelter from a sudden storm, a tree can help.
It is the big trees that take our breath away. Some are so tall
that you look up and up and not see the top.
Some are incredibly wide and it is hard to know where roots end and branches begin
Look closely at these roots! They form a living tree bridge
Tree roots can build, but also destroy
Trees make a home for birds and… monkeys
No matter what season, trees are always beautiful.
The most famous spring trees in the world are blossoming Sakuras (cherry trees) in Japan. We made a sakura pilgrimage and chased the blossoms south from freezing Hokkaido.
As spring turns into summer, the trees give us the sweetest gift – their fruits. The joy of our childhoods are inextricably linked with picking cherries. I can’t help but wonder with a sad stab in my heart, will our grandchildren still have a chance to experience this delight?
Autumn with its glowing palette of colors and falling leaves is my favorite season.
We came full circle experiencing the autumn vibes in Japan. There is no place more magical than a Japanese garden with the many different kids of Japanese maples changing colors.
With snow comes the quiet reflection of winter (and joyous shrieks of kids).
One of the most famous woods poems written was Robert Frost’s Stoping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Watching the woods fill up with snow while your horse gives his harness bells a shake is fun, I am sure
but so is driving through the woods on a snowy road, with snowlfakes falling and miles to go before we sleep.
Trees welcome the sun in the morning
and rock it to sleep in the evening
Whatever the season or time of day go ahead and hug a tree and you can also tell it your deepest secrets.
But mostly when it comes to trees or anything else in life… Stay curious!
Like so many special encounters, this one, too, began serendipitously. To stay in the know while away on our world travels I would occasionally glance at our home town Next Door email digest. We were in COVID lockdown in Prague, when I scrolled down this particular Nextdoor email and my eyes stopped at a request from a woman in Berkeley looking for help with translating letters from Czech to English. I had translated some old letters from Slovene to English before for friends and acquaintances with ancestors from my homeland and it was very fun, interesting, and rewarding.
Being pretty fluent for a nonnative Czech speaker I figured I could do this with the additional help of my Czech husband. It seemed like perfect timing, too, seeing that we might be sheltering in place indefinitely. So I sent her a response:
I got a quick reaction from Eva:
”Hello and thank you so much for responding! I have sent a couple of sample letters to one person and will learn whether he is interested or not soon. However, I worked with two German translators recently and that went well. So if you are interested, we can pursue this further. I can give you an idea of the scope in the next couple of days. I have been sending scanned copies of letters/documents to the translators via email and they email me back with a Word file, so the work can be done at a distance. Although there is no deadline, I feel under time pressure due to my age so would need the translator to have sufficient time available. Do you remain in Prague because you cannot return to the States? I thought residents are able to return. I hope you are doing all right.”
Thus our line of communication was open. I explained to Eva that I was not really a professional translator, but would volunteer to help her out.
If Eva was reluctant at first, she was forced to consider my offer, as despite posting at UC Berkeley Slavic department and elsewhere, people were not lining up to get translation work. Still, she was worried we would run out of steam as we had declined to be paid.
Of course she couldn’t have known our mindset and our interest in history. With every piece of information we were more intrigued. Wow, her father lived to be 103 years old. How very interesting.
Seeing that my husband was born in 1948 and lived in Prague there was another connection. ”Let’s start with one letter”, I suggested, ”and see how difficult it would be to read the handwriting.”
As soon as the first letter appeared in our inbox, we were hooked. Not only was the handwriting legible, but it was beautiful and the content heartwarming (the tough letters came later on).
At the beginning, the letters were all from Eva’s father Otto to her mother Lisa.
When Eva saw our enthusiastic response she sent us her parents’ life story, based on her parents’ autobiographies and additional testimonies she amassed, starting with her university project in 1986.
As newlyweds, in 1939 her young Jewish mother Lisa and father Otto were so very lucky to secure through an acquaintance a precious exit permit under a pretext of going on a honeymoon outside the recently German-occupied Czechoslovakia. Thus they saved themselves from the tragic fate of most of their family and friends. Sadly, the acquaintance who helped them stayed on too long and perished.
Often the question is asked, Why didn’t more Jews leave when they still could? Eva’s parents testimony gave us a personalized glimpse into the situation, the uncertainty and the rationalizations we all are prone to: It won’t be that bad, it will be over quickly, we won’t be affected. Until it is too late…
In Lisa’s words: “Everybody was following the news. The Czechs had a good army. They will fight the Germans if they want to invade. 1938 went, 1939 started. It got more and more frantic. I really don’t know what and where my feelings were. I was in love, wanted to go with Otto to the end of the world, but what do we do there, how and from what do we live? John also wanted to leave, but my father did not. “Oh, nothing is going to happen.” Will Germany invade? The Allies don’t want war! Nobody could answer all these questions. By that time I was 22, I lived a well cushioned life so far, but was I ready for life after April ’39? No, I don’t think anybody was. I didn’t want to get married because I had only known Dad for 6 months. I told my father, “If everything goes well, I promise that we will get married” but my father said, “No, you can’t go unless you are married.”
As we we were getting deeper into their lives, parallels with our lives kept coming up. As a young man Mirek witnessed the occupation of his homeland by the Soviet forces and was stuck behind the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, trying to secure precious exit permits. Before our wedding Mirek and I were separated for a year and wrote letters nearly every day to each other. Those handwritten letters are saved in a big box now).
Originally Otto and Lisa were planning to go to Ecuador, the only country they could get a visa and boat tickets to, but the young couple ended up in France where Otto was assigned to the Czechoslovak Forces in exile.
When France fell to the Nazis they miraculously managed to reunite and get to England. Otto’s regiment came under the command of the British Liberation Army. Eva’s only brother and his wife also managed to escape to England, and he became a military judge in the Czechoslovak Forces. Otto felt strongly he couldn’t leave Europe because he had to fight for his family that stayed behind in Czechoslovakia, especially his three sisters. Later he was racked with doubt, thinking he might have been able to save his family and bring them to South America if only he had listened to his wife, who wanted to emigrate.
Otto had three sisters, Anna, Helena, and Olga.
Anna was single, Olga (Olly), who was trained as a nurse was engaged, and Helena (Helly) was married to a man whose father was Jewish and mother German.
Olly’s fiancé was in France and he was helping Jews get their money out. Gestapo was looking for him in Prague and when they couldn’t pick him up, they took his fiancé Olly instead. It took time and bribes to get her out.
All the war years Otto had no news about them, but he knew very well the situation for Jews in Czechoslovakia was dire.
In England Lisa found out she was pregnant, a challenging situation in such dangerous and uncertain times. For a while she could find living quarters close to where Otto was stationed but after the birth of baby Eva in 1942 they were separated.
Unfortunately none of Lisa’s many letters have been preserved, but Lisa saved all of Otto’s frequent letters.
They all start with ”My Beloved Lisinka”. He wrote letters in German and in Czech. In a letter from 1940, he utters words that many soldiers must have thought and every wife should have received.
My lines have a double purpose, a declaration of love – words that you will be happy to read – and a few words of farewell, words that arise from the thoughts of someone who is at war. Lisele, I love you infinitely, you have given me a lot of joy and peace, you have stuck by me in good times and even more dearly in bad times. My love, you are good and brave and I am infinitely grateful to you. It is my dearest wish that you live to see better times again, that you will live happily, calmly and contentedly. And that actually brings me to the second part of my letter. You have to live and this is actually the first time that I am demanding something from you, but it is a sacred demand. You have to live, whatever may happen.
His letters are full of longing to be with his wife and baby.
Soon the baby turns into a toddler and then a little girl. Luckily, Lisa’s sister in law has a little boy, so they find shelter together. For a while, they even rent a small house by the seaside and send happy reports to their soldier husbands. It must have been such a wonderful relief to know that your wife and child were safely away from the devastating bombing raids. In one of the letters I noticed the house address and out of curiosity looked it up on Googlemaps.
I bet the house doesn’t look so very different now.
Imagine the surprise when I sent Eva the pictures by email. I even found a photo of the beach where they went for walks on sunny days.
As the quarantine restrictions lessened we ventured out of Prague with a car and a pair of face masks.
We found out that Eva’s mom Lisa was from a small town in the Northern area of Czech Republic, close to the German border, called Sudety (Sudetenland). Historically it was inhabited by a mixed population of Germans and Czechs and many Jews. The annexation of Sudetenland (and protection of its German population) was Hitler’s excuse for occupying Czechoslovakia and de facto cause of World War II. By that time Lisa’s family has moved from her birthplace of Krásná Lípa (Shönelinden) to Prague. Her father was a sales manager in glass factories and her family lived a good life, even spending their vacations on beaches of Europe.
One early spring morning we drove to her small town and true to its name found a big linden tree on the main square.
It only just started budding with a few green leaves.
Everything except a coffee-to-go window was closed for Coronavirus. We ordered some coffee and asked the pleasant owner if she knew any Fischls (Lisa’s maiden name) or any Jewish cemetery. The answer was no on both counts, but she directed us to the church cemetery. We like wandering around cemeteries, reading the names and an occasional moving epitaph. It was especially poignant that day thinking of Lisa and her family and friends that perished.
Sadly, most Jewish cemeteries have been destroyed and not all by occupying Germans. Many were also demolished by the communists after the war.
We were surprised to find one in České Budějovice, the birthplace of Eva’s father Otto. We visited the town in the south of the Czech Republic with a whole new perspective. As we walked around the Coronavirus deserted downtown I was thinking about young Otto walking past the very same fountain 100 years ago.
He must have shown it to his new bride when as newlyweds they came to say goodbye to his parents, before their departure for their supposed honeymoon. Did it cross their mind then that they might never see each other again?
The Jewish cemetery was far out of town, and it was early evening by the time we arrived. Despite near destruction and frequent vandalism in the past it was now in a relatively good shape, protected by a wall and locked gate.
We found a note saying the key was with the doorman at the nearby factory. Mirek walked to the factory’s entrance gate and to my astonishment emerged with a key and information that the little home of the former cemetery caretaker was now a small museum.
With great effort we finally managed to open the museum’s door, barricaded by last year’s fallen leaves. Obviously very few people ever visit. Inside we found a treasure trove of photographs and information. Of course, most of it was heartbreaking. Of 1300 Jews living in the area of České Budějovice only 180 survived the war.
All in all during the Holocaust the Germans and their collaborators killed approximately 263,000 Jews in Czechoslovakia. For us those numbers now had human faces and names and terrible fates.
In the museum, we found a plan of prepaid synagogue seats from 1899 and lo and behold discovered a few Fürths, the family name of Otto.
Excitedly we sent the photos to Eva. By now we were feeling like this was a hunt for our own family members. And Eva was excited to receive the photos for she had only visited Czechoslovakia once after the Velvet Revolution and had not been to the small places we were discovering.
As we continued to drive around Czech Republic we found ourselves on May 8th, the day of liberation, in the area liberated by American forces under general Patton. Usually, on that day lively celebration are held, especially in the city of Plzeň, but because of the virus only wreaths were laid.
Otto himself came into Czechoslovakia on a tank carrier at the end of the war and was assigned to liberating American forces in Sušice, close to Plzeň. A few months before, in March, he heard that at least one member of his family survived– his sister Olly.
In her letter he found out that his father died in her arms in 1943 in the Terezín (Theresienstadt) concentration camp.
Terezín was a camp and a ghetto combined, and a halfway station to extermination camps for the majority of Czech Jews.
It is about an hour outside of Prague and a few times a week we would drive through the town of Terezín and past the ramparts of the camp to see our Czech grandchildren at my step daughter’s summer place – a refurbished old farm, left over from the Germans, who were all expelled after the war.
It is hard to imagine how could 88,000 Jewish people possibly be crammed into the small old fort. Of those 15,000 were children. As a young woman I remember seeing an exhibition of drawings and poems from children at Terezín camp titled I Never Saw Another Butterfly. It affected me deeply. Of these only 100 children lived to see a butterfly again.
All of Otto’s sisters ended up in Terezín. Annie did not stay long and was sent to die in the gas chamber. Helly came to Terezín with her husband Peppl, who volunteered to accompany and protect her. He could have possibly saved himself not being pure Jew with his mother being German. His Jewish father was in the camp, too, and survived, but Peppl didn’t. In the fall of 1944 Helly and Peppl were separated and both taken from Terezín to Auschwitz on two different train transports. Peppl’s brother Fredy has been imprisoned there as a political prisoner from the beginning of the war. Peppl probably perished on the death march when German guards abandoned Polish Auschwitz before advancing Russian soldiers and marched the inmates in freezing January 1944 towards other camps in Germany.
His brother managed to hide in an underground bunker at the end of a tunnel he dug out with some fellow inmates and after liberation joined the freedom fighters. Helly, who was moved to and survived the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria returned to her in-laws in Czechoslovakia weighing only 70 lbs (32 kg). Slowly recovering from typhus and malnutrition she waited in vain for her husband’s return. It was especially hard for her because his brother Fredy return a hero and married his fiancé.
Once she heard from Peppl’s fellow prisoner, most hope was lost. She wrote to her brother:
Poor Pepicek, I think I’m the only one who thinks about him, day and night. Tragicallyhe left Oswięcim (Auschwitz) in January. The poor men were driven by those German beasts in freezing weather, poorly dressed, on foot to distant Germany. Poor Pepicek, as I learned from someone here, had his feet broken and pus-filled already in Oswięcim. When someone could not go on they simply shot him. You know I am the one who never plays theater but I am sorry to say that I have very little hope that Pepicek will return. It is all so sad. So many young people lost their lives, so few are returning, it is truly catastrophic. If I did not have you I would not want to live in this beautiful world, but I cannot cause Ollynka and you more worries and sorrow.
Olly had an incredible story of survival, too. As a nurse she had work in Terezin where she met a young doctor, who was keen on marrying her. But she was already engaged and stayed true. One after another her relatives and friends were put on train transports and nothing was heard from them. One day she was offered a spot on a transport to – Switzerland. With nobody left she agreed, not knowing where she will end. She couldn’t have known that American Jews collected a lot of money and paid Nazis, now desperate for cash, per head for rescued Jews. So indeed Olly arrived in Switzerland, where she found a way to get in touch with Otto. In every letter to him she asks about her fiancé, until she finally receives an answer directly from him. He survives the war, but his love for her does not. He is married with a child. Oh, I cried with poor Olly.
As life started returning to more normal dimensions in Prague museums reopened and we booked the first guided tour of the old Jewish cemetery
It has been many many years since we have been there as those are exceedingly popular sites, always crowded with tourists and competing groups jostling for entrance.
But now we had it nearly all to ourselves and we were so lucky as to have the Director of Education Zuzana for our guide.
We had a chance to learn so much from her, and she even shared her own story. Zuzana had no idea she was Jewish until the Velvet Revolution in 1989 when her parents sat down her and her brother at the kitchen table and told them the truth. They were protecting them by withholding the information, but with communists gone they felt they could share the truth. Their family was Jewish, her grandmother a Russian Jew. Zuzana was 11 at the time and this changed her life. She went to university and later studied in Israel. She became fluent in Hebrew.
In the Jewish Museum we discovered a computer with the database of Jewish victims from Terezín. I typed in Otto’s father’s name.
Then Otto’s sister Annie’s name
It was emotional coming face to face with a person that I came to know through letters and family history.
We told Zuzana about the letters we were translating and she wanted to be introduced to Eva. And thus more strangers got connected.
So what happened after the war? Lisa and Eva flew on a stripped-down B24 bomber from London to join Otto in Prague. The reunion was sweet, but the reality bitter. Said Lisa: “One felt like living in a cemetery, every house reminded one of somebody we had known. The population (regime) on the whole was unfriendly. In the eyes of many (gentiles) only the Jews, who had not returned, were the decent ones.”
Soon Otto was decommissioned and life in post-war Czechoslovakia was not easy, especially for Jews. In 1948 the communists staged a coup and it was clear to Otto, (who refused to join the communist party) and Lisa that they needed out yet again. An interesting parallel again with Mirek, who also refused to join the communist party and got in trouble for it and that was the beginning of our road ending up in California.
The only visa they could get was to Paraguay but they deliberately missed the boat and made their way to England. With little work available in post war Britain a few years later they got a visa to United States. They settled in Chicago and they finally could get a (late) start of a new life as a family in freedom. Certainly not easy to start your life from scratch! We could relate as immigrants that came to the States with two suitcases and only enough cash to buy a (very) used car.
Olly came back to Prague from the Swiss refuge camp and started working for US Czech Joint Commission. She got over her fiancé’s betrayal and fell in love with her boss. When he fled in 1948 to Paris, she followed him. They married and emigrated to Israel.
Eventually Otto helped Helly get out to England and then even brought her to live with them in Chicago where she finally recovered and married for the second time.
I wrote to Eva if there were any relatives left in Czech Republic. ”Only indirect, ” she responded. ”Otto stayed in touch with Helly’s brother in law and his daughter Petra came to America once to visit. Let me see if her email is still valid.”
By the next morning I had another connection to a stranger that I felt I already knew somehow.
We spent a few hours on the phone and she told me many stories about her father Fredy who also lived to be over 100 years old and was involved with the Auschwitz memorial.
I was able to fill her in on what I glimpsed from the letters we translated and she told me how her father after the liberation from concentration camp fought Germans in Slovakia.
She very generously invited us to visit her and was excited to show us Olomouc, her home town. We set the date and we were very excited to meet her and her husband and then our granddaughter decided to make a month early arrival. We scrambled to change plane tickets and make it back home to California to welcome the new baby. Hopefully, on the next return to Europe, we can finish the unfinished business.
As we returned to California one of the first people I called was Eva. The voice on the other side was warm and excited and I felt like I was calling a family member I hadn’t seen in a long while. Of course, because of our strict quarantine, despite living a mere 10 minutes away, we couldn’t get together, but we spent long hours on the phone every week. We finished translating the last letters and then Eva discovered another online archive where she got the photos of the deportation cards from Terezín, which finally clarified where Anna’s last moments on earth were. It was not Auschwitz as everyone speculated, but Treblinka, another infamous extermination camp in Poland.
How chilling to stare at her death warrant…
On the card I noticed poor Annie’s last address and I remembered reading that Otto went there to hide from Gestapo before leaving Czechoslovakia. I looked it up on Google Maps and realized we walk past it often when in Prague.
It is on the most beautiful and exclusive street in Prague, where all the high-end boutiques reside.
Annie’s building now has Dolce Gabbana’s modern storefront.
Yet the gate and the light fixture are still original. In my mind I see Otto in the evening walking cautiously towards the light that is shining at the entrance. He opens the iron gate and is safe inside.
Not so the 6 million Jews that perished in the Shoah. A few of the last witnesses of those horrendous times, like Eva, that were children at the time, are amongst us. Soon only letters will remain.
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
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.
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!
All of that in still gentle manner before we are allowed to pickup our Hertz rental and drive to our pre-booked Hilton
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Iceland, we have done you wrong! Please forgive us, we will sing your praises, in repentance, forevermore.
Iceland was never high on our Bucket list.
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,
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…
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.
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.
Because of the sunny weather we were treated to rainbow shows in many places.
Some waterfalls show two different faces, front
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 😉 )
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
to ramble without a definite purpose or objective; roam, rove, or stray:to wander over the earth.
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 theborders of the Czech Republic, it was the knowledge that the borders were closed that really vexed me. That and the uncertaintyof 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 oneof 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 Reykjavíkfrom 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 postcardsprominentlydisplayed 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 greatEuropean 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:
Or did you think it was 99 Bottles of Beer on the wall?
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.
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.
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?
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:
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 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:
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:
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,
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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
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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.
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.
Who hasn’t heard of a juicy Argentinian steak? It can make grown men weep, I heard.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
Especially coming from the exceedingly expensive San Francisco we cherish the low prices and nowhere more than in (craft) beers
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.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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,
cabanas & apartamentos.
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.
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:
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!